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This month our Oxford World’s Classics reading list is on folk and fairy tales. Many of these stories pre-date the printing press, and most will no doubt continue to be told for hundreds of years to come. How many of these have you heard of, and have we missed out your favourite? Let us know in the comments.
No list on folklore would be complete without Beowulf: probably the most famous English folk tale and a great story. This half-historical, half-legendary epic poem written by an unknown poet between the 8th and 11th century tells the story of the majestic hero Beowulf, who saves Hrothgar, the Danish king, from monstrous and terrifying enemies before eventually being slain. Through this tale of swashbuckling adventure we also see the power struggles and brutality of medieval politics.
In 1812 the Brothers Grimm took contemporary German folk tales and shaped them in their own bloodthirsty way, and in doing so captivated and horrified children for years to come. There are no morals here; no happy endings – the antagonists such as the evil stepmother won’t just steal your sweets but would kill you without a second thought. Here we have, for example, the original Snow White, with the Witch forced to dance in red-hot shoes until her death.
This text, written by Sir Thomas Malory in 1470, provides us with the definitive version of many of the King Arthur stories: the Knights of the Round Table, Sir Lancelot’s betrayal, and the Quest for the Holy Grail. Here we see the Round Table full of warring factions; we see Arthur the King discredited by Lancelot, who begins an affair with his wife, Guinevere, and we see Arthur’s supporters’ revenge that Arthur is powerless to prevent. The book shows how Arthur and his court lived and felt – and it’s no wonder the legend is such a fundamental part of British culture.
When the mysterious Green Knight turns up at King Arthur’s court and challenges anyone to strike him with his axe and accept a return blow in a year and a day, Sir Gawain, the youngest Knight in Sir Arthur’s court, decides to prove his mettle by accepting the challenge. However, when he strikes the Green Knight and beheads him, the man laughs, picks up his head and tells Gawain he has a year and a day to live. Despite being written in the fourteenth century, this poem’s main theme – proving yourself – makes it instantly relatable and compelling.
Statue of Hans Christian Andersen reading The Ugly Duckling, in Central Park, New York City
This collection of fairy tales is a world away from Grimm’s violent and sinister collection – this Danish author was the creator of charming, accessible stories such as The Ugly Duckling and the Emperor’s New Clothes. Despite being poorly received when they were first published in 1936 because of their informality and focus on being amusing rather than educational, these stories have entertained generations of children. Christian Andersen invented the “fairy tale” as we know it today – simple, timeless stories that explore universal themes and end happily.
This saga was originally told orally around 1000 CE and was written down in the thirteenth or fourteenth century and is a major landmark in Icelandic folk literature. It tells the story of Eirik’s exile for murder, the same fate as his father, and his discovery and settlement in “Vinland”, a lush, plentiful country. It is believed to describe one of the first discoveries of North America, five hundred years before Captain Cook.
This epic comes from Medieval Germany and is a masterpiece of fantasy storytelling. Written in 1200 but rediscovered in the 1700s, it has since become the German national epic – on a par with the Iliad or the Ramayana. This story has it all: dragons, invisibility cloaks, fortune telling, and hoards of treasure guarded by dwarves and giants. We see love, jealousy and conflict, and the story ends with awful slaughter. The story has inspired a number of adaptations, including Wagner’s Ring cycle.
The Mabinogion is a collection of eleven medieval Welsh stories which combine Arthurian legend, Celtic myth and social narrative to create an epic series – its importance as a record of the history of culture and mythology in Wales is enormous. The stories are fantastical: the Four Branches of the Mabinogi are tales about British pagan gods recreated as human heroes, and sociological: The Dream of Macsen Wledig is an exaggerated story about the Roman Emperor Magnus Maximus.
Jessica Harris graduated from Warwick University with a degree in Politics, Philosophy, and Economics and has been working as an intern in the Online Product Marketing department in the Oxford office of Oxford University Press.
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Image credit: Statue of Hans Christian Andersen reading The Ugly Duckling, in Central Park, New York City. By Dismas (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
It is trite to say that one’s pet subject is interdisciplinary. These days what subject isn’t? The prostate? But myth really is interdisciplinary. For there is no study of myth as myth, the way, by contrast, there is said to be the study of literature as literature or of religion as religion. Myth is studied by other disciplines, above all by sociology, anthropology, psychology, politics, philosophy, literature, and religious studies. Each discipline applies itself to myth. For example, sociologists see myth as something belonging to a group.
Within each discipline are theories. A discipline can harbor only a few theories or scores of them. What makes theories theories is that they are generalizations. They presume to know the answers to one or more of the three main questions about myth: the origin, the function, or the subject matter.
The question of origin asks why, if not also how, myth arises. The answer is a need, which can be of any kind and on the part of an individual, such as the need to eat or to explain, or on the part of the group, such as the need to stay together. The need exists before myth, which arises to fulfill the need. Myth may be the initial or even the sole means of fulfilling the need. Or there may be other means, which compete with myth and may best it. For example, myth may be said to explain the physical world and to do so exceedingly well — until science arises and does it better. So claims the theorist E. B. Tylor, the pioneering English anthropologist.
Function is the flip side of origin. The need that causes myth to arise is the need that keeps it going. Myth functions as long as both the need continues to exist and myth continues to fulfill it at least as well as any competitor. The need for myth is always a need so basic that it itself never ceases. The need to eat, to explain the world, to express the unconscious, to give meaningfulness to life – these needs are panhuman. But the need for myth to fulfill these needs may not last forever. The need to eat can be fulfilled through hunting or farming without the involvement of myth. The need to express the unconscious can be fulfilled through therapy, which for both Sigmund Freud and his rival C. G. Jung is superior to myth. The need to find or to forge meaningfulness in life can be fulfilled without religion and therefore without myth for secular existentialists such as Albert Camus.
For some theorists, myth has always existed and will always continue to exist. For others, myth has not always existed and will not always continue to exist. For Mircea Eliade, a celebrated Romanian-born scholar of religion, religion has always existed and will always continue to exist. Because Eliade ties myth to religion, myth is safe. For not only Tylor but also J. G. Frazer, author of The Golden Bough, myth is doomed exactly because myth is tied to religion. For them science has replaced religion and as a consequence has replaced myth. “Modern myth” is a contradiction in terms.
The third main question about myth is that of subject matter. What is myth really about? There are two main answers: myth is about what it is literally about, or myth symbolizes something else. Taken literally, myth is usually about gods or heroes or physical events like rain. Tylor, Eliade, and the anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski all read myth literally. Myth taken literally may also mean myth taken historically, especially in myths about heroes.
The subject matter of myth taken symbolically is open-ended. A myth about the Greek god Zeus can be said to symbolize one’s father (so Freud), one’s father archetype (so Jung), or the sky (so nature mythologists). The religious existentialists Rudolf Bultmann and Hans Jonas would contend that the myth of the biblical flood is to be read not as a explanation of a supposedly global event from long ago but as a description of what it is like for anyone anywhere to live in a world in which, it is believed, God exists and treats humans fairly.
To call the flood story a myth is not to spurn it. I am happy to consider any theory of myth, but not the crude dismissal of a story or a belief as a “mere myth.” True or false, myth is never “mere.” For to call even a conspicuously false story or belief a mere myth is to miss the power that that story or belief holds for those who accept it. The difficulty in persuading anyone to give up an obviously false myth attests to its allure.
Hello all! I wanted to let you know about my latest work hanging at the very wonderfulModen Eden gallery in San Francisco, CA! I was lucky enough to be part of their latest group show, "Myth," and returned to a subject I find myself coming back to time and time again; the Japanese folktale The Crane Wife.
More info "behind the work" and purchase info here!
I didn't get to post about the opening reception back on July 14th, but luckily, there is a closing reception in conjunction with North Beach First Fridays on Friday, August 3, 2012. The closing reception will be held at 403 Francisco Street from 6-9pm.
Here it is! The book of the day challenge, to recommend a new book or related media every day in 2012. January is complete, and attached for handy download–just click on the above link. February is on the way! “Friend” Litland Reviews on Facebook to see daily recommendations as they post. http://facebook.com/Litlandreviews
Frequently, authors (and Publishers Weekly) announce upcoming new series loooooong before there is pretty cover art or even a firm release date -- which makes it hard to include them for Waiting on Wednesday. However, their teasery descriptions are so exciting that I just have to share them. So, I'm going to start posting a roundup of exciting new book deals. Since this is the first one, I'm going to include a few that were announced a while back. (Click the titles to add them on Goodreads)
A supernatural series set in Manhattan during the 1920s that follows a teen heroine reminiscent of two of the era's most famous literary women—Zelda Fitzgerald and Dorothy Parker. The story will be a wild new ride full of dames and dapper dons, jazz babies and Prohibition-defying parties, conspiracy and prophecy—and all manner of things that go bump in the neon-drenched night.
First in a new trilogy about a high school Miss Popularity whose world changes when a funny thing happens on the way to the (Homecoming) coronation: she's recruited into the Paladins, a supernatural sect of bodyguards sworn to protect those who will play an important role in the future, and charged with saving her archnemesis even if it means sacrificing her place as queen bee.
Release Date: August 30, 2011 Series: The Fury Trilogy #1 Publisher: Simon Pulse Buy: Amazon | Barnes & Noble
Emily and Chase aren't bad people -- they've just made a few mistakes. Everybody makes mistakes, right? A little remorse and everything will be fine. Unfortunately, some acts can't be taken back -- and three beautiful, mysterious girls are here to make sure they pay. As Emily and Chase are about to learn, sometimes sorry just isn't enough.
Fury alternates between two teens, Emily and Chase, and carefully sketches in the details of their ordinary, every day lives. It is surprising to discover that the mythological beings are not the main characters of this novel -- instead, they hover on the fringe, leaving the focus on the remarkably human and flawed leads. Elizabeth Miles brings her cast to life, making them seem more like people than characters. The inhabitants of Ascension are not extraordinary, and that's what makes them so authentic. They are imperfect and not all that likable -- but that seems to be the point. Emily is naive and shallow, not to mention a terrible friend, and Chase seems petty and insecure. Their off-putting personalities make sense in the context of the novel, yet it also makes it difficult to invest in their fates. Miles' skill at humanizing her characters is impressive, but they would be more rounded with a few admirable traits as well.
Em and Chase are not the most despicable people in town by a long shot, yet they're the unfortunate souls singled out for vengeance. The fact that the avenging girls are not the protagonists adds to their mystique, but it also obscures the method to their madness. The first half of the novel drags, as it's impossible to tell what transgression Chase committed or what punishment Emily is receiving for her own crimes. Crucial backstory isn't introduced until late in the novel, leaving readers feeling confused for an agonizing length of time. Yet, though Emily's story line is clearest at the outset, Chase's plot ends up being the strongest as he moves inexorably toward his fate. Though neither is endearing, Chase has the most complexity -- from his love-and-hate relationship with a childhood friend, to his attempt to rise above his socioeconomic status -- readers will feel sorry for him as his punishment progresses (even if he seems to be determinedly walking into the trap).
The calculating and manipulative powers of their tormentors are made starkly and terrifyingly clear as the novel spirals toward its devastating conclusion. Miles lays a strong groundwork for her mythology, immersing readers in the fear and uncertainty of a
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Most high school sports teams have rivalries with other schools. At Hamilton High, it's a civil war: the football team versus the soccer team. And for her part,Lissa is sick of it. Her quarterback boyfriend, Randy, is always ditching her to go pick a fight with the soccer team or to prank their locker room. And on three separate occasions Randy's car has been egged while he and Lissa were inside, making out. She is done competing with a bunch of sweaty boys for her own boyfriend's attention
Then Lissa decides to end the rivalry once and for all: She and the other players' girlfriends go on a hookup strike. The boys won't get any action from them until the football and soccer teams make peace. What they don't count on is a new sort of rivalry: an impossible girls-against-boys showdown that hinges on who will cave to their libidos first. But what Lissa never sees coming is her own sexual tension with the leader of the boys, Cash Sterling...
Six months have passed since the terrifying battle with Charlie Pink-eye and the Motor City Hammer in the zombie-infested mountains of the Rot & Ruin. It’s also six months since Benny Imura and Nix Riley saw something in the air that changed their lives. Now, after months of rigorous training with Benny’s zombie-hunter brother Tom, Benny and Nix are ready to leave their home forever and search for a better future. Lilah the Lost Girl and Benny’s best friend Lou Chong are going with them.
Sounds easy. Sounds wonderful. Except that everything that can go wrong does. Before they can even leave there is a shocking zombie attack in town. But as soon as they step into the Rot &amp;amp; Ruin they are pursued by the living dead, wild animals, insane murderers and the horrors of Gameland –where teenagers are forced to fight for their lives in the zombie pits. Worst of all…could the evil Charlie Pink-eye still be alive?
In the great Rot &amp;amp; Ruin everything wants to kill you. Everything…and not everyone in Benny’s small band of travelers will make it out alive.
Fifteen-year-old Bridget Liu just wants to be left alone: by her mom, by the cute son of a local police sergeant, and by the eerie voices she can suddenly and inexplicably hear. Unfortunately for Bridget, it turns out the voices are demons – and Bridget has the rare ability to banish them back to whatever hell they came from.
Terrified to tell people about her new power, Bridget confides in a local priest who enlists her help in increasingly dangerous cases of demonic possession. But just as she is starting to come to terms with her new power, Bridget receives a startling message from one of the demons. Now Bridget must unlock the secret to the demons' plan before someone close to her winds up dead – or worse, the human vessel of a demon king.
Teagan, Finn, and Aiden have rescued Tea's and Aiden's father and have made it out of Mag Mell alive, bringing a few new friends with them. But The Dark Man's forces are hot on their heels. Back in Chicago, Teagan soon realizes that she is not the target of the goblins. In fact, the goblins call her princess, and call her to come out and play. Something is happening to her, and she suspects it’s an infection
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When Ashline's sister rolls into town, it's rarely a good sign -- but this time Eve's more out-of-control than ever. In the aftermath of her visit, Ash leaves town to escape the tragedy she left in her wake. Blackwood Academy is supposed to be a fresh start, free from chaos and pain. Unfortunately, a mystical force has drawn Ash -- and others like her -- to this secluded school among the redwoods, and Eve may not be the nastiest thing stalking them from the imposing forest.
This debut is eerie and intense, steamy and mysterious. From page one, Wildefire flies into action, sucking readers up in a vortex of legend and imagination. Karsten Knight draws together strands from a smorgasbord of different mythologies, spicing things up with a few invented creatures of his own. These are not run-of-the-mill supernaturals, and their variety and scale give the novel an epic feel. The forces at play are as deadly as they are majestic -- shown in stark detail through flashbacks and visions. This tale is dark and dangerous, in a delicious, edge-of-your-seat kind of way. From the first explosive page to the final astonishing revelation, just when readers think they know where this story is taking them, Wildefire yanks them away in another startling direction.
The high-octane energy is due in large part to Ash. Ashline Wilde is hardcore and sarcastic -- and maybe more than a little angry. Her larger-than-life personality and razor sharp repartee jump off the page and grab readers by the throat. Though she's got the typical teen drama -- cheating boyfriends and ill-timed detentions -- her family dysfunction really steals the show. When her motorcycle-riding, hell-raising, runaway sister blows through town, she stirs up more than just trouble. Ash and Eve take sibling rivalry to a whole new level, and their struggle fuels the emotional core of the novel. Though it's easy to villainize Eve, Knight takes care to show the ties that bind the two sisters -- making their choices less black and white, and Ashline's struggle more wrenching.
Unlike so many heroines, Ashline has more than a studly boyfriend on her side (though she has one of those too). The group of friends she gathers at Blackwood is diverse and dynamic -- from aloof but alluring Raja, spooky and ethereal Serena, roguish but romantic Rolfe, to nerdy but loyal Jackie. Though they may initially seem like stereotypes, the ragtag gang will steadily grow on readers as they face their demons (both real and psychological). The characters feel so alive, like real teens -- even though they're so much more.
Knight's style is effortless and unobtrusive, painting vivid scenes without getting in the way of his story. The novel's irreverent wit and brisk pace never give readers a moment's boredom, carrying them along on the smooth surface of its prose -- which stands in sharp contrast to the cosmic consequences hanging in the balance. Wildefire will draw readers in with its otherworldly opening, pull them along through midnight monsters and would-be mercenaries, straight into surreal psychics and smoldering romance -- and leave them begging for more.
Disclosure: I received an advance galley of this novel from the publisher for an honest review.
Eleven-year-old Neela dreams of being a famous musician, performing for admiring crowds on her traditional Indian stringed instrument. Her particular instrument used to be her grandmother’s—made of warm, rich wood, and intricately carved with a mysterious-looking dragon.
When this special family heirloom vanishes from a local church, Neela is devastated. As she searches for it, strange clues surface: a teakettle ornamented with a familiar-looking dragon, a threatening note, a connection to a famous dead musician, and even a legendary curse. The clues point all the way to India, where it seems that Neela's intrument has a long history of vanishing and reappearing. If she is able to track it down, will she be able to stop it from disappearing again?
Sheela Chari's debut novel is a finely tuned story of coincidence and fate, trust and deceit, music and mystery.
Ashline Wilde is having a rough sophomore year. She’s struggling to find her place as the only Polynesian girl in school, her boyfriend just cheated on her, and now her runaway sister, Eve, has decided to barge back into her life. When Eve’s violent behavior escalates and she does the unthinkable, Ash transfers to a remote private school nestled in California’s redwoods, hoping to put the tragedy behind her. But her fresh start at Blackwood Academy doesn’t go as planned. Just as Ash is beginning to enjoy the perks of her new school—being captain of the tennis team, a steamy romance with a hot, local park ranger—Ash discovers that a group of gods and goddesses have mysteriously enrolled at Blackwood…and she’s one of them. To make matte
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We may assume that people, wherever they lived, learned to use honey and even practiced apiculture before dairy products became part of their diet, for honey can be found and consumed in its natural state, while milk, cheese, butter, and the rest presuppose the existence of domesticated animals, be it horses, cows, sheep, or goats, and of a developed industry. However, humans are mammals, so that the word for “milk” is probably contemporaneous with language, even though no Common Indo-European term for it existed (for example, the word lactation reminds us of Latin lac, and it is quite different from milk). With time, “milk and honey” turned into a symbol of abundance. While the god Othinn (see the previous post) was busy stealing the mead of poetry, mortals dreamed of catching a bee swarm. From 10th-century Christian Germany we have a rhyming charm, a pagan “genre” to be sure, but with Jesus Christ and Mary invoked, for it was the result that counted rather than the affiliation of the benefactors. Its purpose was to let the flying bees stop at the speaker’s farm: “Christ, a swarm is here! / Now fly here, my ‘throng’, / to God’s protection, alight safe and sound. / Come, come down, bees;/ Command them to do so, Saint Mary. / Swarm, you may not fly to the woods, / To escape from me/ Or to get the better of me.”
Thousands of years before the recording of this incantation, the bee was glorified in the myths of the ancient Indo-Europeans. Readers of old tales will remember that the bee was the sacred insect of the Greek goddess Artemis. A cave painting of a human surrounded by bees while removing honeycombs and an old depiction of honeycombs have also come down to us. Whatever effect charms may once have had on German bees, honey was certainly in wide use. In the phrase milkand honey, milk stands first, but in its Russian analog med-pivo (literally, “mead-beer”) and in its Baltic (Lithuanian and Latvian) equivalent medu-alus (note alus, a cognate of Engl. ale!) “mead” precedes “beer.” The story teller of Russian folklore tends to finish his tale with the begging formula to the effect that he drank med-pivo at the wedding feast and that it flowed over his moustache, but not a drop got into his mouth (so this is the time to quench his thirst and reward his labors).
Naturally, med in the compound med-pivo referred to an intoxicating drink, but in Modern Russian the word med means “honey.” Although in recorded texts mead “beverage” occurs earlier than mead “honey,” common sense tells us that before people began to drink “mead” after they got acquainted with honey. The fermentation of wild honey did not remain a secret either, and this is a likely reason the two senses of mead merged. The word wine came to the European languages from Latin, and the Romans seem to have borrowed it from their neighbors. Perhaps in the lending language it also meant “mead,” for Persian may (a form derived from Indo-European medu- or medhu-) means “wine.”
As noted in the previous post, the Indo-Europeans used two words for “honey”: one was the ancestor of Engl. mead, the other the ancestor of Greek méli (genitive mélitos, so that the stem was mélit-). Every time we confront a pair of such synonyms the question arises what distinguished the objects they designated. For instance, loaf is a descendant of a word that meant “bread.” What then was the difference between hlaifs- (the ancient form of loaf) and bread? Presumably Add a Comment
Tales that explain the origin of things are called etiological. All etymologies are etiological tales by definition. It seems that one of the main features of Homo sapiens has always been his unquenchable desire to get drunk. Sapiens indeed! The most ancient intoxicating drink of the Indo-Europeans was mead. Moreover, it seems that several neighboring tribes borrowed the name of this drink from them (and undoubtedly the drink itself: otherwise, what would have been the point of taking over the word?), for we have Finnish mesi, Proto-Chinese mit, and Japanese mitsu, allegedly modifications of Indo-European medu- or medhu-. Being inebriated allowed one to converse with the gods; intoxication and inspiration were synonyms from early on. We now have a different view of alcoholism and have reduced the sublime state to the dull legal formula “under the influence.” But things were different in the spring of civilization. One of the most memorable myths of the medieval Scandinavians is about a deadly fight for the mead of wisdom and poetry.
After a truce was made between two warring clans of gods (the cause of the war has not been discovered), they met to make peace, took a crock, and spat into it. Saliva causes fermentation and has been used widely in old days for processes like the one being described here. From the contents of the crock the gods created a homunculus called Kvasir, who turned out to be sober (!) and extremely wise: there was no question he could not answer. He traveled far and wide and taught men wisdom. The name Kvasir happens to be an almost full homonym of Slavic kvas (usually spelled, for no legitimate reason, kvass in English), a malt-based drink, one of whose indispensable ingredients is bread. However, despite what some books state in a rather dogmatic way, the coincidence between Kvasir and kvas may be fortuitous. Although not directly, kvas is related to Slavic words for “sour.” Closer cognates mean “froth” and “cook; boil”; one of them is Latin caseus, the etymon of Engl. cheese. In Germanic, Kvasir resembles verbs like Engl. quash and squash. Both are usually traced to Old French, but similar-sounding and partly synonymous verbs, for instance, English squeeze and quench, are native, while Modern German quetschen, corresponding to Engl. quash, is a word of disputable etymology (perhaps native, perhaps from French). Whatever product the gods obtained through fermentation, its base was first “crushed” or “squashed.” Kvasir appears unexpectedly in a later myth connected with the capture of Loki; however, his life must have been short, because two dwarfs killed him.
In the world of Scandinavian myths we encounter gods, dwarfs, and giants. Despite the associations these words carry to us, “an average giant” did not tower over “an average god,” whereas the dwarfs were not tiny. Giants and dwarfs became huge and small in later folklore. In Scandinavian myths, they were distinguished by their functions: the gods maintained order in the universe, the giants tried to disrupt it, and the dwarfs were artisans and produced all the valuable objects that allowed the gods to stay in power. Most unfortunately, the myths of the Germans and the Anglo-Saxons have not come down to us, and only some traces of them can be reconstructed from popular beliefs, the evidence of place names, and the like. But to continue with Kvasir. Two malicious dwarfs called him aside for a word in private and killed him, after which they let his blood run into two vats and a kettle. They mixed the blood with honey, the main sweetener then known, and it became the mead that
Ari knows there are secrets buried in her family's past, but she doesn't realize just how devastating they might be until she receives a note in her dead mother's handwriting: "Run." The warning comes not a moment too soon, as Ari finds herself launched headfirst into a fight for her life. Determined to find answers about what horrors her mother foresaw and just who is sending assassins after her
Teagan's always been the practical type -- focused on her schoolwork, ignoring her male classmates, not believing in goblins. But when her nomadic, distant cousin arrives on her doorstep everything begins to change. Finn claims to be the MacCumhaill, defender against all of goblinkind. Of course Teagan doesn't believe him. At first. But when she begins seeing...things...and her dad vanishes
Thought about calling this "Fierce Despair" but I don't think the set of her shoulders or eyebrow is quite despairing. In fact, I'm not sure what she's about to do: look up? turn away? Fling out an arm but keep her eyes closed?
There's something off in the angle and shape of her front hand and forearm, but I can't quite pinpoint it; comments/advice welcome!!. And I think her earring should've swung forward a bit more.
Ink and pencil on sketch paper. Original is about 4 inches (10 cm) tall.
"Imagine, if you will, a handful of families in Africa at the very beginning of the Human Race," said the BBC trailer. So I did. Inconceivable, really that that small group should have engendered the billions who live on the earth today. But it set me to wondering (as I occasionally do) about another thing entirely. Who told the first story? And when? We know that our early ancestors were certainly artists--the evidence is there in the caves of Lascaux and elsewhere. We know that the 'dreaming tracks' of the Aboriginal Australians go far far back in the history of mankind, mapping the land and territory in song lines--the rhythms of which correspond exactly to the walking pace of a human being. But story. Formal story. How did that happen? I am no anthropologist, and don't pretend to be. I have only my (fertile) imagination and my knowledge of a fair few world myths to go on. But one thing I am utterly sure of is this: that the first stories were told to make sense of the frightening world in which our ancestors lived, and the cataclysmic events around them. How to encompass the fear of an African storm with its terrifying dark sky full of fire and noise? How to tame the power of an all-destroying flood? Why, make it manageable by setting it within the bounds of story. We started telling stories to come to terms with the world around us. And if all story started in the heart of Africa with that same handful of families, then it is hardly surprising that we find the same mythical story themes in every culture. They are, most possibly, hard-wired into our DNA at the deepest level.
The most ancient stories not only make sense of the world, they also give us clues to pre-historical events, set out taboos and ways to behave (or not behave) and much more. They give us all the potential to share what Joseph Campbell called 'those fixed stars, that known horizon'. Myths--whenever they started--are one of the most important repositories of knowledge we possess, and every child, in every culture, should have access to a wide spread of them as part of their education. Most British schools teach Greek myths as part of KS2, and this is very good. Certainly my book Atticus the Storyteller's 100 Greek Mythshas been a perennial favourite since its first publication in 2002, and the recent popularity of the Percy Jackson novels mean that Greek myth is thriving as never before. But what I find incomprehensible is that the majority of our schools are not encouraged within the curriculum to explore the myths of this land. Most children know about King Arthur from one source or another--and nothing wrong with that, except that he and his knights of the Round Table are the creation of a 12th century historian and a 15th century jailbird, stemming from the romance tradition of the medieval minstrels. But of the orally handed down pre-Christian epics of Cuchulain and Finn MacCool, Pwyll and Llew and Mabon, almost nothing is known by the average schoolchild in the UK, because there isn't the time for teaching it. This is, in my opinion a disgrace, and I do my best to counter it with every visit I make to a school, hoping to make a difference, and the children always respond with huge interest. This is a drop in the ocean, but I do not despair. There is always room for hope. The rise of fantasy novels since JRR Tolkien has meant that both modern children's and adult literature is full of clues to these things. The myths of this land of ours are there for the finding--and in my case, there for the retelling. Writers will go on plundering the mythical treasure chest, and reshaping its contents to suit the conditions of the modern world. Even if we no longer need to make sense of the thunder by telling fantastical tales about it, the parallel evolution of story and humankind is not finished yet, and it never will be as long as there are ears to listen to all the infinite number of tales there still are in our future lives. Do you think that our small handful of ancestors in Africa could ever have imagined such a thing?
Myths (so runs the myth) belong to past ages, when people were naïve enough to believe in them. Today, in scientific modern times, we’ve put away such childish things. So why bother with fantasy? Isn’t it just puerile escapism? Even children are expected to grow out of myths and fairytales, and surely any adult found reading or writing the stuff cannot expect to be taken seriously? Can fantasy really have anything meaningful to say?
These are interesting questions. Bear with me as I try to answer them in what may seem a round-about way. I’ll begin with an even bigger question:
What makes us human?
The answers to this one keep being refined. A special creation in the image of God – for centuries a popular and satisfying answer? Difficult to sustain as it became clear that we’re only one twig on the great branching tree of evolution. Language? Perhaps, but the more we study other animals and birds, the more we realise many of them communicate in quite sophisticated ways. Toolmaking? Not that distinctive, as chimpanzees and a variety of other animals employ twigs and stones as tools. Art? It depends what you mean by ‘art’ – if you think of bower-birds designing pretty nests to attract their mates, it seems clear that some animals do have an aesthetic capacity. So are we different from other animals at all?
Common sense says yes – at the very least, we have taken all these capabilities incomparably further than other animals – but is that really the best we can do for a definition? What was the point at which our ancestors became recognisably ‘us’, and in what does that recognition rest?
Innovation is one answer – the development and bettering of tools. Homo habilis and homo heidelbergensis lived with one basic design of hand axe for about a million years. When, on the other hand, we see signs of people messing about and tinkering and trying out new ideas, we recognise ourselves.
Related to this is another answer: symbolic thinking. Maybe some of our closest relatives are partially capable of it – a chimpanzee can recognise a drawing or a photograph, which means nothing to a dog. But wild chimps don’t indulge in representational art. Sometime, somewhere, somebody realised that lines of ochre or charcoal drawn on stone or wood could stand for a horse or a deer or an aurochs. That in itself is an amazing leap of cognition. On top of that, however, there had to be some fascination in the discovery, some reason to keep on doing it – some inherent, achieved meaning that had nothing directly to do with physical survival. What? Why?
Somewhere along the line, human beings became sufficiently self-aware to be troubled by death. When you truly understand that one day, you’ll die, the whole mystery of existence comes crashing down on you like the sky falling. Why are we here? What was before us? Where did we come from and where will we go?
The ‘mystery of existence’ is an artefact. We choose to ask an answerless question, and that question is at the core of our humanity. The before-and-after of life is a great darkness, and we build bonfires to keep it out, and warm ourselves and comfort ourselves. The bonfire is the bonfire of mythical thinking, of culture, stories, songs, music, poetry, religion, art. We don’t need it for our physical selves: homo heidelbergensis got on perfectly well without it: we need it for humanity’s supreme invention, the soul.
Karen Armstrong claims that religion is an art, and I agree with her. In her book ‘A Short History of Myth’ she examines the modern expectation that all truths shall be factually based. This is what religious fundamentalists and scientists like Richard Dawkins have, oddly, in common. A religious fundamentalist refuses to accept the theory of evolution because it appears to him or her to disprove the truth of Genesis, when what Genesis actually offers is not a factual but an emotional truth: a way of accounting for the existence of the world and the place of people in it with all their griefs and joys and sorrows. It’s – in other words – a story, a fantasy, a myth. It’s not trying to explain the world, like a scientist. It’s trying to reconcile us with the world. Early people were not naïve. The truth that you get from a story is different from the truth of a proven scientific fact.
Any work of art is a symbolic act. Any work of fiction is per se, a fantasy. In the broadest sense, you can see this must be so. They are all make-belief. Tolstoy’s Prince André and Tolkien’s Aragorn are equal in their non-existence. Realism in fiction is an illusion – just as representational art is a sleight of hand (and of the mind) that tricks us into believing lines and splashes of colour are ‘really’ horses or people or landscapes.
The question shouldn’t be ‘Is it true?’, because no story provides truth in the narrow factual sense. The questions to ask about any work of art should be like these: ‘Does it move me? Does it express something I always felt but didn’t know how to say? Has it given me something I never even knew I needed?’ As Karen Armstrong says, “Any powerful work of art invades our being and changes it forever.” If that happens, you will know it. It makes no sense at all to ask, ‘Is it true?’
Fantasy still deserves to be taken seriously - read and written seriously - because there are things humanity needs to say that can only be said in symbols. Here’s the last verse of Bob Dylan’s song ‘The Gates of Eden’ (from ‘Bringing it All Back Home’):
At dawn my lover comes to me And tells me of her dreams With no attempts to shovel the glimpse Into the ditch of what each one means At times I think there are no words But these to tell what’s true: And there are no truths outside the Gates of Eden.
Involvement in the study of antiquity can lead to fascinating areas of exploration. However, the search for this type of knowledge can also touch upon things which strain credulity. Legend and myth are part of antiquity and one is sometimes brought a step beyond into the realm of mysticism.
My friend John Wilde lived in the village of Corbridge in Northumberland (northeast England). A World War II naval officer and native Northumbrian, he lived in a small, but cozy house in St. Helen’s Street. After a day on an excavation site in the area, it was my practice to visit John. He always had a pot of tea, welcome on a chill northern night, and often a lit fireplace. We would sit in the armchairs by the fire and talk about the history of the county and about John’s wartime adventures in the North Atlantic and the Mediterranean. Sometimes he would introduce me to his neighbors, most of whom had never before met an American.
It was on one such evening that I met a man who told me a most unusual story.
Hans was an older man, closer to John’s age than mine. Like many senior citizens of the area, however, he had a lean, fit look that went well with his “county” garb (flannel pants, thick-soled shoes, plaid shirt and tweed jacket). Although Hans spoke perfect English, a faint German accent was detectable.
“So,” he said, “ you are John’s friend, the American. There is much talk about you in the village.”
“Yes,” John interjected, “Harry’s got Wallomania.” He was referring to the nearby Hadrian’s Wall (shown above), which had held my interest for many years.
“A fascinating subject,” Hans nodded. “But there is much in this corner of the world to attract the interest of the scholar.”
We chatted for a while about the history of the Wall, its garrisons, and the Roman occupation of the area. Eventually, I could not resist asking Hans why a German had decided to settle in Corbridge. He told me that he had first come to Northumbria during the 1930s. “Archeology?” I asked.
Hans shook his head. “Not exactly,” he said. “I was part of a team exploring deep caves.” I asked if he was a spelunker. “No,” he said. He then asked me if I had heard of the ESR. I put down my teacup and leaned forward, looking at Hans intently. I had indeed heard of the Einsatzstaab Rosenberg. Named after Alfred Rosenberg, the chief philosophical and mystical advisor to Adolf Hitler, the ESR had systematically looted the art and antiquity treasures of Europe in the countries conquered by the Third Reich during World War II. (See map below.)
“You were in the SS, then?”
“Don’t worry, Harry,” John interjected. “Hans is a reformed stormtrooper. Quite harmless now.”
Hans stared into the fire for a moment. He then turned to me and began his story.
He had joined the SS as a university student earning a degree in archeology and ancient European history. After initial SS training, he was assig
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About a year ago, while editing Amsco´s Spanish First Year Workbook, I first learned about how people in Mexico (and some people in Texas, Arizona, and California) celebrate the Day of the Dead.
This celebration takes place on November 1 and November 2, coinciding with the Catholic Holy Days of All Saints' Day and All Souls' Day, respectively. In Mexico, the Day of the Dead is not a mournful commemoration, but a joyous and lively festival. Its origin can be traced back to the pre-colonial Mexican civilizations (Aztecs and other Mesoamerican peoples). Indigenous people believed that souls did not pass away, that they continued to live in Mictlan, the underworld of Aztec mythology. In this place, the souls rest until they return to their homes to visit their living relatives on the Day of the Dead.
With the Spaniards’ arrival, the Aztec ancestral rituals blended with Catholicism to create a unique time and space to honor the loved ones. The activities commemorating the Day of the Dead often vary throughout the various parts of Mexico. For instance, in addition to religious services and praying, people spend the day at the cemetery, visit their loved ones’ gravesites and decorate them with marigold flowers
1 Comments on Day of the Dead: What You Need to Know, last added: 10/18/2010
While much is made of J.K. Rowling’s fictional hero, the youthful magician Harry Potter, and while the Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part Ifilm brought $330 million in ticket sales during its weekend opening, I have become fascinated with another writer of young readers’ fantasy. Rick Riordan has introduced me to the action-packed world of Percy Jackson, a half blood (part mortal and part god), living in contemporary New York. Percy, whose real name is Perseus, is the son of Poseidon, god of the sea, and a mortal woman. (Riordan provides no details about their romantic relationship prior to Percy’s birth). Percy is a good kid despite the fact that he has been expelled from a succession of middle schools. It is not his fault if strange things seem to happen when he is around, things that school authorities cannot understand and for which, therefore, they blame Percy. In Percy Jackson and the Sea of Monsters, for example, when three adolescent bullies corner Percy in a chemistry lab and turn out to be half blood hating monsters, Percy has no choice but to draw Riptide, a ballpoint pen that turns into a sword with magical properties (a gift from his father, of course) in order to defend himself. Percy’s real strength is the special relationship he has with water, especially seawater. So, when the battle with the monsters causes an explosion that destroys the chemistry lab and blows a hole in the wall of the school, Percy must run. He is helped by Annabeth Chase, another half blood. She is the daughter of Athena, goddess of wisdom. Together with Percy’s half brother, Tyson, a young Cyclops, they reach the safety of Camp Half Blood, a summer camp for the children of gods. Protected by magical boundaries that no mortal can cross, and presided over by a centuries-old centaur named Chiron, the camp is the place where young heroes are trained to fight and are prepared for periodic quests from which some do not return alive.
In case you are wondering why no one notices centaurs, Cyclops, satyrs (such as Percy’s friend, Grover), dryads, etc. it is because of the Mist, a magical veil through which mortals cannot see. Once at the camp, the young half bloods are claimed by their godly parents and are assigned to cabins where they live with their half brothers and sisters. The reader learns a great deal about mythology, such as the distinctions between the gods in their Greek manifestations as opposed to their Roman aspects. Riordan makes much of the war between gods and titans and how it has affected western civilization. Did you know, for example, that after World War II the gods decided to ce
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