Archive for July, 2010

The other night I watched “Proteus,” a documentary about Ernst Haeckel, German biologist, naturalist, artist etc. who struggled to find a space for himself, torn as he was, for a time, between the study of biological forms and landscape painting.

The movie is named after an old Greek Sea God — “Old Man of the Sea” as Homer called him.

The name Proteus comes from the Greek protos which means first.

I find it heartening to believe that ancient myth as much as any contemporary theories of evolution, accounts for the connection between humans and other natural forms. And it seems there is a deep-rooted knowledge or sense within Greek and other mythology that we ultimately come from water — and have on many occasions nearly lost ourselves to it (As Bill Cosby so aptly puts it, “You know, I brought you into this world, and I can take you out.”) Who knows, perhaps some of our lost tribes have made a home in the depthiest depths and flourish there.

I think I would understand from myth, had I never read one contemporary scientific stitch about evolution, that the sea came first and we are part of that beginning. Even reading “Beowulf” I was taken by the passages that address what water is to us — the greatest, most violent maternal mystery. The medium Beowulf must traverse (as if he is still sea-creature enough to breathe under water) to find the monster’s grieving mother and murder her and leave the womb at last. He is born back on land to traverse the sea and become king. “Beowulf” has so many layered connections to water and to questions of humanity, brotherhood, loyalty and ancestry.

I can’t say I know precisely why the documentary about Haekel was called “Proteus” though he, too, seemed to stake claim to several firsts. He was apparently the first to use the phrase “The First World War” in 1914. He officially came up with the theory of recapitulation — “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny” (prenatal development of an organism parallels its entire evolutionary process).  I imagine, though, the film is so titled because of Haekel’s connection to the sea. He was mesmerized and intoxicated by seafaring microorganisms and sea life and  managed to bridge the gap for himself between fine arts and biology by illustrating many of the sea’s exquisite  forms. Especially radiolaria, single-celled organisms with intricate mineral skeletons.

He discovered and illustrated thousands of them.

And so, Haekel manages to bridge the gap for himself between science and art, but must we create or imagine there is such a distinct gap? For quite some time it was common for artists and scientists to be overlapping creatures, both working with the same clay — curiosity, wonder, the desire to explain natural phenomenon — and for science to inspire art and  art science. I’m sure in many realms there is great overlap or hazy boundaries between what scientists and artists strive for and create, but there is also a flourishing belief that the two must somehow be pitted against each other or diminish each other like science religion, and perhaps non-religious art and religion, when they are all part of our quests for self-understanding and a deeper connection to our mythic past.

Perhaps this is in part because science can be so cruel. The cruelty of science, when it bears cruelty, is inimitable. But anything can be used ill. And maybe because art can be so whimsical. But the best scientists often take unimaginable flights of whimsy, and if nature doesn’t teach us of the fantastical delivery of fantastic forms made as much of whimsy (even if the whimsy of striving) as of water, what, from it, can we learn?

Haekel admired both Darwin and Goethe, and I like to think about Goethe’s experience of mythology as not just ideas that strive to understand nature, but an outgrowth of nature itself. Part of nature’s striving. As it is so nicely put in Feldman and Richardson’s address of Goethe in “The Rise of Modern Mythology”, for Goethe: “Myth depicts not moral truth, but the truth of nature as a totality of striving creativities” (263).

Speaking of striving creativities, today I started reading “The Making of the Fittest” by Sean B. Carroll, the biologist who wrote “Endless Forms Most Beautiful” (I read it a couple years ago.) His writing about evolution and evolutionary biology is pretty gorgeous and accessible and reminds me of one of the things I love about pre-Judeo-Christian mythology. The intimacy between humans and gods and the constant, lifelike squabbling between them. The acceptance and even celebration of life and all of its messy, tragicomic desire and violence.

But one thing I adore about Jewish mysticism, nothing at all so far that I know of like the older myths, well, there are many things I adore about Jewish mysticism, but there is something so big bang about it — the idea that we are all made of stardust, that we are all made of the same stuff, and everything is nothing and everything is everything and that we’ve created Yud Hay Vov Hey, Hashem, the Shechinah… and that the divine has created us. (Daniel Matt in fact has a book called “God and the Big Bang” which I will have to add to my scrolling list of things to read).

Just so, Carroll quotes Darwin:

“Therefore I should infer from analogy that probably all the organic beings which have ever lived on this earth have descended from one primordial form, into which life was first breathed. “


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Over the last few days I read “Beowulf.” I chose the Seamus Heaney translation for obvious reasons, and also because it was recommended by several people.

I’ve always been intrigued by the story of Beowulf, and have read a handful of condensed versions, but this is the first time I’ve read a full translation. Heaney’s writing is beautiful and doesn’t shy from the native alliteratives or from perfect, politely intrusive musicality:

“He has done his worst but the wound will end him./He is hasped and hooped and hirpling with pain,/limping and looped in it. Like a man outlawed/for wickedness, he must await/the mighty judgement of God in majesty.

I am intrigued by the strange organization of the story, the pre-tellings, re-tellings, bardic interruptions, and the almost bored, off-hand Christian heads-ups into what feels like an otherwise pre-christian mythic epic. For example, there are two references to the fact that Grendel’s and his mother — the nonspecific but ravenous man-eating monsters — and many other otherworldly monstrous forms are descendants of Cain.

Does that imply that Grendel comes from a line that has transformed from man to monster? That Cain was in fact born in something other than human form. Are we brothers to monsters? Are we supposed to feel some connection with or brotherly compassion for this monster, Grendel, son of Cain, son of God? Or are we just supposed to ignore the whole Cain business and move on as if it never happened, as if we know it’s a wink and a nudge, a grudged allusion.

(I found this little tidbit in the following Blog “Beowulf marks the point when the old myths of monsters and dragons become subject to an increasingly obtrusive Christian morality. The rationale for Grendel being one of the “sons of Cain” has always seemed laboured and unconvincing, however, as though the new religion had been written over something far older and far darker. It’s never quite clear what Grendel and his mother are, which is a great part of their attraction; as with HP Lovecraft’s monstrosities, our imagination rushes to fill the void left by the sketched outline.”)

There are mentions in the text of the problem of paternity that I would like to explore further and understand whether the absence of paternity is related to a grappling with the problem or inevitability of Christianity (coming to accept Christianity, to understand that fatherless equivalent to godless?): “I have heard it said by my people in hall,/counsellors who live in the upland country,/that they have seen two such creatures prowling the moors…They are fatherless creatures,/and their whole ancestry is hidden in a past/of demons and ghosts.” (1345-1358). (I can’t help but wonder about the procreative process)

So the story starts with Beowulf crossing the sea, a Geat coming to help the Danes with their problem with the progeny of Cain. Grendel has been eating quite a lot of Hrothgar’s men. Beowulf kills Grendel without a ton of fanfare (I was, I have to admit, surprised the feud wasn’t drawn out more), by tearing off his arm, and there is lots of mead drinking and celebrating, but soon it becomes clear Grendel’s mother will raise the next bit of hell. We meet Grendel’s mother the night after Grendel has died. She’s angry, brutal, and keening. She’s mourning the loss of her son and taking revenge, just as Beowulf and his men and Hrothgar’s men are taking revenge on the monsters for their losses. Again, I am fascinated by the portrayal of the mother/son connection, the anguish of the monster-mother, the fact of the female monster pitted against all of these earthy men.

Soon after Beowulf has torn an arm off of Grendel (hard to picture considering there is nary an earthly metal made blade that can pierce the skin of these beasts), he swims underwater for quite some time to get to Grendel’s mother (am I to understand he swims under water for the better part of a day?) Is Beowulf, too, part monster? Or is he part god? Or is he simply super-human (I’m not sure where that falls into these categories)? Is the imaginable distance between man and monster, monster and god, and man and god at times negligible? It makes me curious to learn more about Beowulf’s heroic mythological roots and pre-christian nordic folklore, though I think the best accounts we have of this come after Christianity has taken over (the good thing about folklore, is that it can be hell-raised, tenderized, bruised, dismembered but it’s pretty hard to kill. And, with that in mind, perhaps Beowulf is the entire key to the door of its own history.)

Since I have been thinking a lot about the bleeding and blending of cultural mythologies and languages between ransackers and ransacked etc., I was pleased by the sweet attention Heaney gave this topic in his introduction. He talked a little about Christianity and a lot about language.

Heaney’s introduction is beautifully written, cautious and illuminating. He talks about the literary quality of the work, the probable strangeness of the names and words for some of us reading it for the first time (who may at least some familiarity with Roman and Greek Mythology, i.e., but might find names such as Hrothgar and Hygelac) “Still,” he says, “in spite of the sensation of being caught between a “shield-wall” of opaque references and a “word-hoard” that is old and strange, such readers are also bound to feel a certain “shock of the new.” This is because the poem possesses a mythic potency…it arrives from somewhere beyond the known bourne of our experience, and having fulfilled its purpose…it passes once more into the beyond.”

I think for me that’s true largely because of the theme of the mother’s revenge, and the amazing, terrifying descents into swampy and more deeply watery places.

Heaney does address the influence of a fairly new (at the time) and not completely integrated Christianity into a story that predates monotheism, but he spends a lot more time discussing the linguistic connections he found with the “Old English.”

“Sprung from an Irish nationalist background and educated at Northern Irish Catholic school, I had learned the Irish language and lived within a cultural and ideological frame that regarded it as the language which I should by rights have been speaking but which I had been robbed of. I have also written, for example, about the thrill I experienced when I stumbled upon the word lachtar in my Irish-English dictionary and found that this word, which my aunt had always used when speaking of a flock of chicks, was in fact an Irish language word, and, more than that an Irish word associated in particular with County Derry. Yet here it was, surviving in my aunt’s English speech generations after her forebears and mine had ceased to speak Irish. For a long time, therefore, the little word was–to borrow  a simile from Joyce–like a rapier point of consciousness pricking me with an awareness of language-loss and cultural dispossession, and tempting me into binary thinking about language. I tended to conceive of English and Irish as adversarial tongues, as either/or conditions rather than both/ands, and this was an attitude which for a long time hampered the development of a more confident and creative way of dealing with the whole vexed question–the question, that is, of the relationship between nationality, language, history and literary tradition in Ireland.”

Heaney goes on to discuss the winding influences between the lives of Irish and English language, which leads him to a story about the word tholian (the “th” sound is called forth by a letter that looks like a p but pointier at the top. It’s called a “thorn symbol.”)

He came accross the word tholian while translating Beowulf, and recognized the word because his aunt had used it regularly whn he was a child. “They’ll just have to learn to thole, my aunt would say about some family who had suffered an unforeseen bereavement. And now, suddenly here was ‘thole’ in the officual textual world…a little bleeper to remind me that my aunt’s language was not just a self-enclosed family possession but an historical heritage, one that involved the journey tholian had made north into Scotland and then across into Ulster with the planters and then across from the planters to the locals who had originally spoken Irish and then farther across again when the Scots Irish emigrated to the American South in the eighteenth century. When I read in John Crowe Ransom the line ‘Sweet ladies, long may ye bloom, and toughly I hope ye may thole,’ my heart lifted again, the world widened…” Heaney found that these connections helped him engage in the work of translating.

I mentioned in my last blog that I was reading about the myths and legends surrounding Irish trees, and that there is an important relationship between trees and the oldest Irish alphabet Ogham. I got a terribly outdated and outmoded book out of the library called “The Story of the Alphabet,” published in 1900. I was amused by the fact that the author, Edward Clodd, had, under his name, the following inscription “author of the story of primitive man, pioneers of evolution, the story of creation, etc.” as if he were in some way the author creation itself (etc.) A lot of the book is frighteningly simplistic and, I would venture, solipsistic, but here is a compelling bit from his introduction:

“These words themselves, as will also be shown concerning the ear-pictures by which they are represented, reveal in their analysis a story of the deepest interest. In the happy simile quoted by the late Archbishop Trench in his Study of Words, they are ‘fossil history,’ and, as he adds, ‘fossil poetry and fossil ethics’ also. To cite a few examples, more or less apposite to our subject, ‘book’ is probably from the Anglo-Saxon boc, a ‘beech,’ tablets of the bark of that tree being one of the substances on which written characters were inscribed. Parallel to this are the words ‘library’ and ‘libel,’ both derived from the Latin liber, the inner bark or rind of a tree used for paper; while, as everybody knows, the word ‘paper’ preserves the history of the manufacture of writing material in Egypt from the pith of the papyrus reed, the use of which goes back, as will be shown hereafter, to a high antiquity, and the classic name of which, biblos, has been applied to ‘bible.’”

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Since my plant identification adventures have begun to account for trees I’ve been wildly frustrated. There’s a class at Umass where you have to be able to identify 50 trees during winter when they are without leaves. I’m having a hard enough time in summer with leaves, flowers, fruit. Oaks I have down.Well, there are many varieties of oak and I’m hard pressed to tell one from another and there are some that I would only know if I saw the acorns.

(Portuguese Oak leaves)

(pin oak)

(shingle oak)

But for the most part, I know an oak is an oak. And I love oaks. They’re stately, beautiful, the leaves have tannic acid and can be used, like grape leaves in pickling cucumbers to keep the skins firm.

I can often identify witch hazel, cherries, maples, sycamore, apple, crabapple, mulberry. Sassafras, okay, another favorite, I can almost always identify by its three different leaves, whole (no teeth), puppyishly green.

But this whole tree identification thing is complicated. If I try to recognize most trees by size, shape, bark color and markings, I’m lost. But I’m keeping at it.

Providentially, when I was looking for books on Irish mythology, I found a book called “Irish Trees: Myth, Legends and Folklore” by Niall Mac Coitir. What could be better, I thought, than mixing trees with stories. Maybe it would even help me with my identification. The first thing I learned, which fascinates me, is the fact that the old Irish alphabet Ogham is actually based on trees. Each letter is named after or symbolizes a tree. Ogham is in fact often referred to as the “Celtic Tree Alphabet.” Moreover, it seems quite possible that the alphabet is made up of stories — myth, legend and folklore created this alphabet and not the other way around.

Mac Coitr uses the alphabet to organize the book. For each tree she gives its letter (or, for each letter, its tree. Though there is at least one letterless tree, the Whitebeam – Sorbus aria.) She talks about the tree’s uses and importance in communities as well as folk beliefs and customs surrounding the trees and then goes on to myths and legends where applicable. I’m learning a lot but can’t retain a lot of the information because I don’t have the context. There is a ton of information in this book and sometimes I get pretty lost. I will have to do further reading and then go back.

Meanwhile I’ve been reading “Mayan Folktales: Folklore from Lake Atitlan, Guatemala.” I once lost my glasses on the bottom of Lake Atitlan  (one of the deepest lakes in the world.) Fortunateley we weren’t at one of the deepest parts of the lake and the boat driver left me in the water (glassesless), took the boat to shore, got hold of a snorkel and goggles, brought the boat back (I was treading treading treading) and rescued them. Kind of miraculous. I bet not many people can say they lost their glasses and found their glasses on the bottom of Lake Atitlan. Then again, probably not many people fling their glasses mistakenly into the water while taking off their shirt.

The Mayan folktales are wonderful. Varied. In fact, some myths (creation myths) some fables, some folk tales. What I’m noticing in both the Irish and the Mayan stories is the Christian influences seeping in and also the struggle against Christianity overtaking their lore. Collective stories in some way comprise national and tribal identities and so it seems when the Christians came and colonized they either gave in to letting the people keep some of their  stories, language, rituals the way Aaron gave in with the golden calf or they simply couldn’t erradicate the language and stories trying and all.

Anyway, there’s an interesting intermingling of Christian lore and culture in both the Mayan and the Irish. Trees, fairies and saints all coming together in Irish lore. In the Mayan, there are some tricksters who get away with the goods without having to turn into Christian-type do-gooders — but there are also stories that accept and emulate christian themes. And there are a few stories starring dirty rotten lascivious Catholic priests preying on innocent Mayan women.

Two of my favorite Mayan folk tales: “The Woman and the Guardian” about a wife cheating on her husband — it’s humor and sauciness is reminiscent of canterbury tales; and “Story of Chema Tamales” about a lucky hapless gambler who gets himself into a lot of trouble and always finds a tricky way out of it (in the last episode of his tale, he convinces a priest to keep a trapped dove in his hat (Chema’s hat) while Chema took the priest’s horses to get a cage. What actually lay in Chema’s hat? his shit. By the time the priest notices, his orses were long gone. The story with the best title would have to be “The Woman Who Loved Many Hombres and Died from Drinking a lot of Water and a Piece of Sausage that She Had Eaten.”

I also read an science essay that interestingly touches on the topic of stories and cultural identity and also the fact that there’s a lot of fact in ancient myths and legends (maybe as much as there is myth and legend in most facts.) I think that there’s no such thing as a pure story, a pure culture, a pure language. But I can definitely see how traditional stories of a culture that has been colonized for example transform to accomodate their new environments and stories from the other or colonizing cultures are subsumed and transformed as well.

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Fisherman and His Soul

This is a blog for a study I’m doing of folk tales, fairy tales, myths and fables, and perhaps some legends thrown in there. I’m hoping to become at least a little articulate as to the question of the difference between each, though mostly I’m just interested in exploring a wide variety of stories that come out of these traditions.

Right now, if i had to put words to it, I might say:

Myths often involve gods and heroes try to account for natural phenomenon.

Folk tales are often less interested in gods and monsters, though such figures do find their way into folk tales. But for the most part, folk tales are stories about every day folks getting into every day trouble and sometimes getting out of it.

Fairy tales are stories with some serious magical intervention and often serve to moralize by either scaring the crap out of the reader (presumably kids?) or offering a belief in great recompense for good deeds. One scholar, whose name I’m forgetting,  believes that fairy tales do not necessarily come from the oral traditions that gave birth to myth and folk tales and should not be clumped in with either of the above. I do think that there is a lot of fairy related folklore in, for example, the Irish tradition. But typically they seem to be referred to as “folk tales” and “myths” even if they do involve fairies.

Fables also moralistic in tone but often more succinct, clearly pedantic and distinctly allegorical than fairy tales and tend to collaborate with talking animals.

Legends because so many stories we believe to be myth or wildly fabricated lore have some kind of truth lurking in them and the word legends, I believe, has the implication that there might be at least some truth in the unfolding. I’m pretty sure truth often goes hiding in legends and that often historical accounts turn to legend the way Adonis turns into a flower. (“The Curse of Akkad”, an essay by Elizabeth Kolbert, does a great job of addressing this topic and a few others, too. — Apparently there is also a book of the same name by a different author.)

I  titled this blog for an Oscar Wilde fairy tale called the Remarkable Rocket. Just read a book of his fairy tales “House of Pomegranites.” They were so beautiful, sad and sweet. There is a quality to the stories that makes me feel like they are being spoken aloud with no pains to keep them tidy and they take devious turns, unexpected, unexpectable, and leave room for so many more stories within. They are little, trembling, perfect tributes to the power of the story and while some of them take a seemingly traditional moral tone, I would argue that they are complex explorations of the power of beauty and  loneliness and odes to the ambiguity of honor.

I was especially taken by “The Fisherman and His Soul” in which a man chooses love over his soul, which may or may not show his tendency toward evil, and the soul goes on thrilling adventures continually tries to tempt the man to take him back by telling him the stories of these adventures.

Had a moment today during which I wondered what stories do not fall into the category of myth, folk, fairy and why. Fortunately that moment passed. But I am thinking a lot about the intersection of stories and cultural identity and cultural practices that revolve around story telling.

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