Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Happy New Year: 2009

The celebration of the passing year and the approaching of the “New Year” is a tradition found in nearly every culture all over the world. Today’s New Year’s Eve celebrations – which are marked by parties, the consumption of alcoholic beverages, kissing, the declaration of vows and resolutions, and noise making – are not at all that different from the celebrations held hundreds of years ago. The tradition of making as much noise as possible at the stroke of midnight, for example, has to do with the once widely held belief that such cacophonies would succeed in driving off malevolent spirits.

In addition to this, there are many other facets of New Year’s Eve celebrations which have mythical roots. One of these is the popular New Year’s Eve figure Father Time; traditionally depicted as an old man with a long white beard, an hour-glass or clock, and a scythe. Most mythographers believe that Father Time is based on the Greco-Roman character of Cronus (called Saturn by the Romans). Cronus was the ruthless leader of the Titans – a race of giants who ruled over the world before the advent of the Olympian gods – and who is most famously remembered for making a snack out of his own children.[1] As Saturn the Romans worshipped Cronus as a harvest deity, which explains the scythe. The Romans also held a popular end of year celebration is honor of Saturn known as Saturnalia which began on December 17th and lasted a week, being something of a cross between Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Eve.

Later on it appears that Cronus was confused or combined with another Greco-Roman god-like being known as Chronos; the personification of time and the source of such modern day words as chronology.

Another element to consider is that of New Year’s Day; January 1st. The month of January draws its name from the Roman god Janus who presided over gateways, beginnings, and endings. Janus is classically depicted in art as having two heads; one to look forward with and one to look backwards with, a gift from Saturn himself. Janus’ temple, which was located in the Roman Forum, was also unique in that it possessed two separate gateways; one to enter the temple and one to leave it. This was in opposition to the traditional temple model which only featured one gateway in and out.

There are very few myths about Janus, the most famous being the tale of how Janus got a wife. According to Ovid’s Metamorphosis there was once a nymph by the name of Carna whose days were spent teasing men with her sexual advances only to run away as quick as a flash whenever said men attempted to make a move. One day Carna made the mistake of teasing Janus, not knowing the god literally had eyes in the back of his head. When Janus attempted to make a move on Carna the nymph once again attempted to run away, only this time Janus saw where she went and quickly gave case and furthermore caught the saucy nymph forcing her to become his bride.[2] According to legend the King of Alba Long was their son.

Sources: The Penguin Dictionary of American Folklore (2001) by Alan Axelrod and Harry Oster, Don’t Know Much About Mythology (2005) by Kenneth C. Davis, The Ultimate Encyclopedia of Mythology (2001) by Arthur Cotterell & Rachel Storm, and the Metamorphosis by Ovid, translated by Charles Martin (2004).

______________________________________________________
[1] It could be speculated that the image of Cronus/Saturn devouring his own children so as to prevent them from overthrowing him is linked in some way to the modern day, sanitized image of Father Time and Baby New Year, though I haven’t done the research to prove this.
[2] As an additional perk Janus made Carna the goddess of doorhinges.

Friday, December 26, 2008

"The Vampire Days"

In his excellent book Slayers and Their Vampires: A Cultural History of Killing the Dead, Prof. Bruce A. McClelland has this to say about the curious relationship which exists between vampires and the Christmas holiday…

“In Bulgaria, the ‘twelve days of Christmas,” from Christmas Eve through Epiphany, or Jordan’s Day (January 6), are known as the ‘Unclean Days.’ Other names for this period are quite revealing: they include ‘Pagan Days,’ ‘Ember Days,’ ‘Unbaptized Days,’ and even ‘Vampire Days.’ This brief midwinter period represents a time when, it is believed, evil spirits are able to roam the earth…In South Slavic belief, people who die during this period invariably become vampires. Also, children who are born or conceived during this period have special powers and may themselves become vampires.” (Page 56-57)

Prof. McClelland goes on to add that due to this heightened activity amongst evil spirits and the undead that all Christian rites were to be put on hold until after January 6th since such ceremonies only seemed to succeed in provoking the ire of such monsters. These ceremonies included birthdays, weddings, baptisms, and even funerals - the body, McClelland says, would still be buried, but the service would have to wait. In addition to this, sex and other pleasures of the flesh were also forbidden by the church, which was probably a good idea since according to tradition one of the vampires many powers include the ability to render human couples (especially newly weds) impotent or sterile.

It may also be of some interest to know that in Bulgaria vampires are traditionally disposed of via bottling. A sorcerer will drive the vampire into a bottle using an icon of a saint. Once the vampire is in the bottle, the vessel will be tossed into a raging fire and destroyed.

Also according to some medieval European traditions children born on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day are also equally susceptible to becoming werewolves later on in life.

At Top: "Cute Gothic Bat Christmas Card" by the Order of St. Nick.

Sources:
Slayers and Their Vampires: A Cultural History of Killing the Dead (2006) by Bruce A. McClelland and Dracula: The Connoisseur’s Guide (1997) by Leonard Wolf.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

The Eve of the Wild Hunt

Tonight (December 24th) is Christmas Eve. All over the world parents are hurrying their children off to bed, telling them that they best get to sleep or else Santa Claus won’t come and deliver any toys.

This tradition, that one need be asleep before the arrival of Santa and his team of reindeer, goes back (like nearly all Christmas traditions) to the days of pre-Christian Europe when the reason for the season was not toys, candy and tidings of good will but the fear of the dark and what was lurking within it.

Long before Santa Claus and his reindeer, people living throughout Europe associated what we today call the Twelve Days of Christmas (Dec. 25th - Jan. 6th) with a celestial phenomena they called the Wild Hunt. As the name suggests the Wild Hunt was a great hunt held by a band of supernatural huntsmen who rode through the sky on flying horses (or goats or deer) in the company of fearsome hounds.

To hear the Wild Hunt was apparently a terrifying thing and men and women unfortunate enough to be out during the hunt would fling themselves to the ground or cover their faces when they heard it pass overhead. If one did not take such precautions the results could be dire including by not limited to misfortune, madness, and death. One also risked being “spirited away” by the huntsmen to whatever “otherworld” they hailed from. It is this belief that would later help to influence the idea that children needed to be in bed and asleep before Santa arrived.

While it was clear that one was best off avoiding the Wild Hunt at all costs, what was less clear was who led this great nocturnal event and why. In Scandinavia and Western Germany the leader was often identified as Odin (Wōden in German); King of the Teutonic gods. In Wales it is Gwyn ap Knudd, King of the Welsh Fairies, who leads the hunt. While in England, Scotland, and France the leader of the hunt was is either identified as being the legendary King Arthur himself or some other great national hero. The quarry of the hunt was equally mysterious but often proved to be some sort of mythical creature such wood-elves, trolls, or the nymph-like moss maidens.

With the advent of Christianity the Wild Hunt was demonized and became a hunt for damned souls and unbaptized babies. As for the hunt’s leader; cultural heroes were replaced with infamous villains while pagan gods were replaced by the devil or Death himself. As before it was still considered highly ill advised to look upon the Wild Hunt when it passed by and one rather morbid English folktale tells of how a imprudent onlooker returning from the market one night caught sight of the hunt and called out to the head Huntsman to inquire if he might share in that evening’s catch. In response the Huntsman tossed a small bundle down to the man and galloped off. When the man unwrapped the bundle he found his own dead infant son inside.

And if that doesn’t convince your children to go to bed I don’t know what will.

Merry Christmas!


At Top: Åsgårdsreien by Norwegian painter Peter Nicolai Arbo (1831-1892). Note: The leader of the hunt (adorned with a red cape, crown, and holding a traditional Norse war hammer) can be seen in the center of fray, while on the right hand side two hunters abduct up two beautiful, young, (and naked) women.

Sources: Spirits, Fairies, Leprechauns, and Goblins: An Encyclopedia ( 1996) by Carol Rose, Christmas Curiosities: Odd, Dark, and Forgotten Christmas (2008) by John Grossman, and Sagas of the Norsemen: Viking & German Myth (1997) by Jacqueline Simpson, et al.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Political Personalities Spice Up Nativity Scenes In Naples

According to NBC Chicago shortly after word got out concerning the popular political nativity scene figurines, Italian police stepped in and shut down the vendors who were selling them.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins

Hershel of Ostropol (also known as Hershele Ostropoler), is a prominent Jewish folk hero and trickster figure from Ukraine who is known for his humorous quips and daring adventures and is in many ways similar to the previously discussed English-American folk hero Jack. A vagabond who survived via his wits alone, Hershel played pranks on both the rich and poor, Jew and Gentile.

One of Hershel’s funnier bits tells of how he once attended a Passover feast at which he was given the dubious honor of sitting across from a self absorbed rich man who proceeded to amuse himself by making derogatory remarks about Hershel. However, despite his taunting Hershel remained unfazed. Frustrated the rich man addressed Hershel directly inquiring as to what separated a vagabond like Hershel from a lowly pig? A question to which Hershel quickly replied; “The table.”

Children’s book author Eric Kimmel has written two books featuring Hershel; The Adventures of Hershel of Ostropol and Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins, the latter of which is a Caldecott Medal winner. Seeing that the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah begins tonight (December 21st) it seemed appropriate to share the story of Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins which I first discovered at my public library as a small child. At the time I knew nothing about Hanukkah, but what I did know was that artist Trina Schart Hyman’s illustrations of the seven demonic “goblins” were some of the most frightening specters my young eyes had ever seen.

The story tells of Hershel of Ostropol arriving in a small Jewish village where no one celebrates Hanukkah. When Hershel inquires as to why, the villagers explain that the old synagogue on top of the hill is haunted by a band of goblins that hate Hanukkah and won’t allow any one to light the menorah, play with their dreidels or bake traditional potato latkes. The only way to free the village of the goblins is for a person to spend all eight nights of Hanukkah in the synagogue and keep the menorah lit. In addition to this on the eighth and final night of Hanukkah the King of the Goblins (i.e. the devil) must light the candles himself.

Hershel, of course, volunteers to spend Hanukkah in the synagogue and brave the goblins. The villagers decide to let Hershel try; though they are sure he will neither succeed nor survive. Armed with a menorah, a hard-boiled egg and a jar of pickles, Hershel makes his way to the synagogue.

On the first night Hershel lights the menorah, an imp like goblin appears to threaten him. However, using his wits, Hershel frightens the goblin off by threating to crush him with his bare hands. To show off how strong he is Hershel crushes the hard-boiled egg, telling the goblin it’s a stone. On the second night a slightly larger goblin appears. This time Hershel tricks the goblin into getting his hand stuck in a jar of pickles, humiliated the goblin leaves. On the third night an even bigger and uglier goblin appears, but Hershel challenges this goblin to a game of dreidel in which he manages to steal all the goblin’s gold. This pattern continues with each succeeding goblins being bigger and uglier and Hershel outwitting each and every one.

Finally on the eighth and last night the King of the Goblins himself arrives. When the king attempts to frighten Hershel (who is already frightened beyond all reason by the mere presence of the king) away Hershel tells the king that he is not scared because he can not see the king’s face in the low light of the synagogue and suggests the king light a candle. The King of the Goblins, wishing to show Hershel how truly terrifying he is, strikes a match and lights a nearby candle, but Hershel still complains that it is to dark. The king continues lighting candles until at last he has lit all nine candles atop the synagogue’s menorah, thus lifting the curse. Defeated by Hershel’s wit and bravery the king and his goblins leave the town allowing its denizens to once again partake in the celebration of Hanukkah.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus

The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus by beloved children’s book author L. Frank Baum is something of a forgotten classic of the yuletide season. Baum, best known for his timeless fantasy classic The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900), published The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus in 1902, in which he transforms the legend of St. Nicholas into a story of truly epic proportions.

Abandoned as a baby, the infant Santa is found in the mythical Forest of Burzee by the immortal Ak; Master Woodsman of the World. Ak places the infant in the care of the lioness Shiegra and later the wood nymph Necile. It is Necile who names the child Neclaus or Nicholas, a term meaning “Necile’s little one” in old Burzee.

As time passes Nicholas grows up amongst the fairies, elves and sprites who instruct him in all kinds of magic. Upon reaching young adulthood Ak informs Nicolas that he is growing too old to stay amongst the magical beings of Burzee and must go and live amongst mortals once again. Nicholas settles in the nearby Laughing Valley of Hohaho, where he is visited frequently by the elves and fairies of the forest. To keep him company Necile gives her foster son a little kitten named Blinky.

Upon returning to the mortal world Nicholas soon encounters the horrors of war, brutality, poverty, child neglect and abuse. Upset by the cruelty and hate around him Nicholas decides to try and find someway of bringing joy into the world. One day a boy, named Weekum, from the village near Nicholas’ house gets lost in a snowstorm and blacks out. Nicholas finds the boy and takes him back to his cottage to recuperate. When the boy wakes he finds Nicholas carving of wooden model of Blinky. Enraptured by the toy cat Weekum asks Nicholas if he can have it, to which Nicholas naturally says yes. It is then that Nicholas realizes that a simple way to bring joy to the world is to make and deliver toys.

With the help of the fairies and elves, Nicholas begins creating toys for all the boys and girls in the village, secretly traveling by night and placing them in their homes. However, Nicholas’ plan to spread cheer is soon threatened by a group of evil beings called Awgwas (essentially Baum’s version of Orcs) who steal Nicholas’ toys so they can make children sad.

Nicholas complains to Ak about the Awgwas and Ak attempts to settle things with their leader through talk, however negotiations break down and war is declared. The Awgwas assemble an army of goblins, giants, demons and dragons to fight Ak and his band of fairies, elves and sprites.

You can watch this scene below as imagined by stop-motion animation studio Raskin-Bass who adapted The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus into a one hour television film in 1985:


Though outmatched in size, the fairies’ magic proves strong enough to defeat the Awgwas and their army, making it safe once again for Nicholas to deliver his toys.

As time passes, and Nicholas grows older, there are more and more children that have heard of him and wish to receive toys from him. To accommodate the growing number of children and the longer distances he must now travel, Nicholas acquires a team of reindeer from the sprite of the deer Wil Knook. However, Wil Knook fears that Nicholas will wear out the reindeer with his constant trips back and forth every night and threatens to take the reindeer away. To keep this from happening Nicholas agrees that he will do his work all on one night and allows Wil Knook to pick the night. Wil Knook picks December 25th since it is at the end of year and gives the reindeer a chance to go a whole year without working.

The story ends with Nicholas approaching the end of his mortal life. Ak calls a conferences with all the immortals of the world at which he petitions for Nicholas to be bestowed the “Mantel of Immortality” as a reward for his life of selflessness. After much debate the immortals eventually agree that Nicholas is indeed worthy of this great gift and bestow immortality upon him, transforming him into Santa Claus.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Merry....Atheist?

The Order of St. Nick, an online greeting card company, recently unveiled a new line of seasonal prefabricated parcels just in time for the holidays. However, rather than dealing with the sundry traditions of Christmas, Hanukkah, and Kwanza, the Order of St. Nick has instead decided to embrace the season’s most neglected group of yuletide practitioners; atheists.



By “atheists” the Order of St. Nick appears to be specifically referring to people from the Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris vein of atheism, people whom I shall refer to as Darwinian Atheists for lack of a better term. Darwinian Atheists are individuals who argue that the Theory of Evolution as proposed by 19th-Century naturalist Sir Charles Darwin disproves the existence of God, by providing a completely natural explanation for the origins of life on Earth. In fact, seven out of the eight cards in the Order of St. Nick’s “Atheist Christmas Cards” collection either reference Sir Charles Darwin or the Theory of Evolution directly.

Though atheism in and of itself is actually a form of religious belief – many eastern religions like Buddhism and Taoism are atheistic in that the belief/worship of a deity is not a mandatory requirement of a devotee – Darwinian Evolutionists deny/refuse to allow their “beliefs” be categorized as such. In fact, Sam Harris in his book Letters to a Christian Nation (2006) even goes so far as to arrogantly declare that "atheism is not a philosophy, not a worldview…it is simply the way things are."


Nevertheless, while the jury may still be out on whether or not atheists of the Dawkins and Harris variety constitute a “religion” the introduction of atheist Christmas cards – such as the one above which depicts Darwin as Santa – in addition to such things as Darwin Fish magnets and the formation of an official Darwin Day holiday (2/12) only help to further the case for some scholars that, at the very least, Sir Charles Darwin is on the way to becoming a mythical, quasi-religious figure.

On a related note it is worth mentioning that the copy of A Dictionary of Creation Myths (1994) by acclaimed Prof. David Leeming of the University of Connecticut which sits upon my book self includes both “Darwin’s Theory of Evolution” and “The Big Bang Theory” amongst its extensive catalog of myth with the simple justification that "myths are considered truth by the cultures from which they first emerge - at least until they are 'exposed' as 'mere myth.'

Friday, December 5, 2008

Krampusumzüge on YouTube

Happy Krampus-Day Everyone!!!

As it would turn out YouTube has a ton of footage of the Krampus Day celebrations from overseas which help to give you a pretty good idea about what exactly Krapus Day and the Krampusumzüge or "Krampus Run" looks like.



Above; the Krampus getting into a wrestling match out on the street.



Above; Krampus with green eldritch fire.



Above; And you thought Santa only paled around with elves...



Above; Don't take your dog to a Krampusumzüge.

Thanks to burgy99 for uploading these videos, whoever you are....

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Krampus the Christmas Devil

With the exception of a lyric from the popular Christmas carol, “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” the devil is a mostly forgotten character when it comes to the holiday season here in the U.S. Children living in the States grow up knowing that if they are good Santa Claus will bring them toys and gifts. They are also occasionally told that if they are bad Santa will punish them by leaving them coal. But this is rare now a days as it is now considered improper to threaten children with such reprisals. The same is not true in mainland Europe however, where they have forgotten the coal in favor of a far more devilish threat.

In the Old World countries of Austria, Switzerland, Bavaria, Slovenia, western Croatia and Italy children learn that they truly must be “good for goodness sake” because if they are not they will be paid a visit not by St. Nick but by Krampus the Christmas Devil. Originating in 6th-Century Austrian folklore, Krampus is a demon covered in shaggy hair and donning curled horns with a long red tongue. A companion of Santa, Krampus roams the cold, dark nights of December carrying a large sack and sliding down chimneys seeking naughty children to stuff in his bag and beat with his switch.


How did a demon come to be a companion of old St. Nick? The legends are unclear, though as you will notice in many of the pictures and photos Krampus is typically depicted dressed in chains, a symbol that he is under St. Nicolas’ charge. According to one legend those chains are the same ones which once bound St. Peter, thus fueling them with enough divine power to bind the devil himself - or at least one incarnation of him anyway.



In Europe Krampus has become a certified Christmas celebrity, rivaling Santa himself. Every December 5th (the day proceeding the Catholic Church’s feast day in honor of St. Nicolas) children and adults of all ages all over Europe celebrate Krampus in a festival that is equal parts Christmas, Halloween and Mardi Gras. There is food and drink and vendors of all kind. People wait along the streets for the Krampusumzüge or “Krampus-Run”, the main event in which dozens of individuals dressed as Krampuses run through the streets threatening and menacing children as well as occasionally smacking a pretty young girl on the rear with their switches.

Unfortunately Krampus has had little success infiltrating the highly commercialized Christmas of the U.S. with San Francisco being the only city in America to have a (strictly adult oriented) Krampus Day celebration. Still Krampus has occasionally popped up in other places. He appeared in the season one Christmas episode of the popular Adult Swim animated series The Venture Bros. as well as in a G4 Christmas commercial.


So tomorrow don't forget to wish everyone you meet a Very Merry Krampus-mas!!!

Sources and Additional Information:

Spirits, Fairies, Leprechauns, and Goblins: An Encyclopedia (1996) by Carol Rose

Christmas Curiosities: Odd, Dark, and Forgotten Christmas (2008) by John Grossman

The Devil in Design: The Krampus Postcards (2004) by Monte Beauchamp

Santa's Not-So-Little Helper (2002) by Clay Risen

Krampus: The Sinister Sidekick of Santa (2008) by R.J. Evans

Krampus: A (Funny) Overview of the Character

San Francisco's Krampus Day Site

All Postcard and Photo Images from Monster Brains

Krampus, as seen on The Venture Bros., from The Mantis Eye Experiment

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Happy Thanksgiving!

Anya: “I love a ritual sacrifice.”

Buffy: “It’s not really... a one of those.”

Anya: “To commemorate a past event you kill and eat an animal. It’s a ritual sacrifice, with pie.”

- Anya, a demon, on Thanksgiving. “Pangs,” Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season 4.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Harpies in Myth and Film


Harpy, derived from the Greek word harpazein which means “to snatch.”

Harpies are terrifying monsters from Greco-Roman mythology who possess the torso (head and breasts) of a woman and the body (wings, legs and tail) of a bird, typically a vulture. Natives of the islands of Strophades (or Salmydessus) in eastern Thrace the Harpies feed upon human flesh.

The most famous myth to involve these femme fatales was that of King Phineus of Thrace who possessed the gift of prophecy. So great was Phineus’ gift that he was able to divine all the plans of the gods, a fact which greatly displeased the fickle Olympian deities. As punishment Zeus struck Phineus blind and placed him on the Harpies’ island. Zeus then laid out a great banquet for Phineus; however every time the blind prophet tried to take a piece of food the Harpies would swoop down and snatch it up.

Eventually the seafaring hero Jason, who had use of Phineus’ gift, came to the island and slew the Harpies. The most famous adaptation of this myth is undoubtedly the 1963 film Jason and the Argonauts directed by Don Chaffey and with special effects by Ray Harryhausen. While Jason is a brilliant film in every way, Harryhausen’s depiction of the Harpies leaves something to be desired in that they look more like archetypal bat-winged demons than bird women.

A much better example of a cinematic Harpy can be seen in the surreal 1979 Belgian short film Harpya which is itself an adaptation of the Phineus myth. Written and directed by Raoul Servais, it stars Will Spoor, Fran Waller Zeper and Sjoert Schwibethus. Harpya won the Palme d'Or for Best Short Film at the 1979 Cannes Film Festival.





Source: Giants, Monsters & Dragons: An Encyclopedia of Folklore, Legend, and Myth (2000) by Carol Rose.

Special Thanks: To Riki for showing me Harpya.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

God and Golden Cows on Wall Street

It’s not often that I get to do topical blog posts…


The picture up above was taken on Wall Street on October 29th, but it’s not exactly what you might think it is. Yes, the people in the picture are praying. Yes, they are standing in front of a seemingly giant golden bull. Yes, some of them are apparently laying hands on said bull. But are they praying to the bull? The answer, they say, is “No.”


The sculpture in question is the “Charging Bull” (a.k.a. the “Wall Street Bull” or the “Bowling Green Bull”), a 7,000 pound bronze (not gold) sculpture which sits in Bowling Green Park near Wall Street in New York City. The sculpture is symbolic of “aggressive financial optimism and prosperity” or "Bull Marketing," the economic trend currently in practice on Wall Street. The sculpture was created by artist Arturo Di Modica in 1989 as a “Christmas gift” for the city of New York following the 1987 stock market crash.

The event being witnessed in the photo at top was organized by self proclaimed Christian “prophet” and author Cindy Jacobs who claims that in January of 08’ “the Lord” spoke to her saying; “Cindy, the strongman over America doesn’t live in Washington, DC – the strongman lives in New York City! Call My people to pray for the economy.”


Moved by her most recent revelation Jacobs immediately set about writing a new book, The Reformation Manifesto (pub. 3/1/08), to sell to people. This, however, apparently wasn’t good enough for God who spoke to Jacobs again telling her to rally together a group of Christian believers and have them converge on Bowling Green Park on October 29th in order to pray for the economy and to stop “Satan” from causing another “Black Tuesday.”


The reason for Bowling Green Park, Jacobs says, was the “Charging Bull” statue. “We are going to intercede at the site of the statue of the bull on Wall Street to ask God to begin a shift from the bull and bear markets to what we feel will be the 'Lion’s Market,' or God’s control over the economic systems,” stated Jacobs, “While we do not have the full revelation of all this will entail, we do know that without [divine] intercession, economies will crumble.”

On October 29th, Jacobs got her rally with a turn out of what looks like a few dozen people – I was unable to find any concrete numbers, but this is what I’m guessing based on photos and one video. The group prayed, sang ‘God Bless America,’ waved around American flags, and prayed some more.

Naturally, as soon as photos and YouTube footage got out people immediately misinterpreted what they were seeing. The vast majority of viewers took the sight of a few dozen Christians praying and worshiping in front of a statue of a bull as a sign of mass idolatry in progress. Blog and news articles with titles like “Christians are full of bull – on Wall Street,” “Where’s Charlton Heston when you need him?,” and “Jesus People Pray That False Idol Will Save God’s Economy” jumped on Jacobs’ rally and invoked imagery from Exodus 32 (as well as Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 film The Ten Commandments) in order to brand Jacobs and her group as heretics.

For those who may have forgotten Exodus 32 tells of how Moses’ brother Aaron cast a statue of a golden calf and set it up in opposition to the Hebrew god Yahweh. When Moses discovered this he smashed the original copy of the infamous Ten Commandments on the ground causing an earthquake which swallowed the idol and its misled devotees.

Now on the one hand, its nice to see that the Book of Exodus and its legend of Moses and the golden calf has not lost its place in the public consciousness after all these years. On the other hand, it’s a bit disturbing to see so many people use this kind of religious myth to attack someone based solely on misperception. As for Jacobs and her rally it is interesting to see how times of crisis drive people to religious and mythological solutions for problems which seemingly have no direct worldly answer, reminding one of the comfort as well as the distress which can be gleamed from both myth and faith.




Photos:

At Top: The "Day of Prayer for the World’s Economies" on Wednesday, October 29, 2008.

Middle: The "Charging Bull" as seen in Bowling Green Park, NY.

Bottom: Cindy Jacobs, Christian "prophet", takes the bull by the horn.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Jack of the Lantern


“To a new world of gods and monsters!”
- Dr. Pretorius in The Bride of Frankenstein (1935)

Happy Halloween everyone!…ok so it’s not actually Halloween yet but the day is fast approaching as we all well know. It may come as no surprise to some of you to learn that my absolute favorite holiday is that of Halloween, what with all the myth and legend that surrounds the date.

One of the things about Halloween that sets it apart from most other holidays, however, is that it has no largely recognizable mascot. Christmas has Santa Claus, Easter the Easter Bunny, Valentine’s Day Cupid, etc…even Thanksgiving (which isn’t even a religious observance here in America) has turkeys and pilgrims to represent it. Halloween however has no one. Most stores that I go into to look for Halloween-themed goods (which I then keep out all year long) usually represent the holiday with a motley assortment of witches, ghosts, vampires and monsters. And while all of these characters are certainly important reasons for the season (especially ghosts) none of them really seem like the holiday’s actual mascot.

But then there is the Jack-O'-Lantern. The carving of Jack-O'-Lanterns is a time honored tradition and one of the most easily recognizable pieces of iconography associated with Halloween. The tradition of Jack-O'-Lantern dates back hundreds of years to Ireland where Halloween first originated in the form of the Celtic festival of Samhain (pronounced sow-in). Originally Jack-O'-Lanterns were carved out of turnips, it wasn’t until Irish immigrants came to America and discovered the pumpkin that anyone realized that a giant gourd would definitely be a whole lot easier to carve than a tiny turnip

Like all icons the Jack-O'-Lantern has a story behind it explaining its origins and where it comes from. In this case, the story of the Jack-O'-Lantern is related directly to the Irish folktale of Jack of the Lantern; a less than likeable fellow who was forsaken by both God and the devil. There are many versions of the tale of Jack of the Lantern (which will be discussed later) but the one that follows is my personal favorite…

The Tale of Jack of the Lantern as retold by Justin M...

There once lived an unsavory Irish-man by the name of Jack. Now Jack was never much good when it came to actual work, but when it came to drinking or gambling or dancing with pretty girls well then… Jack was your man. One night, after having quite a bit to drink, Jack found himself wandering home through an old apple orchard and it was there, in that orchard, that Jack found himself face to face with none other than the devil himself.

Of course, everyone knows the devil is a real sucker for an apple so when he asked Jack if he wouldn’t mind giving him a leg up into one of the apple trees so that he could pick a few fresh ones for himself Jack was not at all surprised. Now Jack may have been a gambler and a drunker but he was certainly no fool, as soon as he got the devil up into that tree he whipped out his pocketknife and carved a cross into the trunk of that tree, trapping the devil.


The devil pleaded with Jack to show him some sympathy and to let him down but Jack would hear nothing about it until the devil struck a deal with him. Jack wanted the devil’s word that when he died he would never have to send so much as one day in hell. Finally, the devil agreed to Jack’s terms and promised that under no circumstances would Jack ever have spend so much as one day in hell. With that Jack took his pocketknife and scrapped the cross off the tree trunk and let the devil go.

Well it wasn’t long until Jack’s wild ways caught up with him and he died. Upon dieing Jack found himself in the presence of St. Peter at the pearly gates of heaven. There Jack promptly requested to be let in but St. Peter refused saying that heaven did not admit drinkers and gamblers and especially those who made deals with the devil. Jack protested but no matter what he said St. Peter stood firm on the issue.

Finally Jack grew tiered of arguing and decided if he wasn’t going to be let into heaven than he would have to take his place in hell. So Jack trotted down to the fiery gates of hell and again requested to be let in. However, the devil appeared and told Jack that he was not going to let Jack into hell, a deal was a deal and the devil was a man of his word. Jack lamented his fate and asked the devil what it is he should do if was not to be allowed into either heaven or hell. The devil, is response, just laughed and told Jack that all that was left for him to do was to wander the earth as a restless spirit. The devil then picked up a piece of burning brimstone and tossed it to Jack telling him to put it in a hollowed out turnip and use it as a lantern to light his way in his long and endless wanderings across the earth, and that is exactly what Jack did and is still doing to this very day.

…as noted earlier the tale of Jack of the Lantern is one with many variations. In some versions of the story, for example, Jack doesn’t meet the devil until after he has drunk himself to death and it is on their way back to hell that the devil stops for an apple and is tricked by Jack. Another notable version of the tale features the devil appearing in a bar and making a bet with Jack that he can transform himself into any object Jack can think of. Jack tells the devil to turn into a coin, which the devil does, which Jack then picks up and places in his pocket along side a cross trapping the devil in Jack’s pocket. There is also a version of the tale which forgoes the turnip lantern aspect for a more wholly gruesome approach in which the devil tosses the burning brimstone straight into Jack’s mouth transforming his head into a living lantern.

Nevertheless, all these stories ultimately serve the same purpose, to explain where the name and idea of the Jack-O'-Lantern come from. There are those theorists who also suppose that the tale of Jack and his lantern helped people to explain swamp gas which can ignite and create strange lights which are commonly known in folklore and mythology as will-o'-the-wisps. There general reason behind the making and lighting of Jack-O'-Lantern is the belief that their presence will deter evil spirits who will associate it with Jack who once imprisoned their master the devil.

I say all this to make the case that perhaps Jack of the Lantern is really the mascot of Halloween, albeit a highly unfamiliar one. Perhaps if more people could become familiar with his legend this fabulous character from Irish folklore would have something of a fighting chance against such widely recognized figures as Santa and the Eastern Bunny

Images…

Top Right: Traditional Jack-O'-Lantern carved from pumpkin.

Middle Left: The devil trapped in a tree curtsey of www.jack-o-lantern.com.

Bottom Right: Jack-O'-Lantern carved from a turnip.

Sources: The Field Guide to North American Monsters (1998) by W. Haden Blackman & http://www.jack-o-lantern.com/.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

You Don’t Know Jack!

…Well actually, you probably do seeing how Jack is arguably the most well know character in all of western folklore. The character of Jack (he has no definite last name) has appeared in nursery rhymes, folk and fairytales, legends, plays and literature going back as far as 1414. Geographically speaking, folklorists and mythographers find the greatest concentration of Jack tales to be in England and then the American Appalachian mountains where they were imported by immigrants from the British Isles.

The Larousse Dictionary of World Folklore (1995) characterizes Jack as a "hero [who] is generally unpromising at the start of the tale, young, poor or foolish, but through a combination of luck and craftiness… triumphs against the odds.” The “odds” in question here typically take the form of supernatural threats such as witches or demons, though Jack’s most common and persistent adversaries are giants and it is these tales which will be the focus of this entry.

One reason for this narrow look at the world of “Jack Tales” is simply focus and space constraints. Attempting to discuss every “Jack Tale” ever told is simply out of the question – there are just far too many of them. Another thing that will not be discussed here are several Jack related characters that are, for our purposes, far too complex to be summarized here and now. These characters include: Jack of the Lantern, Jack Frost, Jack in the Green, and Spring Heeled Jack. All of whom will be discussed at a later date, I promise…

The most famous "Jack" Tale is undoubtedly that of “Jack and the Beanstalk.” To sum up the story – which hopefully everyone reading this blog already knows – Jack is a poor farm boy who lives with his mother in the countryside. One day Jack’s mother tells her son to go into town and sell the farm’s only cow for money. Jack does as he is told and takes the cow to town; however when Jack returns later that same day he has not money but five magic beans which he obtained from a mysterious man in exchange for the cow. Jack's mother is furious with him and in a fit of rage throws the beans out the window and sends her son to bed.

That night a massive beanstalk sprouts from the ground and grows all the way up into the sky. Jack, upon awakening, discovers the beanstalk and decides to climb it. At the top of the beanstalk Jack discovers a castle which is home to a man-eating giant and his wife. Jack befriends the giantess who helps to hide him from her flesh-eating husband. Later Jack discovers that the giant is also the owner of several bags of gold as well as a magical hen who lays golden eggs and a golden harp. Jack decides to “steal” these three treasures and make his way back down the beanstalk. However, the harp calls out for help from the giant who discovers Jack and pursues him. Jack being smaller and faster manages to outmaneuver the giant. Reaching the bottom first Jack takes an ax and chop the beanstalk down causing the giant to fall to his death.



According to folklorists Peter and Iona Opie, the oldest known written version of this tale is an English reprint of a text called Round About our Coal-Fire: or Christmas Entertainments (1730) which features a tale entitled "Enchantment demonstrated in the Story of Jack Spriggins and the Enchanted Bean." This version of the tale is intended to be light hearted and comedic, severing simply as entertainment.

It would be seventy-years later before the more serious, more familiar version of the tale of “Jack and the Beanstalk” would be written down, this time by London author Benjamin Tabart under the impressive title of The History of Jack and the Bean-Stalk, Printed from the Original Manuscript, Never Before Published (1807). Tabart’s version of the tale was lost for many years after its original publication until anthropologist Andrew Lang recovered it and republished it in his Red Fairy Book in 1890. That same year folklorist Joseph Jacobs published a different version of the story in his book English Fairy Tales.

It is important to note that while the Tabart/Lang and Jacobs’ versions of the tale are similar, if not identical, in many ways they do differ in one major area – justification. In Jacobs’ version of the tale Jack is simply a cunning trickster with no direct justification for his thieving actions other than the fact that he and his mother are poor and the giant is apparently less than human which makes the theft of his goods and later murder alright. In contrast to this is Tabart's version which justifies Jack’s actions by explaining that the castle and its good once belonged to Jack’s father who was murdered by the giant.

Of course the most striking aspect of the tale of “Jack and the Beanstalk” is undoubtedly the beanstalk itself. The idea of ascending to the heavens via some sort of tower (either man-made or natural) is as old as mankind. Mythographers refer to these devices as axis mundi and they are found across cultures. One terrific example, which may have even served as the basis for Jack’s beanstalk, is that of the Norse-Germanic ash tree Yggdrasil which spanned the cosmos and connected the three realms of Ásgard (Heaven), Midgard (Earth), and Niflheim (Hell). Maria Tatar, Harvard’s Chair of Mythology and Folklore, notes that the idea of massive tree-like beanstalk “has a certain whimsical inventiveness, for beanstalks are notoriously unstable and usually require staking to remain propped up.”


Having looked at Jack’s beanstalks exploits we now move on to Jack’s adventures as a professional giant killer. These stories, which may date back as far as 1557, are often known as “Jack the Giant Killer” tales. There are literally hundreds of variations of said tales though the most famous narrative involves Jack’s struggle against five giants and links Jack with none other than King Arthur himself.

According to the story Jack is young man from Cornwall who manages to thwart a cattle raiding giant named Cormoran by catching him in a pit trap and then killing him. For this feat Jack becomes famous and receives a belt engraved with the words: “This is the valiant Cornish man, who killed the giant Cormoran.” The second giant Jack encounters is named Blunderbore and like the one living at the top of the beanstalk has a taste for human flesh. Blunderbore manages to catch Jack while sleeping and abducts the hero taking him back to his lair to devour. Once at the giant’s lair Jack awakens and quickly assesses his situation. Fortunately the giant has stepped out in order to fetch his brother who he wishes to have dinner with. Jack manages to find some strong cord from which he makes a set of nooses which he then loops over the rafters. When Blunderbore and his brother return Jack throws the nooses around the giant’s necks. The two giants immediately begin to pull at the nooses in an attempt to break free and instead only end up strangling each other instead.

Jack’s third encounter is with a two-headed Welsh giant who invites Jack to spend the night at his castle but then tries to kill him in the middle of the night with a club. Jack survives the night thanks to some trickery and in the morning uses some more in order to get back at the brute by challenging him to a pudding eating contest. In order to compete with the giant Jack stuffs a leather sack under his shirt and then sits down to the meal. While the giant is really stuffing his stomach, Jack is merely filling the leather sack with pudding. Soon it appears that Jack has eaten just as much as the giant, much to the monster's humiliation. Wanting to know how Jack is able to consume so much pudding the giant asks him at which point Jack tells him that he has magic powers which he demonstrates by stabbing himself in his fake stomach with a knife and then suffering no ill effects. The giant not wishing to be outdone (and being quite stupid) also stabs himself in the stomach and promptly drops dead.

The fourth giant Jack encounters has three heads and thus is able to see in all directions. In order to defeat it Jack dons a coat of invisibility, which he received in the castle of the third giant, and attacks the three-headed giant unseen. Jack’s final encounter is with the savage giant Galligantus who is allied with the evil sorcerer Hocus-Pocus. Again Jack uses his cloak of invisibility to sneak inside the giant and magician’s castle where he discovers a magic trumpet with the inscription “Whoever can this trumpet blow, will cause the giant’s overthrow.” Jack picks up the trumpet and blows it causing the castle to fall down. Jack then cuts off Galligantus’ feet causing him to fall to the ground allowing Jack to reach his head which he then cuts off and sends to King Arthur who rewards Jack with his daughter’s hand in marriage.

Over the years the tales of Jacks exploits have delighted readers and listeners both young and old. There are numerous children’s books which retale the tales of Jack as well as some outstanding anthologies of the original folktales for older readers. In 1962, United Artists made Jack the Giant Killer into a feature film. The story revolves around Jack (Kerwin Mathews) in his quest to rescue young Princess Elaine (Judi Meredith) from the evil sorcerer Pendragon (Torin Thatcher). Along the way Jack not only fights giants but also sword wielding skeletons and a frightening band of witches. At the film’s climax Pendragon transforms himself into a dragon and Jack battles him as well. Joining Jack on his quest is an old Viking named Sigurd (Barry Kelley) – perhaps the same Sigurd of Germanic mythology? – and a wise-cracking leprechaun imprisoned in a bottle named Diaboltin (Don Beddoe) who steals every sceen he’s in. The film stays true to the spirit of a fairy-tale and contains many throwaway references to other classic pieces of fairy-tale lore such as seven-league-boots which aren’t talk about enough in my opinion. Unfortunately the giants, dragon and other monsters (including a giant googly-eyed dinosaur-octopus thing) are all brought to life via some very sub-par stop motion animation. The work of Ray Harryhausen this is not. Never the less the film is still highly entertaining and sources tell me can currently be purchased at most Big Lots stores for three dollars!

Images: All art by Arthur Rackham (1867-1939), Jack the Giant Killer movie poster by United Artists.


Sources: The Annotated Classic Fairy Tales by Maria Tatar (2002), Larousse Dictionary of World Folklore by Alison Jones (1996), Southern Jack Tales by Donald Davis (1993), The Red Fairy Book by Andrew Lang (1966) & SurLaLune's Annotated Fairy Tales.com.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Granddaughter of the Monkey King

Ever since its composure in the 16th-Century, the timeless Chinese epic Journey to the West has been a source of creative inspiration for writers, artists and filmmakers throughout Asia. There have been books, plays, comics, manga, anime, movies, TV shows and video games all based off the story of Sun Wukong and his fabled traveling companions.

One of these games was the 1984 Capcom arcade game Sonson. Loosely based on the actual legend, Sonson allowed players to play as the Monkey King or Songoku as he is called in Japan. Along with Sanjo Hoshi (Tripitaka), Hatskai (Pigsy) and Sagojyo (Sandy), players had to do battle with a never ending onslaught of pixilated monsters, demons, and gods drawn from both Chinese and Japanese mythology. Naturally, the game proved a big success and a sequel, Sonson II, was made. However, this was the last game in the Sonson series…sort of.

As it would turn out, in the world of Capcom some characters never truly go away. In 2000 Capcom released the highly anticipated Marvel vs. Capcom II, the second game in what is undoubtedly one of Capcom’s most successful series. Marvel vs. Capcom pits characters from the Marvel Comics Universe (Spider-Man, Iron-Man, X-Men) against characters from the Capcom Universe. In Marvel vs. Capcom II one of these characters is Sonson; the granddaughter of Songoku! Essentially a female version of her granddaddy Sonson is on a mission to discover the source of a mysterious plague that struck her native village. Sonson has many of the same powers as Songoku including his magical size-changing Bo staff and the ability to create clones via strands of hairs. However, some abilities are truly special such as one attack in which Sonson tries to cook her opponent in the Shinka Hakke Jin and turn them into sake.

Of course, nothing in the original Journey to the West myth ever suggests that Sun Wukong ever sired any offspring, much less had a granddaughter. However, it’s still nice to think that if the Great Sage Equal to Heaven had, that she might be something like Capcom’s Sonson.

Top Left: Sonson from Marvel vs. Capcom II.

Monday, September 1, 2008

From Chernobog to Chernobyl

In 1986, the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine suffered a fatal meltdown which resulted in the deaths of 56 people. Over 600,000 people were exposed to high doses of radiation as a result of the meltdown; 4,000 of whom would later be diagnosed with some form of cancer. In addition to this, the disaster poisoned the city’s atmosphere with radioactivity resulting in the entire city being declared uninhabitable to this day. The Chernobyl Disaster, as the incident has come to be called, remains the worst nuclear power plant accident in history.

There are those who believe that part of the reason this terrible accident befell the city of Chernobyl is the because of the city’s name. In Russian the name Chernobyl literally translates as “Black Grass” and is semantically linked with the name Chernobog; the Slavic god of death, darkness, and destruction.

The fascinating world of Slavic mythology (which encompasses the mythological beliefs held by the people inhabiting the areas of Europe located between Poland, Siberia and Macedonia) is an area of the mythological map about which much is speculated and little is actually known. As it stands, mythographers still know more about Slavic folklore – with its infamous witches, vampires, werewolves and immortal warriors – than they do about the ancient Slaves’ gods and goddesses.

The reason for this has to do with the fact that the Slavic people did not start keeping written records of their mythological and religious beliefs and practices till after the 9th-Century, by which time Christianity had already infiltrated the culture and gained many converts thus tainting the pre-established systems of belief.

One of these post-Christian records is the Chronicle of the Slavs (c. 1170), composed by Saxon historian Helmold of Bosau (ca. 1120–1177). According to Helmold, the Slavic people had, in times past, worshiped a very peculiar deity who embodied both life and death, creation and destruction, heaven and earth, light and darkness and would shift between one personality and the other depending on the time of the year.

During the months of spring and summer this god was known as Belobog (lit. “White God”); a benevolent, white cloaked figure who carried a staff. However, when the seasons changed to fall and winter Belobog would also change into Chernobog (lit. “Black God”), a demonic figure shrouded in darkness. However, as soon as winter ended and spring returned so would Belobog. This cycle naturally repeated itself every year and those worshippers who prayed and scarified to this god – Helmold says that Belobog/Chernobog’s cult was particularly strong amongst the Baltic Slaves – would alter their services depending on the time of year.

Outside of this, little else in known about this most intriguing of deities. Mythographers seeking to learn more about the Belobog/Chernobog cult have often come up stumped and some have even postulated that the entire thing maybe a farce dreamed up by Helmold. Nevertheless, some intriguing clues remain. One is a Slavic idol depicting a two-headed deity with a single body, possibly a depiction of Belobog/Chernobog. There is also the Slavic folk hero Belun, a Gandalf the White-type character who appears during the daylight hours during spring and summer and helps farmers tend to their crops. Belun will also help travelers lost in the dark Slavic forests by leading them back to the light of day. Is Belun a thinly veiled variation of Belobog?

Then there is matter of the 10th-Century Primary Chronicles, a Russian text which records the rooting out of heretical beliefs amongst Slavic Christians. The most prominent of these heresies was a type of dualism which taught that there were two gods; an unnamed god of light and a god of darkness called Tsar Santanail. The two gods made the world together but parted ways when creative differences arose in regard to the creation of humankind. The unnamed god of light wanted humans to be purely spiritual beings but Tsar Santanail wanted to make men and women out of dirt, thus confining them to the mortal realm. This disagreement eventually lead to a celestial battle which lasted seventy-seven days. In the end, the two gods decided to compromise. Man was made of dirt but also was endowed with a soul which would be free to ascend to the spiritual realm after death. The two gods also divided the world into two halves, night (which would serve as Tsar Santanail’s realm) and day (which would serve as the god of lights’ realm).

The Christian influence in this myth should be very clear; the war in heaven and man being made out of dirt are both elements of the Christian creation story. Also the name Santanail seems too close to the Christian Satan to be mere coincidence. However, there are other elements which are clearly drawn from Slavic paganism (seventy-seven is a sacred number in Slavic mythology) and may even suggest a sort of reinvention of the Belobog/Chernobog cult. Tsar Santanails’ fondness of dirt and darkness after all certainly seems similar to Chernobog’s own love of all things earthbound and murky.

Nevertheless, lack of evidence has not stopped the myth of Belobog/Chernobog from gaining a foot-hold in the popular imagination both abroad and at home in the Slavic nations of Europe. In the wake of the Chernobyl disaster speculation arose that not only establish a link between the names Chernobyl and Chernobog but also attempted to link the disaster to the biblical Book of Revelation and its prophesies foretelling the coming of the demon Wormwood who will fall from heaven, “burning as if it were a lamp” and poison the waters where it lands (Rev.8:10-11).

On a less ominous note, Chernobog also served as the inspiration for Russian composer Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky (1839-1881) classic piece “A Night on Bald Mountain” (1860). Walt Disney Pictures later featured “A Night on Bald Mountain” in their acclaimed animated film Fantasia (1940) which combined classical music with modern animation. The “Night on Bald Mountain” sequence is particularly notable as it is often considered the most frightening segment of the film with its demonic, gargoyle-like Chernobog conducting an infernal orchestra of demons, witches, ghosts and harpies who fly and cackle through the night.

Chernobog’s most recent appearance in popular culture, however, is as a main character in British fantasy author Neil Gaiman’s 2001 best-selling novel American Gods where is he depicted as a cantankerous old man desperately seeking his next ritual sacrifice. And just incase you were wondering Belobog shows up too.

Below: Chernobog in “A Night on Bald Mountain,” Fantasia (1940).



Sources: Forests of the Vampire: Slavic Myth, by Charles Phillip and Michael Kerrigan (1999) and Illustrated Dictionary of Mythology, by Philip Wilkinson (2006).

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

"Instructions" by Neil Gaiman

A poem by beloved fantasy author Neil Gaiman, on what one should do if one ever happens to find themselves in a Fairy-Tale...


Touch the wooden gate in the wall you never
saw before.
Say "please" before you open the latch,
go through,
walk down the path.
A red metal imp hangs from the green-painted
front door,
as a knocker,
do not touch it; it will bite your fingers.
Walk through the house. Take nothing. Eat
nothing.
However, if any creature tells you that it hungers,
feed it.
If it tells you that it is dirty,
clean it.
If it cries to you that it hurts,
if you can,
ease its pain.

From the back garden you will be able to see the
wild wood.
The deep well you walk past leads to Winter's
realm;
there is another land at the bottom of it.
If you turn around here,
you can walk back, safely;
you will lose no face. I will think no less of you.

Once through the garden you will be in the
wood.
The trees are old. Eyes peer from the under-
growth.
Beneath a twisted oak sits an old woman. She
may ask for something;
give it to her. She
will point the way to the castle.
Inside it are three princesses.
Do not trust the youngest. Walk on.
In the clearing beyond the castle the twelve
months sit about a fire,
warming their feet, exchanging tales.
They may do favors for you, if you are polite.
You may pick strawberries in December's frost.

Trust the wolves, but do not tell them where
you are going.
The river can be crossed by the ferry. The ferry-
man will take you.
(The answer to his question is this:
If he hands the oar to his passenger, he will be free to
leave the boat.
Only tell him this from a safe distance.)

If an eagle gives you a feather, keep it safe.
Remember: that giants sleep too soundly; that
witches are often betrayed by their appetites;
dragons have one soft spot, somewhere, always;
hearts can be well-hidden,
and you betray them with your tongue.
Do not be jealous of your sister.
Know that diamonds and roses
are as uncomfortable when they tumble from
one's lips as toads and frogs:
colder, too, and sharper, and they cut.

Remember your name.
Do not lose hope — what you seek will be found.
Trust ghosts. Trust those that you have helped
to help you in their turn.
Trust dreams.
Trust your heart, and trust your story.

When you come back, return the way you came.
Favors will be returned, debts will be repaid.
Do not forget your manners.
Do not look back.
Ride the wise eagle (you shall not fall).
Ride the silver fish (you will not drown).
Ride the grey wolf (hold tightly to his fur).

There is a worm at the heart of the tower; that is
why it will not stand.

When you reach the little house, the place your
journey started,
you will recognize it, although it will seem
much smaller than you remember.
Walk up the path, and through the garden gate
you never saw before but once.
And then go home. Or make a home.
And rest.

Above: Red Riding Hood by artist Jessie Wilcox-Smith (1863-1935).

Sources: Fragile Things: Short Fictions and Wonders (2006), by Neil Gaiman. All Rights Reserved.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Teeth (2007)

Dawn O’Keefe was just your regular everyday teenage girl, until the day her boyfriend tried to rape her. It was on that day that Dawn learned that she, unlike other girls, was in possession of an extra little anatomical feature: a fanged vagina.

Teeth (2007) is a dark-comedy/horror movie directed by Mitchell Lichtenstein and staring Jess Weixler as the pictures’ heroin Dawn O’Keefe. Teeth originally premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January of 07’ and later hit theaters in New York and L.A. that same month. It eventually reached North Carolina in late April/early May where it played the art houses for roughly two weeks.

Now I fully understand that for most people – most men in particular – Teeth does not sound like a film that anyone would ever want to go see. But trust me, it’s worth it. Not only is Teeth a good movie but it also funny and strangely touching in addition to being downright scary. The picture received largely positive reviews from critics (80% on Rotten Tomatoes) and when I told my friends, both male and female, to go see it all of them really liked it.

Now why did I go see Teeth? Well the reason is simple; as the film itself points out time and time again the motif of “the toothed vagina” is one that can be found in myths, legends, folktales and even religious lore all over the world. The technical term for these mythological femme fatales is the Latin phrase vagina dentata and frankly they are rather fascinating. World mythology is, after all, filled with all kinds of “bad girls.” There’s Eve and Lilith, Delilah and Jezebel, Circe and Medea, Morgan le Fay and Queen Mab, the Baba Yaga and the Wicked Witch of the West. There’s even the Poncan’s Deer Woman whom I just previously wrote about. But none of these girls can even hold a candle to how scary the vagina dentata is.

If you don’t believe me, consider this: variations on the vagina dentata myth can be found all over the world. In India, the vagina dentata are the daughters of the Rakshasas (demons who oppose the gods) while in South America the vagina dentata takes the form of a primeval mother-goddess who embodies the waters of chaos and whose vagina is home to a man-eating fish. Similarly, the Maori of Polynesia tell of Hinenuitepo; the goddess of death and darkness whose vagina is equipped with fangs. Even into the 16th-Century legend circulated the Queen Elizabeth I of England was a vagina dentata and had castrated Thomas Seymour, thus earning her the moniker of the “Virgin Queen.”

The most famous myth to concern the vagina dentata, however, comes from the Apache Indians of North America. According to the Apache, in the beginning no women were equipped with vaginas at all. The first women to actually have vaginas were the four daughters of an evil ogre called Kicking-Monster. Each of Kicking-Monsters four daughters looked like normal human females except for the fact that their vaginas were equip with razor sharp teeth and that after sex they had the preying mantis-like-habit of devouring their male suitors - via their fanged vaginas.

Now, in order to end these vagina dentatas sexual reign of terror the champion of the Apache people, a young brave known as Killer-of-Enemies whose father was none other than the Sun God, set out to stop them. When Killer-of-Enemies arrived at Kicking Monster’s lair he went inside were the four sisters who immediately tried to seduce him. However, Killer-of-Enemies was smarter than the men who had gone before him and first asked the sisters what had become of all the other men who had had sex with them. The sisters, being honest monsters, told the truth: “We ate them up, because we like to do that,” they said. Upon hearing this Killer-of-Enemies, now very much alarmed, cried out saying: “Keep away! That is no way to use the vagina!"

Killer-of-Enemies then set to work making a special sour jam out of four different kinds of berries. When he was done with the jam, he fed it to the four sisters who were then each instantly overcome with an orgasm so powerful that all the teeth in their vaginas feel out and it was in this way that Killer-of-Enemies domesticated the vagina, making it safe for use by men everywhere.

Of course, Killer-of-Enemies’ triumph over the frightful specter of the vagina dentata is typically the way all of the above stories end; the one exception being the Maori myth in which the hero falls victim to the dread goddess. The reason for this, as well as the reason these myths exist in the first place, is undoubtedly to provide a way for the male leaders of a society to justify the ruling patriarchal government, a means of maintaining the status quo. Which is another reason why Teeth is such a fascinating picture. It takes what was original a burden upon women, a means of keeping them down, and uses it to create an empowering and likeable heroin.

Lastly, I feel that it probably necessary to point out that myth of the vagina dentata is not always just a myth. As it turns out there is a rare medical condition known as a dermoid cyst which can cause hard deposits of calcium to grow out of the tissue inside the vagina. You can read about it here and here.

Teeth is now available on DVD from Dimension Extreme.

Sources: The Woman’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets (1983), by Barbara G. Walker, Primitive Mythology (1991), by Joseph Campbell, The World of Myth (1992), Goddess: Myths of the Female Devine (2001), and Myth, Legends and Folktales of America (2003), by David Adams Leeming

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Deer Woman (2005)

A few weeks ago I found myself with some free time, a laptop and a Netflix account that was being seriously underused. While browsing through Netflix’s large selections of movies that can be watched on one’s computer, I soon discovered that nearly every episode of Showtimes’ Masters of Horror series was available on-line. I had missed the Masters of Horror series when it had originally debuted back in 2005 and was anxious to watch some of the episodes which had been directed by some of my favorite cinematic storytellers. Among these directors was John Landis who is best know for his films An American Werewolf in London (1981) and The Blues Brothers (1980); both of which are favorites of mine. Landis’ entry in the Masters of Horror series was called Deer Woman, a title which immediately caught my interest.

You see the Deer Woman is actually a little known monster from Native American mythology. A legend amongst the Poncan Indians of Nebraska; the Deer Woman is a seductive killer who appears as a beautiful woman with long, black hair and deep, dark eyes. She wears a long, white buckskin dress which conceals her torso, legs, and feet all of which are those of a deer. The Deer Woman will come out of the woods during festivals in order to seduce men who she will then lure away from the group and trample to death with her hoofed feet.

Now in case you’re afraid that I just ruined the whole movie for you by giving away the monster, don’t worry. Much like Landis’ An American Werewolf in London, the director makes no attempt to hide what this film is about and is overt about the whole thing from the get go. All of which is a good thing, because when you really think about it, being up front is really the only way to deal with a premises this ridiculous.

The plot of Deer Woman revolves around Detective Dwight Faraday (Brian Benben) a disgraced homicide detective who spends most of his time behind a desk handling “animal attack” cases. One morning, Faraday is asked to go out to the scene of a possible murder and look over things until another more qualified detective can be sent out.

Faraday is joined by Officer Jacob Reed (Anthony Griffith) and both men drive out to a truck stop where they find the pummeled remains of a trucker who appears to have been trampled by a deer. Faraday is intrigued by the bizarre nature of the murder and begins to question witnesses who say that the victim was last seen with a beautiful Native-American girl. However, no sooner does Faraday begin to get somewhere than does rival Detective Patterson (Alex Zahara) show up and force Faraday off the scene. Faraday then returns to his desk job handling animal attacks, but can’t seem to forget about the strange murder from that morning. Faraday then pays a visit to the coroner who informs him that the victim from the truck stop died in a state of sexual arousal, deepening the mystery.

The next morning, Reed informs Faraday that a second body, identical to the one found yesterday, has turned up. Faraday and Reed head out to the crime scene without authorization where they find a set of mysterious deer-like tracks leading away from the body. The only problem is that the creature that left them appears to have been running on two legs. Patterson then catches Faraday at the crime scene and reports him to the Chief of Police who then confronts Faraday asking him what he thinks he is doing investigating a case he has not been assigned to. Faraday tries to defend himself but only ends up sounding crazy when he starts espousing his “minotaur” theory concerning the murders. After the meeting with his boss, Faraday and Reed head down to a local casino where cops eat for free. While there Faraday and Reed discuss the murders and are overheard by a Native-American pit boss who tells them that what they are talking about sounds like the legendary Deer-Woman. After hearing the legend, Faraday and Reed part ways, Reed thinking the story is ridiculous while Faraday believes it could be true.

On his way out of the casino, Reed picks up a lovely young Native-American girl and after some flirting decides to take her back to his place. Then just as two are about to get it on, Faraday calls Reed telling him that he’s found evidence of the Deer Woman and that she has been slaying men in this area for hundreds of years. Reed tells him he can’t talk because he’s with a lady to which Faraday responds; “Have you seen her legs?”

So, can Faraday save Reed? Can he stop the Deer Woman from killing again? For that matter how do you stop a thousand year old Native-American myth? To find out you’ll have to watch Deer Woman for yourself. However, before leaving I will say this…

Overall, Deer Woman is a great little film. With a running time of roughly 60-mins, the whole thing feels like it could be an episode of Kolchak: The Night Stalker or The X-Files. Another thing which is great about Deer Woman, or any of Landis’ horrors films for that matter, is the amount of humor he is able to inject into it. There is a great scene early on in Deer Woman where Faraday is laying in bed trying to fathom how the first murder could have taken place, and manages to come up with three separate scenarios all of which are absolutely hilarious. Of course, more than anything Landis deserves a round of applauses for his handling of the legend of the Deer Woman. There has been a popular trend in monster movies for the last several years to try and give the creatures featured within (especially vampires and werewolves) a scientific explanation. Landis forgoes all of that nonsense in favor of a straight-forward mythological approach. When Faraday and Reed ask the pit boss at the casino where the Deer Woman comes from and why she seduces and kills men he responds by saying; “Why does everything have to have a why with you people? You know, it's a woman with deer legs, motive really isn't an issue here,” end of story.

Below: The trailer for Deer Woman.



John Landis’ Deer Woman is available on DVD from Anchor Bay Entertainment.

Source: The Field Guide to North American Monsters (1998), by W. Haden Blackman.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

East Meets West: A Christian Take on Journey to the West

As some of my readers may remember back in June I did a post on Monkey: Journey to the West, the contemporary Chinese opera based on the famous 16th-Century Chinese legend. When I saw Monkey back in June at the Spoleto Arts Festival in South Carolina I was blown away. Having been a big fan of the original Journey to the West myth I have almost always been thrilled by anything – from comics to film – that even made reference to Sun Wukung the Monkey King; the tales’ titular hero. That being said it should come as no surprise to anyone that I was naturally quite excited when a friend of mine showed me a graphic novel he had recently picked up which featured the Monkey King as a prominent character.

The graphic novel in question was Gene Luen Yang’s award-winning, critically acclaimed American Born Chinese (2006) which tells the tale of Jin Wang, a teenager living in San Francisco who is ethnically Chinese but was born and raised in America, just like the book’s author. American Born Chinese is primarily a story about the struggle that every teenager goes through in trying to find out who they are. In Jin’s case, coming to terms with what he sees as a conflict between his ethnicity and nationality. It is also a story about racism and a good portion of the book deals with a character called Chin-Kee; the living embodiment of every negative Asian stereotype one can possibly imagine and the novel’s most controversial character. However, in addition to the exploits of both Jin and Chin-Kee, American Born Chinese also stars the Monkey King as the book’s third protagonist and it was this aspect which originally drew my attention to the novel itself and kept it there.

American Born Chinese
actually opens with a retelling of the Monkey King’s origins – ‘born from a stone atop the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit’ – before spinning off into the modern-day tales of Jin and Chin-Kee. Periodically, the book’s narrative would return to the Monkey King’s tale explaining how he was the greatest warrior in all the land and master of numerous mystical martial arts from cloud surfing to shape-shifting. Eventually, the Monkey King grows so powerful that he becomes uncontrollable and begins to run amok terrorizing the other gods, goddesses, demons and spirits of China.

What is supposed to happen at this point in the story is that the goddess Guan-Yin calls upon the help of the Buddha. The Buddha appears and challenges the Monkey King to a bet, saying that he can not jump across the entire breath of heaven. Sun Wukung arrogantly accepts the bet and takes a mighty leap, landing at what he believes to be the far end of heaven where nothing exists except for five mighty pillars. To prove that he has actually been to the edge of heaven the Monkey King takes a leak on the pillars and then leaps back to the feet of the Buddha who then shocks him by revealing that not only did he fail to leap across heaven, he never even left the Buddha’s palm. The five pillars that the Monkey King saw (and soiled) were actually the Buddha’s own fingers.

Now, I say that this is what is supposed to happen because on page 67 of American Born Chinese something rather different begins to happen instead, as can be seen below:

At first I wasn’t sure what to make of this sudden abrupt deviation from the original legend. Perhaps I was looking at an alternate version of the tale that I had not heard before but with which the author was more familiar. However, as I stared at the page and the four “emissaries of Tza-Yo-Tzuh” something weird occurred to me. I knew these four creatures from somewhere else, from a different mythological system. The lion, eagle, ox and man (here a woman) were classical symbols of the Judeo-Christian god. They appeared in both the Old Testament Book of Ezekiel (1:10) and the New Testament Book of Revelation (4:7). They were also representative of the four gospels, each one personifying a different aspect of Jesus Christ’s nature: the man his humanity, the eagle his divinity, the lion his regality and the ox his servitude. In fact, to make matters weirder, the same week I was in Charleston to watch Monkey I had toured one of the city’s historical churches and seen these same four creatures carved into the frame of the church’s front door.

Then there was this mysterious Tza-Yo-Tzuh character whose name the page’s footnote told me meant “He Who Is” in Chinese. It was a name that I not only didn’t recognize from the traditional Chinese pantheon of deities, but one which sounded hauntingly similar to the infamous “I Am Who I Am” declaration made by the Jewish god Yahweh in the Bible’s Book of Exodus (3:14).

The next page then introduced me to Tza-Yo-Tzuh who with his flowing red robe, long white beard and shepard’s staff looked like a Chinese version of Moses. I continued to read as Tza-Yo-Tzuh confronted the Monkey King and challenged him to same bet that the Buddha does in the original legend. Like the original the bet plays out the same way; Sun Wukung attempts to leap to the end of the universe, finds the pillars, pees on them and then returns to the feet of Tza-Yo-Tzuh only to discover that he never even left the opposing deities’ hand.

Following this on page 80, Tza-Yo-Tzuh then inform the Monkey King that he is the creator of the universe, of all life, of all things – even Sun Wukung. It was at this point that I knew for certain who this guy was; he was the god of Judeo-Christianity reimagined as a Chinese deity. What confirmed it for me wasn’t simply his declaration of being the maker and shaper of the universe but the fact that he did it by essentially quoting Psalm 139 straight out of the Bible. You can take a look for yourself below:

As I finished the chapter, which ended with Tza-Yo-Tzuh trapping the Monkey King beneath a mountain in the same way the Buddha had in the original myth I decided to flip to the back of the book and take a look at the author’s bio which was printed on the inside flap of the back cover. There I learned that author Gene Yang was not only an independent comic book writer and artist, but also a computer science teacher, a resident of San Francisco, a husband, a father and a Roman Catholic. My suspicions confirmed I immediately returned to reading wanting to see where this decidedly Christian variation on the story of the Monkey King was heading next. In the original myth, the Monkey King is freed from the mountain by the goddess Guan-Yin who enlists him as the bodyguard of the monk Tripitaka who has been sent on a ‘journey to the west’ to retrieve the Buddhist scriptures and bring them back to China. In American Born Chinese, however, it is the monk who frees the Monkey King after having been tapped by the four emissaries of Tza-Yo-Tzuh and told he has been chosen for a sacred mission of an undisclosed nature. No surprises this time, the entire thing was laced with Christian ideas and phraseology and it had become apparent that the author had decided to almost completely break away from the original Monkey King myth.

Nevertheless, surprises or not, as I kept reading I began to find myself growing more and more irritated with the author’s rewriting of the Journey to the West. Soon irritation turned into anger and I began to find myself upset that Gene Yang would dare to bastardize what was arguably the most important story in the history of China. Wasn’t this book, American Born Chinese, supposed to be about coming to terms with your ethnicity and embracing your native culture? If so, why was Yang rewriting the legend of the Monkey King turning it into something decidedly non-traditional, non-Buddhist, non-Eastern? By this point I was so angry, I was seriously considering not finishing the book at all. I told my friend who had given me the book about the problems I was having with it and he told me to calm down and finish it, that it would all make sense in the end.

Well, he was right.

I’m not going to tell you exactly how American Born Chinese ends because I think everyone should go out and read it for themselves. I will tell you that, in the end, all three characters – Jin, Chin-Kee, and the Monkey King – do end up meeting in a spectacular closing scene. I’ll also tell you that the author makes no apologies regarding his Christian take on Journey to the West. The story remains unabashedly Christian to the end, going so far as to even change the goal of the heroes’ journey altogether:

However, the book is never preachy and at no point – even when I was upset with it – did I feel like Gene Yang was trying to force his faith on me. You see, what I realized in the end was that American Born Chinese is not just about Jin trying to reconcile his Chinese ethnicity with his American nationality, it also about the author trying to reconcile his own ethnicity and nationality with his religious faith, and the way he manages to do so is devilishly clever.

After reading and re-reading American Born Chinese as well as several interviews with the author – including one where he humbly and cleverly defends his right to write a Christian version of Journey to the West – I have come to really love this book and have already recommended it to several people. It is a book that will challenge you on many levels and hopefully lead you to think about some of the bigger and harder questions in life regarding not only the role of faith and myth, but also about racism, ethnicity and nationality and how all these things effect our lives and our cultures.

Also check out Gene Yang's essay on American Born Chinese and his Monkey King fan-site.

All comic pages posted above are taken from American Born Chinese (2006), by Gene Luen Yang, all rights reserved.