Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Ereshkigal: Ishtar’s Big Sister

This post is dedicated to Alexis, so that you can “know what you don’t already know.”

While not nearly as famous as her younger fertility goddess sister Ishtar, as ruler of the netherworld Ereshkigal was a goddess with a mystique and reputation all her own. Worshiped throughout the Middle East, Ereshkigal ruled over the realm of Irkalla; the land of the dead in Mesopotamian cosmology. Unlike Ishtar, who got to choose her own destiny amongst the gods, Ereshkigal was “given the underworld for her domain” according to the Epic of Gilgamesh (c. 1850 B.C.E.). In another myth, which shares elements in common with Ovid’s tale of Hades’ abduction of the goddess Persephone, Ereshkigal is kidnapped by her half-brother, the dragon Kur, and taken to the underworld where she is made queen. As with Ovid’s tale, Kur’s abduction of the goddess is motivated primarily by loneliness, not lust.

As a goddess of the dead, Ereshkigal had no appetite for food or drink and sustained herself by eating clay and drinking dirty water. However, while Ereshkigal may have not have cared for food and drink, she – like her sister – did love sex. Aside from the tale of Ishtar’s decent into the underworld, the most famous myth to involve Ereshkigal is undoubtedly the tale of how Ereshkigal obtained a husband.

It’s a story that begins with a party in heaven thrown for and attended by all the gods and goddess. All that is except Ereshkigal, who is confined to her realm beneath the earth and can not leave it. Not wanting to appear rude, however, Ereshkigal sends an envoy to go to the party in her place. While at the party, Ereshkigal’s envoy is insulted by the bull-like god of war Nergal. Since insulting an envoy in ancient times was as bad as insulting the person they represented, Ereshkigal demands that Nergal travels down to the underworld and apologize to her in person.

It is usually assumed that this incident takes place chronologically after the tale of Ishtar’s decent into the underworld and subsequent imprisonment there. If so then it is understandable why Nergal is terrified when he hears Ereshkigal’s demand for an in person apology. Nergal seeks consol from the other gods who tell him that the only thing he can do is to make sure not to eat or drink any food offered to him in the underworld, for if he does he can never leave. Not eating the food of the dead is a universal motif found worldwide in myths from Greco-Rome, Japan, Africa, and North America and probably reflects the commonly held religious taboo against eating the food offerings left for dead ancestors.

Nergal then descends down to Irkalla, passing through its seven gates and finally arriving in Ereshkigal’s courtroom. There he offers up his apologies which Ereshkigal accepts. Ereshkigal then offers Nergal food and drink – which he politely declines – before finally offering him sex. Having been given no warning pertaining to having sex with Ereshkigal, Nergal gladly accepts and the two proceed to make love continuously for the next six days until Nergal finally begins to grow tiered. However Ereshkigal, forever the nymphomaniac, only wants to keep making love as she is still “unsatisfied.”

Nergal, needing an out, tells Ereshkigal that he will return to her after he has traveled to heaven and announced their betrothal to the rest of the gods. As all men and most women who have heard variations of this line know, Nergal is lying. Once back in heaven Nergal sets about his business with no intention of ever returning to the underworld. When Ereshkigal realizes that Nergal isn’t coming back she is furious and sends another envoy to heaven who proclaims that unless Nergal returns to her she will “send up the dead that they might devour the living.” Clearly the ancient Mesopotamians had the idea for Night of the Living Dead long before director George A. Romero.

Having learned to take Ereshkigal’s threats seriously the other gods immediately begin to search for Nergal, but the war god has disguised himself as a bald, palsied crippled and this makes him harder to find. Eventually, however, Nergal is discovered and forced to return to Ereshkigal. On the return trip to the underworld Nergal, like Ishtar, is stripped of his clothes and articles of power as he passes through each of the underworld’s seven gates. Finally, arriving back in Ereshkigal’s throne room naked and humiliated Nergal is made the goddesses’ begrudging husband for the rest of time.

The History of Hell (1993) by Alice K. Turner
DK Illustrated Dictionary of Mythology (1998) by Philip Wilkinson
The Ultimate Encyclopedia of Mythology (2001) by Arthur Cotterell & Rachel Storm

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Ishtar: The Lady of Heaven

Ishtar, also called Inanna, is the “Lady of Heaven,” a goddess of fertility, love, and war. She was the patron goddess of the city of Uruk, prostitutes, and ale houses. She was worshiped throughout the ancient Middle East in Babylon, Sumer, Assyria, Canaan, Anatolia and elsewhere and was identified with the planet Venus; the brightest object in the night sky. Her symbols are the eight pointed star and the lioness.

Piecing together Ishtar’s history has been a challenge for mythologists over the years as there is no one definitive text that tells her story. Different cultures – each often calling her by a different name – tell various stories about her, some of which overlap. What is so fascinating about Ishtar, however, is how these tales still manage to fit together so nicely, like a puzzle forming a very complete, complex and interesting picture of one of the most powerful and influential goddesses in all of history.

Ishtar: Origins

Ishtar’s divine origins are a bit sketchy. The Sumerians, calling her Inanna, often attributed her parentage to the moon god Sin, but never seemed too sure about this. One reason for this might have been because Ishtar may not have originally been born a goddess. Once upon a time, she may have been a mortal…

According to what Prof. Howard Schwartz describes as a Hebrew “fairy-tale” found within the pages of the Beit ha-Midrash (5:156), Ishtar (Heb: Istahar) was once a mortal woman who lived on earth during the antediluvian period. It was during this time, prior to the Great Flood, that the fallen angels known as Watchers descended upon mankind, having been lured away from Heaven by the beauty of human women. The leader of these rouge angels was Samyaza; one of the Christian Satan’s many Jewish predecessors. Once on Earth, Samyaza soon fell in lust with the woman Ishtar.

Like all the Watchers, Samyaza promised to reveal to Ishtar the “secrets of heaven” if she would only give herself sexually to him. However, Ishtar was more cunning than the other women and desired more than just heavenly wisdom. When Samyaza propositioned her, she in turn requested that Samyaza remove his angelic wings and let her “try them on,” that this was the price of her ‘favors.’ Samyaza, at first, refuses, denying that his wings even come off. Ishtar, in turn, winks and pouts, teases and toys with the angel until he eventually gives in. Samyaza then removes his wings and presents them to Ishtar who then places them on her back and ascends into heaven, escaping the lustful fallen angel.

Ishtar: In Heaven

After ascending to heaven and becoming a “star maiden,” Ishtar finds herself to be a goddess without a purpose, without power. She personifies nothing, is the patron of no one and quickly decides that this must change. In a Sumerian myth dating back to the end of the 3rd-Millenium B.C.E., Ishtar visits the crafty water god Enki at his home in the ancient city of Eridu (located in modern Iraq), with the intention of stealing the me – the primeval source of all civilization – from him.

Once at Enki’s place, Ishtar offers to prepare a grand feast for the god. Enki, of course, gladly accepts the offer of a free home cooked meal from a beautiful goddess and the two soon sit down to a delicious meal that also includes ample alcohol. Soon Enki finds himself so inebriated that he can’t think straight, a state which leads him to simply hand over the sacred me to Ishtar without a second thought.

With the me in her possession and Enki passed out on the floor, Ishtar makes a break for it. Like any good thief, Ishtar has her get away vehicle waiting outside in the form of a splendid “boat of heaven” with her handmaiden Ninshubur at the wheel. It isn’t long before Enki wakes up, sobers up, and realizes what has happened. He quickly sets out with a band of sea monsters to retrieve the me, but Ishtar has a head start. Whenever, Enki and his monsters catch up to Ishtar she quickly gets away from them using either her cunning or magic. The chase ends when Ishtar makes it back to her hometown of Uruk (also located in modern day Iraq) and plants the me there, declaring herself goddess of the city, a fact which Enki is forced to acknowledge.

Ishtar: Sex and Marriage

Ishtar is now the patron goddess of the city of Uruk, but still is unsatisfied. Wishing to understand the mysteries of sex and fertility and to possess power over them Ishtar contacts her brother, the sun god Shamash, who knows of a special plant that can provide her with the knowledge and power she seeks.

After eating the plant and learning the mysteries of sex and fertility, Ishtar decides that she also wants to know about good and evil and descends into the underworld to find out about that. Upon returning from the underworld Ishtar’s head is spinning with all her new knowledge and she decides to lie down in a garden and take a nap. While she is napping a Sumerian man wanders by and spies the beautiful sleeping goddess and decides to take advantage of her. When Ishtar wakes up – that’s right she slept through being raped! – and discovers what has happened she is furious. She attempts to find the man responsible but is unsuccessful and, in the end, decides it would just be easier to smite the entire city of Sumer instead. Ishtar then purifies her body in the sacred abzu spring of Enki and returns to heaven armed with her new knowledge and power and assumes the role of one of the four most powerful deities in all the ancient Middle East.
As part of her new role the other gods tell Ishtar that she must pick a husband. Ishtar accepts this condition and asks for any suitors to come forward. Two gods then present themselves before her: Enkimdu; god of farmers, and Dumuzi; god of shepards. At first Ishtar favors Enkimdu, but Shamash convinces her that Dumuzi is the better pick. Ishtar and Dumuzi are then married and, like any new couple, gladly engage in impassioned lovemaking while on their honeymoon. Nevertheless, the honeymoon comes to an end all to soon for Ishtar, and Dumuzi soon begins complaining that he must “get back to work” and is unable to simply lay around with his bride making love “fifty times” a day.

With Dumuzi now ignoring his wife’s carnal needs, Ishtar’s eyes begin to wander. Soon, Ishtar has contracted over 120 extramarital lovers, some human and some divine, some guys she just randomly hooked up with in bars. Typically, all of these relationships would end badly for the men, with Ishtar either cursing or smiting them. This, however, did nothing to discourage other male suitors. There was no man who Ishtar could not seduce – or so she thought.

Ishtar: Gilgamesh

The Epic of Gilgamesh was first written down circa 1850 B.C.E. It is an epic poem which tales of the exploits of Gilgamesh; the fifth king of the city of Uruk and the most famous hero in all of ancient Middle Eastern lore.

By all accounts Gilgamesh was a good looking guy; buff with long hair, a full beard and a well oiled body, Gilgamesh was faster, stronger and smarter than anyone else. Furthermore, he was a man of action; a king who took the problems of his people seriously and often handled them himself. One such problem was the ogre Humbaba who was terrorizing the cedar forests which supplied the city of Uruk with all of its lumber. Gilgamesh, along with his best friend Enkidu, go into the forest and kill Humbaba, cutting off his head with a sword.

All this macho-male action naturally catches the attention of Ishtar who decides that she would like Gilgamesh as a new lover. So one day as Gilgamesh is getting out of the shower, Ishtar appears before him and attempts to seduce the hero-king. Gilgamesh, however, is privy to who Ishtar is and wants nothing to do with her and politely declines her offer. Ishtar, ever persistent, keeps on trying to woo him. This, in turn, leads Gilgamesh to angrily call Ishtar an “old, fat whore.” Her pride hurt Ishtar storms out of Gilgamesh’s bed chamber and up to the court of the gods where she demands that the sky god Anu release the Bull of Heaven on Gilgamesh so it can kill him. Anu at first refuses but eventually gives into Ishtar demands when she threatens to disrupt the natural cycle on Earth by halting fertility.

The Bull of Heaven attacks the city of Uruk and Gilgamesh and Enkidu fight the beast. It is an epic battle which the heroes finally win when Gilgamesh literally grabs the Bull by the horns, yanking his head back far enough for Enkidu to run under and stab the monster in the throat, killing it. Ishtar, who is standing nearby atop the city walls, is awestruck. Enkidu, on the other hand, is livid that Ishtar would make an attempt on his best friend’s life. In his rage Enkidu rips the Bull’s right thigh off and throws it at Ishtar’s face, threatening to kill her with his own hands. Ishtar, defeated and insulted, calls together her priestesses to mourn the Bull, before returning to heaven. Lastly, it should be noted that though Ishtar was not directly responsible for Enkidu’s later death, the insult he had dealt her would play a part in his coming demise, an incident that would devastate Gilgamesh and forever change the hero’s life.

Ishtar: Decent into the Underworld

Following the events recorded in Gilgamesh, Ishtar’s final tale takes the form of a hymn and tells of her descent into the underworld, the realm of her sister Ereshkigal, where she plans to mourn for the Bull of Heaven. Before descending into the underworld, Ishtar first puts on her mourner’s best: a turban, a lapis lazuli necklace, beads which rest upon her breasts, a fancy dress, a pectoral, a golden ring, and a lapis lazuli measuring rod which she carries.

As Ishtar begins her descent into the underworld, word reaches Ereshkigal of her sister's arrival. Ereshkigal, who always reclines naked upon her throne, is insulted that Ishtar would try to enter her realm decked out in such elaborate clothes. She thinks Ishtar is just trying to show off, or maybe is even thinking about taking over the underworld. Determined to humble her sister, Ereshkigal concocts a plan; as Ishtar descends into the underworld she is stopped at each of the seven gates that lay outside the land of the dead and informed by that gate’s keeper that in order to pass through she must remove one article of clothing.

Naturally, by the time Ishtar has passed through the seventh gate and arrived in her sister’s court room she is completely naked. Furious at Ereshkigal for the insult, Ishtar leaps at her sister, determined to kill her. However, while Ishtar is still in mid-flight Ereshkigal releases the “sixty misers” upon her, knocking Ishtar flat on her ass. Ishtar is then bound to a stake for three days and three nights, a prisoner of the underworld. During this time, the natural cycle on Earth comes to a grinding halt as fertility amongst plants, animals and people ceases.

The rapid decline in fertility on Earth naturally alarms the gods who petitions Ereshkigal for Ishtar’s release. Ereshkigal agrees to release her sister, but demands a ransom. As it turns out, Ishtar knows just who the ransom should be; Dumuzi. Word on the street is that Dumuzi, her husband, has rather enjoyed his wife’s absence, not even shedding a tear when he heard she was captured. When Dumuzi hears about Ishtar’s plan to use him as ransom, however, he is none to pleased and refuses. Soon the gods of the Middle East find themselves in the ancient equivalent of a massive hostage negotiation. After much debate and bartering an agreement is finally reached in which Ishtar and Dumuzi will each have to spend half the year in the underworld with Ereshkigal. Naturally, the half of the year that Ishtar is in the underworld will leave the world unfertile (fall and winter), while the half she is free for will be a time of great fertility (spring and summer), thus creating the four seasons.

Ishtar: Conclusions

Worship of Ishtar lasted some 2,000-years in the ancient Middle East, and was practiced by a wide variety of peoples including the Babylonians, Sumerians, Canaanites, Anatolians, Acadians, Hebrews (at one point or another), and possibly even the ancient Greeks and Romans.

Ishtar’s story, as seen above, is by far one of the most fascinating of all the gods of any pantheon. Ishtar stands out as an example of an ambitious and powerful woman, fully in control of her own destiny. She is not without her faults – she has a temper and sleeps around to much for her own good – but for the most part is an example of female strength and cunning.

Many of the myths retold here also have parallels with actual ancient Middle Eastern history. The tale of Ishtar stealing the sacred me from Enki and the city of Eridu and relocating it to her city of Uruk is actually a mythologized record of the decline of the city of Eridu (where Enki’s temple was located) as its population relocated itself to the city of Uruk (where Ishtar’s temple was located). It is also widely accepted today by mythologists and historians that the myth of Ishtar and Dumuzi’s wedding reflects an actual religious ritual practiced by ancient Middle Eastern people in which the king of a city would make love to a priestesses of Ishtar on New Years. On a similar note, some historians have also put forth the theory that both Dumuzi and Gilgamesh were real kings who actually ruled in ancient times. However, while Dumuzi appears to have been a fan of Ishtar worship, historical evidence seems to suggest that King Gilgamesh frowned upon it, a fact that would explain his mythological counterpart’s refusal to sleep with the goddess.

Lastly, all of the myths and stories retold here are not without their own variations. There is an alternate version of the Hebrew tale of Ishtar and Samyaza in which it is not the angel’s wings but the secret name of the Hebrew god which is required for transformation into a goddess. There is also an alternate version of the tale of Gilgamesh and Ishtar which is itself worthy of a blog entry all its own (it involves Ishtar, Gilgamesh, Lilith, and a magic tree). Also I ask readers to keep in mind that Ishtar was a goddess who went by many different names, most notably Inanna, so some of the sources listed below do not refer to Ishtar as Ishtar but rather as Inanna or some other title. Nevertheless, they are all talking about the same amazing goddess.

The History of Hell (1993) by Alice K. Turner, The World of Myth: An Anthology (1990) and Jealous Gods & Chosen People: The Mythology of the Middle East (2004) by David Adams Leeming, Tree of Souls: The Mythology of Judaism (2004) by Howard Schwartz, The Ultimate Encyclopedia of Mythology (2001) by Arthur Cotterell & Rachel Storm, Don’t Know Much about Mythology (2005) by Kenneth C. Davis, Man, Myth & Magic Vol. 10 (1983) edited by Richard Cavendish, & World Mythology: An Anthology of Great Myths and Epics 3rd Ed. (2001) by Donna Rosenberg

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Monsters of Legend: Bigfoot

Never fear, new posts are coming. But until then, check this out. Brought to you by MSN Video and The History Channel, this is just one of four new mini-documentaries chronicling the history of four of the worlds most infamous Monsters of Legend. The mythical creatures in question include; Bigfoot (see below), The Loch Ness Monster, Mermaids, and Dragons. Enjoy!

Monday, July 21, 2008

The Tall Tales of Rabbah bar Bar Hana

Complied at the end of the 6th-Century C.E., the Babylonian Talmud is one of the major religious texts used by all practicing Jews today. Making up the Babylonian Talmud is a collection of discussions held by various learned Rabbis over a wide variety of religious, philosophical, ethical, and legal topics that were themselves previously covered in the Mishnah (200 C.E.), another book of rabbinical commentary this time focusing on the Jewish Torah.

Naturally, all of this makes for some very dry reading and not the sort of place you would expect to find some of the most fascinating bits of Jewish myth and folklore. However, as it would turn out, it appears that even the Rabbis doing the commentary in the Babylonian Talmud knew how boring some of this stuff was and so decided to every once in awhile spice things up by veering off topic and telling some really great stories.

One such rabbi is Rabbah bar Bar Hana whose tall tales of giant beasts and strange monsters can be found in Tractate Baba Bathra (73a-77b), a section that initially deals with how to properly sell and or buy a boat.

In Tractate Baba Bathra, bar Bar Hana begins telling about his many travels around the world and the strange and freighting creatures he’s seen. The first beast he speaks about is an antelope who was the size of Mount Tabor and who cast a dung ball so big that it damned up the River Jordan. Next, bar Bar Hana describes how he once saw a frog the size of sixty houses, which was then swallowed by an even bigger sea monster. The sea monster was then plucked out of the ocean by a giant raven which then preached itself on the branch of a massive tree which can still seen by any who wish to look.

Bar Bar Hana then sets in with some lively fish tales, one about the time he saw a fish so large that when it was cast upon the shore it destroyed sixty towns and provided food for another sixty. When the rabbi returned a year later he discovered that the towns’ people were cutting rafters from the giant fishes’ ribs which they were then using to rebuild the towns that had been destroyed.

On another occasion while out at sea, bar Bar Hana said that he encountered a fish so large it took three days and three nights for him and several other men to sail a fast ship from one end of the monster to the other. And in case you doubt it was a fast ship, bar Bar Hana adds that when an archer shot an arrow the ship easily outstripped it.

Then there was the giant fish that had sand and grass growing on its back. When bar Bar Hana and his crew saw the beast they thought it was an island and landed on it. However, when they started cooking their food the fish woke up and rolled over forcing the men to make a mad dash back to their ship in the nick of time.

Bar Bar Hana then rounds out this set of tall tales with two more. One about the Ziz; a giant bird whose head reached the heavens and whose legs were in the sea. Thinking the water were the bird was standing must be shallow the men decided to go for a swim when a ‘voice from heaven’ (Heb. Bath Kol) called out saying; “Do not go down here, for a carpenter’s ax was dropped [into this water] seven years ago and it has not reached the bottom.”

Lastly, bar Bar Hana tells how an Arab merchant once took him to see the Dead of the Wilderness; those Jews who had died in the desert while wandering for forty-years looking for the Promise Land. The Dead of the Wilderness were truly an impressive sight, for bar Bar Hana did not even realize when they had reached them on account of the fact that they were so big he thought they were mountains and even rode his camel under one of their raised knees. Bar Bar Hana also tells his fellow rabbis how he tried to take a piece of the beautiful blue-purple fabric the Dead were wearing as proof of what he had seen but when he cut a piece of the cloth off and tried to ride away he found himself paralyzed. The Arab explained that one can not take anything from the Dead and expect to leave.

Prof. Timothy K. Beal of Case Western Reserve University says in his fascinating book Religion and its Monsters (2002) that stories such as those told by Rabbah bar Bar Hana are intended to inspire fear and awe in both the listener and reader, much the same way that scary stories around a camp fire still do today. The difference here is that since the stories are told in what is considered a religious context, the fear and awe they inspire is that of the infinite mysteries of God and the universe, rather than the dark.

Center: Giant fish, mountain sized bulls and the Ziz (here depicted as a griffin) were just some of the larger than life creatures that appear in Jewish myth and legend. Illuminated manuscript page from Germany circa 1238.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Hellboy II: The Golden Army

“We die – and the world will be poorer for it.”, laments elven Prince Nuada, towards the end of Hellboy II: The Golden Army. The “we” he is referring to is that of the magical denizens – elves, fairies, trolls, demons, angels, gods – who make up the very fabric of mankind’s mythological understandings of the world around them. It is a very sad and profound moment in the film and one which helps to define the theme of the entire picture. But I’m getting ahead of myself…

This past Friday (July 11th) was a long awaited day for me as it marked the premier of Hellboy II: The Golden Army, a sequel to one of my all time favorite films, 2004’s Hellboy, based on my all time favorite comic of the same name, and directed by the amazingly talented Guillermo del Toro (The Devil’s Backbone, Pan’s Labyrinth). I went to a midnight showing of the film on Thursday but, unfortunately, have been unable to blog about it until now…

Hellboy and I: A Short History

For those of you who don’t know, next to my obvious love of mythology, folklore and legend, my second biggest interest has always been art. In particular sequential art, which is just a fancy way of saying ‘comic book art.’ However, despite my love of the comic book genre I have never really cared for the medium’s most prominent subject matter – superheroes. Call me crazy, but there is just something about the idea of guys who fly around in spandex and capes saving the world that I find utterly ridiculous on every level. So needless to say, it has always been a bit of a challenge for me to find comics that I actually wanted to read.

Part of this problem was resolved in 1993 when DC Comics created their mature readers imprint VERTIGO which specialized in mostly non-superhero themed comics, the most famous of which is undoubtedly Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series of which I am also a fan. VERTIGO helped to pave the way for other non-superhero themed comic books and later that same year Darkhorse Comics published the first issue of Hellboy.

Hellboy is the creation of Mike Mignola, an amazingly talented artist and writer of whom I am constantly in awe. I first heard about Hellboy and Mr. Mignola back in 2003 on an NPR news radio show on comic books – which had become the new big thing in Hollywood since the success of Bryan Singer’s 2000 X-Men movie. On the show the guest – whose name has long since left me – was asked what his current favorite comic was. He responded that it was Hellboy and then went on to explain that it was a series about a demon who fought monsters and that the stories in it were basically retellings of Old English folktales. The name and premise stuck with me and it wasn’t long after that I started hearing that there was going to be a Hellboy movie in 2004.

Well, 2004 came and I saw that movie and it was… good. It was a fun, quirky and slightly absurd (which is, in my book, a good thing since one of the key foundations within the realm of mythology is a very palpable level of absurdity). The first movie didn’t blow me away, I liked how it was filmed and the way the characters looked and the references to both history and myth scattered within. It was a few weeks later then, that Free Comic Book Day rolled around and I decided to stop by one of the local comic shops to see what they had. It was then that I saw the first collected volume (or trade) of the Hellboy comic sitting on the shelf. I looked through the book, recognized a lot of stuff from the film, and thought the art was really great and decided to buy it. Like the movie, the first volume of the comic didn’t blow me away, but it was still good.

Anyway, to make a long history short I eventually ended up picking up the second Hellboy trade at Barnes and Noble and that was the book that solidified my loyalty as a die hard Hellboy fan. The second volume was thoroughly amazing between its art, story, and its references to vampires, witches, Greek mythology, the Baba Yaga and Elizabeth Bathory. I was, to say the least, ecstatic. It wasn’t long after that that I began to collect every volume of the Hellboy series and then hunt down all the comics that hadn’t yet been placed into trades. Today, I own nearly every single issue of Hellboy either as single issues or in the form of trades. I also am the proud owner of the Hellboy actions figures, t-shirts, lunch boxes, collector’s books, original novels, animated films, posters and both the original and director’s cut of the first film.

And for the past four years I have eagerly been awaiting the debut of Hellboy II: The Golden Army.

Hellboy II: The Golden Army: Review
What follows is not a conventional movie review. The first thing you should know, and probably don’t need to be told at this point, is that as a fan of Hellboy this review is going to be overwhelmingly positive and undoubtedly bias. Also in this review I don’t so much intend to review the film as a film but rather as a modern testament to the power of mythology. So if you are look for an actual critical review of the film I suggest you hop on over to Rotten Tomatoes, who have already collected nearly 200 overwhelmingly positive reviews from critics across the country.

For past six months or so I have seen numerous critics and film writers try to sum up the plot of Hellboy II, and for some reason, unlike every other film, they seem to be unable to do it in less than a paragraph. For me, the premise of Hellboy II is not a complicated affair. Hellboy II features the return of demonic do-gooder Hellboy (Ron Pearlman), as well as aquatic sidekick Abe Sapien (Doug Jones) and pyrokinetic girlfriend Liz Sherman (Selma Blair), who this time must protect humanity from a slew of monsters and a robotic clockwork army that has been unleashed by the villainous elf, Prince Nuada (Luke Gross). Simple as that.

But the truth of the matter is that Hellboy II is not simple. It is a complex story with a deep – though not quite heavy handed enough – point. That we, mankind, have endangered ourselves by destroying our own mythologies and our own cultures via modern technology and convenience.

“It is said that at the dawn of time…Man, Beast, and all Magical Beings lived together under Aiglin, the Father Tree…” intones Prof. Bruttenholm (John Hurt) at the opening of the film. Prof. Bruttenholm continues to tell of how man, “in his infinite greed”, sought dominion over the entire Earth and with it the eradication of all magical beings. There are those who will, from this set-up, mistake the film’s message for an environmental one (like in Wall-E) or a social one (like in Narnia 2). But del Toro and Mignola, who wrote the script, are not talking about either racism or the destruction of the natural world. Rather they are talking about the destruction of our mythologies, our imaginations as noted by del Toro in a recent interview with MTV; “We live in a world right now [where] everything not provable, nonlogical, nonlinear, not supported by science or technology, is a childish concern, and we are destroying things that we find tangible.”

Likewise, in the film elven Prince Nuada – who wishes to remind mankind “why you once feared the dark” – declares that “the humans have forgotten the gods, destroyed the Earth – and for what? Parking lots – shopping malls – greed has burned a hole in their chests that can never be filled. They will never have enough…”

All this naturally creates a very large dilemma for Hellboy. Though Nuada and his ilk are “Sons of the Earth” while Hellboy is a “Son of the Fallen One” both are still part of the race of magical invisible beings. As Nuada frequently reminds Hellboy; “You have more in common with us than with them…” the “Sons of Adam”, mankind.

For me, del Toro and Mignola, have brought up, in this film, a very real concern. Here in the modern western world we have slowly but surely begun to destroy everything that we once held sacred, whether that sanctity be pagan or Christian. This was the concern expressed in folklorist Jane Yolen’s 1981 book Touch Magic and it is still a concern today as can be seen, from a more religious perspective, in Stephen Prothero’s 2007 best seller Religious Illiteracy. Having created a culture of high-tech toys – Ipods, camera phones, satellite TV – which can provide us with often mind-numbing instant gratification and entertainment we no longer feel the need to exercise our minds and imaginations and explore the world around us. Ask big questions, think deep thoughts, ponder that which is absurd and nonsensical.

And it is perhaps in this light why a movie like Hellboy II is so important. Early this year, movie goers saw another blockbuster comic book movie called Iron Man. For me, Iron Man is the embodiment of everything that Hellboy II tells us to be wary of. It is a film about high-tech, wiz bang toys and the billionaire who builds and owns them. It’s a film that asks no deep or meaningful questions and attempts to shed no light on human culture, it just says “Look at this! Ain’t it cool!! You should own one too!!!”

The Mythology Behind Hellboy II

So what is some of the mythology that is once again brought to life in Hellboy II? A man after my own heart (or perhaps that should be the other way around), Mike Mignola loves his mythology. Whether that mythology is Greek, Roman, Celtic, Russian, Polynesian, Christian, or Lovecraftian matters not; in the Hellboy comics he makes reference to it all.

The same can be said for director Guillermo del Toro, and in Hellboy II del Toro drops more than a few names and pays plenty of homage to the myths and legends of old. In addition to your standard trolls, goblins, and ogres Hellboy II gives us elves with names plucked strait out of Celtic mythology – Nuada, Nuala, and King Balor –, some particularly nasty “tooth fairies”, and an Angel of Death who acts like she has just stepped out of a Jewish folktale and who looks like something one would find on a Medieval woodcut. There is also the elves’ subterranean homeland of Bethmoora – a name taken from the 19th-Century writings of Lord Dunsany – and the infamous “troll market” which is essentially a beefed up version of poet Christina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market.” Also, lets not forget the gigantic forest god who appears midway though the picture and in whom one can see more than a little reference to Hayao Miyazaki’s own god of the forest from his 1997 film Princess Mononoke. I could go on all day about the number of references one can find in this amazing film – such as how the entire thing has a very Hieronymus Bosch type aesthetic about it – but there are other things worth mentioning as well.

For starters, Hellboy II is just a great film. It’s a great story that is both cool and exciting, funny and entertaining, emotional and thought provoking. It is beautiful to look at and great to listen to. It is a movie that everyone needs to see, pay attention to, and then go see again. And then after you have done that why don’t you put down the Ipod, go outside and try see if maybe the Sons of the Earth are still there, waiting in the shadows, waiting to be remembered.

Top: Hellboy, Abe, Liz and new commer Johann (Seth McFarland) return to save mankind, who really don't deserve it.

Center: He may have snow white skin but Prince Nuada is about as far from conventional fairy-tale elves as you can get.

Bottom: The Angel of Death, with eyes on her wings, is just one of the many mythological creatures who appear in the film.

Sources: Hellboy II: The Art of the Movie (2008), Edited by Katie Moody and Dave Land.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Hard Medicine: Bezoars

Bezoars are curious objects that fall into a unique category of folklore known as folk-medicine. Though folk-medicine usually tends to be more magical than medicinal, they were widely used by both common folk and the rich in times past. Their alleged healing properties will typically be debunked by respected medical scientists though it is not uncommon for other scientists years later to discovery that such folk-remedies actually possessed some genuine medicinal effects. Such is the case with the bezoar.

Bezoars are sphere-shaped deposit of calcium found mainly in the stomachs of ruminant animals like goats and gazelles. The term bezoar comes from the Persian word pâdzahr, meaning 'counter-poison', as it was once widely believed that such intestinal obstructions possessed mystical powers capable of rendering poisons harmless and healing the sick. Historical documents indicate that bezoar stones were used as far back as the early 7th-Century. The oldest surviving Persian work on medicine, the Abu Mansur Muwaffak (Mid. 10th-Century) also mentions bezoars in a list of 'medicinal stones.'

Among those famous individuals who received treatment using a bezoar is King Edward IV of England (1442-1483) who survived the effects of a poisoned wound, due solely to a bezoar in his possession. Likewise, Queen Elizabeth I of England (1533-1603) had a bezoar set in gold with unicorn's horn [1] given to her by her spy and magician John Dee. [2] However, the magic of the bezoar was not limited solely to the rich. Common folk could obtain bezoars from apothecaries who would lend them out at extortionate rates.

In 1575, a surgeon by the name of Ambroise Paré decided to put the legend of the bezoar to the test. Paré's cook had been caught stealing fine silverware. In his shame, the cook agreed to be poisoned. Pare then used a bezoar stone to treat the poisoned cook who did not recover and died in agony several days later. For Paré, such an experiment was proof enough that the bezoar stone could not cure all poisons as was commonly believed at the time.

Another type of bezoar was the Trichinobezoar, which is made of hair – basically a huge hairball – and results in human individuals suffering from what is known as the Rapunzel Syndrome: the compulsive eating of one's own hair. Unlike the calcium bezoar, modern science has actually shown that the much more disgusting trichinobezoar could have been used successfully to remove arsenic from poisoned drinks during the middle ages, which is how it was most often used. Over time, bezoars faded out of use as more reliable forms of medical treatment came into existence. Today, the bezoar remains an interesting item in folklore and fantasy and references to them can be found in the works of Neil Gaiman (Sandman) and most notably J.K. Rowling (Harry Potter).

At Top: A medieval physician treating patient with a bezoar stone (date unknown)

Center: Most bezoars are found in the stomachs of ruminant animals like goats and gazelles, this one, however, was found in the belly of an elephant.

[1] Most likely the tusk of a narwhal.
[2] John Dee (1527-1608) is sometimes called Queen Elizabeth I's Merlin. He was a Welsh mathematician, scientist and occultist. He also practiced alchemy, divination and prescribed to Hermetic philosophy. He also worked as a spy for the crown going by the alias 007 -- a title made famous by Ian Fleming's fictional British spy James Bond.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

To Hell and Back: Conclusions

There are many things that we can learn from the tales of “Orpheus and Eurydice” and “Savitri and Satyavan”, things about ourselves, about our culture, ancient culture, death, and the role of women in society. In my last entry I asked readers to think about why it is that Orpheus fails where Savitri succeeds and what this has to say about a variety of issues, most of which were just mentioned in the previous sentence. This is a question that I have dwelled on for quite some time now. I find both of these myths utterly fascinating, especially because they are both so similar and yet so different. So in conclusion, here’s what I think…

In both “Orpheus and Eurydice” and “Savitri and Satyavan”, a spouse must descend into the underworld to retrieve the soul of their departed lover. Both make a deal with the god of the underworld. One fails, one succeeds. Why?

First off, both of these stories tell us a lot about the cultures that composed them. “Orpheus and Eurydice” tells us that the Greco-Roman point of view on death was very final. Once you died you were resigned to the underworld where you were expected to stay. In the land of the dead, the living were not welcomed, just as the dead were surely not welcomed in the land of the living. “Savitri and Satyavan” paints a similar picture for us except for the fact that we see that death is not always permanent; Savitri does manage to win back her husband’s soul and return him to life. This undoubtedly reflects the Hindu world of view in which the predominate form of afterlife belief is that of ‘reincarnation’ which hold that after death many of us will go on to living new lives, being reborn again and again.

Secondly, the deals which both Orpheus and Eurydice strike with their respective underworld gods are also interesting, especially because they serve as a prototype for later Christian legends concerning Faustian deals with the devil. In the myth of “Orpheus and Eurydice”, however, it is Hades who apparently wins the beat, as Orpheus fails to keep his eyes off of Eurydice until after the two have left the underworld. There are those who feel that Hades’ tricked Orpheus, however, I disagree, believing instead that Hades, if anything, was simply banking on the fact that Orpheus’ inherent human weakness would get the better of him. As for Savitri’s deal with Yama, I think it’s pretty clear that in this case Savitri did trick Yama into giving her Satyavan’s soul. The type of ‘loop-hole logic’ which Savitri employs here is also fairly common in both myths and fairy-tales, especially in Arabian mythology were it is often employed by djinn’s who want to get the better of their masters. Ultimately, what the story of “Savitri and Satyavan” is trying to tell us here, I believe, is that being quick witted is a virtue; for one who is fast on their feet may even be able to outwit the gods.

Lastly, I feel that without a doubt the most loaded issue of any to be found here in both of these tales is that of the role of the women in them. I believe that this facet of these stories is of great importance not only because of what it has to say about women is both the ancient and modern world but because it can also provide one with the answer as to why Orpheus fails in his mission while Savitri succeeds in her’s.

The key difference between Orpheus and Savitri, I feel, is ultimately motivation. Orpheus wants Eurydice while Savitri needs Satyavan, and this all has to do with how women were viewed in ancient Greco-Rome and India. Ancient Greece and Rome as well as India were patriarchal societies; men ran almost everything. This is still true today in modern India as in modern western society which has been largely modeled off the Greco-Roman prototype. However, there is one crucial difference. In Greco-Roman patriarchal society women were viewed as objects, literally second class citizens who could be owned by their husbands. This was in contrast to eastern patriarchy where women were still not as socially powerful as men but nevertheless still had many of the same freedoms and rights that men enjoyed, a fact which is still true today.

Now, while one who is sufficiently familiar with the tale of “Orpheus and Eurydice” would never question whether or not Orpheus truly loves Eurydice – he does – one does need to take note of the fact that Orpheus’ love for her is framed within a Hellenistic context, meaning that to him Eurydice is a ‘possession.’ And this is exactly the tone that one picks up on when re-reading the tale of Orpheus and Eurydice. Following Eurydice’s death Orpheus acts like he has just had something stolen from him, like a prized trophy or a new car. He then descends into the underworld to essentially demand the return of his property from Hades, albeit in song. The problem with all this is that the cold truth of the matter is that, from a social standpoint, Orpheus doesn’t need Eurydice, he simply wants her. Had this story been reversed with Eurydice having lost Orpheus and then failing to win back his soul, she would not have then been able to continue on with life by herself in perpetual morning – the way Orpheus does. She would have been expected to marry someone else; in fact, she probably would have been married off to someone else by her father in the weeks following Orpheus death, because that is what happened to women in ancient Greece and Rome.

This is, of course, in sharp contrast to “Savitri and Satyavan”, where Savitri doesn’t merely want the return of her husband’s soul but needs it. As Savitri notes in both my retelling of the story and the original version, that in Indian society it was a wife’s dharma – sacred duty – to care for her husband and bear his children. Without a husband Savitri would not have been able to fulfill her dharma and as a result would not have been able to join her husband in heaven as she would have to be reincarnated in an attempt to fulfill her duty as a woman and a wife in a another life. For some women readers this may not seem much better a situation than that Eurydice, however, I would ask those readers to keep in mind that Savitri is essentially just trying to be faithful to her vows as a wife, the same type of vows that western women make on their wedding day. Also, take stock in that fact that not only is Savitri the protagonist and hero of her story but also a shinning example of a smart, strong and determined woman who was not about to let her husband second guess her womanly intuition or let a male death god tell her what she could and could not do, all of which is far superior to poor little Eurydice who doesn’t have but a single line of dialogue in her entire tale.

With that in mind, I would also like to point out what these two myths can teach us today. Both myths teach us about the power of love, which is one of the greatest powers in the world, however, they also teach us what can happen when love is misguided. I personally think that in modern western society today there are a lot of Orpheuses out there. Talented young men who are desperately and recklessly pursuing women who they do not need but merely want, because to them women are nothing more than possessions to be had. Likewise there are a lot of young women out there who have let themselves become helpless little Eurydices, following there own Orpheuses all the way to the top only to have them foolishly cast them away with a backwards glance. While “Orpheus and Eurydice” is without a doubt one of my favorite myths from all of Greco-Roman mythology I do believe that from a social standpoint it is not one that needs to be imitated but rather learned from, a cautionary fable. Rather what we in the west need are more women like Savitri and more men like Satyavan who, in spite of their own piggishness, can learn to respect and trust their wives, girlfriends or lovers.

At Top: The title sheet for classical composer Monteverdi's 1607 opera The Legend of Orpheus. The myth of "Orpheus and Eurydice" has had a strong impact on western culture, having been adapted into poems, songs, novels, plays, operas, movies, comics and more. Visit Wikipedia's page on Orpheus for a very comprehensive list.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

To Hell and Back: Analysis and Questions


Now that we have looked at two very similar, yet very different tales concerning the religious and mythological theme of decent into the underworld it is now time to make an evaluation of the two narratives and draw a conclusion in regard to what they have to say about humankind.

Compare and Contrast: “Orpheus and Eurydice” with “Savitri and Satyavan”

The myths of “Orpheus and Eurydice” and “Savitri and Satyavan” both share a great deal in common. Not only do both deal with the motif of decent into the underworld but both also feature a protagonist who descends into the netherworld to rescue a spouse who was killed by a snake. In both tales, the protagonist must cross a river that separates the land of the living from that of the dead. Both tales find our protagonist’s presence in the underworld to be a source of potential cosmological chaos, and both protagonists must, in the end, make a deal with the Lord of the Dead.

However, while the similarities between these two tales may be striking the differences they share are equally profound. To start with, the tale of “Orpheus and Eurydice” is from ancient Greco-Rome while the tale of “Savitri and Satyavan” is from India. In “Orpheus and Eurydice”, it is the husband who is the protagonist and must rescues his wife, while in “Savitri and Satyavan” the scenario is reversed and it is the wife who must save the husband. The other major difference between Orpheus’ and Savitri’s tale is, of course, that Savitri is successful in her quest to retrieve her husband’s soul while Orpheus is not.

The Questions

It is this last observation that leads to the most obvious, though not necessarily the most important, question one can ask about these two myths: Why dose Savitri succeed where Orpheus fails? Another way of looking at this question is to also ask: Why did Orpheus fail? Was it his own weakness or did Hades indeed trick him? Was the deal Orpheus struck with Hades fair? And then for the more culturally centered reader: What dose this story tell you about the beliefs of the ancient Greeks and Romans? What dose it say about the relationship between a husband and a wife? What can we learn from it?

Then coming at this line of questioning from the Indian point of view: Why dose Savitri succeed? Was the deal Savitri struck with Yama fair? Did Savitri trick Yama? If so was this right or wrong of her? And what dose this tale tell us about the Hindu worldview and the role of men and women in it?

I will post my thoughts on these matters in the next few days.