Saturday, December 24, 2011

Krampus

Associated with: Germanic mythology
Also known as: Klaubauf, Bartl, Niglobartl, Wubartl, Pelzebock, Pelznickel, Gumphinckel, Krampusz
Earliest recorded mention: unknown, but BCE
Major texts: None, really, as Krampus is an oral tradition, but Austrian governments have been trying to discourage belief in the Krampus since at least the 1930s.

While naughty American children might feel mildly anxious about coal in their stockings at Christmas, Austrian and Hungarian children have spent centuries worrying about the Krampus, a forest demon whose stories predate Christ. Krampus doesn't bother with coal in stockings. He whips children with birch switches or drags them off to hell in a tub that he carries on his back.

The world's a dangerous place for children. In the days before electricity and central heating, it was even more dangerous. A child who wandered away from her parents or stayed out too late at night could be lost for good, frozen to death, snatched by evil strangers or mauled to death by wild animals. It only takes three or four days to die of thirst, and not much longer to starve to death in winter. Before floodlights, helicopters, fingerprints or photographs on the back of milk cartons, parents could keep children safe only by emphasizing the dangers of disobedience. These dangers form the basis of many folktales, from Little Red Riding Hood (keep to the path, don't talk to strangers) to Snow White (don't take food from scary old ladies) to Hansel & Gretel (seriously, don't take food from scary old ladies).

Krampus was the parents' tactical nuclear weapon, and too valuable to abandon even once the southern Alps embraced Christianity. Krampus survived as traveling companion to St. Nicholas, dealing with the naughty children as St. Nick hands out candy, nuts and presents to the good ones.

I'm glad I didn't know about Krampus until fairly recently. I was anxious enough as a child, and almost always worked myself into nervous hysteria at some point before every Christmas. Santa Claus, like God, knew all my meanest thoughts and impulses, and kept score of every pinched brother and undone homework assignment. If I'd had Krampus to deal with on top of that, I'd never have made it to adulthood.

Here's wishing you all a Krampus-free holiday, and all the blessings of the season. Merry Christmas, and God bless us, every one.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Saturn

Associated with: Greek and Roman mythology
Also known as: Cronos
Earliest recorded mention: c. 700 BCE
Major texts: Hesiod's Theogony, Macrobius' Saturnalia

For the past several years, the one consistent social event of my week has been Tuesday night pub trivia at The Liberal Cup in Hallowell. I was lucky enough to join a team that usually does pretty well, though more and more often lately they seem to do best on nights I'm not there. It's not a coincidence, I'm afraid; all too often, I'm absolutely sure about things I'm absolutely wrong about.

Last night it was the question of why Christmas falls on December 25, which has only been the formal practice of the Catholic church (and its successor Christian religions) since the fourth century. Quizmaster/Brewmaster Geoff asked what Roman celebration this was specifically meant to supplant. The answer he was looking for was "the winter solstice." The answer our team gave — which I'm sticking by, even though it got us no points — was Saturnalia.

Saturnalia was, in fact, a solstice celebration, in honor of the great and ancient god Saturn, patron of agriculture, justice and time. Saturn was a Titan, one of the children of Earth and Sky, and the father of most of the gods of Olympus. Told that one of his sons would overthrow him, Saturn devoured his children as they were born. His wife, Ops (Rhea in Greek mythology) finally managed to deceive him after the birth of her sixth child, Jupiter (Zeus). She gave Saturn a stone wrapped in a blanket, which he ate; Jupiter/Zeus grew up to lead a rebellion against the Titans, installing himself and his siblings as rulers on Olympus.

What I'm less clear on, and would like to know more about, is what was supposed to have happened to Saturn and the Titans once they were defeated. Gods are immortal. Saturn was conquered, not killed, and cast into Tartarus, the lowest point in the universe. He was imprisoned for all time with his fellow Titans — but he was never quite forgotten, and in the later years of Roman Empire he became a symbol of a mythical Golden Age, when humans lived in harmony with each other and nature, and feasted off the bounty of the land without having to do any real work. The Romans even built a temple to Saturn, right on the Forum — so his defeat was not exactly permanent, and I'd like to know whether Saturn's followers honored him in Tartarus, or believed that he had somehow escaped.

Saturnalia, which began as a single day (Dec. 17) and became a week-long celebration, commemorated this Golden Age with feasting and revelry, and particularly the suspension of regular order for the duration of the festival. During Saturnalia, masters served their slaves, and slaves became masters; people partied, gambled, wore outlandish clothing, and took various other social liberties. The festival began with a ritual sacrifice at the Temple of Saturn, and concluded with a day of gift-giving on December 23. It was celebrated well into the fourth century, and its practices influenced similar holiday celebrations in Zoroastrianism and Mithraism as well as Christianity.

It feels appropriate to me that a year-end celebration would honor both justice and time, as we tally up the year's gains and losses, evaluate successes and failures, make amends where necessary and plan for the year ahead. Happy Solstice to everyone.

Thursday, December 08, 2011

Mary

Associated with: Christianity, especially Catholicism
Also known as: Miriam, Our Lady, the Blessed Virgin, the Immaculate Conception, many others
Earliest recorded mention: c. 70
Major texts: The Gospel of Luke

I'm courting trouble here, because the whole point of the Church's reverence for Mary is that she is not divine. She is human, and her humanity is what makes her so special and precious. She is like us but better than us, and what makes her better than us is the mystery of her Immaculate Conception, which the Catholic Church celebrates today.

The Immaculate Conception is one of the great stumbling blocks of Catholicism for non-Catholics, and also one of the hardest doctrines to explain to outsiders. It's reckless of me as a layperson even to try, but that's never stopped me before.

The Immaculate Conception is too often confused with "virgin birth," the Catholic belief that Mary conceived and bore Jesus without having sexual intercourse with a man. But the two doctrines come together in the story that introduces us to Mary: her visit from the angel Gabriel, as reported in the gospel of Luke.

Gabriel tells Mary that she will bear a son to be called Jesus, who will rule over the House of Jacob forever. Mary asks how this could be, since she is a virgin. Gabriel explains that the Holy Spirit will come upon her, and that the child will be the Son of God. He also tells her that her elderly cousin Elizabeth, long thought barren, would bear a child as well, "for nothing is impossible to God."

Think about what this would have meant to Mary. She was young, probably only in her mid-teens. She was engaged to be married to Joseph, a carpenter, and looking forward to a happy, normal life. What would any ordinary person have done in this situation? You or I would have done what Sarah did when the angel told her she would have a son in her old age. We would have laughed. Or we would have said, "No," because that was not part of our own plans, and would have interfered — maybe even have subjected us to humiliation, pain, terror and grief, as indeed it did to Mary.

Instead, Mary said, "I am the handmaid of the Lord. Let what you have said be done to me." This, right here, is the essential mystery of the Immaculate Conception. Unlike the rest of us, Mary was born without the original sin that drives human beings to choose our will over God's. That is what Immaculate Conception means: conceived without sin, born without the fundamental weakness that keeps us separate from God. Mary did not have to work at her faith. She never held herself separate from God. She never preferred her own choices.

That is not a life the rest of us can really imagine. Our own selves are always too present, too loud, too demanding. I am not entirely sure it's something the rest of us should even aspire to. In real life it would look too much like madness, and isn't presuming to know God's will the sin of pride? Mary had a uniquely mysterious relationship with God even before the conception of Jesus. She serves as a role model and as a bridge between us lesser humans and the Almighty, and it is this we celebrate on the solemnity of the Immaculate Conception.


Monday, December 05, 2011

The Holly King

Associated with: Celtic religions, Neopaganism
Also known as: Lleu Llaw Gyffes, Lugh, Gwyn ap Nudd, Lord of the Greenwood
Earliest recorded mention: Depends on whether you buy the theory
Major texts: The White Goddess by Robert Graves

The one thing this year's blog theme has shown me is how little I know about this subject, despite a lifelong interest in myths and comparative religions. I have not, for instance, read all of The White Goddess by the poet Robert Graves. If anyone wants to give me a copy for Christmas (or of Graves' memoir, Goodbye to All That, or of his collected poems) I'd be grateful.

Robert Graves is best known for the historical novels I, Claudius and Claudius the God, although his poetry deserves to be better read. He was a complicated man — to put it mildly — who did a good bit of damage to the people who loved him. He was a Romantic in the most complete and classic sense of that word, meaning that he considered emotions rather than reason the most powerful life forces. Carl Jung's theories of archetypes buried in a collective subconscious made sense to him, and The White Goddess is "a historical grammar of poetic myth" that traces all Western mythology to a single belief system involving a triple goddess of love, birth, and death (maiden, mother, crone) and her adjunct deities.

Among the mythic archetypes Graves identified were the Holly King and the Oak King, gods who battle for the world twice a year but rely on each other for life and identity. The Holly King presides over the waning of the year, from the Summer Solstice to the Winter Solstice; at the Winter Solstice, the Oak King triumphs, and life returns to the world.

Up here in Maine, we feel this waning acutely, and it does carry a feeling of portent and doom. The sun will set at 4:00 this afternoon; we are losing more than a minute of light a day. We battle it by decorating for Christmas: lights and greenery, things that sparkle, food full of butter and sugar to carry us through the months ahead. It was smart of early Christianity to co-opt this festival for its own purposes. The historical Jesus was probably born in early autumn; almost all of our western Christmas customs come from the old feast of Yule. The official stories might correlate Santa Claus to St. Nicholas or St. Basil, but the image of the bearded man in red is all Holly King.

My sisters gave me a light box for my birthday. It does help, though I feel irritable rather than sad, which probably doesn't make me any easier to be around.

Sunday, November 06, 2011

Persephone

Proserpine, Dante Gabriel Rossetti
Associated with: Greek & Roman mythology
Also known as: Proserpina, Kore, Nestis, Despoina
Earliest recorded mention: c. 1400 BCE
Major texts: Iliad, Odyssey, Aeneid, Pindar's odes, Hesiod's Theogony

I'm going to stop apologizing for the long absences from this blog, and I'm not sure I'll be able to keep up with it any better going forward. It's pressures of work, partly, but it's also a general malaise that has me feeling strangely detached from anything I could call "mine." This is an issue for a therapist, not a blog, but in the absence of decent health insurance I may check in here periodically to wrestle with some of this.

The goddess Persephone is one of the oldest of what we call Western civilization, predating the Olympian gods as part of the Eleusinian mysteries celebrated in Mycenaean Greece. Persephone's name has many variants in Greek, possibly because it came from a language other than Greek and was hard for the Greeks to say or spell. She is the daughter of Demeter, goddess of the harvest, and in her own right the Queen of the Underworld.

Persephone is also known as Kore, a name that means only "the Maiden." Her beauty and innocence captured the attention of Hades, King of the Underworld, who came up from below and kidnapped her (with the explicit or implicit permission of her father, Zeus). Demeter, anguished at the loss of her daughter, walked the earth in search of her. While she did, nothing grew or bloomed or bore fruit, and the world starved. Persephone, pining for her mother, refused to eat or drink in the Underworld, and would not let Hades woo her.

Finally Demeter learned what had happened to her daughter. Zeus ordered Hades to release her — and Hades agreed, except that he had managed to cajole Persephone to eat just a few pomegranate seeds. And anyone who ate any food in the Underworld would have to live there forever . . .

Persephone was returned to her mother, but as penalty for the six seeds, would have to return to the Underworld for six months of the year. During those months, the earth dies, and is renewed again when Persephone comes back to her mother.

Nathaniel Hawthorne's story "The Pomegranate Seeds" was my introduction to this myth. It's a children's story, so it softens the edges of what must originally have been terrifying. The adult Persephone, in her role as Queen of the Underworld, is a terrible figure in later Greek mythology. In Hawthorne's version, the child Proserpina comes to love her captor (Stockholm syndrome was well known before we had a name for it), and doesn't really mind returning to the Underworld for part of the year. Hawthorne's ending feels benign.

But up here in Maine, at this time of year, nothing feels benign about Persephone's return to the Underworld. We've already had one snowstorm, and frost is heavy on the ground right now. I need to replace my winter coat. I need to buy new ice spikes for my shoes. This may be the year I buy one of those lights to treat seasonal affective disorder. In the meantime I reread Swinburne's "Garden of Proserpine," and am grateful for the extra hour we got last night.


Monday, October 10, 2011

Eris

Associated with: Greek & Roman mythology
Also known as: Discordia, Enyo
Earliest recorded mention: c. 700 BCE
Major texts: Works and Days, Theogony, the Iliad

The name "Eris" is also the Greek word for strife, and Eris is the goddess of chaos. She's a troublemaker who never gets invited anywhere; she is either a daughter of Nyx, goddess of the night, or a true daughter of Zeus and Hera, and thus one of the highest-ranking immortals.

Hesiod distinguishes between two different goddesses named Eris, one of whom is destructive and one of whom's just restless. Even the restless one, however, is "unwholesome for men." The Greek ideal was placid and peaceful; nothing good could come of discontent.

If I were a serious historian or sociologist, I might study this question: why is the Greek ideal (and many of the Eastern ideals) peace and tranquility, when it is obvious that human progress comes only from discontent and conflict? People who are happy and have all their needs met might create beautiful works of art just for the joy of it, but they don't invent technology. Technology comes from need and want, and it's the simple truth that many of mankind's greatest technological and medical advances emerged from war.

Anyway, Eris is another object lesson in the dangers of leaving people off your guest list. According to Homer, the gods of Olympus gathered to celebrate the marriage of the human Peleus to the sea-nymph Thetis (over Thetis' initial objections, but that's another story). No one invited Eris, because she was a known troublemaker — but she showed up anyway, throwing an apple with a tag reading "For the fairest" into a group that included Hera, Athena and Aphrodite. They asked Paris, prince of Troy, to be the judge, and bribed him with the best they could offer: power (Hera), military might (Athena), or the most beautiful woman in the world, Helen, already married to Menelaus of Sparta (Aphrodite). Paris, poor fool, chose Helen, and the Trojan War began.

The children of Eris were as dangerous as she was, including (among others) the previously-mentioned Ponos, god of labor; Lethe, forgetfulness; Limos, famine; Algos, pain; Hysminai, combat; Makhai, battles; Pseudologoi, lies; Ate, folly; and Horkos, god of false promises.

In the present day, Eris is hailed as the patroness of Discordianism, "a sort of self-subverting Dada-Zen for Westerners" which its adherents say "should on no account be taken seriously but is far more serious than most jokes." For more information, check out Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson's novel Illuminatus!

Saturday, October 08, 2011

Grendel

Associated with: Old English folklore
Also known as: nothing
Earliest recorded mention: sometime after 1000 CE
Major text: Beowulf

As I wrote yesterday's post I found myself thinking about the nature of bullies and bullying. I have been a bully in my time, and once in a while, I'm afraid I still am. I'm ashamed of that. It's something I've worked hard on since childhood, when my mother got in my face — literally — after I punched my younger brother in the stomach. I'd scared him, and she scared me: "How do you like it?" she said. I didn't. I try to remember that, but I don't always know when I'm scary. I'm taller, larger, smarter and more articulate than average. Sometimes it's just too easy for me to make other people feel terrible, and I don't realize I've done it until it's too late to take back.

But most bullies don't realize they're bullies, and most monsters don't realize they're monsters. Most evil in the world isn't deliberate evil; it's expediency, or laziness, or maybe even misplaced good intentions. Eugenicists, for example, honestly believe they're improving the human race. The Westbrook Baptist Church honestly believes - I think - that they're working toward God's glory.

The monster Grendel appears early in the saga of Beowulf, "a fiend of hell:/The wrathful spirit . . . The joyless being". Grendel, whose appearance is never clearly described in the original text, is identified as a descendant of Cain, banished from human society for all time. Compare him to the "Scylding's beloved folk-king," Beowulf, the perfect hero, admired and loved by all.

Grendel didn't ask to be the descendant of Cain, any more than Cain had asked to have his offering rejected by the Almighty. (Genesis 4: "Yahweh looked with favour on Abel and his offering./But he did not look with favour on Cain and his offering, and Cain was very angry and downcast.") It is one of the very oldest human questions: why? Why are some loved, and some not? Why do some have much, and others have none? Why are some people golden from birth, and others permanently outcast?

Cain killed Abel. Therefore he chose to be evil, even if he wasn't evil to begin with, and thus God's rejection seems justified in retrospect — look, he didn't deserve to be loved in the first place. And Grendel, Cain's descendant, is cursed from birth, and never deserves to be part of the community. So he decides to wreck it. Wouldn't you? Wouldn't any of us?

John Gardner's wonderful novel Grendel explores this at great length, and made a huge impression on me when I read it in 10th grade. Grendel knows that he is something other and outside, and the only way he can deal with that is to see the world as something rotten and not worth having: "...the world was nothing: a mechanical chaos of casual, brute enmity on which we stupidly impose our hopes and fears. I understood that, finally and absolutely, I alone exist."

This, of course, is Evil with a capital E: the idea that your will is the only thing that matters. But what terrible sorrow, rage and despair drove Grendel to this conclusion. If someone had invited him to dinner, or offered to brush his hair, all of English literature might have been different.


Friday, October 07, 2011

Apep

Associated with: Early Egyptian mythology
Also known as: Apepi, Aapep, Apophis
Earliest recorded mention: c. 4000 BCE
Major texts: Book of the Dead

I've been neglecting the "demons" aspect of this blog (actually, neglecting the blog altogether, but I resolve once again to do better). Apep is a big, early one, embodying many of the most basic human fears: darkness, chaos and snakes.

Apep was the brother of Ra, the sun god, and Sobek, the creator god. Ra is often depicted with the head of a falcon; Sobek always has the head of a crocodile. Apep has no human form at all, but is always shown as a giant serpent, who kills not by strangling but by poison.

Apep constantly battled Ra, fighting the sun every day and losing again at the end of every night. Solar eclipses were seen as Apep's temporary triumph, thwarted by the prayers and sacrifices of priests. Apep was also responsible for earthquakes and thunderstorms. Because humans could not see an actual snake in the sky, they believed that Apep lived in the underworld, keeping himself deliberately hidden.

Those who believed in Aten, the single god who temporarily replaced the Egyptian pantheon, believed that Aten defeated Apep permanently. But even once the old gods were restored (after the death of Akhnaten), Apep just kind of . . . faded away, superceded by Set, the better-known god of darkness and chaos.

Ancient religions did not worship these evil gods as much as they tried to appease them — they prayed against them, but they also offered sacrifices to fend them off. It's human nature; as above, so below. Earlier this week I made the conscious decision, not once but twice, to appease a bully rather than confront them, because it was easier and saved time. But all that does, in real life as well as in the otherworld, is encourage them. Who wouldn't stick around in hopes of another sacrifice? Apep's fate proves the truth of what my mother used to tell us about the boy next door: ignore them, and they'll go away.



Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Asclepius

Associated with: Greek mythology
Also known as: Asklepios
Earliest recorded mention: c. 8th century BCE
Major texts: The Iliad, Pythian and Nemean Odes, Bibliotheca 3 of Pseudo-Apollodorus

One of the more interesting aspects of the Greek & Roman belief system was that you didn't have to be divine to become a god (yes, I'll probably get to Caligula later). It's quite possible that Asclepius, the Greek god of medicine, was a real human being, who made pioneering advances in medicine and was later remembered as a god, or at least godlike.

Some myths say that Asclepius was the son of Apollo and a human woman - either Arsinoe, an Egyptian princess, or Coronis, daughter of Phlegyas, king of the Lapiths. It strikes me that this was a convenient explanation for illegitimate births, especially among the nobility: a resourceful young woman could always claim that Zeus or Apollo or some other god had happened on her unawares, and had his way.

But Asclepius survives to this day as a symbol and patron of physicians, although I haven't found much that describes his specific practices. Pindar reported that he treated "all who came to him . . . plagues with sores of festering growths, some wounded by the stokes of weapons of bright bronze, of by the slinger's shot of stone, others with limbs ravaged by summer's fiery heat or by the winter's cold, to each for every various ill he made the remedy, and gave deliverance from pain, some with the gently songs of incantation others he cured with soothing draughts of medicines, or wrapped their limbs around with doctored salves, and some he made whole with the surgeon's knife."

Some legends say he had the power to raise the dead, which made Zeus so angry he destroyed Asclepius with a thunderbolt. The dead Asclepius became divine as a star in the constellation Ophiochus, the Serpent Bearer.

I'd like to know more about ancient Greek medical practices. Certainly until about 100 years ago, doctors did as much harm as good. My own great-grandmother died of puerperal fever after giving birth at home, because hospitals were considered too dirty and dangerous. But I actually have a friend who suffers from hemachromatosis, a relatively rare blood disorder whose only effective treatment remains — yes — bloodletting.

So today, as I recover from something that might have been a cold or the flu or something bacterial, I'll push fluids and take some Alka-Seltzer Flu formula, maybe catch a nap, and skip the doctor. For now.

Monday, October 03, 2011

Lir

Associated with: Irish and Welsh mythology
Also known as: Ler, Llyr
Earliest recorded mention: c. 900
Major texts: Sanas Cormaic, Leannaí Lir, the Welsh Triads

Apologies for the two-week hiatus. It's hard to blog from the road, as I don't have access to my bookshelves, but I've also been more than usually distracted by family and work demands. New month, new goals, new discipline: among other things, I'm going to try to do my own work first.

Ler (the correct nominative form of the name) is the ancient Irish god of the sea, which feels appropriate, as yesterday was my dad's 70th birthday — a birthday his children could not celebrate with him, because he's on a Navy supply ship somewhere in the Mediterranean. In the modern way, we all left him messages on Facebook. I hadn't even mailed him a gift because I thought he'd be home this week, and I feel bad about that. So sorry, Dad, and happy birthday.

The better-known Irish god of the sea is Manannán mac Lir, Ler's son ("mac Lir" meaning "son of the sea"). Scholars speculate that Ler was an older god whose worship was superceded by his son's. Both are associated with the underworld as well as with the sea, and why not? It seems natural to see the sea as a gateway to that other world, or maybe that's just my own heritage.

We remember Ler now mainly because of the legend of the Children of Lir, which I first read as a child of 7 or 8, in a collection of fairy tales I wish I'd hung onto. Ler and his beloved wife Aoibh had four children, a daughter and three sons. But Aoibh died, and Ler married her sister, Aoife, to comfort himself and give his children a new mother. Aoife was jealous of the children, and tried to have them killed. Instead of being killed, the children were turned into swans. In the version of the story I remember, the curse would last until a bell rang to call them back to their home — but when the bell rang, almost 1,000 years had passed, and all the people and things they loved had gone. The children of Lir became human again, only to die and be reunited happily with their parents in heaven.

This story made a huge impact on me when I was 7 or 8, and even now I can't say exactly why. Ler's hardly in the story at all; the story's about the children. It wasn't his fault that the children turned into swans. The swans lived hundreds of years in exile, waiting to be called home, only to find that home had vanished when the call finally came. When I was 7 or 8, this was the saddest story I had ever read. Almost 40 years later, I think it still is.


Saturday, September 17, 2011

Frigg

Associated with: Norse mythology
Also known as: Frigga, Frige
Earliest recorded mention: Unknown, but before Tiberius' conquest of the Germanic tribes in 1-4 CE
Major texts: Poetic Edda, Prose Edda, the Ynglinga Saga

The name Frigg comes from a word that means "beloved," and Frigg, wife of Odin and co-ruler of Asgard, is the goddess of marriage. According to the legends, Frigg has the gift of prophesy but chooses not to tell what she knows — which seems particularly appropriate, as marriage may be the most mysterious and marvelous of all human relationships.

My Claire and her Zach are getting married this afternoon. If Frigg still rules in Asgard, I hope she will look in. Either way, we will be marking the occasion with words that recognize how extraordinary every wedding is:
here is the deepest secret nobody knows
(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud
and the sky of the sky of a tree called life;which grows
higher than soul can hope or mind can hide)
and this is the wonder that's keeping the stars apart
e.e. cummings, the man with the answers. 



Thursday, September 15, 2011

Ogma

Associated with: Irish and Scottish mythology, possibly Gaulish as well
Also known as: Oghma, Ogme, Ogmae, Ogmios (spelling is not a strength of the Irish language)
Earliest recorded mention: c. 1000 CE, although based on a much older oral tradition
Major texts: Lebor Gabála Érenn (The Book of Invasions)

Once upon a time, giants and heroes walked the earth. Among them were the Tuatha Dé Danann, the people of the goddess Danu, who captured Ireland from the Fir Bolg. I've never been quite clear on what was wrong with the Fir Bolg; maybe nothing, it was just that the Tuatha Dé Danann were so great. In the original stories, they were almost certainly gods, possibly gods brought over and adapted from the religious practices of Gaul (modern France). When it came time to write the stories down, however, the people who knew how to do that were Christian monks. Mindful of the first commandment ("you shall have no other gods before me"), they turned gods into heroes, something less than divine but still something more than ordinary human beings.

Ogma was a great champion, sometimes linked to depictions of Hercules because of his feats of strength. With his brother (or in some stories, father) the Dagda and his half-brother Lugh he is one of the "three gods of skill." Besides his strength, he is known primarily as a great orator and the inventor of the Irish written alphabet, called Ogham in his honor. The customary epithets for Ogma are "sun-faced" and "honey-tongued."

It's a major turning point in any society's development when it begins to value eloquence as much as physical strength, and the introduction of a written alphabet just about defines civilization. Say what you like about our current President, but I see value in having a head of state who can deliver a good speech when he needs to.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Selene

Associated with: Greek and Roman mythology
Also known as: Luna
Earliest recorded mention: c. 700 BCE
Major texts: Hesiod's Theogony; Virgil's Georgics; The Bibliotheca of Pseudo-Apollodorus

Selene was the original Greek moon goddess, a Titan who was the daughter of Hyperion and Theia. Her brother was Helios, the sun god, and her sister was Eos, the dawn. When the gods of Olympus overthrew the Titans, Artemis (Diana) supplanted Selene as goddess of the moon.

Selene was famous for falling in love. The most famous of her loves was Endymion, a human shepherd (or, in some versions of the story, a hunter or a king). Because he was human, and therefore inconstant and mortal, Selene put him to sleep permanently (or, in later versions of the story, asked Zeus to do so). She kept the sleeping Endymion with her forever, and managed to have 50 daughters by him — exactly how, I'm not clear, and perhaps it's better not to ask.

The full moon was enormous as it rose tonight. I'd have taken a picture, if I took pictures. Of all the nature-inspired gods, a moon god or goddess makes the most sense to me. Unlike the sun, the moon has a face. It ebbs and flows, seeming to draw closer to us and then pull farther away. Its 28-day cycle controls the tides, within and without. Although a few civilizations had moon gods, is it any wonder most civilizations saw the moon as female?

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Shiva

Associated with: Hinduism
Also known as: Rudra, Nataraja, Mahādeva, Maheśhvara, Parameśhvara; 10,000 additional names
Earliest recorded mention: c. 1700 BCE
Major texts: the Upanishads, the Mahabharata (including the Bhagavad Gita)

"Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds."
Bhagavad Gita, ch. 11, v. 32

Shiva is one of the major gods of Hinduism — depending on the sect, the major god, one of the top three, or one of the top five. Eternal and omniscient, Shiva is the god of destruction but also lord of the dance. He is always depicted as a handsome and smiling young man, but he covers himself with ashes. One of his names, Rudra, means "terrible," while another, Śaṇkara, means "beneficent." He is ascetic and celibate, but also married to the goddesses Sati and Parvati, and father of Ganesha and Kartikeya. With his many hands he gives, and he takes away.

To call Shiva the god of death, as my 9th grade World Cultures textbook did, is telling only half the story, and missing the point in a major way. A belief in reincarnation is central to Hinduism, and Shiva is a god not so much of death but of transformation. Everything dies, but everything is reborn. Shiva, who is eternal, expands rather than reincarnates, and symbolizes the constant balancing and renewal of the universe.

This idea of transformation is powerful and feels like a fundamental truth. We see it in the change of seasons and in the first letter of Paul to the Corinthians: "I will tell you something that has been secret: that we are not all going to die, but shall all be changed."

I don't remember much about September 11, 2001. I was living in Los Angeles, and in the habit of getting up very early, as most of my clients were on the East Coast. I took Dizzy for a walk around the block, then booted up my computer. The headline on my web browser announced that a plane had struck one of the World Trade Center towers. At 6:30, the phone rang. It was my friend Meredith, who shared an apartment with my cousin Moira in West Hollywood. She told me to turn on the television, that it was terrible.

Within the hour several of us had gathered at Meredith and Moira's. We spent the day there, watching the television and calling everyone we knew in New York and Washington, as the telephone lines jammed and we waited for the next attack. When I eventually drove home, the streets of Los Angeles were as empty as if a neutron bomb had hit it.

We were all transformed that day, and the transformation continues. Shiva reminds us that joy comes from sorrow, that life comes from death, and that even the gods dance.


Thursday, September 08, 2011

Thor

Associated with: Ancient Germanic and Old Norse belief systems
Also known as: Þunor, Donar and 14 other names, most frequently Atli ("the terrible"), Einridi ("the one who rides alone"), Hloridi ("the loud rider"), Rym ("noise") and Vingthor
Earliest recorded mention: Unknown, but before Tiberius' conquest of the Germanic tribes in 1-4 CE
Major texts: Poetic Edda, Prose Edda

I could not help but wonder, when I saw (and thoroughly enjoyed) Thor at the movies this summer, how modern Christians would react to a movie that portrayed Jesus as a Marvel superhero. But then, Jesus didn't make a habit of smiting his enemies, and many of the stories of Thor in the Eddas would fit perfectly well in a comic book.

Thor was, of course, the god of thunder, and is the source of the name Thursday. He was the son of Odin, the Allfather, and of Jord, who personifies the Earth Primeval. Thor's hammer Mjollnir throws lightning, while thunder comes from Thor's chariot, drawn by the goats Tanngrisnir and Tanngnost. He has a red beard and red hair, and many children born of several different goddesses. He was the strongest of the gods, with his strength doubled by a magic belt, Megingjard.

The Roman historian Tacitus, describing the religious practices of the Germans, associated Thor with the Roman god Hercules, and noted that Thor did not require human sacrifices, while Odin did. This willingness to settle for animals instead of human was one element that made Thor the most popular of all the Norse gods, especially once Christian missionaries reached the tribes of Germany and Scandinavia. The worship of Thor survived well past the official Christianization of Norway; it was easy to disguise Thor's hammer symbol as a cross, and archeologists have found quite a few of these amulets. The swastika was also a symbol of Thor, especially popular with women, before Adolf Hitler adapted it to his own uses. The Grimm brothers recorded references to Thor in the fairy tales they collected from Germans in the 19th century.

At the end of the universe — Ragnarok, in Norse mythology, and the Gotterdammerung, in German — prophecies say that Thor will battle Jormungandr, the Midgard Serpent, who will rise up and cause the seas to flood and boil. Jormungandr will poison the earth and soil before Thor finally kills him, but Thor himself will be poisoned and die as well. The worlds will burn, the earth will sink into the sea, but from this devastation a new world will emerge. Two human survivors, Lif and Lifthrasir, will start a new civilization.

Scandinavia and Iceland, in particular, are harsh climates subject to almost every extreme natural phenomenon: volcanoes, earthquakes, blizzards, terrible storms, floods, droughts, etc. The prophecies of Ragnarok explained these phenomena and offered the promise that humanity would survive them, in some form, even if the gods did not. It's pretty radical, if you think about it: a religion that promises that humanity will outlive its gods. It's a worldview with deep implications for German history, in particular, inspiring (among others) Nietzsche, Wagner and Hitler himself.


Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Tefnut

Associated with: Ancient Egyptian mythology
Also known as: Tefenet, Tefnet
Earliest recorded mention: c. 2400-2300 BCE
Major texts: Pyramid Texts, Coffin Texts, Book of the Dead, etc.

"I united myself to my shadow, and I sent forth Shu and Tefnut out from myself; thus from being one god I became three"
The Egyptian Book of the Dead

The name Tefnut is a best guess, as the goddess's name is transliterated TFNT, with no indication of how it was was pronounced. It means "she of moisture," and Tefnut was the goddess of rain, among other things. Born of Amun, the creator (also called Aten and Ra), she was the twin sister and the wife of Shu, the god of air, and the mother of Nut (the sky) and Geb (the earth).

It's hard to imagine how important the rain must have been in ancient Egypt, but the fact that the rain goddess was one of the first three gives us some idea. Tefnut is always shown with a scepter, the symbol of power, and an ankh, the symbol of life. She wears the sun disk as a headdress and her head is a lion's, reminding us of how powerful the rain can be. Even during the time when Akhnaten tried to convert Egypt to the worship of the single god Aten, Akhnaten and his wife, Nefertiti, were sometimes depicted as Shu and Tefnut.

An ancient legend tells the story of a time when Tefnut and her father, Amun-Ra, had a serious argument, and Tefnut left Egypt for a distant land. In her absence, Egypt suffered drought; the crops failed and the people starved. Amun-Ra repented, and sent Thoth (god of medicine, magic and the underworld) and Shu to get her back. When Tefnut returned, the lands were flooded, and the people rejoiced.

It's raining today. It rained some yesterday and it's supposed to rain more tomorrow. We don't rejoice over floods any more, but I'd rather have rain than drought.

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Xiuhtecuhtli

Associated with: Aztec mythology
Also known as: Huehueteotl, Chantico
Earliest recorded mention: uncertain, but before 1545
Major texts: the Florentine Codex

Xiuhtecuhtli, the Lord of Turquoise, was the Aztec god of both fire and time, and one of four Aztec "creator gods." As Xiuhtecuhtli he is young and virile, but in his incarnation as Huehueteotl, he is "the Old God," and as Chantico, he is female, the goddess of the hearth. The Florentine Codex, a record transcribed by the Franciscan monk Bernardino de Sahagun, calls him the mother and father of the other gods, and says that he lives in a turquoise enclosure in the center of the earth. He is also, appropriately, the god of volcanoes.

Xiuhtecuhtli was lord of the calendar, so crucially important to every element of Aztec life. The Aztec calendars were far more sophisticated than its European counterparts, and the people of Mesoamerica figured out leap years (among other things) earlier and more accurately than other civilizations. In addition to a 365-day calendar that reflected the solar year, the Aztecs followed a sacred 260-day calendar called the tonalpohualli, or day-count. Each of 20 days corresponded to a different god, and these days were paired with numerical designations from 1 to 13. Xiuhtecuhtli's day was Atl (water); the Aztecs believed that the world survived in a fragile balance of opposing forces. Atl was a day of conflict and purification, as the combination of fire and water must always be.

The combination of the 20 daysigns and 13 calendar numbers took 52 years to complete a full cycle. At the end of those 52 years the Aztecs celebrated the New Fire ceremony, the Binding of the Years, in Xiuhtecuhtli's honor in order to prevent the destruction of the world. After five days of preparation by fasting, ritual bloodletting, ritual cleansing and silence, the ceremony was performed on an extinct volcano, and included - yes - human sacrifice, an important element of several Aztec rituals. The last of these New Fire ceremonies was held in 1507, before the Spanish conquest of 1519-21. Bernardino de Sahagun, who recorded the ceremony, never saw it himself.

The calendar says that today is Tuesday, September 6, but for most of us in the US, no matter how many years out of school we are, it still feels like the first day of the year. Fires are raging in Texas and Louisiana, and the Great Dismal Swamp is still burning even after 12 inches of rain from Hurricane Irene. It's probably fortunate that we no longer practice human sacrifice.

Monday, September 05, 2011

Ponos

Associated with: Greek and Roman mythology
Also known as: Ponus
Earliest recorded mention: c. 700 BCE
Major texts: Hesiod's Theogony, The Aeneid, Cicero's De Natura Deorum

Ponos, the god of labor, was one of the children of Eris, goddess of discord, and brother to the personfications of almost every other imaginable human evil: forgetfulness, starvation, battles, murders, lies, anarchy and ruin. Virgil shows us Ponos in the Underworld, between Death (Letum) and Sleep (Sopor) and just down from Gaudia, the soul's empty joys. Cicero says that Ponos is one of the children of Erebus (Darkness) and Nox (Night), although Greek mythology tells us that Nyx (Nox) was the mother of Eris, which would make her Ponos' grandmother. Ponos is also identified as the god of hardship, and the name shares an etymology with the word for pain.

It tells us a great deal about Greek and Roman society that they personified physical toil as one of the evils inflicted on humanity. The Greek philosopher Epicurus (341 BCE - 270 BCE), who said that gods did not concern themselves with human matters, famously said that pleasure was good and pain was bad. The Epicurean ideal, however, is not one of excess, because excess causes pain. Instead, it is a life free from anxiety, in the company of friends, with only as much work as necessary for self-sufficiency.  Of course, this is an easier worldview to maintain when you live in a temperate climate where fruit grows on trees and sheep and goats feed themselves on hillsides.

Here in the United States, where it is Labor Day, we take a different view, rooted in the Calvinism of our pilgrim ancestors. The paradox of the Protestant work ethic, however, is that the Calvinist doctrine of predestination holds that the Elect are saved whether they work hard or not — but because the Elect are role models for the rest of us, they must work so that everyone else recognizes their virtue and their standing as those who are already saved.

This idea depresses me. Work just to make sure everybody knows you're virtuous? (Thus the unshakable American scorn for vacations and the terrible shame of unemployment, which is exacerbating our current economic crisis.) I prefer the Catholic model, which says your work actually earns you something. What it earns me is freedom from anxiety — so I too, in my own way, am pursuing the Epicurean ideal.

Saturday, September 03, 2011

Ahriman

Associated with: Zoroastrianism, Manichaeism  
Also known as: Angra (Anghra) Mainyu  
Earliest recorded mention: Uncertain, but believed to be c. 1200 BCE
Major texts: Avesta, Pahlavi texts (the Bundahishn, the Book of Arda Viraf, Jamasp Nameh)

Zoroastrianism, the religion expounded by the prophet Zarathustra (Zoroaster), was the dominant religion of the Persian Empire (c. 550-330 BCE). It was the most widely-practiced world religion during the life of Jesus, and still has many adherents in Iran and India. The 1907 Catholic Encyclopedia offers "Parsee" (Parsi) as a synonym for Zoroastrian, but Parsi is only one of the major communities within Zoroastrianism.

Zoroastrians worship Ahura Mazda (Ohrmazd), the creator of the universe and a source of only good. Evil in the world comes from Ahriman, or Angra Mainyu, the "destructive spirit" or "angry man" that is the exact opposite of Ahura Mazda. In various parts of the Avesta, Ahriman rules the nether world and is the chief (though not the creator) of the daevas, false gods that personify evil.

The Zurvanite sect of Zoroastrianism posits that Ahura Mazda and Ahriman were born as twins, and that Ahriman chose evil. The Zurvanite creation myth says that Ahriman was born of Zurvan (Time, the First Principle)'s doubt. Zarathustra prophesied that Ahura Mazda would ultimately defeat Ahriman, not only because his powers are superior (Ahura Mazda is omniscient; Ahriman is not) but because humans will choose good over evil.

In the third century, the Persian prophet Mani synthesized the principal teachings of Zoroastrianism, Christianity and Buddhism into a single faith. In Manichaeism, widely practiced between the third and seventh centuries, Ahriman rules the World of Darkness, composed of five evil kingdoms. He is the father of a son, Az, who in turn is the father of Adam and Eve — born after Az swallowed huge quantities of light. Adam and Eve, therefore, are the products of both light and darkness, with the freedom to choose between them.

This power of free will is a distinguishing element of Zoroastrianism, which, along with Judaism, was one of the first religions to recognize humans' ability to choose between good and evil. Ahriman answers the fundamental question, "Why does evil exist?" without forcing believers to see the universe itself as evil. The universe itself is good, but evil exists within it and outside it, a constant challenge. Likewise, we as humans are beings filled with light, though heirs to darkness. Therefore we all, as individuals, have not only the power but the responsibility to choose between the two. Zoroastrianism teaches that light will ultimately triumph, and that Ahriman's eventual defeat is inevitable — but "ultimately," as we see, is a long time coming.

Friday, September 02, 2011

Yahweh

Associated with: Judaism, Christianity
Also known as: Jehovah
Earliest recorded mention: c. 1400 BCE
Major texts: Torah (Old Testament)
Then Moses said to God, "I am to go, then, to the sons of Israel and say to them, 'The God of your fathers has sent me to you.' But if they ask me what his name is, what am I to tell them?/ And God said to Moses, "I Am who I Am. This," he added, "is what you must say to the sons of Israel: 'I Am has sent me to you.'"/ And God also said to Moses, "You are to say to the sons of Israel, 'Yahweh, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you.' This is my name for all time; by this name I shall be invoked for all generations to come." (Exodus 3:13-15)

The oldest books of the Bible, Genesis and Exodus, combine two separate traditions that refer to the deity by two different names. One of these is Elohim, a Hebrew word for God that can be either singular or plural (which I find fascinating, and will probably discuss at length down the road). The other, more familiar name is Yahweh.

"Yahweh" is our best transliteration of the Tetragrammaton, four Hebrew letters that were Romanized as YHWH, without vowels. Its precise meaning is a matter of scholarly debate. The Catholic Encyclopedia says that it is a noun derived from the Hebrew verb "to be," and means, "He who is." The Encyclopedia Britannica gives its meaning as "He Brings Into Existence Whatever Exists.”

Nor do we know how the name was pronounced — in large part because the name was not pronounced, because it was considered blasphemy to utter the name aloud. This teaching is still part of not only Judaism, but Catholicism as well. In 2008, the Vatican directed churches to stop using the name Yahweh in songs or prayers.

"As an expression of the infinite greatness and majesty of God, it was held to be unpronounceable and hence was replaced during the reading of sacred Scripture by means of the use of an alternate name: 'Adonai,' which means 'Lord,'" said a Vatican letter on the subject. "Avoiding pronouncing the Tetragrammaton of the name of God on the part of the church has therefore its own grounds. Apart from a motive of a purely philological order, there is also that of remaining faithful to the church's tradition, from the beginning, that the sacred Tetragrammaton was never pronounced in the Christian context nor translated into any of the languages into which the Bible was translated."

In my third-grade CCD (Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, the Catholic version of Sunday school) class, we learned that God was a being omniscient, omnipotent and omnipresent. Then, of course, we had to learn what those words meant: all-knowing, all-powerful, everywhere at all times. Infinite and unknowable. God had no gender, but we referred to Him as the Father Almighty because — because — because why? Well, that's a post for another day, but it was mainly because humans had to translate God into something we could recognize and relate to.

This, to me, is the mystery and the paradox of Yahweh: infinite and unknowable, the God of the Old Testament wants to be known. He gives us His name, which we cannot say. He shows Himself to us through symbols and messengers, because our human brains are simply not capable of taking in the enormity of God's existence. He is.

This being the case, how can any person or religion claim to know the single truth of God? We cannot. Instead, we choose a frame that shows us only the aspects we can get our minds and hearts around. The value and truth of the frame we choose does not invalidate anyone else's frame, because when it comes to the great I Am, none of us are more than blind men looking at an elephant.

Thursday, September 01, 2011

Of Gods and Monsters

Good grief, is it September already? As usual, August flew by, and as usual, I took no meaningful time off, nor did I make any progress on the two big long-term projects I'd hoped to devote time to. So it goes. In this environment I'm grateful for the work, and the important things will all get done eventually.

This year's blog takes a fairly radical turn, although like every year it's all about one of my own particular interests. The theme is "Gods and Monsters," and before I kick things off in earnest, I'll lay out what I hope to do with it, and set some crucial ground rules.

The "Gods and Monsters" title is a loose description. Each day's post will be a quick introduction to a major figure in world religions and mythology, with links for more information when available. I will do my best to treat each topic with respect, and I ask commenters to do the same. Politics and religion are supposed to be the great taboos of polite conversation, but I hope we can have one here.

To that end, I'm going to be a lot more stringent about policing comments than in previous years. I will delete anonymous comments immediately. You don't have to register, but you do have to sign your name. Most of us have strong beliefs. We will respect each other's faiths here, and that includes the faith of people who have no faith. (I believe that atheism is its own religion, but we'll get to that down the line.) Disagreements are fine, but disrespect is not. This is my blog, and I'll delete anything I consider offensive or pernicious.

My own background is Irish Catholic and Jesuit-influenced. I still call myself Catholic, although I am not as observant as I should be. I feel tremendous sorrow about certain teachings of my Church. Religions are families; I don't agree with everything my father says, either. Conflicts between one's personal beliefs and the teachings of one's Church are only human, not only to be expected but also an important part of the faith journey. I don't believe in predestination and I don't believe in revelation without effort. I believe that questioning strengthens and rewards our faith, and makes that faith more precious. That said, I also believe that grace is a gift offered to all of us, without a quid pro quo, and that we are all loved absolutely. Yes, even Hitler.

One Sunday morning when I was five or six years old, fidgeting in a pew at St. Leo's Church in Fairfax, Virginia, I realized that there had been a time when I did not exist. The world had existed before November 1965, but I had not. Where, then, had I been? I asked my mother and she said, "You were in the mind of God."

That made sense to me then, and it makes sense to me now. At one time was Nothing, but now we have Something. Why is there Something instead of Nothing? Why is there order (however disorderly) instead of chaos? Why is there life as well as death?

Humans have been asking these questions since we had words. In fact, these questions distinguish humans from other species. Sharks don't wonder why they're sharks. Dogs don't wonder why they're dogs. The answers we have come up with, however imperfect or ignorant or immature they may seem, form the basis of all our gods and all our monsters. Over the next year, this blog will explore them.

I'll be tinkering with the blog template over the weekend, but it will include a list of the major texts I'll be consulting during the year. Suggestions for further reading are always welcome.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

"Some people say/You can make it on your own/Oh, you can make it if you try/I know better now..."

The Song: "Real Real Gone," Van Morrison. Words & music by Van Morrison. Track 1 of Enlightenment, 1990.
When/how acquired: Purchased CD, c. 1992.
Listen/watch here.

The horns at the beginning of this song are an automatic mood-lifter. I wish I could play the trumpet, or better yet, the trombone -- I would love to know how to make a note slide like that.

Here it is the 31st of July already. I'll be real real gone for the month of August, at least from this blog. In fact, I'm going to try to take two days completely off this week, and visit a couple of friends who are renting an island house. We'll see if I can manage it.

When the blog returns in September, the new theme will be "Gods & Monsters." Every day I'll feature a different god, hero, monster or villain, with due respect to believers. I'm a believer myself, which the blog will explain and explore, and I'll welcome contributions from interested parties. I expect to learn a few things along the way, and I hope you do, too.

Between now and then I may post the occasional book review, or just check in to say hello. Happy August, and see you in September.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

"I don't know much but I'd like to know why."

The Song: "Maybe It's Imaginary," Kirsty MacColl. Words & music by Kirsty MacColl. Track 10 of Electric Landlady, 1991.
When/how acquired: Purchased used CD, c. 1994
I couldn't find this online, but you can see a pretty good cover here.

A former boss of mine once said he knew everything when he was 26, and had gotten dumber every year since. I might have peaked a few years later, maybe in my early 30s -- but without a doubt, I'm losing brain cells every day.

I'm surprised that this is only the second song from this album I've quoted this year. Electric Landlady is another one of my Desert Island Discs, and I'd ask for "The One and Only" to be played at my funeral except it would come off as maudlin.

That sound you hear is my deadlines rushing by you. Back to work, but I'll post tomorrow to close this year and announce next year's theme.

Friday, July 29, 2011

"The right to work is traded in for the right to refuse admission."

The Song: "Clubland," Elvis Costello & the Attractions. Words & music by Elvis Costello. Track 1 of Trust, 1981.
When/how acquired: Purchased cassette, c. 1984
Listen/watch here.

"Clubland" was the first song Elvis Costello and his band played off the Spectacular Spinning Songbook last night, and felt even more pointed in today's world than it did 30 years ago.

The show was fantastic, and Costello himself is uncanny. I don't see well in dim light, but on stage he looked ageless, just like the skinny kid he was 30 years ago. More than that, he looked like he was having a great time. We should all be so lucky; the man will be 57 next month, and he seems to be doing exactly what he wants to do.

Elvis Costello's gotten more posts in this year's blog than any other artist, and what I love about him is how wide his vision is. When he was burning out on New Wave in the early 1980s, he peeled off and made a country album. Later, he made an album with Burt Bacharach (Painted from Memory) that is still one of my favorites. After Katrina, he made The River in Reverse with New Orleans R&B legend Allan Toussaint.

Last night's set included covers of the Rolling Stones ("Out of Time"), Prince ("Purple Rain"), Johnny Cash ("Cry, Cry, Cry"), Jesse Winchester ("Payday"), Chuck Berry/Elvis Presley ("Promised Land"), and a version of "Tracks of My Tears" that segued from "Alison" and made me realize those are basically two versions of the same song. Elvis Costello understands his place on a river of music, and rides the river where it takes him. I admire that.

I said I'd talk about books this week and haven't really, but last night's show reminded me of one of my favorite reads of this year so far, which I don't think I've mentioned yet: NASHVILLE CHROME by Rick Bass. It's a novel based on the real-life story of The Browns, a brother-and-sister trio (Maxine, Bonnie and Jim Ed) who were early members of the Grand Old Opry, and toured with Elvis Presley. NASHVILLE CHROME is one of the best portrayals I've ever read of music as a job, and that tension between the longing for stardom and the need to make a living.

By the time my friend Richard and I got out of the State Theatre last night, the Spinning Songbook was already dismantled, and the stage was a jumble of boxes and cables and dollies. It's only glamorous from the outside, but on a good night it must be magic for the musicians as well as for the audience. Why else would they do it?

Thursday, July 28, 2011

"There's a word in Spanish/Italian and German/In sign language, morse code/Semaphore and gibberish..."

The Song: "Pidgin English," Elvis Costello and the Attractions. Words & music by Elvis Costello. Track 13 of Imperial Bedroom, 1982.
When/how acquired: Purchased cassette, c. 1983; purchased CD, c. 1994.
Listen/watch here.

Writing a lot this week for various clients, and one of the challenges is switching voices from one to another. An author's newsletter is not written in the same language as a marketing pitch, or a commercial website, or a press release, or Congressional testimony – although of course they're all in English. Switching back and forth, I occasionally come up blank when I reach for a word, and it's hardest of all to find my own voice again at the end of the day.

Tonight I have tickets to see Elvis Costello at the State Theatre, though it feels like playing hooky to take an evening off. I've seen him before, but it's been years. This time he's got the roulette wheel that lets audiences choose the playlist. I'm hoping to hear a lot from this album, which would rank near the top of my Desert Island Discs.

The words Elvis Costello is trying to come up with, in this song, are "P.S., I love you," which I don't say enough. We're three days away from the end of this blog incarnation, so go ahead and take that to heart -- thanks for hanging in there with me this year, and sorry I haven't been as conscientious as in previous years. When I'm AWOL, you can always check out blogs belonging to my cousins Moira and Sheila (who celebrates a birthday today).

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

"I know it might sound strange, but I believe/You'll be coming back before too long."

The Song: "(Don't go Back to) Rockville," R.E.M. Words & music written by R.E.M. (Bill Berry, Peter Buck, Mike Mills & Michael Stipe). Track 5 of Eponymous, 1988.
When/how acquired: Purchased CD, c. 1991.
Listen/watch here.

Yes, I know this track was originally on Reckoning; I don't own Reckoning. Sorry.

So I promised last week that I'd write about books this week, because I've gotten so far behind on my reading lists here. It's not that I haven't been reading; it's that I've been reading things for work, and reading things in bits and pieces, and reading works still in progress or at various stages pre-publication.

Of the finished books I've read this year, though, I've noticed a strange spike in stories about kidnappings. Joseph Finder's BURIED SECRETS is about a teenaged girl who's kidnapped and buried alive; Linwood Barclay's FEAR THE WORST is another story about a missing teenager, with his trademark revelations of shocking family secrets; Michelle Gagnon's KIDNAP AND RANSOM is an interesting look at the international paramilitary industry of kidnapping.

The most powerful kidnapping thriller I've read this year, though, is also the shortest: Megan Abbott's THE END OF EVERYTHING. (I almost used a line from that Chris Isaak song as today's lyric, but there isn't much to the song.) I've read the book twice now -- I needed to give myself a couple of weeks to digest it, then went back for a second look. If anything, it punched harder the second time around.

THE END OF EVERYTHING is set in a wealthy Michigan suburb, sometime in the 1980s (the book includes at least one anachronism, but it's a memory piece, verging on the surreal, so I didn't mind). It's narrated by Lizzie, who is 13 the summer her best friend Evie disappears. Lizzie and Evie are next-door neighbors; Lizzie's parents are divorcing, and she longs for a father like Evie's. The mystery of where Evie has gone, and with whom, is solved quickly enough. The book is more about why, and what happens to Lizzie and the others who are left behind.

Some of the published reviews of this book, while positive, have missed the point in quite a spectacular way. This is not a conventional thriller: it is almost an emotional autopsy, a fearless look at the violent boundaries of adolescence. Thirteen-year-old girls are chimeras, extraordinary creatures who are neither girls nor women, but both. It's a strange and dangerous time, and I'm not sure I've ever read a book that examines this as ruthlessly as THE END OF EVERYTHING does. When I finished it, I told Megan that I felt a little afraid of her. She took it as a compliment, which was my intention, but I wasn't kidding. We should all be a little afraid of anyone who sees the world this sharply, and isn't afraid to report what she sees.

I finished this book and wished that I belonged to a book group, so I had someone to discuss it with. I have discussed it, at length, with a couple of friends, and have not been surprised by how viscerally everyone seems to respond to it. It's made at least one of my friends downright angry, which I take as proof of the uncomfortable truths at its center. Exactly what those truths are I don't want to say, for fear of giving away too much of the story -- but if anyone wants to discuss the book in the comments section, go right ahead. Everybody else, skip the comments to avoid spoilers.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Special Bonus Post! Five Exotic Major League Pitches

Tim Wakefield is one of only two knuckleballers pitching in the Major League today (the other is R.A. Dickey of the New York Mets). I realized yesterday that I don't actually know what a knuckleball is, nor could I explain several of the other pitches Wakefield threw yesterday. So for my edification and yours, a quick rundown.

1. Knuckleball. A pitch thrown deliberately to minimize the ball's spin in flight, which creates erratic speed and motion. Knuckleballs are hard to throw, hard to catch, hard to hit and hard for umpires to call. The pitcher who brought it to the Major Leagues, Eddie Cicotte of the Chicago White Sox, actually held the ball with his knuckles before throwing it; Tim Wakefield holds it with his fingertips. Knuckleballs are slow -- 55-75 mph -- so it's their unpredictability that makes them hard to hit.

2. Cutter. A fastball that breaks slightly toward the pitcher's glove side as it reaches the plate. Most effective against opposite-handed batters.

3. Splitter. A split-fingered fastball, related to the changeup, sometimes called a forkball (though a forkball differs slightly, and I'll be grateful to anyone who can explain how). Splitting the fingers when throwing a fastball makes it behave more like a knuckleball, but (obviously) faster. The ball drops and moves right or left as it reaches the plate, forcing the batter to try to chase it with the bat.

4. Slider. A pitch slightly slower than a fast ball that breaks sideways and down as it reaches the plate, and is thus a type of breaking ball.

5. Changeup. Sometimes called a slow ball or an off-speed pitch, it's created by changing the grip on the ball. Pitchers generally use two fingers to throw a fastball; changeups use three, with the ball held closer to the palm, or cradle the ball in a circled hand. The goal is to fool the batter about the speed of the approaching ball, so that even if the batter makes contact, the ball flies foul.

"You'll be a bust, be a bust, be a bust/In the Hall of Fame."

The Song: "We Welcome You to Munchkinland," original cast members. Words & music by E.Y. Harburg and Harold Arlen. Track 5 of The Wizard of Oz, original motion picture soundtrack, 1939.
How/when acquired: This is a cheat, as I don't actually own this track. I did once, on vinyl, as a tiny child; years later I did again, on a floppy disk, as part of a screensaver package. But this track I found on Spotify, which I just got and love like a new pet.
Listen/watch here.

Yesterday I went to Fenway Park for the very first time, to see the Red Sox clobber the Mariners and Tim Wakefield pitch his 2,000th career strikeout (and the 2001st, too). It was Maine Appreciation Day; thanks to my friend Richard for bringing me along.

Tim Wakefield turns 45 next week, and has been pitching for the Red Sox since 1995. He is currently the oldest active player in Major League Baseball, and yesterday marked his sixth win of the season, bringing his record to 6-3 for the year. Last year he won the Roberto Clemente Award (after being nominated eight times) as the player who "best exemplifies the game of baseball, sportsmanship, community involvement and the individual's contribution to his team."

What makes Wakefield's performance even more remarkable is that he didn't start out as a pitcher at all. He came to the majors (after being told he never would) as a first baseman, with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1988. He decided to try to learn to pitch, and worked his way back up from the Carolina League (single-A ball, if you remember Bull Durham). He spent most of the first half of the 1990s in the minor leagues, eventually being released from the Pirates and winding up with the Red Sox in 1995 basically because he and they didn't have many other choices. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Tim Wakefield just wanted to keep playing, and has found a way to do it for 23 years. Whether or not he ever gets elected to the official Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, he's already a Hall of Fame player, and I'm so very glad that I got to watch him play. It makes me want to work on a knuckleball of my own.

Friday, July 22, 2011

"I wish that I could push a button/And talk in the past and not the present tense."

The Song: "Brilliant Mistake," The Costello Show (Elvis Costello). Words & music by Declan MacManus (Elvis Costello). Track 20 of The Very Best of Elvis Costello & the Attractions, 1994.
When/how acquired: Purchased CD, c. 1994.
Listen/watch here.

This track appeared first on the 1986 album King of America, which my then-boyfriend owned on vinyl, but I never did. For some reason the songs on this album are credited to Elvis Costello's birth name, Declan Patrick Aloysius MacManus, which reminds me that I've always wondered what his friends call him. Surely his wife doesn't call him Elvis? "Aloysius" was my own grandfather's middle name, and I always liked it, although you probably couldn't call a kid that today.

Anyway, I digress. We're having a heat wave in central Maine, along with the rest of the country, and my brain is melting and slowly leaking out of my ears. It seems impossible that a month ago I had the heat on, and I know that a month from now we'll already be looking at autumn. That does not make today's 90-degree temperatures any easier to take. Dizzy lies in front of my floor fan and whimpers; I'm sitting here with a cold pack draped around my neck, although it's turned lukewarm and clammy. Disgusting. I could go work at the state library and probably will, since the heat's making my computer erratic (at least, I hope it's the heat). But I feel both worried and guilty about Dizzy, who will probably need a trip to the river or the reservoir in another half hour or so.

I realize it's been a very long time since I posted a reading list, and since it has, I'll make all of next week's posts about books. The problem is that I've been reading too much for work, and some of that is confidential, so I need to figure out what I can and can't admit to having read.

Still, I have no reservation about recommending my current reading material, which is Hodder's UK trade paperback reissue of NINE COACHES WAITING by Mary Stewart. I read this book first when I was nine, I think. It was one of the very first grown-up books I ever read, and I reread my mother's paperback copy until it fell to pieces. It is a modern (well, 1958) updating of a classic Gothic tale: Linda Martin, English governess, comes to the remote Chateau de Valmy to care for the nine-year-old Comte, an orphan whose uncle Leon serves as guardian. Leon's son is a handsome rogue named Raoul, who sweeps Linda off her feet -- but soon enough, Linda realizes that all is not as it seems, and that both she and her young charge are in deadly peril.

At nine years old, I wanted to live in this book. I wanted to ride in the passenger seat of Raoul de Valmy's Cadillac, taking the Alpine turns at reckless speed. I wanted to be able to make my own ball gown from Italian gossamer found in a small mountain town. I wanted to drink cafe fine, not that I knew what cafe fine was, and quote William Blake to handsome strangers.

I do occasionally quote William Blake to strangers. And I drink my share of coffee, though I'm still not completely sure about the definition of cafe fine.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

"I'm the devil and the king of lies."

The Song: "Crime," The Pietasters. Words & music by Todd Eckhardt. Track 9 of Willis, 1997.
When/how acquired: Purchased CD, c. 1998.
Listen/watch here.

I have a lot of work to do. A lot. My apartment is a mess. My kitchen sink is full of dishes. And what am I doing?

Watching the Murdoch hearings on MSNBC. It's not our scandal, it's not even my country, but I cannot look away. "Are you familiar with the term 'willful blindness'?"

The facts of this case are compelling enough, and get more astonishing every day. (The Guardian is the best source of comprehensive coverage, though it can hardly claim to be a disinterested party.) But what's sucked me in is the sharp suspicion that this kind of thing has been happening for quite a while, may even happen all the time, and this is the inevitable product of our society's insatiable greed for gossip. In fact, I've heard a few people say they weren't particularly bothered by the idea of celebrities' cell phones being hacked, as it was part of the price of fame; they weren't outraged until they discovered that private individuals had been victimized.

I don't know where we got this idea that celebrities traded in their basic human rights as the price of fame, but I hope this scandal makes the whole gossip and "reality" industry stop and step back. People have a right to keep secrets, even if they're selling other elements of their personas. The public doesn't necessarily have a right to know, except about public actions being performed with public funds.

Imagine this level of aggressive reporting and national scrutiny being turned on our medical system, or on the Afghanistan campaign, or on any public matter that costs us money and shapes our lives.

The breakup of NewsCorp seems inevitable in light of these hearings, falling hard on the heels of yesterday's announcement of Borders' liquidation. I would like to think this presages an end to the dominance of the global corporation, and a new era of start-ups and small businesses and independent entrepreneurship. I don't know whether one thing necessarily follows another.

The lesson that emerges from this hearing, however, is that as soon as an organization becomes large enough to obscure personal responsibility, it does.

Monday, July 18, 2011

"I want a feeling for a dog."

The Song: "Dog," El Perro del Mar. Words & music by Sarah Assbring (El Perro del Mar). Track 5 of El Perro del Mar, 2006.
When/how acquired: Gift CD, 2009
Listen/watch here.

Sarah Assbring, the sole member of El Perro del Mar (Dog of the Sea), is Swedish, and while I know her English is better than my Swedish, I wonder why the songs on this album are written in a language that is obviously not her own. Then again, would we buy pop music recorded in Swedish? Possibly not, although the friend who gave me this CD probably would and has.

Anyway, this is a nice, bouncy chorus that's been running in my head all day, because Dizzy does not seem to be feeling well at all. I hope it's just the heat, which is brutal for Maine (although, in only the high 80s, would seem gentle in Washington or Los Angeles). Dizzy didn't get up until after 9:00 this morning, and is currently strategically positioned to catch the cross breeze between the fans in my living room and my bedroom.

I want to believe that Dizzy's life is a good one and mostly cheerful. He always seems happy to go out, happy to get a treat, happy to go for a ride. He's much slower than he used to be, though, and gets confused about things. His eyes are a little cloudy, and I'm not sure how well he hears any more. I've just made an appointment for his annual checkup, in two weeks, and found myself tearing up over the phone, just talking about the fact that he's suddenly an old dog.

The Pedigree Dog Age Calculator says he is between 82 and 89 in dog years. The vet's been saying for a while that Dizzy's in great shape "for an old guy," but until quite recently I've been able to forget that he's aging much more quickly than I am, and will not be with me forever.

I don't think he knows. I don't think dogs are that self-aware. Yesterday I took him down to the river and let him wade for a while, and he was perfectly happy. He wanted to say hi to everyone and sniff things and roll in the grass. At some point, the bad days will outnumber the good, and it'll be time to say goodbye. I hope I recognize it when it comes, and don't wait too long just because I'm not ready.

I'll never be ready.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

"I only want to be left to my own ways/The rulers of one leaving all things undone."

The Song: "Rulers, Ruling All Things." Words & music by Midlake (Paul Alexander, Eric Nichelson, Eric Pulido, Mckenzie Smith and Tim Smith). Track 6 of The Courage of Others, 2010
When/how acquired: Purchased MP3, 2010
Listen/watch here.

I don't quite know what the words of this song mean, but they felt more than appropriate for me today, as I worked quite hard on a number of things and finished nothing. With luck, everything will be finished at once, sometime between now and Friday.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

"Let the other forty million, three hundred and seven/People who want to get famous."

The Song: "Mr. Sellack," The Roches. Words and music by Terre Roche. Track 3 of The Roches, 1979.
When/how acquired: Purchased cassette, c. 1987
Listen/watch here.

Last night I turned on the TV when I couldn't work any more, and found absolutely nothing to watch. No baseball, because of the Home Run Derby; none of the usual Monday night shows, because it's summertime. Instead, I had my choice of reality-based shows. I did not want to watch "The Bachelorette." I did not want to watch "America's Got Talent." I did not want to watch "Celebrity Chef Housewives of Peoria." I wasn't even in the mood for the series return of "No Reservations," although that's one of the few reality-based shows I do watch.

I wanted a story. I wound up ordering Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part I on demand, because friends invited me to come along to the midnight show of Part II on Thursday. Most of what I watch on TV these days is movies, in fact -- not pay-per-view but Turner Classic Movies, the Sundance Channel, and the odd films that pop up on the Ovation network. I want to watch people pretending to be other people, not pretending to be themselves.

Something about that desperate desire to be on television breaks my heart. Are people so small, in their lives, in their worlds, that they need to be on TV just to prove to themselves that they exist? Do people think that being on television will turn them into something that they're not? I suspect they do. Of course, being on one of those shows does change them. For one thing, those shows need conflict to attract viewers, so I have no doubt that people being filmed look for opportunities to create that conflict. More conflict means more camera time -- more camera time that shows them to be people no one would want to know in real life. But they're famous, at least for a little while, and that seems to be the goal.

Where I notice this most of all, strange to say, is the supermarket checkout line. Tabloid covers used to be full of movie stars; now they're about reality TV "stars." This makes me weirdly sad, as I think about people looking through old copies of The Enquirer 40 years from now and having absolutely no idea who any of those people are. We're still watching 40-year-old episodes of "Bewitched." No one's going to be watching 40-year-old episodes of "Teen Moms."

Monday, July 11, 2011

"You might need me more than you think you will..."

The Song: "Brainy," The National. Words & music by The National (Aaron Dessner, Bryan Devendorf, Bryce Dessner, Matt Berninger & Scott Devendorf). Track 3 of Boxer, 2007.
When/how acquired: Purchased MP3, 2009
Listen/watch here.

Hi there. I know I've been away too long when friends start to write to ask whether I'm okay, because I haven't posted in a while.

Last week was an object lesson in many things, but most of all in the fine art of asking for help. My friends and family are constantly bailing me out in some fashion, and I realized last week that this is because, paradoxically, I do not ask for help in a timely manner. I don't want to admit that things are beyond me, and therefore I keep that secret (or flatter myself that I keep it secret) until it's obvious to everyone that I'm not coping, and then I do look like an idiot.

Had I gone to the doctor when I first got sick, no one would have accused me of faking it or malingering or being a big baby whiner. (Why I should accuse myself of those things, I do not know.) And had I gone to the doctor when I first got sick, I would not have missed the trip to New York I had planned, not only for a variety of work-related reasons but also to spend quality time with friends I hadn't seen in a while.

Now I am a week behind, because I got very little done last week, and will have to do all the things I'd hoped to do in person over the phone or by email. And that, at least, I might be a big baby whiner about.

I don't remember how or when I first heard this album, but it was probably through my brother-in-law, Scott. If you click through to the YouTube video I've linked to, you'll see the comment, "Every time someone listens to the national, my diary gets invaded by a stranger." I feel the same way. The whole album is a mine tunnel through my soul, and this song in particular kills me.

Thursday, July 07, 2011

"I ain't nothing but tired/Man, I'm just tired and bored with myself."

The Song: "Dancing in the Dark," Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band. Words & music by Bruce Springsteen. Track 11 of Born in the U.S.A., 1984.
When/how acquired: Purchased cassette, 1984.
Listen/watch here.

This is not my favorite track off this album, which is not my favorite Springsteen album, but it was the record that made him a star, and "I'm on Fire," "Bobby Jean" and "No Surrender" stand with Springsteen's very best work.

I was supposed to go to New York today, and instead am going to the doctor about a cough I have had, off and on, for the past six weeks. If I am honest about it, I've had this cough, off and on, for considerably longer than that. I don't go to doctors. I feel ashamed of myself when I get sick, and going to the doctor feels like an exercise in ritual humiliation, besides being horrifyingly expensive. Once upon a time I had a regular doctor; once upon a time I had good health insurance. See my earlier post about living like a refugee.

This will change, I think, sooner rather than later. Exactly how, I couldn't yet tell you. In the meantime, I'll try to be better about posting for the rest of the month.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

"Abe says, 'Where do you want this killin’ done?'/God says, 'Out on Highway 61.'”

The Song: "Highway 61 Revisited," Bob Dylan. Words & music by Bob Dylan. Track 7 of Highway 61 Revisited, 1965.
When/how acquired: Purchased CD, 2008.
Listen/watch here.

The Old Testament reading in today's missal is the Bible story that bothers me most, the story of God's demand that Abraham sacrifice his son Isaac as proof of his devotion. Abraham takes Isaac up the mountain to the place of sacrifice, and begins to prepare him as he would a lamb; at the last minute God intervenes and spares Isaac's life.

This story is a foundation myth of three of the world's religions, and was presented to me as a child as evidence of God's great mercy. I don't see it that way. I see it as something much more mysterious and terrifying. What kind of God demands so great a sacrifice? (What kind of God, for that matter, demands a sacrifice at all?) And then, when God sees that Abraham is willing to make that sacrifice, what kind of God disrespects that by saying, "Never mind, I was just testing you." I find the reprieve even more disturbing than the original demand. Are we not to believe what God tells us, what God asks of us? Is God so capricious and careless of our feelings and our faith?

The Catholic theologians who taught me said that this was both a paradox and a promise, a mystery solved by God's own sacrifice of Jesus as a symbol of God's love for us. I wasn't sure about that as a child, and I am not sure about it now. If God exists everywhere and in all times simultaneously, how does God learn? How is God's nature revealed to God? Is God self-aware? How can God not be? (I am deliberately avoiding pronouns; "God the Father" is a convenience but in my mind a limiting form of reference to that aspect of the Almighty.)

I'm not saying I don't believe. I do believe, which is why this troubles me so much. Later, in the book of Job, God blasts Job for challenging God's decisions -- "Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?"

Ultimately, the only way a thinking person can get through a day, much less a life, is to accept that we never know when we're going to wind up on Highway 61. Things happen for reasons we don't understand. As the proverbs say, the beginning of wisdom is the fear of the Lord.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

"But what you gonna do when you/Slowly fade... I go invisible"

The Song: "Invisible," Michael Penn. Words & music by Michael Penn. Track 7 of March, 1989.
When/how acquired: Purchased cassette, 1990; purchased MP3, 2007.
Listen/watch here.

It is something that happens to middle-aged women: we become invisible. The author Laura Lippman has written about it more eloquently than I can, though I can't find a citation right now.

I am, by nature, vocation and profession, a facilitator. I am most comfortable behind the scenes. I do not like to have my picture taken. I don't usually mind it when people don't remember my name, and don't expect people who call me Clair to be able to spell it correctly.

But today, this week, I am having a hard time with it.

If you see a news item about an incident of mayhem in a small New England town, you will know that I simply had one too many days of invisibility.

Friday, June 24, 2011

"Who knows why you wanna lay there and revel in your abandon."

The Song: "Refugee," Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers. Words & music by Tom Petty & Mike Campbell. Track 1 of Damn the Torpedoes, 1979.
When/how acquired: Gift bootleg cassette, c. 1981.
Listen/watch here.

If I were ever to make a playlist that tried to explain my life, this song would be on it. I live like a refugee. I admit it. I have for most of my adult life, even when I didn't need to. I don't need to. I can't seem to help it. At this point, which is midlife if I live to be 90, I probably ought to get some help for it.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

"Hey, you could be/A hero in your own hometown."

The Song: "Hero in Your Own Hometown," Mary Chapin Carpenter. Words & music by Mary Chapin Carpenter. Track 2 of A Place in the World, 1996.
When/how acquired: Purchased CD, 1996.
I can't find a version of this song available for preview. You should probably just buy the album.

Yesterday I went down to Boston for the launch of BURIED SECRETS by Joseph Finder, at Brookline Booksmith. Brookline Booksmith is one of the world's great bookstores, and if I had any money I would spend a lot of it there. It made me feel great to see such a wonderful collection of books, new and old, on topics I might otherwise never think much about -- science, sociology, phrases for travelers visiting Poland.

And it was great to see so many people turn out for Joe's book launch. Joe lives in Boston, and the crowd was about evenly split between fans and personal friends. It is not a small thing to have your friends turn out for a book launch. It often seems easier for people to stay home, especially when the Green Line is full of people trying to get to a Red Sox home game. (They lost, by the way. Everyone would have been better off going to Brookline Booksmith.)

BURIED SECRETS, which I did a very little bit of work on, is the second adventure for Joe's series character, Nick Heller, a "private spy." As the book begins, Nick has returned to his hometown of Boston to set up his own practice, and an old friend asks for help with a problem he can't go to the police about.

Many things make Boston a particularly good setting for a hero like Nick, and I wish I'd thought to ask Joe about that last night. Undoubtedly there will be other chances, as it looks like Nick will be fighting crime on the streets of Beantown for years to come.