Myth Reading Group 26 May: Gods Without Men

The Myth Reading Group will meet on ‘Zoom’ on Thursday 26 May 2022, 6:00-7:00 pm (UK time). The link to join is posted in the comments for this post. All are welcome.

A coyote in Death Valley (Wikimedia, Creative Commons)

Our topic for the summer term is The Trickster. Myths of the Trickster can be found in many world mythologies, notably in African, Native American and Indo-European traditions, with common features that belie the geographical spread. The Trickster also remains a potent symbol for contemporary tales, and the text for this week is an extract from Hari Kunzru’s 2011 novel, Gods Without Men.

In Native American myth, Coyote is a mediator between humans, animals, and landscape, moving between different realms without settling in any of them. As one of the First People and creator of the world, Coyote belongs to a “race of mythic prototypes” pre-dating the existence of humans and partaking of the divine (Bright, 1993: xi). Yet, he also causes havoc and breaks free from rules and conventions through deception and humour. Jarold Ramsey has the quality of this ambiguity in mind when stating that Coyote, as a trickster figure, can only be understood as a “dynamic interposing of the mind between polar opposites, as if affirming either/and . . .” (1983:29).

Kunzru’s coyote story in the opening section of Gods Without Men (2011) adapts Native American storytelling to a contemporary trickster figure making methamphetamine in the desert. In mixing key traits of mythic storytelling, timelessness and undefined sense of place, with twenty-first century cultural and economic markers, the story introduces the subversive pattern that characterises the novel in the juxtaposition of stories from different periods and contexts. Recurring references to coyote (mythical, human, and animal), throughout the novel, strengthen the play of resonances enacted in the narrative, poised, as it is, between the mundane and the sacred, despair and hope.

Text and resources

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Myth Reading Group 9 March: Kalevala, Runo 10.

The Myth Reading Group meets on ‘Zoom’ on Wednesday 9 March 2022, 5:30-6:30 pm (UK time). The link to join is posted in the comments for this post. All are welcome.

Painting of bearded men working at a forge.
Forging of the Sampo, 1893 (oil on canvas) by Akseli Gallen-Kallela (1865-1931); Finnish National Gallery

The text for this session of the Myth Reading Group is a translation by Eino Friberg of the tenth Runo (or book) of the Finnish mythological epic, Kalevala (1849), compiled by Elias Lönnroth from folk songs he collected on numerous field trips. Runo 10 tells of the Forging of the Sampo, a magical artefact central to the poem, and features the divine blacksmith, Ilmarinen, one of the three main characters in the Kalevala (the other two being Vainänmöinen, eternal sage and singer, and the wayward womaniser Lemminkäinen).

The Sampo is a mysterious object, akin to the Cornucopia in Ancient Greece and the Grail in medieval Europe in that each is symbolic of magical abundance. As one commentator has remarked of the Sampo, “It is never described in enough detail to guess its identity. It is a word without a referent”. In the Kalevala, it functions as a complex mill with a ciphered cover, capable of making flour, salt, and money.

Friberg’s English version has been described as “By far the finest translation, surpassing all others in accuracy, authenticity, and beauty”.

Text and resources

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Myth Reading Group 9 February: Odin

The Myth Reading Group meets on ‘Zoom’ on Wednesday 9 February 2022, 5:30-6:30 pm (UK time). The link to join is posted in the comments for this post. All are welcome.

Óðinn depicted manuscript SÁM 66 quarto, 1766. Now in Árni Magnússon Institute, Iceland.

Hávamál, or ‘The Words of the High One’ is one of the most famous poems from the thirteenth-century collection known as the Poetic Edda. This anonymous poem gives us the words of Óðinn, the All-father, as he tells stories, dispenses advice, and, most memorably, relates the tale of his sacrifice to himself on the tree which we assume is the ash Yggdrasill, the world tree.

The poem can be broken down into five sections:

  • Stanzas 1-95:        Gestaþáttr: ‘Guests’ Section’ (advice to wayfarers)
  • Stanzas 96-110:    Óðinn’s examples: Billingr’s Daughter (who tricked Odin) & Gunnlóð (whom Odin deceived for mead)
  • Stanzas 111-37:    Loddfáfnismál (words to Loddfáfnir, the otherwise obscure recipient of advice)
  • Stanzas 138-45:    Rúnatal (Odin’s sacrifice to himself)
  • Stanzas 146-64:    Ljóðatal (18 spells, and a farewell stanza)

Please focus on the final two sections which deal with Óðinn’s sacrifice to himself, and his knowledge of spells (i.e. stanzas 138-164).

Primary reading:

Secondary reading / listening / viewing:

The medieval music ensemble Sequentia has produced a musical setting of stanzas 138-145 of Hávamál:

American scholar of Old Norse, Jackson Crawford, has produced a reading of the entire poem in Old Norse:

Finally, a few paragraphs from Hilda Ellis Davidson’s Gods and Myths of Northern Europe which address the shamanic characteristics of Óðinn’s sacrifice:

This is a voluntary sacrifice, and its purpose is the acquisition of secret, hidden knowledge, since the god is able to peer down from the tree and lift up the runes which represented magic lore. It was thought at one time that this image of the suffering god hanging from the tree must have been derived from the Christian Crucifixion. But despite certain resemblances, it would seem that here we have something whose roots go deep into heathen thought, and which is no late copy, conscious or unconscious, of the central mystery of the Christian faith. By hanging on a tree, Odin is not sharing in the suffering of the world or saving men from death, he is there to win the secret of the runes:
         They helped me neither
         by meat nor drink.
         I peered downward,
         I took up the runes,
         screaming, I took them —
         then I fell back.
    Besides the sacrificial practices of hanging upon a tree, known to be associated with Wodan from early times, we have also significant parallels from shamanistic practice. There is much evidence from various parts of the world concerning the training of young men and women who become shamans, and [Mircea] Eliade has collected this in the study already mentioned. In the accounts of initiation ceremonies undergone by the novice, there are resemblances to this picture of the suffering god.
     The World Tree is indeed the centre of the shaman’s cosmology, as it is in the world of the northern myths. The essential feature of the initiation ceremony, whether among the Eskimos, the American Indians, or the Siberian peoples, is the death and rebirth of the young shaman, and the torments and terrors which he has to undergo if he is to gain possession of the esoteric knowledge necessary to him in his new calling. Before he can attain ability to heal and to pass to the realms of gods and spirits, he has to undergo a ritual death. This may be experienced in dreams or visions, and the experience may be induced by means of meditation, fasting, or the use of drugs; in any case it causes the initiate terrible suffering. He may imagine himself devoured by birds, boiled in a cauldron, cut open so that serpents or sacred stones can be inserted into his body, or torn into small pieces. If however he is a true shaman, he will survive this mental torture, will be restored to life and wholeness, and will then be able to practise his calling in the community. The World Tree plays a considerable part in these dreams and visions of the young shaman, especially in northern Asia. The Yakuts believed that the soul of the shaman was carried off by the ‘Mother Bird of Prey’ and placed on a branch of a tree in the underworld, while his body was cut to pieces and devoured by the spirits of illness and death. In other regions it was thought that the new shaman made his drum from branches of the World Tree, while the Mongols believed that shamans tethered their horses to the Tree, as Odin is said to have tethered his horse Sleipnir to Yggdrasill.
     The hanging of Odin on the World Tree seems indeed to have two main conceptions behind it. First, Odin is made into a sacrifice according to the accepted rites of the god of death, who is Odin himself. We know that victims were hung from trees before the Viking age, and the custom continued at Uppsala until the tenth century. Secondly, Odin is undergoing a ceremony of initiation, gaining his special knowledge of magic by means of a symbolic death. In his Prose Edda Snorri [Sturluson] has not shown much of this side of Odin’s character, for he has concentrated on showing the god as the All-father and ruler of Asgard. In Ynglinga Saga, however, Snorri gives us a somewhat different picture, emphasizing Odin’s skill in magic lore, and his power of shape-changing. Here he brings out the shamanistic characteristics of Odin, who like the shaman had the power not only to ride upon an animal but to send forth his spirit in animal forms.

H. R. Ellis Davidson, Gods and Myths of Northern Europe (Penguin, 1964), pp. 144-45.

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Myth Reading Group 26 January: Maeldune

The Myth Reading Group meets on ‘Zoom’ on Wednesday 26 January 2022, 5:30-6:30 pm (UK time). The link to join is posted in the comments for this post. All are welcome.

Monochrome illustration. A tall women, standing on land, seen from behind, holds a long, thin cord connected to a sailing boat on a stormy sea.
John D. Batten, “The Queen of the Magic Clew”. Illustration from The Book of Wonder Voyages, edited by Joseph Jacobs (Putnam, 1919), p. 117.

An immram is an Early Irish sea-adventure, in which sailors driven from their intended destination find themselves visiting unknown islands. On these islands the travellers encounter many supernatural wonders that encompass a variety of familiar, migratory motifs based on the workings of mutation and magic.

“The Voyage of Maelduin” is an immram that accommodates fearful monsters and friendly hosts. Among the former are those that pelt the sailors with rocks, while among the latter are beautiful women attracted (and attractive) to their captain. The crew suffer for their transgressions, but at the end of the voyage, under the protection of a guardian deity, the hero arrives safely at his destination and is re-integrated with the community.

The version chosen for the next session of the Myth Reading Group is from The Book of Wonder Voyages, based on “The Voyage of Mael Duin’s Boat”, translated from MSS sources by Whitley Stokes. The Irish text and Stokes’ English version were published in Revue Celtique (1888-89),

Tennyson’s “The Voyage of Maeldune”, in Ballads, and Other Poems (1880), is a free adaptation (“Founded on an Irish Legend, A.D. 700”) in which he “added to the legend the increasing disillusionment of the travellers and the perpetual killing” (Palgrave Literary Dictionary of Tennyson, p. 324). Tennyson’s source was P. W. Joyce, Old Celtic Romances (1879), which had only recently been published.

Stokes commented that Tennyson’s poem, “full of colour and music ­– full, too, of wise counsel for the Irish”, bears “only a remote relation to the original” (Revue Celtique IX, 450) and that Joyce’s “so-called translation […] is intended for popular reading, not serious criticism” (ibid.).

Note: The Myth Reading Group may wish to pay particular attention to sections XVII and XXVIII of “The Voyage of Mael Duin’s Boat” (pp. 108-111 and pp. 115-118) in which the eponymous hero visits islands that share elements with those of Odysseus’ sojourn in the company of Calypso and Circe in Books 5 and 10 of the Odyssey, respectively. Tennyson does not allude to these islands directly, but stanza IX of his poem refers to the Island of Witches, whose “musical cry” is reminiscent of the Siren episode in Book 12 of Homer’s epic.

Primary reading:

Secondary reading:

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Myth Reading Group 8 December: Circe

The Myth Reading Group meets on ‘Zoom’ on Wednesday 8 December, 5:30-6:30 pm (UK time). The link to join will be posted in the comments for this post. All are welcome.

Circe and Odysseus, white-ground lekythos by the Athena Painter, ca. 490–480 BCE. National Archaeological Museum of Athens. Via Wikimedia Commons.

The Myth Reading Group is open to all who have an interest in studying myths. At each meeting, a welcoming group of scholars and enthusiasts read from the chosen text and discuss themes evoked by it. We do not pursue a single theoretical reading, but are free to consider diverse approaches. Regular participants have expertise in depth psychology, literary theory, and translation studies. These approaches may be starting points, but by no means do they set the limits of the discussion.

Continuing our topic of Magic and Myth, this week we will look at an extract from The Odyssey, when Odysseus and his men encounter Circe in Book 10. Homer’s account of magic can be compared to an extract from Madeline Miller’s novel, Circe on how Circe came to use herbs for magical purposes.

Texts:

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Myth Reading Group 24 November: Faust

The Myth Reading Group meets on ‘Zoom’ on Wednesday 24 November, 5:30-6:30 pm (UK time). The link to join will be posted in the comments for this post. All are welcome.

Stylised monochrome illustration of two figures. In the right foreground, a man in an elaborately decorated robe looks piercingly out from the picture. In the rear left, a figure with an aloof, demonic expression looks down on the other man.
Harry Clarke, illustration to translation of Goethe’s Faust, 1925.

The Myth Reading Group is open to all who have an interest in studying myths. At each meeting, a welcoming group of scholars and enthusiasts read from the chosen text and discuss themes evoked by it. We do not pursue a single theoretical reading, but are free to consider diverse approaches. Regular participants have expertise in depth psychology, literary theory, and translation studies. These approaches may be starting points, but by no means do they set the limits of the discussion.

Our new theme is Magic and Myth.

This week’s text is an extract from Goethe’s Faust.

Text:

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Myth Reading Group 29 June: Homeric Athena

The Myth Reading Group meets on ‘Zoom’ on Tuesday 29 June, 5:30-6:30 pm (UK time). The link to join will be posted in the comments for this post. All are welcome.

Pen and ink drawing of the goddess Minerva (or Athena) wearing helmet with a crest, a flowing dress, and carrying a spear. She is floating in among some lightly-sketched clouds.
John Flaxman, The Descent of Minerva to Ithaca (1792-3, Pencil & pen & ink. Royal Academy)

For the final session in our series on Athena, we will focus on her portrayal in the Odyssey and the two brief Homeric Hymns dedicated to her. The Homeric Hymns to Athena give capsule descriptions of her birth and attributes. In the Odyssey, she appears again to assist a ‘hero’ on his quest. The chosen extract from Book 13 of the Odyssey finds Odysseus finally at home in Ithaca. He awakes, having been transported there by the Phaeacians, and meets Athene who is disguised as a shepherd. The man and goddess eventually converse freely, not as equals, but with mutual admiration.

Texts

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Myth Reading Group 15 June: Athena on the stage: Eumenides & Ajax

The Myth Reading Group meets on ‘Zoom’ on Tuesday 15 June, 5:30-6:30 pm (UK time). The link to join is posted in the comments for this post. All are welcome.

A male actor dressed as the goddess Athena, wearing helmet with tall crest and small metal breastplate with a bosom moulded into it, and holding a spear.
Still from 1981 National Theatre production of the Oresteia, translated by Tony Harrison, directed by Peter Hall, with Michael Thomas as Athena. Broadcast on Channel 4, 1983.

The gods occasionally appear on the Greek tragic stage: often as part of a prologue or exit scene, but sometimes as participants in the action. This week, our focus is on two stage presentations of Athena. The first is Aeschylus’ Eumenides, where the goddess presides over a homicide court on the Athenian Acropolis, where Orestes faces the Furies (Erinyes) as he stands trial for the murder of Clytemnestra, his mother. The second is the opening of Sophocles’ Ajax, where Odysseus consults with Athena following the contest between Ajax and Odysseus for the armour of Achilles.

Texts

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Myth Reading Group 1 June: Pindar and Mandelstam

The Myth Reading Group meets on ‘Zoom’ on Tuesday 1 June, 5:30-6:30 pm (UK time). The link to join will be posted in the comments for this post. All are welcome.

Greek vase showing a woman playing an aulos (a double-flute).
Girl playing the aulos. Attic red-figure lekythos attributed to the Brygos Painter, c. 480 BC. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Pindar’s Pythian Odes celebrate victors in the funeral games sacred to Apollo, held at Delphi. Pythian XII, composed in 490 BCE, honours Midas of Acragas, winner of the flute-playing competition. In the ode, Athene is acknowledged as the inventrix of the flute and of the tune, “The Many-Headed”, which Midas played. The association of the goddess with contests and crafts, discussed in previous sessions, is once more in evidence.

Two short works by the twentieth-century Petersburg poet, Osip Mandelstam, drawing upon the same motif as Pindar, offer an example of the transformability of myth in the modern era.

Texts

Alternative translations of Pindar:

Greek vase showing aulos (double-flute) player
Vase from Agrigento featuring an aulos player. Photo: Leon Burnett.

Background information

“Competition [in the games] symbolized an idea of nobility which meant much to Pindar; and in the exaltation of victory he seems sometimes to see a kind of transfiguration, briefly making radiant a world which most of the time seemed, to him as to his contemporaries, dark and brutal.” Richmond Lattimore (1947).

Pindar’s Ode, like ancient Greek poetry generally, was recited or sung chorally to the accompaniment of instruments such as the aulos, the Greek flute. Recent musicological research has allowed for a recreation of the original performance of Pythian XII.

The sound of the Greek flute accompanying a solo rendition of the Pythian Ode may be heard on YouTube in “Recreating the Sounds of Ancient Greek Music” (from 6:52 to 11:22): https://youtu.be/lpIyMVpcSYY?t=411.

For a detailed discussion of ancient Greek music with an account of the aulos (from 3:45 to 5:50), see also” Rediscovering Ancient Greek music”:

Deborah Steiner, “The Gorgon’s Lament”, American Journal of Philology, Vol. 134, no. 2 (2013), pp. 163-208, examines the musicological context of Pindar’s poem.

Alison C. Traweek, The Gorgon’s Healing Song, discusses the relationship between women and lamentation: https://medium.com/@atraweek/the-gorgons-healing-song-9dc38ea10402.

Classical Greek temple in dry clearing, with some trees growing nearby. Clear blue sky.
Temple of Concord at Acragas, i.e. Agrigento. Photo: Leon Burnett, 2009.
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Myth Reading Group 18 May: Minerva and Arachne in Ovid’s Metamorphoses

The Myth Reading Group meets on ‘Zoom’ on Tuesday 18 May, 5:30-6:30 pm (UK time). The link to join will be posted in the comments for this post. All are welcome.

Painting of the goddess Minerva about to strike a woman, Arachne.
René-Antoine Houasse, Minerva and Arachne, (1706). Versailles

This week we continue our exploration of Athene by looking at the presence of the goddess in the Roman era. In Ovid’s Metamorphoses Minerva punishes mortal women in different ways. In Book 2, she punishes Aglauros by sending Envy to poison her mind. In Book 6, the weaving contest between the mortal Arachne and Minerva ends up with Arachne’s transformation.

Extracts from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Translated by Brookes More (Boston: Cornhill, 1922), available in Perseus Digital Library:

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