Myth Reading Group 1 December: Amaterasu

The Myth Reading Group will meet on ‘Zoom’ on Thursday 1 December 2022, 5:30-6:30 pm (UK time). The link to join is in the comments for this post. All are welcome.

The theme for the Autumn Term is ‘Beauty’.

Stylised Japanese woodblock print illustrating Amaterasu emerging from a cave. The assembled gods are outside, and an ornate mirror is set up on the right of the picture.
Utagawa Kunisada (Toyokuni III), ‘Origin of Iwato Kagura Dance’ (triptych, woodblock print, 1856) [Public domain]

Amaterasu (Ama-terasu-opo-mi-kamï: ‘Heaven-illuminating great deity’) is a heavenly goddess associated with the sun. Her story is told in two Japanese texts of the eighth century CE: Kojiki (‘The Record of Ancient Things’) and Nihonshoki (‘The Chronicles of Japan’). The tale relates Amaterasu’s encounter with her belligerent brother, Susanowo (Take-Paya-susa-nö-wo-nö-mikötö: ‘Valiant intrepid raging male lord’), who has associations with the sea, storms, the underworld, and can be regarded as both trickster and culture hero. Susanowo’s raging leads to Amaterasu shutting herself away in a cave, thus depriving the world of the light of the sun.

Modern versions and interpretations of the myth suggest that Amaterasu only emerges from the cave when she recognises her own beauty. But is this an over-interpretation of the ancient tale?

Text:

Supplementary reading:

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Myth Reading Group 17 November: Cupid and Psyche

The Myth Reading Group will meet on ‘Zoom’ on Thursday 17 November 2022, 5:30-6:30 pm (UK time). The link to join is in the comments for this post. All are welcome.

The theme for the Autumn Term is ‘Beauty’.

Plaster sculpture showing two nude figures. The woman is Psyche, with butterfly wings, reclining, her arms reaching up to embrace the head of the other figure, Cupid, who leans to embrace her. Cupid's wings stand out from his back as his face turns to meet Psyche's.
Antonio Canova, Cupid and Psyche (plaster, 1794). Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (public domain)

In this session we shall look at Apuleius’ rendering of the tale of ‘Cupid and Psyche’ from his The Golden Ass (2nd century CE). Jealous that the princess Psyche is being worshipped for her beauty more than she, the goddess Venus sends her son Cupid, the god of love, to punish Psyche by making her fall in love with the most miserable and insignificant man on earth. But the plan misfires when Cupid himself falls in love with Psyche. In keeping with this term’s theme of ‘Beauty’, we shall focus on three sections in the tale where beauty plays a key role.

Text:

The whole text (from Book IV, section 28 to Book VI, section 24 [just over 30 pages: pp. 62-92]) is eminently readable for those who are keen and have the time.

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Myth Reading Group 3 November: Helen of Troy

The Myth Reading Group will meet on ‘Zoom’ on Thursday 3 November 2022, 5:30-6:30 pm (UK time). The link to join is in the comments for this post. All are welcome.

The theme for the Autumn Term is ‘Beauty’.

Helen and Menelaus: Menelaus intends to strike Helen; captivated by her beauty, he drops his sword. A flying Eros and Aphrodite (on the left) watch the scene. Detail of an Attic red-figure krater c. 450–440 BC (Paris, Louvre).

According to Euripides, the real Helen never went to Troy; a ghostly copy replaced her, and the actual Helen was sent to Egypt. This is Seferis’ starting point in “Helen” wherein Helen meets Teucer, son of King Telamon and Ajax’s brother, in Egypt. After Troy, Teucer stops in Egypt on his way to Cyprus to find a new homeland. While Seferis is preoccupied with the futility of war through Helen, another Greek poet, Ritsos, reimagines Helen long after the war of Troy, trapped in a house with her servants, old, just before death, through a dramatic monologue.

Texts:

Background:

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Myth Reading Group 20 October: The Hidden I

The Myth Reading Group will meet on ‘Zoom’ on Thursday 20 October 2022, 5:30-6:30 pm (UK time). The link to join is in the comments for this post. All are welcome.

The theme for the Autumn Term is ‘Beauty’.

The Lydian king, Candaules, had arranged for his general, Gyges, to view his wife, Nyssia, as she undressed. The furious queen offered Gyges the choice of being executed or murdering her husband. Gyges chose the latter, and went on to marry her.Etty here subverts the language of neo-classical history painting. Instead of improving themes, Etty uses it for an erotic subject of voyeurism and vengeance. He emphasises colour and texture rather than outline, and treats physical beauty as the object of lust and deception. His picture typified the Romantic challenge to moral and pictorial conventions.
William Etty (1787-1849), Candaules, King of Lydia, Shews his Wife by Stealth to Gyges, One of his Ministers, as She Goes to Bed (exhibited 1830). Tate.

“Observation will not do, appreciation is required”, writes George Santayana in The Sense of Beauty (1896). In The Hidden I: A Myth Revised (1990), Frederic Raphael explores this proposition by taking, and revising for the modern reader, the account (in the Histories of Herodotus) of how King Candaules of Lydia desired to share the sight of his wife, “the most beautiful of all women”, in all her nakedness, with his bodyguard, Gyges, and its unforeseen consequences.

Two extracts from Raphael’s short novel for discussion at the next session of the Myth Reading Group retell the episode of the central moment and its eventual outcome.

Text:

Background:

Variants on the myth of Gyges:

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Upcoming mythic events

Some events this autumn involving members of the Centre for Myth Studies:

Conference in Madrid

Complutense University of Madrid hosts the seventh biennial International Conference on Myth Criticism. The theme for this year’s conference is “Myth: Theories of a Controversial Concept”. The conference runs from 25 to 28 October 2022 and can be attended in person or online.

Full details, including programme and registration details are at the conference website.

The Centre for Myth Studies will be represented by Roderick Main, Leon Burnett and Ben Pestell, but several other friends and colleagues of the centre will also be present, along with an impressive list of international scholars focused on research in myth.

The Madrid conference is always an enriching event. You can read our report of the 2016 conference here.

Adult Education courses in Essex and online

This year Dr Ben Pestell is offering several courses on mythic themes with Adult Education institutions, both in-person (around Essex or in central London) and online.

Of particular interest is a series of courses on Epic Poems: a term on Homer’s Iliad, a term on the Odyssey, and a term on Virgil’s Aeneid. These courses are held online with the Mary Ward Centre and are open to all. For full details, please see Ben’s website.

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Myth Reading Group 30 June: Lamia

The Myth Reading Group will meet on ‘Zoom’ on Thursday 30 June 2022, 6:00-7:00 pm (UK time). The link to join is posted in the comments for this post. All are welcome.

Drawing of a mythical hybrid creature: the shape of a lion, but the rear feet are cloven, the front feet are clawed. The pelt is like overlapping feathers. The head is of a human woman, with short hair all over her face, and shoulder-length head hair. She has two human breasts below her neck.
A seventeenth-century depiction of Lamia by Edward Topsell (c. 1572 – 1625)

This week we have a special session on the Lamia myth in contemporary fiction, hosted by Ana González-Rivas Fernández (Universidad Autónoma de Madrid), who is currently a Visiting Scholar at the University of Essex.

In classical mythology, the figure of Lamia stands for the mother who never was. Condemned by Hera to lose all the children she gave birth to, Lamia was consumed by pain and rage to the point where she became a monster. Her rage gives way to a fatal envy of all those fertile women and to their children, whom she steals and kills, thus avenging herself for having been deprived of the experience of being a mother. During this session we will look at how this myth evolved in ancient times as well as how modern fiction has recreated this tragedy.

Ana González-Rivas Fernández is currently a senior lecturer in English Studies at the Universidad Autónoma de Madrid. She holds a PhD in Philology and has first degrees in both Classics and English (Complutense University of Madrid). She completed her PhD with a dissertation that analyzed the literary and cultural relationships established between Greek-Latin literature and Gothic literature. At an international level, she has been Visiting Scholar at the Universidad Nacional de Tucumán, Baylor University and Open University. He main interests lay in Anglo-American Gothic and Fantastic Literature, Comparative Literature, Myth Criticism, Reception Studies, Intermediality and Popular Culture. Regarding intermediality, she is especially interested in the interactions between literature and films or comic-books. She has focused much of her research on the Nineteenth-century literature, as well as on the study of classical myths and its reception in modern culture. Currently she is the secretary of the Spanish Association of Comparative Literature, the secretary of Asteria (International Association of Myth Criticism) and a member of the Governing Board of the Edgar Allan Poe Spanish Association. She also is the co-founder and co-organiser of the permanent seminar “Mythical Projections”, on classical mythology and its reception in Anglo-Saxon culture. She is now Visiting Scholar at the University of Essex (June-August 2022), where she is developing a research project on Classical Mythology and the feminine-monstrous.

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Myth Reading Group 9 June: Popol Vuh

The Myth Reading Group will meet on ‘Zoom’ on Thursday 9 June 2022, 6:00-7:00 pm (UK time). The link to join is posted in the comments for this post. All are welcome.

Polychrome Figural Urn with Jaguars and Skulls: the jaguar is standing upright, claws bared, two large human skulls are on each side of the jaguar.
Maya Polychrome Figural Urn with Jaguars and Skulls, 600-900 CE (Late Classic)
Walters Art Museum, Baltimore

Popul Vuh is to Mayan culture what the Bible is to Christianity. It is the Book that contains a record of the sacred beliefs of the pre-Columbian People known as the Quiché Maya. Accordingly, Popul Vuh has been translated by Delia Goetz and Sylvanus Morley as The Book of the People, but it has also been translated as The Collection of Written Leaves (in The Illustrated Guide to Latin American Mythology, compiled by Geraldine Carter).

The Book of the People is an English version made from Adrián Recino’s Spanish translation of the Quiché codex (and scanned at sacred-texts.com, October, 2003. J. B. Hare, redactor). Part II of Popol Vuh tells the story of how the twins Hunahpú and Xbalanqué outwit the Lords of Xibalba (the Underworld). Participants are encouraged to read the whole of Part II, but since Part II is fairly long (pp. 17 – 48), the recommended text for the Myth Reading Group session is

  • Part II, Chapters 2 to 4 (pp. 19 – 25)
  • Chapters 7 to 9 (pp. 32 – 39)
  • Chapter 13 (pp. 44 – 46)

Text: https://www.latinamericanstudies.org/maya/Popol_Vuh.pdf

Two other English translations merit notice:

  1. Popol Vuh, Sacred Book of the Quiché Maya People; transl. J. Christenson (https://www.mesoweb.com/publications/Christenson/PopolVuh.pdf) is a scholarly, annotated edition;
  2. Popol Vuh, The Mayan Book of the Dawn of Life; trans. Dennis Tedlock, which won the PEN Translation Prize in 1986, offers a good alternative: https://yale.imodules.com/s/1667/images/gid6/editor_documents/cosmogonic_myths/tedlock-popul_vuh_text.pdf.
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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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