Blog : Posts tagged with 'myth'

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Failure and Success

In which we muse what book FP will next abandon reading


Getting this website going again, and posting things regularly, I was thinking that maybe I should resurrect Books I Haven’t Read, an ongoing series of posts in which I reviewed books that I hadn’t managed to finish reading, and briefly discussed why. This was on the grounds that reviews of bad books are often more interesting than reviews of good books;* many book reviewers probably get away with reading the whole thing; and if I’m going to talk about something, I may as well be honest about whether I’ve read it or not. Hence, Books I Haven’t Read, which annoyed at least one author who discovered it and couldn’t resist responding.**

The problem, though, is that it’s been a while since I’ve managed to fail to finish a book. The only candidate at the moment is Robert Graves’ The White Goddess, which has to be described as a masterpiece, even though in many ways it is mistaken and wrong-headed.*** It’s also a very hard read, and I’ve got such a small way into such a long book that I feel I can hardly do it justice.

Everything else I’ve started reading, I’ve finished reading. Books that I’ve already told you I haven’t read, I’ve since completed. I’ve even got to the stage where I’m considering going back to some of the books I’ve written about here, getting them out of the library, and finishing them off. Which is a good thing, I suppose; but it leaves me at a loss for things to criticise. Maybe I should try to be a lazier reader.

Things might be solved by a book I came across in the local Oxfam bookshop the other day: Christopher Hill’s The World Turned Upside Down: Radical Ideas During The English Revolution. I’ve always been slightly confused by the history of the Civil War – or the Great Rebellion, or the English Revolution, or the Wars Of The Three Kingdoms – see even the list of names it’s been called are confusing, or whether there’s an “it” to start with. I’ve also never really got on with Marxist historians that well, so I’m thinking that there’s a good chance it’s going to completely baffle me sideways and leave me ranting about Ranters and Levellers.**** Let’s see how far I manage to get.

* For the ultimate good review of a bad book, the exemplar has to be Slacktivist‘s ongoing page-by-page and scene-by-scene reviews of the Left Behind books and movies, which many of you have probably already heard of.

** not to mention, a second response about how I was too pathetic to deserve a response. Hurrah!

*** much like Graves’ Greek Myths, which is somewhere close to being a standard work on the subject – even though much of the author’s commentary on the myths is now extremely outdated and based on a poor understanding of what was, to begin with, flaky archaeology. Which wasn’t the author’s fault, because at the time it was pretty up-to-date archaeology; carbon-dating, and particularly, calibrated carbon-dating; and new paradigms of cultural change mechanisms, came along and replaced or disproved it.

**** Now I have heard of Levellers – but not, I suspect, the ones that were around in the seventeeth century

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A confusing mixture of emotions

In which we have to save ourselves before even thinking about saving someone else from herself


So, Big Dave has left, in a cloud of adulation and office stationary, getting ready to move house over the break. Everything is booked, and everything is ready to go, and when I get back after Christmas I will have someone new to share the office with.

Things have been a little strange lately, and not just because of Dave. Work has been very stressful, and other things have been very stressful too. I see someone and I want to try to help them, to save them from themself and from dangerous people, but I know they would not accept my help. The stress of all this, and all the work that has been piling on me at the office, makes me want to curl up for a thousand years, not sleeping, just dormant. A bit like King Arthur, maybe.

Talking of King Arthur, here’s more Susan Cooper:

For Drake is no longer sleeping in his hammock, children, nor is Arthur somewhere sleeping, and you may not lie idly expecting the second coming of anybody now, because the world is yours and it is up to you. Now especially since man has the strength to destroy this world, it is the responsibility of man to keep it alive, it all its beauty and marvellous joy.

Maybe that should be my epigram for the coming year. In the meantime, I’m going to occupy myself with the King William’s College General Knowledge Paper. I might only get a handful of answers,* but it will keep me busy for a while.

* which may or may not include “Copernicus”, “Theodore Roosevelt”, and “The Waterloo and City Line”. That’s how random they are. Feel free to guess what questions I think those are the answers to.

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Beltane

In which we wonder where religions come from


The big problem with three-day weekends* is that you start wishing they were four-day ones.

I didn’t do much for the May Day weekend. Lazed around in the house, then on Monday popped out to York for the day. As it was May 1st, I automatically thought of Edinburgh, and the raucous, fire-whirling Beltane celebrations on Calton Hill.

The Beltane celebrations are very popular in Edinburgh, largely with students and tourists who leap at the chance to do something Celtic, Spiritual and Traditional. Which, of course, is rubbish; Edinburgh Beltane is an entirely modern event, with no connection to some ancient mystical past. That doesn’t mean it isn’t religious and spiritual, of course – we all make our own religions. Although most of the performers are interested primarily in giving a performance, there are a few pagans among the Beltane organisers who see it, personally, as a religious ritual. They are the ones who, if the Christian Fundamentalist wing of Edinburgh Council succeed in getting it blocked,** will sneak away for a private ceremony in a quiet field somewhere, without the fire jugglers and drunken students.

As I said, we all make our own religions. Back home on Monday, I said a quiet and submissive prayer to the Goddess. Not because I believe she exists, but because I believe she might; and you never know what other gods were listening at the time. It’s always nice to think you’re receiving a bit of spiritual guidance, whether it comes from the supernatural world or not.

* apart from them being largely bunched together, as Diamond Geezer has described.

** No, really – there is a small-but-significant Christian Fundamentalist faction in Edinburgh Labour Party, who constantly do their best to block what they see as a Satanist festival. I used to know someone who was closely connected with the Beltane Fire Society, which is how I know all this – although it might be a few years out of date now.

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Ravens (part two)

In which we consider myths of the literal and the figurative


(read part one here)

I thought I’d better get around to finishing this post off, because the Tower Of London ravens are in the news again. Now that bird flu has started to make its way into Western Europe, the Ravenmaster is getting ready to move his birds into the top-quality indoor aviary mentioned previously, and the story is making its way into all the papers.* We can’t have the ravens dying on us; the fate of the country isn’t at stake.

Except, though, that the idea that the fate of the nation depends on the Tower’s ravens is all a big misunderstanding. The myth isn’t about living ravens at all. The real myth is that the fate of the nation depends on the raven god staying at the Tower. Furthermore, according to some, he already left.

The closest we have to the original superstition is in medieval Welsh myth. In Branwen, Daughter of Llyr, part of the Mabinogion, the hero Bran – “Raven” – is mortally wounded in a battle with the Irish. He tells his companions to cut off his head, and bury it on Tower Hill. The head stays alive for 87 years, but eventually the spell is broken, and they do as they were told:

[The followers of Bran] could not rest but journeyed forth with the head towards London. And they buried the head in the White Mount, and when it was buried, this was the third goodly concealment; and it was the third ill-fated disclosure when it was disinterred, insamuch as no invasion from across the sea came to this island while the head was in that concealment.**

The Iron Age people of Western Europe were big on heads and head cults. Stone heads have been found buried at various archaeological sites, and this passage is the best evidence we have as to why they were buried: they were protective talismans. Clearly, the writers of the Mabinogion believed in their power, too. They have to explain why the Welsh lost control of south-eastern Britain, when the raven god’s head was protecting them from invasion. Answer: the English only managed to invade after the head was removed. The blame for this is placed on King Arthur, who, not being superstitious himself, deliberately dug the head up in the hope of making his armies try harder. It worked, whilst Arthur himself was around; but after his death, Britain fell to the English.***

So, in short, the Tower Ravens might be a twisted survival of an ancient Welsh myth. The modern version of the story doesn’t appear in print, though, until the late 19th century, well after the Celtic Revival, and well after the Mabinogion had been published in English. Furthermore, the original story is that the promised fall of the nation has already happened; and England is the country that replaced it. If the Tower’s ravens do all leave one day, we English don’t have much to worry about; we are the people they were meant to be protecting the country from in the first place.

* and a lot of people are searching the web and coming here for more information.

** From the Charlotte Guest translation of the Mabinogion available from Project Gutenberg.

*** This part of the story isn’t in the Mabinogion; I’m taking it from Mythology Of The British Isles by Geoffrey Ashe.

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Ravens (part one)

In which a myth is researched


Now I’ve told you about all these posts I had planned, I’m worried that you’re going to be all disappointed when you actually read them. As disappointed as the mother was today, when she took the experimental test birthday cake out of the half-working oven today, and found that it hadn’t quite worked properly. I’m feeling as if I should do a bit more background reading to make sure my posts are worth it.

As a researcher, I was always a bit rubbish. I’m one of those people who hoovers up random, unconnected pieces of information like anything; but when it comes to use it I can never remember where it came from. Little factoids are no good unless you can judge how true it is likely to be, and you can’t do that if you don’t know their provenance.

For example: everybody knows that the Tower of London maintains a family of ravens, for there is an ancient legend that states that should they ever leave, the Tower, the monarchy and the nation will fall. Their wings are therefore clipped, to try to lessen the risk of them wandering.* Everybody knows about the legend, and its ancient origins. Just how ancient is it, though?

There’s an article on the ravens and the current Tower Ravenmaster in the current issue of Fortean Times. It claims that it was Charles II who was first warned that the ravens must never leave the Tower; but that there is no actual evidence for their presence before the end of the 19th century. So, possibly another of those ancient traditions invented by the traditionally-minded Victorians. Possibly not, though. There is another, older myth on a similar theme; but it wasn’t about literal ravens at all. It’s a much, much older myth, and it isn’t even English.

On Sunday, after reading the FT article, I spent a good hour or two reading up about it, and writing a post about it, before deleting it in a fit of stupidity. It took that long because, as I said above, I can remember a lot of things, but can’t remember why. So, I spent quite a long time reading the wrong books in search of information I was sure was in there. Bah. I’m going to go and reread them now, so I can go and rewrite.**

(read part two here)

* and, incidentally, the Tower now has a well-equipped isolation aviary to which they’ll be moved if there’s a bird flu outbreak in Britain.

** and to give me an excuse to break this over-long post up into parts.

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Month

In which we celebrate


I’m feeling rather pleased with myself at managing to fulfil two of my resolutions so far this month. I’ve upgraded to WordPress 2, and I’ve managed to post every day this month. Even when I didn’t have very much to say – this post is cheating, frankly.

Next month I definitely won’t manage it, because I’ve already got a couple of holidays planned. I do have a few things I’m thinking about posting though. For one thing, I need to tell you about Colleague M’s Sudden Surprise Resignation from work. And write that item about Jan Mark’s book Zeno Was Here that I promised the other week. Not to mention re-write that post about mythology and the Tower of London that I accidentally deleted the other day. Which would you like to see first?

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