Someone suggested to the Bodleian Library on Twitter that they should post recordings of ambient library noises on their SoundCloud. I initially misread this as ambient literary noises, like the sound of the snow in Narnia melting… the slight tearing noise made by the Subtle Knife as it opens the way between universes… the ghosts of Christmas tenses manifesting to Scrooge…
Today, the same day that Dane County’s District Attorney failed to indict Officer Matt Kenny in the shooting death of Tony Terrell Robinson, I came across a face from my past, posted on Facebook. He hasn’t changed.
“I’m sure he’s a nice guy, overall,” I said to myself. “He was just too young to know better.”
“And I didn’t say no very loudly,” I said to myself. “I probably wasn’t forceful enough. It would have been easy not to hear me.”
“He was too drunk to know what he was doing, or hear what I was saying,” I said to myself. “He was—wait, what?!”
I’m one of the most pro-woman, pro-femme and pro-feminist people I know. And I had just repeated how many all-too-familiar, all-too-common excuses. And I’ve been repeating those lines to myself for almost twenty five years.
I never realized until today that the scripts I’ve called out as bullshit so many times were scripts I had internalized myself in my own history.
I curled up on the bed and sobbed for an hour as I never did when I was eighteen, not one iota less humiliated, confused, guilty-feeling than I was then, but finally allowing myself to give expression to those feelings and admit what happened to me.
I was in a situation one night that felt pressured, threatening, unsafe, and unwinnable. The next day he smiled at me. So did his friend.
That guy was not a bad guy, you know? That’s why I didn’t realize what had just happened to me.
I hear Officer Matt Kenny is a nice guy too. Our justice models fail us by focusing on individuals rather than systems. I’m no criminal justice expert. But today it was brought home to me, twice over, that something isn’t working here. How do we define justice, when (in the words of Walt Kelly’s Pogo) We have met the enemy, and he is us?
(This famous quote was originally used for Earth Day. Although it’s not within the scope of my small reflection here, I think a compelling case could be made that moving to a restorative justice model could revolutionize environmental movements as well.)
It’s hopelessly complicated. It’s hopelessly tangled and ambiguous. I rely on voices from the Young Gifted and Black Coaltion and Justified Anger to help me learn. Some other day I’ll figure how all this fits with environmentalism and spirituality and whatever this thing called Paganism is…but I feel pretty strongly this: the voices and stories in any situation need to be heard—and heard by all of us. Safe space needs to be created for speaking truth and deep listening on all sides. And stories, witnessing, need to be a bigger part of the justice equation. What if we focused on healing the harm on every side, rather than punishing (or failing to punish) the perpetrators of violence? By focusing on individuals, we too easily and often miss the larger, deeply entrenched and internalized systemic injustices which form and inform us, day in and out.
I just got back a week ago from AWP (Association of Writers and Writing Programs)’s annual conference. (You can check out the action at Twitter. Search on #AWP15) The Minneapolis hotel didn’t run out of alcohol (that has happened in the past) but they did have a run on the tabouleh in the first 24 hours. Well, with approximately 15,000 writers in town, you’re going to run out of something.
Maybe there’s something about being (lost) among that sea of writers that has me thinking about the Hero’s Journey. I could have used a clever animal sidekick or a pair of magic scissors or something. Or maybe it’s just another way for me to think about shaping this story I’m always trying to write. Or this life I’m trying to live. Living the life, writing the book…same project, as far as I can tell.
Joseph Campbell picked up where Jung left off and got us all thinking of the Hero’s Quest or Journey as an archetypal form we could overlay onto our own lives. He outlined the steps of the Journey. I’ve seen it stated slightly differently in different places, but here is one model:
- Hero as outcast/outsider.
- Hero called to adventure.
- Hero refuses the call.
- Hero meets mentor (supernatural aid, spirit guide, etc).
- Hero “crosses the threshold,” embarks/leaves ordinary life behind.
- Hero undergoes a series of tests on the path.
- Hero meets the love that has greatest significance, is all-encompassing, all-meaningful. Campbell called this meeting the Goddess.
- Hero meets the Temptress, in the temptation to fall from his Quest.
- Hero faces ultimate challenge/greatest fear.
- Hero gains the gift or treasure, the fulfillment of the Quest.
- Hero returns home, with treasure.
- Hero faces one final test.
- Hero comes into his own, is crowned King or otherwise recognized in community.
Wikipedia tells me Campbell borrowed Joyce’s term “monomyth” for this. And like monotheism, the “monomyth” has a pronoun problem. Campbell wasn’t so great on the wimminfolk, as you can tell from the above steps. The Hero for him was always a boy or man. True love is represented by “the Goddess,” and tempation likewise takes the figure of a woman. Towards the end of his career (I read this anecdote from The Sound of a Silver Horn, by Kathleen Noble—a great book on women and the Hero’s Journey for anyone interested), a young woman asked him in class, “What about women?” Campbell answered, “Women are the Mother, the Goddess, the Beloved…what more do you want?” “I want to go on an adventure,” she said. “I’m glad I’m retiring,” was his reply.
Let’s diversify the Journey.
What if the Hero is not an outcast? What if she is enmeshed in her community at the start of the story? What launches her out of her comfort zone and onto the Path? Is there an archetypal moment of rejection, and would this come from within or from without? Or is she just bored? Is that enough? What if she has children? What if she has an older relative she’s taking care of? What if she is the head of the PTO?
And what happens to her at the end? A wise man may be a king. A wise woman is almost always a witch. Mind you, I’m down with that. A woman (anyone) who listens to a wilder song and has truly gained wisdom from that will not be welcome back into a community structured by patriarchy. This is why the witch lives at the edge of town, or deep in the woods. This is an essential difference which does not have to be gender specific.
Stretching our imaginations to re-vision the Hero’s Journey is helpful to writers as we think about plots…but larger than that, if the Journey is an archetype we all may follow in how we think about and understand our lives, there needs to be a diversity of possible paths. Not everyone wants to be king. Not everyone wants to end up married and happily ever after.
If we follow Jungian thought, archetypally, a “king” has been understood to represent someone who is healthily centered, who has embraced their own shadow and is able to rule themselves wisely. Maybe a “witch” is someone who purposefully and deliberately uncenters. Who pushes into the margins, the boundaries, who camps on the edge. Who insists there is still, ever, much of the self she doesn’t yet know.
What would it be to be both?
Over recent years, Adrian Bott has become widely known for his annual deconstruction of the myth that Eostre or Ostara was a widely worshipped goddess in Northern Europe, and that she was associated with rabbits, hares, and eggs. In the course of his research, he has discovered a number of other interesting things, some of which are explained in his article for The Guardian, The modern myth of the Easter bunny.
So I asked him if he would like to do an interview on the subject of Eostre and Easter.
1. What got you interested in this topic, and returning to it every year?
My interest in festivals, pagan and otherwise, goes all the way back to my earliest involvement with these matters. Like so many others, I absorbed the myths uncritically and welcomed the ammunition they seemed to give against an overarching, oppressive Christianity. Being able to claim ‘we were here first’ is empowering for pagans, especially young ones. Back in those days, there weren’t nearly so many of us as there are now.
As for my interest in debunking the myths surrounding the festivals, well, that comes a lot later in life. I ran an occult bookshop in Manchester for ten years, which put me in a wonderful and enviable position: access to all the literature I could ever want! The more reading I did, the more holes appeared in the popular ‘Eostre’ narrative. I got into the habit of checking sources rather than simply accepting material at face value. It became rapidly apparent that a great many supposed ‘facts’ were nothing of the sort, and were only being repeated because they told people things they wanted to hear.
I wrote a rough-and-ready article for White Dragon magazine back in the early 2000s that started the ball rolling, and since then it’s become a sort of annual tradition to drag it out and get the weary work of debunking going again, because every year you see the same codswallop circulated. In my view, people deserve better.
2. Why do you think it is so important to be historically accurate in the presentation of myth and symbol?
Well, that really depends on the context. I’m not saying that anyone has to be historically accurate (which is hardly achievable, let’s be honest!) in their spirituality. People have an unassailable right to interpret the divine, however they may see that, in their own way. The last thing I want is to be seen as some sort of pompous pagan bureaucrat telling people the figures on their altar don’t properly reflect the latest archaeological or academic discoveries.
But I do think that pagans, of all people, have an ethical obligation to respect the historicity of the stories they tell, especially when they are telling them to one another. I think we have to do more than pay lip service to such things as lore, tradition, and ‘old ways’. That means recognising the boundaries of our knowledge. It’s no shame to say ‘We do not know what the absolute truth of this matter is’. Stories can emerge from the shadows. Where there’s doubt, there’s room to breathe.
As I see it, to say ‘We do not know for sure whether Eostre existed as a figure of worship’ is far more liberating, far more honest and far more empowering than to say ‘There WAS an Eostre, there HAS TO have been, she DID SO exist, and she had a sacred bunny too.’ The problem with the latter approach is that it standardises the myth. It reduces all that cryptic, compelling potential to a mere lump of monolithic propaganda.
The discipline of the historian, as I see it, is something to be treated with reverence, especially by people who purport to be custodians of the past. It’s bitterly ironic that so many pagans depend on the ancestral past for their sense of identity and yet blithely ignore the findings of academic historians in favour of flavoursome lies that they think empower them.
3. Do you think that a certain amount of the spurious notion that “the Christians stole our festivals” (CSOF) has fed into the modern Eostre myth? Do you think this idea is dangerous? Why?
Yes on both counts. I’d go so far as to say that the whole purpose of the modern Eostre myth is to undermine the Christian Easter, for entirely understandable reasons. I don’t think they are good reasons, but they are understandable.
There are many reasons why the idea is dangerous. Firstly, it peddles a facile and diminutising version of pre-Christian history. According to the CSOF line, there was one group of people called The Christians, and another group called The Pagans, and The Pagans had celebrations on the equinoxes and solstices, and these celebrations were usually about Fertility and about Goddesses, and along came The Christians and they forced all The Pagans to convert, and to make this easier they took all The Pagans’ festivals and Christianised them. All this is meant to have happened in some ill-defined but vaguely European space, during some unspecified time period when things were very muddy and bloody.
The second reason the CSOF line of argument is dangerous is that it’s flat out wrong. It treats Gregory’s letter as some sort of absolute rule obeyed by all The Christians at all times and in all places, rather than as the passing notion it actually was. In the particular case of Easter, it’s painfully easy to explain why Christians didn’t ‘steal’ it. The antecedent of Easter is Passover, Christ being seen as the ‘Lamb of God’ and the perfect Passover sacrifice, and the date of Easter was decided by the early Church in reference to that tradition (though there was a good deal of argument as to when the date actually was – google the Synod of Whitby, for example). For this reason, almost all countries call Easter some variant of ‘Pasch’. It’s only in a relatively small part of the world that people called it Easter, and the only reason why so many people call it Easter now is because of the dominance of the English language.
The third reason is that claiming Christian festivals as somehow ‘pagan’ is exactly what certain fundamentalist Christians want to do. In fact, a good deal of the impetus to deem Easter and Christmas essentially ‘pagan’ comes from that quarter.
4. Do you think it is acceptable to present Eostre and her bunnies and eggs as a modern myth, if we don’t claim that it is ancient? Can we still have our chocolate eggs?
Absolutely! Again, the whole intent here is not to demolish anyone’s personal take on the season, or whatever Goddesses they may choose to honour. The provision of meticulously gathered historical research is meant to be a positive thing, not a negative one. I don’t really see myself as a debunker, when it comes down to it. I’d rather be the kind of person who opens the door to the rich possibilities of doubt and uncertainty. Let people see their own faces in the flames and forms in the shadows; let them make their own links with the mythic past and fill in the blanks with their own inspired imagination. We don’t need some standardised bubblegum Eostre, complete with bunny, presented as if it were a fact.
Debunkers in general need to be careful, I think. The late Terry Pratchett, who was a very wise man indeed, wrote a book called Lords and Ladies. In it, the young witch Magrat Garlick encounters a painting of the famous Queen Ynci of Lancre, a Boudica-like warrior woman. She later finds Queen Ynci’s armour and wears it to defend a castle against attacking elves. In doing so, she feels as if the spirit of Ynci is with her, helping her, making her brave. Through Ynci, she is able to do things she normally wouldn’t dare to do.
Later, Nanny Ogg and Granny Weatherwax are talking together, and we learn what Magrat didn’t know: Queen Ynci never existed. She was invented by a former King of Lancre to add a bit of romantic history. He even had the armour made, hammered together from an old tin bath and some saucepans. Granny Weatherwax asks Nanny Ogg ‘But didn’t you think you ought to tell her that?’ and Nanny answers ‘No.’ Enough said, I think.
5. Is there another myth associated with the Spring Equinox that people could create rituals with?
Nowadays, there are an abundance of myths about the Spring Equinox – take your pick! However, we do run into a bit of a problem in that the celebration of the Spring Equinox per se doesn’t have much of a European pagan precedent. You see, Eostre’s festival (if it existed) wouldn’t have been at the Spring Equinox at all. Eosturmonat, as Bede attests, was the FOURTH lunar month of the Anglo-Saxon year, corresponding roughly to April. This is how come the Christian festival of Pasch coincided with it. Pasch is dated from the Spring Equinox, but does not happen at the Spring Equinox; it falls in April more often than not.
The practice of celebrating the Spring Equinox in this context at all owes much more to the Golden Dawn than it does to ancient pagan tradition. Certainly, calling the Equinox ‘Ostara’ is an entirely modern practice. But so long as we’re aware of that, we can celebrate how we like. Easter traditions, whether or not they may be pagan in origin, are not ‘Spring Equinox’ traditions. If the German Ostarmonat and the Old English Eosturmonath do indicate a spring festival, then it is to those months we must look for the folkloric antecedents of Easter, and not to the Equinox in March.
Disclaimers aside, the one Germanic Easter tradition I do find fascinating is the Osterfuchs or Easter Fox. To quote:
Until the mid-20th Century, according to older literature, it was mainly the Easter Fox who was responsible for the eggs in the Easter tradition. Gradually this was then displaced by the Easter Bunny. A note of 1904 from the Schaumburg area states quite specifically that the eggs were laid not from the Easter Bunny, but the Easter fox. Traditionally, on Holy Saturday the children would prepare a cozy nest of hay and moss for the Easter Fox. They also made sure that the Easter Fox was not disturbed during his visit – for example by shutting up pets for the night. Furthermore, the Easter Fox was described in a Westphalian document of 1910. Interestingly, the tradition seemed at the time to have been in a transition period to the Easter Bunny. Thus we read in Scripture that “… it would look as though the Fox might return before the hare. ” Where the Easter fox comes into the story, we can only surmise today. It was considered early on that it is based on the Pentecostal fox. This is an old custom in which people at Pentecost went with a pet fox from house to house to collect donations. Other descriptions suggest the Easter fox harks back to the tradition of Christmas Gebildbrot pastries.
I have no evidence whatsoever that the Easter Fox represents a survival from pre-Christian times. But wouldn’t it be a wonderful myth to work with?
The only reason anyone thinks Eostre had a rabbit (or hare) companion is because of Jacob Grimm, who in Deustsche Mythologie states ‘Probably the hare was the sacred animal of Ostara’ without any direct evidence at all. The notion has become incredibly popular, though, because everyone’s heard of the Easter Bunny, and claiming things everyone’s heard of in the name of Paganism is a tiresomely common activity nowadays.
Bluntly, there’s no more evidence that Eostre/Ostara had a hare companion than a fox companion, and the fox tradition seems to be older, so I think we should give her a fox. My daughter says she’ll be building two moss nests this year, one for the Easter Bunny and one for the Easter Fox. (She assures me she’ll label them so they don’t get confused.)
6. Can you tell us a bit about how you celebrate Spring Equinox (if you do)?
I like to say I’m celebrating the Spring Equinox in exactly the same way as my Pagan ancestors did, namely by ignoring it completely…
7. Can you tell us a bit about your Pagan/magical path?
I rarely ever talk about my own beliefs and practices. This is a consequence of my days running the occult bookshop up in Manchester. If you’re going to deal with all paths impartially, you can’t be seen to be on any given side. The moment you are thought to be part of a given group, people naturally and automatically assume biases and prejudices, whether you have them or not. So I always kept my own beliefs out of the picture.
I don’t really like ‘paths’, as a rule. A path, by definition, is something someone else has walked before you. Unless you’re hacking your own idiosyncratic way through the scrub, it’s not really your path at all, is it? On balance, I think I’d rather have a magical machete than a magical path.
8. Anything else you want to add?
The most pernicious thing about the popular Eostre myth – the whole spring goddess with the egg laying bunny bit – is not its falsity but its homogenity. Its purpose is to recast a globally celebrated Christian festival with secular elements in modern Pagan terms. But if we do that, our paganism is nothing but that same global Christianity with the numbers filed off. To reclaim ‘Santa Claus’ or ‘The Easter Bunny’ is to adopt mass-market icons.
I think we have to reaffirm the importance of the local, the personal, the particular. Don’t just accept the stories you’re told uncritically and circulate them. Embrace the uncertainty and tell your own stories. I have no interest in the rosy-cheeked smiling flowers-and-ribbons choccy-box Eostre with basket of decorated eggs and fluffy rabbit that you see all over the place on the pagan Internet.
But a wild-eyed Eostre, a survivor, young and rangy and half-starved from winter, clawing her way up a barren mountainside with her fox at her heels towards a blood-red Spring dawn, grinning in triumph, alive, unbroken, unbreakable? I’ll drink to her any day.
Articles about the Eostre myth by Adrian Bott
- Cavalorn: Eostre: the making of a myth (part 1)
- Cavalorn: Eostre: the making of a myth (part 2)
- Cavalorn: Hunting the spurious Eostre Hare
- Cavalorn: Eostre, Ostara, and the Easter Fox
- Rational blogs: No, it’s not all about Ishtar. Some mythbusting Easter facts from your friendly pagan sceptic.
Books by Adrian Bott
Adrian has written numerous children’s books.
Many thanks to Adrian for this interview, and for all his research on this topic.
I suppose, if I want to be orderly about this, I should outline the reasons I took an extended leave first.
But I don’t want to be orderly…
I’m sure I don’t remember them all…
Maybe I wasn’t even there at the time…
So I’m skipping ahead to what brought me back to this space. We’ll fill in the backstory another time.
A nice thing happened this week—Junoesq, an online magazine from Singapore, published this interview with me, along with a handful of
new poems (one of which, “Small But Real,” was inspired by conversation with Niki Whiting of Witch’s Ashram). The compliment was welcome. This year I’ve wondered deeply about the worth of my own voice—others speak so much more immediately and profoundly to current events and crises.
But…Junoesq’s editor, Grace Chia, reached out to me for the interview after I sent her a few poems out of the blue. They struck an immediate chord with her, as another writer trying to balance motherhood, profession, the nature of a literary calling, and public vs. private persona. Halfway around the world, and yet…same old, same old story. Sigh.
And then, checking out the 1988 book Sacred Dimensions of Women’s Experience, edited by Elizabeth Dodson Gray, I’m struck by how many things have not changed. Women (and men) still struggle to place value on domesticity. We still struggle to love our bodies as they age, thicken, change. We still struggle to insist that our lives have worth, as individuals, as women, no matter our work, our size, our appearance, our voice, or the money we make (or do not make).
So—yes, there are many radical and beloved and ferocious warriors whose voices I treasure above my own. And that doesn’t absolve me from writing my truth. Both. And.
Then, too, I’m writing a novel. Trying to. Daring myself. This is a new adventure and it has me thinking about different kinds of writing, what they are useful for, how they work. Poetry vs. prose. Fiction vs. nonfiction. Where are the fissures and faultlines between “fact” and “truth.” As I work along on my fictional endeavor, it brings me back to this blog. Blogging is even another form of writing, after all, which I have only begun to explore. Writing in here offers its own strengths, its own opportunities.
Did I mention I’m working on a novel? At least partly because of one book: The Priestess and the Pen. “Give me blood and magic,” author Sonja Sadovsky writes in the opening pages. I have to agree. In this space, I don’t have to pretend the blood isn’t real. I don’t have to apologize for the term “magic.” No animals will be harmed in the writing of this column, I promise—although I make a special exception for mosquitoes. (Bonus: Jason Mankey interviews Sadovsky at Raise the Horns!)
A fox showed up in our backyard the other day. I want to find a place once again among people who know 1) the fox doesn’t care about my work and 2) the fox is telling me to get cracking.
So here I am, returned. As Sadovsky writes:
Ultimately, the woman with the sword is the woman with the pen; the one who wields it creates her reality.
I took the time I needed. And I remembered that for me, the answer is almost always both/and. Yes.
The question is courage.
Small candle, Mind-Forge, help me fly
Through thorn, to World Tree nine worlds high,
What Was, Is, Will Be:
Three Sisters stand by me.
Light a candle, my love, a small mindfire to prick the growing night. For all this starts with a story. Not a pretty or happy story, but one that is True…
Once not so long ago, or very long ago indeed, or maybe not until next week…
there was a god who wanted to try his luck as a man. It happens now and again, and there’s always a story to come of it.
This particular man had two brothers, and the three of them were fortunately enough (and that is very fortunate indeed, bad luck or good) to marry three sisters. Nine years they all lived happily enough, and then the sisters flew, called off by their father to far fields of battle. Nine years have we been together, nine years will we be apart, they told their mates. Never seek us, never search us out. We will come back to you. And off they flew, crying and calling to war.
Now the man’s two brothers could not abide to live with their grief and solitude, and they urged the young man to come with them and chase their wives, bring them back to home. But the young man trusted his wife to come back as she said she would, and he urged his brothers to have patience. This they could not, and so they said good bye to the young man, and went to seek their wives. With one thing and another, those two quickly met their deaths, for you cannot chase after what has flown away from you and ever come to any good.
The young man knew nothing of this, however. He turned to the hills, and found within them ore and jewels, and month by month and year by year he practiced a lonely craft as smith. It wasn’t long until he became so skilled at his art, that his reputation spread throughout the land and his small house filled up with treasures of his own making.
Now it happened…
that a neighboring King heard of the renown and reputation of the Smith. How could he not, when rumors ran across the country? No smith so skilled as he, travelers told the King. And none so wealthy, either. All by himself he lives, just him, alone, in a house full of gold rings, chains, and hammered armor all of utmost skill and craft.
The King could not forget this Smith, this no one noble, once he had heard these tales. Who is this man, he asked, to have more wealth than I do? Am I not king? And for whom does he do this work, for whom does he hammer the gold and iron, if not for the king? By rights I should have him here beside me.
So the King gathered twelve of his strongest soldiers in the hall guard and together they traveled to the Smith’s small house, intending to ambush him and bring him back to the King’s hall. Luck was with them. The Smith was out hunting when they arrived. The house was empty of any person, but the stories were proved true, it was filled with gold buckles, rings, ornaments and armored magnificence. The men had time to arrange themselves in hiding.
And the King, looking around, had time to take the most beautiful ring of all and stash it in his pocket.
As it turned out…
they didn’t have long to wait. The Smith returned successful, a bear over his shoulders. In no time the thirteen had overpowered him, and without delay they tied him up and took him back to King’s great hall, his realm and home. Once there, to ensure the prisoner would not escape (for he was very strong), the King ordered his men to hamstring and hobble the Smith. Then they locked him away by himself, on an island close by. It was the Smith, his forge and anvil, a chest to keep the metals he would work, a simple bed, and very little else.
The ring he stole, the King gave to his only daughter. To his young sons he gave nothing, for he had no other stolen goods to give.
Can you imagine, now…
how the days and nights stretched on for the prisoner. Nothing but the sound of surf and seagull, the roar of the forge, the clink of his hammers. Wounds slow to heal, both outer and inner, oh my yes. Yet in his pain, his grief, his anger, he didn’t stop work. And out of that crucible, all his jeweled ornaments, all his fanciful masterpieces, went now to the King.
How long did this last? Some months? Years? How should such mortals as we, free and yet untested, measure time’s reach for one who is captive, for one who has been a god? But the Smith would have his revenge.
For as you might guess,one day…
the king’s two sons took it into their heads to row out to their prisoner. They were curious boys, and they knew the rumors of the chest of gold and other metals, they’d heard whispers of the jewels he kept to work his magic on. And after all, what gifts had they received? Did they just want to look, or were they hoping together to trick the smith, or overpower him, and steal his wealth? They didn’t tell me, my lovelies, if they were.
The Smith, healed on the outside by now, at least, welcomed them in and agreed they should see the wonders contained in the chest he kept by the forge. Eagerly, the two leaned over. And as they did, their prisoner brought down the lid with such force it severed their heads from their bodies at once. Oh, he made a clean job of it. The bodies he buried under the dirt floor of his cell. But the heads he had use for. Taking the two skulls, he veined and lined them with gold, fit fine jewels into the eye sockets, and sent the two goblets—rare beauties—to the King as a most precious gift. Delighted, the King promised they should toast the princes, when his sons returned from their bear hunt.
But you haven’t forgotten the King’s daughter, surely?
She who was gifted the Smith’s ring had broken the jewel. Worried her father would find out, she rowed out to the cell just as her brothers had, to ask him to fix it, a favor. Her he welcomed more warmly, with spiced wine. And the stories are not so clear, my dears and darlings, if that wine was drugged, or if the drink only softened her smile. But here is the truth of it: when she rowed home, the princess was carrying the Smith’s child. She might have been able to hide her broken ring, but a baby she never could. Weeping, she told her father the King what had happened.
Now the Smith flew free, for he had in the long years of captivity and anger made wings for himself, and hovering above the shocked King his enemy and captor, he admitted, laughing grimly, all he had done. He revealed the goblets’ deep secret, the fate of the princes. And he claimed the son the princess carried, and laid a charm of protection upon both her and the babe, so that the King must house and feed them, until the Smith, a god once more, came back to claim them both for his own.
And the King, broken and bereft, admitted his folly and too late regretted his acts. For the Smith’s triumph over him was utterly complete.
Keep the fire lit, a while, my loves, and get you to bed. I won’t be sleeping this night, and how the cold comes on.
And so the first debt is paid, the first promise kept.
Late in the summer, I opened an old wooden writing desk I keep in my office.
A year or two ago, I went through a period of a few months where frenetic ideas were coming quickly but I had no energy to write them into poems or essays or the book I thought might be glimmering around the edges, so, excited, over stimulated, I stashed them all in a box and let them sit a while.
Casting through old pages for ideas this summer I remembered that stash of notes and pulled them out, brought them upstairs. I remembered them as notes, lines, half-poems started and ready to be finished. I remembered them as a coherent set of ideas ready to be filled out and expanded upon.
Instead, they were random jottings, strangely spooky and unfamiliar—like hearing a ghostly voice at great distance waft up from the scrids of paper. Some not even ideas—just nouns or doodles, unrelated. Or a half question. One slip of paper was entirely blank. Bits of dialogue in voices I now don’t recognize. There was no thread running through the group, there was no way to tie them together. I could weave no narrative.
It was a record of damage. Or maybe, damage control.
I know there is such a thing as Narrative Theology , or Postliberal Theology, as it is also known. I admit immediately I have only the faintest grasp of the subject, but it seems to be involved in moving away from a liberal Christianity that situates itself historically, back to one that centers itself in narrative—or story, or myth, if that word isn’t offensive. (It shouldn’t be, I think. Myth is the story that is always now and always true.)
If my understanding is correct, I have a lot of sympathy for the movement. A living religion has to situate itself in the ever-present yes of myth. (My easy embrace of a historically-based understanding of Jesus and the beginnings of Christianity, for example, is rooted in the fact that I am not a Christian.)
Story is how the human animal makes meaning. Story is central to religion.
That said, I think again of my scraps of paper, scribbled down and saved from a period of my life when the narrative(s) I had created no longer worked. The story I created that was me no longer fit. It wasn’t an easy time…but I wouldn’t give up the knowledge I gained coming through it. And those little scraps bear a broken witness.
I distrust any religion that hands its followers too many answers. Answers close down the conversation, they take us from the journey to the idea of arrival, of finish line. We can’t help making narrative, any more than we can help seeing pattern. It’s what our species does. But I distrust stories that don’t leave some spaces.
Whatever my theology is, it needs to be able to encompass the gaps and ruptures as well.
A writer knows to leave some gaps in the narrative, to allow the reader to fill in some blank spaces. To invite co-creation.
I haven’t decided what to do with those folded up scraps of paper. Right now they’re in an envelope. Part of me wants to put them into some kind of book (to contain them is to give them a shape, even just a loose one, and shape is meaning). Part of me thinks they’re close to holy relics and ought to be kept private and secret. Part of me says Get real, it’s just some random jottings on bits of paper. You’re never going to come back to them.
Truth be told I’ve temporarily misplaced the envelope.
We are made of scraps, unconnected, random experiences and actions that accrue through days and years as we grow. The bits that don’t fit our story, we conveniently let go. The mind sifts. But what happens when we’re faced suddenly with those fragments that we discarded, those little voices and stories and motions we forgot about? Things fall apart, the center cannot hold, as Yeats wrote. Theology has to make a place for the non-narrative moments too, or it fails us.
Last week I posted a story, suggesting that we can understand our interior spiritual landscapes through the telling of a tale. Story acts as map—at least some of the time, was my idea.
I’ve been thinking about how to expand on this idea. I pieced that story together from experiences in my own life. It took some years to write, because it took some years to live. When I read it over now, in its purposeful abstraction, its folk tale feel, it feels to me like a supple fabric that flows through my hands, able (I hope) to be fit and shaped to different forms, depending on the reader’s own experience and requirement.
But the point I want to make today is: it is a pieced together thing.
One of my childhood friends just moved a lot closer to me, here in Wisconsin. She’s a visual artist, a photographer. It’s her images that grace this brief essay today.
Some photographers take their cameras out into the world and try to frame what they see, catching a moment for the viewer. (John Beckett has some good things to say about that here.)
That is not my friend’s way. She composes her pictures in her studio or on location, artfully placing the various pieces and props to make the image she wants.
To use my own trope: she pieces together her images.
I’m taking a class on soul work right now and we’re encouraged in these first weeks to read widely what others say and begin to define “soul” for ourselves. It’s common for people to use the image of a candle’s flame, or a small interior voice, when talking about soul…but today I’m wondering if maybe soul something we piece together for ourselves, through our lives. If it’s a lifework, this business, to (choose your verb) stitch/cobble/paste/weld the soul from the scraps and bits. We all go down, again and again, to what Yeats names “the foul rag-and-bone shop” and we use what we find there, because it is all we have to work with.
We don’t control how life rips us apart or subtly erodes us down over time…but we do make choices about what to do in response, and how to live. It could be that art, and story, and the process of art and story making, point us in the direction of the important interior work we have to do, as well.
Thanks to Heather Atkinson for the glorious art. You can find more of her work at heatheratkinson.com
First we draw the map.
Then we ask, who lives there?
Then we ask, who goes there?
Sometimes the map is a story.
Here is a Story, to be told when the night grows long:
Once there was a woman who every day walked a well-worn path between her house and the town center, taking her basket of work and wares to sell or trade. Her path led through a woods, but was so well-used that where she walked was quite well lit and without hazard.
One afternoon, however, she tripped on an unseen stone and fell off the path, hard, to the ground. For a moment she lay stunned on the forest floor. As she lifted herself to a sitting position, head ringing, she saw all her goods scattered around, broken and shattered, her basket torn asunder and smashed in. “Oh no,” she cried. Her work was for naught, broken and destroyed. But it was clear there was no time for crying. The woods were growing fast dark with night and, having fallen, she could no longer see the path.
“If I’m to get home, I’d better be doing it,” she said to herself. Up she rose, to make her way back as best she could but thorns caught at her clothing, tearing at it and shredding it. The sharp branches snagged at her face and hands. Disoriented by the fall, the dark, the stinging thorns, she could make no easy or quick progress, but held her hands up to protect herself from the briars and moved forward through the dark as best she could. It took some time.
By the time she emerged, she was left with only a simple shift. The rest of her clothes had fallen away, snagged on the bushes and briars. She looked around, bruised, bleeding lightly and tired. The moon had risen in the sky, a full moon, giving her light to see by. She found herself on the shore of a lake so large she could not see across. The sand was smooth and white in the moonlight. She realized how quiet the night was, now that she was out of the thorns. The only sound was the water, gently lapping at the shore in small ripples and waves. Looking to left and right, she saw the beach was quite a small clearing. The woods came right down to the water to her left and right, and there was no path to be seen. She sighed, “If I’m to swim, I’d better be doing it.” Shrugging, she stripped off the shift she wore and entered the water, naked.
It was a calm night, and the water flowed around her easily. She was surprised to find that the swimming, although it tired her, was not difficult. As she moved farther from the shore, she became aware of a strange light rising up from beneath her in the water, eerie blue and green. It scared her a little, and she determined to swim past it as quickly as possible. But swim as she might, she could not move beyond the light flickering up from under.
“Oh very well,” she thought to herself. “If I’m to dive, I’d better be doing it.” So, tucking her legs up, down she went.
The light emanated from a cave on the lake’s bottom, and from that same cave came a sweet, unearthly singing. As she neared it, she was surprised to find she could breathe in this new element. Landing on the sandy floor outside the cave, well lit by the light that spilled out around the entrance, she walked in.
She saw first a large black pot, sitting on a fire, though how there could be fire at the bottom of the lake she did not know. The flames burned green, then blue. Someone was stirring the pot, she saw, and lifting her eyes, she saw a woman returning her gaze and smiling. It was this person that was singing as she stirred the giant black cauldron. It was impossible to tell if she was young or old. The light—blue, green, fire-filled and watery by turns—was all around, emanating from the fire, or possibly from the rock walls of the cave, it was impossible to discern. It might even have been coming from the pot, or from the singer herself. It flickered and bounced through the cave, off the surfaces and through the water in a kind of dance.
The cave was warm, and strangely comfortable, and, very tired from her long walk through the woods and her swim, the woman fell asleep before she could help herself. When she woke, she was marvelously refreshed and found herself wearing a new simple garment. The singer, still at the pot, smiled to see her awake. “You must learn my songs,” she told the woman. “And you must take a turn, stirring my pot.” And so, the woman took over at the fireside and the singer taught her, line by line, the songs to sing.
Without sunlight, it was impossible for the woman to tell how much time had passed. It might have been hours, or days, a year or a hundred years. But after she had learned the singer’s songs, she knew she must be going. She was oddly reluctant to leave, and the singer seemed to know this. “You may stay with me, if you like, sister” she offered. “There is plenty of room here for two and you are a good help to me.” The woman was very tempted. It was so peaceful there, and so simple. The light that reflected through the cave was so joyful and so refreshing. She took a long breath, considering. Then she thought of her family, waiting for her in the house up above. She remembered the path she was trying to find. Regretfully, she shook her head. “Thank you, no. There is a part of me that would love to stay, but I know I must go back to the surface. And if I must go—”
“You had better be doing it,” the Singer finished for her, smiling.
The Singer acknowledged her decision with a nod, then said, “At least I can give you a gift, before you go.” And leaning close, she whispered a word to the woman and handed her a large pearl. The woman put the pearl in her pocket and kicked off up through the water once again. When she surfaced, she found she was closer than she thought to the opposite shore. Swimming hard and fast now, she gave a final push and, exhausted by the effort, crawled up onto the rocks.
After catching her breath and drying out a bit, she looked around. It was early morning. The sun was just clearing the tree tops and mist was rising off the lake. She stood up, facing the rocks she must climb over to make her way. Looking down, she was astonished to see she cast no shadow. “What is this,” she cried. “Have I died? Am I transformed to something fearful?” She fell down frightened and wept, not knowing what to do or what she was.
A small bird fluttered around her head. “Do not weep,” chirped the bird. “I have seen your shadow. It runs ahead of you, hiding in those tall rocks.” “Then I must catch it,” said the woman, and up she jumped, clambering over the rocks. To the bird, she said, “Fly ahead, and tell my shadow to wait for me.” The bird flew off as the woman climbed and scrambled.
Soon it flew back, fluttering just above her again. “Your shadow runs ahead of you. It says it fears you too much to wait for you.” “Little friend, beg it to wait. Tell it there is nothing to fear from me.” The woman said, breathless as she climbed.
The next time the bird came back, it perched on a branch while the woman caught her breath. Very quietly, the bird chirped in her ear, “Your shadow waits just behind this rock right here.” And indeed, the woman could see it peeking out around at her. Slowly, so as not to fright the slip of a thing further, so slowly she rose to face it, and said, “You have nothing to fear from, me, Shadow. Come out, and tell me why you run.”
Equally slowly, the dark shape emerged from its hiding place, pouring out larger than she had thought it. “I run from you because I am afraid of you. I remember you too well and how you kept me caged.”
The woman laughed. “But I am not myself as you remember me. You need not fear. The Singer gave me a new name.” And she spoke the whispered word, her own new name, out clear.
The woman danced a small step, happy to have her shadow back. “Small bird, I would thank you,” said the woman, “but I do not know how.”
The little bird rose from the branch to her shoulder. “If you would thank me, there is a task I need done. My nest is over a stream, but the stream has dried up,” said the bird. “If you would help clear the stream and start it flowing again, I would be grateful.”
“I owe you much. Show me the way,” said the woman.
When they arrived at the stream bed she saw it indeed was dry, choked at the source with dead wood and murky bracken. “What shall I do now,” she wept. “For this job is too big for me alone. I have no blade to clear the wood and weed, to help you, friend.”
The bird whistled a quiet song and said, “Along this path there is a Smith. Follow your way to his forge, and give him that pearl you carry and he may help you.”
The woman was loathe to lose the pearl, but she had promised to help, she knew. So, drying her eyes, she made her way through the woods. Soon, she heard the sound of a hammer hitting iron, the roar of the forge, and the hiss as hot metal met water. Approaching, she saw a low building, open to the road. In front was a clearing, and at the clearing’s center roared a large hot fire. Anvils large and small stood around. A Lady waited at the clearing’s edge with her horse, which was being shod by the smith. He was a broad man, his face ruddy from the heat, and his face, arms, hands all showed scars from his work. But his eyes were kind. The woman watched quietly as he fixed the last shoe onto the horse. Then he turned to her and said, “Hello, good woman. What brings you here this bright morning?”
The woman curtsied to the smith and Lady, both, and explained “I promised my friend the bird I would help clear the stream bed and start the water flowing again, but I have no blade to cut away the choking weeds and grass. I thought perhaps, if I paid you with this pearl, you might have some aid for me.”
The Lady nodded at her as she mounted her horse. “Friend Smith, we are done here. I thank you,” and then to the woman she said, “That stream bed is on my land as it happens. You will do me a kindness by clearing it too. You have my thanks.” So saying, she rode off into the trees.
The Smith chuckled to himself, then turned and glanced at the pearl the woman was holding. He took in his breath, then his eyes bored curious and deep into the woman’s. “This is no payment for me but the thing itself,” he said. “And I ask no payment for this work.” “If there is work to be done you had better be doing it,” she whispered, reluctantly giving her pearl to him. And taking it, he placed it on the largest anvil and with one blow he crushed it.
The woman cried out in fear at the sound, closing her eyes. When she opened them, she was astonished to see the smith held out to her a sword of steel with pearl shine and inlay. “You carried this the whole time, and never knew it,” he told her. “It’s a rare gift, and a rare one who carries such a thing. Now go you back to your bird. And know, you are welcome here any time.” And saying that, he turned his back and went to the bellows to urge the fire hotter.
The woman, marveling, went back to the stream bed. And indeed, from then the work was easy. Within a day she had wrestled the overgrowth and the dead wood away from the spring’s source, and freed the water to flow again. The little bird trilled happily to see it. “You have repaid my favor amply, thank you kind woman. Your way lies past the spring’s source, up the hill. Come back to see me any time.” And happily chirruping to herself, the little bird began constructing a new nest out of bits of saved string and twigs and other little sundry items.
The woman went on her way, tying her sword around her waist, happy to have it. And indeed, it was just as the bird said, her path did lie up on the hill over the spring, as clear as ever. With great relief, she began walking in a direction she knew would take her home. The afternoon was warm and clear, butterflies and bees hummed and fluttered in the grass and flowers, and she enjoyed herself in the fresh breeze, knowing she was headed home at last.
To her surprise, as night came on, she saw that the path led into a dark opening in a hillside. “What is this,” she thought. But clearly, there was nothing for it but to enter, for the path was broad and well-cleared. “Well, if I must enter the hill, I’d better be doing it,” she said to herself. Just to be safe, the woman pulled out her sword, and, a little fearfully, entered into the hill.
She was surprised to find herself in a long passageway that seemed to go through the hill entirely. Torches lined either side, so the whole thing was lit up with the warmth of the flames, and shadows danced. Lining either side of the hall were all manner of thing—chests of treasure, dusty with time, dim pictures and forgotten oddments so old and strange it was impossible to know their value. And all along the walls were all manner of masks. In the light of the torches, the features of the masks moved, growing larger and smaller, brighter and darker. “What place is this,” the woman breathed to herself. Curiosity and awe filled her.
This is the hall of the ancestors, said a chorus of voices in her head. There was no sound to be heard with the ears except the quiet padding of her footsteps, the occasional clink as her sword knocked against something accidentally. You will find this hall open to you, should you want to return. Until then, you may take one torch to light your way, for when you emerge it will be night once more.
“Well, this will certainly be an easier passage than those thorny woods I started out in,” thought the woman to herself. “And… I might come back to see my friend the bird again.” So she curtsied to the spirits of the place and said, “I thank you, good folk. One torch will I take. And when I come back I will bring you a gift as well.” And, putting her sword back in her belt, she lifted the torch closest to her and made her way forward.
Soon enough, she emerged out into the world once more and found herself in her own back yard and garden. Her family welcomed her into the house with open arms, curious and delighted to hear her story. “But mother, we are confused,” said her daughter, after she finished. “You say you have a sword, and a torch, but where are they?” And sure enough, astonished, the woman saw that the hand that had carried the torch held it no longer, and instead there gleamed a ring on her finger, fiery in the night. And as for her sword, it had melted into a pearl handled pen in her pocket. Laughing, she pulled it out to show her children, and promptly wrote down this story.
And now, a good night to you all. My story is done.
Have you read Ursula Le Guin’s classic short story, The ones who walk away from Omelas?
If you haven’t, go and read it now. This can wait.
Omelas is a privileged city, almost a utopia, apart from the one thing that enables its citizens to lead full, happy, and carefree lives – and that one thing is what makes many people walk away from Omelas.
Would you walk away from Omelas? Or would you consider that the bargain is justified?
The thing is, in a way, we all live in Omelas. If you live in the West and use products made by underpaid workers, or even slaves, in the Far East, shipped across the ocean at a high cost to marine wildlife, then you live in Omelas.
But our society is not Omelas for everyone. Some people cannot even walk down the street without fearing for their lives. Some people get arrested or even killed for the colour of their skin, the way they walk, the way they dress. If you are Black, or transgender, or gay, you are especially in danger.
Walking down the street without fear of harassment, arrest, or assault is not a privilege, it is a right. Those of us who pass for cisgender and/or straight and/or white take this right for granted, and are often unaware that it is a right that is denied to many of our fellow-citizens.
Education is not a privilege, it is a right (at least until the age of 16).
If you are right-handed, you take it for granted that the world fits you like a glove. You are unaware of the structural disadvantage faced by left-handers, and call us “awkward” and “cack-handed”. (I use left-handedness as an example because whilst the structural disadvantages are fairly minor, it seems they are invisible to everyone except left-handers.)
A privilege is defined as “a special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group”. A right is defined as “a moral or legal entitlement to have or do something”. By definition, rights are, or should be, available to everyone, whereas privileges are, or should be, only granted under exceptional circumstances.
Walking down the street without fear of harassment, arrest, assault, or being murdered by police, is something to which every citizen has a moral and legal entitlement. Being afraid every time your son or brother or father leaves the house, that he will get killed just for being Black – that should be a right, not a privilege.
There are many privileges granted to people in the West that ought to be rights for everyone in the world – access to healthcare, not being in danger of famine, epidemics, enslavement, maiming or death by bombing, displacement by war and persecution, and other horrors. The relative peace and security and wealth of the West is built on the deprivation of the rest of the world – our cheap goods result from the economic disparity between East and West, and the fact that people in Bangladesh, China and other places, are prepared to work for very low wages.
Our Omelas is very big and very pervasive – and we seem to be trapped in it.
Perhaps it is not enough to walk away from Omelas – we need to dismantle it from within.