Archive for the ‘Myth & Mind’ Category

  • Myth & Mind: When blue is not blue: A glance at color through the eye of linguistics

    Dec 29, 17 • ndemarino • 5enses, Myth & MindNo CommentsRead More »

    By Reva Sherrard When Ahmed ibn Fadlan, 10th-century diplomat from Baghdad to a king on the banks of the Volga River, encountered the Scandinavian settlers there, he described them as covered fingers to neck with green tattoos. The account I first read this in was puzzled what to make of the “green” markings, as colored tattoo ink is a relatively recent innovation. If that writer had glanced below the surface of the translation — or had had personal experience with tattooing — they would have seen that the word for “green” in ibn Fadlan’s Arabic also meant “blue.” A further historical glance would have informed them that the medieval Arabs were by no means the only society to assign the two colors, distinct to modern eyes, a single name. I, myself, am significantly tattooed with traditional black ink, and can testify that once healed a black tattoo in fair skin becomes dark blue-green. Likewise the visible veins beneath fair skin can look green or blue, though we call aristocrats “blue-bloods.” The phrase is a direct translation of Castilian Spanish sangre azul, a term of pride and bigotry used in the age of inquisitions by pale families with no skin-darkening tint of Jewish or Moorish genes. It is a delightful historic irony that the very word azul (blue), like countless other common Spanish words, was loaned from the Moors who occupied

  • Myth & Mind: Furies & hunts

    Dec 1, 17 • ndemarino • 5enses, Myth & MindNo CommentsRead More »

    By Reva Sherrard King Agamemnon’s ships lay in harbor, manned and ready to sail to war in Troy, awaiting a wind that wouldn’t come. As days crawled past a plague spread in the still air under the drooping sails. With more and more of his army sickening and the outcome of the war in the balance, Agamemnon chose to sacrifice his daughter, Iphigenia, to gain divine favor. When the girl’s throat was cut a wind sprang up, scoured the plague from the army’s lungs and drove the ships to Troy. Queen Clytemnestra grieved wildly for her daughter. While her husband was at war she turned for comfort to his rival Aegisthus. When Agamemnon returned victorious, bringing a captive princess as his prize and concubine, the lovers killed them both. It was now the duty of Orestes, Agamemnon and Clytemnestra’s son, to avenge his father’s murder. He slew his mother and her lover with his own hand. But the crime of matricide woke the Erinyes, or Furies, goddesses of punishment. Relentlessly they pursued Orestes and drove him mad. ***** What are the Erinyes? Etymologically, erinys (Greek, singular) likely means just what the Romans glossed it as: fury. These female powers are older than the Olympians, representing an equally ancient law. The laws and cultural values — and breaches thereof — embodied by Zeus and company belong to the machinery of civilization,

  • Myth & Mind: Harvests, hops, & human sacrifice

    Nov 3, 17 • ndemarino • 5enses, Myth & MindNo CommentsRead More »

    By Reva Sherrard Autumn has arrived. The wind changed almost overnight: one day towing monsoon clouds from the southwest in summer’s established pattern, then suddenly restive, keeping the trees awake after dark and setting a fresher edge on the mornings. The light, compressed a minute at a time by approaching winter, became a little clearer, more insistently golden. The wind’s mood in autumn, a combination of restlessness and certainty, has always made this season my favorite. The year is setting out on a journey whose destination is death. To the ancient Celts, the germinant sleep of death preceded life; nightfall was the day’s beginning, and the beginning of winter was the new year. The festival of Samhain (SOW-inn), falling in early November, marks not merely the first day of winter but a resetting of the cosmic mechanism at a fundamental level. To pastoral-agrarian ancestors, winter’s onset meant it was time to move the herds down from the highlands to more sheltered pastures, time to reap and store the rich life of summer before harshening weather took it away, but furthermore the crux of nature’s cyclical drama of death and rebirth. As such it was a dangerous season: The doors between worlds stood open, and one might easily wander inside the hills where the race of fairy-folk lived — especially considering the marathon drinking bouts the Irish engaged in as a

  • Myth & Mind: Restless riders

    Oct 6, 17 • ndemarino • 5enses, Myth & MindNo CommentsRead More »

    By Reva Sherrard In 1127, the chronicler of Peterborough Abbey in central England recorded an alarming event. Both monks and local townsfolk “saw and heard a great number of huntsmen hunting. The huntsmen were black, huge, and hideous, and rode on black horses and on black he-goats, and their hounds were jet black, with eyes like saucers, and horrible. … [In] the night the monks heard them sounding and winding their horns.” (From the “Peterborough Chronicle,” translator G. N. Garmonsway) Witnesses reported this frightening spectacle for weeks; it began in midwinter and only ended at Easter. This was not a mortal cavalcade. The people of Peterborough had seen the Wild Hunt. These were troubled times for England, and Peterborough Abbey was no exception. Only 10 years previously, some drunken monks had been responsible for a fire that destroyed their library; seven years later a succession crisis would plunge the country into cataclysmic civil war, and fill the chronicle’s pages with accounts of tortures inflicted on the common people. The conquest of England by William of Normandy in 1066 had violently uprooted Saxon society, traumatized the island’s patchwork of Germanic and Celtic cultures, and threatened the language with extinction. Taxes to enforce the new order came directly from those who could spare the least. Starvation was rampant. This was the age that gave rise to the legends of Robin Hood, the

  • Myth & Mind: Óðinn’s ecstatic fury

    Jul 25, 17 • ndemarino • 5enses, Myth & MindNo CommentsRead More »

    By Reva Sherrard I know that I hung the windswept tree upon, nights full nine, spear-wounded and given to Óðinn, self to myself on that tree that no one knows whence its roots run. With loaf they heartened me not nor with horn, I peered down, I took up the runes, screaming took them, I fell back from there. -Rúnatal On the brink of a terrible battle that would pit him against cherished friends and relatives, the Indian Prince Arjuna quailed in painful moral turmoil and threw down his bow, refusing to fight. His charioteer Krishna — the god Vishnu in flesh — counseled him to embrace his destiny as a warrior and to recognize the path fate had laid before him as something far greater than his own limited understanding. Transfigured by Krishna’s teaching, which comprises the “Bhagavad Gita” segment of the epic poem “Mahabharata,” Arjuna led his army to victory. When Harald Wartooth, a great eighth-century Scandinavian king, felt the shadow of death from old age fall over him he challenged his friend Sigurd Ring to an almighty battle. Harald in his youth had vowed to dedicate all those he slew in war to Óðinn (Odin), and in return the god granted him untold military success and dominion over lands from Northumbria, to western Norway, to Estonia. In the blinding heat of his last battle the king forgot

  • Myth & Mind: In the halls of the mountain kings

    Jun 30, 17 • ndemarino • 5enses, Myth & MindNo CommentsRead More »

    By Reva Sherrard Winter or summer, it’s cold in the mountain. The last time the sun touched this place was in the age when oxygen first accumulated in the atmosphere, hundreds to thousands of millions of years ago. It has been very quiet until now. I am on a bus, one of the modern heated fleet that punctually connects the villages of Western Norway to the towns and rail centers without fail, except in cases of natural disaster. The drivers are curt, competent, and speak no English. I am counting the minutes we have been inside the mountains and watching the kilometers tick by, four at a time, till we are out in the daylight world again. This is the Lærdal-Aurland tunnel in Sogn og Fjordane county, Norway, at 24.51 kilometers (15.23 miles) the world’s longest — but I didn’t know that when after a series of lesser entombments we entered this timeless hole. At three places along its length the tunnel widens and glows with eerily intense blue light, fading pale towards the ground, and you think you have begun to hallucinate. But it’s part of the design, meant to imitate sunrise according to the government. It does not. If anything it says you have left the living world behind and entered a place where flame burns blue yet gives no heat; you have been taken into the mountain

  • Myth & Mind: Bring out your dead

    Jun 2, 17 • ndemarino • 5enses, Myth & MindNo CommentsRead More »

    By Reva Sherrard They say not to tip the man who tends the pyres on the burning ghats of the Ganges, keeping the oxygen roaring through the wooden towers and prodding the hands and shins back into the flames when they fall: give him whiskey instead. It’s the only thing that keeps the smell at bay. I was brought to Nimtala Burning Ghat as part of a Kolkata-by-motorcycle tour, which involved holding tight to a city native as we chugged through the streets’ sooty pandemonium on a green vintage Royal Enfield. I was almost as anxious over my intrusion as tourist at a funeral as compelled by the pyres and taste of woodsmoke in the oily, Dickensian smog. But the male relatives chatting around their shrouded corpse as they awaited its turn paid me no mind, and as the day’s dead were transmuted to ash I watched and thought of our English word bonfire, which means a blaze hot enough to consume bone. Nimtala is the most famous, and reportedly the most haunted burning ghat on the Hooghly River, a distributary of the sprawling Ganges and the heart of the city of Kolkata (Calcutta). A ghat is one of innumerable crumbling flights of stairs lining the river to make it accessible for the bathing, washing, and prayer that never for a moment cease along its banks from its origins in

  • Myth & Mind: Loki’s tricky tongue saves his neck

    Apr 28, 17 • ndemarino • 5enses, Myth & MindNo CommentsRead More »

    By Reva Sherrard There was a time when words had power. Oaths and contracts bound their makers as securely as iron, curses flew truer than arrows, and on the slippery outer edges of words was a subtle magic. In the North, the god Loki wanted gifts for the Æsir, so he sought out the dwarves in their caverns, master smiths who made wondrous things from the Earth’s ores. From the four sons of Ivaldi he commissioned a spear for Odin that would strike whatever the thrower aimed at and always return to his hand; a mighty warship for Freyr that could be folded away so small and light it would fit in your pocket; and living golden hair to replace that which he’d cut from the head of the goddess Sif — another story entirely. When Loki had these treasures he showed them to the dwarf brothers Sindri and Brokkr. They were rivals of Ivaldi’s sons, and their works and hearts were darker. “Toys,” the brothers sneered. “We make things of real power.” “Care for a bet?” asked Loki. “Make your own gifts and let the recipients decide whose work is best. If Ivaldi’s sons win, we keep your gifts for free. If you win, how much gold do you want?” Loki was good at getting gold. “No gold. When we win, we take your head for our price.” It

  • Myth & Mind: The yolk and the sun

    Mar 31, 17 • ndemarino • 5enses, Myth & MindNo CommentsRead More »

    By Reva Sherrard In the beginning, before the worlds had form, the sun thrust her right hand over the sky’s edge. She did not know what her place was to be, nor did the moon and stars know where to shine. Now that the stuff of time and place is differentiated and the wheels of the sun’s chariot turn the day and year on a set path, a monstrous wolf pursues her through the sky. All that is begun must also end, and one day this clockwork will run down. When the serpent round the earth’s middle sets the oceans loose and the dead rise to battle, the wolf will devour the sun and stop the turning of time. Or we could say that one day our star’s fiery heart will run out of fuel; one day its expansion and contraction towards death will disrupt the complex balance that keeps its satellite the Earth in a settled orbit, and the cycles of movement that make time will gradually or violently come unpinned. Whether our life can exist independently of our sun is an academic question. What is beyond questioning is that our life — human life, life on Earth — was and is given and ruled by the Sun. So of all her movements, her return from darkness at dawn has the greatest mythic significance as a cornerstone of human

  • Myth & Mind: Thor, Strength & sudden light

    Feb 27, 17 • ndemarino • 5enses, Myth & MindNo CommentsRead More »

    By Reva Sherrard Thor had a mind to go fishing. Striking the head off a bull to use as bait, he demanded the giant Hymir take him out in his boat. Far they rowed out to sea. Hymir caught two whales on his line. “We’ll turn back now,” he said. “It’s not good to go into deeper waters than this.” But Thor rowed on, and where there was no bottom to the sea and the sky closed grimly over the tops of black swells rearing higher than mountains, he cast his bait down on a long, long line and waited. Soon a bite nearly wrenched the line from his grasp. The giant’s boat juddered on the dark water, its planks creaking, as Thor braced himself and pulled with all his might. With a roar as if the very ocean rose against him, the terrible head of the Midgard Serpent breached the deep and yawned over the boat, Thor’s iron hook wedged fast in its jaw. They say that none have seen fearful things who did not see this: the massy weed-hung head of the world-encircling snake disorganizing the swells, deadly venom dribbling from its jaws, and Thor staring back in awful fury while thunder growled in the clouds overhead and lightning stabbed red from his eyes. As the thunder god reached for his hammer, Hymir, in terror, cut the fishing-line,

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