Tag Archives: Golden Bough

“American Gods: The Moment of the Storm” by Neil Gaiman: Issue #1

Starting to catch up on my backlog of reading. This arc is already on issue #4, so I’m a little behind, but that’s OK.

This new arc in the American Gods saga continues where “My Ainsel” left off, and is classic Gaiman, steeped in mythology. I only need one example to sum up the gist of this issue.

In the god business, it’s not death that matters, it’s the opportunity for resurrection.

The death of a god is required for the renewal of the cycle. Osiris, Jesus, Mithras, the list goes on. One need only refer back to Frazer to understand that this is a dominant trope in mythology.

Not much else to share on this. Thanks for stopping by, and keep reading cool stuff.

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Thoughts on “The Magician’s Land” by Lev Grossman

This is the final book of Grossman’s trilogy, and he manages to maintain the power and intensity of the previous books. While part of me wishes the saga would continue, this really is the right place to stop.

I took a couple pages of notes while reading, so I could ramble on about this, but since brevity is the soul of wit, I’ll keep this post short and focused. I’ll focus on how the book corresponds to the biblical books of Genesis and Revelation.

So there are two big themes in this book: the creation of a world, and the destruction of a world. These are also the themes that are the focuses of Genesis and Revelation, respectively. In addition, Grossman also weaves in the symbolism of the death and rebirth of a god, which connects the two central themes and hearkens to Frazer’s work, The Golden Bough.

Quentin comes into possession of an ancient spell, and it takes him a while to decipher it. But once he does, he realizes it is a spell to create a small world, essentially speaking a world into being. This is the magick of God in Genesis, but on a smaller scale. Yet even though this is on a smaller scale, Quentin is taking a step toward becoming godlike through his ability to create.

This was a spell that created something. It was a spell for making a land.

He actually laughed out loud when he thought of it. It was too funny—too insane. But now that he saw it he couldn’t un-see it. He could follow it like a story that wound crookedly through the various sections and paragraphs and subclauses of the spell like a thread of DNA. This thing was intended to make a little world.

(p. 249)

Contrasting Quentin’s creation of a new world, we see the apocalyptic end to another world, with imagery and direct references to Revelation.

The chaos itself was momentarily, unfairly beautiful. The thrashing sun, the spinning, looping moon. Fillory half light and half shadow, dotted with flashes of fire, lava and flame and magical strikes from magical beings. Ignorant armies clashing by night.

It’s like Revelation, she thought. It’s Revelation, and I’m the Scarlet Woman.

(p. 339)

But the deeper mysticism here is that dying worlds can be reborn, but this cosmic rebirth requires the ultimate sacrifice: the death of a god. This is the mythology that Frazer explores in his masterwork, and Grossman makes reference to this mythology as the world of Fillory is about to die.

It was the oldest story there was, the deepest of all the deeper magicks. Fillory didn’t have to die, it could be renewed and live again, but there was a price, and the price was holy blood. It was the same in all mythologies: for a dying land to be reborn, its god must die for it. There was power in that divine paradox, the death of an immortal, enough power to restart the stopped heart of a world.

(pp. 377 – 378)

And with the death of the old god, the world is renewed, ushering in the new age.

“… Things are different now. It’s a new age.”

(p. 394)

These books have definitely earned their place in the upper echelon of the fantasy genre. I suspect that I may read them again someday, hence they now have a prominent spot on my bookshelf. In the meantime, I’ll indulge myself by watching the TV adaptation of the trilogy.

Thanks for stopping by, and keep reading cool stuff!

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Scarlet Witch: Issue #02

ScarletWitch_02

Wow! I’m completely sucked into this story. I’m totally impressed with the way the creative team has woven occult symbolism and mythology together.

In this issue, set on the Greek island of Santorini, Wanda converses with the goddess Hakate and is tasked with facing the Minotaur, who roams the dark labyrinthine streets.

The first thing that struck me about this issue was the artwork. The panels are structured in a circular fashion, divided in a way that represents the labyrinth. The curvature of the story’s graphic structure starts out subtle (the outer area of the maze) and gets tighter and more intense as the tale progresses, just as a labyrinth’s turns get closer and tighter as you near the center. The reader must focus, figure out where to turn next when reading, and follow the pathways. It works really well and fosters the sense of confusion as the reader navigates the tale.

As Wanda and Hekate talk, Hekate says something interesting.

“Of course, we of the Pantheon never stay dead for long.”

Gods and myths are recurring all the time. Gods die and are reborn in a continuous cycle. This is essentially expressing what Frazier asserts in The Golden Bough, albeit in a much shorter way.

As the witch and the goddess continue their discussion, Hekate offers another pearl of wisdom.

“The people’s faith in a god—this one or that—often that belief is what makes the god strong. It’s been many summers since I’ve smelled the kiss of iron in the air from a blood sacrifice in my name. Oh, there’s blood in the air, all right, but not for me.”

This made me think about our current global violence, where people of one faith are killing others in the name of their god. But it is not just religious fundamentalism that is adding to the blood in the air; it is also the blood from people who worship material things—money, oil, property, power—the modern gods of our industrial and technological society. There is always a sacrifice required in order to gain those things we covet.

So far, I am very impressed with this graphic series. I encourage you to check it out.

Cheers!

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“Sonnet 7: Lo, in the orient when the gracious light” by William Shakespeare

SunriseStonehenge

Image Source: Wikipedia

Lo, in the orient when the gracious light
Lifts up his burning head, each under eye
Doth homage to his new-appearing sight,
Serving with looks his sacred majesty;
And having climb’d the steep-up heavenly hill,
Resembling strong youth in his middle age,
Yet mortal looks adore his beauty still,
Attending on his golden pilgrimage;
But when from high-most pitch, with weary car,
Like feeble age, he reeleth from the day,
The eyes, ‘fore duteous, now converted are
From his low tract and look another way:
So thou, thyself outgoing in thy noon,
Unlook’d on diest, unless thou get a son.

This sonnet uses the cycle of the day as a metaphor for the importance of procreation. It is pretty straight-forward and does not require much interpretation. Sunrise represents the birth of the fair youth; noon symbolizes the height of his strength as an adult; and sunset the impending time of physical decline leading to death. There is one aspect of this poem, though, that is worth exploring a bit.

Throughout the sonnet, Shakespeare never uses the word “sun.” Instead, he uses metaphors such as gracious light and burning head. But the very last word of the sonnet is “son,” which I feel is very important. Although the previous six sonnets also deal with procreation, none of them use the word son. Anyway, the obvious connection between son and sun leads me to wonder whether Shakespeare was tying in other symbolism. It could be argued that he was drawing on the mythology of the fertility king, as explored through Frazier’s The Golden Bough. He could also be making a reference to Christ as the son of God and the light of the world. In fact, if you consider the abundance of mythology associated with resurrection cycles of gods and their connection with the sun, then it seems likely that Shakespeare was incorporating these myths and symbols. One last connection to support my interpretation, just picture an image of Helios racing toward sunset as you reread the line that mentions the “weary car.”

As is often the case with poetry, it can be deceptively simple and yet include profound and complex symbols beneath the surface. I think that this sonnet falls into that category. Hope you enjoyed the post and feel free to share your thoughts. Cheers!

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“Fergus and the Druid” by William Butler Yeats

Source: Wikipedia

Source: Wikipedia

Fergus. This whole day have I followed in the rocks,
And you have changed and flowed from shape to shape,
First as a raven on whose ancient wings
Scarcely a feather lingered, then you seemed
A weasel moving on from stone to stone,
And now at last you wear a human shape,
A thin grey man half lost in gathering night.

Druid. What would you, king of the proud Red Branch kings?

Fergus. This would I Say, most wise of living souls:
Young subtle Conchubar sat close by me
When I gave judgment, and his words were wise,
And what to me was burden without end,
To him seemed easy, So I laid the crown
Upon his head to cast away my sorrow.

Druid. What would you, king of the proud Red Branch kings?

Fergus. A king and proud! and that is my despair.
I feast amid my people on the hill,
And pace the woods, and drive my chariot-wheels
In the white border of the murmuring sea;
And still I feel the crown upon my head

Druid. What would you, Fergus?

Fergus. Be no more a king
But learn the dreaming wisdom that is yours.

Druid. Look on my thin grey hair and hollow cheeks
And on these hands that may not lift the sword,
This body trembling like a wind-blown reed.
No woman’s loved me, no man sought my help.

Fergus. A king is but a foolish labourer
Who wastes his blood to be another’s dream.

Druid. Take, if you must, this little bag of dreams;
Unloose the cord, and they will wrap you round.

Fergus. I See my life go drifting like a river
From change to change; I have been many things —
A green drop in the surge, a gleam of light
Upon a sword, a fir-tree on a hill,
An old slave grinding at a heavy quern,
A king sitting upon a chair of gold —
And all these things were wonderful and great;
But now I have grown nothing, knowing all.
Ah! Druid, Druid, how great webs of sorrow
Lay hidden in the small slate-coloured thing!

I really like this poem . First off, I like how it is written as a dialog, almost like a slice out of a play. It reads nicely and the cadence and flow of the verse is beautiful.

The poem begins with Fergus following the Druid amid the rocks as the Druid goes through a series of metamorphoses. I see two interpretations for the rocks: first, they could represent stone circles, similar to Stonehenge where the Druids would have worshiped; but the stones could also refer to Fergus being in a cemetery, contemplating his mortality and seeking answers to his life.

When the Druid assumes his human form, Fergus expresses his desire to relinquish his rule and bestow it upon Conchubar. I had to do a little research to determine the relationship between Fergus and Conchubar. Basically, according to the mythology, Fergus fell in love with Ness and Conchubar was Ness’ son from another marriage. So this seems to tie in to the archetype of the connection between the death of the king and the assumption by the son to continue the earthly cycles, such as explored by Frazier in The Golden Bough.

In addition to relinquishing rule as king, Fergus seeks knowledge from the Druid. The Druid seems reluctant to grant Fergus his request and points out how he is burdened by his knowledge. There is a parallel here. Fergus is burdened by the weight of the crown while the Druid is burdened by the weight of his knowledge. In the end, the Druid grants Fergus his wish and gives him a “little bag of dreams,” which ultimately opens the doors to Fergus’ mind and allows him to see into his own future, seeing all that will be.

Source: Wikipedia

Source: Wikipedia

In the end, Fergus is overwhelmed with sorrow as a result of his knowledge. He no longer has any hope and life is now void of all mystery. He sees only the inevitable future which is the “small slate-coloured thing,” his own gravestone.

It seems as if Yeats is giving us a little warning here. The pursuit of knowledge is something that should not be taken lightly, especially occult knowledge which allows one to peer through the veils of mystery. One must be fully prepared to face the hidden knowledge, which is often hidden for a reason.

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“Sailing to Byzantium” by William Butler Yeats

YeatsOlder

Generally, I avoid including the full text from longer poems in my posts and will instead provide a link to the online version, but “Sailing to Byzantium” deserves to be included in full. I decided to include each of the four stanzas and offer my interpretation of each stanza before moving on to the next one.

I
That is no country for old men. The young
In one another’s arms, birds in the trees
—Those dying generations—at their song,
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unaging intellect.

In the opening stanza, there are two things happening here. On one level, Yeats is expressing his disillusionment with the people of Ireland. The younger generations do not appear to appreciate Ireland’s ancient heritage, nor are they interested in the noble pursuit of poetry. But in addition to that, Yeats is hinting at something deeper and infinitely more mystical, which will be unveiled later in the poem. It has to do with resurrection mythology. For now, just keep the images of old men, young people, dying generations, and trees in the back of your mind.

II
An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress,
Nor is there singing school but studying
Monuments of its own magnificence;
And therefore I have sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium.

Here Yeats asserts that an old man is worthless, unless that aged individual possesses the ability to create poetry. And it must be poetry infused with mystical power, poetry that comes from a source that is divine of nature. In order to tap into that source, Yeats plunges himself into his subconscious mind, symbolized by the “seas,” and navigates those seas of consciousness until he reaches the mystical realm represented by the city of Byzantium.

There is a reason why Yeats chose Byzantium as the symbol for the mystical source of his poetry. In addition to being the center of classical thought in the late Hellenistic period, Byzantium had adopted the occult symbol of the star and crescent moon as their emblem. This was a result of their devotion to Hecate, whom the Byzantines believed was protecting them. (source: Wikipedia) As a practicing member of the Golden Dawn, Yeats would have viewed this connection as important, since Hecate is the goddess who is believed to endow magicians with power and knowledge.

III
O sages standing in God’s holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall,
Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
And be the singing-masters of my soul.
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.

There is a lot happening in the third stanza. The holy fire is mentioned twice, so the importance is being stressed. There are layers of symbolism here. First, the holy fire represents the spark of life, creation itself. It is also illumination and enlightenment. Finally, and most importantly in my opinion, is the association with rebirth and regeneration, like that of the phoenix. The dying god spins within the gyre of flame, preparing to reemerge as a reborn god. As the god is dying and being consumed by the holy flames, the mystic bards sing the verses of the sacred poetry which will help bring about the rebirth of the dying god.

At this point, you may be thinking that my interpretation is a bit of a stretch, but reserve judgment until you read the final stanza.

IV
Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.

GoldenBoughHere we have the key to the poem, which is the golden bough. Yeats would certainly have been very familiar with Frazer’s The Golden Bough. Frazer’s book is the quintessential work exploring the mythology of resurrection and the dying god. So the god does not take his “bodily form from any natural thing,” but instead comes from the realm of forms as expressed by the Platonic school of thought. All the golden imagery in this stanza evokes the image of the sacred king, which is the term that Frazer uses regarding the archetypal image of the dying/reborn god. The cycle is eternal; it encompasses “what is past, or passing, or to come.” The imagery from the first stanza of the old men (dying god), young people (reborn god), and trees  (symbols of rebirth) are all brought together.

The last thing I would like to point out about the poem is the overall structure. The poem is divided into four stanzas. I feel that this was an intentional representation of the four seasons, which is also symbolic of the overall theme of the cycle of birth, life, death, and rebirth.

The first time I read this poem in college I didn’t get it, but I remember my professor saying that the more you read poetry, the more you will learn to appreciate Yeats. I’ve come to the point in my life where I feel like I can finally start to fully appreciate the scope of what Yeats accomplished as a poet.

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“The Call of Cthulhu” by H. P. Lovecraft

CallCthulhuMy favorite type of horror story is one that is symbolic of the darker aspects of the subconscious mind and The Call of Cthulhu definitely falls into that category. But the story is more than just a symbolic representation of the subconscious, it is also a study on parallel dimensions and realities which draws on occult philosophies and incorporates modern artistic ideas. The tale is nothing short of a masterpiece.

In the opening lines, Lovecraft asserts that there is more to reality than we can perceive and that we exist in a state of ignorance, unaware of what lies beyond our limited scope of perception.

The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far.

References are then made to several theosophical and occult texts, particularly W. Scott-Elliot’s Atlantis and the Lost Lemuris, Frazer’s The Golden Bough, and Murray’s Witch-Cult in Western Europe. Although it is not specifically referenced in the story, I would also add that Blavatsky’s The Secret Doctrine is implied, since references are made to parallel planes and cycles of aeons that figure prominently in Blavatsky’s book.

In this story, the mythical beings and the realms they inhabit represent our subconscious minds. This is the part of our collective psyche that often finds its “subconscious expression in dreams” and visions. Because this area of our consciousness is so alien to us, it can only be expressed artistically, and even then, it is only a symbolic approximation of that realm.

They and their subconscious residuum had influenced his art profoundly, and he shewed me a morbid statue whose contours almost made me shake with the potency of its black suggestion.

In describing the city of R’lyeh where Cthulhu dwells, Lovecraft draws upon cubist and surrealist art to represent the realm, which is appropriate since those artistic schools sought to represent the subconscious and the dream state through visual representation.

Without knowing what futurism is like, Johansen achieved something very close to it when he spoke of the city; for instead of describing any definite structure or building, he dwells only on broad impressions of vast angles and stone surfaces—surfaces too great to belong to any thing right or proper for this earth, and impious with horrible images and hieroglyphs. I mention this talk of angles because it is something Wilcox had told me of his awful dreams. He had said that the geometry of the dream-place he saw was abnormal, non-Euclidean, and loathsomely redolent of spheres and dimensions apart from ours.

The realm of Cthulhu is thrust up out of the ocean as the result of an earthquake. The earthquake is symbolic of a mental shift or upheaval, and the island which surfaces is our subconscious mind rising out of the dark sea of the collective unconscious.  In addition to the surreal architecture, there is an abundance of ooze representative of primordial consciousness. This is a motif that Lovecraft used in an earlier story, Dagon (click here to read my review of that story).

… a coast-line of mingled mud, ooze, and weedy Cyclopean masonry which can be nothing less than the tangible substance of earth’s supreme terror—the nightmare corpse-city of R’lyeh, that was built in the measureless aeons behind history by the vast, loathsome shapes that seeped down from the dark stars. There lay great Cthulhu and his hordes, hidden in green slimy vaults and sending out at last, after cycles incalculable, the thoughts that spread fear to the dreams of the sensitive and called imperiously to the faithful to come on a pilgrimage of liberation and restoration.

We all exist in what we assume to be reality, but there is an infinity around us which we do not perceive. One would like to take comfort in the thought that the unseen universes that surround us are beautiful and benevolent, but that would be quite naive. We must at least accept the following possibility: “Loathsomeness waits and dreams in the deep, and decay spreads over the tottering cities of men. A time will come—but I must not and cannot think!”

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