Tag Archives: myths

“The Sick Muse” by Charles Baudelaire

The Green Muse - Albert Maignan

The Green Muse – Albert Maignan

Poor Muse, alas, what ails thee, then, today?
Thy hollow eyes with midnight visions burn,
Upon thy brow in alternation play,
Madness and Horror, cold and taciturn.

Have the green lemure and the goblin red
Poured on thee love and terror from their urn?
Or with despotic hand the nightmare dread
Deep plunged thee in some fabulous Minturne?

Would that thy breast, where so deep thoughts arise,
Breathed forth a healthful perfume with thy sighs;
Would that thy Christian blood ran wave by wave

In rhythmic sounds the antique numbers gave,
When Phoebus shared his alternating reign
With mighty Pan, lord of the ripening grain.

(F. P. Sturm translation)

In this sonnet, Baudelaire offers praise to his muse: alcohol. The main metaphors are all references to different types of alcoholic drinks. Lemure is spirit, so the “green lemure” is a reference to absinthe. Likewise, the “goblin red” is red wine. These drinks inspire both love and terror in the poet.

I had to do a little searching online to find the meaning for “Minturne.” I discovered that this is the name of a swamp. So the implication here is that although alcohol provides inspiration, there is also the real possibility that it will trap the poet in a mire of darkness and nightmare.

In the third stanza, the mention of perfumes is a reference to the vapors given off from the various drinks, and “Christian blood” is another symbol for wine.

In the final stanza, Baudelaire evokes the old pagan gods. Apollo and Pan are both gods associated with music (hence poetry). I get the sense that Baudelaire is also using alcohol as an offering, a libation, to the old gods of artistic expression.

While I cannot deny the inspirational power of alcohol, I have also witnessed its destructive power. Too many of our great artistic souls have departed us too early due to alcohol abuse. But I suppose that is a sacrifice that some must make to advance artistic expression.

Cheers.

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“Odyssey” by Homer: Book VI – The Princess at the River

Painting by Michele Desubleo

Painting by Michele Desubleo

In this book, Odysseus awakens and encounters the princess Nausicaa and her handmaidens at the river. Nausicaa begins to fall in love with Odysseus and agrees to help him enter the city and gain an audience with her parents, the king and queen.

There are a few passages in this section that I found interesting and wanted to discuss. The first deals with beauty.

While Nausicaa is with her handmaidens, Athena bestows divine beauty upon her, “So one could tell the princess from the maids.” (Fitzgerald Translation: p. 102) The passage likens the differentiation between Nausicaa and the maids to the difference between Artemis and the nymphs. This made me think about the association between physical beauty and the divine. In fact, as Odysseus comes upon the young women, he asks Nausicaa: “Mistress: please: are you divine, or mortal?” (ibid: p. 103) It made me think that in this tale, beauty is in essence the divine made corporeal. And as I thought about this more, I began to wonder whether wisdom and courage are also divine qualities that manifest within certain individuals. Anyway, it’s certainly something I will keep in mind as I continue reading.

As Odysseus is coming upon the women, he makes a strange choice to rely upon words instead of actions to win their support.

In his swift reckoning, he thought it best
to trust in words to please her—and keep away;
he might anger the girl, touching her knees.
So he began, and let the soft words fall:

(ibid: p 103)

What struck me about this passage is the reliance on words. On one hand, words are tools of the Trickster, and Odysseus certainly embodies characteristics of this archetype. But words are also the tools of the poet, who uses words to express divine truth. It feels like there is a double entendre here, where words could be used both for expressing truth and deceit.

Odysseus concludes his supplication to Nausicaa by invoking the importance of family and home.

And may the gods accomplish your desire:
a home, a husband, and harmonious
converse with him—the best thing in the world
being a strong house held in serenity
where man and wife agree. Woe to their enemies,
joy to their friends! But all this they know best.

(ibid: p. 104)

This is worth considering because of Odysseus’ plight. He has been kept from his harmonious relationship with Penelope, and his strong house is being attacked by the suitors, who will no doubt become his enemies. One can sense the longing he must feel, to be reunited with the person who he loves, and to be back at home. It’s a very poignant image.

The last passage I want to discuss is when Odysseus bathes himself, away from the view of the women.

They left him, then, and went to tell the princess.
And now Odysseus, dousing in the river,
scrubbed the coat of brine from back and shoulders
and rinsed the clot of sea-spume from his hair;
got himself all rubbed down, from head to foot,
then he put on the clothes the princess gave him.
Athena lent a hand, making him seem
taller, and massive too, with crisping hair
in curls like petals of wild hyacinth,
but all red-golden. Think of gold infused
on silver by a craftsman, whose fine art
Hephaistos taught him, or Athena: one
whose work moves to delight: just so she lavished
beauty over Odysseus’ head and shoulders.
Then he went down to sit on the sea the beach
in his new splendor.

(ibid: pp 105 – 106)

I found this to be very symbolic. The bathing and anointing is a form of spiritual purification, where his soul is cleansed and he is again made holy. It seems very ritualistic in the description and the fact that he now appears in “new splendor” reinforces the image of Odysseus as a divine being. When we consider this in connection with the symbolic rebirth that Odysseus experiences in Book V, the symbolism becomes even more powerful, as the remnants of the past life are washed away and the newly resurrected hero appears in god-like glory.

So that’s all I have to say regarding Book VI. As always, please share any thoughts or comments. I’d love to hear from you. Check back soon for my thoughts on Book VII.

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“Odyssey” by Homer: Book IV – The Red-Haired King and his Lady

Proteus

In this episode, Telemachus and Pisistratus go to Sparta and meet with Menelaus and Helen to inquire about the fate of Odysseus. Over dinner, the king and queen share stories of Odysseus’ feats at Troy, and Menelaus recounts how he made it back after the war. Also in this book, the suitors discover that Telemachus has left Ithaca and they plot to murder him upon his return. Mendon overhears the plans and informs Penelope who grieves that she may lose her son as well as her husband. She prays to Athena, and Athena sends a phantom to let Penelope know that Telemachus will be protected by the goddess.

There is a lot that takes place in this book and it would be easy to write a long post analyzing all the various tales and symbolism, but instead I will focus on one small section that I found to be the most interesting, which was Menelaus’ encounter with Proteus.

Menelaus tells how he was stranded in Egypt and could not figure out how to please the gods and gain favorable passage to leave the region. Proteus’ daughter, Eidothea, takes pity on him and agrees to help Menelaus capture Proteus and thereby acquire the information he needs to escape the doldrums.

I’ll put it for you clearly as maybe, friend.
The Ancient of the Salt Sea haunts this place,
immortal Proteus of Egypt; all the deeps
are known to him; he serves under Poseidon,
and is, they say, my father.
If you could take him by surprise and hold him,
he’d give you course and distance for your sailing
homeward across the cold fish-breeding sea.
And should you wish it, noble friend, he’d tell you
all that occurred at home, both good and evil,
while you were gone so long and hard a journey.

(Fitzgerald Translation: p. 64)

Before continuing, it is important to note that Proteus is a symbol for the unconscious mind. The god is also associated with Mercury in alchemy.

The German mystical alchemist Heinrich Khunrath wrote of the shape-changing sea-god who, because of his relationship to the sea, is both a symbol of the unconscious as well as the perfection of the art. Alluding to the scintilla, the spark from ‘the light of nature’ and symbol of the anima mundi, Khunrath in Gnostic vein stated of the Protean element Mercury:

“ our Catholick Mercury, by virtue of his universal fiery spark of the light of nature, is beyond doubt Proteus, the sea god of the ancient pagan sages, who hath the key to the sea and …power over all things.”

—Von Hyleanischen Chaos, Carl Jung, vol. 14:50

In modern times, the Swiss psychologist Carl Jung defined the mythological figure of Proteus as a personification of the unconscious, who, because of his gift of prophecy and shape-changing, has much in common with the central but elusive figure of alchemy, Mercurius.

(Source: Wikipedia)

Eidothea lays out the plan to Menelaus. It is a fairly long passage, but one that I find rich with symbolism and worth including in this post.

I’ll tell you this, too, clearly as may be.
When the sun hangs at high noon in heaven,
the Ancient glides ashore under the Westwind,
hidden by shivering glooms on the clear water,
and rests in caverns hollowed by the sea.
There flippered seals, brine children, shining come
from silvery foam in crowds to lie around him,
exhaling rankness from the deep sea floor.
Tomorrow dawn I’ll take you to those caves
and bed you down there. Choose three officers
for company—brave men they had better be—
the old one has strange powers, I must tell you.
He goes amid the seals to check their number,
and when he sees them all, and counts them all,
he lies down like a shepherd with his flock.
Here is your opportunity: at this point
gather yourselves, with all your heart and strength,
and tackle him before he bursts away.
He’ll make you fight—for he can take the forms
of all the beasts, and water, and blinding fire;
but you must hold on, even so, and crush him
until he breaks his silence. When he does,
he will be in that shape you saw asleep.
Relax your grip, then, set the Ancient free,
and put your questions, hero:
Who is the god so hostile to you,
and how will you go home on the fish-cold sea.

(Fitzgerald Translation: p. 65)

First off, the depths from which Proteus will emerge represent the mystical realm which is the source of archetypes and forms, the unseen source of divine emanation. The seals are symbols of the forms which are emanated from the depths of the creative consciousness. The fact that the seals emerge from “silvery foam” suggests the alchemical connection to mercury.

Proteus is described as having “strange powers.” While these could be the powers of transformation, I suspect that the powers also have something to do with the ability to manipulate the emanated forms into corporeal manifestations.

Finally, Menelaus must wrestle with the god of the sea, and must hold onto the god no matter what. This is very similar to Jacob wrestling with the angel, which is symbolic for man wrestling with the concept of the divine. So essentially, Menelaus must grapple with the unknowable aspect of the god-consciousness in order to acquire the knowledge he seeks. He must struggle to keep hold on that which is fluid and ever changing.

As I said, there are many other rich aspects to this book: Menelaus’ comparison between earthly riches and spiritual wealth; the mystical knowledge of herbs and drugs that Helen acquired from the magicians in Egypt; and Telemachus’ voyage to sea as a symbol of a rite of passage. As always, feel free to share any thoughts or comments below, and thanks for stopping by.


 

Further Reading:

Fascinating Mythical Creatures: Proteus

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“Sonnet 12: When I do count the clock that tells the time” by William Shakespeare – Reference to the John Barleycorn Myth

Barleycorn

When I do count the clock that tells the time,
And see the brave day sunk in hideous night;
When I behold the violet past prime,
And sable curls all silver’d o’er with white;
When lofty trees I see barren of leaves
Which erst from heat did canopy the herd,
And summer’s green all girded up in sheaves
Borne on the bier with white and bristly beard,
Then of thy beauty do I question make,
That thou among the wastes of time must go,
Since sweets and beauties do themselves forsake
And die as fast as they see others grow;
And nothing ‘gainst Time’s scythe can make defense
Save breed, to brave him when he takes thee hence.

This sonnet is another one of the “fair youth” poems where Shakespeare entreats an unnamed young man to fulfill his duty by procreating and becoming a father and husband. Most of the metaphors in this poem employ images of nature to contrast youth and old age, such as “brave day” and “hideous night,” or the barren trees as opposed to the leafy, shade-giving ones. But there is one symbol that Shakespeare uses this poem that I found particularly interesting: barley.

Barley is not overtly mentioned in this sonnet, but it is implied in the following two lines.

And summer’s green all girded up in sheaves
Borne on the bier with white and bristly beard,

Barley was an important crop in the British Isles. So much so that it became associated with the resurrection myth of John Barleycorn. For those of you who are unfamiliar with this myth, here is a short summary.

John Barleycorn is a British folksong. The character of John Barleycorn in the song is a personification of the important cereal crop barley and of the alcoholic beverages made from it, beer and whisky. In the song, John Barleycorn is represented as suffering attacks, death and indignities that correspond to the various stages of barley cultivation, such as reaping and malting.

Kathleen Herbert draws a link between the mythical figure Beowa (a figure stemming from Anglo-Saxon paganism that appears in early Anglo-Saxon royal genealogies whose name means “barley”) and the figure of John Barleycorn. Herbert says that Beowa and Barleycorn are one and the same, noting that the folksong details the suffering, death, and resurrection of Barleycorn, yet also celebrates the “reviving effects of drinking his blood.”

The idea of a grain god who dies, is buried, and is reborn as the current year’s crop dates back at least to dynastic Egyptian myths of the god Osiris. In the Coffin Texts, the deceased person states: “I am Osiris. I have come forth and entered into thee, I have flourished in thee, I have grown in thee, I have fallen into thee, I have fallen on my side. The gods live by me. I live and grow as Neper [Corn], whom the august gods bring forth that I may cover Geb [the earth], whether I be alive or dead. I am barley, I am not destroyed…” Elsewhere in the Coffin Texts, the formula of Becoming Barley of Lower Egypt states that the deceased “is this bush of life [barley] which went forth from Osiris to grow on the ribs of Osiris and to nourish the common people, which makes the gods divine and spiritualizes the spirits…”

(Source: Wikipedia)

So essentially, Shakespeare is using the resurrection myth popular in England to encourage the young man to have children. Just as the grain god is reborn through the burial (planting) of the seed, so must humans sow the seeds of rebirth to continue the cycle of life, both physically and spiritually.

I have to say that I really like this sonnet, much more so than the previous eleven, mainly because of Shakespeare’s use of folklore and mythology. To conclude, I will add a musical interpretation of the John Barleycorn myth that is one of my all-time favorites. Enjoy, and thanks for stopping by.

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“A Poison Tree” by William Blake

PosionTree

I was angry with my friend;
I told my wrath, my wrath did end.
I was angry with my foe:
I told it not, my wrath did grow.

And I waterd it in fears,
Night & morning with my tears:
And I sunned it with smiles,
And with soft deceitful wiles.

And it grew both day and night.
Till it bore an apple bright.
And my foe beheld it shine,
And he knew that it was mine.

And into my garden stole,
When the night had veild the pole;
In the morning glad I see;
My foe outstretched beneath the tree.

This is a sobering poem that addresses the negative effects of not expressing your anger and allowing it to fester and grow in secret. In the first stanza, we are presented with two contrasting versions of how the speaker deals with his anger. In the first scenario, the person expresses his anger to his friend in a healthy manner and the result is that the anger goes away. In the second scenario, because the person keeps his anger hidden within, it grows. This is a common occurrence. Generally, when anger is stuffed inside, it tends to turn to resentment, which adds fuel to the wrath that smolders within.

In the second stanza, we see that fear continues to add to the suppressed anger, causing it to grow more. In addition, the protagonist now begins exhibiting signs of deception, smiling at his secret enemy while quietly plotting his revenge. In the third stanza, his silent anger finally bears fruit, the result of which is the death of his foe in the final stanza.

As is often the case with a Blake poem, there are other layers of symbolism woven in. This poem is no exception. I suspect that Blake also intended the speaker of the poem to represent Satan. Satan is certainly depicted as a being “with soft deceitful wiles.” And the apple is a definite reference to the Eden myth, where Adam and Eve are tempted to eat the forbidden fruit. Essentially, eating of the fruit in the Garden poisons the minds of the two archetypal humans.

Finally, it is worth meditating on the image that Blake incorporates with this poem. Beneath the tree is the outstretched foe. The positioning of the body resembles a crucifixion image. I think it could be argued that the foe beneath the tree is Christ, who was not only killed on the cross, but was suffering another symbolic death as the Industrial Age led many people to abandon Christ’s teachings for science and technology. Remember, the apple is also a symbol associated with Sir Isaac Newton.

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Chilling Adventures of Sabrina: Issue #1

Sabrina_01

I have been eager to begin reading this graphic tale ever since I read the Afterlife with Archie comics. It took some effort to acquire this first copy (it seems Sabrina is in high demand), but persistence paid off and I luckily came across a copy last week at a local shop.

As with the Afterlife series, the Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is dark, creepy, and reminiscent of horror from the 60s. Stylistically, the creative team draws on writers like Lovecraft, films like “Rosemary’s Baby,” and of course the classic horror comics of the era. All in all, the team has created something fresh and unique while tapping into familiar motifs that have become a part of the darker regions of our society’s collective consciousness.

This first issue traces Sabrina’s early years, from birth to her early teens. Sabrina is a “half-breed,” whose father (Edward Spellman) was a black magician and whose mother (Diana) was human. At age 1, Sabrina is taken from her mother and given to her two aunts to be raised as a witch. Diana resisted and Edward scrambled her memory, then had her committed to a mental institution where she was lobotomized. In a very eerie image, Edward is later depicted as trapped within a tree. It is not revealed why this happened or who was responsible, adding a level of mystery to the tale which works quite nicely.

I think the most impressive aspect of this comic is the wealth of references. The pages are strewn with allusions to occult figures, mythology, literature, and history. I had to look up a couple references with which I was unfamiliar, such as Ed Gein. I discovered that he was a most unsavory character who was a serial killer and body snatcher, exhuming corpses from graveyards and fashioning trophies out of bones and skin. He was supposedly the real-life inspiration for characters such as Norman Bates from Psycho, Leatherface from The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and Buffalo Bill from The Silence of the Lambs.

The issue leaves off with a very dark cliffhanger, where two foolish teenage girls have summoned a female demon from Gehenna. The imagery associated with this is nightmarish and the implications hinted at suggest that the upcoming installments will be nothing short of terrifying.

The bottom line is, I LOVE this comic and if you are a horror fan I strongly urge you to seek this out and read it. Issue #2 has not yet been released, but I have placed a request for my local comic dealer to hold a copy when it is finally published. One last thing, at the very end of this issue is a short comic strip from the original Sabrina which was published in October 1962. It serves as a nice contrast between the two comics, while at the same time giving a nod to the source of this amazing comic.

As always, feel free to share your thoughts and comments below. Cheers!

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“Infant Sorrow” by William Blake

InfantSorrow

My mother groand! my father wept.
Into the dangerous world I leapt.
Helpless, naked, piping loud;
Like a fiend hid in a cloud.

Struggling in my father’s hands,
Striving against my swaddling bands;
Bound and weary I thought best
To sulk upon my mother’s breast.

For a short poem of only eight lines, there is a lot going on here and there are multiple ways that this poem can be interpreted. First, we can take the poem at face value. During the Industrial Revolution at a time when poverty was rampant, having another mouth to feed would have certainly been a hardship for two parents. In addition, I can only suspect that the infant mortality rate was quite high, which would add another level of sorrow for a child.

There are some images that lead me to consider another interpretation of this poem. In the first stanza, the baby is described as “a fiend hid in a cloud.” And in the second stanza, we have images of bondage and struggling against the father. This leads me to wonder if the infant in this poem is a symbol for Lucifer, an angel who struggled against god, was cast down into this “dangerous world,” and is ultimately bound here. If one considers Lucifer to be another manifestation of the Prometheus myth, then the images of bondage definitely work to support this idea.

Finally, there is one other possible interpretation; that the man and the woman are Adam and Eve, and the infant is their first-born son, Cain. Being the first human born into the world according to Judeo-Christian belief, he would have been born into a world infinitely more dangerous than Eden. Cain would ultimately murder his brother, Abel, and spend the rest of his days in sorrow. It is also worth noting that Adam and Eve are depicted as weeping and mourning the death of Abel, so the imagery of the groaning mother and weeping father can be tied into this interpretation.

Blake’s poems are so rich and fascinating; I am always in awe at how he managed to include so much in so few words. Hope you enjoyed this post. Have a great and inspired day!!

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