The Diary of a Misanthropic Oak Tree

The Diary of a Misanthropic Oak Tree

*Editor’s note: Apparently, oak trees don’t experience or understand time the way humans do. Being so very long-lived this is understandable. As such, many of the diary’s entries seem to exhibit a conflation of events and vernacular separated in time, sometimes by centuries. We have preserved the diary’s original sequence of events and terminology in order to authentically illustrate life from the point of view of an oak tree. Irregularities in the timeline may occur.*

23 April 4th century A.D.

So, I guess this as good a place as any to set up shop. It’s got a great view of the river and seems quiet. There doesn’t seem to be too many of those damn “bald monkeys” running around in this area. Those jerks are always messing things up. Where ever they go, strife follows, and all they do is howl and bash each others heads in. A group of humans moved in near my cousin, within 200 years they had killed his entire family and started to graze sheep on their graves. Long story short, they do NOT make for good neighbors

16 September 5th century A.D.

Crap. There goes the neighborhood. Those bald monkeys are starting to move in. Wtf, Humanity? You don’t have anywhere else to hang? Why you gotta be harshing my calm? I’ve heard them talking about how the barbarians from the east are charging the boarders, and they hope the Romans will protect them. Good luck with that. I’ve met the Romans, if those bastards don’t like you they will build an entire economy around destroying you. Although, the monkeys keep talking about how things aren’t going so hot for the Romans right now. They are pretty much getting zerged* on multiple fronts, and their politics are beyond messed up. Whatever, that means. Like I’m poly sci major.

*editor’s note: zerg: gaming term meaning “using large numbers of weak units to swarm and overwhelm the enemy”*

5 June 5th century A.D.

Ok, who’s the jerkwad who carved “Kilroy was here” on me while I was asleep? You guys aren’t funny!
18 August 6th century A.D.

The monkeys have built a small, straw, tent-like house near me, but they could have built it 3 leagues away and I would still be able to smell them. Do these animals just crap as they walk? Seriously, who sleeps with their livestock? There are like, 15 of them in there, and all their cows and chickens and horses. It’s enough to make your eyes water. If that farmer takes a leak against me one more time… ugh, what the hell am I going to do to him? Drop leaves on him? You know what else, for a group of people who supposedly consider trees “sacred” in some capacity, these asshole sure love to cut us down. They just keep building more and more of those ugly, two-headed ships. One day, people are dancing around you and singing, the next day, WHAM! down comes the axe.

30 May 7th century A.D.

Blech. They’ve built a sort of road across the river now. Every day, people are walking past, yammering about how they are going to the “Holey Land”. Sounds like an awful place. I would think that a land full of holes would leave you at high risk for twisting an ankle. Some of them seem to think that they will be forgiven for their sins if they go, so maybe the pain of perpetually twisting your ankle is some sort of penance. The farmer’s great grandson, Sigfrid Kohn, left years ago and never came back. I wonder if he died en-route or if he found the climate in the Land of Holes more pleasing. Maybe he just liked living somewhere where nobody knows you sleep in the same room with livestock. Maybe he just likes not sleeping in the same room with livestock period.

11 February 8th century A.D.

Those goofy looking ships with creepy dragon heads on either end and big square sails are starting to go up and down the river constantly, delivering goods and transporting an abundance of monkeys. I can tell most of the ships are made from oak. Murderous bastards. It’s not bad enough you cut down my friends and neighbors to make these hideous things, you have to parade their corpses in front of me.

29 October 8th century A.D.

A guy came passing through on his way back from a big feast in a distant city, and the farmer’s great-great-great-great-great grandson (yeah, they’re still here) Walther Kohn gave him lodging for the night. In exchange, the guy offered to tell them an epic tale of battle, bravery, and heroic deeds called “Beowulf”. He says he is something called a “scop”, and that’s his job: writing tales of the deeds of great men and performing them for money. Only humans would invent a job that involved TALKING ALL NIGHT. I could hear him through the window, and I have to admit I thought the story was pretty good. That is until they killed the hero, Grendel, in the first act. He just wanted some QUIET and those monkeys couldn’t shut the hell up. Note to self: if I ever sudden gain the ability to perambulate do NOT go after the humans. It won’t end well, even if you are the good guy of the story.

9 March 8th century A.D

The farmer, Hieronymus Kohn, has a new toy. It’s a device to cut through the earth so he can plant even more food for his squalling crotch fruit. This one is much heavier than his last one, and made out of metal, so it has to be pulled by a horse or oxen. I guess his wife, Gertrudis, gets a break from the yoke for a while, probably so she can have more babies to work the land, so they can grow more food to feed the ever increasing number of babies she keeps having. I don’t know why she bothers, half of them die before they can walk, and the tenth one (Eberhard Kohn) they sent off as a “tithe” to the “church”. Since I don’t know what those words mean, I am going to guess that a “tithe” is a sausage, and a “church” is some sort of large cat.

1 April 9th century A.D

There was a new emperor, for about a nanosecond. The humans seem to think that it was some momentous occasion, but dude was only in charge for about 13 years. I guess that’s a long time for humans? If they had any idea how many kings and emperors I have seen come and go. Honestly, how could anyone have an effect on the history of the world in such a short time? I guess people liked him so much because now that “Holey Land” people are always wandering off to see is part of a traveling exhibit or something. They are calling it the “Holey Roaming Empire”. I don’t really understand how an entire empire can move about, but maybe that’s what made this Charles guy “Great”. So long, Chuck, we hardly knew ye.

3 June 10th century A.D.

Argh, I don’t know where they came from, but these weird looking dudes in matching brown robes and stupid haircuts are setting up shop near me. They call themselves monks, which I am guessing is short for monkey?? Unlike their predecessors, the crazy Thunder God Tree-Huggers, they worship some “undead sky-Jew” that forces them to beat themselves and not get married, or else he will light them on fire… or something like that. I wasn’t really listening. It’s always “in with crazy, out with crazy” around here. They are completely convinced that some guy they call “The Devil” is lurking around every corner, tempting them with all things that I thought made human existence bearable; sex, alcohol, food, sleeping, independent thought. Apparently this undead guy really hates that stuff. Tell me again why he’s supposed to be the good guy? Seems to me this other guy is just a really good host. Meh, I’m a tree, what the hell do I care. All I do care about is that they are quiet and they aren’t breeding more monkeys.

15 August 10th century A.D. V 2.0

Ok, I DON’T like these monks so much anymore. Turns out, they sit around all day writing books. Book, after book, after book. And what do you need to write books? Ink! And where do you get ink? Well, according to these assholes, by climbing my branches and cutting off my galls! Seriously!? Even the idiot Thunder God Tree-Huggers asked permission before loping off parts of me, as annoying as they were. A oak just isn’t an oak without his galls.

*editor’s note: This is an excuse to use one of my all-time favorite words: “palimpsest”. That is all.*

14 February 11th century A.D.

The farmer’s descendants are still here, but the house has improved. At least they keep the livestock outside nowadays. The farmer’s youngest son has decided he wants to run off and become something called a “minnesänger”. There was this HUGE family argument about how the farmer wants him to stay home and work on the farm, but the son wants to run off and flirt with the ladies of the court, drink wine, and sing. I wish someone would invent popcorn, I would have grabbed a bag and just sat back and watched the fireworks. I don’t blame the kid, I’d want to get out of this stinkhole too if I weren’t rooted to the spot. The kid isn’t so bad, he at least treats me decently and likes to sit under my branches and practice his music. Godspeed to you, Albrecht Kohn. May your offspring avoid Dutch Elm Disease for all of their days.

15 August 11th century A.D.

Ok, so get this: There is the one group of people who worship the “Undead Angry Sky Jew”, like the ones that live at the monastery near here. Then there is this OTHER group of people who worship a different Angry Sky Jew… I think. Maybe it’s the same “Angry Sky Jew”, but I can’t tell. All the bald monkeys look alike to me, same number of limbs, tons of noise coming out of the hole in the front. How can they tell each other apart when they all have the same number of limbs? They don’t even have leaves for crying out loud. Apparently, they can tell the difference by which Angry Sky Jew they worship. Anyway, ASJ People #1 have decided to go invade the land of ASJ People #2 in order to take control of that Land of Holes everybody is always traveling to. The weirdest part of all this that the actual Jewish people have little or nothing to do with all of this, and somehow both ASJ#1 and ASJ#2 worshipers act like it’s all their fault. In fact, they just went and killed a bunch of them not far from here for… reasons? Dunno, but it seems like a lot of fuss over holey land and a bunch of old dead guys from the desert. If I had eyes, I would roll them so hard right now.

*Editor’s note: Here the oak tree erroneously believes Muhammed, the prophet of Islam, to be Jewish. This is not surprising, seeing as it views all humans as little more than illiterate primates, and therefore would not bother to note the glaring differences that make religious wars so very important to mankind. Prior to becoming the prophet of Islam, Muhammed was actually a Hanif, a hardcore form of monotheism based on the religion of Abraham- who incidentally is also a very important prophet to both monotheistic Judaism and monotheistic Christianity. I am sure you can see how such VASTLY different cultures could never coexist peacefully and were destined from the start to spend the next two millennia trying to exterminate one another.*

13 November 12th century A.D.

Some crazy chick, kind of like the sexless bald guys in the monastery here, came through giving lectures about the importance of church reform, blah blah blah. I almost fell asleep, but one of the farmer’s offspring joined up with the monks a few years ago, and he was completely fascinated with her description of a condition called “the female orgasm”. I’m not sure what that is, but it sounds like some sort of horrible brain fever. I have no idea why Ludwig Kohn was so interested in this subject, he always seem more interested in chasing girls, drinking, and gambling than in medical science or the whole “ASJ” lifestyle. That boy is going down a wrong path, those monks are going to kick him out, and all he will have to rely on is his ability to read and write to survive. How the hell is he going to make a living at that in this economy?

7 January 12th century A.D.

WTF. Oh HELL NO. Apparently someone got ahold of the finger of some dead guy who was slowly disemboweled for believing in the wrong version of the ASJ, and now they are building this MASSIVE structure on the other side of the river. They say it’s going to take over 100 years to complete, which is weird to me. These monkeys only seem to live about 50 years if they are lucky, so none of them will be around when it is done. The farmer’s family is fairly prosperous now, and they are paying for a window in the building. I overheard this generation’s farmer, Engelbrecht Kohn, mention that he was going to have an image of me included in the window. He said his family has been living beside me for so long I feel like part of the family. Aww. These guys aren’t half-bad for bald monkeys.

31 December 13th century A.D.

I have no idea what is wrong with the monkeys, but they are DYING in droves! They bloat up with big black lumps all over their bodies, and within a matter of days they die. They are trying everything to live, lancing the lumps, bleeding people, witchcraft, creepy guys who are dressed like Spy vs. Spy cartoons. Nothing is working. After 30 generations, Klaus Kohn took his family and left for good a few weeks ago. After his wife Wiburgis and 3 of his children died of the plague he decided to relocate the whole family. Maybe they will return when all this is over. You know, after a millennium of complaining about them, I’m actually going to miss the bald monkeys now that they are gone. This little hill can get lonely after a couple of centuries.

Queer Life in the Viking Age: In Myth and Daily Living

Queer Life in the Viking Age: In Myth and Daily Living

          Much of the modern view we have of the Norse and Northern Germanic tribes today is based on clichés and stock caricatures, stemming from centuries of propaganda and misinterpretation by the other cultures that encountered them. These images have proliferated and metamorphosized down the centuries through art, literature, music, and pop culture until the image we have today is almost comical in its vulgar and intolerant nature. We have tales from Tacitus, Saxo, Bede, and Ibn Fadln describing the Germanic world as a barbaric place based around brute force, volatile temperaments, and relentless conquest. We hear of human sacrifice, extremely brutal methods of execution, and hygiene practices that would not be compatible with survival in an age without penicillin. The subtleties of daily life in a pre-literate society are usually reported by literate outsiders who are only privy to the most superficial details, and then only what the leaders of the observed society consider important for the writer to know. What has frequently been left out of these accounts, as has happened throughout history, are accounts of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and other Queer spectrum individuals. Such individuals are alluded to in the Eddas and the sagas of the Icelanders, but little historical or mythological material survives that gives us any specific insight into the lives of LGBTQ people or how their society viewed them. The equation we are left with, at a passing glace, leaves us to extrapolate the answer that the pre-Christian Norse must have despised and abhorred homosexuality to the point of complete suppression. After all, a civilization that bloodthirsty would have no place for a subset of the population that are as frequently persecuted and reviled in our own modern, Christianized world.
But lack of evidence that Queer people had an overtly accepted place in a society is not evidence that they were actually shut out by that society. Despite the Norse and other Northern Germanic tribes (referred to as Norse in this paper for simplification) having a fearsome reputation, there is little reliable evidence of punitive measures being taken against people who fell within the LGBTQ spectrum (referred to as “Queer” in this paper for simplification) in the pre-Christian era. At first glance, the lack of positive portrayals of Queer heroes or mythical figures seems like complicit condemnation. In fact, it is by the very absence of their description as Queer that the acceptability of Queer individuals is revealed. Unlike our modern, Christian influenced society, Queer individuals were not viewed as contemptible or abnormal in Pagan Norse society, and were therefore no more conspicuous or noteworthy than any other relationship. As marriages were normally viewed as unions based more on political allegiances, financial security, or heir production, intimate relationships between same-sex partners would not necessarily have been in direct conflict with the purposes of marriage. Likewise, genderqueer, intersexed, and transgendered individuals were probably able to find their own roles in Norse society, as well as myth, as mystics, priests, warriors, pirates, and mischief makers, and the laws that governed such behavior as cross-dressing are ignored or given exception in many cases.
Male homosexuality is most the most evident “flavor” of the Queer spectrum in the mythical texts of the Norse, as well as being the most visible in Norse society. While the role of sexual aggressor in a homosexual encounter was not viewed with any degree of suspicion, the person in the role of being penetrated was often viewed distastefully. At first, through our modern interpretation of this view, it appears that this is a condemnation of homosexuality as a whole. When we step back and consider, however, how the Norse as a culture treated male homosexuality, a much different picture emerges. Although there are some tales of corporal punishment for homosexual acts from the Roman writers, we must remember that these are being reported through the filter of a culture that itself was beginning to reject both women and homosexual males in favor of a more stringent patriarchy (Evans). Tacitus states that the punishment for homosexual acts was being buried alive (Tacitus 12), but how certain are we of the context of this situation? Tacitus himself never left Rome, all of his information was based on the writings of others, and in many cases was outdated by many years (Gudeman 94). There is no evidence of any law in pre-Christian Iceland governing homosexual behavior, however there are laws governing the accusation of someone of subjecting themselves to ergi, or passive homosexuality (adjective form argr). Theose who made such accusations were subject to either legal We see this at work in The Volsungasaga, when Sinfjotli taunts Granmar in order to trigger combat:

“Sinfjotli answered, “Dim belike is grown thy memory now, of how thou wert a witch-wife on Varinsey, and wouldst fain have a man to thee, and chose me to that same office of all the world; and how thereafter thou wert a Valkyria in Asgarth, and it well-nigh came to this, that for thy sweet sake should all men fight; and nine wolf whelps I begat on thy body in Lowness, and was the father to them all.” (Volsungasaga, Chapter IX).

             By accusing Granmar of being sexually receptive to the point of “whelping”, Sinfjotli leaves Granmar with no choice but to fight for his honor. To take the dominant sexual role in a homosexual act was not considered ignoble, in fact the rape of a conquered foe was considered normal as a gesture of symbolic emasculation and display of power over the defeated. Outside of the battlefield, consensual acts of homosexuality were not legally condemned, and to be the passive partner did not mean one was shunned or rejected (Dennis, Foote, Perkins). However, the portrayals of argr men are almost exclusively limited to thralls, male prostitutes, and practitioners of seiðr, a form of shamanic magic associated with women. This seems to indicate that the real objection to male passive homosexuality was not a moral judgment as much as the imposition of a more rigid gender role on males. Male gender roles were very stringently enforced in Norse society, more so than for female gender roles, as we will see later. The expectation that a man will function as a warrior, defender, leader, and alpha male is pervasive in accounts of Norse society. Bravery and virility are valued above all else for the Norse man, to act as a woman is not shameful because women are shameful or because homosexuality itself was shameful, but because to do so negates this ideal male gender role. After all, a man who allows another man to dominate him sexually might allow himself to be dominated on the battlefield, or when conducting business. He could be untrustworthy and unreliable. It is the act of dominance that is key, not the sexual act itself. This is why accusing another man of ergi was grounds for punishment or legally sanctioned combat with the accused party. This was not just schoolyard name calling, it was a questioning of a man’s ability to participate in society as a whole.
The issue of seiðr as a source of ergi is one often questioned by researchers, particularly in light of Odin’s association with the art. Odin, whom no one would question is a fully functional male by Norse standards, is called out by Loki in the Lokesenna of the Poetic Edda of committing seiðr:

“They say that with spells | in Samsey once
Like witches with charms didst thou work;
And in witch’s guise | among men didst thou go;
Unmanly thy soul must seem.”

             Why would Odin, the All-Father, be party to such an activity? One possible explanation could be Odin’s age and already established status. A proverb from the Icelandic saga Hrafnkels saga Freysgoða states “at svá ergisk hverr sem eldisk “, or “The older a man, the more argr” (Viðar 126). As a man aged, his responsibilities within Norse society would wane. After producing heirs, protecting the realm, and accumulating wealth and status, and in light of his flagging physical virility, he would not have been expected to participate in the normal activities of most prime-aged males. Since this appears to be viewed as an inevitability of aging, activities such as seiðr may have become acceptable behaviors for the older Norse male. As Odin has been the progenitor of gods, a great warrior, and a father figure who sacrificed of himself for knowledge multiple times, his gray beard and advanced wisdom point to his being an older, possibly even elderly man. This is a man beyond his peak virility. He is not portrayed as a god preoccupied with philandering or active combat, he is a logistician and leader, a poet and a mystic. His age has liberated him to cross over to the more receptive, feminine side of his unconsciousness. Thusly, Odin’s association with seiðr is not necessarily the contradiction it appears on the surface. In light of this, Loki’s accusations seem petty and pointless, and are easily rebuffed by Frigg’s admonitions of his own argr behavior. In contrast to Odin, Loki’s behavior exemplifies how ergi was commonly viewed by the Norse. Loki is also a god and a father, but he is portrayed as a young and sexually viable male. While Loki is not a completely irredeemable character, his willingness to engage in argr behavior goes hand in hand with his untrustworthiness. When he takes on a feminine role, it is almost always to deceive. In his ultimate act of ergi, Loki transforms into a female horse and engages in sexual congress with the stallion Svaðilfari to trick him and distract him from his work. As a graphic illustration of his adopted “womanhood”, he even conceives a foal from this union, further solidifying his image as an argr or feminized male. It is his association with this womanly state of supplication and submission that made the Norse leery of his nature. Seeing as we are reminded time and time again how the Norse viewed women as inherently untrustworthy figures, it leads us to wonder how the perception of Queer women in Norse society contrasted with the view of the Queer male.
Aside from their perfunctory roles as wives and mothers, the intimate lives of women are not as well represented in Norse myth and legend. As keepers of the home, their deeds and actions are far less likely to end up in the annals of history or become the legendary exploits that are the foundation of myth. The portrayals of women in the Norse myths are mostly limited to supernatural shieldmaidens and goddesses of fertility or other womanly virtues. They are invariably paired with a god, king, or hero as their mate and expected to produce offspring for him, preferably male. It was not uncommon for women to shun this existence in favor of adventure and battle, nor was this choice rejected by society. However, there are virtually no historical documents attesting to lesbianism or bisexuality in woman whatsoever. This leaves the field ripe for conjecture and assumption in a vain attempt to see ourselves reflected back at us in the murky waters of time. However, once again, lack of evidence does not mean lack of existence.
One of the greatest obstructions to research in this area seems to be a case of academic wishful thinking on the part of LGBTQ researchers. Strong female role models who exhibit independence and a preference for female company are not automatically indicative of lesbianism. Many mythic and heroic historical women have become associated with lesbianism with only the most tenuous evidence to back up these assertions. Cassell’s Encyclopedia of Queer Myth, Symbol, and Spirit: Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Lore is a popular resource for those who study the intersection between sexuality and spirituality, however many of the entries regarding Norse figures lack substantial evidence to back up their hypothesis that these people were acting in a way that was considered extraordinary for their time and place. The text describes Alfhild as a 10th century Gothic pirate woman who disguised herself as a man to avoid being forcibly married to Alf as she fought alongside her sheildmaiden and “comrade-lover” Groa (Conner, Sparks, Sparks 49). Tracing the story back to its roots in the Gesta Danorum shows no indication of this kind of relationship. Groa is mentioned once as Alfhild’s attendant who marries Alf’s comrade Borgar after Alf captures and forcibly marries Alfhild (Gesta Danorum, Book 7). Interestingly, we see the term comrade being used to describe Alf and Borgar’s relationship, but find no suspicion cast on the intimacy of their relationship. Because Alfhild and Groa are engaged in gender-norm defying behavior, we are lead to believe they must be lesbians by modern scholars. At best, this is a liberal interpretation of the truth, at worst it is “pink washing” history to serve our own self-interests by retro-fitting Queer role models throughout history to compensate for centuries of neglect and persecution. While it is important, even critical, to reassess many historical relationships and individuals in a same-sex context, we must be careful not to project the values of our age onto the behaviors of the past. Regardless of whether we are sanitizing Queer culture from history books or desperately trying to wedge it in where it doesn’t belong, we are only doing historical truth a disservice in the end.
However, it is safe to say lesbianism happened. Kinsey reported in 1953 that 13% of women had achieved orgasm through contact with another woman (Kinsey, Alfred C. Sexual Behavior in the Human Female). Times may change, but human sexuality is shockingly constant. Private, unobstructed access to other women was plentiful. It was not uncommon for a household to include a wife, female servants, concubines, and thralls. These women would spend much of their day in the kvenna hús, or women’s house. This was a place that the man of the house would not enter, as it bore the stigma of ergi. (Jochens 80) Also, in a society where marriage is an expected outcome, often based on material or strategic gain, marriage to a member or the opposite sex would not automatically place an individual into the heteronormative category. The statistical likelihood of same-sex encounters between women combined with the privacy to engage in such behavior leads us to accept that same-sex encounters between women were probably quite prevalent. The lack of evidence that lesbianism was a punishable offense versus the evidence that women caught in romantic trysts with other men were often punished severely only confirm this possibility. Lesbianism would most likely not only be acceptable, but preferable, as it would not result in unwanted offspring nor be seen as conflicting with the interests of the husband.
On the mythological side, we see that Freyja, not unlike her brother, is associated in the modern age with bisexuality (Conner, Sparks, Sparks 144). The fact that she was considered a goddess of love, fertility, and eroticism, would almost demand that she cover both hetero and homosexual relationships. After all, sex is a part of same-sex relationships, and Freyja was known to cavort with a variety of lovers, including dwarves, elves, and her own brother (Larrington 90). While there are not direct attestations of Freyja engaging in same-sex sex, it does feel correct to assume that as her role was not limited to presiding over only marriage or reproduction, but was instead explicitly erotic in nature. Her modern casting as a patron of Queer individuals may not be as revisionist as we might think at first glance.
Although some contemporary Christians tend to characterize bisexuality as being a modern “invention” created by lax attitudes about sexual preference, the fact is bisexuality has been prevalent in human society just as long as any other sexual preference. What is new is the consideration of bisexuality as specifically defined identity. The term “bisexual” was not introduced until Krafft-Ebing first used it in his 1909 publication Psychopathia Sexualis. However, bisexuality has been depicted in ancient art and myth around the world. The Norse world was no exception. In fact, clandestine bisexuality was probably more socially acceptable than other, more exclusive expressions of Queer love, as it allowed for marriage and the production of children as well as the ability to satisfy one’s affections and urges with a same -sex partner. An oddly enforced variant of bisexuality may have been the only safe way for Queer members of Norse society to fulfill their same-sex inclinations and avoid the insecurity of circumstance and loss of status of being unmarried and without offspring in a culture that considered such things a moral obligation. Surprisingly, there is some possible evidence of same-sex marriage or unions in the Norse world. Guldgubbers are gold ingots carved with depictions of one or more individuals that have been found through out Scandinavia and Northern Europe. Their origins date back to around 500-800AD, and among the many theories regarding their purpose is the idea that they are a kind of legal document for a pre-literate society. (Ratke 149) Since many gubbers depict male-female characters facing each other and clutching arms in very specific and repetitive poses, it is quite possible that these may have served as a kind of “marriage certificate” to document a union between two people. It is interesting to note that a small few depict same-sex couples, and may have represented a Queer union (Ellis-Davidson 31-31 and 121). However, this is only conjecture, and there is no solid evidence of legally sanctioned same-sex unions. While we can’t definitively say that same-sex marriage or unions occurred, we do need to consider that the need for offspring was still existent. In a harsh world where few children survived into adulthood, replenishing the population would have been an ongoing struggle. Norse society put a great deal of pressure on people to produce a male heir, to the point that female infanticide was not uncommon (Jochens 86). That an individual would marry was a foregone conclusion, and children would be expected from that marriage, which as we all know (hopefully) means sexual intercourse. While we may never know how open people were about actual bisexual activity as we know it today, or how acceptable it was to take a same-sex lover outside of culturally sanctioned marriage, it is clear that such events did happen, although in some cases we might be stretching our definition of bisexuality to its breaking point. Was battlefield rape considered a bisexual act? A woman in a forced marriage with a lesbian lover? To our modern sensibilities, we would most likely reject these scenarios as being representative of bisexuality, but we have no idea how the Norse saw these actions or if they differentiated between these situations and more ideal (not to mention consensual) acts of bisexuality. However, it is clear that at the very least they had some understanding that an individuals sexuality and gender identity was not always monofaceted.
Transgendered, intersex, and other genderqueer individuals (referred to as genderqueer in this paper for simplification) were evident in the mythology of the Norse age, if not the historical record. Unlike the androgynes of Greek myth, Norse mythical figures of fluid gender tended to be viewed as switching between two genders, rather than a combination of genders or being or indeterminate gender. We do see characters such as Ymir, who is referred to as being male, but physically gives birth to to numerous denizens of the universe through various body parts. These androgynous figures are the minority, compared to stories of characters like Loki, who time and time again subverts gender to become or disguise himself as women, giantesses, and even female animals. That Loki is male is not in doubt, but he is more than happy (in fact in some stories he appears quite gleeful at the prospect) to switch genders in order to deceive or manipulate others. Contrasting this with Thor’s clear consternation at having to disguise himself as Freyja in the Thrymskvitha of the Poetic Edda, we see that this is not necessarily something indigenous to being a Norse god; this is Loki’s particular domain. We are left with a conflicted argument regarding how his bigenderism is tied to his duplicity. Is it his bigendered nature that makes him untrustworthy? Is it his association with deceitful femininity? Or was his deviousness the cause of his gender-switching abilities? His role as the trickster would typically demand a certain level of fluid identity, but Loki is frequently demonized to an extent many other tricksters aren’t. In comparing him to Odin as we have previously, we see that both share this association with an aspect of ergi, but no one (except Loki himself, interestingly enough) would judge Odin for his involvement in seiðr. It is Loki’s completely transmutable gender identity that makes his presence so unsettling and disquieting.
The issue of gender identification raises its head once again in the subject of cross-dressing. As we have seen with the story of Alfhild, it was not uncommon to see women adopting the attire of men, cutting their hair short and living their lives in what we would consider a manly fashion, despite this being an outlawed activity in some areas (Dennis, Foote, Perkins). There is evidence of women being being buried with grave goods that are normally attributed to men, such as swords and armor (McLeod 332-53). While the valkyries and shieldmaidens of the Norse were not usually described as wearing specifically male clothing, the existence of women who did defy convention and use gender disguise raises the question of whether or not these legal sanctions were reserved for women who lived as women regardless of their vocation versus women who lived as men. A women who dresses as a man while living with her husband might be seen as a threat or an insult to her husband’s status and masculinity. A woman who lives as a man would not present such a threat, as she would either remain single or be the argr member of her marriage. Without an historical record or legal precedent to guide us, it is impossible to say if people living as another gender were accepted, or to what extent gender switching or bending was tolerated. On an intriguing note, Bronze Age scholar Lise Lock Harvig from the Department of Forensic Anthropology at the University of Copenhagen has stated that the physiological differences between male and female skeletons from Viking age Scandinavia show remarkable similarities in facial structure and dimensions. Female skeletons were found to have broader cheekbones and jaws than average females, and males a more feminized bone structure than average males. This degree of androgyny would have aided anyone in their attempt to conceal or express their gender contrary to what society had already assigned them.
This was also true of men who were practitioners of magic and certain spiritual paths. As we have seen, seiðr is considered argr, or unmanly, and is attributed to women and men of a feminine persuasion. Its origins are in the Vanir, as it was taught to the Æsir by Freyja. The priests of Freyr, Freyja’s brother, are said to wear women’s clothing and dance and sing in a feminine manner (Dumézil 115). Freyr was not directly connected to seiðr, however it does seem likely that the similarity of Freyr’s priests’ behavior to shamanic and ecstatic cults makes it likely that some similarities can be found. Most likely seiðr also has it’s roots in a worship of the Vanir that pre-dates their incorporation into the Æsir. Not unlike the maenads of Dionysus, the practice of seiðr is usually viewed as a type of shamanic practice with overtones of a female-centric ecstasy religion in which only men willing to surrender themselves to their femininity were able to participate. Shamanic practices require a state of complete surrender and ego-death. This willingness to allow oneself to become receptive to a loss of control and self could have contributed to the view of seiðr as an argr activity. A true Norse man would never abdicate control of his body or mind to anyone or anything. In spite of this, we are certain that males did have some role in seiðr. We need look no further than Odin himself to find one.
For people of the Queer spectrum in the lands of the Norse, life would not have been without challenges. Statistically speaking, they would have still been in the minority, and life outside the norm is never easy under the best of circumstances. However, as the historical and legal records show, the Queer life was not reviled or scorned the way we have seen in the modern Christian age. Rather, men, women, and genderqueer individuals were most likely able to find places within Norse society where they could survive and, in some cases, even thrive. While Norse culture was far from a “gay paradise” where people of different sexual preferences and gender identities were completely accepted and embraced, the lack of legal repercussions and the few hints that we do have regarding the treatment of Queer individuals in Norse culture indicate the likelihood that people of the Queer spectrum were probably integrated or at the very least tolerated as contributing members of society.

Works Cited
Byock, Jesse L. The Saga of the Volsungs: The Norse Epic of Sigurd the Dragon Slayer. Berkeley, CA: University of California, 1990. Print.

Conner, Randy P., David Hatfield. Sparks, Mariya Sparks, and Gloria Anzaldúa. Cassell’s Encyclopedia of Queer Myth, Symbol, and Spirit: Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Lore. London: Cassell, 1997. Print.

Davidson, H. R. Ellis. Myths and Symbols in Pagan Europe: Early Scandinavian and Celtic Religions. Syracuse: Syracuse UP, 1988. Print.

Dennis, Andrew, Peter Foote, and Richard Perkins. Laws of Early Iceland: Grágás, the Codex Regius of Grágás, with Material from Other Manuscripts. Winnipeg, Canada: University of Manitoba, 1980. Print.

Dumézil, Georges. From Myth to Fiction; the Saga of Hadingus. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1973. Print.

Evans, Arthur, and Euripides. The God of Ecstasy: Sex-roles and the Madness of Dionysos. New York: St. Martin’s, 1988. Print.

Grammaticus, Saxo. “Gesta Danorum: Book Seven.” Online Medieval and Classical Library. Online Medieval and Classical Library, n.d. Web. 27 Nov. 2013.

Gudeman, Alfred. “The Sources of the Germania of Tacitus.” Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association 31 (1900): n. pag. JSTOR. Web.

Hallakarva, Gunnora. “The Vikings and Homosexuality.” Internet History Sourcebooks Project. Fordham University, n.d. Web. 16 Nov. 2013.

Harvig, Lise Lock. “What Vikings Really Looked like.” Sciencenordic.com. N.p., n.d. Web. 06 Dec. 2013.

Kinsey, Alfred C. Sexual Behavior in the Human Female,. Philadelphia: Saunders, 1953. Print.

Krafft-Ebing, R. Von, and Georges Bataille. Psychopathia Sexualis. München: Matthes & Seitz, 1984. Print.

Larrington, Carolyne. The Poetic Edda. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1996. Print.

McLeod, Shane. “Warriors and Women: The Sex Ratio of Norse Migrants to Eastern England up to 900 Ad.” Early Medieval Europe 19.3 (2011): 332-53. Print.

The Prose Edda. [S.l.]: Oxford UP, 1929. Print.

Ratke, Sharon. “Guldgubber – a Glimpse into the Vendel Period.” Guldgubber – a Glimpse into the Vendel Period. Academia.edu, n.d. Web. 27 Nov. 2013.

Viðar, Hreinsson. The Complete Sagas of Icelanders. Reykjavik: Leifur Eiríksson, 1997. Print.

Celtic Women: Victims and Victimizers

Celtic Women: Victims and Victimizers

Women of both Irish and Welsh Celtic mythology are integral parts of the stories they inhabit, however unflattering their portrayals may be. Even in stories where they are unnamed, imprisoned, or have little to no actual dialogue, the entire plot can hinge on a single action by the woman in question. However, how these separate mythologies portray these women could not be more different or polarized.
The first woman who stands out is Medb, the goddess/queen of Connacht from The Tain. She is arguably the catalyst for the events of the entire story. Her vain and competitive nature causes her to strike a bet with her husband, Ailill, to see who has the most wealth. When she comes up slightly short in the comparison, she launches a war to steal the prize bull of Dáire mac Fiachna (The Tain 58). It is this ruthless, blind ambitiousness that compels her character throughout the tale, and drives the fates of every man, woman, and child caught up in her wake. While Medb is clearly a very “strong female character” (a term I personally hate. You would never refer to Cu Chulainn as a “strong male character”), her degree of selfishness and willingness to throw her own people into a “warp spasm” meat grinder over and over again for a minor gain in wealth casts her in the role of the villain in this story. While Cu Chulainn is a trickster hero, Fergus is the Voice of Reason, and Ailill is the obedient husband, Medb’s heartlessness casts her as the sole legitimate antagonist in the book. What makes Medb intriguing is that her character is not portrayed as being being much different from a male. Unlike most modern female villains, she is not shown as a femme fatale of unsurpassing beauty. While she is not afraid to use her sexuality to get what she wants, she makes it clear that this is literally at her pleasure. You are left with the impression that she puts sex on the table more because she would like to bed the man in question than she thinks it will sincerely help manipulate him. Her sexuality is so completely within her control that she even outright states that one of the reasons she married Ailill was his lack of jealousy, for “if I married a jealous man that would be wrong too: I have never had one man without another waiting in his shadow.” (The Tain 53). Unlike so many other stories we have read, Medb has no fear of retribution for extramarital dalliances. She is also clearly in charge on the battlefield, if not particularly honorable, and her armies follow her in spite of some extremely questionable decisions. Clearly, there is some precedent set to instill that degree of loyalty. It is only at the end that they question her ability to lead (The Tain 251). She is determined, she is strong, she is flawed, and she is one of most real female characters we have read in both the Celtic and the Norse mythologies. The unsavory nature of her personality only serves to put her on equal footing with the men of the story, who are not much more honorable in most cases. She is painted as neither virtuous womanhood nor a spiteful bitch goddess. She is a person first, a woman second.
Contrast this with a character like Branwen from the Second Branch of The Mabinogion. Branwen is a paper doll character. She has no dimension or desire, no personal ambitions or personal quirks. She exists simply as a reason for war. She is a pawn in the games of men. When Matholwch shows up out of the blue to seek her hand in marriage, the entire proceeding is treated as if he and Llyr were trading livestock. Matholwch has not even seen Branwen at this point. When she is finally introduced, we are only told of her beauty, nothing more. She does not even speak until close to the end of the story, and then it is only in response to questions posed her about the invading Welsh armies. The very first words we hear her speak are “Though, I am no “lady” (The Mabinogion 29). Her abnegation of her status (intended ironically or otherwise) is glaring in light of her helpless enslavement and persecution as Matholwch’s chattel. We know her by the things that are done to her, not the things that she does. Her character drives the plot, not because she is at the helm or because of any manipulation on her part, but because she plays the same role as the coveted bull in The Tain. The horses that were mutilated by Efnysien play a role that is almost equal in importance to the plot (The Mabinogion 23), and receive almost as much description as Branwen .
We can see that the juxtaposition between these two women is striking. The fact that both manage to influence their stories to the degree they do despite their clear differences is interesting in light of the fact that they both come from cultures of Celtic origins and the stories were both written down around the 11th-12th century. The Irish Medb is an empowered, if not always likeable, queen who’s ambition propels the story forward. Branwen is a puppet, and a victim to her circumstances who’s presences propels the story forward. These disparate women serve as good examples of how women are portrayed in their respective mythologies as well as how their mythologies treat their women.

Enchanted Poetic Vengeance in The Mabinogion

Enchanted Poetic Vengeance in The Mabinogion

Vengeance in The Mabinogion has a tendency to involve some form of enchantment. Contrasting this with The Tain, where time and time again vengeance involves a stone to the skull or spear up your backside during actual combat, The Mabinogion has numerous tales of revenge or villainous intent revolving around magic. It is, perhaps, the most effective use for enchantment in The Mabinogion, because it provides insight into how the ancient Welsh viewed the function of vengeance, not just as bloody retribution, but also as a “teaching moment” for morals or empathy.
In the Third Branch of The Mabinogion, Pryderi is the King of Dyfed and the son of Rhiannon. When Dyfed is magically emptied of all living people and livestock except Pryderi and his immediate family (The Mabinogion 37), he and his mother’s new husband, Manawydan, head for England to try and support themselves. After much back and forth, they return to Dyfed, where Pryderi ends up following a white boar to a caer. Once inside the caer, he touches a golden bowl that has chains that extend into the sky and becomes stuck fast, frozen (The Mabinogion 40). When Manawydan returns to the castle alone, Rhiannon chides him for not coming back with Pryderi. She goes in search of her son, and joins him in his predicament inside the caer. The caer than vanishes, along with Rhiannon and Pryderi, leaving Manawydan and Pryderi’s wife Cigfa to fend for themselves. They return to England for a time, then come back to Dyfed with some wheat to plant and try and prosper in their hollow kingdom. After planting the wheat in three different fields,  Manawydan notices that each time he is about to harvest the wheat it is all destroyed. He stands vigil at the third field and notices mice trashing his wheat. He captures one, and in a well-played moment of subterfuge threatens to hang it for its crimes. He is petitioned three times by a scholar, a priest, and a bishop, to free the mouse, however he refuses. Finally, he tells the bishop he will free the mouse on the condition that Pryderi and Rhiannon are returned and Dyfed is freed from its enchantment. He also tacks on that no retribution is to be taken against Dyfed for his actions (The Mabinogion 45). Of course, the bishop is revealed to be an enchanter seeking vengeance for Gwawl, who was put in a bag and beaten by Rhiannon’s husband Pwyll years before. The magnitude of this vengeance, decades after the fact and not even against the people directly responsible for the beating, seems over the top and extreme in its complexity, however it is important to note that no one died. For all the years of torment suffered by Pryderi and his family, there was no bloodshed. This tale is long, and it involves many dead ends and what seem to be pointless details, however this structure strengthens the impression of the state of limbo that the characters are constantly faced with in their empty kingdom. The point of this enchanted vengeance is not pain, death, or torture. Instead, they are unable to move forward, unable to thrive, only able to exist. By using enchantment, their punishment is a prolonged purgatory state from which there is no escape. Any attempt to escape (such as the various trips to England) are met with forces that drive them back to the gray, dead land of Dyfed.
In the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogion, enchantment abounds. We first encounter enchanted vengeance when Math punishes his sons for raping his foot-holder and virgin, Goewin. His method of punishing them is to turn them into different pairs of animals, one male and one female, every year (The Mabinogion 53). The first year, they are a stag and a doe, and Gilfaethwy gives birth to a fawn. The next year, they are a sow and a boar, and Gwydion gives birth to a piglet. The last year, they are wolves, and Gilfaethwy whelps a pup. The symbolic implied rape between the brothers is part of the poetic justice behind this enchantment. They have been reduced animals, which is what their behavior had already reduced them to. Each brother takes his turn as the victim, with Gilfaethwy taking double-duty, which is only fair as he was the one who raped Goewin, Gwydion was the enabler.
In the same tale, we see that Gwydion takes vengeance on Blodeuwedd for her attempt on Lleu’s life by transforming her into an owl, so that all the other birds will shun her and she will be relegated to the night for all of eternity (The Mabinogion 63). At first, this seems arbitrary, as the punishment does not tie into the crime. But on further analysis, we are reminded that Blodeuwedd is a woman who was formed out of oak, meadowsweet, and broom flowers to be the bride of Lleu (The Mabinogion 58). To exile her into darkness is a cruel fate for a creature of her nature, she has gone from the ultimate fertility figure to a predatory hunter, a woman designed to provide companionship is then shunned and reviled.
The Mabinogion has many examples of enchantment. We have women made of flowers, mysterious foal-stealing claws, magic cauldrons, and tyngeds. However vengeance is where these enchantments shine in the elegance of their construction and the chilling thoroughness of their execution.

The Good Son- The Tain and the Mabinogion

The Good Son

There are surprisingly few similarities between the Celtic Irish mythology of The Tain and the Celtic Welsh mythology of The Mabinogion. The characterizations are vastly different, the settings are different, the social etiquette is different, even the combat styles are different. One place we see some degree of consistency is in the symbols that surround the two main heroes, Cu Chulainn and Pryderi. Many of the symbols we see in The Tain regarding Cu Chulainn are used in The Mabinogion to describe Pryderi, in spite of being very different stories written in very different styles about very different heroes.
One of the most visible examples of this symbolism is in the origins of the heroes Cu Chulainn and Pryderi. Both of their birth stories have the conspicuous presence of horses on the night of their birth. Cu Chulainn’s birth story is complicated, as he is in a way thrice conceived (and I just had an occasion to use the word “thrice” for the first time ever). The first time, Deichtine and Conchobar take shelter at house where the host’s wife goes into labor and gives birth to a boy. At the same time, a mare gives birth to two foals (The Tain 22). The next morning, the house is gone, but the boy and the foals remain. The boy survives for a few years, raised by Deichtine, but dies in early childhood. Later, she is visited by the god Lugh, who tells her he was the host the evening the child was born, and he makes her pregnant through mystical means. This baby dies before birth and is “reabsorbed” by Deichtine, and she finds herself a virgin once more (which is quite convenient). She eventually conceives Cu Chulainn by her husband, and although these seem to be separate events, they are told in a way that implies they are all somehow required in the conception of Cu Chulainn. It is as if his essence had to be filtered and distilled in this process somehow, so he could become the hero he was meant to be.
On the night of Pryderi’s birth, he vanishes from Rhiannon’s care and appears at a manor where a lord is standing watch against a great beast that is killing a newborn foal every year on that night (The Mabinogion 17). When a giant claw comes in through the window and snatches the foal, the lord hacks of the beast’s hand and gives chase. It is then that he finds the infant Pryderi and decides to raise him as his own. In this way, Pryderi is symbolically the result of multiple births, the first to his mother, Rhiannon, and the second when the lord finds and rescues him. It can be argued that his return to his real parents could be construed as a third rebirth, although that argument is a bit of stretch.
The presence of the foals, born the same night as the hero, is significant. That the horse was a symbol of fertility is not in doubt, look no further than Macha giving birth while racing against horses in The Tain to confirm that this is more than coincidence, it is a reoccurring theme (The Tain 7). In a culture that relies on the horse in battle, the horse would have held a great deal of significance as a symbol of authority and military strength. The horses being born into the world at the same time as the heroes is the equivalent of being born with a sword in your hand. It signifies his future power.
Another similarity is that neither hero goes by his name given at birth. Cu Chulainn is born Sétanta and gains the name Cu Chulainn after he kills Culann’s hound in self-defense and agrees to become its replacement, becoming “the Hound of Culann” (The Tain 84). This is his rite of passage and the point where he becomes a sworn warrior. Similarly, Pryderi starts life named Gwri by his foster parents. When his foster parents realize he is the son of Rhiannon and Pwyll and return him to the castle, his real parents rename him Pryderi, the name he will wear as ruler of the land he will now inherit (The Mabinogion 20).
Our heroes also share the common trait of accelerated growth in early childhood. This serves to set them apart from the rest of the mortal world. These heroes are, after all, more or less demigods. Cu Chulainn is the son of Lugh, and is therefore half god. Pryderi is the son of Rhiannon, and is therefore half god as well. Their accelerated growth signifies this aspect of the divine within them, as if their mortal bodies can not contain the power within them. We see similar tales of mythological figures maturing at unnatural rates in the story of Väinämöinen in the Kalevala, who is born to Ilmatar a fully formed 700 year old man, or Athena springing from Zeus’ head fully formed.
These similarities in early childhood point to both Pryderi and Cu Chulainn possibly being a common archetypal Celtic hero. Both heroes are born under auspicious circumstances and in the presence of horses, both heroes have a specific identity that they assume once they ascend from boyhood to manhood. These similarities seem to be the ingredients that are used to signify that they are heroes of supernatural origin and destined for great things.

Mythology from a Very Rambling Pagan Perspective

Mythology from a Very Rambling Pagan Perspective

So, you want to talk about the nature of mythology. Unfortunately, in my case, that means talking about Paganism, since mythology is the source of my personal belief system. And I apologize for the rambling tone, but its hard to put into a straight up narrative. My personal take is somewhat along the lines of Jung, that mythology is basically the dream of humanity. Much like our dreams serve to work through the complexities and conflicts in our subconscious, myth serves to do the same for the collective unconsciousness. In the Pagan community, there is a lot of debate about the nature of the gods. Beliefs run from almost a secular humanist attitude, to what we refer to as “sock puppeting”, where people believe their personal relationship with a god to be so personal, they almost treat them like they are an imaginary friend. Seriously, I have heard people talk about hanging out and watching tv with Loki. It’s… sad, to say the least. I think this puts me and others like me in an unusual category, since for most people this class would be little more than an academic exercise, and they could freely speculate on the purpose mythology serves on a literary, historical, or psychological level. For those of us who actually believe and celebrate these stories, the question is about the issue my personal faith. Talk about a can of worms! While I am no stranger to the “woo woo” of the universe (show me a Pagan who hasn’t had a mystical experience of some kind and I will show you a Catholic), I can’t say that I (or most Pagans I associate with personally) take these stories as literal events, nor do I think most of us believe there is a group of immortal people living in the sky looking down at humanity with a judgmental eye. However, we still believe these things to be quite real, even though we understand this to be contradictory. The best I can describe it is that is is sort of like when you have a very vivid dream that you can’t get out of your head. It seems real, and even if you know that it isn’t, it haunts your reality, changes the way you look at things. There are levels to reality, mythology serves to wipe some of the dust off the windows between worlds. We tend to think of mythology as being only the stories of ancient religions and tribal beliefs. We forget that Christianity is mythology as well. Mythology does not mean some dusty old story with little relevance to modern life. Mythology is alive and adaptable. Pagans tend to be people who have found solace in a different world view than the Abrahamic religions and Eastern philosophies offered on the census sheet. Mythology provides a mirror to our world and ourselves, a way of looking outward as well as inward. It informs our life decisions, or modes of behavior. We model ourselves after figures in myth. Christians ask themselves “what would Jesus do?”. Likewise, Pagans tend to take the values set forth in their mythology to imitate. In modern Heathenry (you asked if Heathenry was a Pagan movement. It is a blanket term for the followers of the Norse and Germanic Pagan movement, which is actually quite varied and comes in many flavors), you tend to see people who value bravery, adventure, hospitality, kinship, and self-reliance. In followers of the Hellenic traditions, there tends to be an emphasis on intellectualism, mysticism, or artistry. The followers of the Celtic traditions tend to be a little more female-centric and nature oriented, and so on. Mythology is a blueprint to these ways of living. It provides characters who are archetypes for the people we would like to be (or avoid being in some cases). Whether you are the Hero, the Earth Mother, the Trickster, the Sheildmaiden, or the Shaman, mythology has it. Contrary to how many people view Pagans, this isn’t an elaborate game of make-believe or some Ren Faire fantasy. Maybe I feel this way because I tend to see people as their archetypes (of which we each have many), and I tend to see the world in mythic terms. Everything in life has significance, we are all stars of our own epics, we all possess the ability to become something more transcendent than the person who pays the bills, needs to get the car fixed, and gets heartburn every time they eat raw onion. Paganism is about recognizing these qualities within yourself and others and living your life in celebration of that. We are all Odin, Freyja, Medb, Cu Chulainn, and Peredur, and our world is filled with magic. That is the purpose mythology serves for me.

Welsh Women are Punching Bags in This Book

Welsh Women are Punching Bags in This Book

What. The. Hell.

Soooo… Unlike many of those of the Pagan persuasion, I have no illusions of this great Northern European Matriarchal Paradise that once existed, where women governed and were revered as sacred vessels of the perpetual cycles of universal life blah blah blah. That never happened, and whenever I hear people spout this crap I want to smack the ever-loving Marion Zimmer-Bradley out of their heads with a history book. Were there possibly times in history where women had more power and status than others? Sure. But most of history looks a lot like The Mabinogion. I have to say, when I read the Eddas or even The Tain, it sounded like a fairly decent time in history to be a woman. Reading The Mabinogion is making me want to go all Valerie Solanas on some menfolk. From the very beginning, Peredur’s mother advises him “if you see a woman you want, take her, you’ll be a better man because of it.” Great advice, mom. Then we see Gwenhwyfar’s humiliation at the hands of the unknown knight. He douses her face and breasts with wine, cuffs her upside the head, and steals her chalice. None of this has anything to do with her or anything she herself has done, it’s all done to incite combat with Arthur’s knights. She is just one of the king’s possessions. Then we get into some serious dwarf abuse. What is it with these stories hating on dwarves? They get kicked into fire and beaten to death (is she dead? I’m not sure from the narrative). Again, she seems to just be a victim of Cai’s rather malicious nature. Then there is the countess whose brothers decide to give her against her will to Peredur to try and save their kingdom. In all these cases, these women have no character, they are not described beyond their physical appearance, and they seem completely incapable of defending themselves or standing up to their oppressors. Maybe I am just particularly sensitive to the subject because I have been working on gender roles for my research paper, but honestly, the atrocities committed against these woman makes me hate the male characters to the point where I no longer care what their mythical significance is. I have to admit, I just couldn’t finish Peredur’s story. Because I hate him. And stuff. But I did watch Excalibur this afternoon, so that counts as something, right? (Trivial side note: part of the reason I married my husband is because he can recite the Charm of Making from Excalibur. Such are the feats of strength nerds use in courting.) I did enjoy the very surreal quality of The Lady of the Well, but the story itself felt a bit rambling and confused. I know I keep criticizing these stories for their lack of character development or coherent plots, like I am supposed to be critiquing modern literature. I am actually rather disappointed with myself in my inability to wrap my mind around the Celtic and Welsh myths in a meaningful way. I have spent years studying the Norse and Germanic stories and history, but I have always dodged the Celtic stuff because I just didn’t feel the same internal pull towards them. I had hoped that this was just my own short-sightedness and that I would take to them once I delved in. I think one of the most important aspects of mythology is that people have to be able to feel it in order to truly understand it. This isn’t the academic subject it seems like on the surface, it isn’t just the study of history or literature, the meanings of these stories are important, and in the absence of being able to understand the meaning to the people who wrote them, we have to find what these stories mean to us.

If you teach this course again (and I really really hope you do, this has been fantastic and you have done an amazing job with some really difficult subject matter. I know I have groused a lot about the Celtic stuff, but the fact that you actually got me to finally read and contemplate these books speaks loudly) I think having a “cast sheet” of characters to watch for in a story before starting a story or book or encouraging students to keep their own would be great. I know it sounds simplistic, but in retrospect, this would have been a big help keeping things straight, especially during The Tain. I think I would have enjoyed the stories a bit more if I had thought of this earlier. Monkey learn!

WTF Mabinogion, Why You So Weird?

WTF Mabinogion, Why You So Weird?

What the hell did I just read? No, seriously, what the hell was that all about? Pryderi gives his mother, Rhiannon to Manawydan… because loyalty?? Not sure. But Rhiannon seems ok with this. So tra la la, all is well until BOOM! A curse descends on the land, and all the crops and critters are lost. Rhiannon, Manawydan, Pryderi, and Pryderi’s wife Cigfa seem to be the only people living in this desolate land. So Manawydan and Pryderi decide to hunt and fish for a while. Somehow, this life becomes tiresome, and they decide to move to London and open a saddle shop. Sure, why not, two crazy kids in the big city with a dream to make the best damn saddles around. Of course, when the other saddle makers find out how awesome Manawydan and Pryderi’s Saddle Emporium is they take the logical course of action and decide to create a better product at a reasonable price to encourage a healthy and competitive market. No wait, they decide to try and KILL them. A reasonable response, don’t you think? Pryderi wants to kill them in retaliation, Manawydan says, no, let’s go into business making shields. So they do, and Manawydan and Pryderi’s Saddle Shield Emporium is a big hit. Then the other shield makers get their knickers in a twist and decide to get stabby. Pryderi wants to kill them, Manawydan says, no, let’s going to business making shoes. Thus, Manawydan and Pryderi’s Saddle Shield Shoe Emporium is born. Oddly enough, in spite of Manawydan prediction that shoemakers are yella’ bellied, they get homicidal at their success as well. Why these guys didn’t just open up Manawydan and Pryderi’s Saddle Shield Shoe Pointy Things & Seige Weapon Emporium in the first place is beyond me. Somehow, the shoemakers are the final straw, and Manawydan and Pryderi head home. One day, they are out hunting when a white boar appears and leads them to fort or caer. The dogs chase the boar into the fort, and Pryderi decides to go in after his dogs. Inside he finds a golden bowl that freezes him in place as soon as he touches it. Manawydan, like the mensch he is, waits until sundown and then just leaves without Pryderi. When Rhiannon asks where her son is, Manawydan shrugs and says, “Dunno. Somewhere.” Rhiannon is annoyed at his slacker attitude, and goes in search of Pryderi herself, only to fall victim to the same fate when she finds him. Perhaps if they had had some OSHA training at the castle, she would have known to knock him away with a stick, rather than grab it herself. Cigfa sees that only she and Manawydan are left, and she is distraught. Manawydan basically promises not to rape her (I think) and then says, “Hey, you know what we should do?” to which, Cigfa should have replied, “Go in search of our missing mates in the exact place we know they are?”. “Naaaah,” says Manawydan, “Let’s go to London and become shoemakers!” (I somehow missed the fact that the caer had vanished when I first read this… but still). “ Wait,” says Cigfa, “didn’t you and my husband try that and it ended up with hoards of wrathful cobblers chasing you with torches and pitchforks?” “Shhhhh, let’s not speak of such trivial things.”, said Manawydan the sub-genius. Off they went, and Manawydan and Pryderi’s Cigfa’s Saddle Shield Shoe Pointy Things & Seige Weapon Shoes Again Emporium is open for business. Of course, after a year of this the shoemakers once again go on a rampage. And Manawydan and Cigfa head back to their empty kingdom. This time, he plants some wheat. Just as he is about to harvest it, some magical mice destroy his crops. So he captures one in a glove and plans on executing it for it’s crimes. After a dude begs him repeatedly and in different disguises not to kill it, he finally asks they guy why he wants this mouse so badly. Guy admits it’s his wife, and that he had cursed the land in retaliation for Gwawl being subjected to Badger-in-a-Bag two stories ago. Manawydan negotiates the freeing of Pryderi and Rhiannon, as well as the restoration of his land. Then dude tells them that Pryderi and Rhiannon were held in place by door knockers and ass collars. Then I just “noped” outta there, cuz this shit be cray cray.

(I wrote this before reading the 4th branch because I was running out of time. Now I wish I had written about the 4th branch instead of this nutso thing)

Badger-in-a-Bag!

Badger-in-a-Bag!

Wow. How awesome is the phrase “Badger-in-a-Bag”? LOVE IT. So this is my first time reading the Mabinogion, however I have read about some of the stories and characters before. So far, the writing style is…. well, let’s just say I can see the influence on English writing. It’s a bit stiff compared to The Tain, and it definitely lacks a lot of the comedy and wit (although, Rhiannon telling Pwyll that he could have spared his horse a lot of grief if he had just asked her to stop rather than chase her was a total “OOOH! SNAP!” moment). And I swear, if Pwyll said, “Between me and God” one more time… What? Is he Rainman? He starts every sentence with it!

Another contrast is the women. Oh, the women. We are only about 35 pages in and already I am leery of the way women are going to be treated in these stories. Point number one: Pwyll desires Rhiannon based solely on the fact that she is a hot chick on a fast horse. She’s the Welsh Malibu Barbie (Barbi ap Mallybw?). She manages to negotiate the marriage on her terms, but then at their “engagement party”, Pwyll ends up giving her to another guy, who clearly sees nothing wrong with this arrangement. Seriously, who wants to be married to someone who doesn’t want you? Marriage is hard enough when you both want to be there. Of course, in the end, she gets his dumb ass “badgered”, so again she wins, but what a lousy way to treat a gal. Next, she has a baby, and somehow the six handmaidens lose it. Talk about sucking at your job. Instead of butching up and dealing with the situation, or, I don’t know, LOOKING FOR THE BABY, they decide to frame Rhiannon for eating her kid. Nice. Way to throw a sister under the bus. They persist in their lies until Rhiannon is sentenced to do public penance and tell everyone her story. To make me even more rage-filled, when their lies are exposed and it is shown that Rhiannon clearly did not eat her baby (several YEARS later), not only is she not particularly bitter, NOBODY SEEMS INTERESTED IN PUNISHING THE GAGGLE OF BITCHES THAT ACCUSED HER. Why? Ooooh if I were Rhiannon I would be in a state of mind to retaliate with god-like fury. THIS calls for a warp spasm. You know, I probably would be so hateful towards these women, except 1. Backstabbing women is a hot button issue for me. And 2. They killed puppies to achieve their goal. PUPPIES. Puppy killers get no mercy from me. So far, Rhiannon seems like she’s being bullied left and right, and while in each instance she more or less comes out on top in the end, it still fills me with what my husband calls my “bear rage”.

Interestingly, Rhiannon, like Medb, is associated with the goddess of the throne, that by ritually marrying her a king married his kingdom (Proinsias Mac Cana’s Celtic Mythology- a cool book if you can find a copy). So far, the two seem vastly different as characters. Rhiannon seems to fit that description more, as she seems easier to manipulate in this story and lacks her own motives. She seems less like an actual queen and more like the embodiment of a concept. Medb was nothing BUT motive and seems more like a leader, albeit a lousy one.

Don’t get me started on Branwen. Abused, enslaved, held captive, and then they throw her baby on the fire? Again, we have no idea what her motives or desires are in life. She’s just there to be the Golden Vagina that men want… because vagina. She has zero agency or character. Something tells me The Mabinogion is going to be like a Lars von Trier movie: filled with woman being victimized, abused, and traded like cattle. (Seriously, have you seen his movies? I mean, I actually loved Dogville, but it’s hard to take everything the leads up to the ending. Breaking the Waves was like some kind of really negative personal fetish fantasy, and Dancer in the Dark was like making a musical out of torture porn. Melancholia basically makes a woman’s inability to control her emotions the cause of the apocalypse. I won’t even watch Antichrist, seeing as the woman in the story is supposed to be the titular character, not to mention she mutilates her genitals with scissors. Eeech! I am convinced the man just hates women.)

Rough Week

Rough Week

This weekend it was very difficult to write. I’ve had several rather serious personal dramas fall in my lap, and even though I’ve done the reading I am finding it hard to concentrate on writing my journal. I have also been spending a large amount of time researching my research paper, and my brain is having a hard time shifting gears. I have also noticed that I am having a hard time writing about The Tain in general, even though I didn’t have a problem discussing it in class. I finally figured out that this is because there is something about the style of the tale that lends itself more to dynamic discussion rather than dry prose. I mentioned in class that I felt the Norse wrote great poetry, but the Celts told great stories. Maybe it’s because I am used to dissecting the symbolism and cultural relevance of the Norse stories, but I haven’t really gotten the feel for the Celtic stories. I find the complete futility of the entire raid baffling. All these people die to serve the egomaniacal needs of one pair of jackasses, and in the end both the bulls die anyway (cue 70s sitcom ironic trumpet “loser” sound effect). What in the heck was that all about? I keep looking for some deeper, esoteric wisdom to be gleaned from all this, but I can’t even come up with something akin to a simple moral parable. Were these stories for the sake of entertainment? Historical documentation? I think that their lack of “mythic” feel is what has made them hard for me to put into context. I can discuss what happened in the stories, but not what it means. The best I have been able to reason is that these stories aren’t any kind of moral or spiritual guide, and they aren’t strictly historical documentation, rather they feel like a map of ancient Ireland. The constant listing of names and places, who did what where, etc seems like a way of mapping out the history of the land, rather than the people. As someone who was a habitual gypsy in her youth, I often joke about how the worst thing about moving to a new town is the way people give directions based on what USED to be there. When I first moved back to Seattle from Los Angeles, I had a job in the Greenlake area. Any time I asked how to get somewhere, I was invariably told a list of directions based on where the “Honey Bear Bakery used to be”. Just this weekend, my husband and I drove to the Mukilteo area where I grew up to visit my family. We had to meet my mother at a restaurant in Everett for lunch. I knew the restaurant was where “The Ranch” used to be, and I remembered where “The Ranch” used to be because that’s where my mother met stepfather #2. I knew it was past the apartment complex where my friend Shanel and I got drunk in high school and she had a huge fight with her boyfriend, so I ended up walking 5 miles home at 3am in lousy shoes. I also knew that if we reached the mall that I worked at when I was 18 we had gone too far. By describing the landscape in a way that is relatable and personally engaging gives it meaning. Since ancient Ireland didn’t have signs, stores, and Google Maps, being able to point to the 3 hills Fergus sliced the tops off of was useful. Being able to envision Cu Chulainn’s deeds and movements across the countryside gives you a visualization of what the lay of the land is. As was pointed out in that article you sent, being able to clearly delineate property boundaries would have been crucial to a culture that practices pastoral transhumance. The seasonal migration of cattle with out barbed wire fences, maps, or signposts would risk confrontation between herdsmen, or worse you could end up not finding your pasture land if you didn’t have a way of navigating efficiently. And as anyone here can attest to, navigating in a gloomy, overcast environment without starts or sun to guide you can be tricky. By generating a history of the land with outrageous stories and great feats that carve the landscape, you create memorable landmarks to navigate and mark borders. I think this is a valuable illustration of the different functions of myth in a culture. The Norse used their myths to guide behavior and turn an eye inward. They wanted to make sense of their place in the world. The Celts wanted to describe their world to avoid conflict and strife and ensure survival.