The book begins with a boy named Max dressed in a wolf suit misbehaving, terrorizing the dog and talking back to his mother. He is sent to bed without any supper. But a strange thing happens: his room magically transforms into a forest with a nearby ocean. He boards a boat and sails across the ocean for nearly a year before he comes to an island inhabited by terrible monsters known in the book as “wild things.” Max manages to tame them, and they crown him king of all the wild things. After an indefinite amount of time, he grows lonely and wishes to return home. He gives up being king, boards his boat, sails back across the ocean, and returns to his room. He finds there his supper waiting for him.
Many fantasy novels have characters who journey between our world and another world. In some works, like C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia or J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, these other worlds are accepted as true: within the story, that is, they exist as real places. In others, though, like Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland or The Bridge to Terabithea, the voyages to these other worlds are presented — even within the story — as dreams or as journeys of the imagination. It is not clear how to classify Max’s voyage to the land of the wild things along these lines. The narrator, on the one hand, always describes the events of the story in factual terms:
In Max’s room a forest grew [ ] and the walls became the world all around.
He sailed off through night and day and [ ] he came to the place where the wild things are.
Max stepped into his private boat and waved good-bye and sailed back [ ] into [ ] his very own room.
But on the other hand, one subtle element in the artwork convinces me that Max’s adventure is meant to be understood as an imaginary one. An illustration of an early scene contains a picture Max drew before he went on his adventure. Max had not yet been to the place where the wild things are when he made this drawing, yet his drawing looks exactly like one of the wild things he would later meet.
The text of the story does not refer to Max’s drawing at all, but it is an important clue in how to understand the story. I think the similarity between the drawing and the wild thing demonstrates that both originated in his imagination. Even though the narrator takes Max’s journey at face value, I think it is intended to be understood as an imaginary journey.
Throughout this imaginative journey, a change occurs in Max. At the beginning, he is just a naughty little boy. He is eager to escape his room, where he serves his sentence for misbehaving, and imagines himself as the “most wild thing of all” instead of as a well-behaved boy. He sends the wild things to bed without any supper — perhaps directing some negative feelings for his mother towards these innocent creatures of his own imagination. But as he sits alone, he has a change of heart:
Max [ ] was lonely and wanted to be where someone loved him best of all. [ ] So he gave up being king of where the wild things are [ ] and sailed back [ ] into [ ] his very own room.
He no longer wishes to be with the wild things: he now wants to be with his mother. Max’s imaginative journey gave him a new perspective on his life, and this new perspective resulted in a different attitude and (presumably) in different behavior after his return. The illustrations capture this effect on Max in a subtle but powerful way. Before Max’s journey, the illustrations of Max’s real world are always contained by a white border on all four sides. As his room transforms into the forest, that border slowly shrinks until the illustrations fill the whole page. (The added black border represents the edge of the page.)
The world of Max’s imagination is larger, more wonderful, and less bounded than the real world. Every page depicting the land of the wild things has illustrations that bleed to the edges of the page; not one of them has a white border surrounding it on all four sides. When Max returns to his room from his imaginative journey, though, the border does not return.
The broadening of the illustration nicely mirrors the broadening of Max’s perspective. In the very first article here, discussing how we define “myth” on this site, I said that the mythic narratives found in ancient mythology and modern fantasy can dramatically change the way we look at our own world. As we read the story of Max’s imaginative journey, we can engage our imaginations to participate to some degree in his journey. We may even be able to have our perspective, our attitudes, and our behavior transformed in a similar way. In both the plot of the story and in some subtle details of the artwork in his Where The Wild Things Are, Maurice Sendak conveyed the role of imagination in this transforming power of mythic narratives.
Having said that, Alexander’s five Prydain novels — along with a subsequent collection of short stories, The Foundling and Other Tales from Prydain, published later — contain a veritable treasure trove of references (both large and small) to the mythology of Wales, particularly to that group of medieval stories first published in English under the title of the Mabinogion by Lady Charlotte Guest. These include people — for example, the Dynasties of Don and Llyr, lifted wholesale from the Mabinogion and dropped into the background of Alexander’s fictive world; Medwyn, Prydain’s stand-in for Nevydd Nav Neivion, a figure in Celtic mythology similar to the biblical Noah; and Arawn Death-Lord, the Welsh Master of the Underworld, set up as Prydain’s arch-villain. Alexander’s mythological sources also include places — fortresses and kingdoms such as Caer Dathyl, Cantrev Mawr, and Spiral Castle. (Robert Graves discusses the Spiral Castle and other aspects of Welsh mythology in his book The White Goddess, many which Alexander used.) He also borrowed (but rearranged) features of the landscape, such as the rivers Ystrad and Alaw. And Alexander even included things of Welsh mythology — artifacts and weapons such as the sword Dyrnwyn: in the Welsh sources, this is “the sword of Rhydderch Hael, […] one of the thirteen precious things of the Island of Britain” (Tunnell 73); in Prydain, this becomes the magical flaming sword of Lord Gwydion, Prince of Don.
Among Alexander’s wide and allusive borrowings from the Mabinogion, and from Celtic mythology more generally, I would like to single out for a closer examination the shadowy origins of Dallben connected to the witches Orddu, Orwen, and Orgoch. Dallben is a central figure to the entire Cycle, playing a role in all five novels, and he represents many things: the caretaker of Caer Dallben, keeper of the prophetic Book of Three, guardian of the oracular pig Hen Wen, advisor to Lord Gwydion and the Sons of Don, and (perhaps most importantly) the teacher and protector of the Cycle’s principal protagonist Taran. He is based largely on a small character in the Welsh Tale of Kilhwch and Olwen (Tunnell 57-8, 62). The tale itself says very little about Dallben; however, Lady Guest’s notes following the tale reveal a bit more. Dadweir Dallpen, as the original character is named, is said to have indeed possessed a famous pig, Henwen, and to have employed as his swineherd Coll ab Collfrewi, one of the three most renowned swineherds in all Britain. (Readers of Alexander will, of course, also recognize both Hen Wen and Coll as fellow residents of Alexander’s village of Caer Dallben.)
Over the course of the Prydain Cycle, Dallben remains a somewhat mysterious character, but readers learn more about his shadowy origins in “The Foundling”, a story Alexander wrote some years afterwards. He is found alone, floating in a wicker basket by the three witches, Orddu, Orwen, and Orgoch, in their home, the Marshes of Morva. Unsure what else to do, they take him in (showing uncharacteristic kindness). One day, the witches ask Dallben to continue stirring a bubbling witches’ brew while they’re out of the house, cautioning him against tasting any of it. He obeys, but the potion comes to a boil and some of it splashes out of the cauldron. Dallben pops his scalded fingers into his mouth without thinking, tastes the potion, and instantly acquires all the knowledge, wisdom, and magical abilities of the three witches. After that, they have to send him away, because “[y]ou can’t have that many people knowing that much all under the same roof” (Black Cauldron 105). They offer him a choice from several enchanted gifts to take with him, of which he chooses The Book of Three, a tome of great weight and prophecy. So great, in fact, that the burden of the knowledge ages him overnight into an old man — the bent and wizened figure Taran and his companions (and readers along with them) come to know and love.
The witches, Alexander tells us, “have appeared in other guises […]: the Three Norns, the Moirae, the Triple Goddess, and very likely some other transformations they decline to admit” (Author’s Note, Taran Wanderer). Though there are three of them, they have the disconcerting tendency to shift their shapes, and even shift their consciousnesses between each body. It is suggested that they “take turns being” Orddu, Orwen, and Orgoch. Most of the time, they appear as decrepit old hags: Orwen recognized by a necklace of milky-white stones, Orgoch by the deep cowl hiding her face, and Orwen (the usual spokesperson for the three) by the absence of any of these distinguishing features. But some of the time, they appear as beautiful enchantresses — particularly when they believe no one is looking. It is in this guise that they appear to Taran at the conclusion of the Cycle, offering him a fateful choice.
Speaking of Fate, this indeed seems to be the role of the three witches in Prydain. Like the Greek Moirae, Alexander’s three witches are a weaver, a spinner, and a cutter of the threads of men’s lives. But their names, like so many others in the Cycle, are drawn from Celtic mythology. Orddu and her mother Orwen are mentioned in the Mabinogion, specifically (again) in the Tale of Kilhwch and Olwen. It has been suggested that the description and disturbingly omnivorous tastes of the third witch, Orgoch, reveal a connection to the Irish Morrigu, who is herself sometimes portrayed as a triple goddess (Lane 27).
It would be possible to fill many pages with a detailed exegesis of the sources for all of Alexander’s careful borrowings (and indeed, this is partly what Michael Tunnell’s book The Prydain Companion attempts), but in the interests of brevity, I will leave further explorations for the reader. Instead, I will conclude by looking at Alexander’s own words for the effect this borrowing creates: “ancient source materials became transformed into a world whose mythological roots are recognizable yet elaborated into something highly personal and qualitatively different” (Foreword, The Prydain Companion). His meticulously thought-out adaptation of mythological elements allows Alexander to frame a story for young people (of all ages). Even though young readers may not fully appreciate the depth of Alexander’s research, his personal attachment to Wales, or the larger currents of mythology running through the Cycle, this is rather beside the point. All of these things work together to provide a vivid and compelling backdrop to more effectively convey his own stories with their many lessons in morality, loyalty, sacrifice, and love. And this, in part, explains their enduring popularity.
First, though, some history, which is well known to Polish audiences of Wajda’s film, but perhaps less familiar to others. Katyń is the name of a forest near Smolensk in western Russia, one of the locations where over 20,000 Polish military officers and other Polish prisoners of war were executed by the NKVD, the Soviet internal security police, in the spring of 1940. The Polish prisoners had been captured by the Soviets in September 1939 when the Soviet army invaded Poland from the east, according to the agreed upon plan between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, who were then allies. In April 1940, the Soviets began the systematic massacre of the Polish prisoners, who were executed, one by one, with a gunshot to the back of the head. The killing took place non-stop, day after day (except for the May Day holiday), until 20,000 men lay buried in mass graves in the Katyń forest and other secret locations in western Russia. The Nazis discovered the Katyń graves in April 1943 and exploited the Soviet crime for their own propaganda purposes (by then the Nazis and Soviets had dissolved their non-aggression pact and were at war with one another). When the Soviet Army finally drove the Nazis out of the Katyń area in September 1943, the Soviet government then launched a counter-propaganda campaign, proclaiming that the Nazis had been responsible for the massacre, which they claimed had not taken place in 1940, but in 1941, when the area had been under German occupation. The Soviets maintained their innocence for fifty years, until April 1990, when the government of Mikhail Gorbachev expressed official regret for the massacre and acknowledged that the executions had been carried out in 1940 by the NKVD.
The great Polish film director Andrezj Wajda, whose own father died at Katyń, has now made a film about the event — or, rather, as he explains in an interview, about two events: his subject is both the crime of the Katyń massacre, and also the lies that were told about it by the Soviet authorities. At the same time that Wajda has created a film whose central theme is the tension between lies and truth in history, he has also created a work of art, a fiction — not a documentary. The incidents in the film were all taken from memoirs and personal recollections of the events at the time, but the characters of the film are fictional. The film weaves together the story of a general (two generals, as well as a naval admiral, were actually executed at Katyń) and three other military officers, along with the stories of their mothers, wives, sisters, and daughters. It is these women, in fact, who are the main focus of the film, and this reflects Wajda’s personal experience. What Wajda first knew about Katyń was the effect he saw on his own mother, and the suffering she endured.
It is the tragedy of the mourning women, in fact, which prompts Wajda to weave a mythological motif into the film: the ancient Greek myth of Antigone. As the story is told in Sophocles’s play, Antigone’s brothers, Eteocles and Polyneices, had been killed in the civil war of the city of Thebes, contending for the throne that had once belonged to their father Oedipus. Their uncle, Creon, who is now the king, decrees that Eteocles will be honored but Polyneices will be left as carrion on the battlefield. Although Ismene, Antigone’s sister, begs her to obey the law, Antigone rejects her pleas and defies Creon by performing a symbolic burial of her brother. Creon then condemns Antigone to be buried alive.
Wajda sees a parallel here between the defiant Antigone and the women of Poland who defied the Soviet authorities in honoring their dead husbands and in telling the true story of their deaths. There are various ways in which the women in the film are shown defying the authorities, but the most dramatic story is that of a woman, Agnieszka, who wants to erect a tombstone for her brother, whose name was on the list of the dead at Katyń. She has the tombstone inscribed with the date April 1940, even though her sister Irena begs her not to do so. But when Agnieszka takes the tombstone to have it placed in the church, the church officials turn her away. Then, when she takes the tombstone to the family grave at a cemetery, the police arrest her and smash the tombstone. Why? Because of the date Agnieszka has had inscribed on the tombstone: 1940. If the executions took place in 1940, it was a Soviet crime, as Katyń was under Soviet occupation at that time. If it took place in 1941, it was a Nazi crime, under the German occupation of western Russia. All Agnieszka had to do was to remove the date from the tombstone, or to put the date 1941 instead. She refused, and chose the truth instead. Like Antigone, she is buried alive; the last time we see her, she is in prison, descending the steps leading down into her cell.
Of course, making mythological allusions is a risky business in any form of art, so Wajda makes sure we recognize the connection between Antigone and Agnieszka by weaving Sophocles’s play Antigone into the plot of the film. To pay for her brother’s tombstone, Agnieszka sells her hair to the theater in Krakow so that it can be made into a wig. An actress at the theater explains that the German actresses had taken all the wigs away with them when they evacuated the city. The actress needs a wig because her own hair was shaved off in the Auschwitz concentration camp (located just thirty miles from Krakow). As the hairdresser is cutting off Agnieszka’s hair, the actress recites some lines from the role she will play — but still without any mention of the name Antigone. She speaks about someone who has lost the will to live after her brother has died, a woman who has gone mad in a world filled with evil. Wajda is giving us one clue after another, provoking us to see the myth in the history. Finally, just in case we did not detect Antigone in the actress’s recitation of her lines, the myth is revealed unmistakably in the next scene: when Agnieszka collects the money for her hair at the ticket window, there is a large poster advertising the play, with the name “Antygona” prominently displayed in very large letters, plain for all to see.
This story of a tombstone, in a different form, took place in Wajda’s own life, many years after the war. In defiance of the authorities, Wajda dared to inscribe his father’s tombstone with the date 1940, as he explains in the interview accompanying the film: “The date was what mattered” (“Data była ważna”). The date on a tombstone is the historical fact that connects the story of Wajda’s own life with the fictional character of Agnieszka in the film, and with the ancient Greek myth of Antigone.
Thus, not only does Wajda expose the lies of the Katyń coverup, he also gives the story a mythological dimension. The tragedy of Antigone becomes the tragedy of every mother, wife, and child of the Katyń victims, women like Wajda’s own mother, women who could not honor their dead and who could not name their executioners. Unlike the Soviet lies that pretended to be the historical truth when they were not, Wajda uses both the power of fiction and the power of myth to tell, at last, a true story of Katyń.
[Editor's Note: The first part of this interview appeared in a previous issue as A Science Fiction Primer. The conversation below is a continuation of that interview.]
Randy Hoyt: What first got you involved in Native American studies?
Amy H. Sturgis: The Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma is part of my family heritage on both sides, and my parents made sure that I was educated with that cultural awareness. I grew up in Tulsa and Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, and so from my earliest memories onward, I felt the influence of “Indian Country.” When I was at Vanderbilt University working on my Ph. D. in history (with an emphasis in intellectual history), I was particularly interested in constitutional studies. Most of the work in Native American studies at the time was related to social and cultural topics, not intellectual and constitutional ones. I ended up writing an in-depth analysis of the evolution of Cherokee constitutional thought for my dissertation. I found that taking these two disciplines (constitutional studies and intellectual history) and applying their analytical tools to the subject matter of Native American studies yielded some fruitful and fascinating results.
Of course, this put my work a bit outside of the mainstream work done by scholars in Native American studies and in constitutional studies: neither group seemed much interested in the work of the other, and I thought both had missed out on some valuable insights. That was the beginning step for me in bringing he Native American heritage that had always been a part of my personal life forward into my professional life in a conscious and intentional way. I ended up passing the foreign language competency exam for my Ph.D. not in French (which I’d studied in high school) or Russian (which I’d studied in college), but in Cherokee. I have since gone on to write investigative pieces and current policy work about Native America, as well, so my focus is no longer simply historical.
RH: The two books you have published in Native American studies both related to events from the first half of the nineteenth century, a biography of Tecumseh (who died in 1813) and a book on the forced removal of the Cherokee Nation from Georgia (the “Trail of Tears” in 1838-1839). I noticed that these dates correspond roughly to the beginning of modern science fiction we discussed previously. Is there any relationship or connection between these events?
AHS: Needless to say, this is an era that draws my attention and enthusiasm for many reasons. The connections between the two areas are interesting to consider. Tecumseh is a figure I find to be remarkable. He was the Shawnee leader responsible for the largest pan-tribal confederacy in the history of Native America, and he was one of the visionaries most responsible for challenging the peoples of the different Native nations to start thinking of themselves as American Indian instead of solely Osage or Potawatomi or Creek. Even before he was tragically killed in the War of 1812, he had become a figure of mythic proportions. He was described as a kind of King Arthur figure among his people, and their British allies drew on some very rich mythological language to describe him to their compatriots across the ocean. A number of Native American writers in the late twentieth century wrote alternate histories about what would have happened if Tecumseh had survived: it is interesting to see political scholars such as Vine Deloria writing essentially what is science fiction to talk about this great leader who was legendary even in his own age.
In Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), perhaps the leading contender for being the first modern work of science fiction, Frankenstein’s creature is out in the wild, living on his own and educating himself by eavesdropping on a family living out in the woods. When he hears about the plight of the American Indians, Shelley emphasizes that Frankenstein’s shunned, isolated, and mistreated creature — surely miserable in his own right — weeps for them. So even at the very beginning of the genre, science-fiction authors commented on the state of Native America. Throughout the nineteenth century, starting with the Indian Removal Act and the Trail of Trails, one Native American nation after another was displaced from their original lands. By the time of H.G. Wells’s work and the beginning of what would become a golden era in science fiction early in the twentieth century, there’s a period of tremendous upheaval as the Native American nations were managed — or, more to the point, manhandled — by the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the United States Government.
As science fiction was coming into its own, Native America was being dismantled in a systematic, military fashion. Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles (1950) reflects on those events, using Mars as a metaphor for North America. Some of the characters in the novel consciously identify what happened to the Martians with the de-population of Native America, and these characters begin to understand what is being lost only after it is too late for anything to be done. This has been an ongoing theme throughout science fiction, and a number of works engage it. One of my favorite contemporary science-fiction novels, Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow (1996), also discusses these events using the metaphor of interspecies contact with life on another planet. It is a remarkable consideration of who is to blame when everything goes wrong and tragedy unfolds — as it did following the Columbian encounter with Native America.
RH: Do we have any evidence of how Native American myths and legends adapted or changed during this time?
AHS: It varies depending on the nation and the stories, but to a degree we can chart some differences and note how evolutions and adaptations unfolded in the act storytelling, especially across Native nations. There are surviving oral traditions that explain, for example, the genesis of the Great Law of Peace (which is essentially the Constitution of the Iroquois Confederacy), which pre-dated contact with Europeans by quite a good margin; we can see how the origin stories explaining this remarkable compact evolved over time. New stories were told as a result of these events: new legends, for example, arose in the Cherokee Nation during the Trail of Tears. We can date the beginning of these stories and then see how they now permeate Native American literature. It is also interesting to observe how the stories and legends of these two drastically different cultures, Native American and European, in a sense cross-fertilized each other. Some of the Southwestern nations, for example, have Catholic symbolism informing their mythology after contact with the Spanish. Most of the stories were transmitted orally throughout this time period, but in the nations that adopted written languages, we even have a literary snapshot of stories, capturing them at the moment when they were first recorded, and we can track how they have changed — and how they have stayed the same — over the years.
RH: The Mythopoeic Press announced The Intersection of Fantasy and Native America: From H.P. Lovecraft to Leslie Marmon Silko, a book you co-edited with David Oberhelman from Oklahoma State University. What kind of material will readers find in that book?
AHS: I presented a paper in August 2006 as the scholar guest of honor at Mythcon 37 in Norman, Oklahoma. In that talk, I noted that taking the analytical tools from two disciplines (this time fantasy studies and Native American studies) could yield great results when each was applied to the other’s subject matter. Both sides I think are missing out on great opportunities to talk about and share the remarkable — and remarkably similar — literature in their respective fields. In my talk I recommended ways of bringing together those who love fantasy and those who love Native America. The Mythopoeic Press approached me about editing a volume on that topic, using my keynote speech as the first chapter, and the challenge I laid out in it as its guiding theme. We cast a wide net, finding an exciting international group of cross-disciplinary and multi-ethnic scholars to talk about three things:
The final product includes some fascinating contributions from a wide range of able and accessible scholars on authors from H.P. Lovecraft, J.R.R. Tolkien, and J.K. Rowling to Leslie Marmon Silko, Louise Erdrich, and Gerald Vizenor, among others. I think it is a tremendous volume that shows how much scholars and readers in two different traditions can gain from expanding their horizons and bringing all of this rich material into one conversation.
RH: Let me ask about these points, starting with the last one. Many readers will be familiar with the use of other mythological material in works of fantasy. (Jason explored in a previous article, for example, material from Norse, Old English, and Welsh mythological traditions in Alan Garner’s The Weirdstone of Brisingamen.) What fantasy authors have done this same thing with Native American material?
AHS: Not enough have done this, but some have done it well. There’s Orson Scott Card; you have published a series of articles about his Alvin Maker series, in fact. His books take the reader on a journey through an alternate America — and what a place it is to visit with his kind of introspection! I think Card had real insight about how Tecumseh and his movement represented a kind of American myth that had reached legendary proportions in Tecumseh’s own lifetime.
Perhaps my favorite novel along these lines is Neil Gaiman’s American Gods: I think Gaiman did an elegant job of drawing on Native American mythology. Others like Charles de Lint and Michael Bishop also come to mind. One of my favorite authors of speculative fiction, H.P. Lovecraft, actually draws quite a bit on Native American mythology and settings. His short story “The Mound” (published posthumously in 1940) takes place at a real burial mound in Binger, Oklahoma, and a handful of his other stories draw on the richness of the Native American legends. His works are surprisingly well-researched for the amount of information that was available in the early twentieth century.
Many non-Native authors who have drawn on this material have done a spectacular job. Some others, of course, have failed to do justice to their subject matter. But I think the number of authors who incorporate Native America into their fantasies is still too small. Many non-Native authors are simply not aware enough or comfortable enough with Native American mythology — or contemporary Native American ideas — to attempt it yet. Not only could these authors create great works in their own right using this material, but through them many more readers could be introduced to these great tales.
RH: What do you think it takes for non-Native authors to become aware enough and comfortable enough with the legends to be able to incorporate them into their fiction?
AHS: Tolkien’s use of other mythological traditions provides a good example: when he found himself interested in the stories from The Kalevala, he went and taught himself Finnish so he could read it in the original language. He did his homework before he incorporated other people’s myths into his own stories. If authors want to use Native American stories, I think they ought to research these tales to gain an understanding of their history, of their particular origins and context. This does not necessarily mean learning a Native American language (although that is an excellent place to start); there are fantastic oral history collections available for listening, and there are fantastic anthologies and collections of these stories available. It is not asking much for people today do the research to find accounts as close to the original as possible.
Moreover, Native America is alive and well today, and many of the contemporary settings and stories of modern American Indians provide rich sources for writers, regardless of their own ethnic backgrounds.
There is a great debate about who has the right to draw on Native American traditional material, about who is authentic and what is credible. These questions for the most part disturb me. We do see mythology incorporated into fiction badly and disrespectfully, but I do not believe the solution is to prevent non-Native authors from accessing and being inspired by this material. The authors who use Native American traditions without doing even the most basic research, drawing instead on inaccurate stereotypes, have failed as artists, I would say. It seems to work out that the non-Native authors who are sensitive, inquisitive, and respectful of these stories and traditions also end up creating beautiful and lasting art.
RH: You mentioned that the book also contains material on Native American authors incorporating their own mythological traditions into their fantasy stories.
AHS: Yes. Some of these Native authors produce works that are clearly fantasy by anyone’s definition: Drew Hayden Taylor and Daniel Heath Justice are two excellent (and recommended) examples. Others write books often considered to be “magical realism” or simply “Native American literature.” This again raises the discussion about how to classify works, which I mentioned last time regarding what counts as “science fiction”: these are games with which the critics and scholars are more concerned than the fans and the practitioners. My concern is that many readers who love fantasy literature never discover some of the great Native authors, because these writers’ publications are labeled and pigeonholed due to the artists’ ethnicity. It is my hope that our book will help to introduce fantasy lovers to great Native writers. Leslie Marmon Silko, Louise Erdrich, and Gerald Vizenor, for example, write works that incorporate elements of fantasy. (Gerald Vizenor, incidentally, also has written what I would consider a great work of Native American science fiction.) Some of these authors, such as Louise Erdrich, are gaining national and international reputations as “literary” authors: Silko’s works are taught in a number of universities and even high schools already, although usually in the context of Native American studies.
RH: After readers finish your book, what anthologies or sources would you recommend next for information about Native American myths and legends? Is there one particular book that provides a good overview of all the material available?
AHS: There’s not one perfect text out there as a good starting point. There are actually a lot of good collections, but none have put themselves head and shoulders above the others. I think anything by Joseph Bruchac would be a good first stop; he compiles and re-tells Native American myths in his books in a really compelling way. Another good source is the anthropologist James Mooney, who has a series of books written around the beginning of the twentieth century. He was compiling folklore from firsthand accounts, essentially writing down the oral history while it was still there. Mooney’s collections provide a great ethnographic perspective; I would recommend his work from a historical point of view and Bruchac’s work from a literary one. I like Lawana Trout’s Native American Literature: An Anthology as an introduction to Native stories both traditional and contemporary.
Recently I was pleased to be brought in as a scholarly consultant on Virginia Schomp’s 2008 book The Native Americans, which is part of the Marshall Cavendish Myths of the World series for younger readers. Schomp identifies the origin and context of each of the tales she relates and includes stories from the width and breadth of North America. Books such as this one give me hope that children of many backgrounds will be exposed to the delights and fascination of Native mythology; hopefully this first taste will lead to a lifelong appetite.
RH: What are your overall aspirations for the book? What do you hope the book will accomplish?
AHS: I hope that the book will help fantasy lovers to discover Native authors. I hope that it will help Native writers who write fantasy literature to be welcomed to the table of fantasy artists and studied by scholars of the genre. I also hope it will help non-Native American writers to feel invited to mine the wealth of Native American mythology to create new stories. But I suppose my main hope is that readers who love any of this material — whether it is Native American fiction or fantasy or mythology — will come away from the book with titles they want to read; I think it is a tragedy that works get pigeonholed in a certain genre or category in such a way that they do not reach readers who will appreciate them and benefit from their messages.
I have included links to all the books Amy recommended during the interview below. You can learn more about Amy’s work by visiting her web site, amyhsturgis.com. She is currently working on what sounds like an exciting new book, The Gothic Imaginations of J.R.R. Tolkien, Madeleine L’Engle, and J.K. Rowling, for publication with Zossima Press in 2010.
[Editor's Note: The first part of this interview appeared in a previous issue as A Science Fiction Primer. The conversation above is a continuation of that interview.]
First, however, let’s review that spectrum of interpretation. In the traditional Greek fable, which I discussed in the first article in this series, the lion is a dangerous and greedy character who takes everything, or almost everything, for himself. The moral is that someone who partners with a lion will end up empty-handed as a result. This anti-authoritarian message is turned upside-down by the Islamic poet Rumi, as I discussed in that first article. For Rumi, the lion is a symbol of God, whose awesome power demands total obedience. The “lion’s share” is not a symbol of injustice or exploitation, but is an allegory of the spiritual gulf dividing the Creator from his creation. The medieval Christian preacher Odo of Cheriton, whom I discussed in the second article in this series, likewise interprets the “lion’s share” as an allegory of God’s divine justice and obedience to authority. This variety of interpretation is a key element in the fables’ longevity, allowing storytellers in different ages and cultures to adapt the stories to their own worlds.
The question of divine and secular authority was central to the 17th-century world of Sir Roger L’Estrange. Born in 1616 during the reign of King James I, L’Estrange took the side of James’s son, King Charles I, in the English Civil War, defending the king’s divine right to rule. The young L’Estrange was sentenced to death in 1644 for his participation in a conspiracy in support of the king, although he was finally pardoned by Oliver Cromwell in 1653. In 1663, following the restoration of the monarchy with the reign of Charles II, L’Estrange became a journalist and eventually a member of Parliament. His massive collection of 500 Aesop’s fables, in which each fable is accompanied by a lengthy “reflection,” was published in 1692, near the close of L’Estrange’s long public career. The choice of subject matter is no surprise. Just as Aesop’s fables had played a part in the turbulent political discourse of ancient Greece and Rome, they were also a regular feature of early modern English politics (Annabel Patterson’s Fables of Power: Aesopian Writing and Political History). While some writers discovered populist morals in the fables, L’Estrange was an ardent monarchist, as Patterson explains:
[L'Estrange] pinned [each fable] down securely with an authoritarian gloss, [ ] repeating over and overagain the same political doctrine: the subject’s duty of obedience, the fickleness of the mob, the dangers of giving the people the gost of a voice in the way they shall be governed. (141)
The “subject’s duty of obedience” is indeed what we find in L’Estrange’s presentation of the fable of the lion’s share, where the lion embodies an absolute secular authority which must be obeyed at all costs:
There was a Hunting-Match agreed upon betwixt a Lion, an Ass, and a Fox, and they were to go Equal Shares in the Booty. They ran down a Brave Stag, and the Ass was to Divide the Prey; which he did very Honestly and Innocently into Three Equal Parts, and left the Lion to take his Choice: Who never Minded the Divident; but in a Rage Worry’d the Ass, and then bad the Fox Divide; who had the Wit to make Only One Share of the Whole, saving a Miserable Pittance that he Reserv’d for Himself. The Lion highly approv’d of his Way of Distribution; but Prethee Reynard, says he, who thee to Carve? Why truly says the Fox, I had an Ass to my Master; and it was His Folly made me Wise.
THE MORAL. There must be no Shares in Sovereignty.
For L’Estrange, this lion is a symbol of the sovereign monarch, and there must be “no Shares in Sovereignty” – in other words, the exorbitant share of the lion king is exactly what the lion deserves. Yet as L’Estrange himself admits in the reflection added to the moral, “This Fable is diffidently Moralliz’d Elsewhere.” This “elsewhere” includes L’Estrange’s own collection of fables, where he tells the story of the lion’s share a second time, and with a quite different slant. This other version does not endorse the absolute authority of the lion king, but instead provides a cautionary moral, which warns you to beware of men more powerful than yourself:
A Lion, an Ass, and some other of their Fellow-Foresters, went a hunting one day; and every one to go share and share-like in what they took. They pluck’d down a Stag, and cut him into so many Parts; but as they were entring upon the dividend, Hands off, says the Lion, This Part is mine by the Privilege of my Quality; this, because I’ll have it in spite of your teeth; this again, because I took most pains for’t; and if you dispute the fourth, we must e’en pluck a Crow about it. So the Confederates Mouths were all stopt, and they went away as mute as Fishes.
THE MORAL. There’s no entring into Leagues or Partnerships with those that are either too powerful, or too crafty for us. He that has the Staff in his Hand will be his own Carver.
In this version of the story, L’Estrange does not insist that authority should be obeyed, but instead that it should be avoided. Instead of interpreting the lion as an emblem of royal sovereignity, this time L’Estrange characterizes this lion as “too powerful” and “too crafty,” a “carver” rather than a king. Notice, too, that the plot is slightly different. Instead of the Greek version of the story which features the witty repartee of the lion and the fox, this version, derived from the Roman poet Phaedrus, keeps the lion’s companions in total silence. Confronted by the brute force of the lion’s power, the other animals can say nothing at all. It’s still a story of the “lion’s share,” but this time the lion’s share is a symbol of coercion and exploitation, and no longer the divine right of kings.
Working with these different versions of the fables, L’Estrange embraced the task of moralizing the stories for his own political purposes, just as the politicians of ancient Greece and Rome had done in their time. Yet if you want to find L’Estrange’s wonderful book of fables in a bookstore today, you will have no luck in the History or Politics section. Instead, you must go to the Children’s section, which is where Aesop’s fables have been consigned in our own day and time. Enshrined in the Everyman’s Library of Children’s Classics published by Knopf, you will indeed find a modern edition of L’Estrange’s fables, beautifully illustrated, and with his explosive 17th-century prose intact. It’s my favorite of all the English translations of Aesop’s fables, but surely not 21st-century children’s fare.
Meanwhile, keep your ears open for the next time you hear someone use the phrase “the lion’s share.” It’s still a very common English phrase, although most people no longer know the fable that it comes from. Consider the context in which the phrase is used, and ask yourself which side of the spectrum it has landed. Is “the lion’s share” being used to symbolize something natural and right, the large proportion necessarily due to someone who is the king of the beasts…? Or is it instead something unfair and exorbitant, the share that is wrongly taken by force…? You might even engage in a bit of fable revival, and tell your own version of the story about what happened when the lion went hunting in partnership with the other beasts.
[Editor's Note: All the photographs in this article were taken by the author while on the tour.]
Of all the famous monuments in England, the enormous stone ring on Salisbury Plain known as Stonehenge stands out in nearly everyone’s imagination.
Stonehenge is still a mystery: while there are any number of books offering explanations, few of them agree. Many of these modern explanations associate the alignment of the stones with the rising and setting of the sun and moon, describing Stonehenge as a kind of solar and lunar calendar; John North, in his book Stonehenge, suggests that the stones are also aligned with the rising and setting of different stars and constellations at different times of year. In early Arthurian tales, the blue stones of Salisbury were described as a stone circle transported from Wales and erected in their proper arrangement by Merlin. The connection between Stonehenge and the stars may have played a part in connecting Merlin with the power of fate: in the Middle Ages, it was a common belief that the stars predicted or determined the fates of men.
Of course, Stonehenge has been around far too long for any historical Arthurian association. It is worth considering, though, why such an association exists in the tales. Did the stone circle bring to mind thoughts of a round table? Did the blue stones, which appear to have come from Wales, trigger associations with Merlin whose legendary birthplace was also in Wales? Landscapes shape stories told by the storytellers in particular regions, and the stones at Stonehenge loom incredibly large on the landscape. It is hard to imagine them not being incorporated into the stories — particularly in a culture more mythos-minded than our own. (It is interesting to note that in the 1800s, in a much more materialistic and logos-minded culture, Stonehenge was known as “that great eyesore on Salisbury Plain.”)
The stories say that Uther Pendragon united all of England under one crown; they also say that he was undone by his lust for Ygraine, the wife of the Duke of Cornwall. Ygraine was beautiful, and Uther desired her. Uther had Merlin disguise him as Ygraine’s husband so that he could lie with her. In Geoffrey of Monmouth’s account in History of the Kings of Britain (written in the twelfth century) Uther killed the duke, made Ygraine his queen, and the two ruled as equals. But their bliss did not last: England was again divided after Uther’s betrayal of Cornwall. In some stories, Uther promised to give the child of their union to Merlin. After the collapse of the kingdom, that child (Arthur) grew up without knowing his royal ancestry.
Tintagel Castle was a seat of power in Cornwall in the 1200s, when Richard Earl of Cornwall built the castle whose ruins still stand. This castle in Cornwall is the traditional birthplace of Arthur. The castle itself would have been difficult for Uther to besiege, with only a thin bridge of land connecting it to the rest of the mainland. In the legends, this made it necessary for Merlin to use magic in order for Uther to achieve his goal. But the connection between Arthur’s birth and Cornwall may be much older than Tintagel Castle. Tradition identifies Cornwall as a seat of power much earlier. Archeological evidence shows trade between Cornwall and the Mediterranean occurred in the fifth century, suggesting there was an important settlement there during the time of Riothamus.
Below the great heights of Tintagel Castle is a system of caves. One of the caves, known as Merlin’s Cave, pierces through the land bridge.
More of a tunnel than a true cave, Merlin’s Cave is what modern psychologists or anthropologists might describe as a “liminal space,” a threshold place of in-between or transition. At high tide, the cave is unreachable by foot: water churns through it from both sides. According to locals, the rip tides below Tintagel make swimming in the area dangerous. At low tide, the water recedes, making the cave quite accessible to anyone who wishes to visit. The cave certainly has a numinous or magical feel about it.
There are no legends, as far as I know, that explain why the cave is named after Merlin. In the legends Merlin would have had a place to practice his magic at Camelot when Arthur was king, so it seems he would have had no reason to use this site. But even without any literary evidence, given Merlin’s association with both Arthur’s birth and with magic, it makes sense for such a place to be named in his honor. Did storytellers imagine he used the cave, with its connection to the tides and the moon, to enhance his magic? Or might they have speculated that the proximity to such a liminal space allowed his magic to form in the first place? Perhaps.
This natural landscape formation near Tintagel once served, according to local folklore, as a plaything for the child Arthur.
How would a baby play with something as large as a rocky cliff, you ask? In some early stories, Arthur was actually born a giant. Only later did he shrink to normal size and became a normal child with a great destiny ahead of him. (Cornwall is actually full of tales of giants. Saint Michael’s Mount, just off of Penzance, is known as the home of the last giant in England: he was eventually killed by Jack the Giant Slayer. In many of the Arthurian stories, Arthur and his men fought off a number of giants in both England and France.)
Near Tintagel is a beautiful glen that features a waterfall with a straight drop of forty feet. After its initial fall, it cascades through a natural hole in a rock wall before plunging another ten feet into a shallow pool.
St. Nectan is said to have settled here around 500 CE, but other stories say that Arthur knighted the members of his Round Table here, plunging them into the water at the falls and sending them through the hole and into the pool below. This was the sign of their rebirth — they were no longer men, but knights. It was from St. Nectan’s Glen that the knights were said to have received their blessing and left on their quest for the Holy Grail. St. Nectan’s Glen and Hermitage still serves as a destination for pilgrims today, in part because the waters there are reputed to have healing powers. They’re also said to be haunted, either by fairies or ghosts.
Though not a site of ancient history, King Arthur’s Hall is a place that honors Arthur and the chivalry found in the stories.
The Hall was built by businessman Frederick Thomas Glasscock in the early 1930s. He founded an organization called the Fellowship of the Knights of the Round Table of King Arthur, based on the symbolism and ideas in the Arthurian romances. The Hall itself was opened to the public in 1933. It gives visitors a journey from the darkness of Camelot at one end of the Great Hall, to the redemption of Camelot at the opposite end. There are seventy-two stained glass windows that show the story of the rise and fall of King Arthur. (Randy has discussed stained-glass windows connected to narratives in his previous article Myth Beyond Words.)
From Cornwall, our group returned to Somerset. Some of the best Arthurian archaeology has been performed there since the 1970s, including the excavation of the hill fort Cadbury Castle (from which Riothamus may have once ruled) and the site of Arthur’s grave. I’ll talk about those in an upcoming issue!
In 1968 Ursula K. LeGuin published The Wizard of Earthsea, the first volume in the Earthsea trilogy, followed by The Tombs of Atuan in 1971 and The Farthest Shore in 1972. Although Le Guin has since returned to the land of Earthsea in other writings, the trilogy focuses on the central character, a wizard named Ged, whose exploits unfold in a series of confrontations between the land of the living and of the dead. In the first volume, the young Ged uses a forbidden spell to summon a spirit from the land of the dead. Another wizard exerts all his power to send the spirit back. As that wizard then lies dying, we glimpse his journey from life into death:
The death of a great mage, who has many times in his life walked on the dry steep hillsides of death’s kingdom, is a strange matter: for the dying man goes not blindly, but surely, knowing the way. (63)
We learn more about “the hillsides of death’s kingdom” when Ged later attempts to heal a dying child. His spirit follows the child’s spirit, “running fast and far ahead of him down a dark slope, the side of some vast hill.” Ged realizes he has come too far, and he struggles up the hill and over the low wall that divides life and death:
Either he must go down the hill into the desert lands and lightless cities of the dead, or he must step across the wall back into life. (81)
Ged returns into life, but he will indeed later go down into those lightless cities, in The Farthest Shore, third novel in the trilogy.
As The Farthest Shore begins, Earthsea is stricken by a strange disaster. Magicians no longer remember their spells, singers no longer remember their songs, and there is gloom and madness everywhere. It turns out that a wizard named Cob, seeking immortality, has opened up a breach between the world of the living and the dead so that he can freely pass back and forth, never dying. The hole he has created is sucking out the forces of life itself which power the wizards’ spells and and inspire the singers’ songs. It is up to Ged, now the greatest wizard of his age, to find Cob and close the breach.
On his journey Ged is accompanied by a boy, Arren, whose presence fulfills an ancient prophecy. For centuries, the throne of the King of Earthsea had been empty, awaiting the one “who has crossed the dark land living and come to the far shores of the day” (17). These “far shores of the day” by which Ged and Arren reach the land of the dead — and which give the novel its title — lie at the western edge of the world, on the island of Selidor, a “beautiful and desolate place” (158), where there are no homes of men or of animals. As Ged and Arren walk the island of Selidor, looking for Cob, the desolation of the place prompts Arren to exclaim that Selidor is “as dead as the land of death itself” (165). Ged swiftly corrects him:
Look at this land; look about you. [ ] The hills with living grass on them, and the streams of water running . . . rising cold out of the earth where no eyes sees it, running through the sunlight and darkenss to the sea. (165)
In contrast to the springs of the living land, the land of the dead will be a dry place, unwatered by the streams of being.
Ged and Arren follow Cob into the land of the dead, descending the sloping hillside, and crossing over the wall, going farther than Ged had gone in pursuit of the dying child long ago. They enter the cities of the dead:
The marketplaces were all empty. There was no buying and selling there, no gaining and spending. Nothing was used; nothing was made. (172)
The dead show no signs of their dying or their death: “quiet were their faces, freed from anger and desire, and there was in their shadowed eyes no hope” (173). There is no song or any other craft in the realm of the dead, and those who loved each other in life do not know each other now.
Leaving behind the cities, Ged and Arren then follow the Dry River, which runs beneath the Mountains of Pain, until they find the door that Cob has opened between the worlds, which is at the dry spring of that dry river, the “mouth of dust, the place where a dead soul, crrawling into earth and darkness was born again, dead” (183). Using all his magic powers, Ged closes the door. Ged and Arren lack the strength to go back to the low wall on the hillside, so they must try to climb over the mountains themselves. When Ged collapses, Arren picks him up and carries him towards the summit. From that summit, he sees the shore of that westernmost island, Selidor, where they had left their bodies behind to make this journey among the dead. Arren then awakes, but Ged’s spirit has still not returned to his body. The journey had been a dream, but it was none the less real for having been a dream: Arren’s thirst is that of someone who had been a long time in the dry land. After a while, Ged too finally awakens, and they travel back to the inner islands of Earthsea, and to the royal island of Havnor, where Arren is crowned king, having fulfilled the ancient prophecy.
Ged and Arren have brought nothing and no one out of the kingdom of the dead, only themselves — but they did close the gap in the world, so that the springs of life are no longer flowing out of Earthsea. In LeGuin’s imaginary world, the land of the living and the land of the dead must be kept separate. Death is something to be feared, indeed, but the land of the dead is not a place of punishment; rather, it is part of the natural balance of the world, the balance of light and dark, of water and dust, of waking and sleeping. This hero’s journey has won Arren a kingdom, but we also see the toll paid on such a journey, as Ged has lost his powers of magic. Ged had suspected this would be the price he would pay for having long ago used a forbidden spell to summon one of the dead into the land of the living. That was the terrible mistake he had made as a “Wizard of Earthsea,” and only by making this journey beyond “The Farthest Shore” was he able to set things right again, at last.
The Biblical basis for the story is scanty indeed. The descent of Jesus into the underworld forms part of the ancient Apostles’ Creed, where Jesus is said to have “gone down to those beneath” (Latin, descendit ad ínferos). There is a Biblical echo of this statement in Ephesians 4:9: “he descended into the lower parts of the earth” (Latin Vulgate, descendit in inferiores partes terrae). The Latin adjective inferus simply means “lower, below, underneath,” as you can see in the English word “inferior.” Yet in ancient Roman culture, the “underneath world” was already regarded as the abode of the dead, so that the plural form of the adjective, inferi, often stood simply for “the dead.” In English, this same Latin root even gives us the word “inferno,” which has lost its sense of “below,” and instead now refers to any kind of terrible “fire,” not limited to the fires of hell.
The fullest written account of the “Harrowing of Hell” is not found in the Bible, however, but in the non-canonical Gospel of Nicodemus, a text which probably dates back in some form to around the 3rd century or even earlier. Here we read how Jesus, after his crucifixion, descended into hell and brought salvation to the souls of the dead who were prisoners there. The story begins with a dialogue between Hades and Satan, who have heard word that Jesus is coming, which prompts a debate about the power of Jesus. Hades is afraid, because he has heard of the miracles Jesus has performed on earth. Satan, on the other hand, has heard that Jesus was crucified as a common criminal; he is certain that they will be able to bind and subdue Jesus when he arrives in their realm.
When Jesus arrives, Hades bids his servants to bolt and lock the doors, but to no avail; Jesus shatters the gates and enters. He seizes Satan and binds him in iron chains, then consigning him into Hades’s keeping until the second coming. Jesus next turns his attention to the patriarchs. He raises up Adam, along with all the prophets and the saints. Together, they all depart up out of Hades, and ascend into Paradise. (You can read a full account in the Gospel of Nicodemus online.) The “Harrowing of Hell” portion of that Gospel was widely circulated in other compilations of religious literature, most notably in the Golden Legend of the lives of the saints, compiled by Jacob of Voragine in the 13th century.
The literary versions of the “Harrowing of Hell” in turn gave rise to many works of art, including the “mystery play” tradition of medieval religious drama. Most commonly, however, people would learn about Jesus’s descent into the underworld from the artwork which decorated the churches and cathedrals of Europe. In the remainder of this article, I would like to look at ten different visual depictions of the story, to see what details we can observe in each artist’s rendering of the scene.
Let’s start with a modern Orthodox icon. In this very simple depiction, Jesus has broken through the doors to hell which he tramples underfoot (notice the locks all broken asunder), and he rescues Adam and Eve. As often, Adam is shown as an old man, while Eve is young. The traditional name for this scene in the Orthodox tradition is the “Anastasis,” the “Raising Up” as you can see written in the icon itself:
While Adam and Eve are clothed in this icon, they are often shown in the nude, as in this 15th-century wood carving, late 15th century by Veit Stoss from the Mariacki Altarpiece in Cracow, Poland. Notice also here the presence of demons, who are tormenting the dead:
To emphasize that he has only lately been crucified, some depictions emphasize Christ’s wounded hands and feet, as in this 16th-century painting now housed in the Museum of Lille:
While Jesus is often shown trampling the doors to hell underfoot, sometimes he is trampling a demon underfoot, as in this early 14th-century sculpture. Notice also how the scene is paired with the entombment of Christ to the left:
Some depictions combine both the door underfoot and the demon, as in this marvelous piece of 15th-century stained glass in the Church of St. Ethelbert, Hessett, Suffolk. Notice the flames licking out from under the door!
In addition to the demons you might see trampled underfoot or harassing the dead souls, you can also find demons standing off to the side, observing the events, as here in Andrea da Firenze’s famous 14th-century fresco from Santa Maria Novella in Florence, Italy. Here you can see Jesus rescuing a whole crowd of souls from the underworld:
Here is a detailed view of those demons as they watch the proceedings:
Another character who often figures in representations of the harrowing of hell is the “good thief,” Saint Dismas, who was crucified with Jesus. Jesus promises Dismas that “today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). Not surprisingly, then, Dismas is also seen journeying with Jesus down into the underworld on their way to paradise. For example, you can see Dismas standing behind Jesus in this woodcut from 1510 by Albrecht Durer:
If you look carefully behind Adam and Eve, you can see Dismas bearing the cross in this mosaic from the Church of San Marco in Venice:
Sometimes Jesus is also accompanied by angels who battle the demons as he leads the soul out from their captivity, as in this painting by Tintoretto from 1568:
As you can see from the quite attractive nude depiction of Eve in Tintoretto’s painting, the story of the Harrowing of Hell provided Renaissance artists a rare opportunity to paint female nudes in a work of religious art. This is carried to extremes, as you can see, in Bronzino’s elaborate crowd scene, painted in 1552 and found in the Refectory of Santa Croce in Florence:
You will observe a remarkable contrast if you compare Bronzino’s R-rated scene to the extremely modest Orthodox icon with which we began this survey, an admittedly brief survey which only begins to hint at the wide range of iconographic styles in which this story has been depicted. As Jesus makes this underworld journey in the imaginations of these many artists over the centuries, he joins the ranks of heroes such as Orpheus and Heracles who also journeyed into the realms of the dead, breaking down the doors between that world and this one in order to rescue the souls who have been imprisoned on the other side. Although this is a not a story about Jesus that you will read about in the Bible, it is nevertheless a very famous one, as told both in words and, even more importantly, in images.]]>
Orpheus’s failed attempt to rescue Eurydice from the underworld is one of the most popular and moving stories to survive from ancient Greece and Rome. The oldest extant written version of the story is found in Virgil’s Georgics (29 BCE), around four hundred years after the sculpture at Naples was created. In Virgil, Orpheus descends to the underworld and persuades the gods with songs on his lyre. They allow Eurydice to return with him on one condition: he must lead her out of the underworld without looking back himself. At the last moment, as they were nearing the light of day, he looked back — and lost her forever.
Those familiar with this version of the story often identify the scene in the sculpture at Naples with the moment Orpheus turned back. Let’s briefly look at two examples among many occurrences of this, one from an academic and one from a poet. First, archaeology professor Frank Bigelow Tarbell in his A History of Greek Art (1910) writes:
Tenderly, sadly, [Orpheus and Eurydice] look their last at one another, while Hermes, guide of departed spirits, makes gentle signal for the wife’s return. In the chastened pathos of this scene we have the quintessence of the temper of Greek art in dealing with the fact of death. (Tarbell 205)
Second, many authors, artists, and poets have created works drawing on the myth of Orpheus over the centuries. The German poet Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926) provides possibly the most extensive work of this kind in the twentieth century (Segal 118). Rilke most likely saw all three of these sculptures during his lifetime (Freedman 207), and his poem “Orpheus. Eurydice. Hermes” (1904) was probably inspired by viewing the one in Naples (Strauss 172):
[ ] If only he might
turn once more (if looking back
were not the ruin of all his work) [ ]
the quiet pair, mutely following him:
the god of errands and far messages, [ ]
the beating wings at his ankle joints;
and on his left hand, as entrusted: her
[ ] suddenly
the god stopped her and, with anguish in his cry,
uttered the words: ‘He has turned round’ [ ]
For Tarbell, Rilke, and countless others, viewing this sculpture recalled to their minds the myth of Orpheus’s failure to return from Hades with Eurydice to which they had already been introduced. But looking back through what little evidence we have about the myth of Orpheus’s descent to the underworld, it is not at all clear that Orpheus failed in the version of the myth in existence at the time the sculpture was created. Euripides’s play Alcestis (438 BCE), written around the same time that the sculpture at Naples was created, contains the oldest surviving literary evidence concerning the outcome of Orpheus’s descent to the underworld. Admetus makes a passing reference to Orpheus when talking about his own love for his recently-deceased wife Alcestis:
Had I the lips of Orpheus and his melody
to charm the maiden daughter of Demeter and
her lord, and by my singing win you back from death,
I would have gone beneath the earth [ ]
[ ] I would have brought you back
to life. (357f.)
This play does not explicitly state that Orpheus successfully brought his wife back to life: it merely states that Orpheus’s song charmed the gods of the underworld. It does not even mention that he descended to the underworld in order to rescue a woman. Even so, this reference would be horribly out of place if Orpheus had attempted but failed such a rescue. Admetus wished that he could sing like Orpheus so that he could bring his wife back from the dead, and many scholars see this reference as proof that a version of the story in which Orpheus successfully returned would have been familiar to Euripides’s audience (Robbins 16).
Plato mentioned Orpheus in the following century in the dialogue Symposium, his great work in praise of love (written around 360 BCE). Plato had one of his characters criticize Orpheus:
But Orpheus [ ] [the gods] sent empty away, and presented to him an apparition only of her whom he sought, but herself they would not give up, because he [ ] did not dare [ ] to die for love, but was contriving how he might enter Hades alive. (Symposium 179d)
In this version, Orpheus’s descent to the underworld is now clearly associated with an attempt to rescue a woman — though Plato does not give her name. Orpheus’s mission is admittedly a failure, but it seems that Orpheus returned successfully with what the gods gave him (the phantom of his wife). Instead, Orpheus failed to persuade the gods to give him what he sought. This substitution of a phantom for his real wife turns Orpheus’s otherwise-successful return into a failure; this substitution only makes sense as a variant of a version in which Orpheus did successfully return with her.
Around 330 BC, still three hundred years before Virgil, the poet Hermesianax of Colophon wrote three books of elegiac poetry dedicated to his mistress Leontion. Only a fragment of these books survive: one hundred lines or so were quoted in Athenaeus, an author writing in Egypt over five hundred years later. This fragment includes a version of Orpheus’s descent in which Orpheus returned successful. Athenaeus introduces the story with these words: “Hermesianax [ ] gives a catalogue of love affairs in the following manner”:
Armed only with the lyre, [Orpheus] brought back [the Thracian Agriope] from Hades. [ ] Yet Orpheus, though girded for the journey all alone, dared to sound his lyre beside the wave, and he won over the gods of every shape. [ ] By his song, Orpheus persuaded the mighty lords that Agriope should recover the gentle breath of life. (Athenaeus XIII)
The wife of Orpheus in this version of the story finally has a name (Agriope), though it is different than the name to be found in Virgil three hundred years later. Hermesianax celebrated the power of love, citing Orpheus’s successful rescue of his beloved from the underworld as evidence.
These three pieces of evidence show that it is a real possibility that the sculptor of the bas-relief at Naples was not intending to depict a failed attempt by Orpheus to rescue Eurydice from Hades. If this were the case, I would imagine that the sculptor intended to portray the moment of Orpheus’s triumph: still holding his lyre, Hermes brings his wife to him so that he might lead her out of the underworld. It is difficult to say with any certainty, though. While a non-narrative work of art has an undeniably strong connection to its corresponding narrative that evokes powerful resonances and reactions in its viewers, these responses can vary greatly from person to person. The fact that Plato, Hermesianax, and Virgil would all have experienced this same sculpture quite differently reveals just how complicated that connection can be.
This is one of the fascinating aspects of how myths work. Storytellers alter and shape the stories they tell to suit their own purposes: they might change a significant detail they find objectionable, or they might alter some minor details to shift the emphasis. Over time stories grow and evolve as the needs of the storytellers and their audiences change, taking on an organic life of their own. A story might affect an artist (like the fifth-century scultpor of the bas-relief at Naples) in one way, while his work might affect a future storyteller (like Rilke) in a completely different way.
All articles should observe these guidelines:
You can take a look through the archives to get an idea of the kind of articles that I publish. Here are a few possible types of articles that would work (with examples of each of them), but this list is by no means exhaustive:
Do you have a passion for myth and something worthwhile to contribute to the site? Please consider submitting an article.]]>