Archive for the ‘pop culture’ Category

Six Problems with CAOS   1 comment

CAOS — that’s Netflix’s The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, in case you’re blissfully off the grid, out of contact with modern media, and indifferent to fandom’s predilection for abbreviations. Six “problems” — does this mean I won’t or don’t watch it? No. Otherwise, I couldn’t write about it here with anything valid to say. I’m on my second viewing, in fact. I want to like it, and to give it a fair chance. (I’m even holding out very shallow hopes for the Holiday Special tomorrow.) But too many things about it trouble me, and if you’re a sympathetic reader of blogs like this one, at least some of them should trouble you, too.

Come on, I hear you grumble. It’s just a show. OK, don’t waste your time reading this, then. Allow me my occasional rant. Pop culture holds tremendous shaping power over our psyches — it deploys light, sound, imagery, metaphor, archetypes, emotion — a type of magic all its own.

*****SPOILER ALERT*****

1–Let’s start with the show’s name: I can form my own judgments and supply my own adjectives, thank you. Not that there’s much really chilling here. Some stuff in poor taste, yes. Sometimes out of character, inconsistent, aiming for cheap thrills at the expense of story. New Adventures of Sabrina? Fine. Actually descriptive. Sabrina: The Dark Years? Justifiable, and usefully vague. But chilling? It’s not even accurate as irony.

2–High Priest Faustus Blackwood’s pronunciation in Episode 2 of Samhain as “Sam-main”: Really?! Let me grab my athame “ay-thame”! A minute’s Google search, by showrunner or writer, would have avoided that absurd mistake. It’s a known Irish and Pagan word. A smallish detail? Maybe, but representative of a larger sloppiness. The High Priest of the Church of Night can’t get it right? What authority does he deserve to hold? You don’t want to be jerked out of a created, secondary world by careless errors like this. The Norman Conquest … in 1067. Lincoln assassinated … in Chevrolet’s Theater. You get the idea. A small wrongness like that mangles the whole scene, out of all proportion to its size. I don’t know about you, but that predisposes me to distrust future, larger details. I had a long-term substitute high school English teacher who pronounced epitome as “eppy-tome”. Sorry, but some errors are so blatant they deserve to be pilloried.

Click-baity posts like Screenrant.com’s “20 Things Fans Forgot about the Original Teenage Witch” might more aptly be titled “20 Things Producers and Jaded Viewers Simply Don’t Give a Damn About Today”. A better and much more informative read is Indiewire’s guide to all the references, episode by episode. The show actually includes many such references, to the delight of allusion-hunters everywhere. Why be sloppy with such a prominent one as Samhain?

3–The worst stereotypes of medieval witchcraft and magic-as-Satanism: Book of the Beast. Dark baptism. Blood sacrifice. Covens. (And oddly, patriarchy intact. Why no High Priestesses? Witch Queens?) Goth fashion, out of date well over two centuries ago, but continuously retweaked, now for the 21st century. Magic for selfish reasons, not the good of the whole. Treachery. Betrayal. Magic dependent on outside forces, not mirroring energies found within the self. Magic, in a word, as … dark. The stuff of monsters under the bed. Low astral dreams. Bad trips. Christian nightmares, not the universal, world-wide spiritual technology that’s the birthright of all.

original Sabrina

Cast of the original Sabrina, 1996-2003

4–Sabrina, apparently sprung full-grown from Artemis’s brow, second-decade-of-the-21st-century wokeness (mostly) intact. Girl-power rampant, speaking truth to patriarchal school principals and Witch Priests, fighting injustice, moral code pure and untainted — despite an upbringing by her two often clueless and Satanically-bound aunts, one of whom happens to murder the other occasionally. Not the role models that would ever have produced this prodigy. Not the role-models of the original series, who served as mentors to their niece. Despite a sit-com trend fishing for irony or social commentary, with feckless adults raising enlightened children, it hardly ever works out that way. Add actor Kiernan Shipka’s preternatural maturity lending her portrayal of Sabrina a curious post-Puritan moral absoluteness — until it must conveniently fail, whenever the plot requires chilling. See next point.

5–Justice for all — except apparently when memories need purging, or throats need slitting. Sabrina erases her boyfriend Harvey’s memory when it could prove troublesome — though we’re led to believe she really does love him — and in Episode 8 sacrifices Agatha, one of her Academy of Unseen Arts classmates, without hesitation or reflection, by ritually slitting her throat. In Buffy the Vampire Slayer, as in real life, actions have real, fascinating and plot-thickening consequences. Not so, too often, for Sabrina. In some ways that’s the most — well, not chilling — perplexing aspect of the show: cause and effect are often in abeyance. What cosmos is this, anyway?

6–“Magic’s not for Mortals”. But for half-mortals like Sabrina, it’s fine! See John Beckett’s Dec. 2 post, “My Biggest Complaint with Magical Fiction”.  All right: you’ve read my takes on magic in previous posts — no need to rehash them here.

Is anybody disposed to argue on behalf of the show and tell me where and why I’m over-reacting?

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IMAGE: Original Sabrina.

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A Hallowed Evening and a Conquest   Leave a comment

It’s almost here: Halloween, All Hallows Eve, Samhain/Samhuinn, Dia del los Muertos, Day of the Dead.  Whatever you call it, it’s one of the most unusual festivals in the calendar. In this post I want to take a different tack, exploring history at least somewhat removed from the usual Christian-Pagan fireworks that continue to pop off annually around this time. Because the Druid-pleasing answer* to “Is it Christian?” and “Is it Pagan?” is “Yes.” What matters more, I hope, is what that can mean for us today.

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A recent (Tues., Oct 28) issue of the U.K.’s Guardian newspaper features an article on Halloween by British historian Ronald Hutton, who’s well known in Druid circles both for the quality and thorough documentation of his historical work and also his interest in Druidry. Among many other points, Hutton addresses the impression, widespread in Great Britain, that Halloween’s an import from the U.S. It’s not, of course, being instead as English as Monty Python and Earl Grey (and later, as Irish as the Famine, and Bailey’s Irish Cream). Hutton’s observations suggest a connection I’d like to make in this post, in keeping with this time of year. Hence my title, which will become clear in a moment. Just bear with me as I set the stage.

November, rather unimaginatively named “Ninth Month” (Latin novem), was called in Anglo-Saxon Blodmonath, the “blood month” — not for any “evil, nasty and occult” reasons beloved of today’s rabble-rousers, but for the simple fact this was the month for the slaughter of animals and preservation of meat for the coming season of darkness and cold.

Hutton observes that the ancestor to modern Halloween:

… was one of the greatest religious festivals of the ancient northern pagan year, and the obvious question is what rites were celebrated then.

The answer to that is that we have virtually no idea, because northern European pagans were illiterate, and no record remains of their ceremonies. The Anglo-Saxon name for the feast comes down to an agricultural reality, the need to slaughter the surplus livestock at this time and salt down their meat, because they could not be fed through the winter. A Christian monk, Bede, commented that the animals were dedicated to the gods when they were killed, but he did not appear to know how (and they would still have been eaten by people).

Hutton proceeds to examine how we can nevertheless reconstruct something of that time and its practices through careful research. As a Janus-faced holiday, Halloween marked the fullness and completion of the harvest and return home of warriors and travelers — a time to celebrate.  It also marked the coming of the hardest season — winter: cold, dark, often miserable and hungry, and sometimes fatal. People then measured their ages not in years but in winters — how many you’d survived. Hutton eloquently conveys all this — do read his article if you have time.

And because so much of North America bears the imprint of English culture, I want to peer at one particular autumn, and the Hallowed Evening that year, in England 948 years ago.  It’s 1066, a good year at the outset, as historian David Howarth paints it** in his wonderfully readable 1066: The Year of the Conquest. A year, strangely enough, both like and unlike our own experience so many generations later in 2014:

It was not a bad life to be English when the year began: it was the kind of life that many modern people vainly envy. For the most part, it was lived in little villages, and it was almost completely self-sufficient and self-supporting; the only things most villages had to buy or barter were salt and iron. Of course it was a life of endless labour, as any simple life must be, but the labour was rewarded: there was plenty to eat and drink, and plenty of space, and plenty of virgin land for ambitious people to clear and cultivate. And of course the life had sudden alarms and dangers, as human life has had in every age, but they were less frequent than they had ever been: old men remembered the ravages of marauding armies, but for two generations the land had been at peace. Peace had made it prosperous; taxes had been reduced; people had a chance to be a little richer than their forefathers. Even the weather was improving. For a long time, England had been wetter and colder than it normally is, but it was entering a phase which lasted two centuries when the summers were unusually warm and sunny and the winters mild. Crops flourished, and men and cattle throve. Most of the English were still very poor, but most of the comforts they lacked were things they had never heard of.

Howarth’s account continues, vivid in detail; he chooses the small town of Little Horstede near Hastings that dates from Saxon times for his focus, to examine the immediate and later impact of the Norman Conquest.

Harold in the Bayeux tapesty, with a hawk

Harold in the Bayeux tapesty, with a hawk

By early autumn of the year, things still looked promising for the English. True, their king Harold Godwinson, new to the throne just that past January, faced a dispute with the Norman duke William over the succession after the late king Edward passed. But Harold was Edward’s brother-in-law, he apparently had the late king’s deathbed promise of the throne, he was unanimously elected by the Witan (the English council of royal advisers), and he was a crowned and fully invested king as far as the English were concerned.

He was also proving to be a competent leader and warrior. When an invading army of some 7000*** Norwegians under Harald Hardrada and Harold’s exiled brother Tostig landed in the Northeast of England, Harold rode north in force, covering the 180 miles between London and Yorkshire in just four days, meeting and defeating the Norwegians on September 25 in the Battle of Stamfordbridge. The peace that the English had enjoyed was tested, but as word spread of this English victory, you can imagine the relief and the sense that all might well continue as it had for decades now. The rich harvest of 1066 went forward, and plans could proceed for the annual All Hallows celebration.

Swithun (d. 862), bishop, later saint, of Winchester

England was by this time thoroughly Christian (see St. Swithun, left), though folk memories of older practices doubtless persisted, mixed with a fair helping of legend and fantasy and uneven religious instruction from the local priests. The Christian retrofitting of Pagan holidays, holy sites and practices is well documented, and hardly unique to Christianity — the same thing occurs worldwide as religions encounter each other and strive for dominance or co-exist to varying degrees. To name just a few examples, take for instance Roman polytheism and many faiths in the lands of the ancient Empire, with Roman priests adding one more deity statue to the crowd for each new god they encountered, including the current emperor of course (with most peoples acquiescing happily except for those odd Jewish monotheists and their bizarre prohibition against such images!); Buddhism and the emergence of the Bon faith in Tibet; Shinto and Buddhism in Japan; and mutual influence between Islam, Sufism, and older practices like the Yazidi faith in the Middle East.

In his Guardian article on Halloween, Hutton notes:

allsaints-oswiecim

All Saints Day, Oswiecim, Poland

It is commonly asserted that the feast was the pagan festival of the dead. In reality feasts to commemorate the dead, where they can be found in ancient Europe, were celebrated by both pagans and early Christians, between March and May, as part of a spring cleaning to close off grieving and go forth into the new summer. On the other hand, the medieval Catholic church did gradually institute a mighty festival of the dead at this time of year, designating 1 November as the feast of All Saints or All Hallows, initially in honour of the early Christian martyrs, and 2 November as All Souls, on which people could pray for their dead friends and relatives. This was associated with the new doctrine of purgatory, by which most people went not straight to hell or heaven but a place of suffering between, where their sins were purged to fit them for heaven. It was also believed that the prayers of the living could lighten and shorten their trials, as could the intercession of saints (which is why it was good to have all of those at hand). The two new Christian feasts were, however, only developed between the ninth and the twelfth centuries, and started in Germanic not Celtic lands.

Yet all was not peace in England. The triumph that was the Battle of Stamfordbridge proved short-lived. Disturbing rumors kept arriving of William assembling an army of invasion across the English Channel on the shores of Normandy, in fact ever since January when Harold received the crown. The English king began preparations for defense. Yet as the days and months passed, and the good weather for such crossings steadily diminished as all of September and then early October came and went without incident, most people began to relax. England would enjoy a breathing space for this winter at least. Whatever might happen next spring, this late in the year no one chanced the storms, fog and rough water, least of all a large army that would have to arrive by boat.

battlemapYet William and his invasion force did just that. After weeks of bad weather, the wind finally shifted to favor the Norman leader, and he and his men set sail on September 27. When word came to the English king of the Norman landing, with ships and troops on the southern shore of England, king Harold and company rode back south, already weary from one major battle, right into another.

Careful excavation, study of contemporary accounts, and site visits mean that resources like the Eyewitness to History website can give us a portrait like this:

Harold rushed his army south and planted his battle standards atop a knoll some five miles from Hastings. During the early morning of the next day, October 14, Harold’s army watched as a long column of Norman warriors marched to the base of the hill and formed a battle line. Separated by a few hundred yards, the lines of the two armies traded taunts and insults. At a signal, the Norman archers took their position at the front of the line. The English at the top of the hill responded by raising their shields above their heads forming a shield-wall to protect them from the rain of arrows. The battle was joined.

Contemporary accounts record how the two armies fought all day, until Harold was dispatched with an arrow through one eye. Shortly after that, the disabled king was cut down by Norman warriors, and England’s fate turned.

Years later the Bayeux Tapestry commemorated a version of the event. But of course at the time there was no Twitter feed, no broadcast of news minutes after it happened by correspondents on the scene. No Fox News and CNN to digest and sort through the implications according to the politics of the day. Word of the battle and what it might mean would take weeks to spread, rippling northward from the coast where the first battles took place. For much of England, the Hallowed Evening, the All Saints Day of 1066 came and went without change.

At this distance, and without knowing the details, most of us may naturally have the impression Hastings was decisive. King Harold dead, battle won, QED. From there, we assume, William advanced toward London, accepted the grudging fealty of a defeated people, and after maybe quelling a few sparks of resistance or rebellion, took firm control of the throne and nation and ruled for the next 21 years, until his death in 1087.

Except not. True, William was crowned king in Westminster on Christmas Day 1066.  But the following years brought their own troubles for the Norman king. Here’s the Wikipedia version (accessed 10/30/14; endnotes deleted):

Despite the submission of the English nobles, resistance continued for several years. William left control of England in the hands of his half-brother Odo and one of his closest supporters, William FitzOsbern. In 1067 rebels in Kent launched an unsuccessful attack on Dover Castle in combination with Eustace II of Boulogne. The Shropshire landowner Eadric the Wild, in alliance with the Welsh rulers of Gwynedd and Powys, raised a revolt in western Mercia, fighting Norman forces based in Hereford. These events forced William to return to England at the end of 1067. In 1068 William besieged rebels in Exeter, including Harold’s mother Gytha, and after suffering heavy losses managed to negotiate the town’s surrender. In May, William’s wife Matilda was crowned queen at Westminster, an important symbol of William’s growing international stature. Later in the year Edwin and Morcar raised a revolt in Mercia with Welsh assistance, while Gospatric, the newly appointed Earl of Northumbria, led a rising in Northumbria, which had not yet been occupied by the Normans. These rebellions rapidly collapsed as William moved against them, building castles and installing garrisons as he had already done in the south. Edwin and Morcar again submitted, while Gospatric fled to Scotland, as did Edgar the Ætheling and his family, who may have been involved in these revolts. Meanwhile Harold’s sons, who had taken refuge in Ireland, raided Somerset, Devon and Cornwall from the sea.

Pacification, oddly enough, usually involves violence.

Ideologies and politics trouble us this Halloween just as they did 948 years ago, on a misty green island off the continent of western Europe.

Centuries later, as blended Norman and English cultures formed a new unity, the Protestant Reformation which swept much of Great Britain blotted out the doctrine of purgatory and the practice of prayer for saintly intercession. But as Hutton notes, Halloween “survived in its old form in Ireland, both as the Catholic feast of saints and souls and a great seasonal festival, and massive Irish emigration to America in the 19th century took it over there.”

In fact, having made this a citation-heavy post anyway, I’ll give Hutton nearly the last word, which is also his last word in his article:

In the 20th century [Halloween] developed into a national festivity for Americans, retaining the old custom of dressing up to mock powers of dark, cold and death, and a transforming one by which poor people went door to door to beg for food for a feast of their own, morphing again into the children’s one of trick or treat. By the 1980s this was causing some American evangelical Christians to condemn the festival as a glorification of the powers of evil (thus missing all its historical associations), and both the celebrations and condemnations have spilled over to Britain.

On the whole, though, the ancient feast of Winter’s Eve has regained its ancient character, as a dual time of fun and festivity, and of confrontation of the fears and discomforts inherent in life, and embodied especially in northern latitudes by the season of cold and dark.

There’s a worthwhile Conquest. “Is it Pagan?”  “Is it Christian?”  Let’s ask “Is it holy?”

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Images: jack-o-lanterns; Harold on the tapestry; St. Swithunbattle map; All Saints Day, Oswiecim, Poland, 1984.

*Rather than dualities and polar opposites, ternaries and triples permeate Druidry. As J. M. Greer observes,

Can anything as useful be done with the three elements of Iolo’s Druid philosophy, or for that matter with the four medieval or five Chinese elements?

Nwyfre, gwyar, and calas make poor guides to physics or chemistry, to be sure. Their usefulness lies elsewhere. Like other traditional elemental systems, the three Druid elements make sense of patterns throughout the universe of our experience. Tools for thinking, their power lies in their ability to point the mind toward insights and sidestep common mistakes.

Take the habit, almost universal nowadays, of thinking about the universe purely in terms of physical matter and energy. This works fairly well when applied in certain limited fields, but it works very badly when applied to human beings and other living things. Time and again, well-intentioned experts using the best tools science has to offer have tried to tackle problems outside the laboratory and failed abjectly. Rational architecture and urban planning, scientific agriculture and forestry, and innovative schemes for education and social reform often cause many more problems than they solve, and fail to yield the results predicted by theory.

Why? The theoreticians thought only of gwyar and calas, the elements of change and stability, expressed here as energy and matter. They left something out of the equation: nwyfre, the subtle element of life, feeling, and awareness. They forgot that any change they made would cause living things to respond creatively with unpredictable changes of their own.

In every situation, all three elements need to be taken into account. They can be used almost as a checklist. What is the thing you’re considering, what does it do, and what does it mean? What will stay the same, what will change, and what will respond to the change with changes of its own? This sort of thinking is one of the secrets of the Druid elements.

**Howarth, David. 1066: The Year of the Conquest. Penguin Books, 1981, pgs. 11-12.

***A conservative figure — estimates range as high as 9000.

“The Name’s the Thing”   Leave a comment

From a distance, Devil’s Tower National Monument in Wyoming looms over the landscape, prominent against the horizon, but once you enter the park surrounding it, it seems to vanish, only to reappear in fits and starts at first, peeping over colorful hills and cliff faces.

Geologically, we’re told, the tower is properly an igneous intrusion or eroded laccolith, two fun pieces of scientific jargon, technically descriptive, but lacking something nonetheless. And “Devil’s Tower”?  Why should the baddie of Judeo-Christianity get any credit at all for this splendid rock formation?  Let him stick to devilled eggs and devil’s food cake.

Those of us over a certain age may recall the Tower’s appearance as dramatic staging in the final portion of the ’77 Spielberg sci-fi film Close Encounters of the Third Kind, a pop-culture association that now seriously dates us.

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bearlodgeMy wife and I arrived late in the day, which helped throw the tower’s dramatic vertical striations into high relief. A park information kiosk quietly points out that the English name “Devil’s Tower” is comparatively recent. Native names from several different tribes associate the formation with the bear — the Cheyenne, Arapaho, Crow and Lakota all call it some variation of “Bear’s Lodge” or “Bear’s House” and their traditional stories describe bears marking the great stone with their claws.*  (You can read several versions under the section “Native American Folklore” here.)

Both name and thing started shifting for me as I read this: a good name illuminates the thing, and the thing itself lives more brightly and fully under a good name. I can still feel the association “stick” — now a piece at least of that older (and to me more apt) story has become part of this landscape.  Devil’s Tower, yes.  But the “real” name, well, that’s a different matter.  Invoke the place in memory by the older name — in this case a good one — and its naming story comes with it.  Misname something, or someone, and you may not be able to see that thing or person clearly or truthfully.

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Bear’s Lodge, now I pass along a little of your story to others, so they too may enjoy the rightness of a good name.

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*The tower remains a sacred site for several tribes.  “In 2005,” the Wikipedia article notes, “a proposal to recognize several Native American ties through the additional designation of the monolith as Bear Lodge National Historic Landmark” faced political opposition and the argument that a “name change will harm the tourist trade and bring economic hardship to area communities.”

Image:  Bear over Devil’s Tower — park info kiosk.

Geeks, Greeks, Dudes and Druids   Leave a comment

tblSometimes I can contrive nothing better to say or do on this blog than simply pass along something I’ve been reading for its surprise or its insight — or at best, both at once.  (Why begin with an image of Jake, Donny and Walt? Keep reading.  Or call it a Druidic obsession with triads…)

Today’s shamelessly self-indulgent instance of such a something comes from a post on another blog, where I encountered the following passage from The Greek Commonwealth by British scholar, utopian and idealist Alfred Zimmern, first published 1911, and now available online. (It’s also been reprinted at least five times by Oxford, the latest edition I’ve found dating from 1977.  Yes, I spent time tracking that info down.  It’s better than grading the mountain of essays that sit on my desk and desktop. Call it rationalized procrastination.)  In a chapter on poverty, noted the poster, Zimmern “tries to get the reader to imagine, in a poetic passage, the daily life of the Greeks in Classical times.”

Sappho and Alcaeus

Here, then, is Zimmern himself:

We think of the Greeks as pioneers of civilisation and unconsciously credit them with the material blessings and comforts in which we moderns have been taught, and are trying to teach Asiatics and Africans, to think that civilisation consists.

We must imagine houses without drains, beds without sheets or springs, rooms as cold, or as hot, as the open air, only draftier, meals that began and ended with pudding, and cities that could boast neither gentry nor millionaires. We must learn to tell the time without watches, to cross rivers without bridges, and seas without a compass, to fasten our clothes (or rather our two pieces of cloth) with two pins instead of rows of buttons, to wear our shoes or sandals without stockings, to warm ourselves over a pot of ashes, to judge open-air plays or lawsuits on a cold winter’s morning, to study poetry without books, geography without maps, and politics without newspapers. In a word we must learn how to be civilized without being comfortable. Or rather we must learn to enjoy the society of people for whom comfort meant something very different from motor-cars and armchairs, who, although or because they lived plainly and austerely and sat at the table of life without expecting any dessert, saw more of the use and beauty and goodness of the few things which were vouch-safed them – their minds, their bodies and Nature outside and around them.

Greek literature, like the Gospels, is a great protest against the modern view that the really important thing is to be comfortable…

How many Druids would hold this up as an ideal as well, at least at first?  But would — or could — we be as happy? Somehow I can imagine Jake Lebowski (from the Coen brothers’ ’98 film The Big Lebowski) would manage better in such conditions than I would. The Stoner might just beat out the Loner.  “There are things more important than comfort, says fantasy author Ursula LeGuin, “unless one is an old woman or a cat.”  She’s now an old woman, as her image here shows; I confess that for some years, I’ve noticed a creeping feline-ness of (dis)inclination invade my once radical and rebellious bones …

leguin

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Images: BBC News article on The Big Lebowski (worth reading!); Plato’s Academy; Ursula LeGuin.

Updated: 18:31 24 Feb. 2013

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