Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World


Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World
Haruki Murakami
400 pages
Kodansha International (1985)

Tl;dr summary: Part surreal fantasy, part sci-fi detective story, all wonderfully bizarre—and masterfully constructed.

Read this if you like: Unicorns, cross-genre experiments, simulated worlds

I never reach the end of a Haruki Murakami novel feeling like I’ve figured that shit out. I typically have the first inklings of an idea, a vague picture in my mind of how all the pieces fit together, the sense that there is, in fact, some deeper mystery that was explored and revealed, the details of which I am simply not quite smart enough to have determined on my own.

And this doesn’t bother me in the least—I think, at least in part, because I feel confident that this is exactly what Murakami intended. I greatly respect that Murakami doesn’t tell his readers what conclusion they’re supposed to draw from the story. The story is; you’re to make of it what you will.

My first Murakami experience (Kafka on the Shore) was for a grad school course. I had to do a class presentation on it and I remember frantically looking up his themes and meaning on the internet, expecting that the talking cats and soldier ghosts and portal stones had to signify something. Imagine my frustration when all I could find was an interview where Murakami explicitly stated he doesn’t think about his writing that way. As he said in a 2004 interview with John Wray for The Paris Review, “When I start to write, I don’t have any plan at all. I just wait for the story to come. I don’t choose what kind of story it is or what’s going to happen.”

There are certainly aspects of Hard-Boiled Wonderland that make me think of Kafka on the Shore. The most obvious is his use of the two contrasting voices and storylines to create the complete picture. Later in that Paris Review interview, Murakami says that he set out with Kafka on the Shore to write a sequel to Hard-Boiled Wonderland. Though he ended up pursuing a completely different story (as would inevitably happen, given his approach mentioned above) there are lingering similarities between them. “The style is very similar,” Murakami says of it, “The soul is very similar. The theme is this world and the other world; how you can come and go between them.”

Of course, they’re not identical. Kafka switches between a 15-year-old narrator (first person) and a series of adult characters (third person); Hard-Boiled Wonderland keeps both storylines in first person and the voices similar, for plot reasons that may be considered spoilery and I therefore won’t drop here.

From a craft perspective, the tension established by the narrative structure is slightly different, as well. In Kafka on the Shore, the mystery is in how the many characters are ultimately connected. In Hard-Boiled Wonderland, Murakami tells you what’s happening in the very first chapter, when the narrator describes counting coins in both pockets simultaneously. Even if you don’t understand the significance of this reveal on the first read, by the mid-point of the novel even relatively inattentive readers know how the two narrators are related. The tension between the storylines for me wasn’t how they related but when they happened in relation to each other (if both could even be said to have a “when” in the conventional way, but that’s another discussion) and what, if anything, each could reveal about the other.

Murakami’s worlds are delightfully weird in the most appealing way. This is what drew me to him in Kafka on the Shore and what has kept me consistently coming back for more—and Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World is chock-full of this weirdness, whether it’s in the form of unicorn skulls or underground laboratories where sound doesn’t work quite right. There’s no question his stories are impeccably crafted, but whether or not you’ll find it as enjoyable to read (or as influential on your own work) truly depends on how comfortable you are existing between the genres. Hard-Boiled Wonderland is part love story, part mystery, part surreal fantasy, part near-future sci-fi—it’s a little bit of everything, but in a way that makes the parts work together instead of fighting, and this, more than anything, is the true wizarding of Haruki Murakami.

Ye Gods! #2: Harvest Gods

November seems like a good time to think of gods of the harvest.The first surprise was to see there’s some overlap with the death gods I looked at in the first installment of the series. Even in the cultures lacking a direct overlap, there tends to at least be a connection between the harvest deity and the underworld. It seemed a strange correlation at first, but made sense the more I delved into the myths.

Agriculture was critical in the development of civilization. It was what enabled man to stay in one place and build cities instead of moving to follow the food. Harvest gods were held in high regard, some of the most venerated of the entire pantheon. For a prime example of both points raised in the intro, we’ll start with the Egyptians.

 Egyptian Harvest Gods: Osiris and Renenutet

Here’s a face familiar from the death gods list. Osiris has a major role in the underworld and is also associated with the yearly flooding of the Nile, which gives him dominion over the production of crops. This overlap makes sense if you think like an Egyptian.Osiris was killed, dismembered, and then re-born in the underworld, where he was thought to bring new life to the fields each year.

One legend holds that the Egyptian people were cannibals until Osiris developed agriculture. Isis then taught the people how to grow crops and persuaded them to stop eating each other. The harvest god not only brings food, but wisdom and civilization.

Family Tree: Most legends hold that Osiris was the first son of Geb (the Earth) and Nut (the sky). He had many siblings, including Set, Horus, Nephthys, and Isis, who was also his wife and responsible for gathering the pieces of his body together after he was killed by Set.

Depiction: Osiris’ appearance relates more to his role as the lord of the underworld than it does to his role as the god of agriculture. He is often shown as a mummified human pharoah, with the same long, ceremonial beard and a crown atop his head. His skin is most often shown as green but is occasionally black, the same color as mummified flesh.

One thing that is clear in all representations of Osiris is that he is viewed positively. He is the protagonist in most of the myths where he features. The flooding of the Nile was what allowed the region to be fertile, and it makes sense that the god who makes the crops grow each year would be pretty popular with the people. Osiris became associated with all bounty and fortune, as well as the cycle of death and rebirth that Egyptians believed led to immortality.

As the goddess of nourishment and the harvest specifically, Renenutet was the figure most citizens made offerings to during the harvest season. She was also the goddess who protected the harvest, given epithets like “Lady of Fertile Fields,” “Goddess of the Double Granary,” and “Nourishing Snake.”

Whereas Osiris is more known for his association with the underworld, Renenutet is a primarily harvest goddess. This doesn’t mean she lacks underworld connections, however. There are myths where she travels to the underworld, where she’s shown as a fire-breathing cobra with the power to repel or kill her enemies with a single glance. She protects pharaohs who travel to the underworld and also has a role in mummification, said to imbue the wraps used on pharaohs with magical power that could repel their enemies.

Family Tree: Little background is given as to Renenutet’s parentage or siblings. Her husband is most typically portrayed as being Sobek, who serves as a personification of the Nile; she is occasionally also said to be the wife of Geb. She has two main children: Nehebkau (the serpent guardian of the underworld who protects Ra on his nightly passage) and Nepri (the personification of corn).

Depiction: Renenutet is most often shown either as a cobra or as a woman with the head of a cobra. She may rarely alternatively be portrayed as having a lion’s head, similar to Hathor. Her head is typically covered, wither with a double-plumed headpiece or a solar disk.

Demeter (Ceres): The Greek (Roman) Harvest God

demeter_mkl1888Demeter is the main harvest god within the Greek pantheon. Her direct Roman counterpart is Ceres. She is the goddess of grain, corn, and the harvest—essentially the fertility of the earth—who was thought to make the crops grow each year. As a result, the first loaf of bread baked from the year’s harvest was typically used as an offering to the goddess.

The harvest was Demeter’s main domain in the Greek pantheon, but she is believed to have been derived from a figure that pre-dated the Olympians (along with her daughter Persephone). In this older role, she was also responsible for the sacred law of the earth along with the cycle of life and death. Legend held that she taught mankind how to grow and use corn, thereby bringing about the start of civilization. It is through this introduction of the Greek people to knowledge and learning that earned her the place as the overseer of sacred law, though her influence in this sphere was greatly diminished during the Olympian era of Greek myth.

Family Tree: Demeter is a daughter of Cronus and Rhea, which makes her a sibling to the other Olympians like Hades, Hera, and Zeus. Her best-known daughter is Persephone, the consort of Hades; it is out of grief for Persephone’s absence that Demeter stops producing grain through the winter months. Persephone was not her only child, however; she was in fact quite fertile, and was said to have many children, including a few fathered by her brother Poseidon.

Depiction: There are a few sacred items associated with Demeter that she may be shown with, including poppy and narcissus, in addition to domesticated livestock and agricultural products. Her sacred animals include the crane, the snake, and the pig. She is often depicted as wearing a crown or a wreath made of corn; she may be carrying either a torch, wheat, or a cornucopia, to represent her bringing of plenty.

In terms of the worship of Demeter, her main festivals largely took place around harvest time. Her chief festival was so massive it was held only once every 5 years. There were also a series of mystery cults that worshiped Demeter. In these cults, less emphasis was placed on her role as a harvest goddess and more on her role in the afterlife; adherents believed worship of Demeter could lead them to a better afterlife in Elysium.

The smaller figures related to the harvest differ between the Greek and Roman traditions, including personifications of grain and protectors of the harvest. Some of these were not “true” gods in the sense that the evolved naturally out of the pantheon but were introduced by Greek or Roman leaders as a form of propaganda (this was especially true of the ancillary figures featured in later-period Roman myths). All of these figures were beholden to Demeter or Ceres, respectively, their roles invariably as helpers to the more important harvest goddess.

 Nidaba: Babylonian Goddess of Grain and Writing

In a reversal of the situation with Demeter above, Nidaba started as a purely agricultural deity—the goddess of grain—and gradually grew in her role within the pantheon as technology developed within the society. Nidaba became first associated with writing and accounting, likely because these activities were mostly used, in early years, to keep track of food stores. From there, her role gradually shifted until her primary role in the pantheon was as the patron of scribes.

Family Tree: Nidaba’s ancestry is uncertain; she is at various points described as being the daughter of Enlil (wind), Uras (earth), Ea (creation), or Anu (sky). She is also at points mentioned as being the sister of Ninsum, who was the mother of the well-known epic hero Gilgamesh. Nidaba is typically described as having been married to Haya, with whom she has a daughter called alternately Sud or Ninlil.

Depiction: Despite her large role in the pantheon, little iconography exists that depicts Nidaba, either in her role as agricultural goddess or her role as patron of scribes. One depiction from Lagash shows her with long flowing hair, crowned with a tiara featuring ears of corn and a crescent moon, but given the scarcity of depictions it’s not known if this was typical of statues of Nidaba from this time.

 Norse Harvest Gods: Freyr and Gefjun

Freyr was called “foremost of the gods” and was one of the most venerated deities in the Norse pantheon. Included in his domain were all things that could be considered prosperity, including sexual fertility, wealth, and peace, along with bountiful harvests and an abundance of growing things.

The name “Freyr” is not a true name so much as it’s a title, roughly translating to “Lord.” His true name was originally Ingwaz, which became either Ing, Yngvi, or Ingunar, depending on the culture where the name was written. He lived in Alfheim, the land of elves, though it’s unknown what his connection to the elves ultimately was beyond inhabiting their realm.

Family Tree: Freyr is the son of Njoror, the sea god; his mother is said to be Nerthus, the goddess of fertility (and, coincidentally, Njoror’s sister). He had no official wife but did have many lovers among the goddesses and giantesses, including his sister, Freya.

Depiction: It’s easiest to identify Freyr when he’s with his familiar, a boar named Gullinborsti (literally translating to “Golden Bristled”). He may also be shown with his ship, Skiobladnir, which was renowned for always having a favorable wind, as well as being enchanted so it could be folded to fit in his pocket. When traveling on land, he’ll often do so in a chariot drawn by boars. In terms of his own physical description, it is rarely distinctive except for when he’s shown with an inhumanly large erect phallus (like any good representative of sexual fertility).

4280960933_6a8aff27d3_b Gefjun
Similar to Freyr, Gefjun was the goddess of general abundance, prosperity, and fertility, along with being the general goddess of agriculture and plowing. Her name translates roughly to “Giver” or “Generous One,” and though she’s thought to have perhaps originated as simply one facet of the goddess Freya, her myth has become well-established enough by this point to be considered a separate deity.

Gefjun features in several myths. The best-known tells of her traveling through Sweden disguised as a homeless woman. When she appears to the generous King Gylfi, he tells her she can have as much land as four oxen can plow in a day. In response, Gefjun summons her four sons (whose father was a giant) and turns them into oxen. They plow the land so well that they drag it away from Sweden, creating the island of Zealand and Lake Malaren, which separates Zealand from the land to the north. The island of Zealand is one of the most fertile areas of Denmark, and serves as the modern-day location of Copenhagen. The general form of this myth is common in Scandinavian folklore (a king or god tells someone they can own the land they plow in a short amount of time) though the part about the oxen sons is obviously unique to the goddess.

Family Tree: Little history for Gefjun’s origins are given. As mentioned above, it is thought that she may simply be an offshoot of the goddess Freya, which would explain the lack of lineage in the myths.

Depiction: For the most part, Gefjun’s depiction is unremarkable. She has the look of a standard human woman with long hair and may be shown with her four sons in bull form. As with other harvest gods, she seems to be more prevalent in the narrative of myth than in static artistic renderings.

The Big Picture

  •  Harvest deities and death deities have significant connections in many different mythologies, both because the underworld is seen as the source of the earth’s bounty and because of the cycle of life and death represented by the planting year. This is especially true of Egyptian mythology, where Osiris oversees both death and agriculture, but connections exist in Sumerian and Greek/Roman mythologies, as well. Plants grow out of the same ground the underworld was thought to exist beneath, so it makes sense there’d be a perceived connection.
  •  Because may polytheistic religions were developed in the early years of their respective societies, harvest deities are consistently among the most important and revered gods. This may mean a connection between agriculture and wisdom (as with Egyptian and Sumerian mythologies) or may mean agriculture is associated with the highest-ranking god in the pantheon (as with Norse mythology). In many instances, the harvest god is credited with teaching the people how to farm or otherwise bringing “civilized” society into being (e.g. Demeter and Osiris).
  •  Even in mythologies where the gods don’t consistently have “familiars,” similar animals are associated with the gods of the harvest. Typically these are animals considered to be livestock, such as oxen, pigs, and boars. Snakes are also associated with select harvest deities; this is just a guess, but I would imagine it’s because snakes are often found in fields, where there are mice and other rodents the snakes like to eat.
  •  The appearance of harvest deities does not seem as important to their identity as it does with other gods. They are identified more by the presence of corn or grain, typically, than by a specific physical description. The physicality of harvest gods also doesn’t seem to be of a type. There are both males and females, and their family trees are more ambiguous.


Binary Star

binary-starBinary Star
Sarah Gerard
166 pages
Two Dollar Radio

tl;dr summary: Bulimic woman struggles with co-dependent relationship, astronomy, veganism.

Read this if you like: Experimental literary fiction


I can’t recall ever having seen eating disorders handled well in fiction. Partially, I think, because they’re so often associated with teenage girls, who are a tough character group to get right outside of a young adult novel. Like drug addiction, it’s also a hard topic to explore without veering into stereotype or melodrama.

The way Sarah Gerard handles this potentially problematic topic is by putting it into an experimental context. From a craft perspective, this is the most successful aspect of the novel. The narrative style feels perfectly suited to the protagonist’s voice, whose arc could be best described as a slow unraveling.

In exchange, some clarity is sacrificed. It can be tricky to figure out who is talking when, which lines are spoken and which are thought. This creates a controlled confusion. It felt intentional, and I believed the author was in command of her narrative the entire time, but I also don’t feel it was universally successful as a device for the entire length of the book, sometimes jarring me out of the reading experience. A device I did enjoy was the use of repetition. There are several passages that take the form of lists, each sentence in the list starting with “I want…” or “Tell yourself…” and cumulatively painting a picture of the moment.

The characters in this book are not especially compelling people. The protagonist’s thoughts are consumed by her eating disorder; she pays attention to little else. This makes her beyond unreliable because she’s not even all that interested in what’s going on outside her bubble. John, her boyfriend, is equally self-involved. Their relationship is obviously flawed from the very first scene. It’s interesting that she’s so intrigued by tabloids in the book, because that same emotion is what made me want to keep reading Binary Star, not a hope for redemption but more the compulsive staring at a train wreck.

There’s always something a bit dissatisfying for me about the downward spiral arc; your hopes can’t be dashed if they weren’t there in the first place, and this is essentially the author handcuffing herself, removing most of the viable sources of tension from her bag of tricks. The forward momentum in Binary Star is driven by the language. It’s rare for me to enjoy a book where I’m not invested in either the plot or the characters. But the narrative voice is so raw, in turns simple and lyrical, and the rhythm of the words pulled me in and kept me pushing forward. I especially enjoyed the astronomy metaphor that runs throughout the book. This is a character who has a difficulty with perception and scale, so it makes sense to the narrative that she would see her relationship with John as comparable to celestial events.

It feels not quite right to say I enjoyed reading Binary Star. A lot of it is painful, and sometimes the train wreck’s so gruesome you kind of want to look away, and the fact that Gerard could evoke that kind of reaction is testament to the high level of craft. The strength of the voice alone makes this one worth a read, even if you’re not typically into more experimental narratives.

I would be irresponsible to give that advice universally, however. This is a novel-length trigger for anyone recovering from an eating disorder, describing the feelings and acts with profound realism and accuracy. For some, it could be cathartic to see that someone else has been there and understands so thoroughly; for others, it may be best to steer clear.

The Cage in the Menagerie: How a Failed Pilot Saved a Franchise

It’s hard to believe 5 series and a dozen movies later, but the Star Trek franchise nearly failed in its first season. Not only was the pilot widely regarded as a flop (necessitating the replacement of every cast member save Leonard Nimoy) but by the mid-point of the first season they’d run out of episodes to film. Since almost nobody had watched the pilot the first time around, anyway, Gene Roddenberry made the economical decision to re-purpose it, adding new material that allowed it to be stretched into two full episodes and giving viewers the first two-parter of the Star Trek universe (and the only one in the original series). The resultant episode, “The Menagerie,” would go on to receive much acclaim, winning a Hugo Award in 1967 for Best Dramatic Presentation.

As a modern viewer (read: binge-watching TOS on Netflix) “The Menagerie” mostly gives you a feeling of déjà vu. Not only did I watch the pilot already, but I just watched it a few nights prior; the skillful re-use of the material, in this context, loses some of its brilliance. It also opens the two episodes up for more comparison and analysis.

The obvious question that comes to mind is what exactly changed between “The Cage” and “The Menagerie” that transformed a no-start pilot into Hugo Award-winning material? “The Cage” is a fairly straightforward classic Star Trek plot. Advanced telepathic aliens create an imaginary Eden on a planet called Talos IV. Their goal is to capture a breeding pair of humans who can found a race to populate their world and work the land. Vina—the “Eve” in this equation, already on the planet when Captain Pike is captured—is revealed by the end to have been horribly disfigured in the shuttle crash that marooned her on Talos IV. In exchange for remaining on the planet with the Talosians they restore her to her lost youth and beauty. Illusory, yes, but still a deal she is ultimately unable to turn down. In another familiar Star Trek twist, the Talosians are revealed to be more sympathetic than was first thought; they’ve lost the ability to take care of the planet themselves, and will surely go extinct if they can’t put their plan in motion.

“The Menagerie” couches this original plot into a frame device. An in-world timeline is ret-conned in that has the pilot’s crew serving on the Enterprise for many years and showing Spock to simply be the last senior officer remaining onboard from that crew. It’s not clear at what point Kirk took over for Pike as the ship’s captain, but Pike is still an active Starfleet officer—at least until he’s gravely injured on a mission, leaving him incapable of speech or movement.

This is revealed during the set-up of the frame device. As the episode progresses, Spock kidnaps Pike and steals the Enterprise to transport him to the now-forbidden planet of Talos IV. Spock is arrested en route; a court martial is convened as they continue toward Talos IV. The original footage of “The Cage” is shown as “evidence” in the court martial, explained in the episode as telepathic transmissions from the Talosians. This format sets up some moments where the audience is watching Kirk and Spock watch the Talosians watch Captain Pike—screens within screens within screens that make the events from “The Cage” feel more immediate than if they were told in flashback.

The ultimate payoff is predictable if you’ve seen “The Cage.” The horribly disfigured Captain Pike can receive the same blessing of illusion as Vina; Spock was working with the Talosians all along to give this happier future to his once-commander. The two-layer plot is more complex than most in TOS, and though the frame device is sometimes clumsy, it would likely feel less so if you weren’t aware that it had been superimposed over an existing episode.

Only a minor tweak is made to the original episode footage, and it’s perhaps the key to why “The Menagerie” was more successful. In “The Cage,” the Talosians create an illusory Captain Pike to keep Vina company after he refuses to stay on the planet. It’s ultimately a bit of a downer ending. Vina thinks she’s happy, but she’s all alone with her illusions, and the Talosians are probably doomed to extinction.

Through a bit of careful editing, this illusion instead becomes the real Captain Pike. After Pike is beamed down to the planet from the Enterprise, the Talosians transmit footage to the ship of Pike happily reuniting with Vina. Captain Pike can live a normal life, the Talosians have their Adam and Eve, and Spock is forgiven for his crimes once it’s seen his intentions were ultimately honorable. Star Trek‘s attitude is by and large optimistic, and this “happily ever after” ending feels more complete, more satisfying than the original.

Many of the creative decisions involved in making “The Menagerie” were out of necessity. The show couldn’t afford to bring Jeffrey Hunter back to film (the actor who played Captain Pike in “The Cage”), necessitating the elaborate make-up and iconic wheelchair that kept modern day Captain Pike from having to speak or act (and excusing the fact that he looks nothing like the original actor). In fact, the only actor from the original episode they could get to reprise his role was Leonard Nimoy. Because of this, the frame device is heavily Spock-centric. His dual nature, only hinted at previously, is explored in more depth. There’s the human half of him that has sympathy and loyalty for Captain Pike, and the Vulcan half, logic-driven, capable of engineering such a complex deception.

These two episodes make for an intriguing comparison for a writer, certainly. “The Cage” was a decent episode in its own right, so it’s not surprising that the concept was successful. Re-packaging a story changes the way it’s perceived by the audience. It doesn’t have to be a new frame device. Even the change in titles gives the episode a different flavor, from the negative implications of a cage to the softer idea of a menagerie, a shift consistent with the alteration of the ending. Small changes can have a massive impact if they’re made in the right place, in the right way.

Whiskey, Etc.


Whiskey, Etc.
Sherrie Flick
207 pages
Queen’s Ferry Press

tl;dr summary: Collection of short (and short-short) literary stories showing the everyday lives of a variety of characters.

Read this if you like: Writing and reading flash fiction
Flash fiction is a tricky beast. It calls for an author that can do a lot in not much space, an economy of language more similar to poetry than most prose. To be true flash fiction, though—rather than a prose poem or other hybrid form—it also needs to have a narrative progression, along with the well-developed characters and setting expected from longer fiction. Given that, it’s not surprising that there seems to be a lot of debate in the literary community about what is and isn’t true flash fiction, or that so few people do it well.

The 50-odd stories in Whiskey, Etc. are grouped together based on their thematic content. While they feel like they all take place in the same general universe, each tells its own story and concerns its own cast of characters. The stories range in length from a few hundred words to around 15 pages (which, admittedly, is no longer flash, but is still on the short side). The stories that are around 1-2 stories in length read the best to me. Some of the shortest pieces, like “Half-Full,” have enchanting language but feel more like the set-ups of stories than complete works, arguably falling more on the prose poem side of the equation. Longer ones, like “Unlocking,” don’t have the same tight snap; sometimes reading more like chapters in a novel than contained pieces.

Sherrie Flick’s choice of details are what make her flash fiction so successful. Character routines become stand-ins for their daily lives, sometimes taking on new meaning. The dinner preparation in “Boiled Clear” springs to mind as one example. It opens on Suzy slicing brussels sprouts and chopping garlic, at the same time her boyfriend Neil is dying in a car accident; normal life kept marching on, uninterrupted by his death.

Common objects also frequently stand in as touchstones for emotions or states of beings. Various forms of food are used to establish context and build characters, like the Manhattan Up in “Winter Storm” that represents the life Evelyn didn’t live. Cars feature prominently in several stories. As the cause of death and emotional catalyst in “Heidi is Dead” and “Boiled Clear.” The car is nostalgic freedom in “Road Trip” and potential freedom in “You Have a Car,” which forms the character’s present by looking at her possible futures.

Another key to the success of these stories is their tight focus. This is perhaps why I was less of a fan of the longer stories that take up more in-world time. Few of the stories in this collection span more than a single day; some last only a few minutes. The  character’s whole life might be revealed in the narration, but the in-story action is often a single event or meal or moment, and this gives the story room to breathe within that moment, lets it stop and show all the small details that build the emotional and narrative tension.

I have to say that while some of the stories in this collection spoke to me more than others, they were all a joy to read. I was trying to read more from a craft perspective, and even so found myself slipping into “reader” mode, getting sucked into the story and having to go back and re-read with more analytical eyes. Whiskey, Etc. turns a microscope on daily life. What it shows is sometimes heartbreaking, often optimistic, and invariably beautifully written.

Negotiating with the Dead: Atwood on Writing

I’m not a scholar or a literary theoretician, and any such notions that have wandered into this book have got there by the usual writerly methods, which resemble the ways o the jackdaw: we steal the shiny bits, and build them into the structures of our own disorderly nests.

–Margaret Atwood, Negotiating with the Dead

Margaret Atwood is not an easy writer to categorize. Her work often spans the space between genres; her voice is both distinct and singular. So it’s not especially surprising that her book on writing is equally unique. It’s more a philosophical look at the life of the writer than it is a discussion of craft or a dispensation of advice. The result is much as she describes it in the quote from the introduction shown above, an intriguing amalgamation of literary criticism with Atwood’s own first-hand experiences as both poet and prose writer, and how her gender, era, and nationality shaped her path.

I’ve been doing research on ancient myths of late, so the references Atwood uses in Chapter 6 (“Descent: Negotiating with the dead”) held a particular interest for me. She describes Gilgamesh as the original writer: he travels into the underworld on a quest for everlasting life and returns instead with two stories, which he immediately inscribes in stone—a fitting metaphor for the process of writing. The idea of storytelling as a form of immortality is something she explores elsewhere in the book, as well. You could argue the question “Why do writers write?” is the book’s main motivation, and though she’s not interested in providing a concrete answer, the options she presents are all intriguing.

Chapter 4 (“Temptation: Prospero, the Wizard of Oz, Mephisto & Co.”) also spoke to a debate I’ve been having with myself of late, namely the writer’s responsibility to their society and culture. Does being a feminist oblige the writer to address issues of inequality in her work? The question here is whether art should exist for art’s sake or whether it should have a purpose a higher aim. As with the question of a writer’s motivation, Atwood doesn’t come down firmly on either side of this debate, more laying out the popular arguments of each and letting the reader do with them as they will.

Negotiating with the Dead encourages writers to think about the broader picture of their writing life. Who is your writer self? Why does she write? Who does she write for? They’re questions it’s worth taking time out to ask every now and then, no matter what point you’re at in your own writing career.

A couple quotes to finish. One from Chapter 1 (“Orientation: Who do you think you are?”):

It took me a long time to figure out that the youngest in a family of dragons is still a dragon from the point of view of those who find dragons alarming.

…which isn’t writing advice so much as life advice, really. For a line that I think sums up fairly well the overall message of this book, I turn to the aforementioned Chapter 4, on “Temptation”:

An art of any kind is a discipline; not only a craft—that too—but a discipline in the religious sense, in which the vigil of waiting, the creation of a receptive spiritual emptiness, and the denial of self all play their part.

Ye Gods! #1: Death Gods

Ancient myths are pretty much the original fantasy stories—or it might be more correct to say that modern fantasy is simply the latest packaging of the myth. Most major works of fantasy use at least the character archetypes and plot structures established in myths, with some even referencing specific names or events. A fantasy writer who doesn’t know their myths is kind of like a Christian who’s never read the Bible. You can get the gist, you can even do it mostly right, but there’s wisdom in the details you can’t come across any other way.

For this series, I want to take a cross-mythology look at how common concepts are represented, focusing on the four that have had the most direct impact on modern fantasy: Greek/Roman, Egyptian, Mesopotamian, and Norse.

And what better place to start than with the happiest of all topics: death.

Death gods have a unique place in most mythologies. They’re often an important member of the pantheon, but the extent to which they’re portrayed in myth and art depended more on how the culture viewed death than the figure’s importance. There is often also a distinction made between gods that rule the underworld and those that represent death as a concept.

Greek/Roman death gods: Hades/Pluto, Thanatos/Mors, and the Keres

In Greek myths, the primary role of Hades was to guard the underworld, making sure that the dead never left and the living never entered. His rare depictions in Greek myths typically are in attempts to retrieve the dead; Hades takes the role of antagonist, placing trials in the hero’s path.

Hades was given control of the underworld after the defeat of the Titans. He drew lots with his brothers. Zeus picked the sky, Poseidon the sea, and Hades the land of the dead. He rarely ventured above-ground; when he did, he often wore a Helm of Darkness which allowed him to remain invisible to mortals.

Family Tree: Oldest son of Titans Cronus and Rhea. His wife is Persephone (Proserpina in Roman), a goddess of fertility and harvest.

Depiction:  Hades is rarely depicted in early Greek myths and art. He was given lots of epithets to avoid speaking his name like “The Unseen One” or “Agesilaos” (from the Greek ago, meaning carry or fetch). Though feared, he’s not thought to be evil, and is seen as practical and fair in his treatment of the dead. He is also a passive god, unlikely to interact with mortals unless they dared enter his domain.

As a chthonic god, Hades also had positive associations as the ground that nurtures seeds and leads to a bountiful harvest. In later Greek myths, this aspect of Hades is emphasized more and he was given the epithet “Plouton,” meaning wealth. It was this version of Hades that was transmuted into the Roman god Pluto.

Hades can alternately be depicted as young or old. He frequently has a dark beard and sits on an ebony throne, and is easiest to identify when he has Cerberus at his side (the 3-headed dog who guards the River Styx). Also sometimes holds a 2-pronged staff, called a bident, that’s suspiciously similar to the pitchfork often carried by the Christian Devil.

Where Hades is the guard of the underworld, Thanatos (Roman Mors) is the personification of death. A minor deity, referred to occasionally, depicted rarely. His main duty is to guide dead souls to the underworld. It’s sometimes specified that he guides the souls of those who died peaceful deaths while the Keres guide souls killed in combat (more on them later).

Family Tree: Most often the son of Nyx (Night) and Erebus (Chaos or Darkness). He is the twin brother of Hypnos (Sleep), and his other siblings include Charon (the boatman over the Rivers Styx), Eris (strife), and Nemesis (retribution).

Depiction: Thanatos is depicted in a consistently more negative light than Hades. He’s merciless and hateful toward both mortals and other gods. Views toward him did soften over time as he became more associated with peaceful death. He’s also not the sharpest in the pantheon; when he’s involved in myths, it’s almost always because a hero has tricked him. Sisyphus tricks him and chains him to a pillar, eliminating death for a short span until Ares comes to free him, frustrated that no one’s dying in battle. Heracles overpowers Thanatos at one point, too, and without the brutal consequences that ultimately befall Sisyphus.

Considering all that, it’s a bit surprising that when Thanatos is depicted it’s almost always as a child, sometimes with wings like a cherub, sometimes holding a butterfly (this makes sense in Greek: the same word is used for “butterfly” and “soul”). When he’s an adult, it’s usually alongside his twin brother Hypnos, like in the painting above.

The Fates and the Keres
The Keres are female spirits said to be the daughters of Nyx. Their description from Shield of Heracles is “Black Dooms gnashing their white teeth, grim-eyed, fierce, bloody, terrifying…As soon as they caught a man who had fallen or one newly wounded, one of them clasped her great claws around him and his soul went down to Hades.”

The Fates, or Morai, also had some dominion over death. These three sisters wove the cloth of time, and even the gods were beholden to their decisions. Clotho spun the thread; Lachesis measured the length; and Atropos cut the thread with her “abhorred shears.” She was believed to be the one who determined when and how mortals would die, and was therefore even more feared in some circles than Hades himself. Atropos was also known as the inflexible or the inevitable; unlike other Greek death gods, no one was ever depicted as escape the Morai.

Ereshkigal: The Babylonian queen of the underworld

British_Museum_Queen_of_the_Night.jpgEreshkigal was the ruler of Irkalla (the Babylonian/Sumerian land of the dead) and fits the archetype of the Crone Goddess—powerful, ancient, often jealous of others’ beauty and youth. She  was the only one with the power to pass judgment or make laws in Irkalla, though there were many gods in the Sumerian pantheon who controlled aspects of the world that typically brought mortal deaths (plagues, war, famine, etc).

Family tree: Daughter of Nammu and Na, and sister to Ishtar (fertility, love, war). She has many children, among them Namtar (a messenger deity whose father is Enlil, god of wind) and Ninazu (god of healing, fathered by Gugalana, the Bull of Heaven).

Her husband to her husband, Nergal, varies depending on the telling. In some, he is banished to the underworld after insulting Ereshkigar (or her son, Namtar) and their relationship is one of Master and servant—or he is banished there and then conquers it, taking control of the underworld and making Ereshkigar his wife. In some, Ereshkigal’s rule of Irkalla is eliminated completely; it is Nergal who’s given rule of the underworld by Enlil, and Ereshkigar is his servant.

Depiction: Ereshkigar is associated with lions and owls; interestingly, Nergal is often depicted as having a lion’s head, which has suggested to some that they’re both aspects of the same god. Associated with lapis lazuli. Usually has dark hair, and though her age can vary she’s often depicted as a crone sitting on a throne.

Mesopotamian mythologies were not nearly as hesitant to utilize their death gods as the Greeks. Ereshkigal is a main player in several myths. The best-known is probably “The Descent of Ishtar,” a variation on the underworld journey narrative.

Egyptian death gods: Anubis, Osiris and Nephthys

Like Hades, Anubis was important to the Egyptian pantheon but rarely featured in their myths, though unlike Hades he features prominently in visual art, especially tomb decorations. Anubis performed all of the tasks associated with death. He was an embalmer and a protector of the graves; he also weighs dead souls to determine their fitness for the afterlife. In early accounts, he is also the lord of the underworld, though this position is usurped eventually by Osiris.

Family tree: His origin is somewhat shrouded, alternately the son of Ra (sun) and Nephthys, Ra and Hesat, or Osiris and Nepthys. Has a wife, Anput, who is the goddess of funerals, and a daughter, the serpent goddess Kebechet.

Depiction: Most often as a man with a jackal’s head, which is a pretty clear identifier, though you may also see him with scales or holding a flail, called a nekhakha. He usually wears black, though not for the reasons you might expect; black in Egyptian culture was a color of fertility and rebirth, and also likely represented the color of mumified skin.

It was during Egypt’s Middle Kingdom that Osiris seems to have replaced Anubis as lord of the underworld. Before that, he was the god of resurrection, revered more than feared and as a chthonic god responsible also for the cycle of flooding and growth in the Nile valley.

Family tree: Oldest son of Geb, the earth god; alternatively, the son of Ra and Nut (the sky). Osiris has many siblings but the most notable are his brother Set and his sister/wife, Isis, with whom he has a son, Horus.

Depiction: In art, Osiris is often shown as a green-skinned man with a pharoah’s beard and clothing. The details of his depiction can vary—sometimes he’s a mortal king, other times king of the gods—but the overall story arc is the same. His brother, Set, is jealous of his throne, and kills Osiris, chopping his body into small pieces and scattering it across the earth. Isis gathers up the pieces of Osiris’ body and uses a spell to bring him back to life long enough to get her pregnant with her son, Horus. When he dies a second time, the other gods place him in charge of the underworld.

Like the Greeks, the Egyptians had a separate goddess to represent the experience of death. Nephthys is a protection goddess who plays foil to her sister, Isis, representing the death experience while Isis is the birth experience. She also oversees funeral rites to some extent, a role she shares with Anubis.

Family tree: Sister of Isis and wife of Set, as well as the mother of Anubis and the “nursing mother” of Horus.

Depiction: Usually a woman with falcon wings. She’s associated with the kite (Egyptian hawk). The general attitude toward her seems to be one of resigned acceptance. Death is a necessary step of the resurrection cycle and this is the light in which Nephthys is shown. Even though she’s married to Set, who serves as the villain of Osiris’ myth story, she works on her sister’s side, helping Isis to gather up the pieces of Osiris, rather than being shown as allied with her husband.

Norse death gods: Hel and the Valkyries
There are three Norse underworlds: Valhalla, Folkvangr, and Hel. Which a soul is sent to depends on its manner of death. Those that die in battle go to either Valhalla (the great hall overseen by Odin) or Folkvangr (a meadow ruled by Freya). Neither Odin nor Freya is a strictly death deity, however, in the sense of the underworld being their primary concern. Hel is the most apt equivalent to a lord of the underworld, while the Valkyries serve as one representation of the death experience itself.

The vaklyries choose who dies in battle and guide the souls to either Valhalla or Folkvangr. There’s an interesting similarity between their name and the Greek Keres discussed above, who had a similar purpose, though there doesn’t appear to be any shared etymology.

The extent to which the Vaklyries determine a person’s fate changes depending on the telling. In some myths they are simply psychopomps, or guides, transporting the slain to their correct realm at Odin’s behest. In other tellings they are more sinister, and use an array of magic spells to influence who lives and who dies.

Family tree: Both Odin and Freya have connections to the valkyries, though their exact origin is unclear. Sometimes they’re portrayed as simply parts of Odin projected into their own forms; otherwise no lineage is given.

Depiction: Depending on the text, they can be terrifying, demonic creatures or beautiful warrior women. They appear widely in the mythologies, coming into action any time someone slain in battle required transportation to the afterlife.

While those who die in battle go to Valhalla or Folkvangr, those who die peacefully go to Hel, an underworld said to exist under one of the roots of Yggdrasil (the tree of life). Hel is generally described as a large hall like Valhalla. While the path to reach it is fraught with the usual perils, the Norse Hel is not the fiery pit of a similar name from Christian mythology. It is in fact described as existing in Niflheim (the land of ice as cold) rather than Muspelheim (the land of fire). The goddess Hel only receives the dead sent to her realm, rather than judging whether or not they can gain entrance.

Family tree: Daughter of Loki and Angrbooa (a female giant). Hel also has two siblings, Fenrir (a giant wolf) and Jormungandr (a sea monster).

Depiction: Given their parentage, Hel and her siblings were expected to cause a lot of trouble. Odin made the pre-emptive decision to banish each of them to somewhere they couldn’t do much damage. Jormungandr was cast into the great ocean around Midgard, Fenrir was bound, and Hel was sent to Niflheim, where Odin charged her with providing homes to the souls sent her way.

Hel’s appearance follows the crone archetype. She’s occasionally referred to as an ogre or a troll and is often decrepit or somehow malformed. Her skin is usually half blue and half flesh-colored. She’s often shown sitting on a throne or with her guard dog, Garmr.

The Big Picture

  • The way death gods are portrayed is a direct reflection of the society’s views about the afterlife. The Greeks feared Hades more than the Egyptians feared Anubis, or than the Vikings feared the valkyries. Regardless, though, few ancient underworlds are the terrifying realms of punishment seen in Christian Hell.
  • Many death gods did not come to this task willingly, but were either assigned the role (Hades) or sent to the underworld because of death or banishment (Hel, Osiris). The same is true of the death god’s spouse (Persephone, Nergal).
  • When it’s a death goddess, she’s almost invariably depicted as a crone archetype; regardless of gender, they tend to be relatively passive figures, even when they’re important figures in the pantheon. Even in the case of Osiris, things happen to him more than he’s the cause of events.
  • Most ancient pantheons make a distinction between the ruler of the underworld and the personification of death. The ruler of the underworld tends to be the one who judges souls and guards the dead, though both may guide newly departed souls. If a distinction between realms is made based on the manner of death, it’s typically between combat deaths and peaceful deaths.