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

osiris-tomb-of-nefertariOsiris
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.

DiosaEgipcia.jpgRenenutet
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

179px-freyr_by_johannes_gehrtsFreyr
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.

 

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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.

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

b6cb0a0d7613962a39c59bfff79418feHades
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.

n12-1thanatosThanatos
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

anubis_balanceAnubis
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.

osiris-tomb-of-nefertariOsiris
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.

Nephthys
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.

Valkyries
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.

indexHel
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.

Let’s Talk Rejection

It’s been a pretty amazing summer for me, publication-wise. It started with Novella-T publishing McBurglar and the Man O’War, officially the longest thing I’ve gotten in print. A couple weeks after that came out, I got an acceptance from Wraparound South for my short story, “Lucky Devil.”

Both of those were very exciting—don’t get me wrong—but neither one of them had been on the market for very long. McBurglar never even got a rejection (partially because there’s only so many places you can send novellas) and “Lucky Devil” was rejected only 4 times before ultimately finding its forever home.

This is not true of my latest two short story acceptances, “Game Misconduct” (forthcoming from Rind) and “Shards” (just released in the Summer 2016 issue of Menda City Review). Both of these stories started as part of my Master’s thesis, though they’ve been edited so much since then they’re hardly recognizable. Both stories started out with different titles (“The Back-Up” and “Knowledge is Power,” respectively).

And both stories got rejected. A lot. Between the first time I submitted it in August 2011 and its acceptance in August 2016, “Shards” was rejected a whopping 35 times. “Game Misconduct” has better numbers (22 rejections between April 2011 and July 2016) but only because I had slightly less faith in it as an entity (it’s a hockey story, if the title didn’t give it away) and as a result submitted it less.

Many of these rejections came from journals I have no business submitting to but continue to submit to anyway: GlimmerTrain, Tin HouseCarve, Mid-American Review, all the usual suspects. Others came from journals with higher acceptance percentages for whom the stories weren’t a good fit for one reason or another. Almost certainly, a good 50% of those rejections happened because I sent the stories out too soon, before they were really ready. I’m more grateful than you’d probably believe for those rejections, because it gave me a chance to edit both stories into forms I’m proud to have in print.

In the 5-ish years I’ve been sending out work, I’ve received 190 rejections and 14 acceptances. Included in this was a publication dry spell that lasted almost 2 years (November 2013 to October 2015). As I understand it, these are not unusual statistics. Not that my normalcy was any consolation for those 23 months I spent wondering if my writing had become unpublishable.

Rejection is a part of a working writer’s life. It’s so much a part of our lives that we get excited when we get a particularly nice rejection. A friend of mine recently received a personal rejection from One Story and was thrilled, as she should have been, because personal rejections from elite journals are worth as many self-confidence points as some acceptances.

Submitting work is a numbers game. I think of it like playing poker: you won’t get far without skill, but you won’t win without an equal share of luck. The more you submit, the greater your statistical chances of acceptance. Whether your story has 10 rejections or 20 or 200, keep editing and sending, and never give up. Eventually it’ll find the eyes of an editor who has just as much faith in that story as you do. When that acceptance comes, it’ll taste ten times as sweet for every time someone told it “no.”

The Power of Suggestion

I think my favorite thing about season 1 of Netflix’s Jessica Jones was the villain Kilgrave. And yes, partially that’s because he’s played by David Tennant (oh Doctor my Doctor), but his mind control superpower also makes him one of the most nefarious villains in the Marvel universe. Kilgrave robs his victims of their free will. When he tells you to do something—like cut your own arm off, or shoot your parents—you do it, and it doesn’t matter how much you don’t want to.

Another recent comic adaptation I’m fully obsessed with is AMC’s Preacher. The titular Preacher, Jesse Custer, gains a mind control ability very similar to Kilgrave’s after being possessed by a cosmic being known as Genesis. This “Word of God” forces others to obey his commands. The details of the two abilities are different. Kilgrave’s is caused by a virus, meaning it’s possible to become immune, as Jessica Jones is in the series; Jesse’s power is so far undefendable, even working on vampires and angels. Jesse can choose when to use his power, while Kilgrave’s is on all the time; Kilgrave’s commands expire, while Jesse’s seem permanent. At the basic level, though, the two abilities are the same. They speak, you obey.

There’s a point in the Jessica Jones plotline where she wonders what could happen if Kilgrave’s powers were used for good. She experiments briefly with being his moral compass, ultimately finding that he’s too far gone. This is a failing on Kilgrave’s part as an individual, not necessarily of the powers. In Jessica Jones, the question remains: what could happen if mind control abilities were given to the good guys?

Preacher answers that question. Well, sort of. In theory, there’d be no more moral figure to imbue with the Word of God than a preacher. In practice, Jesse Custer is not your typical holy man, but he’s a generally good guy who means well most of the time. Since no well-rounded character is ever fully-good or fully-evil, we’ll call him an apt foil to Kilgrave, if on no other basis than his role in the narrative (he’s our hero, and Kilgrave was the villain).

The first thing that happens when Jesse uses God Voice: he tells one of his parishioners to “open his heart” to his mother, and the parishioner goes to her nursing home and cuts his heart out. So unintended consequences—that’s one inherent down-side to mind control, but we can write that off morally to Jesse’s inexperience with his new ability. He was trying to help; he just didn’t get the words right.

A more troubling example is what happens to Eugene. Jesse at one point uses his powers on Eugene’s behalf. When Eugene protests this, calling it “cheating,” Jesse is offended. They argue, Jesse gets angry, and in an emotional moment he tells Eugene to “Go to Hell”—with God Voice. Eugene vanishes.

This is a grayer area of unintended consequences. Jesse knows about his God Voice, now; he knows what will happen when he uses it, even if he instantly regrets it. Like Kilgrave complains about at several points in Jessica Jones, having mind control means constantly keeping a tight rein on emotion, being conscious of every word you speak (and largely eliminating metaphoric speech, especially things like “go fuck yourself”). With the possible exception of Buddhist monks and Vulcans, no mortal could be expected to maintain that kind of control all the time.

Beyond that, even, is the source of Eugene’s initial protest. Jesse didn’t ask Eugene if he wanted divine intervention. Jesse used his own moral standards to make a decision that affected other people at a deeply personal level: he forced one human to forgive another. Forgiveness that isn’t earned is cheapened, and inherently unsettling. The possession of free will is, for many, one of the basic aspects of sentience, an important facet of humanity. Taking away a person’s free will robs them of their autonomy. It’s one thing when Jesse uses his power in self-defense—in terms of basic human needs, survival trumps free will by most people’s accounts. But when he uses it to impose cognitive states, like forgiveness and faith, it’s harder to justify his intrusion.

It’s probably for the best Jessica Jones couldn’t reform Kilgrave, as much as I loved his character and would’ve geeked the fuck out watching that partnership. I trust Jesse Custer with God voice slightly more. His in-born morals are strong enough to avoid the most blatant abuses, and he’s got Cassidy for an external moral compass (because what else are vampires good for?), but he’s at best chaotic neutral when he uses his power, however much he tries to be good. Even the best of men couldn’t be trusted with the ability to change how people feel and think—or perhaps I should say, by using it, they’d no longer be the best of men.

Stranger Things: Through the Eyes of Children

I cut my literary teeth on Stephen King. I was that weird kid lugging a 5-pound copy of The Stand around in my backpack to read on the bus, and I still can’t truly trust clowns after viewing It (unbeknownst to my parents) at the tender age of six. I say this for the sake of full disclosure, because anything that pays as much homage to Stephen King as Stranger Things is automatically going to rank high on my geek-love radar.

And it’s definitely a story that could fit right in alongside the best of King’s catalogue. Set in the early 1980s in a small, working-class town, the horror is of a psychological bent, focused more on suspense than gore. Also like King, though, it’s got one hell of a monster, and (to paraphrase the horror master) it doesn’t hesitate to jump out and go ooga-booga. It’s like the unholy love child of the Cloverfield monster and that creepy eye-hands guy from Pan’s Labyrinth, with a cross-dimensional travel pattern that lets it be pretty much everywhere at once and almost impossible to track and kill—in short, a nearly perfect beast to inspire pure terror.

There’s a lot to love about Stranger Things but from a genre writer’s perspective, the thing I found most uniquely masterful was the way they integrated the Dungeons & Dragons tropes without them feeling gimmicky. I’ve only ever seen the “game becomes reality” idea executed well in comedies, never in a dramatic or true horror setting (which often then becomes a comedy, if for all the wrong reasons). The way Stranger Things integrates it so seamlessly is the same way Stephen King handles some of his most bizarre and terrifying creations: by showing it first through the eyes of children.

Here’s some context, for those who haven’t seen the show. The monster’s presence in our world is made possible through the accidental opening of a portal to another dimension—a place identical to our world in general form but dark and mostly lifeless. This is referred to in the show in many ways, but the kids first wrap their heads around this realm as the Vale of Shadows—a region described in their D&D source texts as a shadow world that’s dark “even in the brightest day, and some of the shadows walk, carrying their burden of hatred and hunger with them.” It’s the first explanation of any kind the viewer is given for the shadow world. Though we eventually do get the more scientific description, the Vale of Shadows is both more apt and far more interesting than the stock explanation of multiple dimensions.

If adult characters—even avid D&D players—whipped out a description from a Dungeonmaster’s Guide, I can’t picture that succeeding on the screen. Not with the same deadly seriousness the kids in Stranger Things use. An adult character who did read from D&D would have to present the information tongue-in-cheek, or with a sense of extreme skepticism, even in the context of supernatural weirdness.

When the adults regard the monster’s realm, it’s treated as science fiction: a strange portal opened up by a force that, though not understood, could potentially be explained following the in-world rules and science. When the children interact with it, though, the realm is fantasy. It doesn’t need an explanation. Their quest has brought them to a dangerous place, and their task is only figuring out how to survive. Ultimately, this gives the kids’ version of the world a more visceral emotional flavor, uncluttered by the need to define it.

A child character is naturally going to have a more fluid conception of existence than your standard adult. They’re difficult to write well (at least for me) but they can be a useful tool, allowing you to play more with the boundaries between reality and fiction. Stephen King’s child characters use this advantage to full effect. Stranger Things admirably follows his example, as it does in so many other wonderful ways.