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Grimm Fairy Tales

8 Sep

Fairy tales—at least as we know them—are a childhood staple. We know the classics by heart, but our beloved Disney-diluted iterations couldn’t be further from their true, markedly more sinister origins. While Walt Disney brought us some of our most beloved children’s stories, the original Brothers Grimm fairy tales are definitely not for kids. The Grimm brothers, a pair of German siblings who created some of the original tales in the 19th century, didn’t shy away from any gory details and left an astounding legacy. Born in the city of Kassel in the 18th century, Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm documented hundreds of folktales from all over Europe. They were linguists, scholars, and researchers of German language and mythology, yet they lived most of their lives as underpaid academics – and likely never realized their work would someday reach world fame. Despite the fact that Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm are often associated with Snow White and Rapunzel, the brothers didn’t actually write any of those stories. In fact, the stories existed long before the two men were born in Germany in the mid 1780s. The fairy tales, in fact, were part of a rich oral tradition − passed down from generation to generation, often by women seeking to pass the time during household chores. But as industrialization took root, local traditions changed and scholars, like Jacob and Wilhelm, began a quest to save the stories from extinction. They interviewed relatives and friends, collecting whatever tales they could, sometimes embellishing them (although they insisted they did not). In 1812, Jacob and Wilhelm published the stories as part of a collection titled Nursery and Household Tales, or what is now referred to as Grimm’s Fairy Tales.

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American Mythic

19 May

When we think of mythology we tend to think of the old world – European fairytales, folklore of the Far East and tales from the dark continent of Africa. Even when the new world is mentioned, in mythic terms it is the Native American folklore of the tribes and nations that first settled the lands of North and South America that comes to mind. Whilst all of this world mythology represents a rich and varied tradition of fairytales, folklore and legends, this is also to ignore the unusual and fascinating modern mythology of the United States. There are lots of interesting directions that this ‘American Mythic’ takes. There are larger than life stories of the birth of the nation, its founding fathers and the Revolutionary War; there is an entire mythology surrounding the Civil War that almost ripped apart the nascent union, when brother fought brother and fire and blood threatened to consume all the land from sea to shining sea; and up to the present day the Cold War and many other conflicts that have shaped the postwar nation also contributed to the character and myths of the modern United States. Anyone who takes the time and trouble to investigate American Mythic might be surprised at what they find.

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The Epic of Gilgamesh

13 Jan

Gilgamesh, the famous Mesopotamian hero, is believed to be based on a real person, who was most probably a Sumerian king. The Epic of Gilgamesh, a poem recording the hero’s exploits, was transcribed onto tablets in the second millennium BC. He is portrayed in sculptures and reliefs from every period of the region’s civilisation as a robust, bearded warrior, who struggles with lions, bulls and assorted monsters. He owes his immortality to the great epic poem that was written about him – the very first such literature known to humankind. Far from being a mere relic, the Gilgamesh epic is one of the most dramatic stories ever told. Even today, 3,500 years after its composition, its themes of friendship, loss and the fear of death have profound resonance. In Sumerian times, the epic must have enthralled its readers or, more often, its listeners – for in a society where only a small number were literate this poem was surely written to be read aloud.

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Realm of the Rising Sun

11 Feb

In Japan, as in China, there is a large pantheon of gods and demons, but whereas the Chinese mirror the bureaucracy of Earth in heaven, the Japanese pay homage through their state religion of Shintoism to a sun goddess, Amaterasu. Shintoists believe that almost 3,000 years ago Amaterasu sent her grandson down to Earth to be Japan’s first ruler, thus making the emperors of Japan her direct descendants – an actual divine family and not just a divinely chosen one. The persistence and survival of Shinto beliefs are remarkable phenomena in a country in which the majority of people are practising Buddhists. In part Shinto owes its longevity to political factors – it has been used periodically to bolster the authority of the state. Equally significant, however, is the way in which Shinto beliefs are meshed into the very fabric of Japan: into the physical landscape as well as the mental hinterland of traditions. For Shintoism (literally “The Way of the Gods”) has its roots in ancient nature worship: its first deities were the innumerable spirits – the kami or “beings of higher place” – that resided in mountains and waterfalls, or sacred groves of trees. Yet even now, when the emperors have renounced their claim to divinity, the gods have retained a place in Japanese affections. While, today, most these beliefs are consumed as entertainment – in manga or anime – there is nevertheless a sense in which for many Japanese they form an important part of national identity.

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Spirits of the Sacred Skies

22 Jan

The ancient peoples of the vast continent of South America never formed a coherent cultural unit. They cannot, therefore be treated as such in describing their religions and mythologies. Thousands of languages and dialects were spoken throughout South America, but there were no writing systems before the Spanish conquest. The sources of ancient myths are therefore native oral records transcribed by Europeans or European-trained natives in Spanish, Portuguese or, in a few cases, Quecha (the language of the Incas), accounts by contemporary chroniclers and modern anthropological studies. Legends and mythological accounts, together with deductions based on archaeological evidence, constituted the religions of South American societies. Like all peoples, they felt compelled to explain the important things in their universe, beginning with where they came from and their place in the larger scheme of things. Despite the regional and cultural diversity of South America, there were common elements, some almost universal. In most regions, for example, there was a named creator god. Among the Andean civilizations Viracocha, with many variations, was the creator. Although his worship was prevalent among coastal civilizations, there was also confusion and/or rivalry with the supreme god Pachacamac. Among the Amazonian tribes, four almost universal themes can be recognised. First is the presence and power of shamans, and the associated use of hallucinogenic drugs to gain access into the spirit world for the wellbeing and guidance of humankind. Second is the belief in the power and ancient divinity of jaguars. Third is the practice of cannibalism and fourth, less widespread, is headhunting, a practice steeped in supernatural and ritual significance for the purpose of capturing an enemy’s soul.

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Philadelphia by Night

20 Nov

William Penn first landed in the New World in 1682. Armed with a land charter, he founded a colony based on religious freedom that just a century later would give birth to a new nation. Penn named the new city Philadelphia, derived from Greek words meaning ‘City of Brotherly Love’. Magic has lurked in the Philadelphia area for as long as it has been populated (and perhaps even before humanity settled there). Magical beliefs and practices flourished among the indigenous peoples of the area, and as immigrants, missionaries, and colonists were attracted to the area, each brought their own magic with them. Since well before the first European settlers arrived in the early 1600s magic has been a part of Philly’s history. The Lenape tribes who populated the area for hundreds, if not thousands, of years before the European settlers arrived viewed magic (or what the Europeans would label as magic) as an integral part of daily life. It was simply how the world worked and was recognised and treated as such by members of the various Lenape tribes. While many of the specifics have been lost over the four centuries of European intercession in the area, some basic information was preserved through a variety of sources.

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Samhain, Feast of the Dead

30 Oct

Festivals emphasizing death and the supernatural are common in almost all cultures. Modern Hallowe’en, for example, is influenced by and probably originated with the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain (pronounced ‘SAH-win’ or ‘SOW-in’). Around 1,000 BC the Celts – who at the time populated Ireland, Great Britain and northern France – celebrated the first day of winter as their New Year. Winter began, in the climate of northern Europe, in November. The end of summer marked radical change in the daily life of this pastoral people. The herds were brought down from the summer pastures in the hills, the best animals put to shelter, and the rest slaughtered. For the Celts, the period we now consider the end of October and start of November was a time of preparation, festival and plenty before the coming of the long winter. As agriculture became a part of their lives, harvest time also became part of the seasonal activity. This communal celebration became known as Samhain. Linguistically, the word evidently simply combines the Gaelic words sam for ‘end’ and hain for ‘summer’ i.e. end of summer. However, although the bounty of nature and the change of seasons were important aspects of Samhain, it was also a festival of the supernatural.

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The Realm of Ice and Fire

23 Oct

Long before George R R Martin ever conceived of Westeros, a true realm of Ice and Fire existed in our world in the form of Iceland. So-called because of the oddity of glaciers and ice fields existing in a land that also has volcanoes and hot springs, this land of ice and fire has a coastline deeply indented by inlets called fjords; mountains, some of which are active volcanoes, that rise from the plateau and sometimes erupt; many geysers that spout steam and scalding water; and massive glaciers that cover one-eighth of its surface – Vatnajokull in the southeast alone is half the size of Wales. Iceland is the most thinly populated country in Europe. However, this small country produced a national literature which became the greatest in Europe during the early middle ages. Although the quality of Icelandic literature fell off somewhat after the middle ages, the country has never lacked poets and writers, and their verses and prose have been strongly influenced by the style of the sagas – a special kind of heroic story, or group of stories. The most famous of these storytellers was Snorri Sturluson, and his best known saga is called the Heimskringla, a historical saga about the rulers of Norway. This storytelling tradition continues to this day when, relative to the size of its population, Iceland publishes more books than almost any other country.

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Celtic Otherworlds

18 Sep

Enchantment permeates Celtic mythology, shrouding the tales in a haunting, dreamlike quality. The all-pervasive otherworld lies behind much of the mystery and magic, penetrating the forests and lakes, and crafting charmed rings and weapons such as King Arthur’s sword Excalibur. There are in fact many otherworlds of Celtic myth: invisible realms of gods and spirits, fairies, elves and misshapen giants, some of them sparkling heavens while others are brooding hells. The veil between the visible and invisible worlds is gossamer-thin and easily torn, allowing seers, bards and some privileged heroes to pass in and out on spirit-flights or journeys of the soul. Common gateways to the otherworld are by water and across narrow bridges, beneath mounds or wells which hide glittering subterranean paradises or dark purgatories. Above all, it is on the eve of Samhain, October 31, that all the gates to the otherworld open and spirits emerge from beneath the hollow hills.

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The Wolf in the Attic

21 Aug

1920s Oxford: home to C S Lewis, J R R Tolkien and, in Paul Kearney’s novel The Wolf in the Attic, Anna Francis, a young Greek girl looking to escape the grim reality of her new life. The night they cross paths, none suspect the fantastic world at work all around them. Anna lives in a tall old house with her father and her doll Penelope. She is a refugee, a piece of flotsam washed up in England by the tides of the Great War and the chaos that trailed in its wake. Once upon a time, she had a mother and a brother, and they all lived together in the most beautiful city in the world, by the shores of Homer’s wine-dark sea. But that is all gone now, and only to her doll does she ever speak of it, because her father cannot bear to hear. She sits in the shadows of the tall house and watches the rain on the windows, creating worlds for herself to fill out the loneliness. The house becomes her own little kingdom, an island full of dreams and half forgotten memories. And then one winter day, she finds an interloper in the topmost, dustiest attic of the house. A boy named Luca with yellow eyes, who is as alone in the world as she is. That day, she’ll lose everything in her life, and find the only real friend she may ever know. Kearney’s is a great Oxford novel; and the wonderfully conjured period detail – Tolkien and Lewis in particular stand out – is given added resonance by the long and complex real-life friendship on which it is partly based.

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