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  • Writer's pictureBen Hellman

A medieval miniature of Alexander the Great being lowered into the sea in a bathysphere, from Le Livre et le vraye hystoire du bon roy Alixandre, ca. 1420, f. 77v (Wikimedia). The bathysphere is curiously shaped like Reza Baluchi’s “hamster wheel.


Mythological hubris and its attendant risks and rewards are increasingly beyond the common man’s reach even as the wealthy capitalize on daring, foolhardy adventure. Hubris is defined as excessive pride or confidence. What I call mythological hubris, or classical hubris, is the same, but it incorporates the desire to overcome a sphere that is by nature off limits to human beings. Today in the United States a number of the ultra-wealthy seem to see no natural limits, and without government controls, like the tragic heroes of yore, they have only the natural consequences of their actions to face. This is not so for the average person.


Reza Baluchi and one of his water craft by Jim Rassol from the Florida Sun Sentinel.


Take the example of Reza Baluchi, the extreme athlete and eccentric inventor who seems intent on imperishable fame whether or not it amounts to his death. In August, the US Coast Guard stopped Baluchi from a trans-Atlantic crossing in what authorities have described as a “hamster wheel” held afloat by buoys in a metal frame. The Coast Guard officers saw a man in danger, but the power they wielded to save him was the bureaucratic power of the modern state: Baluchi’s craft was not registered.


The Fall of Icarus, alternate title: Daedalus Icaro alta nimis ambienti orbatur. Etching appeared in: The Metamorphoses of Ovid, plate 75, second edition illustrated by Antonio Tempesta, published 1606.

It’s hard to imagine such a thing happening to Daedalus, who strapped on wings of his own invention and conquered the sky. Of course there was no modern bureaucratic state, no FAA to report him to, as airline pilots reported kindred-spirit Larry Walters, the man who in 1982 rose to 16,000 feet in a lawn chair attached to a multitude of weather balloons. Like Walters, who later took his life, Baluchi seems like a troubled man. Faced with being stopped from running 4,000 miles across the Atlantic Ocean to London, England, Baluchi threatened to harm himself with a knife and to blow himself up with wires he claimed were attached to a bomb. It was Baluchi’s fifth attempt to make a major ocean crossing in a similar, self-made craft. In 2016 the Coast Guard shot and scuttled his vessel, sending it to the bottom of the ocean. Baluchi’s friend said that Baluchi had invested more than $120,000 into the craft.


Larry Walters in his lawn chair from the Smithsonian Magazine.


Perhaps if Baluchi had the money and clout to charge a small group of wealthy passengers $250,000 a spot to join him on his perilous mission, like the doomed entrepreneur Stockton Rush, he would have been allowed to run as far as his legs could take him. The cost of legally facing life-threatening danger that allows people to travel to spaces unfit for our survival has become the rich man’s game. Rush’s cofounder Guillermo Söhnlein recently announced his desire to build a colony in the hellish atmosphere of the planet Venus. Elon Musk has garnered attention with his plans to reach the planet Mars. These modern-day Nimrods will commission others to die building their Towers of Babel and chances are, they will find a way around zoning restrictions.


The Tower of Babel by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1563, from Wikipedia. Extra-biblical traditions name Nimrod as the ruler who commissions the Tower of Babel.


Our modern bureaucracy may stand in the way of ordinary mortals seeking fame or death, but it isn’t against using mythological wonder to inspire us to support expensive ventures with our tax dollars. NASA has long used the cache of myth to inspire Americans, by naming missions after Greek gods and heroes. The Artemis Program to return Americans to the moon is only the latest example of this. NASA’s advertising department created colorful cell phone and desktop backgrounds for Artemis in an attempt to excite the public imagination. The Smithsonion’s Air and Space Museum isn’t above celebrating Walters’s illegal flight by displaying his lawn chair. Give the government some time and it might look back more charitably on Baluchi’s hamster wheel.


Larry Walters's lawn chair, from the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum.


We all presumably have the mythological wonder to appreciate the dreams that inspire men like Baluchi and Walters. It is not hard for me to understand what drove Baluchi to brave the laws of man and nature to make five different attempts at crossing the ocean in a self-built, self-propelled bubble-wheel. It isn’t hard for me to understand Walters, who reportedly said “It was something I had to do. I had this dream for twenty years, and if I hadn't done it, I think I would have ended up in the funny farm.” Nothing separates these intrepid, slightly mad adventurers from the rest of us, but the will to carry out their dreams, no matter the cost. And nothing separates them from the men who take those risks without fear of government interference, but a few cool billions.

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  • Writer's pictureBen Hellman

Updated: Jul 7, 2023


The Twa Corbies, preparing to dine on the dead knight below, from “Some British Ballads,” 1919, by Arthur Rackham, (Wikimedia Commons).


At least twice, in the past thousand years (or so), a writer has observed that in war, men can act so much like beasts, that beasts themselves start to seem to act like men. The two writers include philologist and author, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the anonymous poet of a snippet of narrative poetry describing a battle fought in 991 C.E. Tolkien translated and provided explanations of the medieval Englishman’s words and then went further, writing an epilogue to that long-dead poet’s work for the stage. In it, Tolkien delves into themes and linguistic details from the poem by weaving them into his own writing. Gloating birds and wolflike men blend together in Tolkien’s The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth.


In a text so interested in the behavior of scavengers, the admonishment not to crow over an unjust killing stands out. Two loyal retainers of the proud earl Beorhtnoth search for his body among scores of English and Viking dead, an act necessitated after Vikings massacred Beorhtnoth’s English defense force earlier in the day in a battle known to us from history and the remnants of a narrative poem called The Battle of Maldon. The scene is eerie. Tolkien calls for the stage to remain in darkness other than the small light of a searcher’s dark lantern. The ground is covered in piles of men and severed limbs. The more timid searcher starts and calls out in fear repeatedly. His comrade offers cold comfort: “The wolves don’t walk as in Woden’s days…If there be any, they’ll be two-legged.”

The comment is prescient, as comments often are in dramas, and the heroes shortly find themselves in a struggle with plunderers, which ends with the timid man dispatching one of the graverobbers. He shouts his success and his companion chides him for responding too aggressively: “Why kill the creatures, or crow about it?” There are no literal crows in his text, but there are in The Battle of Maldon, and in his notes to the poem, published in June under the title The Battle of Maldon, Together with The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth, Tolkien responds to the appearance of the carrion birds, along with their typical brethren in Old English poetry, the eagle and the wolf.



Tolkien writes that ravens, eagles and wolves trailed armies and became particularly active on the eve of a battle. Their appearance together, in these circumstances in Old English poetry, is so common that the animals are referred to as “beasts of battle” and their mention before battles became formulaic in poems including any sort of large-scale fighting. Perhaps Tolkien noticed the human qualities the old poets gave the animals. In Aaron K. Hostetter’s translations, the wolf “chant[s] his warsong,” and is joined by the eagle in the poem Elene. The three animals “divide up the carrion” in The Battle of Brunanburh. The slaughtered dead are “a pleasure to wolves, a comfort as well to the slaughter-greedy birds” in Judith. The animals are “eager,” “greedy,” and “rejoice” in the bloodshed.


Of course, Tolkien had a favorite beasts-of-battle passage, and states that it is the Beowulf-poet who “really tunes his imagination on the conventional trappings” of the motif. Tolkien’s own translation of the passage, from his translation of Beowulf, runs thus: “Nor shall the music of the harp awake the warriors, but the dusky raven gloating above the doomed shall speak many things, shall to the eagle tell how it sped him at the carrion feast, when he vied with the wolf in picking bare the slain.” Here the animals reach their most anthropomorphized with the raven becoming the narrator of his own boastful story. The raven, eagle and wolf are in competition for the choicest bits. Returning to Tolkien’s character accused of “crowing” about killing the graverobber, it seems that Tolkien was interested in the semantic possibilities of the word crow, here in an idiom that suggests that crows are braggarts, as the Beowulf-poet suggested.


Wargs, Wolves and Criminals

Illustration from “Ivan Tsarevich and the Gray Wolf,” 1899 by Ivan Yakovlevich Bilibin. (Wikimedia Commons).


Tolkien was also interested in the word wolf, particularly as it applied to wolfish men, and here also he seems to have taken some inspiration from the Maldon-poet, who describes the ravening Viking warriors as waelwulfas, or “slaughter-wolves” as they rush unheeding through the surf at Beorhtnoth’s assembled warriors. Recall also Tolkien’s character warning his comrade of two-legged wolves, which come in the form of English graverobbers, instead of Danish sea-pirates. However, as the Vikings arrived specifically to plunder the English coast and even offer to leave if paid off, is there much of a difference in motive between the Vikings and the native robbers?

It should be noted that waelwulfas, though literally means slaughter-wolves, conveyed the poetic meaning of warriors, and similar compounds meant to convey warriors can be found in other extant texts, such as heorowulfas, “sword-wolves” or “battle-wolves” used to describe pharaoh’s soldiers in the Old English version of the Exodus story. The word wulf itself was a popular name for men in Old English poetry and features in many compounds. Two men, Wulfstan and Wulfmaer, fight on the English side in “The Battle of Maldon.” Consider also Beowulf, perhaps the most famous -wulf of all.


Linguistic anthropologist and Tolkien aficionado Marc Zender suggested that Tolkien showed interest in the etymologies of the words crow and raven in his more popular fiction, The Lord of the Rings. In a lecture I attended at Harvard University in 2011, Zender pointed to Tolkien’s invention of a word for crow in Sindarin Elvish: crebain, a plural form from which close-readers of Sindarin can assume the unattested singular form, craban. For raven, the old Germanic languages have hrabn-, hrafn, and hraefn. Curiously, even though craban seems closer to the Germanic words for raven, Tolkien glosses the word as crow in English. Like the camp-following ravens of Old English poetry, Tolkien’s crebain take on a militaristic posture by traveling in “regiments.” Tolkien uses the word regiments twice to describe their movement, eschewing the English expression, murder of crows. The ominous birds appear in the chapter titled “The Ring Goes South,” in the second book of The Fellowship of the Ring.


The editor of Tolkien’s The Battle of Maldon, Together with The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth, Peter Grybauskas, also points out that Tolkien had an interest in the older forms of the word wolf, inventing warg from Old Norse vargr or Old English wearg, which are words that could mean wolf or human outlaw, or criminal. Tolkien’s wargs certainly seem inspired by the beasts of battle passages. In The Hobbit, the wargs work with the goblins and “shared the plunder” with them. The wargs speak a “dreadful language” and, using human-like ingenuity, set guards below the company of dwarves in the tree before Gandalf frightens them off in the chapter titled, “Out of the Frying Pan and into the Fire.”


Finally, Tolkien himself suggests a direct link between the gloating raven of Old English poetry and birds of the folk tradition that brings us the ballads, “Three Ravens” and “Twa Corbies,” including this stanza:


Twa Corbies

Ye’ll sit on his white hause-bane

And I’ll pike out his bonny blue een,

Wi’ ae lock o’ his gowden hair

We’ll theek our nest when it grows bare.


The songs are about crows or ravens discussing the eating of a knight and seem to relate to one another in that they both refer to the knight’s hawks, hounds and lady, who in “The Three Ravens” version protect the knight’s body, but in the “Twa Corbies,” have abandoned his body to the crows.


Statue of Byrhtnoth in Maldon, made by John Doubleday. The text of The Battle of Maldon refers to the doomed leader by the West Saxon spelling in which the only existing manuscript of the poem is written. Tolkien amended the spelling to Beorhtnoth to reflect the East Saxon dialect that scholars believe the poem was originally written. (Source: Wikipedia.)


But in The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth and in history, the doomed earl is not left to scavengers. In the manner of Tolkien’s more famous work, loyal and loving followers stand by his side to the death and even after. The two men retrieve Beorhtnoth’s body from the pile of corpses that cover him. He lies beneath the men who fought first to support him, then avenge him, and the Viking dead they took with them. The searchers carry his heavy bulk to a wagon bound for the monks who will tend to him, and lay him to rest, singing over his bones. Evil men and beasts exist in Tolkien’s works, but they are often overcome by loving friends, who fight on when hope seems dimmest. In this they embody the most famous quote from The Battle of Maldon, a speech by an aged servant determined to fight to the death to stand with his leader: “The mind must be harder, the heart braver, courage greater, as our might diminishes.”


In Practical Mythology, Ben Hellman writes about the intersections of society, art and folklore. If you know of a story that suits Practical Mythology, email the idea to newenglandbard@gmail.com.

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Updated: Jul 2, 2023


Woodsom Farm, a park in Amesbury, Massachusetts. (Photo by author.)


As if we thought it was finally summer in my little piece of New England, a cold, rainy front seems intent on staying for the week! It is a welcomed visitor to flowers I planted recently that threatened to wilt before they established themselves in the heat last week. After nearly a month of leaving it cold in the hot weather, I fired up the wood stove, more for the cheerfulness, but a bit for the heat. I should be mowing the lawn and cutting the limbs to stove-lengths for October, but the ground is wet and another shower threatens. It seems a good time to contemplate and to share some ideas that have peeked shyly around the corners of my mind.



If not for writing, the winter was fruitful for reading. The most exciting bedtime reading was Francesca Stavrakopoulou’s God, An Anatomy. For the mythologically-minded reader who grew up in a Christian context, this book is a boon. Stavrakopoulou, an atheist who grew up reading Greek mythology, wondered some of the same things that I did, chief among them, why is the God of the Bible so different from the mythological figures of the religions of the past? Her answer: he isn’t. Stavrakopoulou, a Biblical scholar, uses the Bible as her main source to show God as the patriarchal and polytheistic sky god he was. She reveals Christianity and Judaism to be post-Biblical religions reinterpreting ancient texts to suit our modern context. She uses textual evidence from Canaanite and Mesopotamian sources to bring context to her argument. Having read some Ugaritic and Mesopotamian mythology and being perennially interested in the complex and confusing text the Bible is, this book connected many dots for me and also managed to teach me some new things. Stavrakopoulou writes cleverly for a general audience. Her prose reads, at times, like driving journalism. Her wicked sense of humor is also frequently on display.



My latest read was more for the language-lover, but hit upon a few fantasy and folklore themes and was a page-turner. Arika Okrent’s 2009 In the Land of Invented Languages is a history of people’s attempts to create languages to communicate more clearly or solve intractable social problems. The chapters on her quest to earn her beginner Klingon badge and her nod to J.R.R. Tolkien notwithstanding, this is a book about the colorful figures who believed they could do better than the language communities that negotiate meaning through messy, but natural convention. Okrent, a linguist, also writes for a general audience and is drawn into the languages and the characters who generally failed in their quests to get many people to speak them.


The most interesting folkloric tidbit in Okrent’s text was a reference to semiotician Thomas Sebeok and others in a group of scholars tasked with creating warnings about nuclear waste deposit sites that would continue to communicate the dangers to humans in ten thousand years. I would like to write another piece about this project, so I won’t provide full examples, but Sebeok and others on the team argued that a folklore needed to be established about these sites that would be passed on by people because no language or illustration is likely to make sense to people for as long as the materials on the site will be dangerous. The experts resort to planning megalithic structures designed to prevent development and fill future peoples with a sense of dread.


I spent much of the winter researching the history of the Welsh folk song commonly known as “The Ash Grove,” and though I’ve gathered quite a bit of string, I’ve been at a loss as to how to write the article. I’ve learned many things about the history, including colorful facts, and much about the production of Welsh folk music. Welsh librarians, television producers and members of the Welsh Folk Song Society have been extremely helpful and I feel chagrined for not producing an article yet, and a bit immobilized by the sense that with so much support, this better be good!



I started rereading Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses after Rushdie was attacked last August, with the desire to detail the novel’s many, and varied folkloric and mythological elements. From Grimm tales, to ghosts, yetis, flying carpets and Arabian cults superseded by Islam, this is a worthwhile read. It has also been a novel to provoke many violent attacks and murders. In our time of many pressures against being able to speak and write (and read!) freely, I think Rushdie deserves another look. I annotated two thirds of the novel last fall before getting sidetracked. Another interesting text on the idols to gods that resided in Mecca before Muhammad also deserves another look!


Since my work-life reclaimed so much of my intellectual bandwidth, I’ve conceived of a few other book reviews I’d like to write. I have been a great fan of Assyriologist, author and character, Irving Finkel for a few years now. I loved his The Ark Before Noah and have wanted to write up something to promote it. I have had Finkel’s The First Ghosts on my bedside table since March and need to get cracking. Finkel is a funny and entertaining scholar and everyone should read him.


Performance

Karine Polwart’s “Follow The Heron” at the rotunda in downtown Provincetown, Massachusetts in April (in the rain!)


I’ve worked on a variety of music this year, much of it I haven’t had the chance to perform publicly. I got to perform Karine Polwart’s “Follow the Heron” twice in April, once at a talent show and another time at an open mic at a bar. The song is modern folk by a Scottish writer, about the coming of the spring. I think I’ll make it a more regular part of my performing because it fits well into traditional music and is beautiful.


Several songs I’ve worked on this year have stretched my playing ability and pushed me to develop more sophisticated accompaniments for the lyre. My current project is an ode to Gordon Lightfoot, who passed away in early May this year. It is not his most folksy song, but I’ve always loved “If You Could Read My Mind.” Not to get too into the weeds with talk of chords, but I have progressed a bit in how I express chords in songs.


My early arrangements tended to either strike the three notes of the chord at once or to play each of the notes from bottom to top (arpeggiating). I always felt that the options were constraining, but I did not know how to break out of them. An intermediate option that sometimes helped with maintaining a rhythm was to strike two strings of the chord and then follow with the third. It feels at the moment like I’ve made a breakthrough in tailoring the chords more to the accompaniment, leaving a note out if it doesn’t seem necessary and it supports the rhythm. Maybe the easiest way to explain it is to say it is less formulaic. If I were baking cakes, we might see it as the moment I stopped worrying about the recipe and more about what I wanted from the cake.


The real breakthrough came from working on another song, “John Barleycorn Must Die” as I tried to simulate the sounds of Steve Winwood’s guitar riffs. I ran into some difficulty with the vocal range of the song. The published key was much higher than Winwood’s actual performance. By the time I discovered this, I had settled on licks that excited me. I may return to the song, altering the vocal line to suit my voice. I tried to mimic Gordon Lightfoot’s guitar picking for my current song and have found that with the lyre, there are places where it is not best to mimic, but to play in such a way that just supports the vocal line. I’m grateful to see myself continually learning.


A tougher lyre-project has been speeding up my fingers to play a song from the Harpen Tradition, an ancient Scandinavian song-subject, about a man who plays his harp to perform magical effects on the weather and material world. I’ve adapted a few stanzas of the song into English, but the difficulty of moving my fingers to match the melody (as written by the group Sava) has led to a number of starts and stops. It is essentially what lyre-players call a block and strum, but instead of playing a set of chords, I am playing the melody with a drone. This play-style should allow me to play other quick folk melodies, which is an ambition for me.


Fairy Meadow Project

Our little wildflower meadow in southern New Hampshire this week, not yet ready to pop. (Photos by author and Rachel Hellman.)


The cool, damp weather has not stopped me from erecting a small gated arbor at the opening of the path through our little wildflower meadow. The meadow is in its second season and we already have lupin and daisies and ornamental grasses and other flowers. My next plan is to put little solar lamps along the path to give it a nightglow. The little folk may or may not need it, but it will help me walk Beatrice around the house at night, which we will like. The arbor was the final touch of a project to give Beatrice more safe space to play on our property, but it is pretty to look at. I think this is a summer to keep making our yard a more magical, beautiful place.


Closing

It’s still gray and rainy even though I’ve dripped this post out piecemeal for the last week. The heat is returning though and it feels like summer again. It’s too wet for me, but I think the plants like it because everything is big and green. I hope to be a more disciplined writer and poster this summer. We shall see next week when my summer break begins!


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PRACTICAL MYTHOLOGY

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