A summer hare enjoying clover in my yard in southern New Hampshire. (Photo by author.)

Summer has been here for a couple of weeks now and my wife and I have had a blessed break from the Massachusetts school systems we work in. We had our first long-distance trip since the pandemic and are measuring the days of July carefully lest we find ourselves bombarded with the back-to-school advertisements all teachers loath (and which seem to strike earlier each year!)

It has been a full year of New England Bard and this blog. I meant to produce a piece every other week and I did so dutifully, sometimes running a bit late, but then sometimes turning out something extra. The most enjoyable thing about having this blog is that I get to learn things about myth, folklore, culture and history and have the added pleasure of figuring out how to share those things. It’s exciting and fun and even more enjoyable when an article I write catches people’s attention.

The biggest surprise has been the number of scholars and artists have graciously allowed me to interview them, and this has emboldened me to reach out more frequently. A well-researched article is its own reward. I hope to continue to interact with experts as I learn more about the fields of folklore and mythology. I also hope to continue to learn more about world myth and folklore to share. My topics are very Euro-centric, and although I love the cultural treasure trove I grew up with, I’ve loved encountering new stories. I hope to do some reading and research of African and South American folklore in the coming year as well as continue my reading adventure further into Asia.

At the moment I am reading different versions of folktales native to New Hampshire, where I live and write. I am also corresponding with experts to come to a better understanding of the culture and history of the Abenaki peoples who ranged throughout New England, parts of New York and Quebec. I wrote a piece called “Discovering the Dawnland” last fall and when I shared it with tribal elders in New Hampshire, they called out a few of my claims. I took these claims from authors of Abenaki heritage, but it is important to me to understand the critiques of living people in the living culture and to produce a new piece with my refined understanding. This may be my next post, but I have several others in the works and would like to take the summer a bit slower for what I think of as enterprise stories, articles that benefit from more research and additional sources.

I have been “gathering string” for four other stories for a few months now. One of them is about three Massachusetts women who took on legendary status for acts of violence that people do not usually associate with women. Another story is about the origins or purposes of folktales about the bones of murder victims singing or being turned into instruments. I am also looking at horses in folklore and trying to do something with the etymology of words related to the word goblin.

Almost ready for Primetime?

Me rehearsing one of the songs I will record this summer.

The other parts of the New England Bard site have languished for a while, partially for want of time, partially because of the pandemic. I’ve been working steadily on learning songs to sing with my lyre, but the lack of public performance for a year has made it harder to motivate myself to bring them to a level where I feel comfortable recording them for an audience other than friends on social media. I hope to have some kind of performance material to add to the website in 2021. The Widsith Project, my long term work to illustrate stories from the Old English poem “Widsith,” is sitting in my workshop waiting for me to gather the steam to finish constructing the rudiments of a mead hall to photograph the Frisian attack on Queen Hildeburh’s visiting family, a story told in Beowulf and in a separate fragment text. I expect to complete these shots of the Fight at Finnsburg this month and to be able to post an update.

My plans for the sort of output for this blog this summer are a bit in flux. I plan to post every couple of weeks, but I would also like to take the time to develop my more complicated articles. I anticipate a busier school year with a return to a more normal schedule and I would like to get ahead to keep production on schedule through the school year. July and August may see more notebook style posts unless I run into a story that is more about the summer season or that strikes me as time-sensitive. Another possibility is that I share a bit more about the excitement of my yard, which is alive with rabbits and chipmunks and a variety of birds and other critters.

Thank you to anyone who has followed this blog this year. It’s been a pleasure and I look forward to another year of researching, learning and writing!

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Updated: Jul 1

The author contemplating another round of phantasmagorical excess at the House on the Rock, Spring Green, Wisconsin. Photo by Rachel Hellman.

It is no wonder that Neil Gaiman, in search of the ultimate incarnation of phantasmagorical American kitsch, landed on Wisconsin’s House on the Rock. I haven’t seen everything our great and varied country has to offer, but it is hard to imagine anything being more of what the House on the Rock is. If the dark carnival from Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes was permanently frozen in place and had grown a bit musty from lack of housekeeping, it might be this mildly disorienting, excessive attraction.

I just revisited the house a bit more than two decades after my first experience and this time lived somewhat vicariously through my wife’s first-time responses, the element of surprise being somewhat a part of the experience. The surprise is simply that anyone would build what the eccentric collector Alex Jordan and the successive owners of the site have wrought. And though I knew what was coming—it had been seared in my mind for twenty-three years—it is impossible to say I was not freshly taken aback or would not again be taken aback if I made the pilgrimage to the house again two decades hence.

It would be reductive to call the House on the Rock a museum (and perhaps an insult to both the house and actual museums), but it is certainly a theatrical cabinet of curiosities. It is hard to imagine that the Louvre houses a more extensive display of legendary and mythological creatures, but also that the Louvre staff would not spot and remove the fantastically garish creatures if one managed to sneak a few in there. The angels at the Louvre are not department store mannequins fitted with wooden wings and evening gowns from the 1970s; the grotesque chimeras are not lacquered carousel animals, however fantastical. If there is a female nude fitted with a unicorn head in any world class museum anywhere, please send me the details in a private message!

Crown of the Doll Carousel

When at the House on the Rock, one quickly learns that ours is not to reason why. Photo by Rachel Hellman.

Yet the house is not simply a strange collection of strange objects (though it is certainly that). For instance, the collection of (likely faux) scrimshaw tusks and horns, or (again, likely faux) historical firearms is not notable for any particular object, but rather that they are too numerous to fix on one in particular. With the historic firearms, for instance, one finds oneself walking down a corridor of seemingly ancient guns in cases placed end to end in rows starting at the floor and surpassing one’s height. It is as if the objects were a patterned wallpaper made three dimensional. Authenticity isn’t really the point, though everything that is meant to be real looks reasonably real to the layman. Not many of the objects are labeled anyway. Here multiplicity and particularity take on a spectacle of their own.

An Overwhelming Menagerie

The visitor can be disoriented and even overwhelmed by certain spaces in the House on the Rock. Photo by Rachel Hellman.

What the house does for large-scale legendary spectacle is probably also not to be outdone. Photographs do not really capture the scale of what is billed as the largest indoor carousel in the world, nor the sea battle between the giant squid and the whale, which one ascends a three story ramp around to appreciate the finer points. The very top was roped off, barring the view inside the whale’s mouth, but I recall a dinghy inside with an adult-sized bewhiskered mannequin dressed in a yellow fisherman’s rain hat and slicker. The carousel is populated only with exotic and fantastical beasts: mermaids pulling a carriage, a bare chested female zebra centaur and a myriad of other man-horses dressed as soldiers from various times and places, giant cats and dragons and elephants and unicorn sea horses. The point is that I knew this was coming, but beholding it again, in person, the scale of the thing, bedecked in red chandeliers racing by and seemingly several stories high, made me dizzy.

Gaiman's American Gods

The carousel becomes a portal to another dimension in the television adaptation of American Gods.

Author Neil Gaiman, who made much of the house in his novel American Gods, said in an interview that he came across it in 1992, five years before I did, and did not know what to make of it: “but I loved it.” He said he was determined to write a book and put the house in it. The conceit of the novel is that gods come into being when humans worship them, and when the world flocked to the North American continent, they brought versions of their gods with them that took on a distinctly American hue. In the old world, when people came across places that felt particularly powerful or magical, they would choose those places to worship. In these places shrines and temples and churches and cathedrals were built. But in America, instead of shrines, people built roadside attractions and the House on the Rock is one of the most powerful places in the country. Gaiman’s gods and human protagonist meet at the house and interact with several exhibits that are still there today and they end up at the great carousel, which transports them to another realm. I suspect that certain people who have been fans of Gaiman’s novel are discovering as they read this that the House on the Rock is a real place.

My First Trip to Wisconsin

The author with castmate Emily Abraham in American Family Theater’s Robin Hood, 1997.

I first encountered the house right out of college while working in a touring musical theater production of Robin Hood. My small company had made a circuit from New Jersey, down the coast to Louisiana, into Texas and then north to Wisconsin, stopping in little towns at small and large venues across the American south and Midwest. Sometimes we played in restored (or moldering) vintage vaudeville era theaters whose verve the house seems to recreate. The billboard-sized vintage posters of magic acts of yore in the house’s strange little food court likely played in some of the same theaters (assuming the advertisements weren’t created whole-cloth for the house). The attraction seemed made for me at that particular point in my life, perfect for this group of young men and women who probably hadn’t seen too much of the world at that time. We made a meagre living dressed up in costumes, trucking a bunch of flat boards painted to look like an English forest. We loaded the faux forest into the theater, entertained the children, flopped in what seemed like the same cheap, but clean hotel room and then started the next long van ride to the next city. The house seemed at the time a great life event, a story I must recall the details of to share with friends at home. This was 1997 and I’d left my disposable cardboard camera in the van. If the house had a website at the time, too many images would have overburdened the computing power of modern technology. But you must understand: it didn’t feel like I’d only experienced a roadside attraction. It felt like I was the last witness to the burning of the Hindenburg and bore the awesome responsibility of telling the tale.

Twenty-four years later, and I’ve seen the actual Sherwood Forest and been to the Louvre, and seen many of the actual wonders of the world and yet, I still appreciated the house, even if I smelled the mold and saw the cobwebs the staff had allowed to accumulate, noticed the occasional broken fretwork of the (probably faux) wooden Japanese window screens. This time I encountered the house during a reunion of teachers who had all once won places in a Chaucer seminar in London. The day before revisiting the house I’d sat in an orderly Frank Lloyd Wright house, tasted champagne and partaken of a charcuterie board. In returning these many years later, I discovered I did a good job recalling those details that seemed so vital so many years ago, even if the whole delightful scene was a bit tawdrier than I might have recognized that long ago.

Heritage of the Sea Room

The author and his wife, Rachel, at the bottom and top of the epic battle between the whale and the giant squid. Photos by Rachel Hellman.

Instead of having to wait to share the experience, this time I had the perfect travel companion. Watching my wife’s jaw drop and yet retain its grin, hearing her repeated gasps and ejaculations of “Holy bananas!” told me that the house was still doing the job it was meant to do. Seeing the groups of twenty- and thirty-somethings doing much the same showed me that it wasn’t just us. Others seemed also to share our eventual fatigue, which I can only describe as the weariness one feels midway through a trip to Ikea, where even though one speeds up their pace to break free, there always seems to be another area to get through. We found a young man curled into a ball on a shag-carpet covered bench, likely only thinking he was pretending, as he muttered “It just doesn’t end…” as we entered the sixth or seventh period-themed room dedicated to mechanical instruments self-playing an orchestral suite (this one the Blue Danube) at the drop of a twenty-five cent token in the slot. Every one of these rooms is an overwhelming rococo grotesquerie producing a sensory overload and they just keep coming. Give me a good carnival calliope and I feel satisfied. Give me twenty and make each an immersive experience and my head starts to spin.

A Cacophony of Sound and Detail

A music box room performing music from the Nutcracker Suite. Photo by Rachel Hellman.

And, love it or hate it, all of this seems to be the point. Three hours later with sore feet and wondering whether I would ever want to return (I would, given a new person to watch experience it for the first time) we stumbled to our car, happy to be in the sunlight, happy to walk across something as mundane as a parking lot (even with the colossal vases covered in dragon sculptures that look vaguely as if designed by children). The House on the Rock is probably not for everyone, but for those of us looking for one of the more unusual escapes to a realm of the fantastic, it does transport.

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Updated: Jun 30

Loki consumes the female Gullveig’s heart, and is impregnated, an illustration of lines from Hyndluljóð, or Song of Hyndla, by John Bauer, 1911.

The moment you suggest that in the “good old days” men were men and women, women, and all of this LGBTQ+ stuff is rather new and “woke,” I will refer you to the story of Hercules, who abandoned the other manly Argonauts to save his male lover, Hylas, from the nymphs. Or of Loki, from the ostensibly manlier Norse pantheon, who turns himself into a female horse to distract a stallion and winds up pregnant. Head to the east and you will find Krishna, who becomes a woman so a hero doesn’t die a virgin—yes, Krishna, one of the most revered deities in the world, became a woman and slept with a man. The Chinese have a gay god as do the Japanese, as did the Aztecs and Egyptians. Etc, etc, and so forth. Pride month is new, but queer is immortal.

‘Him Have I Lost’; Achilles and Patroclus

Achilles tending Patroclus wounded by an arrow, identified by inscriptions on the upper part of the vase. Tondo of an Attic red-figure kylix, ca. 500 BC. From Vulci (Wikipedia).

Perhaps the best-known of Greek same-sex lovers were Achilles and Patroclus of Homer’s Iliad. Achilles famously sulks in his tent, refusing to help the Greeks, until Trojan Hector kills Patroclus. If Menelaus’s rage at having Helen stolen from him motivates the Greek siege of Troy, Achilles’ rage at Patroclus’s death is what leads the Greeks to defeat the Trojans. His anger at Patroclus’s death is equaled by his grief. A “black cloud of grief” surrounds him as he tears his hair and covers his face with dust. Antilochus, who bears the news of Patroclus death, restrains the hands of the moaning Achilles for fear he may cut his own throat in grief. Achilles’s goddess mother hears Achilles’s grief and tries to comfort him. His response: “My mother...what pleasure have I therein, seeing my dear comrade is dead, even Patroclus, whom I honored above all my comrades, even as mine own self? Him have I lost.”

Achilles and Patroclus may be the most famous of male lovers from Greek mythology, but they are far from the only ones. The gods Zeus, Apollo, Pan and Dionysus had same-sex lovers, as did Hercules! The Greeks clearly saw no conflict between same-sex love and being respected, admired, revered.

Mother Loki

Loki takes the form of a mare and flirts with the giants horse in Loki and Svadilfariby Dorothy Hardy, 1909.

Norse Loki takes on a female form more than once, most famously when he becomes the mare who bears Odin’s eight-legged steed in the text Gylfaginning. It is the tale of the building of Asgard’s walls, which a giant in disguise offers to build in exchange for the hand of Freya. Loki convinces the gods to accept the builder’s offer, but to set a deadline he could not possibly meet. However, the builder and his horse make such fast progress on the wall that the gods fear they will have to give him Freya. They threaten Loki if he does not remedy the situation so he hatches a scheme. Loki realizes that the builder’s horse is crucial to the builder meeting the deadline. The next day, when the builder starts working, “a mare suddenly ran out of the woods to the horse and began to neigh at him.” The mare, Loki in disguise, drives the giant’s horse mad and it chases Loki into the forest, delaying the giant. The Gylfaginning coyly relates that Loki “had run such a race” with the giant’s horse that he bears a foal some time afterward.

Loki’s impregnation feels like a punchline, a comeuppance, but the fertility god Freyr was also said to be worshipped by gay priests. For more on Freyr and other Viking attitudes toward gay sex, check out this excerpt from Gunnora Hallakarva's Viking Lady Answer Page post, The Vikings and Homosexuality.

Krishna Becomes Woman

The exceptionally alluring Mohini, Krishna’s (Vishnu’s) female form. Photograph of a famous statue of Mohini from the 12th Century Chennakeshava Temple, of Belur in the state of Karnataka, India. (Wikipedia.)

There are so many instances in Hindu stories of gods and heroes changing gender or having multiple genders, that it seems more the rule than the exception. A striking example of this is that of Krishna, who is God on earth, becoming a woman specifically to marry and sexually consummate that marriage with a hero who is asked to sacrifice himself for the good of the universe. Aravan is the son of the great hero Arjuna and a Naga princess. His death in the great Mahabharata war is required for the forces of good to succeed, but Aravan is a virgin and does not want to die a virgin. Not only does Krishna become the woman for Aravan—he becomes an exceptionally alluring woman. Krishna’s female name, Mohini, is meant to suggest the essence of female beauty and attraction. And it is not only a marriage of convenience. After Aravan’s death, Mohini mourns his loss. The story lives on in an annual ritual with transgender women and men dressed as women ritually marrying Aravan (whose name seems to become Iravan in ritual or after his death). According to the article “Celebrating the Third Sex” in the English newspaper, The Telegraph, 25,000 transgender people participated in the event in 2007.

‘Neither and Either:’ The Two-Fold form of Hermaphroditus

Hermaphroditus in their male-female form is not an uncommon figure to find in art. "Sleeping Hermaphroditus," an ancient sculpture on a mattress by Gian Lorenzo Bernini; Louvre Museum. (Photo by Pierre-Yves Beaudouin, Wikipedia)

What strikes me most about Ovid’s story of the son of Hermes and Aphrodite isn’t that he becomes intersex after his encounter with the naiad Salmacis, but the nymph’s palpable desire for him when he is a man. Of course, in begging the gods never to be separated from him, she finds herself physically merged with him, but otherwise lost.

Salmacis is said to be the only female of Greek mythology to attempt to rape a male and by Ovid’s description, she certainly steps over the line of being forward. After proposing marriage (or offering to sleep with him if he is already married or promised) Salmacis seems to give up when Hermaphroditus threatens to leave the woods if she doesn’t leave him alone. But she spies on him and when he removes his clothes to dive into a pool, she strikes. Ovid describes her as ivy on a tree or as the cuttlefish grappling with its prey, kissing him this way and that. When Hermaphroditus refuses her, she makes her wish to never be parted from him and in the way of gods or genies granting the word of a wish, she is merged with him: “they were not two, but a two-fold form, so that they could not be called male or female, and seemed neither or either.” Hermaphroditus’s limbs are “softened” and he speaks “not with the voice of a man.”

Another feature of the story that struck me was Ovid’s initial descriptions of Hermaphroditus, which seem to feminize him. He blushes at Salmacis’s aggressive forwardness and Ovid describes his blush as the color “of an apple in a sunlit tree,” and as “the moon eclipsed, blushing in her brightness.” Hermaphroditus is as the fruit or the feminine moon, and perhaps I read into the ancient descriptions my own associations from much later texts of blushing maids. Men obviously blush and are not always receptive to feminine advances, but it seems to me that Ovid has foreshadowed Hermaphroditus’s end or, as with the aggressive Salmacis, suggested that to be male or female is not so great a difference.

A Girl on Fire’; Iphis and Ianthe

Iphis and Ianthe may never have made love as females in Ovid, but that didn’t stop Rodin from depicting it in this statuette; Victoria and Albert Museum.

For a culture that gave us Sappho, satisfyingly modern depictions of lesbian love are absent in the Greek myths I know, and they are not very evident in ancient stories elsewhere, though I don’t count myself an expert on the topic. Ovid’s story of Iphis and Ianthe may come closest. Iphis’s father threatens that if his wife delivers a girl child, he will order it put to death. Of course Iphis, whose name is gender-neutral, is born a girl, and her mother hides it to save her life. Iphis is raised as a boy and Ovid, as with Hermaphroditus, seems to minimize the difference between the sexes in his description of her, “whose features would have been beautiful whether they were given to a girl or a boy.”

Iphis is betrothed to the beautiful Ianthe in childhood and the two grow up together and are very much in love, though Iphis is troubled by her secret: “Iphis loved one whom she despaired of being able to have, and this itself increased her passion, a girl on fire for a girl.” Iphis, heartbreakingly, sees her love for a girl as a monstrosity that outdoes even Pasifaë’s attraction to a bull, which leads to her birthing the minotaur, in that at least Pasifaë is female and the bull, though an animal, male.

Iphis and her mother dread the approaching date of the wedding and with no time left to spare, her mother prays to Isis to save her daughter. I warned that it is a disappointment for queer readers, but Ipis is transformed into a man, a happy ending as far as the Iphis of Ovid’s tale is concerned! In “Lesbian Mythology,” by Christine Downing, 1994, Downing argues that the lack of what we would understand as homosexual relationships between women in the Greek context is the male-centric lens of our received Greek mythology. That lens centers the penis in sex and without it, sexual relationships between women weren’t likely interpreted thus. Downing’s essay examines many of the goddesses and their relationships with other women and men. The closest evidence that a goddess had same-sex relations would be when Kallisto welcomes the kisses and embraces of Zeus when he approaches her disguised as Artemis. Zeus’s rape of Kallisto leaves her pregnant, for which Artemis turns her into a bear in punishment, another unjust ending for a woman in Greek mythology.

A Taste of Queer Deities from World Mythology and Religion

(Left to right): Tu'er Shen, The Rabbit God, a Chinese deity who manages love between homosexual people; image from the 2010 Taiwanese television program The Rabbit God's Matchmaking, Wikipedia; Inari Ōkami, a female Japanese god or spirit associated with same sex love, agriculture, foxes and trickster Kitsune spirits, image by Neko-Y; Aztec “Flower Prince” Xochipilli, patron of homosexuals and homosexual prostitutes Wikipedia; Shaushka, Hurrian goddess of fertility who is depicted as female with male clothes and in groupings of both gods and goddesses, Wikipedia.

Queer may be immortal, but unfortunately, hate is too, and as much progress as LGBTQ+ people have made in the U.S., and as much progress as many straight people have made in accepting queer people, there is still clearly quite a ways to go to securing the rights of all people to live, love and present as they wish. I hope that this modest attempt to share a few of the queer narratives from mythology may help pride and all the progress pride supports. Happy Pride Month, 2021!

Christine Downing’s “Lesbian Mythology” was published in Historical Reflections / Réflexions Historiques , Summer 1994; Vol. 20, No. 2, Lesbian Histories (Summer 1994), pp. 169-199.

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