Search

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.



49 views0 comments

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.

77 views0 comments

Updated: Jun 30


Batraz blasts down from the heavens, landing in the hearth of the Narts, the force of it burying him to his thighs, by artist Andrew Jones. Image commissioned for this article.


They are curiously kindred. Ossetian Shoshlan and his cousin, Batraz, are beings of steel and fire who become metal by being placed in a forge by a heavenly blacksmith. In the tradition of heroic tales of the northern Caucasus these figures also share a trove of contradictory and redundant traits that raise my myth-reading eyebrow and pose serious questions, starting with: why does a mythology need two metal men? They have alternately been understood as solar and storm figures, but they are also associated with stone, with fertility, and tantalizingly, with stars falling from the heavens and landing in the earth. Who are Shoshlan and Batraz, and where do they come from?


Ossetia is a region that straddles the Greater Caucasus mountain range south of Russia and north of Georgia. The people of Ossetia and their Circassian neighbors have a tradition of legends and myths about a superhuman race that mixed with gods and fought against monsters. These heroes go by the name of the Narts, a term that means manly hero, but is used in the tales almost as an ethnic or racial identity. A few months ago I interviewed translator and Caucasus expert John Colarusso about his translation of the Circassian Nart tales, but I enjoyed the stories so much I dove directly into Colarusso’s edition of the Ossetian Nart tales, which expanded on characters I found fascinating in the Circassian corpus: the men whose bodies were made of steel.


Shoshlan and Batraz have unusual origins and were both put into forges as children, turning their bodies into steel, each with a vulnerable spot. Shoshlan was born red hot from a stone, suggesting a myth about smelting iron, and blacksmithing. Shoshlan Batraz was born fiery hot from a lump in his father’s back, suggesting—I don’t know what! Batraz’s mother, a little person from the water people, divorces her husband for breaking a vow and “blows” the developing baby into his body. Batraz comes out of his father’s back and lands right in the sea, causing it to evaporate and beginning his short, strange career as an aquatic figure. Russian Ossetian scholar Vaso Abaev differentiated the tempering of Shoshlan and Batraz, suggesting that the element of wolf’s milk in Shoshlan’s hardening represented a shamanistic tradition, while Batraz was made steel through the raw technology of the forge. However, Batraz’s forging required dragon bones to superheat the forge. Surely this diverges from the notion that Batraz’s forging is meant to represent purely technological power.


Fiery Origins

Shoshlan and Batraz have their skin hardened in the forge by the heavenly smith Kurdalagon. Image by by Makharbek Tuganov.

After their forging, Shoshlan and Batraz’s paths diverge. Though he has plenty of heroic stories, Shoshlan’s steel skin does not figure prominently in them until his death, which exploits his only weakness, his knees, which were not hardened to steel. Batraz, however, is aglow in stories that recall his fiery birth and his steel skin. His steely body and its tendency to overheat feature prominently in tales. It makes me wonder whether the seemingly redundant detail of the blacksmith and hardening of their bodies represents a point in the oral storytelling where bards had begun to conflate the two. Perhaps writing the tales froze the figures in place before all of the stories about Shoshlan began to be associated with Batraz, at least in the Ossetian tales of the Narts.


Ossetian Batraz already has a buffet of curious attributes and associations that seem a bit too multifarious to me to belong to a single figure of myth. Myths help explain greater truths. The Scandinavians told the story of Thor’s hammer to explain thunder. The Greeks told the story of Persephone in the underworld to explain winter. It is hard to pinpoint just what Batraz’s many attributes would be used to explain. Born fiery, Baraz is doused in the sea and lives among his watery kin until he is coaxed out of the water to live with his father’s people. Stories of his childhood with the Narts repeatedly place him near the hearth, where he is often sooty and warming his feet. After he goes to the heavenly smith Kurdalagon to have himself hardened in the forge, the detail arises that he spends most of his time in the clouds and that when he is needed for help, one must send a bird as a messenger to call him down.


Projectile Hero

When he doesn't fly himself, he still finds a way into the air. “Batraz on the Arrow” by Makharbek Tuganov.


Batraz in battle is superhuman, but his kryptonite is his own heat. Though his steel fists pummel or crush adversaries—in one tale he is is even shot on a giant arrow and he breaches a castle wall like a cannonball—he overheats in combat and must cool himself. In one tale he has his horse kick him into the sea. Another tale begins with him on a glacier fresh from fighting. Batraz is finally defeated and killed when his enemies deprive him of a watery refuge and his one flesh intestine—hitherto unmentioned in the tales—burns up.


When I spoke to Colarusso he shared his theory that Batraz’s Circassian cousin Sosruquo (rendered Shoshlan in the Ossetian corpus) might share a common heritage with those nigh-invulnerable figures of European legends, Achilles, Cuchulainn and Sigurd, all of whom are either dark-skinned or connected with a blacksmith in some manner. At the time we were only discussing Colarusso’s translation of the Circassian Nart tales, as I had not yet read the Ossetian tales. Everything Colarusso said of Circassian Sosruquo applies even more appropriately to Ossetian Batraz. Batraz is described as dark and dusty from the hearth he plays in as a child. He relates more directly to the Irish Cuchulainn, who overheats in battle, and in one tale is thrown in successive barrels of water, which explode or completely evaporate until his body is cooled down. But these details only tie the Circassian Shoshlan and Ossetian Batraz to the forge.


Shoshlan’s Circassian tales, while omitting much of Ossetian Batraz’s superheroic flying and overheating, more than once place him in the realm of fertility figure. He recovers grain stolen by an ogre-like figure in one tale. In Circassian and Ossetian corpuses, when his enemies cannot kill him, they simply bury or entomb him alive, where he goes on living forever after blessing various animals with his strengths. Ossetian Batraz likewise has the markers of a fertility figure. In one tale he melts a glacier to cool his overheating body, the water runs from his face and falls on the earth. As already noted, he evaporates a sea when he is born, and Earth’s system of precipitation relies on evaporation. While he is not caught, Batraz’s enemies do try to bury him once and notably, in “Batraz and Tykhyfyrt Mukara” when “[Batraz flings] himself down from the heights and [falls] right into the fireplace of the Narts” landing so hard he buries himself “up to the middle of his thighs in the hearth.”


In a private email, Colarusso said that Batraz does seem to be an offshoot of Circassian Shoshlan and also that in formalizing the Ossetian corpus into the coherent cycle we have today, Abaev stripped out old details, the accretion of oral transmission over many generations, that would confuse readers. In reading and being able to compare the Ossetian and Circassian tales in Colarusso’s collections, this has been my impression. The Circassian tales retain a wildness that is embodied in details that seem significant, but go unexplained and may even contradict one another. This is not a criticism of the Ossetian corpus, which does have fun mysteries and contradictions, particularly when previously unmentioned divine figures make appearances.


Sky Iron

Iron does occasionally fall from the sky in the form of hot, burning meteorites. The Terrible Comet from the Augsberg Book of Miracles, 16th century, private collection, Wikipedia.

While Batraz and Shoshlan may have come by their metal and accompanying traits via associations with thunder and the earth’s fertility, another, wilder idea has occurred to me. I’ve left it for the end of this piece to segregate it from my firsthand reading and reporting of details from the Circassian and Ossetian Nart corpuses because I feel it is fanciful, but I also feel it is worth thinking about. And while he did not go so far as endorsing the theory, Colarusso (via email) did support the premise, which is that the earliest iron to be forged was that to be found in meteorites. It was hard for me to read about a figure whose early tales so connected him with fire and metal and then so abruptly shifted to having him crash down from heaven and embed himself in the earth without thinking about meteorites, those rocks that breach our atmosphere and strike the earth. I had remember in the Circassian corpus another story that seemed to be about a meteorite, associated with Shoshlan. In “How Sasruquo Plucked Down a Star” Sasruquo (a Circassian variant spelling of Shoshlan) fires a lead-weighted arrow into the sky and pulls it down to earth for the purpose of warming his comrades, who are freezing. Later in the same tale, when he returns with a brand of fire to make a fire, he is described as “glowing like a falling star.” The story struck me as unusual in that I could not recall other legends that seemed to be about meteorites. Could fiery, stelling Batraz’s (or Shoshlan’s) origins have been in a hunk of hot metal that fell from the sky?


With the origins of Shoshlan and Batraz so intertwined with the forge and metal, it is worth considering that before the advent of smelting, meteoric iron was the only source for the metal. Artifacts made of meteoric metal have been found in Asia, Africa and the Americas. The Tutankhamun dagger, found in the Egyptian king's 14th century BCE tomb, is only one of the known examples of meteoric iron being forged into an object. Inuit hunters in the Americas are known to have topped a narwhal tusk with meteoric metal and an axe head made of the metal was found in Ugarit in Syria. The articles I’ve found on the worship of meteorites are dated, but more than one scholar has written of instances of meteorite worship by peoples around the globe. Hubert Newton’s “The Worship of Meteorites,” published in Nature in Aug. 12 1897, considers the instance of the black stone in the Kaaba of Mecca (which has never been proven to be a meteorite) and other tales from antiquity. Oliver Farrington, in the Journal of American Folklore, 1900, tantalizingly, relates a story that proves that meteorites have sometimes been considered the physical remains of thunderbolts. This would connect Batraz and Shoshlan’s storm god statuses with hunks of hot metal falling from the sky. Farrington quotes from a letter to the British Museum that accompanied the Nejed meteorite, from Najd, Saudia Arabia. The letter writer Hajee Ahmed Khane Sarteep, refers to the meteorite and other meteorites as “thunderbolts.” (From “The Worship and Folk-lore of Meteorites”)

I don’t mean to lay out a treatise on meteoric worship in this piece, and I also can’t think of another instance where a meteorite was personified as Shoshlan or Batraz would have been if this theory could be proven. It seems unlikely that such characters would arise only in one mythology, but the correspondances seem worth studying. While the theory seems, at the moment, farfetched, it is fun and I will continue to research the matter.

79 views0 comments

PRACTICAL MYTHOLOGY

Benjamin Hellman's Blog