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Updated: Feb 23


Dawn in southern New Hampshire, the first week of February.


The light is returning. Every day the afternoon seems to last longer and that’s a reason to celebrate. Imbolc was officially the first of February, but this is the season of returns. With the cold weather and persistent snow, it might be hard to believe that we are headed to spring, but look to the light when you despair. It is coming. In my neck of the woods, maple sugaring has begun, the time of year when the shifting temperatures between day and night get the sap flowing that will be boiled down to maple syrup. I’ve got a bit in my beard from adding it to my oatmeal this morning, which puts it in my mind. The Abenaki people of the area have a story that the syrup once ran straight from the trees, without needing to be boiled down, but people got fat and lazy lying on the ground with syrup dripping straight into their mouths. Gluskabe, the helper (and trickster) god, saw that something must be done to help the people and watered down the sap.


This is the week of February vacation for Massachusetts schools and should be a time of rest and recharging for me, but I’ve had so many ideas running through my head, that it’s taken longer for me to give myself a break. I’ve been rereading John Colarusso’s Nart Sagas from the Caucasus, which I believe had its moment of fame because the independent women of the Circassian people likely fueled the Greek imagination, giving them Amazons. Any template for strong, independent women in past is a thing to celebrate and the stories of the Narts do have remarkably independent women, by the standards of many of the human women in Greek myth. The word Amazon itself, says Colarusso, is a rendering of a female name from one of these tales, not a word denoting the lack of a breast.


People Like Horses with Personality

Rostam sleeps while his horse Rakhsh fights off a lion, a painting in gouache on paper, from a tale in the Shahnameh. Dated to 1515. Made in Tabriz. Part of the British Museum's collection.


I watched a bit of Disney’s Tangled earlier in the week and was struck by the personality of the horse Maximillian. It has such personality and agency that I was reminded of Rakhsh, the Iranian hero Rostam’s horse, which actually helps Rostam fighting dragons and protects him from lions. (Rakhsh means lightning, a terrific name for a horse!) That made me think of a refrain from a ballad about Sigurd, the dragon slayer, about his horse Grani. In working on an English adaptation of it for people who didn’t know the story, I was struck that the refrain was about the horse carrying the gold and not the hero who slew the dragon to get the gold. Why would the writer have done that? And then I looked at Maximillian, the horse in Tangled, and I got it. People like horses with personality.


I finished a draft of lyrics based on the Norwegian ballad “Margit Hjuska” yesterday and made a preliminary video with questionable sound. The song is one of a series of ballads about young women being stolen by a troll or a mountain king. It is thought of as a variant of “Little Kjersti,” another ballad that also exists in a number of forms. Add these to “Sir Mannelig” and you see a trend of stories about creatures bent on taking human spouses against their will. I was struck also though that Margit’s particular Mountain King husband seems more like an abusive and controlling spouse than a supernatural terror. He reminds Margit of their children and how they need their mother to come home (and not leave the mountain again.) Human relationships seem remarkably stable over the ages.


Highlighting my Catoblepas


I’ve been working on my wall sculpture this week, the Catoblepas, trying to get the paint right to make his features visible from the floor. I take on art projects without having learned the prerequisite skills to complete them. This coupled with a stubborn streak of perfectionism means that I sometimes work on a project for a very long time before I feel it’s right. My Catoblepas could be ready to hang next week or in a year, if the past tells me anything. (Hopefully closer to next week) The Catoblepas is a fantasy creature from medieval bestiaries based on earlier Greek writings. The name of the animal comes from the Greek word meaning “to look downward” and indeed, the Catoblepas was said to have a neck that did not support the weight of its head. It literally always looked down. But this is a good thing because the stare of Catoblepas was thought to kill. My Catoblepas will stare directly at the main entrance of my home, greeting all comers. Don’t tell my friends. It can be our inside joke.


I love bestiaries, but I came across the Catoblepas as a kid playing Dungeons and Dragons, which has also been on my mind. I’ve been curious about how playing D&D as a child colored my expectations of folklore, gave me the expectations that folkloric beasts met the modern standards of scientific taxonomies. (They don’t.) This has swirled around my brain with another project I have wanted to pursue, of creating a linguistic tree documenting the spread of all creatures with a name related to the word goblin.


I had hoped to write a more cohesive piece for the blog this week, but clearly, I’m a bit scattered. I think that brings me back to the opening of this post, about the return of the daylight and the coming of a fresh solar year in March. The winter that started in 2020 may feel like it is lingering, but it cannot hold. The trees will wake back up and everything else will eventually fall into place for a more civilized spring and summer to come.


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Updated: Feb 18


NASA-produced art representing woman on the moon from the Artemis program marketing campaign: “Her features are abstract enough that all women can see themselves in her.” (NASA)


This is a story about two gods and an American space agency that has decided to use both of them to sell a very similar mission.


The words “lunar landing” conjure images of the past for most Americans: crew cuts; horn-rimmed glasses; analogue instruments; white, masculine faces. Apollo was an achievement of the century, but a century in which women were not often encouraged to wear scientific laurels. Almost seventy years later, NASA wants to return to the moon, but it is a very different time with different power brokers and a different electorate. When leaders at NASA went to Congress to make the pitch, this time they sold an image with a distinctly female face and a goddess’s name to go with it.


In May 2019, NASA announced the Artemis program, tasked with returning man to the moon and bringing woman this time as well. Artemis, Greek goddess of the moon and more, is also twin sister to the god Apollo, for whom the original moon missions were named. With budget shortfalls and the distinct uncertainty of the success of the program, at least as currently planned, the space agency’s dynamic webpage and colorful cell phone wallpapers are all the more interesting in that they seem aimed at casting a net designed to capture the attention of American women. All stress what is history-making about the program, and may help it garner additional support: the first woman stepping foot on the moon.


Artemis, Twin Sister of Apollo

Comparisons of art and insignias from Artemis to Apollo show NASA’s desire to recall its great, 20th-century accomplishment. (Courtesy collectSPACE.com)


All of this had me wondering how much has changed in American (and NASA’s) culture that NASA would choose Artemis, goddess of the moon, in 2019 when it did not do so in 1960s. Artemis’s brother Apollo, associated with the sun, light, prophecy and arts claimed that prize. How much had changed in American culture and gender politics for NASA to choose the first feminine name for a major manned space mission?


Margaret A. Weitekamp, historian and curator at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum, said that while NASA does not have complete gender equality, women have worked there in important roles for the last fifty years. She sees Artemis, both the mission and the selling of the mission, as the natural conclusion of this history. “The attempt to foreground an appeal to women or to having an explicitly mixed gender group going to the moon, I think is a reflection of changes that have been under way at NASA since the seventies. You have a few generations [at NASA] that are used to working with women in all of the various fields.” Weitekamp even said that she has heard rumors that women and women of color were on the Biden Administration's short list for NASA’s next top administrator.


Much has definitely changed in the naming and marketing of space missions since the days of the Apollo program, said journalist Robert Pearlman, whose website, collectSPACE.com investigates the intersection of pop culture and space exploration. The public-private nature of space ventures these days, for a start, means that marketing and legal trademarks play a larger role, but it was not always so. “It was very informal at the start,” said Pearlman. Indeed, NASA provides a story of the naming of the Apollo missions on its website. An engineer, not a public relations or marketing director, named the Apollo program. Dr. Abe Silverstein, credited with designing the first wind tunnel, developing liquid propulsion rockets and later becoming a leader at the agency that became NASA, is also credited with naming the first lunar program Apollo: “He said the image of ‘Apollo riding his chariot across the sun was appropriate to the grand scale of the proposed program’” (NASA). Pearlman said this was the romantic description, the prosaic version being, “It sounded good next to Mercury.”


Weitekamp said that NASA puts great emphasis on how it names missions and creates images to communicate the purposes of missions because communicating with the public is an important part of its role as a tax-funded agency. While she does not have insider knowledge of the naming of the program or the “woman on the moon” art, she pointed out that NASA has entire laboratories whose job it is to create and convey visuals for public consumption, to help tell the story of its missions effectively. "The name and the symbolism of a program is often put together at the very beginning, in some ways before they start bending metal on actual spacecraft and getting to do the science and build the technology, what they have is the emblem.” Communicating the message of a mission, then, is part of the mission. “I see NASA very self-consciously, through that symbolism, also trying to find a way to capture the public imagination in a way that connects to popular support and then funding. So I think that is a clever, effective, strategic decision. The decision to create a woman-centered symbol for this program has, I think, put it on people's lips, that they know what it is and what [NASA is] trying to do, which speaks to a very effective evocation of the mythology. They found a symbol that really does what they want.”


Not everyone agrees. “There are two things I cringe at,” said space historian Amy Shira Teitel, author of Fighting for Space: Two Pilots and Their Historic Battle for Female Spaceflight. "The first is Artemis as being the twin of Apollo. We're trying to recapture the lost glory of Apollo instead of doing something unique and different for the new era. The push of putting a woman forward and making it [about that]. It bothers me a lot.” Teitel’s criticisms are both about the shifting nature of U.S. plans to return to the moon, a goal that has been set several presidents, but not invested in seriously, and also the gender-forward approach of Artemis's marketing. Both, she says, reflect a backward-looking thinking. “Stop putting woman as other; because if you put it as first woman and next man it sounds like the woman is there just to be a woman as opposed to, the next crew on the moon happens to be a diverse interesting crew of humans that are very accomplished at their jobs.”


Not just your Moon Goddess

Depictions of Artemis, suggested by Topper, that show a range of interpretations of Artemis from ladylike to downright bestial. (Left to right, top to bottom) A stately Artemis feeding a swan, on the St. Petersburg lekythos, ca 500 BCE, State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg; the “Mistress of Animals,” a winged version of Artemis, decorating a handle of the Francois vase, ca 570 BCE, Archeological Museum of Florence; the Gorgon-headed goddess, a mysterious wedding of Artemis and Medusa on the Rhodian plate, ca 600 BCE; and a fully-fledged Medusa figure from the the pediment of the Temple of Artemis at Corfu, ca 580 BCE, Archeological Museum of Corfu.


NASA’s explanation of the name Artemis was simply that Apollo had a sister and that she was the goddess of the moon, but no one controls existing symbols and government agencies pick and choose the various aspects of mythological figures at its peril. Of course Artemis is also the huntress and most will recall the wrath she aims at Acteon for spying her bathing—turning him into a stag and having his dogs kill him. But the goddess has another ancient association with boundaries and thresholds that is also appropriate for a mission that would bring a woman to a place no woman has gone before.


A Goddess of Margins and Thresholds

Classical archeologist Kathryn Topper, who specializes in Greek art and teaches at the University of Washington, walked me through some of these less common attributes of Artemis in the ancient world. I asked the professor about the moon, but when Topper considered naming a lunar mission after Artemis, a more abstract concept occurred to her. “One of the things that I find kind of interesting about her being used for the lunar missions is that one of her main associations in antiquity had to do with the margins of civilization, with the wilderness, with the dangerous, often liminal areas, and this was symbolically consistent with how she presided over liminal times of life too.”


Liminality is the condition of existing in the area or border between different states, a no-man’s land of sorts, or a threshold. Artemis is the goddess of virginity, puberty and childbirth, which sound like very different states of being, but are similar in that they are transitional states of being. Puberty is easy to understand as a state of being that is neither childhood nor adulthood. Childbirth is a gateway or transformation, and in antiquity a dangerous one, where a woman will become a mother, unless she dies in the process, which is nevertheless another state. Virginity was considered a state of wildness that preceded the civilizing force of marriage, and virgin girls were considered to be like wild animals, said Topper. To relate this to the physical reality of the moon, it too is a dangerous wilderness, where humans can stay only temporarily. “[Artemis] presides over that sort of environment,” Topper said.


Regarding Artemis’s status as a gender hero of antiquity, Topper could not say how individual women felt about her—whether she was, let us say, the Wonder Woman of the day—but she could consider the expectations of the time, regarding women. “Because [goddesses] are both female and divine, they have elements to them that the Greeks would not have associated with proper women. Let’s say you’re a woman in sixth or fifth century Athens. A personal celebration or emulation of some of her more masculine aspects, like the fact that she’s a hunter—that is something that you’re not supposed to identify with.”


Woman on the Moon

NASA-produced desktop and cell phone wallpapers. (NASA)


The story of the room where Artemis was chosen as a name will someday be told. Pearlman, who follows closely the names, images and products that come out of and are inspired by NASA said that there was a chance that with the changing of administrations and change of leadership, outgoing administrators may be willing to speak more candidly and more information about the Artemis marking blitz will come to light. Pearlman said that the move can be seen as part of efforts in recent years by NASA to celebrate the women in its ranks. Pearlman said that NASA tried to be very helpful to author Margot Lee Shetterly during the writing of Hidden Figures, and allowed the 2016 film access to facilities. In 2019, NASA renamed the street of its Washington DC offices Hidden Figures Way. NASA has even licensed a LEGO series called Women of NASA, with figures like astronaut Sally Ride and astronomer and Nancy G. Roman, considered the “Mother of Hubble.”


NASA Celebrating Women

Author Margot Lee Shetterly helps unveil NASA’s Hidden Figures Way and the LEGO Women of NASA series, both efforts NASA has made to show its desire to welcome women to the exploration of space. The featured LEGO pack shown includes Apollo program computer scientist Margaret Hamilton, astronaut and engineer, Mae Jemison, astronaut and physicist, Sally Ride and astronomer, Nancy G. Roman, the Mother of Hubble.


NASA is no stranger to naming missions from mythological sources, though not always as would make sense to a mythologist. The reasoning behind the naming of early manned missions to space, Mercury and Apollo, might be described as “they sounded cool.” In the early 2000s, NASA named a proposed mission to the moon Constellation, and the Orion craft to be used to bring Artemis astronauts to the moon bears its name because Orion was a constellation, said Pearlman. The more appropriately-named Juno probe is still circling Jupiter. (Juno is Jupiter’s wife in Roman myth.) In 2011, NASA did name a mission to study space weather between the Earth and the moon ARTEMIS (Acceleration, Reconnection, Turbulence and Electrodynamics of the Moon’s Interaction with the Sun) and the mission is now known by the hyphenated acronyms THEMIS-ARTEMIS. Themis is the Titaness of law and natural order, so using her name to study the magnetic systems that affect the Earth makes sense to me. Missions have often been named for classical heroes known for their travels: Odysseus (Mars Odyssey), Ulysses, Jason. That the names inspire us and make the less accessible scientific purposes of space missions exciting, and to some extent, worth supporting with our tax dollars, is proof that some Americans, at least, still see classical mythology as something we can all agree upon.


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Updated: Feb 18


Danish King Hrothgar with his nephew Hrothulf, cutting down the Heathobards as Heorot Hall burns, following the failed wedding union between Hrothgar's daughter, Freawine, and scion of his ancestral enemies, Prince Ingeld. The story is hinted at in Beowulf, and in “Widsith.”


What’s a researcher to do? I was facing a thousand-year-old poem with hundreds of names and oblique references to mostly little-known stories. It was dense, intimidating and fairly impenetrable; the biggest, most boring list of a poem I’d ever encountered! I did what any other self-respecting truth-searcher would do. I borrowed camera and bought a whole bunch of toys.


It was admittedly a lark at first. Bored with my job and the courses I had to teach over and over, I would build a colorful monument to this monumentally boring thing. Hundreds of headshots and class photos of groups of warrior kings and tribesmen as toys. I had a whole slideshow planned. Students would look upon my works and despair. But at the time I didn’t know the goldmine of tales I was sitting on!


Wade, the stern boatman, aboard his fanciful ship the Guinngelot, ferrying the eloping Hild and Henden to their tragic ends in the Hjaðningavíg, or Battle of the Heodenings. Little remains of the stories of Wade, other than that he was a giant associated with the seas, potentially the son of a mermaid. He is also the father of Wayland, the legendary smith.


Widsith, the “far-traveler,” a poet and harper, is the narrator and protagonist of the poem now known by his name. He is fictional; a construct to bring together tales. He does narrate a few in the poem. But the vast bulk of the poem is in lists. Like Johnny Cash, Widsith has been everywhere, man, and he isn’t holding back one detail of it. Widsith names legendary and historical leaders and the names of nations and tribes of the peoples he visited in his impossibly long and storied life. Some you would recognize: Attila, Caesar, Alexander the Great; the Greeks, the Romans, the Finns, the Danes. But many, many, many more you would not recognize unless you’ve remained very still in front of very old books until, like mine, your shoulders have grown gray with dust.


The famed swimming match between Beowulf and Brecca the Bronding. Only Brecca is mentioned in “Widsith,” but I indulged myself in adding the hero in the background fighting a sea serpent.


What I did not know when I started my lighthearted, spite-worthy slide show was that the multitudes of names in the poem were not random and that the few fairly complete stories that Widsith narrates sit upon a gnomic list of characters from their own moving, inspiring, often violent, heartbreaking, stories. Widsith’s most admired princess was tied between the city gates and trampled to death by horses. A mute prince thought to be feeble-minded stands up and orates on the day his father’s lands are about to be usurped; and then he cuts down two champions in a legal duel. A wife is forced to drink from her father’s skull and plots the death of her cruel husband. A heartbroken daughter raises her husband and father from the dead interminably, only to watch them and their armies cut each other down again. And all of this from a poem that generally reads thus:


I was among the Franks and among the Frisians and among the Frumtingas.

I was among the Rugas and among the Glommas and among the Rumwala.

Likewise I was among the Eatula with Ælfwine,

he had the lightest hand of all mankind, as I have heard,

to perform his praises, the most generous in the sharing of rings,

the bright bracelets, the child of Eadwine. (68-74)


Aegelmund pulling the child Lamassio from a pool, a story from Paul the Deacon. The baby had just been left to drown when the warrior passed by and saw something moving in the pool. He thrust his spear into the pool and when the child was strong enough to grasp it and hold on, the warrior adopted him.


The poem “Widsith” has inspired a number of scholars. My favorite, R.W. Chambers, was a colleague and mentor to J.R.R. Tolkien, and his research is still the most extensive in English. Chambers' 260-odd pages on the 143-line poem is most interested in tracking down the identities of characters and their stories. The much more recent John Niles reexamined the poem as political rhetoric justifying the power of a ruling family. There are few full-blown texts devoted to "Widsith" and, on the whole, one can study Old English poetry and only see it in the footnotes of Beowulf scholarship. If there is a thesis behind my work, it is that early audiences of the poem would have been aware of the stories it refers to just by hearing the names of the figures, much as modern audiences are able to read the names Romeo and Juliet and derive the theme of star-crossed lovers. The names themselves might have functioned like kennings, shorthand descriptions for ideas and concepts that the right audience would recognize, just as a listener of Don Mclean's “American Pie” with an understanding of the lyrics can intuit a series of understandings and thereby events. Or, perhaps like me, one starts with Mclean's lyrics and must put in the work to learn the stories. It is become gnomic.


The funeral of Queen Swanhild, killed unjustly by her husband shortly after their wedding. “Her fame extended through many lands, when I used my song to spread the word of where under the heavens I knew a queen, adorned with gold, most generous of all” (Widsith, 99-102).


To give the toys full credit, and explain their use, these are Playmobil figures, typically of the Viking and Medieval series, augmented at times when I needed a prop or set that didn’t exist. I know that I am using them to depict stories that predate the Viking era by centuries, but you cast the show with the people who show up to audition and these guys were available. I am not an expert on armor, costumes or swords, but I mostly avoid horned helmets and have made a good-faith effort to use the most appropriate weapons. Playmobil’s Viking series was the perfect set as it incorporated not only costumes and armor that would communicate a sense of era, but also included the gamut of medieval props (barrels, benches, goblets, food, etc.) that would help in my storytelling. I know I use war paint reminiscent of anachronistic sources like Braveheart and the Vikings television show, but in my defense the people who might be my audience see those details and recognize the medieval past. I am also working with the single Playmobil face and my medium is the photography of plastic objects. I would finally add that recasting the ancient past anachronistically is extremely common in Old English poetry. This said, I made an effort to use accurate images for backdrop images, sometimes searching many hours for a castle wall or work of architecture from a particular location. For example, in my Caesar shoot, I looked for an image of the Rubicon, but had to settle for another river in the same province, which I believe was the Montanto. I learned later that Caesar was likely a reference to a Byzantine ruler, not Julius Caesar, and I will not post the character until I reshoot him so as not to perpetuate my misunderstanding.


Anatomy of a Scene: The Swimming Match

I’m not a modeler, but I have become a lot of things as this project required it. For the Brecca shot, I knew that the only thing Brecca is known for is participating in the swimming match with Beowulf. He had to be in the ocean. So I made an ocean.


Just as I did not start my reading of “Widsith” as an expert, I did not start my project as a photographer. I humbly submit that I still have a lot to learn about both. But just as my knowledge of the complexity of the poem grew--of its many narratives, reaching out like spokes to most of the extant corpus of old Germanic lore--my skills as a photographer and stager of scenes, continued to evolve. My fairly drab early photos (circa 2012) got a lot fancier as I added dramatic lighting and photographic backdrops. I searched Henden the Glomman a few days ago to recall the names and details of his story and Google gave me one of my first depictions of him, which I’d posted on a Playmobil enthusiast website all those years ago. There aren’t many depictions of Henden the Glomman on the internet, but mine is there. For better or worse, I’ve become part of the record of people who had worked with this poem.


Henden the Glomman 2012 versus 2017

I recently learned that Googling some of the lesser-known names from “Widsith” brings up photos I took in 2012. When I first shot Henden I did not know that he was part of a story where he elopes with a princess.


While my grand design has evolved over the years, sharing the genuine love I have developed for “Widsith” and exploring the powerful stories imbedded in it has become my ultimate goal. Last week, The Widsith Project went live on my website with photo galleries of the three largest narratives referred to in the poem and I plan to add new tales as time permits. The images there were meant to illustrate and interact with the poem in a slideshow that honestly was hard to follow and caused me to pause my work in 2018. The galleries, at best, give a sense of the stories, but with evolving technology and storytelling platforms, I would like eventually to share what I think the intended audience of “Widsith” may have experienced when hearing or reading the poem.


The Widsith Project, a recent edition to newenglandbard.com.


In the meantime, with an actual platform to share the stories, I plan to resume my shooting schedule and give myself the leeway to explore the exciting parts of the stories that “Widsith” doesn't directly refer to, like Hild from the Hjaðningavíg raising her father and lover from the dead; or the original badass shieldmaiden Hervor from the Hervarar saga exhorting her dead father to rise from the grave to grant her the cursed sword Tyrfing. There are so many stories to be told from this corpus, from the tales of the eponymous poet Widsith, and I don't feel I have to limit myself to the photographs, as much as I love having images to anchor stories in my memory. I did not have a website or play the lyre when I began the Widsith Project, which means that I could start podcasting or even pursue dramatic retellings of the these stories in the way my favorite fictitious medieval poet would have. I look forward to the possibilities. Into the 21st Century, Widsith’s journeys wend ever on!


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PRACTICAL MYTHOLOGY

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