Updated: 11 hours ago

An avenging Medusa, Abenaki Folklore, a new Beowulf, a fascinating take on Norse Mythos, and the 2020 winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, Louise Glück.

I am happily researching a few projects that will take more time to develop into posts, but I wanted to try to share a bit of my research methods and the excitement of the chase with you, so here are some of the topics I’ve been working on!

Abenaki Folklore

I discovered on Columbus Day that I could text my zip code to a number and a chatbot would tell me which native peoples lived in my area. All the groups in Southern New Hampshire spoke an Algonquian language and seemed to have had an affiliation with the Abenaki Tribe, which was also the easiest to research quickly online. The Abenaki people would have ranged from present day Quebec though most of New England, part of New York state, as far south as Delaware. The name Abenaki stems from the place name Wabanahkik, which means the “Dawn Land.” Not only do I find it a beautiful name, but it immediately forces me to alter my perspective, which considers the US to be of the West. But a people who developed their identity as the easternmost dwelling people before the coming of the Europeans are appropriately the people of the Dawn Land.

Researching the folklore of native peoples presents a few new challenges, political and logistical. The first is that I don’t have reliable sources to turn to. It isn’t a mainstream topic of study in the US. Wikipedia has the greatest amount of material, but I have come to find that Wikipedia, at least when researching unusual folklore related texts, sometimes heads off in directions that don’t have the best support. Picking books from Amazon by authors who do not have a university background is no better, but again, this isn’t a mainstream topic of study for American universities. I ordered two texts, one of is a history, by a scholar of native heritage at Amherst College, another is by authors who have no other publication, but it just looked appealing. Lisa Tanya Brooks’s Our Beloved Kin; A New History of King Philip’s War (Yale, 2018) should tell me quite a bit that I can trust is well-researched, but it’s a heavy book for me to read during the school year, particularly when I am reading other texts. I also bought Seven Eyes Seven Legs; Supernatural Stories of the Abenaki, by Tsonakwa and Yolaikia, (Kiva, 2001). This book was a shot in the dark, but I love what I’ve read so far. It is a visually beautiful book and the stories force me into a different perspective, which I also love. I hope that I will find some other sources to try to verify what I’ve read here, but I can’t see the authors benefitting terribly by fraudulently claiming to write from an Abenaki perspective so I expect I will share some of the ideas and stories that I’ve enjoyed.

Rydberg’s Norse Myths

I am also reading a book of Norse Mythology by the 19th Century Swedish novelist, poet and mythologist, Victor Rydberg. A few years ago, I read a fascinating and somewhat head-spinning essay by Rydberg about Freya’s famous necklace, the Brisingsamen. Rydberg is an unusual scholar with unusual theories, and again, it is difficult to research the methods that allowed him to come to many of his conclusions. I must add though, that Rydberg’s Norse Myths address problems that have always bothered me about Norse Myths; centrally, that there aren’t enough stories and the stories that exist are fairly narrowly focused on Thor, Loki and Odin. Rydberg may have arrived at a lusher set of tales by mixing later materials together with the old reliables, but there may be reason to suspect that later heroic tales were based on earlier mythological versions. I just feel the need to understand the logic that led him to do it. I’ve corresponded with the translator of Rydberg’s Our Fathers’ Godsaga, William P. Reaves, who maintains the prolific and I hope that he, or his website, can help direct me to the sort of information I seek. As with the Abenaki folklore text I am reading, Rydberg is worth reading. Even if Rydberg’s research methods would not be supported today by scholars, I suspect that they will be an interesting case study in mythology.

Avenging Medusa

Sculptor Luciano Garbati's Medusa, recently installed outside a Manhattan Courthouse.

There was an interesting story recently that really suits the original purpose of Practical Mythology, in that it is a mythological tale being used to address a modern purpose. A park across from the Manhattan Criminal Courthouse apparently now has a seven-foot tall statue of a nude Medusa holding the severed head of Perseus (her killer in Greek Myth) and a sword. The statue, which plays upon a version of the tale in which Medusa is cursed with snakes for hair after being raped by Poseidon in Athena’s temple, turns Medusa into an avenger for women who have suffered violence at the hands of men. The story has gotten good play (a post in Newsweek) and it was hard for me to think of a way I could turn it around as a fully researched piece as quickly as I’d like. Curiously, I also think that because I hadn’t before heard the version of the story where Medusa was raped, I needed time to adjust to seeing one of the first monster villains I can remember from childhood as the hero. I identified with Perseus after watching Clash of the Titans, but I logically understand sculptor Luciano Garbati’s purpose, and I’m happy for women who are happy to see themselves in a Medusa who turns the tables on men trying to kill her.

Nobel Prize for Poetry

I have been poring through an anthology of American poet, Louise Glück's work after she was announced the 2020 winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature and heard that mythology was a common theme in her work. I have found several poems on the topic that I like and I have a post planned when I finish reading -- yes, I’m trying to read everything she wrote and, yes, that feels a bit crazy now that I write it. One of my favorite finds so far is a poem about the writer's life, “The Mountain,” which plays on the myth of Sisyphus, and feels about right some days.

A New Translation of Beowulf

Most Beowulf scholars would be afraid to approach Maria Dahvana Headley in a bar.

I have read through most of Maria Dahvana Headley’s lively and irreverent Beowulf and found passages I like, and passages I don’t like. I've been dragging my heels a bit because I wrote several pieces on Beowulf in August and September, and I feel a greater responsibility when I write on the topic from having studied the text for so many years. On the whole, Headley's isn’t a Beowulf for me, but then, I don’t particularly need a new Beowulf, and someone else surely does. Seamus Heaney’s translation was an accessible entry point for many new readers who would not have read the poem otherwise, but Heaney was not the most accessible text for the teenagers I taught. If I were teaching the text today, I would find some way to bring Headley into the classroom. I think she could very well be the right voice for a teenage reader.

Christmas Tomtes and Other Scandinavian Folksong

Harald Wiberg's illustration of the helpful farm protector from Astrid Lindgren's The Tomten.

Finally, I have been working on several folksongs with my seven-string Kravik-style lyre. This is a monthslong process as I am learning to play and sing with the lyre and also developing songs for it that require a bit of finagling sometimes because of the limited number of strings. I am also dedicated to singing these songs in a language my listeners will understand, which means that I usually have to adapt lyrics from literal translation. My current focus is a Norwegian Christmas song called "Haugebonden." I had to pester some people in Norway to find a kind folklorist to translate its archaic Telemark dialect for me, but now I have to make the lyrics match up to the rhythm of the song and make reasonably good enough sense for an English-speaking audience to follow. A haugebonde is a kind of helpful spirit that dwells on a farm. The word, mound farmer, or farmer from under the mound, comes from the belief that he is spirit of the first farmer who cleared the land. The tradition is similar enough to that of the tomte that a haugebonde may today be visualized as a little man with a beard and red hat, a sort of gnome or fairy that protects the farm. It is a very sweet song and I hope to be able to perfect it to record it before Christmas this year. That might be a stretch as I have had a hard time finding a way to play it in a key that allows me to sing it. This, again, is a result of playing an archaic instrument. But hope abounds and I made some progress with my teacher this week. So hopefully I will debut my first song here by the end of the year!

  • Ben Hellman

(She really didn't want to go in the first place). Edward Poynter's 1862 "Orpheus and Eurydice" altered by the author's brilliant wife.

Shopping is like a hero’s journey these days

One I don’t always win.

Wan, blank faces, less telling than Greek masks,

I may as well be in the underworld itself

My wife was bitten early by the fright,

She is a social distance champion,

She avoids other people at the store

By walking directly behind me

It takes faith to walk on, not hearing or seeing her

As we make our way out of the gloom.

And I have good reason to look back.

She often gets distracted by end cap sales

And one time I got rather far before discovering she was not there.

“The European Thousand Armed Classical Sculpture,” by artist Xu Zhen at the National Gallery of Australia's Xu Zhen exhibition, “Eternity Vs Evolution.”

Can nineteen, artfully arranged classical statues of gods, God, and other figures add up to the Chinese Bodhisattva of compassion? A thought-provoking work of art I recently discovered, by the Chinese artist Xu Zhen seems to beg that question. And I love a begged question!

“The European Thousand Armed Classical Sculpture” is actually an arrangement of nineteen colossal statues, made of a variety of materials made to look like bleached Greek marble, currently on view at the National Gallery of Australia’s Xu Zhen exhibition, “Eternity Vs Evolution.” The statues include Athena, Ulysses, Zeus, the Statue of Liberty and Christ, among others and they stand in a line and are posed so that a viewer facing the first statue, Athena, sees an Athena with arms seemingly sprouting all around her. The effect is said to produce the Buddhist figure known in China as Guanyin, the thousand-armed, a divinity putting off Buddha-hood in order to free every being from suffering. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, Guanyin, known by various names in different cultures, may be the most popular figure in Buddhism. Guanyin is known as “the merciful” and “the compassionate” and has been equated by Catholics with the Virgin Mary. The figure may be more commonly known by her Sanskrit-derived name, Avalokiteshvara, and may be depicted in other cultures or settings as a male.

A Comparison of Xu Zhen's Guanyin with a Vietnamese sculpture (called Quan Am) from 1656, now in the History Museum of Hanoi and a Chinese Guanyin in a women's monastery in Anhui. Pictures from the National Gallery of Australia and Wikipedia.

I saw “The European Thousand Armed Classical Sculpture” on a publicity video for an exhibit put out by the National Gallery of Australia, which is currently showing a retrospective of Xu Zhen’s work and I was struck by the pairing of divine figures from different religious traditions and what messages the work sent. The work probably defies most viewers’ internal sense of categorization, including ancient Greek deities, Christ and the Statue of Liberty. I have not, as yet, identified every figure. I believe several are classical male athletes, but even so, every figure represents some sort of ideal, and is it so strange in 21st Century America to worship an athlete or athletic prowess?

Christ, of course, is a savior of humanity, and his sacrifice sounds somewhat akin to Guanyin’s, in putting all of sentient creation before herself. The Statue of Liberty also fits part of Guanyin’s mission: “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” (Emma Lazarus). Perhaps the inclusion of Greek deities requires some flexibility as they are not, as a rule, selfless. But Athena is a goddess of wisdom (and war) who was prayed to for help, as was Zeus. In a particular time and place, these figures may have been the correct sources in times of trouble. Ulysses and the other human figures may have you wondering whether Xu Zhen just needed statues with arms pointed in particular directions, but then, Guanyin, was at least once human, and may continue to be perceived that way. And it is not Christ's humanity that brings Christians closer to God?

There are seeming contradictions, but these, to me, are the most fun to think about. I believe that the figure in the last position of the line, with arms raised above and hands crossed could be Marsyas, a figure from Greek mythology who challenged the god Apollo to a music competition and was condemned to be skinned alive. This is a tricky sell, given that Guanyin is merciful, compassionate, but Christ is clearly merciful and compassionate, and yet, his sculpture in this work of art is in the posture of crucifixion (Xu Zhen removed the cross, but left Christ’s human figure.) That the world would need a Guanyin (or Christ, or even a Statue of Liberty) speaks to the suffering that is native to the human condition. The statues are mostly male, with a female (Athena) in the front, but again, Guanyin is a female representation of a divinity that is also seen as male. I am no expert in Buddhism, but if the figure arose from an Indian tradition, this gender swapping does not at all seem strange to me. Hindu divinities often have a male and female form and gender fluidity is understood as part of life.

I have unanswered questions about “The European Thousand Armed Classical Sculpture.” I haven’t identified most of the figures and I haven’t seen a comprehensive list of identities, even to know where Xu Zhen took all of the statues from. Given the famous ones, I assume that they are all famous examples of classical statuary. I was even reluctant at first to publish this post without knowing for certain (and frankly frustrated that this information was not readily supplied by the National Gallery of Australia) but then I considered the example of Zeus in the lineup, which I believe is based on the Artemision Bronze, and began to wonder if this lack of information is not part of the game of this work of art. The Artemision Bronze, a figure that seems to be aiming a weapon, has been alternatively identified as Zeus and Poseidon. The weapon is missing. Was it a thunderbolt or a trident? We don’t know. And again, even the identity of Guanyin, called by many names, considered alternately male and female, is somewhat in flux. The Statue of Liberty, or at least Emma Lazarus's conception of it, was based on the Colossus of Rhodes, which was a statue of the sun god Helios! The notion that one god (or God) is more than one god is not unprecedented. We also know that gods and religious worship change over time. I’ve done a pretty good job, at least, of convincing myself that it’s okay to post this article without knowing everything I think there is to know about this artwork!

But what do you think? Are you entirely comfortable with this mix of figures? Do you think I’m just playing games with this work of art? Let me know in the comments below. I personally think that the best works of art are those that beg us to play. I think the best stories do that as well. But identifying more of the statues may actually lead to more playfulness and fun and that, to me, is what art is about. So please, if you are an art lover, look at the photos and see if you can identify the rest of the statues that form “The European Thousand Armed Classical Sculpture” and if you are curious, check out the rest of the Xu Zhen show at the National Gallery of Australia. If you like playfulness, you will find much to enjoy!


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