Tag Archives: mythology

Review: Eric

Eric (Discworld, #9)Eric by Terry Pratchett
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Goodreads doesn’t aptly display the cover of this book, so let me describe it. It has “Faust” written in normal typography, crossed out with fat red marker and “Eric” written in its place. And that perfectly well sets you up for this misguided teenager’s wish-fulfillment disaster.
As always, Pratchett is insightful and hilarious. This time he takes on Homer, which not enough authors are brave enough to do. This is the line that made me love the book: “He tried to remember what little he knew of classical history, but it was just a confusion of battles, one-eyed giants and women launching thousands of ships with their faces.”
Anyway, this short little jaunt is about a jerky prepubescent teenager, Eric, who manages to call up the hapless/cowardly/useless wizard Rincewind, convinced Rincewind is a demon who can grant wishes. Eric makes wishes–bad ones, of course, or rather traditional ones that come to bad ends–and much to his surprise, Rincewind hurtles him toward it. Or at least, seems to.
Goethe, Homer, and Dante all get a thorough Pratchett treatment, and it’s a delight. Plus it’s only about 200 pages, so it’s a quick read. You’ll be giggling right through bedtime.
That old blind classical guy doesn’t get teased enough, I say. Pratchett to the rescue!

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The Beautiful Mythos of Mad Max

I felt obligated to see Mad Max: Fury Road, honestly. It is, after all, a dystopian movie with a wasteland world.

It turns out it’s also an incredible testament to practical effects and explosions, but what most interested me about the film was the brilliant mythos of the world.

This was my first exposure to the world of Mad Max, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. To sum up, if you haven’t seen it yet: the world has been destroyed, probably by nuclear warfare, leaving the environment a raw desert. The title character, Max, is a taciturn man haunted by the mistakes of his past, reduced to bare survival on his own; he’s practically feral. What little of left of what could be called society is a place known as The Citadel run by a bad, gross dude known was Immorten Joe (he would probably be best buddies with Jabba the Hutt). Immorten Joe has a stranglehold on a reserve of water, and therefore owns all the pathetic, misshapen humans who make up the Citadel.

The brilliance–and my favorite part–is that Joe has begun to develop a religion of sorts, with himself and the high-powered scavenged vehicles at his command at the pinnacle. Immorten Joe has convinced an army of young men–too young to remember what really happened to destroy the earth–that they are righteous warriors for their god (Immorten Joe, of course). Much like the real-world beserkers, or any drug-addicted crazy person in the 20th century, the WarDogs will try insane stunts to prove their valor and earn a place in Valhalla, welcomed by the revered Immorten Joe himself.

This is worth the watch for itself. Director George Miller uses this to answer “why would a man drive into a crazy lightning sandstorm with nothing but a pair of goggles to protect him?” Because, of course, he thinks he’s serving a higher power. He believes, to the core of his being, that his body is worthless, that he has no hope without his leader, and that his life is best served by his destruction.

Without the mythos that is baked into the background of the movie, nothing else would work. It’s not like anyone has to stop and explain any of this clearly complex theology/cult-speak to the viewer; it just happens, and we the audience see the appeal of the smoke, the fire, the shiny chrome of Valhalla and want to see more.

Did you see Mad Max? What did you think?

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Fisherman Jack

My grandfather recently passed away, quite suddenly and unexpectedly. I’ve had trouble expressing my feelings about it. But I did write this, in honor of him.


Fisherman Jack

There once was a man who liked to fish. He’d sit on the pier with a rod and a reel and coax silvery fish up out of the water. He’d stand hip-deep in frothy streams and fool whiskered, muddy fish with clever lures and intricate flicks of the wrist. By boat, he explored dark wallows and mysterious shadowed rivers. Jack was a man who liked to fish.

He took his sons out with him to the water and taught them the ways, the lines and the tricks. With his first son he traveled in a small dingy, the water rocking them along the river’s rocky bottom, so close beneath them. Jack taught his eldest son to sit quietly, to watch for the dark shadows. They baited hooks with writhing worms pulled from rich-smelling dirt and brought in crappie, bass, and brown trout. As they carried home their haul, Jack smiled and said, “That sure was a good day’s fishing, but I think there may be better.”

Later Jack took his second son out. Together they waded deep into chilly mountain waters. They arched their lines out overhead, landing lures lightly on the water’s shining surface. Jack showed his second son how to move the line, skipping like a fly. After a long day’s contest, they brought home their trout, walleye, and salmon, proud as could be. With a smile, Jack said, “That was a good day’s fishing, but I’ve heard there is better yet.”

With his third son, Jack took out the trawler loaded with gizmos, all the latest. He let the lad steer and showed him how the equipment found the fish in their shadowed depths. Together they drew the fish out of the murky dark and into the clear light of their shining, wonderful boat. Laden with fish, Jack smiled and said, “That was a good day’s catch, but I hear there’s one better. I’ll fish it, one day.”

The years wore on, and still Jack fished. He explored raging rivers and clear still waters; he plucked giants from backwood streams and sunk his line in ocean swells. He tried the great Mississippi and hiked through Yosemite. He stood under the big skies in Montana and on the muddy banks of Lake Pontchartrain. Everywhere he fished, he smiled and said, “There’s better yet to come.”

Jack’s visits to the water slowed as time ticked by. He taught his grandchildren how to bait his hooks and cast the reel; he was as pleased to scoop a minnow as a meal. He’d smile and say, “There’s yet one more I’ve yet to fish. The time is coming soon that I’ll try it.”

He hugged his dear wife and said goodbye to his sons as he packed his rod and reel. With a smile, Jack said, “I’m goin’ fishing, oh Lord. I know the way now.” He leaned back and let fly his hook, up up into that great big blue above. The hook caught, and Jack wound the reel. He fought as best he could, making it a fair challenge, pulling down against the upward tug, but knew this was his big catch. Up he went, caught by the Fisher of men, reeled just like those fish he’d caught through the years.

But Jack was not troubled. Elated, he grinned as he went up, pulled gently along. “Hallelujah,” he said, “I’m the best catch of all!”


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Review: Medusa’s Gaze and Vampire’s Bite

Medusa's Gaze and Vampire's Bite: The Science of MonstersMedusa’s Gaze and Vampire’s Bite: The Science of Monsters by Matt Kaplan

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I had really looked forward to this book. Mythical monsters plus informative history, what’s not to love? I bought it for my husband as a gift and was delighted when I found it idling on his nightstand. But now I see why. It’s interesting in places, sure (hey, wanna read some kooky accounts about real zombies? I know I do!) but it’s a struggle to hold your interest. The story is artificially paced (why start an explanation with the wrong answer only to correct it a page later?), leans heavily on modern movies, and cherry picks when it will refer to social sciences.

If you love mythical beasts and know much about Greco-Roman literature, you’re going to come away from this book bored and/or annoyed.

The problem seems to stem from author Matt Kaplan’s unyielding insistence on two things: 1) all mythical beasts must be directly related to something observed in the natural world, and 2) once science has a logical explanation for something, it ceases to be frightening. I disagree with him on both counts.

While I agree that the original storytellers probably did see something that sparked a story in their minds, I disagree that there has to be some kind of one-to-one relationship. For example, Kaplan explains in length that massive boar mentioned in Greek mythology probably never existed, that there is no evidence of an actual super-boar who was impervious to weapons. I believe I speak for all the readers when I say: “no shit.” But why would there even have to be? Is it such a stretch to believe and accept that a creative thinker might have concocted the story entirely?

The boar and the Nemean lion, are, of course, just the most basic examples. I don’t need to believe anything remotely chimeric actually existed for me to believe that a storyteller could come up with the idea. Why the concept that a person found a pile of mismatched fossils in a stream bed and came to believe it was a terrible monster, is it not just as plausible that a storyteller looked around and invented the creature from the characteristics of other natural beasts? That perhaps this explanation came not from literal physical creatures but from symbolism? (Medusa is a great example as a symbol: a woman so beautiful she attracts a god’s unwanted assault is reborn–hence snakes–into a monster who drives all men away and can destroy them with but a look. We don’t need actual snake-haired people!)

I guess I’m offended that Kaplan has left so little room for human ingenuity. Particularly when there is so much evidence of it all around.

My second issue is that he believes people aren’t afraid of monsters that no longer seem realistic thanks to scientific discoveries. Perhaps they aren’t as prominent as monsters as we discover new things to be afraid of, but that discounts the many people who ARE afraid of those things and context. What do I mean by context? I mean, yes, if you ask me in the middle of the day what I’m afraid of, a big scary animal is not going to be the top of my list. But you bet when I’m in the dark in the woods I suddenly begin imagining I’m being stalked by a huge and terrifying predator (despite knowing full-well in my human brain how unlikely it is that a tiger is stalking me in the parking lot). Most irksome is that Kaplan’s evidence for the lack of fear-factor is overwhelmingly modern TV and movies. … Except he’s not watching the same stuff I am, apparently. I mean, Supernatural has many frightening episodes and chilling stories, for example, and I know it’s fiction. Just because Twilight told a different, non-scary story about vampires does not mean that the vampires in True Blood aren’t decidedly scary (ok, in moments. That show is all over the place). And Interview with a Vampire, which he cites in the book, was quite scary to me!

So I don’t know. I think this book might be a good lazy read for a TV and movie buff who has a light interest in Classics, or maybe for the Classics nerd who wants something different. But I don’t recommend seeking a deep understanding or passion from this monster montage.

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Undead Rising coverWant better monsters? Go buy Undead Rising: Decide Your Destiny, available in print and on Kindle. Your choices shape the story! When you die in the book, sometimes you rise again as a zombie, unlocking new adventures.

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Deaths in The Iliad Infographic

For all your Classics class needs, someone made a great infographic on all the deaths in Homer’s The Iliad.

I just love this. I nearly minored in Classics in college (I had already double-minored, though, so that seemed a little excessive) but I just loved those classes. My favorite class of all time was a Classics/Archeology class where we watched famous movies and talked about how much they got wrong. For that class, I blazed through the entire Iliad in two weeks (on top of my other courseload) so…while I remember a lot of it, I forget a lot of this fine-detail stuff. And it must have taken so much data to get this one beautiful infographic! High-quality stuff, this.

(If you can’t read Greek, here’s a translation of the bottom portion:

  • Badass! Most kills in one book – Patroclus
  • Most Consistent – Achilles
  • Most Overlooked – Diomedes
  • Most Bloodthirsty – Agamemnon
  • Sneakiest – Teucer
  • Most Useless – Paris

Poor, poor useless Paris. He can’t help that all he can do is lob some arrows.)

Oh, and if you like this, I *highly* recommend you go read The Song of Achilles. It’s just so much fun; the best modern take on the genre I’ve read.
Brb, gonna go rewatch Troy for the thousandth time.

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A Complete Listing of the Gods in ‘American Gods’

Keep this link handy the next time you pick up Neil Gaiman’s “American Gods”: it’s a complete list of all the gods mentioned, interacted with, or referred to in the novel (even theories on who “the forgotten god” may be).

It’s a hobby site, and a damned impressive one at that. Even Neil said so, and the Hill House edition of the novel even came with a paper version of the site. That’s some great research!

If you haven’t read “American Gods,” I think you should. It’s a challenging book, and, in my opinion, a great example of the way fantasy can mingle with literary fiction. It isn’t for everyone, though. But if you do read it, this incredible site will help you muddle through all the gods. Gaiman pulled from all sorts of mythologies to create the book, and it’s pretty hard to wrap your head around all of it.

Anyway, a really cool research project that I appreciated and hope to utilize when I read the book again.


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Review: The Power of Myth

The Power of MythThe Power of Myth by Joseph Campbell

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I came to this book via the serendipity of the bookstore and a nudge from a great TED talk. (Go watch it, I’ll wait… really marvelous, isn’t it?)

I mean, I love mythology, I love stories, I’m interested in learning more about the hero’s journey–what’s not to like?

Let me tell you, I really wavered on those stars up there. It was thisclose to earning a 2. In fact, I almost gave up on this book a third of the way in.

First, the problems:
In my opinion, Bill Moyer, esteemed journalist that he is, completely failed in his duty in this book. I understand that it’s a transcript of a conversation, and perhaps it would have worked better in a visual medium, but Moyer is so transfixed by his subject (Joseph Campbell) that he loses the ability to control the flow of thought and respond critically to anything Campbell says. He says as much in the introduction; he is enamored of this interview.

Maybe, on TV, it isn’t as clear how frequently conversation derails, but in print, in a straight transcription, it’s a trainwreck. Had Moyer taken the time to construct a real book–with transcriptions, and sources, and clear structure–this book would have been dramatically easier to follow. As it is, the reader is just expected to hang on and sort of passively observe the literature, to sort of be transformed by its aura.

And that’s my next criticism: if you didn’t know (because Moyer says so) that Campbell is a leading scholar, you’d think he was a crackpot. He relies heavily on a swill of mixed metaphors and images pulled from whatever story happens to be handy for his current theme.

Seriously, you get things like this:

“If you undergo a spiritual transformation and have not had preparation for it, you do not know how to evaluate what has happened to you, and you get the terrible experiences of a bad trip, as they used to call it with LSD.”

If you didn’t know a professor said that, wouldn’t you think you were talking to an inebriated hippy? And that was actually a milder example; others were too long to transcribe.

Other problems with the text are products of the time it was written and Campbell’s (and Moyer, since he can’t help but butt in all the time) experiences as a child. Campbell especially has a sort of obsession with the “noble savage,” idealizing Native Americans to such a degree you lose a sense that they were a real people. He seems to apply the same idealization to “Orientals” and non-Western religion.

Paradoxically, much of the book revolves around Christian theology and ideals–in fact, it would probably be hard to understand this book without being able to reference the Bible and Christian tradition.

In a sort of one-two combination of these and a 1950s upbringing, you also get a lot of negative depictions of women and their role in society. Campbell’s pretty clear that a woman’s place is in creating children, and that requires a necessary sacrifice of any other priority in her life. He doesn’t even seem aware how these references, again and again, deprioritize women’s personal drives–heck, any sense of women as people with any desires outside of getting hitched and producing heirs for her husband–because he’s so busy deifying the process. It’s hard to argue that you aren’t meant to raise children when you’re being compared to the Virgin Mary at every turn.

Mix all that in with a giant dollop of “Back in MY day,” and you’ve got The Power of Myth.

And yet, despite all those problems, I kept reading. Weirdly, this is a book that does well if you don’t think about it too much as you’re reading, but let it marinate in the back of your head. It’s good as a general philosophy (though thank goodness no one ever thought to make a religion out of Campbell’s beliefs!) and has some good overall messages.

For example, his message for everyone, no matter who they are is “Follow your bliss.” Now that’s a nice big ebullient idea, but it’s a lovely sentiment and can be a good motivation.

Because of the philosophizing nature of this book, it’s also rife with juicy inspirational quotes of all kinds. This is the one that stood out to me:

“”Do you think I can be a writer?”
“Oh,” I would say, “I don’t know. Can you endure ten years of disappointment with nobody responding to you, or are you thinking that you are going to write a best seller at the first crack? If you have the guts to stay with the thing you really want, no matter what happens, well, go ahead.””

I’m sure anyone, regardless of their personal bliss, could find a similarly provocative quote in this book.

I wouldn’t recommend this book to most people. It’s twisty, poorly constructed, and full of sort of New-Age-y mumbo-jumbo. But I wouldn’t talk you out of reading it, either; it might provide just the right magic words for you. And besides, the message that we are all heroes traveling our own mythic journeys is pretty nice.

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