The Null Device
Posts matching tags 'mythology'
A few seasonal links for today and tomorrow:
- The mythological trainwreck that we call "Christmas", with its ill-fitting pieces of Middle Eastern and Nordic folklore, was discussed here last year. Now, some people going by the name of Cannabis Culture (read into that what you will) have another element to add to this; namely, the claim that the legend ot Santa Claus comes from Lappish shamanic rituals involving hallucinogenic mushrooms, with Santa's red and white costume having nothing to do with the Coca-Cola logo and everything to do with the colouring of the amanita muscaria mushroom, which may be found growing under fir trees.
- A Norwegian crafter named Jonas Laberg made a 10kg marzipan pig, as a present for his friends' daughters. The finished product looks horrifyingly detailed:
- The Graun's Zoe Williams has a piece on the supposed Christmas tradition of kissing under the mistletoe, which she contends is one of those things that only happens on TV (much like adults playing with cats, she writes), and does a Twitter survey, confirming this; with one heartbreakingly poignant exception:
In 1973, Helen was 16 and having a relationship with a girl at school, but they hadn't come out for a whole load of reasons, most of them to do with it being 1973. "In those days, we were like outcasts, so nobody knew, it was a great secret. A few of my friends were really homophobic. We went to this New Year's Eve party, where people were all goading each other to kiss. So we did. It was brilliant, everybody was cheering, we were pretending it was a joke. It was probably one of the best kisses I've ever had."
It didn't make it any easier to come out, though. "We never came out, we split up two years later, the pressure became too great. Most of it on her, because her family had mapped out her life for her, she had to get married. And I did what was expected of me, when I was 18. I got married as well. I had three kids."
- Christopher Hitchens may be gone, but an unpublished essay he wrote about Christmas has surfaced: Forced Merriment: The True Spirit of Christmas.
I once tried to write an article, perhaps rather straining for effect, describing the experience as too much like living for four weeks in the atmosphere of a one-party state. "Come on," I hear you say. But by how much would I be exaggerating? The same songs and music played everywhere, all the time. The same uniform slogans and exhortations, endlessly displayed and repeated. The same sentimental stress on the sheer joy of having a Dear Leader to adore. As I pressed on I began almost to persuade myself. The serried ranks of beaming schoolchildren, chanting the same uplifting mush. The cowed parents, in terror of being unmasked by their offspring for insufficient participation in the glorious events…. "Come on," yourself. How wrong am I?
One of my many reasons for not being a Christian is my objection to compulsory love. How much less appealing is the notion of obligatory generosity. To feel pressed to give a present is also to feel oneself passively exerting the equivalent unwelcome pressure upon other people... Don't pretend not to know what I am talking about. It's like the gradual degradation of another annual ritual, whereby all schoolchildren are required to give valentines to everybody in the class. Nobody's feelings are hurt, they tell me, but the entire point of sending a valentine in the first place has been deliberately destroyed. If I feel like giving you a gift I'll try and make sure that (a) it's worth remembering and (b) that it comes as a nice surprise. (I like to think that some of my valentines in the past packed a bit of a punch as well.)
- ‘Yes we know it’s Christmas’ say African musicians as they finally record a response to Band Aid:
“Just because we don’t have Boney M or Christmas advertising in September doesn’t mean we are oblivious to it,” said Gundane who went on to suggest that Africans were a lot like the Irish. “They made it through disasters like the potato blight and the invention of the Protestant church without forgetting Christmas – why did they think we would forget it?”
Gundane said he hoped that his involvement with the song would turn him into an expert on British politics and economics in the same way ‘Do they know it’s Christmas’ had turned Geldof and Bono into the world’s leading experts on Africa.
- After some UK department store apparently used a godawful twee-folk version of a Smiths song in one of its Christmas ad, the inimitable Rhodri Marsden decided to one-up the horror of it with his own Christmas-themed Smiths travesty. Behold: Heaven Knows I'm Christmassy Now, to be a mainstay of Christmas mix tapes in years to come.
Most educated people know that Christmas started out as a pagan festival, and was appropriated by the Christian church to better reach the masses. Chances are that the pagans the Christians stole it from had, in turn, stolen it from an earlier bunch of pagans, and so on, all the way back to a group of early humans huddling around a fire somewhere, seeing in the midwinter. Perhaps they exchanged some kinds of tokens, perhaps they imbibed fermented fluids our modern palates would find disgusting, perhaps they made propitiatory sacrifices to the gods of winter to encourage them to go away, though it's not unlikely that a burning log was involved.
So we had people marking midwinter and anthropomorphising the cosmic forces responsible for the season. Then more complicated religious systems came along and said, no, that's not the winter god, that's Zarathustra or Mithras or Sol Invictus. Then, around the fourth century, Christianity came along and decided that Jesus was born on the 25th of December. (Aside: according to some claims, the most likely date for the birth of Jesus would have been in August or September, assuming the thing about the shepherds being out in the fields was accurate.) Then along came secularism and the Enlightenment and Christianity receded somewhat to the background, though not quite disappearing; instead, becoming the default traditional-religious-meaning-of-Christmas which people complain nobody pays much attention to as they go gift-shopping.
So what we have today is a salmagundi of several different stories which don't quite fit together. We have, in particular, the Biblical story of the son of God being born in a manger in the Middle East, visited by wise men bearing gifts and so on. And beneath that we have a completely incongruous Arctic mythology of a fat man in a red suit who lives at the North Pole, rides flying reindeer and delivers presents. In some mythologies, he has armies of elves (an element of northern European mythology) helping him make and deliver the toys (presumably Apple and Nintendo have kindly signed some kinds of intellectual-property licensing agreements with them, allowing them to make iPhones and Wiis in their Polar chip fabs). In the Netherlands, he is accompanied by six to eight black men, whose job it is to thrash naughty children; in Switzerland and Austria, that task is performed by a demonic creature named Krampus. The man is known in English as Santa Claus or Father Christmas, though is generally identified as Saint Nicholas, a bishop from fourth-century Greece who is unlikely to have ever seen a reindeer. Similarities between Santa Claus and St. Nicholas of Myra are largely coincidental; some say that the bearded Arctic-dwelling man is derived from the Norse god Odin. Meanwhile, in Russia, he is known as Grandfather Frost, and in Finland, his place is taken by Joulupukki, the Yule Goat (which is actually a goatlike creature; the Finns are nothing if not metal)..
It would be complicated enough with just these two very different mythologies, awkwardly joined at the hip. But in the 20th century, as Christmas became an ever-greater secular and commercial milestone, even more elements were added. The general rule seems to be that anything goes, as long as it's vaguely wintery or snow-related. We got supernaturally animated snowmen (Frosty the Snowman, of the popular Christmas song, and Raymond Briggs' snowman), which have nothing to do with either Christianity or the old Nordic pagan mythologies. And more recently, other remotely polar elements have been appearing on Christmas cards, such as penguins. These, of course, live in the Southern Hemisphere, but if a fourth-century Greek bishop can travel the globe by flying reindeer, surely he can have a few penguins in his entourage. And I wouldn't be too surprised if, one of these years, someone threw in a polar bear or two for the more ecologically minded.
The Independent looks at how traditional the various Christmas traditions actually are:
The celebration of the birth of Christ on 25 December dates back to the fifth century, when Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. The date was chosen to coincide with the winter solstice and the Roman festivals associated with the shortest day of the year, which falls between 22 December and 25 December. This was seen as the day when the Romans celebrated Dies Natalis Solis Invicti – "the birthday of the unconquered sun". It was also Jupiter's birthday and, further back, the birthday of his Greek equivalent, Zeus. In Eastern Europe, the various Orthodox churches – the Russian, Greek, Armenian, Serbian et al, follow the old Gregorian calendar, and in which Christmas Day is 7 JanuaryI've seen it claimed that Jesus Christ's actual birthday would have most probably occurred in the autumn, around August or so, if the shepherds were in the fields at the time.
There is no Santa Claus in the Gospels.(Really? What about Frosty the Snowman?)
Santa Claus, it seems, is a Dutch import via colonial New York (even the name comes from the Dutch "Sinterklaas", or St. Nicholas). They got rid of the six to eight black men he is invariably accompanied by in the Dutch tradition, though, and who are tasked with the thrashing of naughty children.
In 1863, the cartoonist Thomas Nast began a series of drawings in Harper's Weekly, based on "The Night Before Christmas", in which Santa Claus, as he had now become known, could be seen with flowing beard and fur garments. Around 1869, he turned up for the first time in a bright red suit, with a white belt, but he was not invariably dressed in red until the mighty Coca Cola corporation appropriated him for an advertising campaign that began in 1931, and ran every Christmas for 35 years. That is also when the reindeer became full size. In Britain, this American import merged with an older folk hero called Old Christmas, or Old Father Christmas, a fun-loving heavy drinker who seems to have arisen in reaction to the Puritans.
The reindeer, it seems, are a wholly American invention (despite their German-as-stollen names); not only that, but Rudolph is a non-canon reindeer:
On 23 December 1823, the Troy Sentinel, in New York State, published an anonymous 56-line poem variously known as "A Visit from St Nicholas" or "The Night Before Christmas." which fused the feast of St Nicholas with Christmas, and had the St Nicholas that Irving created arrive on Christmas Eve in a sleigh pulled by eight tiny reindeer. The author was probably a Professor of Oriental and Greek Literature named Clement Clarke Moore, who did not want to sully his fine academic reputation by putting his name to some nonsense he wrote to amuse his children. The reindeer had names, but none was called Rudolf. He of the Red Nose was created by an advertising copy writer in 1939.
If this article is correct, there is little evidence that the ninja, the legendary Japanese warriors/assassins, ever existed outside of mythology and popular culture:
The most reliable reconstructions of ninja history suggest that ninja denotes a function, not a special kind of warrior — ninja WERE samurai (a term, which didn't designate a class until the Tokugawa period—AFTER the warfare of the late medieval period had ended—before that it designated only an occupation) performing ninja work.
Movie-style ninja, BTW, have a much longer history than the movies (although the term ninja does not appear to have been popularized until the 20th century). Ninja shows, ninja houses (sort of like American haunted houses at carnivals), and ninja novels and stories were popular by the middle of the Tokugawa period. The ninja performers may have created the genre completely out of whole cloth, or they may have built on genuine lore derived from old spymasters. Either way, however, its clear that much of the lore underlying both modern ninja movies and modern ninja schools has both a long history AND little basis in reality outside the theatre.Not only that, but someone else claims in the comments that the black costume traditionally associated with the ninja was actually derived from the costumes worn by Japanese puppeteers working on darkened stages unseen, and not from any sort of martial tradition.
I guess this settles the whole pirates-vs.-ninja gedankenexperiment then.
Emperor/clothes: You've probably heard the hagiographic claims about how the Star Wars films are drawn from that deep well of primal archetypes and myths going back to Homer/the Upanishads/Joseph Campbell. Well, that's rubbish. They're mostly a knockoff of pulp sci-fi ideas, though surprisingly many people don't see that, blinded by the hype or the desire to see Star Wars as one of the Great Stories.
Campbell's approach can give any adventure story, from "Bulldog Drummond" to "The Perils of Pauline," a place in the pantheon. In fact, his acolytes are hard at work doing just that with such movies as "The Matrix" and "The Wizard of Oz." It adds up to little more than a party game for drunken grad students, or a smoke screen for filmmakers covering their tracks.