From the archives: The Folklore of Food

Christmas Evening by Carl Larrson

I'm too ill to write new posts this week, so I am re-publishing seasonal pieces from the archives in case you missed them the first time around. This one is for all of you preparing feasts for the winter holidays:

In her gorgeous essay "In Praise of the Cooks," Midori Snyder combines a memoir of her father (a fine French cook) with an exploration of the alchemy of the kitchen:

"The very best of cooks are sorcerers, wizards, shamans and tricksters," she writes. "They must be, for they are capable of powerful acts of transformation. All manner of life, mammal, aquatic, vegetable, seeds and nuts pass through their hands and are transformed by spells -- some secret, some written in books annotated Faeries in the kitchen by Wendy Froudwith splashes of grease and broth. For years after my father's death, I was convinced I could take his stained, handwritten recipes, dip them in hot water, and there would be enough residue of the dish on those pages to create consommé. Master cooks are alchemists, turning the lead of a gnarled root vegetable into the whipped froth of a purée, hazelnuts into digestive liqueur, a secret combination of spices and chilies into a mole paste that burns and soothes at the same time. From a bin brimming with hundreds of choices they can sense the ripe cantaloupe, the juicy peach and the blueberries that have lingered long enough on the bush to become sweet. I am in awe of their skill, their secret knowledge, the inexplicable way I can follow my father's recipe and not have it taste anything like his, missing that one secret ingredient, those whispered spells that transformed his dish into something sublime."

Ari Berk focuses on lore of milk, bread, and honey in his delicious essay "On Simple Things":

Troll with Bread by Wendy Froud"I am living in Devon, England at the moment," he begins, "in a medieval barn on the edge of the Dartmoor. In the small of hours of the night, in such a house, the mind rambles backwards and forwards in time, imagining the daily routines, the days and nights, the bread and butter, of the people that have lived here and used this place over the last six hundred years. A barn is a building of necessary things, of basics, life's staples about which much custom, curiosity and belief have formed; a place where a bowl of milk or a bit of bread is justly left for the little gods who watch over the farm and its immediate vicinity, but nowhere much farther than that. In the lore of offerings and sacrifice, the high rites of the gods and common custom of house fairies share a wide frontier. In studying such beliefs, we may discern that the humblest of offerings is indeed a sacred thing.

"So here is the lore of The Basics, three foods that remain effective indicators of the land's condition. If these are unspoiled, and readily available, all with the land and the people living on it is well. Here are three foods ancient and primal: one given, one found, one formed. Milk, honey and bread."

(I highly recommend reading Midori and Ari's pieces in full.)

Honeycomb and Bread by Wendy Froud

Sketch of Chocolate Pot & Whisk, mid 1660s

My friend Thomas Hine, who ran the Westcountry Folklore blog (until we lost him in 2012), passed on this bit of local lore, recorded in 1888:

"A belief was long current in Devon and Cornwall, and perhaps still lingers both there and in other remote parts of the country, that at midnight, on Christmas Eve, the cattle in their stalls fall down on their knees in adoration of the infant Saviour, in the same manner as the legend reports them to have done in the stable at Bethlehem. Bees were also said to sing in their hives at the same time, and bread baked on Christmas Eve, it was averred, never became mouldy. All nature was thus supposed to unite in celebrating the birth of Christ, and partake in the general joy which the anniversary of the Nativity inspired."

And mythologist William G. Doty notes the following in his review of Nectar and Ambrosia: An Encyclopedia of Food by Tamra Andrews:

The oldest surviving English cookbook"Swearing by onions? And leeks? Well, these were one of the earliest types of plants cultivated. Symbolism includes the (to some) offensive scents, as well as the pearl-in-the-oyster concept of enfolding major significances down theah. In fact, for the Druids and ancient Egyptians, each layer of the root represented a layer of the known-worlds, and one swore oaths with one's right hand on one, considered as a token of eternity. Today I'm most fond of slowly simmered leeks with anchovy dressing.

"Garlic had its problems because of its strong aromas: in Zoroastrian myth, the god of light, Ahura Mazda, smelled delightful, but his evil counterpart, Ahriman smelled like a garlic bulb, 'putrid and rotten.' Poor onion relatives, they have often been thought of negatively in mythological terms, considered polluting in more than one culture. Certainly apotropaic (averting evil), as I recall from my childhood in New Mexico, where during winter months, children sometimes appeared in classrooms with a large clove strung on a string around the neck.

"Ginger, on the other hand, was considered the herb of paradise, and was cultivated in the Far East since antiquity as something that brought one close to the deities, and used to flavor meats, oils, tea, and wine. It was linked with the solar fire, as was cinnamon, and it was one of the key ingredients of magical practices, including love-lore."

17th century sugar pie recipe

Paradise Now by Jacqueline Morreau

Apples, in world-wide mythic traditions, are a symbol of immortality, of knowledge, and of love in its various guises: spiritual, sexual, and romantic. They were used in Norse fertility spells (being sacred to the goddess Frigga), and in British hedgerow magic for seeking of knowledge or making love charms. The folk custom of "bobbing for apples" on Samhain/All Hallow's Eve is believed to have derived from a Druidic ritual for divination. Grain represents youth, springtime, and rebirth; and wine (called "the blood of the grape") has been a symbol of ecstasy and communion going back at least to the rites of Dionysus. In Japan, the god Inari is credited with the creation of rice, appearing there as an old man with two rice bundles sometime around 800 BC. In China, rice was placed in the mouths of the dead and sacrificed to the ancestors. Leftover rice could not be discarded, for it was sacred to the Chinese god of thunder.

There are numerous mythic taboos concerning food, such as the ancient belief that visitors to the realm of the gods or of the dead must not partake of food or drink if they ever hope to go home again. In Greek myth, Persephone, the daughter of Demeter (goddess of the seedgrain and the fruitfulness of earth) is rescued from the underworld where's she been imprisoned by Hades, the Lord of Death — but she has eaten several fateful Goblin Fruit by Dante Gabriel Rossetti,
an illustration for ''Goblin Market'' by his sister, Christina Rosettipomegranate seeds and so must return to dwell with him for a third (or a half) of every year. Similar stories can be found in myths and legends from around the world, such as a Finnish tale from The Kalevala in which Väinämöinen journeys to the land of the dead in search of the words for a magical spell. He is able to return home only because he refuses to drink a tankard of beer. In British fairy stories and ballads, human visitors to the fairy realm are warned they must not touch food or drink -- for those who do are trapped in Faerie forever, or else sent home again only to waste away and die, pining for another taste. Many are the legends of taboo foods eaten with dire consequences, ranging from forbidden fruits sacred to various gods to certain delicacies (such as rowanberries) that belong exclusively to the fairies. The most famous of these tales, of course, is the story of Adam and Eve and the forbidden fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. (Biblical scholars are divided on whether or not this fruit was actually an apple.)

Trickster tales often involve food -- forbidden and otherwise -- for Trickster is a figure of prodigious appetites. In some such stories, Coyote or Anansi or B'rer Rabbit or Loki makes use of his wits and wiles in order to obtain a nice full belly; in others, Trickster is undone by the enormity of his greed and ends the story with his hunger unmitigated.

The Bear and the Bees by Walter Crane

There are numerous mythological stories (and concurrent spiritual beliefs) involving the ritual "eating of the god" -- ranging from the ritualized consumption of the flesh of Bear, Deer, and other animal gods -- to feasting on the gods that dwell in the first harvest of grain or corn -- to the Christian sacrament of communion, partaking of the flesh and blood of Christ. (See Louise Martin's book Food for Thought for a provocative exploration of this subject.) Some myths are teaching tales intended to inculcate a proper attitude of respect and gratitude for the gift of food taken from the flesh of another living creature. There are many tales of this sort in the Celtic, Aboriginal, and Native American traditions, and also among the Ainu of Japan.  The Three Bears by L. Leslie Brooke"In the Ainu world," notes Gary Snyder (in The Practice of the Wild), "a few human houses are in a valley by a little river. Food is often foraged in the local area, but some of the creatures come down from the inner mountains and up from the deeps of the sea. The animal or fish (or plant) that allows itself to be killed or gathered, and then enters the house to be consumed, is called a 'visitor,' marapto. Bear sends his friends the deer down to visit humans. Orca [the Killer Whale] sends his friends the salmon up the streams. When they arrive their 'armor is broken' -- they are killed -- enabling them to shake off their fur or scale coats and step out as invisible spirit beings. They are then delighted by witnessing the human entertainments -- sake and music. (They love music.) Having enjoyed their visit, they return to the deep sea or the inner mountains and report, 'We had a wonderful time with the human beings.' The others are then prompted themselves to go on visits. Thus if the humans do not neglect proper hospitality, the beings will be reborn and return over and over."

The Corn Muse by Donna Howell-SicklesIn addition to ritual feasting, abstaining from food is an important practice in various mythic and spiritual traditions around the world. In vision-quest ceremonies found from North America to Siberia, periods of fasting in the wilderness serve to break down the barriers between the human world and the spirit realm, allowing the quester or shamanic initiate to speak directly to the spirits or Gods. In ancient Ireland, "fasting against" a person was a legal procedure through which the faster could compel the person fasted against to grant a petition or pay a debt; we can still see remnants of this tradition in the hunger strikes of political prisoners today.  "Black Fasts" were believed to have the power to cast spells of misfortune, disease, and even death. In a famous English court case of 1538, a woman was convicted of causing a man to break his neck through the power of her fast. Food had power in the old mythic tradition...

And food still has power in sacred tales and practices found all around the world today. Navajo poet Luci Tapahanso, for example, offers the following words of advice rooted in her people's traditional ways: "Think about good things when preparing meals. It is much more than physical nourishment. The way the cook (or cooks) thinks and feels become a part of the meal. Food that is prepared with careful thought, contentment, and good memories tastes so good and nurtures the mind and spirit, as well as the body. Once my mother chased me out of the kitchen because it is disheartening to think of eating something cooked by an angry person." 

Tseping ny Roxanne Swentzell

For books about food myth, lore, history, and customs worldwide, I recommend the Tama Andrews book mentioned above (Nectar and Ambrosia: An Encyclopedia of Food) and The Rituals of Dinner by Margaret Visser. Are there any others that you'd like to add? Book suggestions welcome, as are other bits of food lore and your own experience with "the magic of food."

Likewise, what works of mythic fiction or art do you think use food lore & myth particularly well? My own favorites: Chocolat and The Lollipop Shoes by Joanne Harris, The Stars Dispose and The Stars Compel by Michaela Roessner (cooking magic in Renaissance Italy!), The Mistress of Spices by Chitra Bannerjee Divakaruni, The Kitchen God's Wife by Amy Tan, and The Honey Month by Amal El-Mohtar. If we expand the list to include herbalism and hedgerow medicines, I'll add The Limits of Enchantment by Graham Joyce. I'm also charmed by the notable obsession with food to be found in the excellent collection of Italian Folktales edited by Italo Calvino.

A 15th century herbalThe picture at the top of the post is by Swedish painter & designer Carl Larsson (1853-1919), depicting his family's Christmas Eve celebration. The faery and troll sculptures are by my friend Wendy Froud (a splendid cook herself), photographed by her son, Toby. The other images, listed in order,  are: a chocolate pot and whisk sketch on a 17th century manuscript, the oldest surviving English cookbook (late 14th century),  a 17th century recipe for sugar pie, "Paradise Now" by Jacqueline Morreau, "Goblin Fruit" by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882) - for his sister Christina's poem Goblin Market, "The Bear and the Bees" (from Aesop's Fables) by Walter Crane (1845-1915), "The Three Bears" by L. Leslie Brooke (1862-1940), "The Corn Muse" by Texas "cowgirl artist" Donna Howell-Sickles, ""Tse-ping" by Native American sculptor Roxanne Swentzell (from the Santa Clara Pueblo, New Mexico), and a 15th century herbal. The recipe manuscripts come from the Wellcome Library's digital collection of 16th-19th century medicinal and culinary recipes. The Luci Taphanso quote above comes from her lovely collection of tales and poems Sáanni Dahataal: The Women Are Singing. This post first appeared in December, 2014.


From the archives: The Folklore of Sheep

The Royal Ram by Adrienne Segur

Donkey Nanny, Lombardy, Italy, photographed by Elspeth Kinneir

This post first appeared in December, 2014. It's re-published today with additional art...

Sheep, like goats, are associated with Christmas in folk tales told across northern Europe and the British Isles. On Christmas eve, these tales report, all sheep face east, bow three times, and are gifted with the power of speech from the stroke of midnight until the rise of the sun. This holy ritual cannot take place under the gaze of human beings, but provided the sheep are unobserved and unaware, their conversations can be Head of a Ewe, Sumerian, Protoliterate period (c 3500–3000 BC)overheard. In some accounts, the sheep sing hymns; in others, they foretell events of the year to come; and in some they gossip, praising or bemoaning the conditions in which they live. A grumbling sheep, mind you, is a cause for worry, because sheep are especially beloved and protected by Mother Mary in the folklore tradition, and a black mark is lodged in the heavenly accounts against farmers or shepherds who treat them ill.

Going back to myths older than Christianity: Duttur was the Sumerian pastoral goddess associated with ewes, milk, and arts of the dairy; she was the mother of Tammuz: the shepherd god of rebirth, fertility, and new growth in spring. Likewise, the ram-headed Khnum in Egyptian myth was a god of rebirth and pastoral regeneration. As one of the oldest of Egyptian deities, he also the god of creation,  forming human bodies in clay on a potter's wheel and placing them inside their mother' wombs. In Greek myth, Aristaios (son of Apollo and Cyrene) was the god of shepherds and beekeepers. The island of Ceos was the center of his cult (though he is also associated with the founding of Thebes), where his followers practiced "weather magic" and were renown for their fine herds and dairy skills.

Drawings by Hans Holbein the Younger

Girl With Lamb by Jean-Baptiste Greuze

In Irish myth, Brigid (the goddess of poetry and husbandry, among other things) was the owner of Cirb, a castrated ram (or wether) who was king of all the rams and sheep of Ireland -- including the seven famous magical sheep owned by the sea god Manannán. These sheep, it was said, could produce enough wool to clothe every man, woman, and child the world over.

The "lamb of god" -- representing innocence, purity, and sacrifice for the greater good -- is a symbol found in all three of the major Abrahamic religions and especially in Christianity, where it's been widely represented all forms of Christian art and iconography.

Lambs on Dartmoor by Helen Mason

Little Miss Muffet and Her Sheep by Kate Greenaway

Hans Ole Braseh painting and an Edwardian postcard

By contrast, lambs play little part in either Buddhist or Hindu lore, though the old and virile ram appears in Asian myth in a variety of ways. A ram was present at the birth of Buddha, is a symbol of the passing year in Tibet, and is sacred (like the goat) to Agni, the Vedic god of fire, in the Hindu pantheon. Agni's ram is a symbol of sacrifice, but not a physical sacrifice of the animal itself; rather, of personal sacrifice in the form of spiritual practice and devotion.

Those born in the Chinese Year of the Sheep are said to be especially sensitive, creative, empathetic, and anxious; while those born under the sign of Aries the Ram in Western astrology are daring, lusty, quick-witted and honest, but also rather obstinate.

In Bulgaria, and other parts of eastern Europe, rams are said to be beyond the reach of evil; thus their image became a totem used to keep bad luck and illness at bay through carvings found on household utensils, domestic buildings, stables, and barns.

Chinese ram carving, 17th/18th century

Painting by Akitaka Ito

Baa Baa Black Sheep by Edmund Caldwell

 

"Sheep breeding," writers Dr. Vihra Baeva, "has always been the main source of livelihood in the Bulgarian lands. That is why, in traditional culture, shepherds are held in high esteem and a large flock of sheep is sung praise of as a symbol of wealth and prosperity. The bells on the sheep’s necks, called chan or hlopka, which chime in harmony also give a sense of pride. Christmas carols express wishes that the flock may yagni (derived from the word for lamb) but also blizni (twin-lambs). They sing of fine-wool sheep, horn-twisting rams and white-faced lambs. The animal described as vaklo is especially prized -- i.e. animals that are white with dark rings around the eyes. That is why a pretty lass, who by and large would have black eyes is compared to a lamb that is vaklo, gentle and loved."

Baa Baa Black Sheep by Paula Rego

In the folklore of the British countryside, black sheep were largely considered lucky creatures -- in contrast to European lore where exactly the opposite was true, from which we get idioms like "the black sheep of the family" and the black sheep of children's rhymes and fairy tales.

The phrase "a wolf in sheep's clothing" is of Biblical origin (from The Gospel of Matthew), but can also be found in Aesop's Fables. "Two shakes of a lamb's tail," meaning to do something quickly, appears to have come from early settlers in either America or New Zealand (depending on which source you consult), popularized by Richard Barham’s book Ingoldsby Legends (1840). It's believed to have derived from way that high-spirited lambs wag their tails while feeding.

Sheep with lamb by Henry Moore

Sheep Studies by Henry Moore

''Archie Parkhouse Leading His Sheep by James Ravilious

There are many different theories on where the idea of counting sheep in order to fall asleep comes from, but one of the most interesting is that it's rooted in the old Celtic dialects, used by shepherds to count their sheep long after general use of these dialects had disappeared. This repetition of numbers, chanted in an ancient language in a sing-song manner, was said to send children into peaceful slumber as their elders watched over the herds.

Training Day by David Wyatt

The fairy folk of Brittinay, Wales, and here in the West Country keep flocks of fairy sheep (and cattle), and are said to steal the sheep of local farmers in order to replenish their stock.  Various charms, herbs, and rituals can be used to keep straying sheep safe from fairy hands. In some accounts, fairy sheep are diminutive in size, while in others they resemble ordinary animals except for the strange color of their eyes. Sheep who appear on Dartmoor roads at night and disappear in the blink of an eye are ones who belong to piskie folk, and woe betide any who harm them.

Tilly spying on sheep

Sheep being spied upon

Strayed Sheep by Pre-Raphaelite painter William Homan Hunt

Our own dramatic sheep encounter occurred early one morning several years ago, when Tilly began barking frantically and our daughter went outside to investigate. A few moments later Victoria was back again, dumbfounded. "There's a sheep in our back garden," she reported.

Our visitor turned out to be a young ram (a fact we discovered by a clear view of his tackle from below)  -- a handsome fellow who was not best pleased to find himself in this unfamiliar terrain, far from his herd. He had wandered over Nattadon Hill and through the woods, across a stream, past a garden gate, through a gap in the hedge and then up some stairs onto the porch of the Howard's studio cabin  -- where he snorted and snuffled, while Tilly barked in hysterics but didn't go close. (Good dog.)

The ram on the cabin porch

Howard was called, stumbled out half-awake, and the poor ram grew more and more agitated as we discussed how on earth to get him off the darn porch and back to his herd. This being the 21st century, Howard turned to the Internet for advice on "how move a ram," and we learned we should herd him slowly, slowly, with plenty of space between him and us. Otherwise the poor fellow might panic and bolt and end up heaven knew where.

We must have been a fine sight that morning, all of us in our pyjamas still, Tilly dancing at our feet, while we slowly guided our  visitor down the cabin's stairs...through the break in the hedge...past my studio...through the gate behind it...over the stream...and into the woods. The young ram, finding his bearings as last,  disappeared through trees with a flash of his hooves -- heading to the open hillside beyond, where the rest of his herd was waiting.

If I hadn't snapped the picture above, I'd be wondering now if we'd dreamt the whole thing.

Shep guarding the sheep by Beatrix Potter

Ewes Watching Shooting Stars by Mary Newcomb

Information on each of the paintings, drawings, and photographs above can be found in the picture captures. (Run your cursor over the images to see them.) All rights reserved by the artists.


From the archives: The Folklore of Goats

''So much to see!'' by photographer Adrienne Elliot

I'm still too ill to write new posts, so I'm going to re-publish some seasonal pieces from the Myth & Moor archives. This one comes from December, 2014:

In myths all around the world the goat is associated with wilderness. The Greco-Roman gods who inhabited the forest depths and remote mountaintops roamed the backlands with goat companions, and appeared in the Pan, a sculpture by Wendy Froudform of goat-men themselves: Pan, Silvanus, Faunus, Bacchus, Dionysis, goat lovers all. Female goats were sacred to Artemis/Diana, goddess of female independence and the hunt, and goat milk was a common offering with which to honor or propitiate her.

In Sumerian myth, goats belonged to Marduk, the ancient god of magic and patron deity of Babylon, and were regarded as potent, uncanny beings due to this association.  Agni, the Vedic god of fire, rides a chariot pulled by goats in some Hindu tales; as does Thor, the god of thunder, strength, and virility in Scandinavian myth. Thor's goats, called Tanngrisnir and Tanngnjóstr, are slaughtered and feasted on each night, but when their bones are carefully gathered together these magical goats return to life.

The Yule Goat, found across northern Europe, is a straw figure traditionally made from the very last sheaf of grain to be harvested each year. It can range in size from tiny to huge, and has magical properties. The custom is pagan in origin, but has been become attached to A Swedish Yule Goat, 1917Christmas lore in a number of northern countries: Father Christmas is sometimes pictured as riding on the back of a goat in Scandinavia, for example, and "going Yule goat" refers to the custom of carolling or wassailing. In some regions, a man dressed as a goat accompanies the singers as they go from house to house; he is a Trickster figure, playing pranks on households not sufficiently hospitable. In other traditions, the Yule Goat is a gentle, invisible spirit who watches to make sure the winter rituals are correctly carried out, or a figure who, like Santa Claus today, distributes presents to children.

Yule Goat by John Bauer

Yule Goat in Gefle, Sweden, 2009

The Krampus is a relative of the Yule Goat, but he is far less benign. Known largely in Alpine regions, he's a hairy, frightening beast-man with the horns and hooves of a goat, wearing rattles and bells around his waist. He distributes gifts to good children and drags the naughty ones off into the forest.

Krampus figures photographed by Charles Fregere

Oldgoatshome

The symbolism attached to goats varies a great deal around the world. In some places, they represent gentleness, endurance, spiritual purity, and sacrifice; in others, independence, lust, virility, fertility, The Gidleigh Goat by David Wyattcreative vigor, and stubbornness. Those born in the Chinese year of the goat are said to be shy, creative, and prone to perfectionism, while in Persian myth, goats symbolize leadership, forcefulness, and strength. This range reflects the nature of goat themselves. Though they were among the earliest of animals to be domesticated by humankind, they are also among the quickest to return to a feral state when opportunity arises.

In old stories ranging from Aesop's Fables to fairy tales and nursery rhymes, goats are cannier than sheep (think, for example, of the clever Three Billy Goats Gruff), and though they're generally not full Trickster characters, they tend to retain an edge of Trickster's wiliness and wildness. Even in more recent stories for children -- such as Heidi, the classic by Johanna Spyri (which I adored as a child) -- they represent our connection to nature and life lived in tune with nature's cycles...carrying the echo of goat-legged Pan wherever they roam the mountains, and wherever we follow. 

Heidi and the Goats by Jessie Wilcox Smith

Goat sketch by Diego Rivera

"From sunrise to sunset, I was in the forest, sometimes far from the house, with my goat who watched me as a mother does a child," wrote Mexican painter Diego Rivera (in My Art, My Life). "All the animals in the forest became my friends, even dangerous and poisonous ones. Thanks to my goat-mother and my Indian nurse, I have always enjoyed the trust of animals -- a precious gift. I still love animals infinitely more than human beings."

Girls Combing the Beads of Goats by Richard Doyle

Katrina PlotnikovaImagery above: goats photographed by Adrienne Elliot, a sculpture of Pan by Wendy Froud, a Swedish Yule Goat photographed in 1917,  "Yule Goat" by John Bauer (1882-1918),  a straw Yule Goat in Sweden (2009), a photograph of Krumpus figures by Charles Fregere (from his brilliant Wilder Mann series), "Old Goats Home" by David Wyatt (initial sketch for a painting), "The Gidleigh Goat" by David Wyatt (Gidleigh is a village close to Chagford), "Heidi and the Goats" by Jessie Willcox Smith (1863-1935), a goat sketch by Diego Rivera (1886-1957), "Girls Combing the Beards of Goats" by Richard Doyle (1834-1883), and a goat image from the Russian surrealist photographer Katerina Plotnikova.


Following the bear

East of the Sun, West of the Moon by Lucy Campbell

This post was first published in the winter of 2014, re-posted today with additional art.

While thinking about the value of taking periodic retreats from the online world, I was reminded of something Terry Tempest Williams once said about the symbology of bears...so I searched through her interviews (published in A Voice in the Wilderness) until I found the right passage. For Williams, the bear embodies "opposing views, that we can be both fierce and compassionate at once. The bear is above ground in spring and summer and below ground, hibernating, in fall and winter -- and she emerges with young by her side. I think that's a wonderful model for us, particularly as women. And it's one I've tried to adopt." 

She goes on to explain that she divides her years into halves. From April Fool's Day to The Day of the Dead (November 1st), she lives a public life as a writer and activist, doing any traveling or public speaking or teaching during these months. From The Day of the Dead until April Fool's Day, however, she stays at home -- to spend time with her family; to write; to live within the rhythms of her creativity. The bear, she suggests, "offers us a model of how one lives with that paradox, of public and private life, of a creative life as well as a life of obligation."

Ice Bear by Jackie Morris

Williams also addresses this theme in her essay "Undressing the Bear," pointing out that the she-bear has two sides her nature: both fierce and maternal, wild and nurturing. In mythic terms, this oppositional duality held in instinctive balance is the point.

"If we choose to follow the bear," she writes, "we will be saved from a distracted and domesticated life. The bear becomes our mentor. We must journey out, so that we might journey in. The bear mother enters the earth before snowfall and dreams herself through winter, emerging with young by her side. She not only survives the barren months, she gives birth. She is the caretaker of the unseen world. As a writer and a woman with obligations to both family and community, I have tried to adopt this ritual of balancing public and private life. We are at home in the deserts and mountains, as well as in our dens. Above ground in the abundance of spring and summer, I am available. Below ground in the deepening of autumn and winter, I am not. I need hibernation in order to create."

Hibernation by Susan Seddon BouletIn Women Who Run With the Wolves, psychologist and storyteller Clarissa Pinkola Estés notes the age-old connection of women and bears in the mythic traditions of many different lands. "To the ancients," she writes, "bears symbolized resurrection. The creature goes to sleep for a long time, its heartbeat decreases to almost nothing. The male often impregnates the female right before hibernation, but miraculously, egg and sperm do not unite right away. They float separately in her uterine broth until much later. Near the end of hibernation, the egg and sperm unite and cell division begins, so that the cubs will be born in the spring when the mother is awakening, just in time to care for and teach her new offspring. Not only by reason of awakening from hibernation as though from death, but much more so because the she-bear awakens with new young, this creature is a profound metaphor for our lives, for return and increase coming from something that seemed deadened.

Bear Woman by Susan Seddon Boulet"The bear is associated with many huntress Goddesses: Artemis and Diana in Greece and Rome, and Muerte and Hecoteptl, mud women deities in the Latina cultures. These Goddesses bestowed upon women the power of tracking, knowing, 'digging out' the psychic aspects of all things. To the Japanese the bear is the symbol of loyalty, wisdom, and strength. In northern Japan where the Ainu tribe lives, the bear is one who can talk to God directly and bring messages back for humans. The cresent moon bear is considered a sacred being, one who was given the white mark on his throat by the Buddhist Goddess Kwan-Yin, whose emblem is the crescent moon. Kwan-Yin is the Goddess of Deep Compassion and the bear is her emissary.

"In the psyche, the bear can be understood as the ability to regulate one's life, especially one's feeling life. Bearish power is the ability to move in cycles, be fully alert, or quiet down into a hibernative sleep that renews one's energy for the next cycle. The bear image teaches that it is possible to maintain a kind of pressure gauge for one's emotional life, and most especially that one can be fierce and generous at the same time. One can be reticent and valuable. One can protect one's territory, make one's boundaries clear, shake the sky if need be, yet be available, accessible, engendering all the same."

Bear scuptures by Gene Tobey

Though Williams and Estés are focused on women and women's issues in the passages above, the oppositional nature of bear symbology is useful to all artists, men and women alike, who struggle to balance their public and private selves, and the often-conflicting demands of family life, community engagement, and creative work. To be available to others, while protecting time to be available only to ourselves and our muse...is this not the dilemma that all creative artists (if we're not complete monsters of self-importance or self-effacement) face again and again?

And even when we are alone in the studio, the symbol of the mythic bear and cyclical hibernation is a useful one. As a culture, we tend to prize action, accomplishment, and public expression over stillness, retreat, and quiet reflection -- but creativity needs all parts of the cycle: the taking in, the pause, the putting back out. Art is born in the movement between them, the mythic rhythm at the heartbeat of our lives.

East of the Sun, West of the Moon by Frederick Richardson

The winter months have always been a challenge for me. I love sunshine, dry weather and warmth (the hotter the better), and for many years I avoided the cold by wintering in the Arizona desert -- where bears roamed above us on the mountain peaks, but did not venture down to the heat of the valley.

By living full-time on Dartmoor now,  however, I am learning to appreciate winter's stark gifts: it slows me down, turns my thoughts inward, keeps me closer to hearth and home, strengthening the introverted side of my nature, without which I couldn't write or paint. I am learning at last to follow the bear; to trust in the process of hibernation and gestation. I am learning patience. Slowness. Stillness.

All things have their season. And spring always comes.

East of the Sun, West of the Moon by Līga Kļaviņa

Sleeping bear by Marc Simont

Pictures: The lovely bear art above is by Lucy Campbell (Scotland), Jackie Morris (Wales), Susan Seddon Boulet (1941-1997; UK, Brazil & US),  Gene Tobey (1945-2006, US),  Frederick Richardson (1862-1937, US), Līga Kļaviņa (Latvia), and Marc Simont (1915-2013; France & US). Titles can be found in the picture captions.

Words: The passages quotes above are from A Voice in the Wilderness: Conversations with Terry Tempest Williams by Michael Austin (Utah State University Press, 2006); "Undressing the Bear," published in An Unspoken Hunger: Stories from the Field by Terry Tempest Williams (Vintage, 1994); and Women Who Run with the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estés (Ballentine, 1992). All rights reserved by the artists and authors.


From the archives: Beauty, grace, and morning mist

Tilly on the rocks

"The beauty of the world...has two edges, one of laughter, one of anguish, cutting the heart asunder.''  - Virginia Woolf (A Room of One's Own)

Tilly on the Rocks

"When I am working on a problem, I never think about beauty. I think only how to solve the problem. But when I have finished, if the solution is not beautiful, I know it is wrong."
  - Buckminster Fuller

Tilly on the Rocks

"You can have the other words –- chance, luck, coincidence, serendipity. I’ll take grace. I don’t know what it is exactly, but I’ll take it."  - Mary Oliver (Winter Hours)

Tilly on the Rocks

I know nothing, except what everyone knows -
If there when Grace dances, I should dance.

- W.H. Auden ("Whitsunday in Kirchstentten," Collected Poems)

Tilly on the Rocks

As Tilly and I climb through the morning mist and dawn breaks over Nattadon Hill, I am grateful for beauty. Determined to fight fiercely. Attempting to live gently. Striving, always, for grace.


From the archives: At the Death of the Year

Twilight by Brian Froud

In Celtic lore, October 31st is Samhain (All Hallow's Eve, or Halloween): the night when Arawn, lord of the Dead, rides the hills with his ghostly white hounds, and the Faery Court rides forth in stately procession across the land. In ancient times, hearth fires were smothered while bonfires blazed upon the hills, surrounded by circular trenches to protect all mortals from the faery host and the wandering spirits of the dead. In later centuries, Halloween turned into a night of revels for witches and gouls, eventually tamed into the modern holiday of costumes, tricks and treats.

Trolls by Brian Froud

Although the prospect of traffic between the living and the dead has often been feared, some cultures celebrated those special times when doors to the Underworld stood open. In Egypt, Osiris (god of the Netherworld, death, and resurrection) was drowned in the Nile by his brother Seth on the 17th of Athyr (November); each year on this night dead spirits were permitted to return to their homes, guided by the lamps of living relatives and honored by feasts. In Mexico, a similar tradition was born from a mix of indigenous folk beliefs and medieval Spanish Catholism, resulting in los Dias de Muertos (the Days of the Dead) -- a holiday Death by Brian Froudstill widely observed across Mexico and parts of the American South-West. The holiday varies from region to region but generally take place over the days of October 31st, November 1st, and November 2nd, celebrated with graveyard gatherings and Carnival-like processions in the streets. Within the house, an ofrenda or offering is painstakingly assembled on a lavishly decorated altar. Food, drink, clothes, tequila, cigarettes, chocolates and children's toys are set out for departed loved ones, surrounded by candles, flowers, palm leaves, tissue paper banners, and the smoke of copal incense. Golden paths of marigold petals are strewn from the altar to the street (sometimes all the way to the cemetary) to help the confused souls of the dead find their way back home.

According to Fredy Mendez, a Totonac man from Veracruz: "Between 31 October and 2 November, past generations were careful always to leave the front door open, so that the souls of the deceased could enter. My grandmother was constantly worried, and forever checking that the door had not been shut. Younger people are less concerned, but there is one rule we must obey: while the festival lasts, we treat all living beings with kindness. This includes dogs, cats, even flies or mosquitoes. If you should see a fly on the rim of a cup, don't frighten it away -- it is a dead relative who has returned. The dead come to eat tamales and to drink hot chocolate. What they take is vapor, or steam, from the food. They don't digest it physically: they extract the goodness from what we provide. This is an ancient belief. Each year we receive our relatives with joy. We sit near the altar to keep them company, just as we would if they were alive. At midday on 2 November the dead depart. Those who have been well received go laden with bananas, tamales, mole and good things. Those who have been poorly received go empty handed and grieving to the grave. Some people here have even seen them, and heard their lamentations."

(Go here for Stu Jenks' Guest Post on the Day of the Dead festivities in Tucson, Arizona.)

The Elfin Maid by Brian Froud

In Greek mythology, Persephone regularly crosses the border between the living and the dead, dwelling half the year with her mother (the goddess Demeter) in the upper world, and half the year with her husband (Hades) in the realm of the dead below. In another Greek story, Orpheus follows his dead wife deep into Hades' realm, where he bargains for her life in return for a demonstration of his musical skills. Hades agrees to release the lovely Eurydice back to Orpheus, provided he leads his wife from the Underworld without looking back. During the journey, he cannot hear his wife's footsteps and so he breaks the taboo. Eurydice vanishes and the pathway to Land of the Dead is closed. A similar tale is told of Izanagi in Japanese lore, who attempts to reclaim his beloved Izanami from the Land of Shadows. He may take her back if he promises not to try to see Izanami's face -- but he breaks the taboo, and is horrified to discover a rotting corpse.

When we look at earlier Sumarian myth, we find the goddess Inana is more successful in bringing her lover, Dumuzi, back from the Underworld; in Babylonian myth, this role falls to Ishtar, rescuing her lover Tammuz: "If thou opens not the gate," she says to the seven gatekeepers of the world below, "I will smash the door, I will shatter the bolt, I will smash the doorpost, I will move the doors, I will raise up the dead, eating the living, so that the dead will outnumber the living." During the three days of Ishtar's descent, all sexual activity stops on earth. The third day of the drama is the Day of Joy, the time of ascent, resurrection and procreation, when the year begins anew.

The Rune of Journeys by Brian Froud

Coyote, Hermes, Loki, Uncle Tompa and other Trickster figures from the mythic tradition have a special, uncanny ability to travel between mortal and immortal realms. In his brilliant book Trickster Makes This World: Michief, Myth, & ArtLewis Hyde explains that Trickster is the lord of in-between:

"He is the spirit of the doorway leading out, and the crossroads at the edge of town. He is the spirit of the road at dusk, the one that runs from one town to another and belongs to neither. Travellers used to mark such roads with cairns, each adding a stone to the pile in passing. The name Hermes once meant 'he of The Rune of Stewardship by Brian Froudthe stone heap,' which tells us that the cairn is more than a trail marker -- it is an altar to the forces that govern these spaces of heightened uncertainty. The road that Trickster travels is a spirit road as well as a road in fact. He is the adept who can move between heaven and earth, and between the living and the dead."

Trickster is one of the few who passes easily through the borderlands. The rest of us must confront the guardians who rise to bar the way: the gods, faeries, and supernatural spirits whose role is to help or hinder our passage over boundaries and through gates, thresholds, and liminal states of mind. In folk tales, guardians can be propitiated, appeased, outwitted, even slain -- but often at a price which is somewhat higher than one really wants to pay.

On Samhain, we cross from the old year to the new -- and that moment of crossing, as the clock strikes the midnight hour, is a time of powerful enchantment. For a blink of an eye we stand poised between two years, two tales, two worlds; between the living and the dead, the mortal and the fey. We must remember to give food to Hecate, wine to Janus, and flowers, songs, smoke, and dreams to the gate-keepers along the way. Shamans, mythic artists, and fantasy writers: they all cast paths of spells, stories, and marigold petals for us to follow, keeping us safe until the sun rises and the world begins anew.

Leaf Mask by Brian FroudThe art above is by Brian Froud, from The Land of Froud, Good Faeries/Bad Faeries, The Runes of Efland (with Ari Berk) and Trolls (with Wendy Froud). His latest book is Faeries' Tales, written and co-illustrated by Wendy Froud.


From the archives: The Blessing of Otters

Kickapoo by Rebecca Tobey

I'm re-posting this piece from 2015 not only because it relates to the subject of today's other post, but also because it is one that I keep thinking about in this angry, divisive political climate. As the Indian sage Ramana Maharshi once said when asked how we should be treating others: "There are no others."

One of the mythic borderlands I'm especially drawn to (as evidenced by my writing and art over the decades) is the place where humans and animals meet: as neighbors, as cousins who speak each other's language, as shape-shifters in each other's skins.

"Long ago the trees thought they were people," says Tulalip storyteller Johnny Moses, recounting a traditional Native America tale. "Long ago the mountains thought they were people. Long ago the animals thought they were people. Someday they will say, 'long ago the humans thought they were people.' "

River Shaman by Rebecca TobeyIn "Voyageur," a gorgeous essay by Scott Russell Sanders, the writer and his daughter watch otters during a camping trip in the geographic borderlands between Minnesota and Ontario. What was it that kept him riveted to the spot, watching the animals with such intense fascination? What did the otters mean to him, and what did he want from them?

Not their hides, not their meat, not even a photograph, says Saunders, "although I found them surpassingly beautiful. I wanted their company. I desired their instruction -- as if, by watching them, I might learn to belong somewhere as they so thoroughly belonged here. I yearned to slip out of my skin and into theirs, to feel the world for a spell through their senses, to think otter thoughts, and then to slide back into myself, a bit wiser for the journey.

"In tales of shamans the world over, men and women make just such leaps, into hawks or snakes or bears, and then back into human shape, their vision enlarged, their sympathy deepened. I am a poor sort of shaman. My shape never changes, except, year by year, to wrinkle and sag. I did not become an otter, Messenger of the Gods by Gene & Rebecca Tobeyeven for an instant. But the yearning to leap across the distance, the reaching out in imagination to a fellow creature, seems to me a worthy impulse, perhaps the most encouraging and distinctive one we have. It is the same impulse that moves us to reach out to one another across differences of race or gender, age or class. What I desired from the otters was also what I most wanted from my daughter and from the friends with whom we were canoeing, and it is what I have always desired from neighbors and strangers. I wanted their blessing. I wanted to dwell alongside them with understanding and grace. I wanted them to go about their lives in my presence as though I were kin to them, no matter how much I might differ from them outwardly."

Hawkeye by Rebecca Tobey

Later in essay, Sanders writes about two loons who wake him in the middle of the night, "wailing back and forth like two blues singers demented by love," and the bald eagle who watches their progress down the river from its perch on a dead tree's branch. What did the eagle see, he wonders?

"Not food, surely, and not much of a threat, or it would have flown. Did it see us as fellow creatures? Or merely as drifting shapes, no more consequential than clouds? Exchanging Dancing With the Wind by Gene & Rebecca Tobeystares with this great bird, I dimly recalled a passage from Walden that I would look up after my return to the company of books: 'What distant and different beings in the various mansions of the universe are contemplating the same one at the same moment! Nature and human life are as various as our several constitutions. Who shall say what prospect life offers to another? Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other's eyes for an instant?'

"Neuroscience may one day pull off that miracle," Sanders continues, "giving us access to other eyes, other minds. For the present, however, we must rely on our native sight, on patient observation, on hunches and empathy. By empathy, I do not mean the projecting of human films onto nature's screens, turning grizzly bears into teddy bears, crickets into choristers, grass into lawns; I mean the shaman's leap, a going out of oneself into the inwardness of other beings.

"The longing I heard in the cries of the loons was not just a feathered version of mine, but neither was it wholly alien. It is risky to speak of courting birds as blues singers, of diving otters as children taking turns on a slide. But it is even riskier to pretend we have nothing in common with the rest of Big Horn Sheep Shaman by Gene & Rebecca Tobeynature, as though we alone, the chosen species, were centers of feeling and thought. We cannot speak of that common ground without casting threads of metaphor outward from what we know and what we do not know.

"An eagle is other, but it is also alive, bright with sensation, attuned to the world, and we respond to that vitality wherever we find it, in bird or beetle, in moose or lowly moss. Edward O. Wilson has given this impulse a lovely name, biophilia, which he defines as the urge 'to explore and affiliate with life.' Of course, like the coupled dragonflies that skimmed past our canoes or like osprey hunting fish, we seek other creatures for survival. Yet even if biophilia is an evolutionary gift, like the kangaroo's leap or the peacock's tail, our fascination with living things carries us beyond the requirements of eating and mating. In that excess, that free curiosity, there may be a healing power. The urge to explore has scattered humans across the whole earth -- to the peril of many species, including our own; perhaps the other dimension of biophilia, the desire to affiliate with life, could lead us to honor the entire fabric and repair what has been torn."

Hawk Bear & Deer Dancers by Gene & Rebecca Tobey

In the conclusion of his essay, Sanders points out that the fellowship of all creatures "is more than a handsome metaphor. The appetite for discovering such connections is also entwined in our DNA. Science articulates in formal terms affinities that humans have sensed for ages in direct encounters with wildness. Even while we slight or slaughter members of our own species, and while we push other species toward extinction, we slowly, Keeper of the Trust by Gene & Rebecca Tobeypainstakingly acquire knowledge that could enable us and inspire us to change our ways. Only if that knowledge begins to exert a pressure in us, and we come to feel the fellowship of all beings as potently as we feel hunger and fear, will we have any hope of creating a truly just and tolerant society, one that cherishes the land and our wild companions along with our brothers and sisters.

"In America lately, we have been carrying on two parallel conversations: one about respecting human diversity, the other about preserving natural diversity. Unless we merge those conversations, both will be futile. Our efforts to honor human differences cannot succeed apart from our effort to honor the buzzing, blooming, bewildering variety of life of earth. All life rises from the same source, and so does all fellow feeling, whether the fellow moves on two legs or four, on scaly bellies or feathered wings. If we care only for human needs, we betray the land; if we care only for the earth and its wild offspring, we betray our own kind. The profusion of creatures and cultures is the most remarkable fact about our planet, and the study and stewardship of that profusion seems to me our fundamental task."

Bear sculptures by Gene & Rebecca Tobey

The sculptures pictured here are by the New Mexican artists Gene & Rebecca Tobey, who worked for years in a fertile partnership creating scuptures, paintings, and drawings inspired by nature and the mythic symbolism of the North American continent. (The titles of the pieces can be found in the picture captions.) Gene died of leukemia in 2006, but Rebecca carries on their beautiful work. Please visit the Tobey Studios website to see more of their collaborative art, and the Rebecca Tobey website for her current pieces.

The Gift by Gene & Rebecca TobeyThe passages by Scott Russell Sanders above are from "Voyageurs," an essay in Writing from the Center  (Indiana University Press, 1997), highly recommended. All rights to text & imagery above reserved by the author and artists. Many thanks to Ellen Kushner for the opening quote by Ramana Maharshi (1879-1950).


The art of vulnerability

The Cloutie Tree in Autumn

Autumn leaves

Although I'm making a good recovery from last year's health crisis, which kept me confined to bed for long stretches of time, recovery is never a steady, straight line. As everyone with a long-term health condition knows, the only predictable thing about managing such an illness is its utter unpredictability. One day you're doing fine, the next you're down again, for one reason or another; or for no discernable reason at all. You can rage about it, or flow with the ups and downs of it as gracefully as you can...and I'm still learning the latter after all these years. I was down for the last four days and now I'm up again. Go figure.

The post below was written in 2011, but it could just as easily been written today, for some things never change -- like illness, and art, and the deep soul-medicine of the Devon woods:

In the fairy wood

To make art and to recover from a long illness are two things that are never an easy mix...and yet, I remind myself, the philosophers and spiritual traditions that I trust the most do not prioritize "ease" in the living of an artist's life. It is often precisely from what is hard that our best work grows, our ideas deepen, and our spirits mature.

Betwixt and between wood and hill

The Irish poet/philosopher John O'Donohue (1956-2008) is a writer I often find myself re-reading during difficult times -- usually while sitting in the woods behind the studio, morning coffee in hand and Tilly close by. My little black familiar sits patiently, ears cocked and nose twitching in the rustling, breathing forest, as I turn the crackling pages and lose myself in O'Donohue's words....

"When you become vulnerable," he says, "any ideal or perfect image of yourself falls away."

That's certainly true during periods of convalescence. Who am I during the long, quiet days when I can't write, or draw, or even think properly? What is left at the core; what is still me when the parts I value most are stripped away?

"Many people are addicted to perfection," he continues, " and in their pursuit of the ideal, they have no patience with vulnerability."

Tilly at our morning coffee place

There's nothing wrong with ideals themselves, he adds.

"Every poet would like to write the ideal poem. Though they never achieve this, sometimes it glimmers through their best work. Ironically, the very beyondness of the idea is often the touch of presence that renders the work luminous. The beauty of the ideal awakens a passion and urgency that brings out the best in the person and calls forth the dream of excellence.

Ivy, moss, and stone

"The beauty of the true ideal," Donohue insists, "is its hospitality towards woundedness, weakness, failure and fall-back. Yet so many people are infected with the virus of perfection. They cannot rest; they allow themselves no ease until they come close to the cleansed domain of perfection. This false notion of perfection does damage and puts their lives under great strain. It is a wonderful day in a life when one is finally able to stand before the long, deep mirror of one's own reflection and view oneself with appreciation, acceptance, and forgiveness. On that day one breaks through the falsity of images and expectations which have blinded one's spirit. One can only learn to see who one is when one learns to view oneself with the most intimate and forgiving compassion."

Writing in the woods

Who am I, then, when I glimpse into that mirror? A writer and artist still, on the days I can work and on the days when I can't. And also just a woman reading and writing in the woods, a dog beside her. Healing. Healing.

Autumn leaves

Beauty by John O'DonohueWords: The passage above is from John O'Donohue's Beauty: The Invisible Embrace (HarperCollins, 2004); the poem in the picture captions is from Otherwise: New & Selected Poems by Jane Kenyon (Greywolf, 1997), who died of leukemia in 1995; all rights reserved. Pictures: The autumn woods, photographed this morning.
Related posts (on banishing perfectionism): "When Every Day is Judgement Day" and Dare to be Foolish"


Darkness and light

Paige Bradley

Re-posted from 2014, with additional text and art...

From Linda Hogan's painful, honest, beautiful memoir, The Woman Who Watches Over the World:

"To open our eyes, to see with our inner fire and light, is what saves us. Even if it makes us vulnerable. Opening the eyes is the job of storytellers, witnesses, and the keepers of accounts. The stories we know and tell are reservoirs of light and fire that brighten and illuminate the darkness of human night, the unseen. They throw down a certain slant of light across the floor each morning, and they throw down also its shadow."

Rune Guneriussen

Rune Guneriussen

"As time has passed, things in me have been burned away and I see my life more clearly, more cleanly, than I had ever seen it before. And in that vision of my past, my history, my body, I also saw that there was something inside me that had survived and not merely survived but had done so whole and nearly intact. The hurt child raises itself and doesn't just walk but swims and flies. This child sees that life may never be easy but may be beautiful...

"Fire, like pain, like love, is a power we do not know. Yet from the ashes of each, something will grow. No one knows if it will be something beautiful and strong. But in our lives it is sometimes the broken vessel, as writer Andre Dubus calls it, that spills the light."

Bruce Munro

Bruce Munro

''How is one to live a moral and compassionate existence," asks Barry Lopez, "when one is fully aware of the blood, the horror inherent in life, when one finds darkness not only in one’s culture but within oneself? If there is a stage at which an individual life becomes truly adult, it must be when one grasps the irony in its unfolding and accepts responsibility for a life lived in the midst of such paradox. One must live in the middle of contradiction, because if all contradiction were eliminated at once life would collapse.

''There are simply no answers to some of the great pressing questions. You continue to live them out, making your life a worthy expression of leaning into the light.''

Bruce Munro

Bruce MunroWords: The passages above are from The Woman Who Watches Over the World: A Native Memoir by Linda Hogan (WW Norton, 2001) and Arctic Dreams by Barry Lopez (Scribner's, 1986); all rights reserved by the authors.
Art: "Expansion, New York City" by Paige Bradley
(U.S.) and light installations by Rune Guneriussen (Norway) and Bruce Munro (U.K.).
A related post: "The beauty of brokeness." And I recommend "The Jagged, Gilded Script of Scars' by Alice Driver.


The narrative of marriage

 The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam by Edmund Dulac

Re-posted from 2011, with much more art this time around:

I've been re-reading one of my favorite books: Writing a Woman's Life by the late feminist scholar Carolyn G. Heilbrun (1926-2003). Ostensibly a survey of the way the lives of famous women have been portrayed by biographers, this slim volume also casts a sharp eye on the way women's stories are told today...and the manner in which such narratives influence the ways that we tell our own stories.

I first encountered the book twenty years ago, and have re-read it several times since, finding new things to ponder within it at each different stage of my own life's journey. This time, I've been struck anew by the chapter on marriage -- for I'm reading it now as a married woman myself, after spending many years in a more independent state, and thus have fresh interest in Heilbrun's reflections on marriage and its portrayal in women's stories.*

Titania Meets Over Arthur Rackham

"It is noteworthy that few works of fiction make marriage their central concern," writes Heilbrun. "As Northrup Frye puts it, with his accustomed clarity: 'The heroine who becomes a bride, and eventually, one assumes, a mother, on the lst page of a romance, has accommodated herself to the cyclical movement: by her marriage...she completes the cycle and passes out of the story. We are usually given to understand that a happy and well-adjusted sexual life does not concern us as readers.' Fiction has largely rejected marriage as a subject, except in those instances where it is presented as a history of betrayal -- at worst an Updike hell, at best when Auden speaks of it as a game calling for 'patience, foresight, maneuver, like war, like marriage.'  Marriage is very different than fiction presents it as being. We rarely examine its unromantic aspects."

The Beautiful Couple by Helen StrattonOne of the problems of the "romantic plot" (as it's constantly portrayed in our popular culture: in countless contemporary novels, films, t.v. shows, pop songs, etc., etc.) is that it's a narrative that focuses exclusively and relentlessly on the beginning of a relationship -- and then ends at the point of declaration, or conquest, or the exchange of marriage vows. Thus we're encouraged to think of the heady excitement inherent in a brand new attraction as the whole point of love  -- with no interest left over for the intricate dance of a marriage or long-term partnership: the quieter romance of entwined lives spun out over years, over decades, over a lifetime. We are constantly bombarded with stories (films, songs, etc.) that lay down all-too-familiar scripts for how to behave as lovers in the throes of new passion -- but where are the stories (or films, or love songs)  that tell us anything useful about the mysteries of a working marriage, the challenging art of true partnership?

And does this matter? Well, I think it does. Not everyone is blessed with the model of a functional marriage in their family background, and thus it's to stories we often turn for a glimpse of how else to construct our lives . . . and what we get from most books and films on the subject of marriage is a resounding silence. We're shown over, and over, and over again that it's courtship that counts, and the social pageant of the Wedding Day -- while marriage is a vague, misty, unexplored state, unworthy of drama or art.  Marriage is the end of the tale.**

"Most of us begin, aided by almost every aspect of our culture, hoping for a perfect marriage," Heilbrun points out. "What this means is that we accept sexual attractiveness as a clue to finding our way in the labyrinth of marriage. It almost never is. Oddly enough, the media, which promise marriage as the happy ending, almost simultaneously show it, after several years, to be more ending than happy. But the dream lives on that this time will be different.

Titania Reaching for Bottom (A Midsummer Night's Dream) by Arthur Rackham

"Perhaps the reason the truth is so little told," she adds, "is that it sounds quotidian, bourgeois, even like advocating proportion, that most unappealing of all virtues. But E. M. Forester understood this: when someone suggested that truth is halfway between extremes, his answer (in Howards End) was, 'No; truth, being alive, was not halfway between anything. It was only to be found by continuous excursions into either realm, and though proportion is the final secret, to espouse it at the outset is to ensure sterility.' Proportion is the final secret, and that is why all good marriages are what Stanley Cavell calls 'remarriages,' and not lust masquerading as passion."

Edmund Dulac

Later in the text Heilbrun explains what she means by the term "remarriage":

"I have spoken of reinventing marriage, of marriages achieving their rebirth in the middle age of the partners. This phenomenon has been called the 'comedy of remarriage' by Stanley Cavell, whose Pursuits of Happiness, a film book, is perhaps the best marriage manual ever published. One must, however, translate his formulation from the language of Hollywood, in which he developed it, into the language of middle age: less glamour, less supple youth, less fantasyland.  Cavell writes specifically of Hollywood movies of the 1930s and 1940s in which couples -- one partner is often the dazzling Cary Grant -- learn to value each other, to educate themselves in equality, to remarry. Cavell recognizes that the actresses in these movie -- often the dazzling Katherine Hepburn -- are what made them possible. If read not as an account of beautiful people in hilarious situations, but as a deeply philosophical discussion of marriage, his book contains what are almost aphorisms of marital achievement. For example: '[The romance of remarriage] poses a structure in which we are permanently in doubt who the hero is, that is, whether it is the male or female who is the active partner, which of them is in quest, who is following whom.'

Cary Grant & Katherine Hepburn in The Philadelphia Story

"Above all, despite the sexual attractiveness of the actors in the movies he discusses, Cavell knows that sexuality is not the ultimate secret in these marriage: 'in God's intention a meet and happy conversation is the chiefest and noblest end of marriage. Here is the reason that these relationships strike us as having the quality of friendship, a further factor in their exhilaration for us.'

"He is wise enough, moreover, to emphasize 'the mystery of marriage by finding that neither law nor sexuality (nor, by implication, progeny) is sufficient to ensure true marriage and suggesting that what provides legitimacy is the mutual willingness for remarriage, for a sort of continuous affirmation. Remarriage, hence marriage, is, whatever else it is, an intellectual undertaking.' "

Oh, how I love the idea that "a meet and happy conversation is the chiefest and noblest end of marriage"!

 The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam by Edmund Dulac

Some years ago, I read an article about two people in the arts (alas, I can't remember who they were) who'd been married for many, many years. Asked for the secret of their long partnership, they said: "We fell straight into conversation when we met, and we haven't come to the end of that conversation yet."

I can't think of a better model for marriage than that. Or of a narrative more romantic . . . .

Our wedding rings

* Heilbrun's reflections on marriage pertain to men too, of course; and are useful for looking at same-sex marriages as well. Please keep in mind that she was writing 30 years ago, when focusing a scholarly gaze on women's biographies in this manner was still something of a radical act.

** There are exceptions to this, of course, with some examples listed in "The Top Ten Books About Marriage" by Jane Rogers, exploring long marriages good and bad (The Guardian, August 2016). What books would you recommend?

The text quoted above is from Carolyn G. Heilbrun's Writing a Woman's Life (Ballentine Books, 1988); all rights reserved by the author's estate. The illustrations are by Edmund Dulac, Arthur Rackham, and Helen Stratton; they are identified in the picture captions. The photograph is from my own marriage; the wedding rings were made by our friend Miriam Boy Hackney. Her jewelry business is called Silverandmoor, which inspired the title of this blog.