Who is your favorite mythical creature/character, and why?
Submitted By herasrevenge
Who is your favorite mythical creature/character, and why?
Submitted By herasrevenge
Once upon a time there were two dragons, one red and one white, and they fought; the red dragon symbolising Wales, the white a representation of the invading Saxons…
Or maybe the dragon was just a flag, a banner, the standard carried by King Arthur as he rode into battle…
National stories are powerful, hence the dragon emblazoned on the Welsh flag. And it’s said that the last dragon in Wales still sleeps deep within Radnor Forest, four churches surrounding it and keeping it at bay, all of them dedicated to St. Michael (the Bible’s angelic slayer of dragons). The churches still stand, at Nant Melan, Cefnllys, Rhydithon and Cascob, still doing their duty.
Of course, I make no claim for there really being dragons in Wales, because we’re all very modern and don’t believe in such things, but then there’s this strange little story uncovered by author Mike Dash, perfect for St. David’s day, and just enough to make you ask “What if…?”
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So we’re still wandering through the byways of myths and legends, and today my dyed-in-the-wool Methodism is going to come out. Because we’re heading into some distinctly Christian – specifically Catholic – folklore, and I’m sorry but I’m a child of the Reformation. And that’s why, when we head into Dan Brown territory, a nerve ending in the corner of my eye starts to twitch, and as we find ourselves on a Grail quest, boy is it twitching!
Because the Holy Grail isn’t in the Bible, or at least not in any direct way – Jesus coins the wine/blood symbolism at the Last Supper but there’s no great description of a Grail, they just use a cup to drink from. Boring and conventional I know, but there you go. No, the Holy Grail is basically a medieval plot device.
See, somewhere between 1181 and 1190, a French poet called Chretian de Troyes wrote Perceval: The Story of the Grail. During the poem, Perceval manages to impress King Arthur, fall in love, meets the Fisher King and has a vision of the Grail. Here it’s an object of power, capable of healing the Fisher King if only Perceval asks the right questions – which he fails to do. It’s nothing to do with the Bloodline of Christ, it’s just the cup that the King’s communion is carried in, important because that’s the only food and drink he’s receiving.
The Grail became holy around a decade later, when Robort de Boron fills in the gaps of its history – Joseph of Arimathea uses the cup from the Last Supper to collect some of Christ’s blood after the crucifixion, eventually making his way to Britain (which links in with an early tradition that had Joseph and a bunch of other minor characters from the Gospels making their way across Europe, as well as being the source of the idea that Jesus once visited England as a boy – cue Jerusalem). None of this really has anything to do with the Bible – effectively it’s New Testament fanfic. Somewhere along the line the Grail became the object of a quest carried out by Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table and it became enshrined in literature as a sacred macguffin.
However, things get squinky.
Because in French, ‘Holy Grail’ is ‘San Greal’… But ‘Sang Real’ is ‘Royal Blood’. And that’s where we enter conspiracy theory territory, because when you’re talking about Christianity, ‘Royal Blood’ can only really refer to that of Jesus. And in some interpretations, the Grail is seen as a metaphor for a secret – that Christ survived the crucifixion, married Mary Magdelene, and had a daughter, the Royal Bloodline. This theory came to public attention in the eighties, but Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code brought it to a mass audience. After all, if you assume this secret is a threat to powerful people, then you’ve got yourself the ingredients of an airport thriller novel with very short chapters.
Thing is, it claims more historical accuracy than it probably should have.
For the purposes of this post, I’ll just rant about one particular thing – the whole Mary Magdelene thing is fanfic. In the Bible, she’s someone Jesus healed and who became one of his followers; she was also the first person to see Jesus after the resurrection. However, in 591, Pope Gregory made a speech that assumed a bunch of women in the New Testament were, in fact, the same person, leading to the assumption that Mary Magdelene was a former prostitute (they eventually corrected the mistake in 1969). In contrast to this, the Gospel of Philip implies that she may have been in a relationship with Jesus – leading to the male disciples complaining of favouritism. This is one of the earliest sources for the whole Bloodline of Christ thing, but the problem is that the Gospel of Philip is way later than the four canonical gospels (basically, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are the standard gospels, being the earliest – or based on the earliest – documents. The apocryphal gospels are a lot later and are often out-of-character – back to the fanfic analogy).
That said, I think I can see why the sacred bloodline thing is attractive to some people, and it’s not about Jesus (because, theologically speaking, the whole Jesus story falls apart without the crucifixion/resurrection – any claims for Him being a good moral teacher are blown out the water by that, as His understanding of what he was here to do is based within that context – without that, the bloodline thing stops being ‘holy’ and just becomes about some bloke who had some kids), although it would deal a death-blow to the foundations of Christianity and quite a few people would be down with that. But no, I think part of the reason the Bloodline thing caught on is the importance it gives to Mary Magdelene.
See, historically speaking women have had a raw deal from organised religion. In this particular context, it hasn’t exactly been helped by the way in which Catholicism developed the back-stories of the two ‘main’ Marys – Jesus mother became a sinless eternal virgin, Mary Magdelene became a prostitute, the maiden and the hooker, two almost stereotypical (and somewhat sexist) views of women (neither of which have much biblical evidence – for instance, after the Virgin Birth there’s no suggestion that Jesus’s brothers and sisters were anything other the normal result of a relationship between Mary and Joseph).
So when the bloodline story puts Mary Magdelene front and centre, it’s almost as if it’s addressing an injustice – and maybe the Grail’s symbolic nature here represents the quest for a religion that doesn’t prop up patriarchal systems. And maybe in some ways it succeeds in that – The Da Vinci Code debunking is the reason I learned about Mary not being a prostitute, for instance.
But while I agree that the Church has some issues it needs to face (although I’m Methodist, we have no problem with women ministers, priesthood of all believers and all that), I’m not big on using the Grail to bring pull the rug from under Christianity. Because despite what has been done to the message down the years, the story of Christ is still powerful and moving and world-changing and transformative… And the conspiracy theories aren’t. There’s a reason that, in the earliest story, the Grail is symbolic of a power that can heal a near mortal wound.
In the end, the Grail is a plot device, a quest, a journey; maybe even the journey we’re all on. And if nothing else, it should tell us to ask the right questions while we’re on that journey. Because that’s when the purpose of the journey becomes clear.
And so King Arthur falls in battle and is spirited away to Avalon, the Isle of Apples, where his wounds will be healed and where he’ll rest until he returns to save Britain in its darkest hour…
Avalon’s just one example of the Otherworld, that strange parallel dimension that’s paradise without being heaven and that exists alongside our own but always just out of reach. It doesn’t work to the laws of physics or governments but the laws of stories and poems, and it’s both an aspirational land of plenty and a place of danger – elves and fairies in the old stories aren’t the neutered children’s characters they became in the Victorian era.
Other than Avalon, which got big because of its Arthurian connection, the best known example of this is Tir na nOg, the Land of Youth in Irish folklore. It would be easy to read it as being an equivalant to Heaven, but then mortals live there and it has its own story-rules that must not be broken… And after all, all the fairies and elves have to live somewhere…
The Wikipedia entry for Shambala, a legendary hidden Buddist kingdom, describes it as being "visionary or spiritual as much as physical or geographic", and that’s a pretty good description of Otherworlds in general. They’re not quite Heaven – they don’t fully exist within a theological context, or their symbolic power has become divorced from religious roots – but they’re not just another knigdom either. In many ways they’re paradise, but on the other hand they can be dangerous – you might not return from them, even if you want to, and if you do escape then you might find things have changed on your return – a hundred years may have passed in the blink of an eye. That beautiful woman or handsome man who invites you to a party? They might not be what they seem…
(And there’s a cautionary tale there if ever I heard one – don’t party with mysterious, dodgy strangers, no matter how hot they are.)
(And if you do find yourself in one of these lands, don’t eat or drink or dance, or you’re never getting away. And don’t accept money, cos the next morning it’ll just be leaves and your bank manager won’t like it. Thomas the Rhymer is an archetype for this sort of situation.)
(Neil Gaiman’s poem Instructions is a good guide.)
But, if you still want to, there are other otherworldly places you could go to, although sometimes you have to fit the job description – Fiddler’s Green is a paradise for cavalrymen and sailors (Neil Gaiman made it a place AND a character in Sandman; its human avatar looked a lot like GK Chesterton), while Big Rock Candy Mountain is an awesome place to go if you’re an American hobo. Cockaigne‘s where you want to go to in the unlikely event that you’re a medieval peasant reading this (and apparently it’s a possible root for the word ‘Cockney‘, although if EastEnders is a representation of earthly paradise then we’re all in trouble).
The Otherworlds are places of different rules and shifting identities – the beautful maiden you end up snogging might become a withered crone halfway through (so, you know, no tongues), and it’s okay to talk to animals because they might talk back, and besides they might not be animals anyway. That liminal identity is mirrored by how you get there – weird things happen at crossroads and at bridges, and maybe the reason midnight is such a mythic hour is because it’s the moment between one day at the next and it’s dark…
Over the last couple of entries I’ve tried to draw parallels between old stories and current society, and I guess the obvious connection between the 21st century and the Otherworld is the Internet – it’s all there, shifting identities (are people really the age they say they are? Are they the gender their photo implies? Are they really single?), the timesink aspect, the alternate worlds (World of Warcraft, Second Life), the utopianism (bringing everyone together in a golden age of communication!). There’s also the Trickster element to it all – type ‘French Military Victories into Google and hit ‘I’m Feeling Lucky’ – although that’s not always a postive thing (although it keeps Mythbusters busy debunking all those viral videos). Cyberspace (the term coined by William Gibson to describe the ‘space’ in which a telephone conversation takes place) is as liminal and as untouchable as any Fairyland, but it’s becoming more and more tied to the fabric of The Real World – augmented reality being the latest example of this, and we’ll know we’re up to our necks in the Otherworld when someone starts posting inaccurate augmented reality information to lead people astray…
And maybe this is stretching things (not that that’s ever stopped me before), but the way some tabloids talk about immigration, you’d think waves and waves of mysterious otherworldly beings were coming to the UK from a mystical land, using their strange powers to take all the houses and jobs and benefits… Because they couldn’t possibly be talking about fellow human beings…
(And it’s interesting that people talk about how glamourous celebrities are, given what ‘glamour‘ orginally meant. Remembering that usage puts a whole new slant on celebrity culture, and maybe reality TV is just seen as being a cheap ticket to the Otherworld… Or maybe the Otherworld has just become commodified and packaged and used to sell advertising space.)
So watch your step. There may be another world out there, the world of stories and songs, where strange things happen and you can get into a whole bunch of trouble… Stick to the right path. Don’t go with strangers. Don’t believe everything you hear.
But don’t be fooled into thinking that this is all there has to be.
I’m not afraid to admit it, I’m a sufferer of cognitive dissonance. I may even be a full-on hypocrite, and for that I apologise in advance. See, while there’s no way on Earth I’d want a gun in the house, I really wish I knew how to use a sword. Can’t really explain why – both are weapons, both of designed to do serious damage to the person you use them against – but to my mind, one of them is acceptable and the other just isn’t. And I don’t know why that is.
King Arthur would probably have looked at me as if I was mad, if he was here now, and assuming he even existed. One of the most familiar aspects of Arthurian legend is the story of Excalibur, Arthur’s sword and a name significantly possessed of the Cool Force (although it was called Caledfwich in the original Welsh_. Forged in Avalon, it was given to Arthur by the Lady of the Lake … Or maybe it was placed in a stone, only capable of being freed by the One True King, who of course turned out to be the young Arthur. That’s the thing with these myths, they lack consistancy, sometimes conflating two earlier stories, sometimes just making something up because it’s cool.
(I like Excalibur being the Sword in the Stone the best, if only because it’s an epic story, and ties in with other myths from around the world of a legenhttp://www.livejournal.com/update.bmldary sword or other weapon conferring legitimacy on the rightful ruler, or just becoming a sacred weapon of the country in question – you can see elements of this in Japan’s sword Kusanagi, China’s Glory of Ten Powers and Thuan Thien of Vietnam. Nowadays, of course, we’re too sophisticated for that sort of thing, and our rulers don’t need magical swords to legitimise their rule, just magical birth certificates.)
It was only in researching this that I found out that Excalibur wasn’t Arthur’s only significant weapon – he also had a dagger called Carnwennan and a spear unpronouncably called Rhongomyiant, which bizarrely gets shortened to Ron in some versions of the legend. I’m surprised more isn’t made of Ron, because there are a whole bunch of mythological spears and lances in both Irish and Norse legends (Gae Bulg, Luin of Celtchar, Gungnir and, in Japanese mythology, Amenonuhoko, which is used to create the first land. And that’s before we get onto the Spear of Destiny, the weapon said to have pierced the side of Christ as He hung on the cross, and whose story is probably a blog entry in itself (even though, like the Holy Grail, its existance as a physical object is hardly mentioned in the Bible).
It’s strange how the image of these ancient weapons still resonates today, almost as if the mythic underlying themes refuse to be re-contextualised. Or maybe I’m just saying that because I’m British, and to update the legendary weapon thing nowadays would mean linking it to guns, something we might struggle with.
(Britain has an ambiguous relationship with guns, on the one hand celebrating military achievements, on the other struggling with the idea that thousands of good, decent, responsible Americans feel the need to own handguns. Maybe it’s to do with more recent mythic, non-military images – America has the figure of the Cowboy, or a white-hatted sheriff; Britain has, for instance, a murderer who seemed to wish he was a legend.
Some weapons do seem to have acquired a mythic status over the past few decades, however – nuclear bombs and the threat of Mutually Assured Destruction terrorised generations, while anyone who saw news coverage of the post-911 allied attack on Iraq saw the conviction saw something that seemed to be more than reportage. Modern weapons may be acquired mythic status, but it’s an ambivalent one.
(Don’t get me started on The Matrix, which seemed to be trying to introduce a new totemic weapon for a mechanistic age – when Neo says "Guns, lots of guns" and proceeds to slaughter a police station full of cops, it’s portrayed as awesome in all its jacket-flapping glory. All I could think of was how a similar scene in The Terminator was portrayed as an atrocity. I may have ranted about this before… I guess my stance on fictional weapons is limited to lightsabers or… Well, I would have said Doctor Who‘s sonic screwdriver, but I’m convinced that’s sapping the lead character’s natural ingenuity, so instead I’ll go with Macgyver’s Swiss Army Knife.)
So what would we consider to be an acceptable modern Excalibur, a weapon that can become a legend and that can legitimise the one who wields it? Might I suggest we think outside the box a bit – maybe a weapon for an age in which bombs can destroy the world and any lunatic with a gun can shoot up a high street or a school needs to be something more…Human. We’re in the Information Age now, maybe our weapons need to be words, communication, video phones. We’re in an age where everything seems so polarised, so maybe our weapons are compassion and understanding. We’re in an age where everything is grim and aggressive, so our weapons are laughter and satire. And maybe we don’t need kings to wield these weapons, maybe just healers and tricksters.
Excalibur was thrown back into a lake, its job done. But the fight goes on, and we need to be smarter in our choice of weapons. Maybe we need to beat our magic swords into ordinary ploughshares…