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Recycling Ancient Religions

Monday, December 22nd, 2008 | Posted by Judith Berman

Yesterday we tried to stream the webcast of the winter solstice sunrise at Newgrange, Ireland, but were hampered by severed cables that rendered the Middle East virtually without internet. (Apparently it was also so cloudy in Ireland that the sun wasn’t visible at dawn, so we didn’t miss much.)

Newgrange is a 5000-year-old neolithic passage tomb built before Stonehenge and the Great Pyramid at Giza. Newgrange features in several stories from (the much later) Irish mythology, including that describing the conception of the great Irish hero CĂșchulainn, son of the god Lugh. In the 20th and 21st centuries, the spiral designs carved into its stones and those of the neighboring Knowth tomb have inspired New Age labyrinths to help create “peace and tranquility” and paintings celebrating “sacred space” and “Ireland’s holy places.”

Another British Isles passage grave with a winter-solstice webcam, albeit decidedly less hyped, is Maeshowe in the Orkney Islands. Somewhat more is known about the relatively recent history of Maeshowe because of the Orkneyinga Saga, which describes how Earl Harald and his Vikings looted it in the 12th century, and because of the runic graffiti with which the Vikings subsequently defaced it. Inscriptions such as “Thorni f****d; Helgi carved” support the theory that the Vikings subsequently used it as a trysting spot. It perhaps says something about human nature that this is one of the largest single collections of runic inscriptions to survive.

Adaptive re-use of other peoples’ religious arts, monuments and deities has been around, well, probably as long as H. sapiens has had art and deities. Our attempt yesterday to view the Newgrange dawn led to a conversation with our 9-year-old which started out a bit New-Age-y, about using old religious traditions that celebrated the earth and its cycles to help reclaim our own connection to same, but quickly degenerated into back-and-forth about what else those traditions had practiced…. strangling people and throwing them into bogs… burning people in wicker baskets… (A couple of professors in my department joked about starting a course called “Non-Western Approaches to Religion” to cover all the–to us–bizarre, disgusting and cruel religious practices around the world, but I think that’s a pot-and-kettle comparison.)

Fantasy literature recycles religions with even greater intensity than the culture at large, and the new uses and interpretations run a similar or wider gamut than the ones I’ve mentioned. Reworking is good in fiction. As a reader I don’t expect historical accuracy (unless the writer claims it) and as an academic, one of whose areas is the anthropology of religion, it’s a relief not to feel responsible for historical accuracy when I’m writing fantasy. Nevertheless Maeshowe’s Vikings seem more real, and at the same time more believable as characters in a story, than heroes like CĂșchulainn or the hopeful labyrinths created today, and I worry about reuse that leaves out all the rough bits: the violence and body fluids of genuine mythologies; the gross internal contradictions that all cultures contain; the social consequences of glorification of the hero; the hypocrisy and bureaucracy that eventually afflicts all human institutions; barbarians (Christians, in this case) looting, fornicating in, and idly defacing what used to be the sacred resting place of a king.

Still, the return of longer days is a thing to celebrate, especially for those of us with SAD… Happy holiday season, everyone, and may the new year, whenever it begins in your tradition, bring good things.

1 Comment »

  1. It’s a good point about the rough edges. Accuracy in fantasy interests me less than authenticity–hard to quantify, but you know it when you find it (and when you don’t). The trouble with research is that people tend to learn according to patterns (“In Grand Fenwick there were seventeen months, seventeen rivers and seventeen gods; everything went by seventeen”), and the interesting detail (in life or in storytelling) is often the one that breaches the pattern (“Then there was that eighteenth god…”).

    Comment by James Enge - December 23, 2008 2:04 am


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