The old gods live among us, moving unseen, taking new forms, their powers diminished as people no longer honor them. That was the premise of Neil Gaiman’s magical road-trip novel, American Gods, and it is also the backstory to The Immortals(2016), for here the Olympic deities have abandoned Greece after the anti-Pagan emperor Theodosius I made Christianity the official and legal religion of the empire.
Pious followers of reconstructed Hellenic religion should avoid this book. I am not going to give away all the plot, but let’s just say that your screams of rage might alarm your neighbors.
Think of it as Mary Stewart — romantic suspense thriller — meets Dan Brown — the action stops while Robert Langdon, professor of symbology, explains the secret meaning behind events — only in this case it is Theodore Schultz of the Columbia University classics department who stops the breakneck action to explain the secret mythic plans behind a series of crimes.
Over time, some of the gods have gravitated to Manhattan, even Artemis the hunter, now a freelance private investigator and avenger of wrongs against women, currently using the name of Selene DiSilva. Hades lives under a disused subway station. Hermes (“Mr. Dash”) is now a film producer.
Paired with Professor Schultz, Artemis seeks to stop a revival of the Mysteries that involves human sacrifice (please, no screams of outrage), one victim being his former lover. But the question is, will she, the chaste goddess, fall in love with him — and if so, will she have to kill him? And does she really need her divine status?
The Immortals is a page-turner, and definitely worthy of the label “Pagan-ish.”
A century and a half after the Salem witch trials, they still lived in the mind of a young Salem writer, Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804–1864). From his fiancee’s window, if he had a good arm, he could have thrown an ink bottle at the headstone of his ancestor John Hathorne, a leading judge in the trials, in the adjacent Charter Street cemetery.
Is this not one of the most Goth sentences ever written? “Years, many years, rolled on; the world seemed new again, so much older was it grown since the night when those pale girls had clasped their hands across the bosom of the corpse.”
Poe (1809–1849), Hawthorne’s contemporary, did not much care for the story in which it appears, “The White Old Maid,” a (sort of) ghost story published in 1835.
In an 1847 critical essay, he praised Hawthorne’s writing (“purest style . .. . the most touching pathos, the more radiant imagination”) even when it was not always popular but suggested that he needed to “escape from the mysticism of his Goodman Browns and Old White Maids into the hearty, genial . . . Indian-summer sunshine.”1)Edgar Allan Poe, “Tale Writing—Nathaniel Hawthorne,” in The Complete Short Stories of Nathaniel Hawthorne (New York: Doubleday, 1959), 9–10. Originally published in Godey’s Magazine and Lady’s Book, November 1847.
Hawthorne was both impressed and horrified by his Puritan ancestors. He admired their courage and enterprise as settlers, but was repelled by their dogmatism, suppression of individuality, and most of all by their mass execution of accused witches in 1692 (as well as sporadic earlier trials).
Henry James (1843–1916) wrote that Hawthorne had a “feeling for the latent romance of New England” and praised his handling of “the ingrained sense of sin, of evil, and of responsibility” in a world marked by pressing moral anxiety [and] the restless individual conscience.” Hawthorne sought out and delineated “the laws secretly broken, the impulsive secretly felt, the hidden passions, the double lives, the dark corners, the closed rooms, the skeletons in the cupboard and at the feast,” creating “a mystery and a glamour where there were otherwise none very ready to [his] hand.”2)Henry James, “Nathaniel Hawthorne,” in The Complete Short Stories of Nathaniel Hawthorne (New York: Doubleday, 1959), 2.
In other words, he is fascinated by the psychic and psychological history of New England, and how events like the witch trials create a kind of inter-generational curse or psychic poisoning — this is part of the back story in his novel The House of the Seven Gables, of which one critic wrote,
But as the Pynchon story [the Pynchons are the house’s owners in the novel—CSC] is an historical chronicle stretched over two centuries, the treatment of witchcraft changes with the changing times. Hawthorne shows scrupulous fidelity to both historic fact and oral tradition in recording the transformation from the Puritan to the contemporary version of folk belief. Just as the Puritan faith was relaxed and liberalized in the Unitarian and Transcendental periods, so too folk faith in witchcraft transformed itself to accord with the new spirit of the age.3)Daniel G. Hoffman, “Paradise Regained at Maule’s Well,” in The House of the Seven Gables by Nathaniel Hawthorne, edited by Seymour L. Gross, Norton Critical Edition (New York: W. W. Norton, 1967), 476.
You can almost think of his writing as a “secret history” of Salem and the surrounding towns.
His witchy-est story, “Young Goodman Brown” (1835), takes place in a witchcraft-haunted fictional New England much like the setting of the 2015 film The VVitch., although it is, with heavy-handed allegory, a story about a Christian man’s loss of faith. Sarah Cloyce, an actual Salem village woman who was accused of witchcraft but never tried (played by Vanessa Redgrave in the 1985 production Three Sovereigns for Sarah), becomes in Hawthorne’s story a priestess of Satanism, even though Brown knows her as the one who taught him his Christian catechism, for he discovers that most of the “best people” are secret devil-worshipers. (Shades of Michelle Remembers!)
Now we stand only slightly farther apart in time, say 150–180 years, from Hawthorne’s writing. At a time when the Salem witch trials were seen as an embarrassment and the actual execution site forgotten, Hawthorne did keep the “witch city” meme alive.
But who else passed it along after Hawthorne’s death? There are two obvious candidates, and others not so obvious. I will be returning to the most obvious soon.
Edgar Allan Poe, “Tale Writing—Nathaniel Hawthorne,” in The Complete Short Stories of Nathaniel Hawthorne (New York: Doubleday, 1959), 9–10. Originally published in Godey’s Magazine and Lady’s Book, November 1847.
Henry James, “Nathaniel Hawthorne,” in The Complete Short Stories of Nathaniel Hawthorne (New York: Doubleday, 1959), 2.
Daniel G. Hoffman, “Paradise Regained at Maule’s Well,” in The House of the Seven Gables by Nathaniel Hawthorne, edited by Seymour L. Gross, Norton Critical Edition (New York: W. W. Norton, 1967), 476.
The opening paragraph of the novel that made me a Tony Hillerman fan:
Shulawitsi, the Little Fire God, member of the Council of the Gods and Deputy to the Sun, had taped his track shoes to his feet. He had wound the tape as Coach had taught him, tight over the arch of the foot. And now the spikes biting into the packed earth of the sheep trail seemed a part of him.
¶ Ethan Doyle White reviews Ronald Hutton’s Pagan Britain and Marion Gibson’s Imagining the Pagan Past(free PDF download). The first I have, but the second might actually be more valuable to anyone studying contemporary Paganism, for it looks not at “not at paganism [sic] itself, but instead explores how pagan deities – both native and foreign – have been interpreted in British literature from the Early Medieval right through to the present day.”
After all, at least nine or ten centuries elapsed between the effective end of cultic Paganism in that area and the mid-twentieth century revival. Hutton, too, has written on how literary works kept the old gods in public consciousness (at least that of educated readers) during eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
Ruins of Glastonbury Abbey, destroyed at the orders of Henry VIII (Wikimedia Commons).
Where did the week go?
It seems like setting up the AAR sessions — two solo for Contemporary Pagan Studies, two co-sponsored, and one “quad” (four sponsors) — that plus a little snow, some fire department maintenance work, and some chainsaw issues that don’t belong here totally exhausted all my psychic energy. Just need to line up one more panel respondent.
When it is completed, I will publish the line-up of papers.
For refuge, I have fled to Glastonbury, not the real town but a close relative, John Cowper Powys’ massive novel A Glastonbury Romance.
This is all the fault of Carole Cusack, who in a recent blog interview on Albion Calling pronounced that “the entire oeuvre of John Cowper Powys should be of crucial interest to contemporary Pagans, but I suspect that he is almost unread these days, to everyone’s detriment, not just the Pagans.”
I took that as a challenge, and the helpful inter-library loan librarian quickly produced not just A Glastonbury Romance (1933) but Powys’ Autobiography (1934), which I read first. I could write more about the Autobiography. It’s frank enough, but repetitious — a good editor could have cut it by 40 percent without cutting meat. To quote Millman,
It is a record not of Powys’s achievements but of his various inadequacies. In it he described his manias and phobias, his “idiotic” mouth and “Neanderthal pate,” and particularly his sexual failures. He discussed “the sickening moments of dead sea desolation that came to me from my ulcerated stomach” and his chronic constipation. He called himself a “scarecrow Don Quixote with the faint heart of Sancho.” And yet the mood of the Autobiography is not gloomy or self-pitying. After all, this book was written by a man who treasured being “ill-constituted.”
I was surprised, therefore, how good A Glastonbury Romance is, if you are willing to give it time. Robert Altman would have struggled to direct a hypothetical movie version, there are so many interlaced stories going on.
Some of them are pure soap opera: Will Sam admit that he is the father of Nell’s baby? Will John and Mary be happily married even though they are first cousins? Will Mad Bet’s magical working against Mary destroy her marriage? Will the Communists destroy Philip’s factory? What is the nature of the esoteric books that Sam is getting from Owen the Welsh antiquary? And what is the Holy Grail?
Add the (feeble) influence of the dead, the palpable influence of The Past, the wind that blow through people’s dreams, and the all-out astral-plane battles between different factions trying to determine the future of Glastonbury. It’s really quite complex.
You might say that I have enlisted and will see it through to the end.
It is astonishing how much of modern occultism is dependent on works of fiction. The machinations of secret societies, the malicious rituals of satanic cults, and the magicians’ adventures on the astral plane have all been portrayed in great detail in works of fiction, which have in turn directly influenced the creation of real organisations and inspired new ritual practices among self-styled occultists. The entire current of Rosicrucian initiatory societies even had its main impetus in a text considered by its authors to be a playful ludibrium — although no doubt one that expressed deep convictions.
The podcasts were meant to be a distraction, like the wine or the VCDs of movies my mom had brought home from a trip to Asia that Colin had never gotten a chance to watch. But one day, I heard Robert Reed’s story “A Woman’s Best Friend” on Clarkesworld, and I found that I felt inexplicably lighter. I ran home and immediately looked up the text of the story, rereading it for clues to my sudden shift in emotions.
“A Woman’s Best Friend” is a funny story, a sort of multi-worlds parody of It’s a Wonderful Life. Instead of being led through an alternate timeline by a down-on-his-luck angel, George Bailey is dumped in another universe by an interdimensional being who finds amusement in such rearrangements. George does meet a doppelgänger of his wife, Mary, but she’s no sad spinster and is, in fact, hip to the ways of the multiverse. George left behind a drowned corpse in his own world, but he comes to find that his new home universe holds all sorts of wonders.
Really, whether it is Battlestar Galactica (also referenced in the article) or The Iliad, this is one thing that literature is supposed to do, to help you reframe your life’s problems and learn how to deal with them in a quasi-mythic way. So hurray for that.