Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Götterdämmerung or When Bad Things Happen to Good Valkyries

The description of the end of the world in Scandinavian myth is found in the Völuspá, which is part of the Poetic Edda. The rooster, Goldcomb, wakes the heroes in Odin’s hall who come forth to fight. Heimdall’s horn sounds the alarm, and Mimir’s [oracular] head tells Odin that the end is nigh. The Rainbow Bridge between Asgard and Midgard crumbles to dust and the cosmic tree, Yggdrasil, shakes. One by one the gods go forth to fight the various menaces that spring up, and then they die. The wolves that ate the sun and moon run free and darkness covers the world… Eventually the chaos ends and

She [the seeress of the Völuspá] sees the earth rising again / out of the waters, green once more; / an eagle flies over rushing waterfalls, / hunting for fish from the craggy heights.

So, is this what happened in the final opera of Wagner’s Ring? Kind of. As I said in a previous post, this opera is not a re-telling of traditional myth but a new story based upon components of Scandinavian and Teutonic myth. I’ve explained the plot of Götterdämmerung below, so now that its all over, I’ll provide my impressions of the Melbourne Ring Cycle overall.

As I said in my previous post, this is a non-traditional, post-modern production. There are no “heroic” Norse-style references either in costume or set design. I understand that sometimes these can seem cliché and predictable, however I can’t say that I am a fan of the complete absence of a heroic – as in elaborate and over-the-top – look of Neil Armfield’s vision for the Melbourne Ring.

While generally the stage design is interesting, what with taxidermied animals, a big spiral ramp that linked Asgard to Midgard, and I especially liked Acts I and II of Siegfried in particular the treatment of Fafner, and in Götterdämmerung the way Siegfried’s corpse was dealt with, on the other hand, the overall look of the production is sparse. But by that I do not mean minimalist, which is another aesthetic kettle of fish entirely.

By “sparse” I mean that the design attitude seems to be “how can we reduce this?” – possibly a decision made so as to communicate the essence of the scenes as directly as possible. The equivalent of using as few words as possible in a sentence. Consequently, whenever anything visually interesting does appear, one devours it – and there certainly are some eye-catching components of this opera.

However….the costumes are mainly vile. Could everyone look any plainer? (Especially you, Norns!) OK, there is a bit of gold in the garments of Freia and the wood bird, that’s fine, but the decision to costume everyone else in “regular” street clothing is just visually boring. Camp it up, I say! I think the approach to the costumes may have been an overall design strategy in which the music and singing – both heroic and enormous – were foregrounded, well, that’s fine, this is opera after all, and the costumes were subdued in order to avoid the charge of sensory overdose. But I don’t think this would have been a problem, not for me anyway.

Opera is not just about the music and singing, otherwise there wouldn’t be acting as well. There are a million things that could be done with costumes for this opera. I think the drabness of the Melbourne Ring costumes – as, I suspect, an attempt to tone down the Huge Mythic Themes of this particular opera – isn’t doing it any favours. Turn It Up, I say! And it’s not a matter of introducing more sparkly lamé, or necessarily full-on traditional “Norse” style costumes (as much as I like them); it’s about matching the look with the story and the sound – all of which are larger than life. All Of Which!

The costumes of the Valkyries win my vote for Most Atrocious. I really don’t want or need to see ugly, plain, military shirts and pants on a Valkyrie. I see enough of that on the television news. Do it if you must, costume designer Alice Babidge, but at least exchange the blands-ville cotton drill for sequins. Being “contemporary” and “realistic” is so ordinary. It’s also patronising to the audience, Oh, we’re too dumb to draw parallels between pre-industrial and modern warfare. Thanks for really explaining that to us.

The set design is better than the costumes. In Act I of Das Rheingold there was even a copy of the original painted backdrop used at Bayreuth – through which the giants Fasolt and Fafner smashed on their cherry pickers. This production was supposed to have an “environmental” message, and so it did, which I guess was basically a bit of an updating of the allegorical message of Wagner’s time – but it was only evident up to and including the second opera, Die Walküre. Then it entirely petered out.

The message was conveyed through the use of the taxidermied animals, some of which were endangered or extinct – a Tasmanian Tiger! – which appeared in crates, as though they’d been lent by the museum and hadn’t been unpacked. At other times they descended from above and hung in the midst of the spiral “car park ramp”. There was also a slightly tawdry Las Vegas visual sub-theme, which while thematically puzzling and incongruous, actually added bit of prettiness – even though it jarred with the rest of the visual theme(s).

So much for what the Melbourne Ring looks like – but what does it SOUND like? Well, impressive. I can’t do justice to it here so you will have to attend an opera or listen to a recording. What I’ve noticed in attending this live mega-opera, and which completely eluded me when listening to a recording or watching a film, is the way the music is continuous – no gaps in between in which to applaud a feat of virtuoso singing. The audience is silent throughout until the end of each act when there’s room for clapping. I also found that I could recognise the leitmotifs – musical motives associated with characters, objects, events and emotions. Hearing these is probably extremely obvious to a Wagner expert, but in my case it probably helped enormously that I had done reading about and listening to The Ring in the fortnight up to the start of the opera.

And then of course there’s the singing… Although I’ve been attending opera performances since around 1990, in varying degrees of intensity – sometimes several in a year, sometimes none for a decade or so – I’m not what could be described as a super-enthusiast or devotee (obviously, otherwise I’d be going all the time), nor am I an expert on opera singing. Fortunately, in this case I attended The Ring with my expert friend, who is a super-enthusiast and devotee, and who filled me in on the nuances of the voices and music, and the successes and failures of the singers and orchestra, while I felt more comfortable critiquing the costumes and sets.

In regard to the Melbourne Ring, my expert friend's assessment was that while Susan Bullock is not a true Brunnhilde and is working with a diminished vocal range, hers was an intelligent, studied characterisation. He thought that Stefan Vinke (Siegfried) was indefatigable in his delivery and that he met the taxing demands of the music on his upper register, and overall, that Terje Stensvold's (Wotan) was the most convincing performance. While I can certainly hear obvious shrieks or croaks when voices misfire, I’m less aurally attuned to whether a singer is singing properly or shouting, so I’m fortunate to have my expert friend filling me in. I take his word for it regarding the quality of individual singers and try and listen more closely.

Besides immersing myself in an enormous visual and aural artistic experience, another reason I attended the Melbourne Ring is because I am interested in the “Reception” of myth, in this case Scandinavian and Teutonic myth, as expressed through the lens of German Romanticism. Also, I adore the 19th century, particularly in regards to the utilisation of aspects of the ancient world. So much of 19th century thinking about the ancient world has been influential on the 20th century, and into the 21st, both in its initial acceptance and then regarding the critique(s) thereof. Plus, I actually like opera, but I definitely prefer the more serious, mythic type – such as The Ring – to frivolous and unimportant ditzy operas.

So, now I’ve seen an entire Ring, and my, how actually attending a performance filled in all the gaps that I didn’t even notice were there by just listening to it or watching a film. Now I’m wiser in the ways of Wagner, a little bit. Overall, did I enjoy The Melbourne Ring? Helrunar Yes!

Monday, December 2, 2013

Norse Gods in the Antipodes: Wagner’s Ring Cycle in Melbourne

Over the last week I have spent almost 14 hours at the Melbourne Arts Centre in order to attend the first three operas of Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen, and there is another 6.5 hour one (that includes 2 intervals) tomorrow night. All up that will total 20 hours and 20 minutes of immersion in German opera within one week – no wonder I’m dreaming about it as well.

Der Ring des Nibelungen

So what is Der Ring des Nibelungen? In English the title means “The Ring of the Nibelung” – a Nibelung being a particular kind of dwarf, or black elf. If this reminds you of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings that would not be surprising seeing as Tolkien was familiar with Wagner’s Germanic and Scandinavian source material: the Nibelungenlied and the Völsunga Saga.

Although both Wagner’s and Tolkien’s works feature a cursed ring of power, a dragon on a golden hoard, a broken sword, an old man with a hat and staff, and a game of riddles, according to Tolkien himself when asked about the similarity of his work to Wagner’s he replied that “Both rings were round, and there the resemblance ceases.” Well, that’s debatable.

Wagner’s Ring consists of four operas, or one opera in four parts, designed to be performed on successive nights in a festival atmosphere. As William Berger explains, The Ring is

“a German Romantic view of Norse and Teutonic myth influenced by Greek tragedy and a Buddhistic sense of destiny told with a socio-political deconstruction of contemporary society, a psychological study of motivation and action, and a blueprint for a new approach to music and theatre.”

From my preparatory background reading on The Ring, that sounds about right.

The Four Operas

The four parts of The Ring are: Das Rheingold, Die Walküre, Siegfried, and Götterdämmerung. Featuring recognisable characters from the Norse pantheon: celestial gods, demi-gods, chthonic powers, and heroes, The Ring does not re-tell particular Scandinavian and Germanic myths in its ring-like or spirally-structured narrative, but modifies and re-combines elements thereof in order to tell its own story.

Das Rheingold

The opera begins with Das Rheingold, actually the Vorabend (“fore-evening”, or prologue) to The Ring. At only about 2.5 hours, this is the shortest of the four operas and was designed without an interval. No problem, who needs a break at this early stage? Actual content and the full story can be read about elsewhere so I will just cover the basics.

The opera opens with three Rhinemaidens (Lorelai) swimming about in the River Rhine. An ugly dwarf (Alberich) is initially attracted to them, but after one of them blurts out information on the powers of the Rheingold they are guarding (the possessor of it can rule the world), the dwarf switches his affections from the Rhinemaidens to their gold, and steals it.

In the next scene Wotan (Odin) and Fricka (Frigg) discuss the fact that Wotan promised the giants, Fasolt and Fafner, Fricka’s sister Freia (Freya) as payment for the giants building Valhalla. In order to stop this transaction Wotan needs to provide something in Freia’s stead. Cunning fire deity, Loge (Loki), tells Wotan about Alberich stealing the Rheingold, Wotan wants this and he and Loge descend to Nibelheim, home of the dwarves deep in the earth, to get the Ring and also a hoard of gold with which to pay the giants – instead of paying them with Freia. The giants keep Freia as a hostage until the gold arrives and with her removal from Asgard (where the gods live) they begin to age as they do not have access to her golden apples of youth (actually Idunn’s apples in myth).

Wotan and Loge trick the gold out of Alberich, including the Ring, return, and swap the gold for Freya. Wotan wants to keep the Ring however, but the giants insist that he include it in the deal. Erda the Earth Goddess appears and prophesies that only bad things will result from keeping the Ring. Wotan capitulates and includes the Ring in the exchange with the giants. They then argue between themselves and Fafner kills his brother Fasolt.

See! Bad things come from possessing the Ring! At least Freia is back with the gods. Donner (Thor) causes a thunderstorm, Fro (Frey) commands a rainbow to appear which the gods then use as a bridge (Bifröst) via which they ascend to Valhalla, leaving Loge behind (because here he is only a demi-god).

Das Rheingold’s Sources

As I’ve mentioned above, Wagner’s Ring does not propose to be a re-telling of Norse myth. But in what way is it different? Mythic material in The Ring was sourced primarily from three Scandinavian and two German sources. The Scandinavian material includes the Völsunga Saga (Icelandic, 13th century CE), the Poetic or Elder Edda (particularly the Völuspá), and Snorri Sturluson’s Prose Edda. The German sources include the Nibelungenlied (Middle High German epic poem), and Thidrik’s Saga of Bern.

The Ring also includes some minor content deriving from other sources: Das Lied vom hürnen Seyfrid, The Märchen of the Brothers Grimm, Die deutsche Heldensage of Wilhelm Grimm, The Deutsche Mythologie of Jacob Grimm, Karl Lachmannís Kritik der Sage von den Nibelungen, the Norna-Gests tháttr, and Friedrich Heinrich von der Hagenís introduction to the first edition of the Poetic Edda.

In regards to Das Rheingold in particular, all traditional content comes from the Prose Edda. This consists of the Andvari story, the builder story, and the Apples of Idunn – the former two which appear in different forms in the Poetic Edda and the Völsunga Saga. Modifications of myth within Wagner's opera are certainly evident, and these include things such as Freya (a Vanir) being the “sister” of Fricka (an Æsir). I’ve already mentioned that Idunn is the keeper of the golden apples, not Freya, and nor is Loki only a demi-god in myth, he is a full deity. In other ways however, the work is faithful to the myth: Freya was a frequent pawn in marriage negotiations, with three giants trying to marry her.

Die Walküre

The next opera in the Cycle is Die Walküre. This is the one with the famous “Ride of the Valkyries” that everyone knows – but it doesn’t occur (in full) until Act III. The back story to this opera is that Wotan, intrigued by Erda’s prophesying, followed her in order to find out more, had sex with her and sired nine Valkyries. A Valkyrie is a type of Battle Maiden – think of the Irish Morrigan. Brunnhilde, who features as a major character in this opera, is Wotan’s favourite Valkyrie.

Between Rheingold and Die Walküre Wotan also sired a twin boy and girl, Siegmund and Sieglinde, on a mortal woman. Eventually the twins are separated, only to meet again as adults and fall in love. At the house of Sieglinde and Hunding, the husband Sieglinde is unhappily married to, Siegmund pulls a sword out of a tree (in Arthurian fashion!) that had initially been placed there by Wotan in disguise. Sieglinde recognises that Siegmund is the man who will free her from her unhappy marriage, and they run away together.

Fricka, as goddess of marriage is affronted by this and demands that Wotan remove his protection from Siegmund so that when Hunding pursues and attacks him, he will die. Wotan capitulates unwillingly to Fricka’s demand and instructs the Valkyrie, Brunnhilde, to appear to Siegmund – which normally means certain death – and to bring him to Valhalla after he has been killed.

Brunnhilde confronts Siegmund and Sieglinde but is so impressed by Sigemund’s devotion to Sieglinde that she disobeys Wotan and attempts to save Siegmund, thinking that this was what Wotan really wanted after all anyway. Unfortunately this all goes pear-shaped, Siegmund is killed by Hunding, Wotan kills Hunding, and Brunnhilde has to flee with Sieglinde, who we now learn is pregnant. Brunnhilde goes to her sister Valkyries with Wotan in hot pursuit, initially the other Valkyries try and protect her but Wotan scares them off.

Sieglinde escapes “to the East” and Wotan then punishes Brunnhilde for her disobedience – I think completely unreasonably – and removes her divinity, rendering her mortal. Brunnhilde is condemned to sleep on a mountain, prey to any wandering man. Brunnhilde manages to negotiate and win the promise that, rather than any man, only a true hero will be able to “take” her. The opera ends with Wotan leaving Brunnhilde asleep within a circle of flame.

Die Walküre’s Sources

It was in this opera that I was struck by how much Wotan and Fricka remind me of the Greek Zeus and Hera, and Brunnhilde of Athena. The primary sources for this opera are the Völsunga Saga and the Poetic Edda. Siegmund is based on Sigmund, and Sieglinde is based on Signy and Hjordis from the Völsunga Saga, while Hunding comes from the Poetic Edda and Fricka is based on “The Lay of Grimnir” from the Poetic Edda. Brunnhilde is a combination of the cold and immortal Valkyries of the early Poetic Edda, and the human warrior princess from the later Poetic Edda and the Saga, in which she is the daughter of a human king.


The third opera in the cycle is Siegfried. He is the child of the Völsung Twins, Siegmund and Sieglinde. The back story to this opera is that Sieglinde, pregnant, was found and sheltered by a dwarf – Mime, the brother of Alberich who we met previously in Rheingold. Sieglinde died giving birth and Mime raised the child, Siegfried, ostensibly through pure charity, but in actual fact so that Siegfried could gain the Ring for him which is currently in the possession of the giant Fafner, now transformed into a dragon. After this is accomplished Mime will have no qualms about killing Siegfried.

Mime is a smith, but every sword he makes for the young Siegfried easily smashes. Mime eventually produces the shattered parts of the sword (named Nothung) that belonged to Siegfried’s father Siegmund, and which Sieglinde brought with her. Siegfried himself re-forges the shattered pieces into a sword. He then goes to the forest, slays Fafner, finds the Ring (and the Tarnhelm), gains the ability to understand bird-talk, slays Mime, and goes off to find Brunnhilde on her fiery rock that the helpful wood bird told him about. On the way he is confronted by Wotan (who had previously had another encounter with Erda), Siegfried smashes Wotan’s’ staff, and proceeds up the mountain to awaken the slumbering Brunnhilde, and they fall in love.

Siegfried is really quite an unlikable personality in this opera, however I expect that it is because of his “heroic” character – he’s arrogant and intolerant, but that’s because, so far, everyone disappoints and disgusts him. If one had not done background reading, it may seem that Mime was hard done by – at least initially before he and Siegfried go to the forest – when really he is the (well, a) villain.

Siegfried’s Sources

The story of Siegfried derives from the Poetic Edda, the Prose Edda, and the Völsunga Saga. Act I combines the Siegfried stories from the Eddas, the Völsunga Saga and Thidriks Saga. Act II derives from “The Lay of Fafnir” from the Poetic Edda and portions of the Völsunga Saga. Wotan’s awakening of is modelled on “Balder’s Dreams” in the Poetic Edda, and the awakening of Brunnhilde comes from the Völsunga Saga and “The Lay of Sigrdrifa” from the Prose Edda.


The final opera is Götterdämmerung, which means “sunset”, “twilight” or “dusk” “of the gods”. As I write this I have not yet seen a live performance but only a film screening of the Met Opera’s 2011 production. I’ll see the live version tomorrow night. This is the longest of the Ring operas, and the audience has to arrive in time for a 4pm start!

Frankly, I find the story here becomes quite frustrating. As we recall from Siegfried, as a punishment for her disobedience to Wotan,Brunnhilde has been demoted to “mortal”, and confined in a ring of fire on a mountain top until a brave and worthy warrior awakens her. Siegfried was this hero and now they are an item (even though she is technically his aunt). So, after this horrible removal of her divinity by Wotan and her twenty-year long sleep, are things now looking rosy for Brunnhilde? No!

The opera begins with a scene in which the Three Norns (in myth, named Urd, Verdandi, and Skuld) are spinning the rope of destiny. The Norns used to live underneath Yggdrasil, the World Ash Tree, until Wotan came and cut his staff from the tree, causing it to wither. The tree has since been cut down and its logs piled around the walls of Valhalla. Wotan has given up trying to influence events now – he actually gave up when he said goodbye to Brunnhilde, and he accepts the inevitable demise of the gods – a theme deriving from Norse myth, as depicted in the Völuspá, a part of the Poetic Edda.

It is not clear how long Brunnhilde and Siegfried have actually been together, but in this opera she is happy for him to go off and seek other adventures. Brunnhilde, now an unadventurous mortal woman, stays on the flame-encircled rock wearing Siegfried’s ring – The Ring! – while he takes her horse and journey’s up the Rhine toward the Gibichung’s Hall. Here, regular mortals, Gunther, his sister Gutrune, and their half-brother Hagen (fathered by the dwarf Alberich), are in conversation about reputation, titles and marriage.

Hagen, a plotter, suggests that Gunther marry a remarkable woman he knows about called Brunnhilde who is currently ensconced up on a rock surrounded by fire, and that Gutrune win the hero Siegfried’s heart so that he will go and win Brunnhilde for Gunther – Gunther and Gutrune are unaware that Brunnhilde and Siegfried are already an item, but Hagen knows. No sooner do they mention Siegfried than he actually appears at their hall. Gutrune gives him a love potion and he instantly forgets Brunnhilde and falls instead for Gutrune. Siegfried and Gunther make a blood pact, and then set off for Brunnhilde's rock.

Meanwhile, Brunnhilde has received a visit from one of her Valkyrie sisters, Waltraute, who tries to convince her to part with the Ring so it can be returned to the Rhinemaidens. Brunnhilde refuses and Waltraute subsequently leaves. Siegfried, with the Tarnhelm on his head and disguised as Gunther, then appears, penetrates the flame, and claims Brunnhilde as his (“Gunther’s”) wife.

After spending the night in a cave with the sword, Nothung, between them for purposes of chastity, Siegfried forces Brunnhilde to come to the Gibechung’s Hall where there will be a double wedding: she and Gunther, and (unbeknownst to her yet) Siegfried and Guturne. In the meantime, Hagen has been visited in his dreams by his father, the dwarf Alberich, who instructed him to destroy Siegfried and get the Ring.

Once back at the Gibechung’s Hall, Brunnhilde is understandably horrified, even more so when she realised it was Siegfried who betrayed her and who appears now not to even recognise her. She then becomes (understandably) vengeful, plotting with Hagen as to how Siegfried can be defeated (by stabbing him in his magically unprotected back). This is planned to occur in the morning when the men are out boar hunting.

The next day Siegfried, out on the boar hunt, runs into the Rhinemaidens and almost returns the Ring to them, but in the end doesn’t. He is killed soon after by Hagen and his body brought back to the Hall. Hagen attempts to take the Ring at this stage, but Siegfried’s arm mysteriously rises and he recoils in fear.

Brunnhilde now mourns Siegfried, demands a funeral pyre be built, takes the Ring and puts it on her own finger, telling the Rhinemaidens to come and claim it from the ashes of the pyre. After the pyre is lit, Brunnhilde rides her horse into it to die with Siegfried, the Rhine’s waters wash up to the ashes of the pyre, Hagen tries to take the Ring again but the Rhinemaidens drown him. They then take back the Ring, the waters recede, and Valhalla can be seen burning in the background. Valhalla crumbles and the world begins anew.

Götterdämmerung’s Sources

The Norns in this opera derive from several mythic sources where in each case they are responsible for the fates of mortals: the Völuspá in the Poetic Edda, the “Lay of Grimnir”, and in “The First Lay of Helgi Hunding’s Bane”. The rest of the material from the Prologue comes from the Poetic Edda, the Völsunga Saga, and Thidriks Saga. Act I mainly derives form the Nibelungenlied and the Völsunga Saga. In Act II the relationship between Hagen and Alberich is invented by Wagner, having no mythological basis, and the remainder of the Act derives from the Nibelungenlied and the Völsunga Saga, as does the content of Act II.

The Ring in Melbourne

This year, 2013, marks the 100th anniversary of the first performances in Melbourne of Wagner’s Ring in its entirety. It is only the second Australian, fully-staged production and like the 2004 Adelaide Ring, is being mounted as a full cycle (all four operas – sometimes only one or two are staged per year). At a cost of $20 million, the Melbourne Ring is apparently the most expensive project seen on Australian operatic stages. Directed by Neil Armfield, this is a non-traditional (meaning non-“Norse” set and costumes – no Valkyries with horned helmets etc), post-modern production, that I think, has its good and bad points. 

The operas are extremely long, 5 – 6 hours, with 2 intervals each in Die Walküre, Siegfried and Götterdämmerung, and they start really early, around 5pm. This means that it is necessary to bring a picnic (or have pre-ordered special Ring hampers) in order to have one’s dinner at the first interval. The operas finish late too, so if one drinks celebratory champagne afterwards it can increase one’s overall tiredness the next day – and there is only one day in between in which to recover. Today is my recovery day in between Siegfried (last night) and Götterdämmerung (tomorrow night). I’ll write the sequel to this blog post after I’ve seen the conclusion to The Ring tomorrow.

Further Reading:
The Cambridge Companion to Wagner
Wagner without Fear
Richard Wagner and the Saga of the Volsungs
Sources of Wagner's Ring
Asyniur: Women's Mysteries in the Northern Tradition

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Feminist Archaeology versus the Goddess Movement

If you have any familiarity with modern Paganism, especially if you are a woman, then you are probably also familiar with the Goddess Movement. You would be aware of all those wonderful ancient figurines interpreted as Goddesses, and would probably have heard that human societies the world over used to be matriarchal until they were taken over by patriarchal warlords about five thousand years ago. You may not be aware however, that there are problems with the utilisation of archaeology within this scenario and that feminist archaeologists and feminist Goddess Worshippers are not in agreement about the past.

Both Feminist Archaeology and the contemporary Goddess Movement seek to discover women’s lives, roles and status in the past, but for different reasons and with varying degrees of plausibility in their methods and interpretations. This article looks at the way the interpretation of the past is approached by feminist archaeologists and by Goddess Movement participants. A brief explanation of feminism precedes a description of feminist archaeology. This is followed by a portrait of the Goddess Movement and its relationship to archaeology, in particular the Anatolian site of Çatalhöyük. A critique of the Goddess Movement’s claim to be feminist leads to the conclusion that the past should not be distorted to promote political issues in the present.

Feminism is characterised by a political commitment to change existing power relations between men and women and is understood to have developed in three “waves”. “First wave” feminism refers to the suffrage movements of roughly between 1880–1920, devoted to the public emancipation of women, and can be aligned with “liberal feminism” which focused on winning women the same rights as men: to pursue and succeed within a full range of careers, to combine work with childbearing and to have full legal rights.

“Second wave” feminism emerged in the late 1960’s, concentrated on personal issues of equality and was linked with concern for identifying the root causes of women’s oppression. “Radical feminism”, part of the second wave and derived from the New Left movements, did not agree with the liberal feminist agenda of merely slotting women into what they considered the corrupt system of late capitalism. Oppression of women would not be cured by admitting them into the ranks of the powerful because that did not challenge the foundations upon which the system was built. Also derived from the “second wave” is “cultural feminism” or “difference feminism”, which promotes the idea that there is an essential difference between women and men. Cultural feminists believe in an essential “feminine” nature that is peaceful, harmonious and beneficent, better than masculinity, and the preferable alternative to be followed in creating a new social order.

The “third wave” of feminism emerged in the 1990’s and was influenced by post-modernism. It rejects the idea of an essential character or experience which typifies men or women, and incorporates greater pluralism of approaches to the investigation of gender difference. The emphasis is on differences between men and women of different sexualities, ethnicities or social classes. Postmodernist feminism is concerned with examining the creation of subjectivity through approaches like psychoanalysis, discourse analysis or deconstruction and is conscious of cultural relativism. The contrasting concerns between second and third wave feminism have been considered to be a paradigm shift within feminism.

Feminist Archaeology
As part of second wave feminism, academics examined the ways in which inequalities and male bias impacted their disciplines with critiques of androcentrism in history, anthropology, primatology and the natural sciences. Feminist archaeology uses feminist critique as the basis for archaeological work and is concerned with critiquing androcentrism, highlighting the careers of women archaeologists of the past, exposing inequalities for women archaeologists today, the gendered aspects of field work, recovering women in the archaeology of past societies, re-examining naturalised assumptions about gender relations such as “essentialism”, and experimentation regarding the communication of archaeology, for example through storytelling or use of the internet.

A concentration on large structures like government, monumental architecture and warfare is replaced by a focus on the everyday people of prehistory and the social dynamics of day-to-day prehistoric life – activities that, according to Gero and Conkey:

“comprise most of the hours of prehistoric time for most of the people, and that account for the greatest accumulation of materials in the archaeological record: ceramic and lithic production in residential contexts, gardening, procuring, producing and distributing food, producing everyday items from common raw materials, burying the dead, constructing, modifying and burning their domiciles.”

Feminist archaeology seeks to problematise underlying assumptions about gender and difference. It rejects an object/subject polarity, resists authoritative and hierarchical texts that situate authors in unassailable positions of authority over readers, seeks along with Post-Processualism to be multivocal and supports the claim that there is neither a single past, nor should there exist a single authoritative account of what the past should be.

According to feminist archaeology, sex and gender are not just basic structures of society but are integrated aspects of our subjectivities and therefore explicit influences on all dimensions of how we, as individuals, organise and experience life, including what it means to be a woman. In short, as Alison Wylie says, “standpoint matters”. A feminist approach to archaeology is important because it exposes and counteracts a tendency toward androcentrism. In the past archaeology has been told to us from a male perspective that adopted “male” as the norm and proceeded from the male experience while the contribution of women lay hidden.

However, gender biases are not rectified simply by replacing men with women in an “add women and stir” approach. The existing frameworks of inquiry that themselves have been derived from intellectual traditions and practices that are either insensitive to gender, androcentric or sexist need to be challenged. A feminist approach attempts to overturn disciplinary paradigms. Potential disadvantages of a feminist approach to archaeology would be a tendency to fall into notions of “essentialism”, to promote a reverse sexism, to settle for an “add women and stir” approach, to be uncritical, to jump to conclusions or give in to wishful thinking.

The Goddess Movement and Archaeology
Whilst there has been a growing awareness in academia of the importance of analysing sex and gender and of applying feminist theory to other disciplines such as archaeology, in the popular realm there has been a simultaneous increase of interest in the role of women in the past. This popular movement is generally subsumed under the umbrella description, the “Goddess Movement”, and its proponents are primarily non-archaeologists – they are artists, psychotherapists, amateur historians, novelists and general enthusiasts. The Goddess Movement’s relevance to archaeology is that it frequently uses archaeological material, especially female figurines or statuettes from the European Upper Paleolithic and Neolithic periods (ca. 30,000–5,000 years ago), to back up its claims. These objects are believed to represent different “aspects” of one “Great Goddess” and are used as material and symbolic evidence for the existence of a world in which women had status and power equal to or higher than men, despite the many criticisms of this interpretation for figurines and the fact that the presence of goddesses in a society does not equate to a high status for human women.

While many authors in disciplines such as anthropology, classics, psychoanalysis, art history and even archaeologists promoted the theory of a Goddess-worshipping matriarchal prehistory, the two figures most relevant to this discussion are James Mellaart, the first excavator of the Anatolian site of Çatalhöyük in Turkey, and Marija Gimbutas, excavator of southern European sites such as Achilleon in Thessaly, whose popularly-written publications, both of which stressed the importance of a Goddess, are used as authoritative accounts of prehistory by members of the women’s spirituality movement. Both Mellaart’s and Gimbutas’s methods of interpreting archaeological material were products of their time and are now considered to be outdated. Both made assumptions regarding ancient cult that were not warranted from the archaeological material.

In Mellaart’s case, he assumed that he had excavated a “priestly quarter” at Çatalhöyük, based on the prevalence of artwork on the walls of the buildings which he interpreted as religious. Stone and ceramic figurines were interpreted as depicting a “goddess of fertility and abundance” and skeletons found within the buildings were said to be “priestesses”. Bucrania decorating the walls of some of the buildings were interpreted as representations of a male deity, however many Goddess Movement aficionados – for whom Çatalhöyük is the most important archaeological site – prefer Dorothy Cameron’s (an artist who worked on Mellaart’s archaeological team) interpretation of the bull’s heads as representing women’s reproductive organs.

Marija Gimbutas’s sanctioned Mellaart’s interpretation of Çatalhöyük. A popularist who mixed mythology, folklore, linguistics, religion and archaeology in her approach to the past, Gimbutas has been tremendously influential in spreading the idea that ancient Goddess-worshipping matriarchies have been archaeologically “proven”. Far from being “feminist” however, her approach was steeped within the outdated “establishment” epistemological framework of polar opposites, rigid gender roles, barbarian invaders, cultural stages and was even sexist. Gimbutas’ method of argument was by assertion and her interpretations were presented in an authoritarian way in which the process of inference, from artefact to interpretation, were not made explicit.

New excavations at Çatalhöyük, conducted under the auspices of Ian Hodder, have revealed that the buildings Mellaart excavated were not so dissimilar to other buildings at the site that they justified the interpretation of a specific “priestly quarter”, let alone were evidence of a monotheistic religion of a “Great Goddess.” Evidence for matriarchal rule at Çatalhöyük has also come up wanting. Evidence concerning the diets of men and women derived from skeletons, which could have shown whether one group ate better than the other, showed no difference between men and women and analysis on the wear of bone joints seems to indicate that men and women carried out similar tasks.
On the Çatalhöyük website, in the Library there is a dialogue between Goddess Movement spokesperson, Anita Louise and Ian Hodder. Hodder explains a possible method of exploring whether society at Çatalhöyük was matrilineal:

“This is to use DNA analysis of the ancient bones found beneath the house floors. The houses are built on top of each other in a long sequence and we assume that the same family inhabited the same house as it was rebuilt over many centuries. If the society is matrifocal we would expect the DNA to show that daughters of daughters of daughters were buried in a house sequence. If the society is patrilocal we would expect the sons of sons of sons to be buried there, with women marrying in from other families.”

I emailed the Çatalhöyük forum (I emailed in 2005, the forum does not seem to exist anymore) asking about results from this investigation. Hodder replied:

“Caroline - we have had quite a lot of research on the DNA. Two labs have had a go, but it turned out that there was very little DNA left in the bones so we couldn't look at the questions we wanted and that I mentioned in my response to Anita Louise. The DNA research has been published recently in Vol. 4 of the BIAA/McDonald volumes. Sorry that I cannot be more helpful - I would like to support more DNA work but it would be very expensive. Ian Hodder.”

Although the art of Çatalhöyük may indicate an association between men, hunting and wild animals, and between women and plants and agriculture, current evidence indicates neither a patriarchy nor a matriarchy, but possibly a society in which gender did not rigidly determine one’s role in life.

Despite the results from the current excavations being easily accessible to the public on the Çatalhöyük website, in general, Goddess Movement participants have willfully stuck to Mellaart’s interpretation of the site – steadfastly ignoring the more modern research – because it fits better with what they want to believe about women’s powerful role in the past. Theoretically, the post-processual approach being applied at Çatalhöyük which supposedly welcomes a plurality of positions and provides a forum for other groups who have a vested interest in the site should mean that the Goddess Movement’s interpretations of the site are given validity. However, as Lyn Meskell says, in this case “…plurality and multivocality are not easily achieved without some loss of integrity, since we know that not all pasts are equal.”

Is the Goddess Movement Feminist?
The Goddess Movement’s use of archaeological data to interpret the past is incompatible with the methods used by feminist archaeologists. The Goddess Movement favours an authoritative, totalising account of “the past” designed to implant a type of “Goddess ideology” within the minds of its audience. Gender roles are set and fixed in terms of a male/female bipolarity which impedes the possibility of interpreting any other types of gender. The Goddess Movement’s supposedly “feminist” version of the past is not any different to an androcentric interpretation of women’s place in the past, except that the dominance of the sexes is reversed. Women are still characterised by their reproductive role, but now it is held in high regard. This version of the past fails to challenge the present, or to encourage reconsideration of the dominant epistemologies of inequality and difference. The Goddess Movement’s use of the past is political in that it seeks historical authority for the women’s movement. The narratives it tells are concerned with resistance to, and emancipation from, contemporary conditions and tell us more about the present than the past. Çatalhöyük is used as a utopian model, an explanative story, and a template for change.

Archaeology relies for its intellectual credibility on being able to distinguish good from bad interpretations of the past. A feminist approach calls for rigorous, yet cautious, interpretations of the past to counter unsubstantiated readings of women’s roles in the past performed by non-specialist popularisers who have an ideological agenda to promote. Conkey and Tringham believe that: “a definitive interpretation [of the past], even if it is alternative and gynocentric, does not provide empowerment and liberation from the controlling narratives and practices of androcentric scholarship and cultural logics.”

Instead, they suggest, ambiguity ought to be embraced because it allows:

“the possibilities for reconfiguring and renegotiating meanings, including what constitutes evidence. How can we open up, not shut down the interpretive possibilities?… The recognition of ambiguity mandates necessary dialogues: between alternative accounts of the empirical evidences and among the interpreter, the interpretation and the audiences.”

One can hardly blame women for getting excited about what seem to be important, often majestic-looking, ancient female images such as figurines. Their evocative aesthetic qualities cannot be denied – both for women who have had their “consciousness raised” within the women’s spirituality movement, as well as for archaeologists working within academia. What is necessary however, is to attempt to “tell the truth” about the past – as much as is possible – or at least not to persist with telling comforting lies. This is why a self-reflexive, academic feminist approach to interpreting the past is far more likely to result in feasible depictions regarding women’s roles in past societies – even if they are not particularly pleasant, comforting or empowering scenarios – than the “feel good” popular approaches based on wishful thinking that are rife within the Goddess Movement.

Catalhoyuk website
Conkey, M.W. and Gero, J.W. (1991) “Tensions, Pluralities, and Engendering Archaeology: An Introduction to Women and Prehistory,” in Conkey, M.W and Gero, J.M. (eds) Engendering Archaeology: Women and Prehistory. Blackwell. Oxford.
__________ and Tringham, R.E. (1995) “Archaeology and the Goddess: Exploring the Contours of Feminist Archaeology” in D.C. Stanton and A.J. Stewart (eds). Feminisms in the Academy. University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor. Pp. 199-247.
Eller, C. (2000) The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory: Why an Invented Past Won’t Give Women a Future. Beacon. Boston.
Gilchrist, R. (1999). Gender and Archaeology: Contesting the Past. Routledge. London.
_________ (2004) “Archaeology of the Life Course,” in Meskell, L. and Preucel, R.W. (eds). A Companion to Social Archaeology. Blackwell. Malden. Pp.156-157. N.1.
Gimbutas, M. (1974b; 1982 edition) The Goddesses and Gods of Old Europe, 6500-3500 BC, Myths and Cult Images. University of California Press. Berkeley.
__________ (1991) The Civilization of the Goddess. Harper San Francisco. New York.
__________ (1999) The Living Goddess. University of California Press. Berkeley.
Goodison, L. and Morris, C. (1998). Ancient Goddesses: The Myths and the Evidence. University of Wisconsin Press. Madison.
Hamilton, N. (1996) “Figurines, Clay Balls, Small Finds and Burials,” in Hodder. I. (ed) On the Surface: Catalhoyuk 1993-95. McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research. British Institute of Archaeology at Ankara. Cambridge. Pp.215-263
__________; Marcus, J; Bailey, D; Haaland, G and R; Ucko, P. (1996) “Can We Interpret Figurines?”Cambridge Archaeological Journal. Vol. 6: 2. Pp.281-307.
__________ (2000). “The Conceptual Archive and the Challenge of Gender, “ in Hodder. I. (ed) Towards Reflexive Method in Archaeology: The Example at Catalhoyuk. McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research. British Institute of Archaeology at Ankara. Cambridge. Pp.95-99.
Hayden, B. (1998) “An Archaeological Evaluation of the Gimbutas Paradigm,” The Pomegranate (6). Pp.35-47.
Hodder. I. (ed) (1996). On the Surface: Catalhoyuk 1993-95. McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research. British Institute of Archaeology at Ankara. Cambridge.
________ (ed). (2000) Towards a reflexive method in archaeology: the example at Catalhoyuk. McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research. British Institute of Archaeology at Ankara. Cambridge.
_________ and Louise, A. “Discussions with the Goddess Community,”
________ (2005). “Women and Men at Catalhoyuk,” in Scientific American. Vol.15. No.1. Pp.35-41.
Johnson, M. (1999) “Archaeology and Gender,” in Archaeological Theory. Blackwell. Malden. Pp.116-131.
Marler, J. (1999). “A Response to Brian Hayden’s Article: “An Archaeological Evaluation of the Gimbutas Paradigm,” The Pomegranate (10). Pp. 37-47.
Mellaart, J. (1964) Excavations at Catal Huyuk, first preliminary report, 1961. Anatolian Studies 12: 57.
________ (1967) Catal Huyuk: A Neolithic Town in Anatolia. Thames and Hudson, London.
Meskell, L. (1995). “Goddesses, Gimbutas and ‘New Age’ Archaeology,” Antiquity 69 (262). Pp. 74-86.
________ (1998) “Twin Peaks: The Archaeologies at Catalhoyuk,” in Goodison, L. and Morris, C. Ancient Goddesses: The Myths and the Evidence. University of Wisconsin Press. Madison. Pp. 46-62.
________ (1999) “Feminism, Paganism, Pluralism”. In A. Gazin-Schwartz and C.J. Holtorf (eds) Archaeology and Folklore. Routledge, London. Pp.83-89.
Renfrew, C and Bahn, P. (2000) Archaeology: Theories Methods and Practice. (third edition) Thames and Hudson. London.
Sorensen, M.L.S. (2005) “Feminist Archaeology,” in Renfrew, C and Bahn, P. (eds) Archaeology: The Key Concepts. Routledge. London. Pp.116-121.
Spector, J. (1991) “What this Awl Means: Toward a Feminist Archaeology,” in Gero, J.M and Conkey, M.W. (eds) Engendering Archaeology: Women and Prehistory. Blackwell. Oxford. Pp.388-406.
Tringham, R. (1991) “Households with Faces: The Challenge of Gender in Prehistoric Remains,” in Gero, J.M and Conkey, M.W. (eds) Engendering Archaeology: Women and Prehistory. Blackwell. Oxford. Pp.93-131.
Ucko, P.J. (1968). Anthropomorphic Figurines. Andrew Smidzla. London.
Wylie, A. (1997). “Good Science, Bad Science or Science as Usual? Feminist Critiques of Science,” in L.D Hagar. (ed) Women in Human Evolution. Routledge. London.

Further Reading
Andersson, P. (2003) “Holy Place or Wor… and Working Place: The Challenges of Multivocality in the Meeting of Science and Religion at Catalhoyuk Today,” Catalhoyuk 2003 Archive Report.
Balter, M. (2005). The Goddess and the Bull. Free Press.New York.
Brown, S. (1997) ‘“Ways of Seeing” Women in Antiquity: An Introduction to Feminism in Classical Archaeology and Ancient Art History,” in Koloski-Ostrow, A.O. and Lyons, C.L. Naked Truths: Women Sexuality and Gender in Classical Art and Archaeology. Routledge. London. Pp.12-42
Engelstad, E. (1991). “Images of Power and Contradiction: Feminist Theory and Post-Processual Archaeology,” Antiquity 65. (248): 502-14.
Gadon, E. (1989). The Once and Future Goddess. The Aquarian Press. Wellingborough.
Georgoudi, S. (1992) “Creating a Myth of Matriarchy,” in Duby, G; Perrot, M and Pantel, P. (eds) A History of Women in the West: From Ancient Goddesses to Christian Saints. Bellknap. Cambridge. Pp. 449-463.
Gilchrist, R. (1991). “Women’s Archaeology? Political Feminism, Gender Theory and Historical Revision,” in Antiquity 65: 495-501.
Hodder, I. and Hutson, S. (2003). “Embodied Archaeology,” in Reading the Past. Cambridge University Press. Cambridge. Pp. 106-124.
Hutton, R. (1997) (abridged version) “The Neolithic Great Goddess: A Study in Modern Tradition,” The Pomegranate (2). Pp.23-35
Keller, M. (1998) “The Interface of Archaeology and Mythology: A Philosophical Evaluation of the Gimbutas Paradigm,” The Pomegranate (5). Pp. 17-35.
Mellaart, J. (1975) The Neolithic of the Near East. Thames and Hudson. London.
Nelson, S.M. (1997) Gender in Archaeology: Analyzing Power and Prestige. Alta Mira Press. Walnut Creek.
Rautman, A and Talalay, L. (1997). “Diverse Approaches to the Study of Archaeology,” Rautman, A.E. (ed). (2000) Reading the Body. University of Pennsylvania Press. Philadelphia. Pp 1-11.
Rountree, K. (2002) “Goddess Pilgrims as Tourists: Inscribing the Body Through Sacred Travel,” Sociology of Religion. Winter 2002.
Rountree, K. (2003) “Reflexivity in Practice,” Catalhoyuk 2003 Archive Report.
Sorensen, M.L.S. (2000) Gender Archaeology. Polity. Cambridge.
Stanford Figurines Project
Thomas, P. (2004) “Re-Imagining Inanna: The Gendered Re-appropriation of the Ancient Goddess in Modern Goddess Worship,” The Pomegranate (6.1). pp. 53-69.
Wylie, A. (1992) “The Interplay of Evidential Constraints and Political Interests: Recent Archaeological Research on Gender,” American Antiquity, Vol. 57, No.1. pp. 15-35.
Wylie, A. (2002) Thinking from things: essays in the philosophy of archaeology. University of California Press. Berkeley.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Cetus the Whale

 Well, here in the southern hemisphere we've just had Australian Beltane (although the non-Pagans thought it was "Halloween"). So what did I do on this night (besides tie up my front gate with string to keep the "trick or treaters" from knocking on the door, because last year they tore the wire screen, so insistent were they on forcing us to acknowledge them), I went to a play The Room of Regret, which is basically a re-telling of Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray, with my good chum, and then we went to The George. Why am I telling you this? Mainly because I already have an entry on Australian Beltane, the link to which is above. So I didn't want to repeat myself in that regard. Obviously I didn't do anything in like what I've got in that post this Beltane though... Another reason for this post is because now that this blog is being archived (see the post below), I had better start supplying some more copy. Stay tuned for a post on my PhD research topic: Tree Cult in Minoan glyptic. Obscure topic? Wait and see?

Friday, November 1, 2013

Necropolis Now archived by the National Library of Australia

On the 1st August 2013 I received an email from the National Library of Australia explaining how they aim to build a comprehensive collection of Australian publications to ensure that Australians have access to their documentary heritage now and in the future. As the email exaplined, PANDORA, Australia's Web Archive, was set up by the Library in 1996 to enable the archiving and provision of long-term access to online Australian publications. Since then they have been identifying and archiving online publications that meet their collecting scope and priorities.

They then said that they would like to include the on-line publications of Necropolis Now in the PANDORA Archive!!! So that meant that I had to decide whether I wanted to grant the Library licence under the Copyright Act 1968, to copy my publications into the Archive and to provide online public access to them via the Internet. If so, this meant that I would grant the Library permission to retain my publications in the Archive and to provide public access to them in perpetuity. They would re-archive my publication periodically to record significant additions and changes.

The benefits to me in having my publications archived by the Library are that the Library will take the necessary preservation action to keep my publications accessible as hardware and software changes over time. The Library will catalogue my publications and add the records to the National Bibliographic Database (a database of catalogue records shared by over 5,200 Australian libraries), as well as to their own online catalogue. This will increase awareness of my publications among researchers using libraries.

So of course how could I say no to that?

So, Necropolis Now is archived in PANDORA. Now I just need to work out how to add the PANDORA logo to the sidebar of my site, as a fellow blogger has done here. I'm such a Luddite, I just don't know how to do it.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Mighty Aphrodite: A Goddess Tamed by Greek Myth

It is generally accepted that the Greek goddess Aphrodite derives from an ancient Near Eastern predecessor such as the Sumerian/Akkadian goddess of love and war, Inanna/Ishtar. Parallels between Sumerian and Greek literature including similarities between the circumstances of Aphrodite’s birth myth and components of the Enuma Elish and the Epic of Gilgamesh are evident, particularly in regards to scenes concerning Ishtar where, not only is she thematically similar to Aphrodite, but the activity being performed by her is also very close to later Aphroditean scenes in Greek literature such as the Iliad and Odyssey.

Aphrodite also shares ritual similarities such as incense altars and dove sacrifices with the Near Eastern goddess Astarte (a Greek version of Ishtar) on Cyprus. The themes associated with these goddesses are: descent from a sky god, youthful beauty, conspicuous sexuality, influence over human and animal procreation, vegetative lushness, and warfare. This type of goddess is also a patroness of prostitution and never appears in the role of wife or mother, perhaps because she is closely associated with men and their interests. In myth she appears as a dominant female whose male consort tends to suffer death or disaster in some form.

According to Hesiod’s Theogony, Aphrodite is born from the testicles of heaven - the sky god Ouranos – and the sea. Her birth results when Kronos, son of Ouranos, castrates his father with a sickle and throws the testicles away. The blood from the wound falls on Earth and generates the Erinyes, Giants and Ash-tree Nymphs while...

The genitals, cut off with admant
And thrown from land into the stormy sea,
Were carried for a long time on the waves.
White foam surrounded the immortal flesh,
And in it grew a girl. At first it touched
On holy Cythera, from there it came
To Cyprus, circled by the waves. And there
The goddess came forth, lovely, much revered,
And grass grew up beneath her delicate feet.
Her name is Aphrodite among men
And gods, because she grew up in the foam,
And Cytherea, for she reached that land,
And Cyprogenes from the stormy place
Where she was born, and Philommedes from
The genitals, by which she was conceived.
Eros is her companion; fair Desire
Followed her from the first, both at her birth
And when she joined the company of the gods.
From the beginning, both among gods and men,
She had this honour and received this power:
Fond murmuring of girls, and smiles, and tricks,
And sweet delight, and friendliness and charm.

Here we have a goddess born directly from Heaven’s genitals – there could not a more explicit example of the nature of Aphrodite than so literal a birth myth that creates the Goddess of Sex from actual genitals. Appearing at the beginning of time when heaven and earth separated, Aphrodite was obviously considered to be both ancient and primal, a force of nature. According to Hesiod she is the keystone cementing the bridge between the sexes, the thing that causes them to be united - the sexual drive - because it was she that appeared when the primordial pair first separated. As we know, ever after she will cause the sexes to re-unite as it is her very nature.

Interestingly, Aphrodite is not born from an act of sexual love between embodied deities, but from an act of violence: as a result of the rupture of conjoined heaven and earth. Associating sexuality with aggression and violence has Near Eastern precedents as is depicted on Syrian and Babylonian cylinder seals where erotic encounters between divine females and males are accompanied by scenes of human and animal violence, bringing sexuality and danger together. Ouranos’ severed testicles evoke associations ranging from the beginning of time brought about by the separation of the primordial couple, to the two-sided coin of dual compulsion and trepidation toward sex.

Both Aphrodite and the Sumerian Inanna/Ishtar were daughters of the sky god and goddesses of sexuality, in Aphrodite’s case Hesiod has her born right out of Ouranos’ testicles, whereas while there is a parallel for the castration of Inanna’s father Anu by Kumarbi in the Enuma Elish, it does not result in her birth. The combination of Sumerian literary parallels in the Theogony, the mention of Aphrodite’s Cypriot birth place and her very primal, rather threatening birth myth indicate that Hesiod perceived her as a pre-Olympian independent ‘Eastern’ goddess. As the daughter of Ouranos, the Hesiodic Aphrodite is two generations older than Olympian Zeus and, we can assume, independent from him.

The fifth Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite (author unknown), while explicitly mentioning her Cypriot origin and hinting at the goddess’s Near Eastern characteristics such her power over all creatures including wild animals and her association with the Phrygian mountain and hence the goddess Kybele, also involves a subduing of this once-dangerous goddess of sex. While the first five lines of the Hymn tell us how all beings are under the sway of Aphrodite’s power, we then find that three goddesses – Athene, Artemis and Hestia - are not actually able to be swayed by her because they do not involve themselves in sex. The Hymn seems to be a turning point in Aphrodite’s sphere of influence: up until now she has been able to cause whomever she chose to couple, disregarding the bonds of marriage and the vertical hierarchy between immortals and mortals: ‘nothing has escaped Aphrodite, either of the blessed gods, or of mortal men. She even led astray the mind of Zeus…’. Whereas in Hesiod, Aphrodite preceded Zeus and was independent of him, in the Hymn she becomes a ‘daughter of Zeus’ and is thus subject to his power. Somehow, perhaps simply because Zeus is the god ‘who is the greatest and has the greatest honour’, he is able to use Aphrodite’s own power against her to teach her a lesson – to subdue her and reign her in under his control so that he is not under hers. ‘He wanted to bring it about as soon as possible that not even she was set apart from a mortal bed…’

Aphrodite’s demotion in the Hymn is extreme. It is not toward one of her own kind - an immortal - that Zeus causes Aphrodite to yearn, but to a mortal: the Trojan youth, Anchises – she even becomes pregnant to him. While the goddesses thought to be Aphrodite’s Near Eastern counterparts had mortal love interests who died, such as Adonis who later became associated with Aphrodite as well, these were not forced upon them nor did the goddesses become pregnant. In Greek mythology it was a great hardship for immortal goddesses (and gods) to be parents to mortals because the mortals invariably died, so Zeus is teaching Aphrodite the worst kind of love lesson for a god, the one that involves contact with death.

Aphrodite’s power over wild animals on Mount Ida evokes the Phrygian goddess Kybele, ‘Mother of the Mountain’ (although she was not a mother at all), whose young lover Attis castrated himself. Recalling Aphrodite’s Hesiodic birth myth with its explicit castration scene and allusions to the Near Eastern idea of the equivalence of sex and danger, it seems more than coincidence that in the Hymn Anchises fears being ‘unmanned’ after having sex with Aphrodite. Whether we think of this state of ‘unmanning’ as being completely emptied of male virility or as literally castrated as was Attis, the general theme of post-sexual debilitation - hence danger and risk for the male - is present. The inclusion in the Hymn of the stories of Ganymede – a boy who will never mature – and Tithonos – a man who is perpetually incapacitated - further emphasise the theme of the male who is unable to achieve or maintain virility and/or generate children. While this is the kind of result a mortal male may have risked in an encounter with a Near Eastern goddess of sex such as in the case of Gilgamesh and Ishtar: ‘What bridegroom of yours did endure forever?’ or with a Hesiodic Aphrodite, in the Hymn Anchises obtains the very opposite of this. Aphrodite assures him that he will incur ‘no harm from me or the other blessed ones’, in addition he will become the father of ‘a dear son who will rule over the Trojans, as will the children born to his continually’. (This son will be Aeneas, from Virgil’s Aeneid fame). The dangerous, violent, unmanning Near Eastern goddess has done a complete turn about and now bestows fatherhood, progeny and illustrious lineage. Aphrodite has been chastised and controlled by Zeus, in the Hymn she is regretful, knows that her power has been diminished and that she has been brought to the same level as the other gods whom she used to control.

In Homer’s Iliad, while Aphrodite sides with Troy recalling her associations with Phrygia and the Near East, she is fully assimilated into the Olympian pantheon. Aphrodite is now explicitly the ‘daughter of Zeus’ and instead of being born from Ouranos and the sea, at line 330 of the Iliad we discover a mother, ‘Dione’, a female version of Zeus. There is a parallel to Ishtar in Sumerian literature here who, when spurned by Gilgamesh, goes up to heaven and weeps before her father Anu and a female form of her father, ‘Antu’. While Aphrodite played a major role in the circumstances that brought about the Trojan War, unlike the Hesiodic Aphrodite or her Near Eastern predecessors, the Iliad’s Aphrodite is neither dangerous, nor warlike. Although we know Aphrodite was associated with war in both myth from the Odyssey and in iconography, in the Iliad she is hopeless in battle. A mortal, Diomedes, is actually able to insult and physically injure her, Zeus explicitly tells her ‘No, my child, not for you are the works of warfare. Rather concern yourself with the lovely secrets of marriage…’, and Athene, goddess of war, hits her. Aphrodite’s weakness and unsuitability for warfare verges on the comical and she seems destined to be restricted to the role of beautiful Olympian daughter concerned only with attractiveness, sex and deception. While there is still a theme of sex and death in the background, Aphrodite seems inconvenient and pesky rather than directly dangerous.

In the Odyssey as well, the character of Aphrodite appears in a scene that has undertones of the Near Eastern goddess themes of sexuality and violence, but is mixed in with a comical treatment. Ares, the god of war, and Aphrodite who have been having an affair are caught in a net by Aphrodite’s husband, Hephaestus. Having Aphrodite married to Hephaestus in the first place – a very clever but physically deformed god of fire and metalworking – diminishes her somewhat in that the couple are not visually physically compatible – unlike Aphrodite and Ares - although the marriage may refer to her association with copper smelting on Cyprus, or her epithet ‘golden’. Aphrodite becomes the object of laughter because of Hephaestus’ trap and while it is not derisive laughter and one of Aphrodite’s epithets is ‘lover of laughter’, this is an example of the harmless figure she appears as in Homer. Aphrodite is an object of desire for the other male Olympians and the only threat she offers is to the institution of marriage.

As we have seen in the above examples of the depiction of Aphrodite in archaic Greek literature, she has indeed been transformed from an ancient Near Eastern goddess of sex and war into a weak and unthreatening goddess associated with sexual desire and beauty. Although the Hymn to Aphrodite is compositionally later than Hesiod’s Theogony and Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, thematically it can be seen to form a bridge between them as author of The Politics of Olympus, Jenny Strauss Clay suggests, though whether this was the intention of the original author cannot be known. The sequence of the transformation from a dangerous, powerful goddess of sexuality to an easily controlled object of men’s desire evident in the progression from Near Eastern myth, to the Theogony, the Hymn, the Iliad and the Odyssey indicates that while Aphrodite as goddess of sexual love was required for inclusion within the Olympian pantheon, her ‘Eastern’ characteristics were felt to be unacceptable. An Olympian Aphrodite needed to be submissive to the authority of Father Zeus, not vice versa, and it is the Hellenisation (making Greek) of Aphrodite and her incorporation into the Olympian pantheon that strips her – as she once stripped men - of her power.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Australian Imbolc: 1 August

In the night sky Aquila the Eagle rises in the east, succeeded by Capricornus and, later, Aquarius. This is early spring when the weather oscilates between the cold of winter and warmer spells that herald true spring. The bush is a riot of flowering wattles, many birds are nesting, tree ferns unfold new fronds and eucalypts display new growth. Sheep in various southerly parts of Australia lactate around this time, fitting in nicely with the traditional symbolism of this sabbat. In northern Australia it is the start of the hot dry season; the weather feels stuffy and the earth begins to dry up. Creeks, waterholes and swamps evaporate, grass shrivels, and the native vegetables of the previous season become more difficult to find. This is the time when the dingoes give birth, turtles and snakes lay their eggs, and freshwater crocodiles start nesting.

Meditation: The first butterflies emerge now. It is said that the flutter of a butterfly's wing in one part of the world can cause a cyclone elsewhere. Small efforts can produce great results. Insignificant actions can manifest in strange futures. All beings and phenomena are connected; touching one strand of the Web of Wyrd can affect the entire structure. This is a time to be alert, refreshed, lucid, to act mindfully and to cultivate forethought.

Image of Aquila from Mr. Eclipse
Text from "The Sabbats" in Practising the Witch's Craft.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Mola Salsa: Sacred Flour from the Hearth of Rome’s Vestal Virgins

The perpetually-burning fire in ancient Rome’s Temple of Vesta was considered to be essential to the safeguarding and continuation of the Roman state. As the public hearth situated in the center of Rome, the Vestal fire was the focus and symbolised the nucleus of the collective home that was Rome. The primary activity performed on this hearth was the transmutation through the use of fire of animal, vegetable and mineral substances into two types of purifying powder. Both these substances are floury and food-like, in addition to having purificatory qualities. One of them, mola salsa, made by the Vestal Virgins three times a year out of salted ground spelt, was used in every public animal sacrifice. The other, suffimen, made once a year from the ash of burned animal components, was used on a single occasion.

It will be argued here that the main characteristic of both mola salsa and suffimen is unification. In order to explore this idea this article will first investigate the procedure involved in the manufacture of mola salsa. This will be followed by an analysis of the times during the year that it was made. Subsequent to this will be an examination of how it is used, succeeded by a consideration of what mola salsa can tell us about the Vestal Virgins who prepared it. The article primarily focuses on the production and application of mola salsa, but will also investigate suffimen. The comparison of mola salsa with suffimen will lead to the conclusion that through contact with the Vestal hearth and treatment by the Vestal Virgins both substances assimilated the qualities of this sacred urban hearth and subsequently acted as extensions of it, causing the rituals in which these materials were used – and hence the people participating in them – to be linked to and revolve around the Vestal fire, the consequence being the unification of separate Roman rituals and their application toward the good of the collective.

Mola salsa consists of two ingredients, flour and salt. The flour is made from prematurely-harvested spelt (far), gathered by the three senior Vestal Virgins on alternate days from the 7th to the 14th of May. The unripe nature of this spelt - in that it was not yet at the point of its reproductive stage in its growth cycle, halted between its ‘virginal’ and ‘maternal’ phases so to speak - echoes the Vestal’s own interstitial physical condition: their unused fertility stored and dedicated to the city of Rome. It also evokes the captio method of Vestal recruitment: the grain being ‘taken as a child from its family’ for a special purpose, as the Vestals were. After the spelt is harvested, it is parched over the Vestal fire, ground and then stored. On a domestic level, parching - a semi-cooking - makes grain more digestible. It can also be seen as a premature result of the cooking process: the spelt is neither raw nor cooked, again suggestive of the Vestals.

The salt part of the mola salsa was also specially prepared and consisted of ‘boiled salt’ and ‘hard salt’. Salt, while an everyday food, was also sacred. Like the spelt, the boiled salt was transformed by the Vestal fire making it both ‘cooked’ on a domestic level, and purified on a religious one. Both the spelt and the salt underwent the normal process connected with the function of a hearth – the transformation by fire of nature (raw materials) into culture (food) - but because it was Vesta’s hearth in particular this transformation compounded literal cooking with sacredness: multiplying the interstitiality of the ingredients and imbuing the resultant product with the Vestal fire’s own traits of purity and, more importantly, mediation. While a domestic hearth made grain into bread suitable for human consumption, in the Vestals’ sacred ‘bakery’ a hybrid substance – flour - was made as ‘food’ for the gods.

The spelt and salt were combined to make batches of mola salsa three times a year: during the festivals of the Vestalia (9 June), the Ides of September (13 September) and the Lupercalia (15 February). The Vestalia was a festival concerned with matronae (adult women), bakers and grain, and purification, again a type of compounding of the qualities of Vesta, the Vestals and the public hearth. The Ides of September was a festival of Jupiter which involved a banquet attended by magistrates and senators so was a high-profile event. The Lupercalia, held in the vicinity of the Palatine Hill, was evocative of Rome’s rustic origins and had Vestal connections (Ovid. Fasti. 2. 270-300, 383) which would have enhanced the antiquity and importance of the Vestal Virgins as mythical and symbolic matronae of Rome. The highlighting of these three festivals as the times of mola salsa production can be understood to emphasise the unity of Roman elites: women (Vestalia), men (Ides of September), and youths (Lupercalia). The making of the mola salsa at these particular times in the year situates the Vestals amongst these categories, linking them and emphasising their importance as core components of Rome.

Ovid tells us that a simple libation of grain and salt was regarded by the Romans as the earliest form of offering to the gods (Fasti 1. 337-53). According to Horace, mola salsa can be used alone as a sacrificial offering in itself (Odes. 3. 23. 20), and a type of mola was also used in domestic contexts as an offering during meals. Mola salsa is evidently seen as both venerably antique and suitable as a medium with which to communicate with the gods. On a state level in the sacra publica (public ritual) the mola salsa made by the Vestals Virgins was utilised in combination with animal sacrifice, a central component of Roman public ritual. Animal sacrifice consisted of six main stages, the third of which, immolatio, involved the pouring of mola salsa over the animal’s head and on the sacrificial knife. Immolatio was the point of actual sacrifice, the critical moment of the ritual when the animal was transferred to the ownership of the gods and it was at this moment that the sacrifice became, or failed to become, litatio (accepted or rejected by the god). It was the application of mola salsa that performed the transformatory action, the sacralising of the ritual offerings, making the bridge between mortals and the gods.

While Cancik and Schneider suggest that immolatio ‘denotes the act of purification before the actual killing’, and Wildfang also sees mola’s function in sacrifice as purificatory, mola salsa really does more than that: it is a mediating substance, creating a channel of communication between the ritual participants and the gods receiving the offering. The purity is just an aspect, not the whole, of its transformatory, unifying power. Mola unifies both vertically, during animal sacrifice from mortals to the gods, and horizontally by linking rituals throughout the year and in various places that different people participated in. Being an indispensible component of every sacrifice, mola salsa is part of the orthopraxy of Roman religion, designating separate rituals performed by different people throughout the year as recognisable elements of the larger category of Roman religion. Mola, like the Vestals who made it, represented the state as a collectivity in harmonious reciprocal relationship to the gods.

Mola salsa performs the same function as the Vestals themselves. As the role of individual aristocratic women was to cement groups and the domus (home) was a microcosm of the state, so the Vestals – the matronae of the greater domus that was the city of Rome – unified all Romans, linking them to each other, to the state and the gods. Through the manufacture and distribution of mola salsa the Vestals influenced, sanctioned and attended (symbolically when not literally) every sacrifice on behalf of the goddess Vesta. Thus the Vestals infused Roman religion spatially and calendrically. The mola, derived from the hearth of Vesta, permeated each individual sacrificial fire with Vestal – collective Roman - qualities, linking them to the public hearth that was the center of Rome. On a conceptual level the use of mola salsa defined sacrificial fires as Roman and on a functional level empowered individual rituals to function for the good of the collective. Vesta’s hearth fire could not be everywhere at once, nor could her priestesses, but the mola salsa could. Mola functions as the limbs of the central hearth, indicating state surveillance, as well as acting as a stand-in for the Vestals/Vestal fire/Rome at each individual ritual where it performs their transformative, unifying activity.

Besides mola salsa, the Vestals also made suffimen, an ashy, flour-like substance, the ingredients of which were collected at two points in the year, the Ides of October (13 October) and the Fordicidia (15 April), and then combined at another, the Parilia (21 April). Unlike mola salsa however, the resultant substance was distributed during a single festival for use in purificatory, rather than sacrificial, bonfires. The ingredients of suffimen consisted of a mixture of the ashes of unborn calves from cows sacrificed to Tellus (Earth) at the Fordicidia and the blood of the October Horse, both of which were subjected to the Vestal fire where they were subsequently reduced to powder. While the Ides of October, the Fordicidia and the Parilia were essentially agriculturally-oriented festivals also celebrated in the city, the Parilia was in addition the anniversary of Rome’s foundation. As the dates on which mola salsa was made highlighted links between people, and its application in animal sacrifice united individual rituals, so the making and distribution of suffimen connected agriculture and pastoralism with the city. The October Horse’s blood linked periphery and center, tracing a path from outside the pomerium (sacred city walls), to the temple of Vesta at the center of Rome, the sacrifices of the Fordicidia linked thirty curiae (districts) with the Capitoline Hill and the bonfires of the Parilia burned in both the city and country (Ovid. Fasti. 4.721-862). Like mola salsa, the suffimen linking these festivals is a mixture of interstitial components transformed by the Vestal fire into a substance with purifying and unifying qualities.

From an investigation of mola salsa’s composition, the method of its production and its comparison with suffimen it is evident that these substances, like the Vestal Virgins themselves, comprise interstitial components that in practice work actively as mediating powers, bridging Roman conceptual and physical space. The uses to which mola salsa and suffimen were put make it apparent that they function on behalf of the Vestal hearth, exerting its unifying function in a vertical religious direction, a horizontal human and topographical direction, and a cyclic calendrical one. Consequently, multiple levels of being within the overall Roman territorial sphere ranging from the mineral, through to the human and to the larger agricultural landscape, are comprehensively linked, via specific Vestal activity, to the heart of Rome.

Bibliography and Notes Here