Pretty much sums up how I feel about my current WIP…
“Love Is Hell
I love to write. A lot of you love to write, I bet. But, as with any love, there are days you hate it. Some days, writing feels like endless toil. There are days when writing acts distant for no apparent reason, because writing can be a passive-aggressive jerk. Writing is the sort of lover who breaks up with you, then slinks in naked while you’re taking a shower, like nothing happened. You’ll stay up all night with writing and regret it when you have to go to work in the morning. There’ll even be times when you’re trying to focus on something else, but writing won’t stop talking to you no matter how politely you ask.
Simply put, writing is an asshole. Writing steals your money and spends it on stupid things, like another gimmicky book on how to write better, and then it acts like it bought that book for both of you. Writing will take you to heaven and back all day long, but the next morning it’ll be gone without even leaving a note.
“Forget death and seek life!” With these encouraging words, Gilgamesh, the star of the eponymous 4000-year-old epic poem, coins the world’s first heroic catchphrase.
At the same time, the young king encapsulates the considerations of mortality and humanity that lie at the heart of the world’s most ancient epic. While much has changed since, the epic’s themes are still remarkably relevant to modern readers.
Depending upon your point of view, Gilgamesh may be considered a myth-making biography of a legendary king, a love story, a comedy, a tragedy, a cracking adventure, or perhaps an anthology of origin stories.
All these elements are present in the narrative, and the diversity of the text is only matched by its literary sophistication. Perhaps surprisingly, given the extreme antiquity of the material, the epic is a masterful blending of complex existential queries, rich imagery and dynamic characters.
The narrative begins with Gilgamesh ruling over the city of Uruk as a tyrant. To keep him occupied, the Mesopotamian deities create a companion for him, the hairy wild man Enkidu.
Gilgamesh sets about civilising Enkidu, a feat achieved through the novel means of a week of sex with the wise priestess, Shamhat (whose very name in Akkadian suggests both beauty and voluptuousness).
Gilgamesh and Enkidu become inseparable, and embark on a quest for lasting fame and glory. The heroes’ actions upset the gods, leading to Enkidu’s early death.
The death of Enkidu is a pivotal point in the narrative. The love between Gilgamesh and Enkidu transforms the royal protagonist, and Enkidu’s death leaves Gilgamesh bereft and terrified of his own mortality.
The hero dresses himself in the skin of a lion, and travels to find a long-lived great flood survivor, Utanapishtim (often compared with the biblical Noah). After a perilous journey over the waters of death, Gilgamesh finally meets Utanapishtim and asks for the secret to immortality.
In one of the earliest literary anti-climaxes, Utanapishtim tells him that he doesn’t have it. The story ends with Gilgamesh returning home to the city of Uruk.
Gilgamesh and his adventures can only be described in superlative terms: during his legendary journeys, the hero battles deities and monsters, finds (and loses) the secret to eternal youth, travels to the very edge of the world — and beyond.
Despite the fantastical elements of the narrative and its protagonist, Gilgamesh remains a very human character, one who experiences the same heartbreaks, limitations and simple pleasures that shape the universal quality of the human condition.
Gilgamesh explores the nature and meaning of being human, and asks the questions that continue to be debated in the modern day: what is the meaning of life and love? What is life really — and am I doing it right? How do we cope with life’s brevity and uncertainty, and how do we deal with loss?
The text provides multiple answers, allowing the reader to wrestle with these ideas alongside the hero. Some of the clearest advice is provided by the beer deity, Siduri (yes, a goddess of beer), who suggests Gilgamesh set his mind less resolvedly on extending his life.
Instead, she urges him to enjoy life’s simple pleasures, such as the company of loved ones, good food and clean clothes — perhaps giving an example of a kind of Mesopotamian mindfulness.
The epic also provides the reader with a useful case study in what not to do if one is in the exceptional circumstance of reigning over the ancient city of Uruk. In ancient Mesopotamia, the correct behaviour of the king was necessary for maintaining earthly and heavenly order.
Despite the gravity of this royal duty, Gilgamesh seems to do everything wrong. He kills the divinely-protected environmental guardian, Humbaba, and ransacks his precious Cedar Forest. He insults the beauteous goddess of love, Ishtar, and slays the mighty Bull of Heaven.
He finds the key to eternal youth, but then loses it just as quickly to a passing snake (in the process explaining the snake’s “renewal” after shedding its skin). Through these misadventures, Gilgamesh strives for fame and immortality, but instead finds love with his companion, Enkidu, and a deeper understanding of the limits of humanity and the importance of community.
Reception and recovery
The Epic of Gilgamesh was wildly famous in antiquity, with its impact traceable to the later literary worlds of the Homeric epics and the Hebrew Bible. Yet, in the modern day, even the most erudite readers of ancient literature might struggle to outline its plot, or name its protagonists.
To what might we owe this modern-day cultural amnesia surrounding one of the world’s greatest works of ancient literature?
The answer lies in the history of the narrative’s reception. While many of the great literary works of ancient Greece and Rome were studied continuously throughout the development of Western culture, the Epic of Gilgamesh comes from a forgotten age.
The story originates in Mesopotamia, an area of the Ancient Near East thought to roughly correspond with modern-day Iraq, Kuwait and parts of Syria, Iran and Turkey, and frequently noted as “the cradle of civilisation” for its early agriculture and cities.
Gilgamesh was written in cuneiform script, the world’s oldest known form of writing. The earliest strands of Gilgamesh’s narrative can be found in five Sumerian poems, and other versions include those written in Elamite, Hittite and Hurrian. The best-known version is the Standard Babylonian Version, written in Akkadian (a language written in cuneiform that functioned as the language of diplomacy in the second millennium BCE).
The disappearance of the cuneiform writing system around the time of the 1st century CE accelerated Gilgamesh’s sharp slide into anonymity.
For almost two millennia, clay tablets containing stories of Gilgamesh and his companions lay lost and buried, alongside many tens of thousands of other cuneiform texts, beneath the remnants of the great Library of Ashurbanipal.
The modern rediscovery of the epic was a watershed moment in the understanding of the Ancient Near East. The eleventh tablet of the Epic was first translated by self-taught cuneiform scholar George Smith of the British Museum in 1872. Smith discovered the presence of an ancient Babylonian flood narrative in the text with striking parallels to the biblical flood story of the Book of Genesis.
The story is often repeated (although it may be apocryphal) that when Smith began to decipher the tablet, he became so excited that he began to remove all his clothing. From these beginnings in the mid-19th century, the process of recovering the cuneiform literary catalogue continues today.
The new section of Tablet V contains ecological aspects that resonate with modern day concerns over environmental destruction. Of course, there are potential anachronisms in projecting environmental concerns on an ancient text composed thousands of years prior to the industrial revolution.
Yet, the undeniable sensitivity in the epic’s presentation of the wilderness is illuminating, considering the long history of humanity’s interaction with our environment and its animal inhabitants.
In Gilgamesh, the wilderness is a place of beauty and purity, as well as home to a wild abundance. The splendour and grandeur of the Cedar Forest is described poetically in Tablet V:
They (Gilgamesh and Enkidu) stood marvelling at the forest,
Observing the height of the cedars …
They were gazing at the Cedar Mountain, the dwelling of the gods, the throne-dais of the goddesses …
Sweet was its shade, full of delight.
While the heroes pause to admire the forest’s beauty, their interest is not purely aesthetic. Gilgamesh and Enkidu are aware of the economic value of the cedars, and the text provides a clear picture of competing commercial and ecological interests.
Where to read Gilgamesh
Since Gilgamesh’s reappearance into popular awareness in the last hundred years, the Standard Babylonian Version of the epic has become accessible in numerous translations. This version was originally compiled by the priest, scribe and exorcist, Sin-leqi-uninni, around 1100 BCE.
The scholarly standard among modern translations is Andrew George’s The Babylonian Gilgamesh Epic: Introduction, Critical Edition and Cuneiform Texts (2003).
Despite its all-around excellence, the two-volume work is decidedly unwieldly, and the less muscle-bound reader would be well directed to The Epic of Gilgamesh: A New Translation (1999), by the same author. Most readable among modern treatments is David Ferry’s Gilgamesh: A New Rendering in English Verse (1992), which gives a potent, poetic interpretation of the material.
Like the snake that steals Gilgamesh’s rejuvenation plant, the Epic of Gilgamesh has aged well. Its themes – exploring the tension between the natural and civilised worlds, the potency of true love, and the question of what makes a good life – are as relevant today as they were 4,000 years ago.
Note: Translations are sourced from Andrew R. George 2003. The Babylonian Gilgamesh Epic: Introduction, Critical Edition and Cuneiform Texts, Volume 1. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Apologies from being away from the blog for so many weeks. My life has been super crazy wrapping up projects and job hunting BUT exciting news!
Eastern Gods, book one of new YA Fantasy series Western Wars, is up on a Kindle Scout campaign for your view and vote! I’m crazy excited about this one. It would be really good for fans who enjoyed Sarah J Maas’ Throne of Glass series or MTV’s Shannara Chronicles.
This series is the first lot of books I wrote as a teenager. I finished the whopping, originally titled, Eastern Gods and Western Wars when I was about nineteen. It landed at 180k words. I believed in the story, I wanted it out there, and so it has been through a massive reworking and editing for the passed year. Its now split into two books, Eastern Gods and The Golden Queen and I can’t wait for you to read them.
I love this series. It helped me survive a really dark period in my life and taught me so much about storytelling, craft and helped create a safe place in my mind where I could hang out. I was reading a lot of fantasy as a teen; loads of Lord of the Rings, Stephen Lawhead and Ian Irvine’s View from the Mirror Quartet (please check it out – its so freaking great) and it is these writers and stories that shaped my passion for writing epic fantasy.
This series is a big one, twisted up with family, war, love, faith and magic. It’s a hero quest and a coming of age and the secrets that you discover about your family as you grow older. It’s about sacrifice and blood and forgiveness at it’s most brutal.
Enter a world of forgotten magic, kings, gods and the woman who will dare to defy them.
Prince Haldirian’s safe world is shattered when he captures a spy from the silent and forgotten Eastlands. There is only one scholar of the East who could stop the fear of war spreading, Aláenor of Silandáe.
The first female heir in history, highly intelligent and carrying a warrior swagger Aláenor isn’t what Haldirian has learned to expect from royal princesses.
The eastern spy Hilkiah reveals that he was sent by Mordecai, Emperor of the East and powerful dark magician residing in the city of Rotech. The West has turned their back on magic for centuries and fearing that war is imminent, a spying party is sent back to the East to discover the truth.
Mordecai is burning for payback on the western king who destroyed his life. He needs Aláenor to fulfill his revenge, and he will have her…even if he has to kill the man she loves and destroy her soul to do it.
If you like your literary gods multiple and varied, from cultures galore, in a controlled riot of power, fear, wit, and wisdom, then American Gods is for you.
Its premise is one of the book’s many appeals: the United States contains all sorts of ancient gods from abroad, surviving in the myths and stories and imaginations of the immigrants who brought them there. It’s a novel that investigates the American condition through its beliefs, and its contradictions, and offers the idea that gods walk among us (if we only know where to look for them).
‘All the tradition we can get’
In American Gods, a man named Shadow is released from prison when his wife dies in a car accident. As he travels home, he falls in with Mr Wednesday, a mysterious grifter, who offers him a job as a bodyguard. When he accepts the offer, they seal the deal by drinking mead, the honey-wine that is the drink of Norse gods and warriors. “We need all the tradition we can get,” says Wednesday, referring to the seriousness of their deal, but also to the key concept of the novel.
It emerges that Wednesday is really the Norse god, Odin, drawn to the US by Viking voyagers. “Tradition,” in the form of old gods like Odin, is under threat, he tells Shadow. People don’t believe in old gods any more; they’re too busy worshipping new gods, or concepts, like cities and towns, roads and rails, high finance, media, and digital technology. As an “old” god, Wednesday is preparing to do battle with the new ones. A god who is not believed in suffers a particularly final form of death.
With Shadow in tow, Wednesday traverses the US, calling the old gods to action, convincing them to gather and fight enemies like Mr Town and Media.
They call on Czernobog, the Bulgarian god of darkness, who lives in Chicago with the Zorya star sisters of Morning, Evening and Night. And Easter, the German goddess of fertility and rebirth, in whose footsteps flowers bloom, who is living in San Francisco. Mr Jacquel, the Egyptian god Anubis, runs a funeral parlour with his partner Ibis (the god Thoth), in Cairo, Illinois. Mr Nancy, Anansi the African spider-trickster god, and Mad Sweeney, an original Irish leprechaun, appear from time to time, as do many others.
From Haitian Voodoo figures to Hungarian Kobbolds this America is inhabited by a panoply of old gods. It’s symbolic of the elaborate tapestry of heritage that makes up a nation that prides itself on its newness, but is uneasily aware of its traditions. As Shadow crosses America, he reflects on these ironies, as well as the local quirks he observes, slotting them into an increasing sense of the nation’s variety and commonalities.
Interspersed throughout American Gods are extracts from a history, ostensibly written by Mr Ibis (the Old Egyptian God, Thoth). These extracts tell how other gods and mythical beings make their way to the US, in the beliefs and stories of different culture. There’s Essie Tregowan, a Cornish con-artist who is transported to America, and who brings with her the piskies of her youth, or Salim, a taxi-driver from Oman who becomes a jinn. Postmodern novels often use approaches like this to broaden the range of reference; these inset stories provide a neat way of exploring different gods and myths as they connect to Gaiman’s America.
While American Gods is a serious reflection on the nature of American culture, its most appealing aspect is the concept that the gods live among Americans, hiding in plain sight.
This is the key to American Gods’ continued popularity, I think: it offers the fantasy, the hope, (or the fear) that our reality is merely one plane of existence, that just out of sight, or in plain sight if we choose to look, is something bigger, something mythical, something more powerful.
And if you know how to find them, you have the opportunity to collect them, as Wednesday and Shadow do, to gather them together for a final battle, much as one might in an epic game of Dungeons and Dragons, or a supernatural round of Pokemon Go.
I do believe in fairies
Gaiman is not alone in exploring the power of belief and fantasy to keep the gods alive. It’s a theme that never quite goes away: witness JM Barrie’s comment in Peter and Wendy (1908):
Every time a child says, ‘I don’t believe in fairies,’ there is a fairy somewhere that falls down dead.
In Michael Ende’s The Neverending Story (1979), eroding belief in fiction is killing an imaginary kingdom called Fantasia, until an ideal child reader can bring it back to life. In contrast are Terry Pratchett’s piling of myth upon myth in the hugely popular Discworld series, or Rick Riordan’s recasting of the Perseus myth in the Percy Jackson series. All play in different ways with ideas about mythology, the role of belief, and the endurance of ancient ideas about power and creation.
In American Gods, Gaiman contrasts belief in the old gods with the flattening, meaningless forms of new media and digital technologies. But a lot has changed since June 2001 – not least the continuing evolution of the internet – which has turned into the ideal tool for reinvigorating and investigating them.
We like observing the gods, exploring their powers, telling their stories in different ways, collecting them, arranging them, playing with them. We seem to like all the tradition we can get, even on the most cutting edge of technological advancement.
‘Right angles to reality’
American Gods is a response to the perceived flat soullessness of a tech-heavy, media-heavy, corporatised, citified, sophisticated world. Divorced from the old gods, which symbolise the meaningful association with life and the land, Wednesday wonders what hope is there for society.
And yet, it emerges that Mr Wednesday is as much of a soulless con-artist as any of the new gods he despises, manipulating the battle for his own power. It takes an act of real, primal sacrifice on Shadow’s part to let him to see through the con, and understand that, when it comes down to it, as a human, all you have is yourself:
You know, I think I would rather be a man than a god. We don’t need anyone to believe in us. We just keep going anyhow. It’s what we do.
Though the advertisements for the upcoming television series exhort viewers to “Believe,” the response might well be: “Believe in what?”
In the novel, it is the land that eclipses gods and men, as Whiskey Jack, the Native American trickster spirit, tells Shadow after the battle is over:
Listen, gods die when they are forgotten. People too. But the land’s still here. The good places, and the bad. The land isn’t going anywhere.
Believe in the land, then. Gaiman’s novel finds its power in the land, in the people’s relation to the land, in the quirky, carnivalesque, homespun totems and places of power he nominates as places to overlay his web of mythicalism. This is the ultimate appeal of American Gods: the idea that all you have to do is find the places of power.
In this novel they are out-of-the-way carnivalesque sites carved into rock-faces, such as Tennessee’s Rock City and Illinois’ House on the Rock (both real-life American tourist attractions).
To access the mythical plane, go to places like these, and turn at “right angles to reality” (easier said than done, but at least Gaiman gives us the clue). That’s the ultimate point of novels like this, which invest reality with mythology, magic or fantasy: the promise of finding out the true story lying beneath the surface, the secret to the universe.
This book, beyond collecting, analysing, and arranging American gods, is an examination of power – what is real power, and what is not. “Mythologies,” Gaiman said, round about the time he must have been mulling over American Gods, “have always fascinated me. Why we have them. Why we need them. Whether they need us.”
It will be interesting to see what the TV adaptation does with American Gods, whether it takes on this questioning. But the questioning may also have changed. The novel was published in June 2001, and the Western world turned sharply at right angles to itself not long after.
One new element of the adaptation, preview writers have noticed already, is the addition of Vulcan, the Roman God of metallurgy and weaponry. It’s a highly appropriate comment on an America now more than ever in the grip of gun-ownership, and intriguingly it adds a figure from the classical Roman pantheon, missing from the original. Adaptations always move the conversation on a little. Perhaps the gods, too, move with the times.
‘There exists no one way to write any one thing, and as long as your writing has a starting point and an ending point, I think whatever shenanigans go on in the middle serve you fine as a process as long as it gets you a finished book heavy with at least some small sense of satisfaction. If you’re not finishing your books, you need to re-examine your process. If you’re not at all satisfied with your work, then again: re-examine that process.
And that’s it.’
And it is..so why the hell writers struggle so much to own it? Why do we look to others to give it definition?
There’s a bit of heated conversation going on about whether having a degree gives you that tick of approval from society and peers, a magical That’ll do, little writer, that’ll do moment where you will suddenly be seen as the artist you are.
Yeah, sorry guys it’s not gonna happen.
A degree is great but when you graduate you still have to get a job and if you are lucky enough to get a job in say, publishing, (and these are few and far between, especially in Australia) you’re still going to be put on the same wage as someone working in retail. I recently saw a job for a publishing assistant where they wanted someone with a degree and minimum 2 years experience… for a wage I used to get in customer service. A degree might help you get a job but its not going to necessarily help give you writer validation.
My point is no one is ever going to give you the “I AM NOW A WRITER” moment and a degree, job in publishing, or a book out won’t always help either. I know this from experience. I’ve been writing full time for fifteen years and have written twelve books and it has only been in the past two months that I’ve been able to say ‘I am a writer’ when people ask what I do, not ‘I work as a contractor for the government…and I also write a bit.’ I had this moment not when any of my books came out, when I saw them on a shelf in a bookshop, not when people have been repeating it to me over and over again over the years. This moment came when I rang a recruiting company about a contract for content writing and the consultant I talked to said, “Your resume looks like an Administrator resume. You need to write it again and put all that experience you just told me about at the beginning.” And I had to sit down and really go through the process of spelling out all the experience I do have in black and white. At the end of it I was like, “Fuck me, I AM a writer.” I had been doing the job thing all wrong over the years believing I was an administrator and not a writer. I don’t think I am the only one out that does this to themselves.
I recently read a great book by indie powerhouse Joanna Penn called The Successful Author Mindset. In it she talks about having to use “I am a writer” as a kind of mantra until she believed it. She even starts the book straight up with self doubt and imposter syndrome because every author on earth feels it:
‘Embrace self doubt as part of the creative process. Be encouraged by the fact that virtually all other creatives, including your writing heroes, feel it too with every book they write.’
I personally don’t read a lot of self help for writers type books but I have huge respect for Joanna Penn and this book really helped me out to realign my brain in a time I needed it (Derek Murphy also gives really good advice for writers and his courses are fantastic and have helped me alot).
I still need to go back and read these chapters regularly because I’ve started writing a new book that scares the shit out of me. I’ve tackled some big ones before but this is next level for me. There is a lot of research involved and has the tingly potential to end up being the best thing I’ve ever written or a heaving pile of crap. Its terrifying and intimidating and its helping me grow and write in new ways. DO I think I have the talent to do it justice? Hell no. Am I going to do it anyway? Hell yes. Because that’s what makes us writers right? We give up our social lives and our rec time and we work unsatisfying jobs to pay bills while we hustle words and try and write the ones that scare us and helps us grow and maybe makes us money.
So what if were are anxious and insecure and feel like we are walking down the street naked every time we release words into the world that will judge us..we are writers its how we operate.
I am not going to be around too much in the next few weeks, I am going crazy full editor mode to get Eastern Gods, my new YA Fantasy book, all ready to pitch to Kindle Scout. The thought of releasing this one soon is pretty exciting as it was the first book I ever wrote that I was really proud of. It’s taken a lot of work to get it up to scratch and I’m stoked how it has come together. I’ll tell you guys more about it when I get closer to knowing dates and have a cover to share.
In other Amy book world news, Wylt is going well so check it out if you dig gothic romance, and Cry of the Firebird is on a price drop for those who want grittier, urban fantasy with lots of Gods and monsters.
Also, if you want something short, steampunky and based in an alternative Australia check out my new short story a Women in Men’s Waistcoats. It’s a lot of random fun.
As Melbourne lights up for tomorrow’s White Night Festival, the façade of RMIT’s Storey Hall annex will transform into an illuminated billboard of morphing lupine femmes. The portraits – my original linocuts of female werewolves – might seem curious bedfellows for a Melbourne icon of deconstructivism. However, there is a long connection between female werewolves and suffragettes – and this building has a feminist history.
In the early 19th century, Hibernian Hall (now Storey Hall) was leased to the Women’s Political Association, whose purple, green and white flag flew from the rooftop. Across the world, the Women’s Social and Political Union was also making its mark — literally — on London’s Suffrage Atelier. Founded in 1909 by Alfred Pearce and the Housman siblings, Clemence and Laurence, the atelier’s print workshop advanced feminist causes, making and circulating pro-suffrage publications, and providing employment for female illustrators.
The Houseman siblings are better known, however, for their collaborative novella of 1896, The Were-Wolf. Written by Clemence with illustrations by Laurence, The Were-Wolf sees its title heroine, White Fell, find her way into the hearts of a Swedish family — while they find their way into her belly.
White Fell is part of a groundswell of female werewolves who surfaced in Victorian gothic literature, fuelled by paranoia surrounding the suffragette movement. The hirsute sisterhood are notable for preying on families and upending the gendered status quo, recognisable by their supernaturally shining eyes, foreign accents and aristocratic penchant for white fur. Inverting contemporary werewolf conventions, these shaggy suffragettes also revert to wolves — not women — after death, thereby revealing their “true” lupine selves.
Cultural constructions of women as intrinsically lupine have existed throughout the centuries, whether as nurturing mothers (think Romulus and Remus), ravening man-eaters, or as inherently demonic.
The female werewolf has been far more prevalent than her relatively modest profile suggests, flourishing most conspicuously at times when the female gender came under attack. We see this not just in the suffragette era but also — with rather more dire consequences — during the Early Modern witch-hunts.
A severed head and rampant misogyny
The earliest record I have found of a reputed werewolf (male or female) being brought to trial is that of Catherine Simon of Andermatt in Switzerland. In 1459, Catherine confessed to having transformed into a wolf with the aid of a salve (ointment) and causing an avalanche.
Catherine’s crimes were considered so serious that her executioner was charged to “divide her into two pieces, of which one shall be her head and the other her body, which shall be so completely severed that a cartwheel can be rolled between them”.
Her remains were burned, and the ashes cast into the Reuss River as further insurance against her causing harm.
This climate of religious paranoia and misogyny is captured in a sensational German broadsheet by Georg Kress, Of 300 Witches and Their Pact with the Devil to Turn Themselves into She-Wolves at Jülich, 6 May 1591.
It depicts the destruction of men, boys and cattle by a horde of ravening she-wolves, complete with rhyming descriptions of brains being sucked and hearts being eaten.
Kress’ introductory proclamation that his broadsheet is “published in print for all pious women and maidens as a warning and example” makes it clear that women were considered in greatest need of the lessons in the text.
Even pious women, it seemed, needed to be mindful of their inherent bestial natures and moral susceptibility – a sentiment echoed in witch-hunting treatises of the day.
Werewolves and vampires
As the witch craze subsided and society’s critical gaze turned instead towards the excesses of aristocratic depravity, werewolves were swept up in the vampire wave. This peaked in 1730s Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Poland, with Austro-Hungarian Countess Erzsébet Báthory setting the template for the clichéd Eastern European lycanthrope (werewolf).
Rumoured to have butchered and bathed in the blood of 600 local virgins for cosmetic purposes, Erzsébet has since been claimed by the vampire “cause”. However, she first came to the attention of the popular imagination in Sabine Baring-Gould’s The Book of Werewolves, published in 1865.
Her legend includes a she-wolf familiar (an animal spirit that accompanies her and helps bewitch enemies) and a family crest composed of wolf fangs, which, like her infamous bloodbaths, seem to have had little basis in fact.
Nevertheless, Erzsébet reflects the intimate link between werewolves and vampires, an intimacy that is also shared in medicine.
A medical foundation for the werewolf myth?
In the 1980s, biochemist David Dolphin suggested that porphyria, a hereditary blood disease that causes severe anaemia, might be treated with injections of blood products, thereby popularising the notion of a medical origin for vampirism.
Porphyria symptoms include severe phototoxicity, demanding its sufferers avoid sunlight or risk progressively “beastly” skin lesions, especially on the face and hands. Reddish teeth and urine and extreme hairiness (notably on the forehead) complete the litany of ailments that have also seen porphyria proposed as a medical foundation for the werewolf myth.
Porphyria is not alone in its medical claim on the werewolf legend. Congenital generalised hypertrichosis (hereditary full-body hairiness), commonly known as “werewolf syndrome”, has seen Mexico’s Gomez-Aceves family listed in the 2000 Guinness Book of Records as the world’s hairiest family. Some members have achieved further celebrity status as wolf children in local circuses.
Louisa Lilia Lira de Aceves is the best-known female family member. Her hirsutism has been proposed as a genetic atavism, a “throwback” to an earlier evolutionary stage. Such thinking perpetuates Social Darwinist anxieties in the face of humanity that does not conform to the norm. However, human difference was not always viewed in this light.
When the hairy Gonsalvus sisters received public attention in 16th-century Europe, for instance, they did so as marvels rather than monsters. Seen as evidence of divine wit and inventiveness, they led privileged lives as members of royal retinues in France and Italy.
The sisters, whose equally hirsute father had been captured as a child on the Canary Islands and brought to the French court of Henry II, lived in an age of colonial expansion marked by conquest, discovery and wonder.
The family’s hirsutism was viewed in the same light as the other extraordinary flora, fauna and peoples being brought back to Europe from the New World. Their place in the royal entourage was seen to demonstrate the king’s erudition and power, rather than voyeurism as we understand it today.
The religious iconography of the age also provided a sympathetic model of the hairy woman. A hairy pelt symbolised saints’ and wild folk’s penitential rejection of society’s vanities, in favour of a more virtuous co-existence with the wilderness.
Similar sentiments have resurfaced in contemporary times. In fiction and film, the female werewolf has increasingly been presented as gaining virtue and empowerment from, rather than being corrupted by, her lupine self. Novelist Angela Carter opened the floodgate in 1979 with her feminist re-writings of fairy stories, The Bloody Chamber, notable for her re-imagined Little Red Riding Hood that borrows heavily from archaic versions of the tale.
Carter’s newly menstruating Red is more than happy to usurp her grandmother’s place in the bed, embracing the wolf and growing her own pelt by morning.
In breaking with taboo, Carter provides a template for Red Riding Hood as a coming of age tale. In Carter’s version, the onset of menses represents a pubescent girl’s sexual awakening, her transforming body and appetites signalling, and celebrating, her becoming one with the wolf.
This, in turn, has led to a uniquely feminine manifestation of lycanthropy (werewolfism) whereby a new generation of novelists and filmmakers draw on the correlations between the werewolf’s lunar cycle and a woman’s monthly cycle.
Independent filmmaker Jacqueline Garry employs this motif in her 1999 film, The Curse. Garry’s heroine, Frida Harris, was inspired by 1980’s news reports about Sandie Craddock, a UK barmaid who stabbed her co-worker to death.
Journal entries and psychiatric reports testified that Craddock was rational for most of the month. However, during her “moon time” (ie in the days surrounding her menstruation), she experienced uncharacteristic aggression. Craddock was released on the grounds of extreme PMS with a court order to take hormone replacements.
The menstrual-werewolf motif is also central to the cult Canadian film, Ginger Snaps (2000), in which suburban teenager Ginger Fitzgerald is attacked by a werewolf attracted to the smell of her first menses. Ginger’s alarming transformations include insatiable appetites and unwelcome body hair. This, in turn, causes increasing anxiety for her conflicted younger sister, Brigitte, who is forced to come to terms with her own nascent sexuality.
The third instalment in the trilogy, Ginger Snaps Back: the beginning comes full circle, returning the sisters to Canada’s pioneer past. There, Old World superstitions cast the sisters as inherently susceptible to demonic suggestion.
The nebulous figure of the female werewolf has encompassed different, often contradictory, identities over time, absorbing changing perceptions of women, wolves, morality and the monstrous.
The advent of menstrual lycanthropes and Red Riding Wolves is part of an ongoing evolution and revolution in werewolf lore. Borrowing from the past, it creates new imaginative possibilities for the lupine woman.
I’m currently studying The Dead Sea Scrolls as a part of my university degree and one of the areas of the Second Temple Period we cover is to do with King Antiochus and the Maccabean revolt. It was such a buzz that this was found this week as I read all about it! – Amy
An image of the coin. (photo credit:TOWER OF DAVID MUSEUM)
Antiochus sparked the Maccabean revolt that led to the victory of the Maccabees and reclaiming of the Temple.
Nearly 30 years after the completion of excavations in the courtyard of Jerusalem’s Tower of David, outside the Old City’s walls, archeologists thought no stone was left unturned. However, during routine conservation work in the museum’s archeological garden, Orna Cohen, veteran archeologist and chief conservation officer at the Tower of David, spotted a metallic item among stones near a wall.
Upon closer inspection, Cohen determined the object was a bronze-leaf cent, once used in Jerusalem during the days of King Antiochus IV Epiphanes, a decidedly unwelcome guest in the history of the city.
Antiochus was a reviled king who made draconian decrees, sparking the Maccabean revolt that led to the victory of the Maccabees and the reclamation of the Temple.
The coin was found near the Hasmonean walls that cut through the center of the citadel’s courtyard, next to the tower base built during the day of Yonaton and Shimon, brothers of Judah the Maccabee.
During the original excavation of the Tower of David, ballista stones and iron arrowheads were found, evidence of the battles that took place in Jerusalem in the days when the city struggled for independence against the rulers of the Seleucids.
A portrait of Antiochus is engraved on one side of the coin, which was worth roughly 10 agorot back then. On the other side, a goddess is shown wrapped in a scarf.
While researchers are having difficulty dating the relic with precision, it is known that such coins were minted in Acre, a city on the northern shore of Israel that was once called Antiochia Ptolemais, after Ptolemy, and as such the coin is dated sometime between 172 and 168 BCE.
Eilat Lieber, director of the Tower of David, said the timing of the finding is auspicious.
“It is thrilling to hold in your hand a piece of history that brings the stories of Hanukka right up to present day,” he said.