fairytale, fantasy, Indie Publishing, magic, paranormal, Research, Romance, Uncategorized, Upcoming Projects, Writing

August Update

Hey Everyone,

It’s been a while since I’ve done an update so I’ll try not to make it too long.

The reason I’ve been so quiet on the blog and social media is that I’m under the pump to get a book finished and edited by November. It’s a part of the Secret Project series that I can’t talk about just yet (announcement will be soon I swear), so I’m up to my eye balls in research and drafts and generally trying to pull it together. For those who are like WTF I thought you working on a Aramis and Soren/ Firebird Fairytales World spin off book… Yes, I am. I’m about 40k words into it but its had to take a back seat while I finalise the other book. I’ve been able to write two books at once before, but the new series is different. It requires more space in my brain and more research to get right so I’ve put other books and uni  on hiatus for a few months. It’ll be worth it I swear!

If you follow my Facebook you would have seen that I’m currently at the Cover Design phase of KINGDOM, the third Blood Lake Chronicles book, and if all goes to plan it should be out in October/November. I’ll make a more official announcement once I have a pre-order page up and passed the final edit/stressing stage. I’m really happy and excited how its come together!

What else?

I’ve managed to be dragged out of my writer cave and have been to two great exhibits in passed month; Wonderland at the ACMI and Vikings: Beyond the Legend. Both were fantastic and seeing how I’m obsessed with Alice (omg the costumes from Burton’s movies were there and I almost died) and Vikings I was in heaven.

 

Also, check my freaking awesome Loki statue I got from the Vikings Exhibit as well as Rune Swag!

I highly recommend both exhibits if you happen to be in the Melbourne area.

Apart from working on the book, I’ve been taking the time (ie forcing myself) to self care and refill the creative well. A looming deadline can really throw out my creative process, work my anxiety into a frenzy and generally stir me up to a point where I can’t focus on actual writing. This particular series is research heavy so I’ve spent some delightful hours on JSTOR, reading articles, following leads and making connections I never would have thought of without taking the time to immerse and enjoy myself.

In the reading department I finally finished my Sarah J Maas pile! I was actually really surprised how much I enjoyed Tower of Dawn. The world building was great and I really enjoyed the fantasy twist on the Huns that Maas created. Also yes, I AM in love Dothraki- Bae of the Skys a.k.a. Sartaq The Winged Prince.  Hell, I even stopped hating Chaol in this one which surprised me. Catwoman has just come out and I’m already about half way through and enjoying Maas’s take on Gotham.

The other series I’m obsessed with at the moment is Thea Harrison’s Moonshadow series. If you like my Blood Lake Chronicles, and you are after more Celtic paranormal with an Arthurian twist I really recommend you check them out. To be honest you could go for any series of Thea Harrison and it would be worth it. I’m working my way through her whole catelogue at the moment and have loved everything (though Moonshadow and Dragon Bound have been my favourite).

OH. And I feel like I should mention here that I demolished ‘Spinning Silver’ by Naomi Novik. I have FEELINGS about this book. Like any book of hers, she just slays me. Her new takes on Russian mythology with this book and ‘Uprooted’ continues to leave me in awe and with serious impostor syndrome. I am shamelessly in love with the Staryk King, but seriously, a Winter Elf King who can do magic…its like it was made just for me to obsess over. I could write essays about this book but I wont. Please read it, and ‘Uprooted’ if you haven’t already.

Okay guys that’s about all I’ve got for you. I’m all head in the books at the moment and very unexciting. Fingers crossed I can break some awesome writing news to you all soon and then you get full enthusisatic Amy about the new series I’m so obsessed over that I’m literally incapable of thinking about anything else at the moment.

Ames x

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History, Research, Uncategorized

Friday essay: Joan of Arc, our one true superhero

Ali Alizadeh, Monash University

One need not be a parent of a young child, as I am, to be conscious of the full-blown resurgence of the superhero in contemporary popular culture. Beyond the dizzying proliferation of fetishised merchandise to do with Marvel and DC protagonists and the frankly obscene sights of middle-aged folk squeezed into uncomplaining lycra and leotards at Comic-Con gatherings, one may sense the spectral presence of the hero, that crucial cultural figure which has beguiled humanity since the epics of Homer and the demigods of ancient mythology. Yet there is more to the hero than a fanciful tale of courage and exceptional strength.

Heroes and heroines are the most explicit and visible manifestations of our aspirations as well as our limitations, poetic accounts of our capacity for transformation within the boundaries of human imagination. What, then, does the ceaseless preoccupation with a particular heroic icon tell us? And why is it that despite all our cynicism and exhaustion, we still find resonance and meaning in the images of those, fictional or factual, who embark on quests for the betterment of their conditions with an unflinching optimism and self-confidence?

A miniature of Joan of Arc, circa 1450 and 1500.
Wikimedia Commons

I want to address my own decision to write a novel about one of history’s most enduring heroic personae, the medieval Frenchwoman known to us as Jeanne d’Arc (1412–1431), or Joan of Arc in English. I also wish to assess her perseverance as a figure of global fascination despite her historical origins in a world that is very different to ours.

Jeanne’s world was one of conflict, tragedy and turmoil. She was born during one of the most brutal phases of history’s longest war, the Hundred Years War, which pitted an embattled French Kingdom against the forces of an intrepid England and an even more dynamic and rapacious medieval feudal duchy of Burgundy. Her native village and community were directly affected by the war’s ravages, and it was perhaps in response to the miseries of war, and perhaps also due to unique personal and psychological factors, that the young peasant woman, claiming to have been instructed by divine “voices”, left her village to end “the pity in the kingdom of France”. She was, much to the astonishment of future historians, received by the French king, armed and sent to fight the English as the “chief of war” of French forces. Her unexpected victories turned the tide of the war and made Jeanne into one of the most famous and most heroic figures of her epoch.

Has it been unsophisticated of me, a contemporary writer all too aware of the unheroic realities of our age, to devote so many years to researching and writing a book on the life of a woman who may be seen as an archetypal image of female heroism? Why is it that so many other writers and artists continue to write their own novels and songs and make films and musicals about this enigmatic icon of early European history?


Read more: Medieval women can teach us how to smash gender rules and the glass ceiling


I’ve been deeply fascinated with the story of Jeanne d’Arc since early childhood, when I came across an image of her – a horsed knight in an excessively shining armour, with an indisputably feminine face and hairdo – at a bookshop in Tehran in the early 1980s. But fascination alone does not result in an artistic project as complex and all-consuming as writing a modern literary novel.

So it is that I must admit that the tale of the young peasant woman who ran away from her village to become a knight, does not simply interest me. I find it exhilarating. Even though I have spent more than three decades reading and thinking about her, I’m still in awe of some of the basic elements and contradictions of her story.

How could an uneducated teenage girl lead armies to victory? How could a woman as highly attuned to the material conditions of her world – the topography of the battlefields, the byzantine milieu of late-medieval French politics – also sincerely believe in the metaphysical and believe that she heard the voices of saints and angels?

And why is it that this woman, so devoted to her political cause and to her vision of a united France, chose to be burnt at the stake at the age of 19 instead of acquiescing to her judges’ directives during her infamous trials of condemnation, and not live to see to the completion of her figurative crusade?

Paradoxes and complexities

There are many more paradoxes and complexities one may discern when it comes to the life of the so-called Maid of Orléans. For me, these are not entirely resolvable, nor are they reducible to one or more possible resolutions. In her I’ve found a potent paragon of the human subject at its most radical, most truthful embodiment.

She is one of the most extreme manifestations of the singularity of humanity, and a testament to our capacity to break with what reduces us to bare life. I will therefore offer this definition of the hero/ine for our time: s/he is one who, against the obsessions of bourgeois individualism and late-capitalist identity politics, fights to eradicate all impositions of individuality and identity to reach universal selfhood. S/he becomes a champion for all of us, and in her we find that most impossible and improbable phenomenon – genuine, irrefutable hope.

Long before Che, Joan of Arc committed to changing the world from the bottom up.

In my view, Jeanne d’Arc, despite living a good 350 years before the advent of the modern revolution, is an exemplary materialisation of the figure of the revolutionary. Long before Robespierre, Marx, Lenin, Luxemburg and Guevara, Jeanne the Maid of Orléans committed herself to the cause of transforming the world from the bottom up.

She fought for justice in the direction of a universal collectivity – a very early, very nascent notion of a unified nation under the rule of one sovereign – and not in the interest of a particular identitarian or sectarian grouping.

In the medieval, pre-modern heroine, we find a pre-emptive inversion of the mantras of the “progressive”, reformist, non-revolutionary bourgeois activists of postmodernity. For Jeanne the Maid, the public was the personal, and not merely the other way around. She made the world be the change that she wanted to see in herself. She thought local and acted global.

Revolutionary rupture

If Jeanne the Maid is a heroine, then, she is the heroine of the rare, luminous event of revolutionary rupture. This take is one which I’ve placed at the heart of my novel, The Last Days of Jeanne d’Arc. The novel is not only an articulation of her radical character as I understand her; it is also a story of forbidden amorous love and intense, heretical spirituality. But central to the novel’s fictionalised account of a historical figure’s life – and my depiction of her sexuality and unique psychology – is my view of her as a woman who was transformed by her drive to transform the world in which she lived.


Read more: Hearing voices is more common than you might think


Other artists, ideologues and believers have had widely differing configurations of the famous Frenchwoman. For most, however, she too has been a heroine, a woman who, against the limitations and expectations situated in socio-personal contexts, fought, defeated and was martyred by formidable manifestations of those very socio-personal limits. Nevertheless, mine and my other contemporaries’ versions of Jeanne the Maid’s heroism perhaps dramatically differ in their content, if not in their basic, heroic discourse.

Unlike pop star Madonna – whose recent song, Joan of Arc, depicts the Maid as metaphor for the multi-millionaire entertainer’s own discontent with fame and disagreeable pop culture journalists – I don’t see Jeanne as a symbol of my personal maladies.

Unlike former pop star David Byrne – in whose recent musical, Joan of Arc: Into the Fire, Jeanne is an anti-Trump (pseudo) riot grrrl enraged by misogyny and binary gendered ideals – I can’t, despite my own overt political leanings, bring myself to ascribe to the medieval heroine the ethos of a contemporary ideological project.

And unlike the great Bruno Dumont – the maverick French philosopher-filmmaker, whose own musical, Jeannette: l’enfance de Jeanne d’Arc, aspires to gently mock and deconstruct the religio-ideological premise of the cult of the Maid – I have approached her life with seriousness and with fidelity to the truths of her narrative.

Whatever one may conclude from considering the trajectories taken by the heroic image of Jeanne d’Arc since her brutal death in the hands of her Anglo-Burgundian enemies in 1431, one cannot but be stricken by the sheer variety of the Maid’s reincarnations. She’s been depicted as a national heroine and a nationalist symbol (and also, to my and many a leftists’ dismay, a popular mascot by French ultra-nationalists), a rebellious heretic and a goodly saint. A feminist role model and a belligerent military leader, an innocent mystic and a tortured victim.

However one may choose to view her, there can be no denying that she is, and will continue to be, one of the most singular and significant exemplars of our troubled species. Forget Wonder Woman and Batman – Jeanne d’Arc may be our one and only true superhero.

The ConversationAli Alizadeh will speak at the Melbourne Writer’s Festival on the topic of Revolutionary Women on Fri 1 Sep at 11.30am.

Ali Alizadeh, Senior Lecturer in Literary Studies and Creative Writing, Monash University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Life, magic, Research, Writing

We humans are the stories we tell ourselves -The Narrative Ape

Source: The Narrative Ape

A great blog today via Curtis Craddock for Tor/Forge Blog!

Written by Curtis Craddock

I am.

It’s the shortest story in the English language. It’s really the root of all stories and, by extension, the act of being human.

Biologists, archaeologists, and anthropologists like to argue about what makes humans people. How did we progress from planting crops to build cities, go to the moon, and build smartphones?

I put my money on storytelling.

A lot of biology underpins storytelling. There’s the evolution of the tongue and the palate. The adaptation of the brain and the developing capacity for language. But humans aren’t the only creatures to communicate with sound and symbol. Bees apparently do a bit of geometry in their hive dances, and whales have dialects of calls.

Yet even these sophisticated methods of communication lack the essential element of a constructed reality, the understanding that something can be true without being real. Ask anyone who has ever read the Lord of the Rings who Frodo is, and they will be able to describe him and his adventures in some detail, and will have opinions on whether his actions were good or bad, reasonable or not. At the same time the reader aware that the story is constructed purely from imagination and not a factual accounting of anything in the ordinary world. Even animals that are known to lie such as chimps and gorillas don’t seem to construct a persistent fictional narrative.

Thus while humans may not be the only ones with at least a rudiment of language, we do seem to be the only ones to tell stories, to communicate about things that never happened and never will, to dislocate ourselves in space and time, or to picture the world from behind another person’s eyes.

To be sure, the habit of spinning yarns probably developed over an extended period of time. It required the concurrent development of unique cognitive and physiological capacities, so there was no first storyteller in the same way there was no first dog. Humans just messed around with wolves for a few dozen generations, culling the undesirable and breeding the useful, until what had been recognizably a wolf was now recognizably not a wolf without any pup in the progression being a different species than its parents.

At some point, or rather span of points, the human mind expanded into something much larger and deeper, like a fresh water river emptying into the great saline sea. The abstract space of imagination gathered unto itself the greatest share of mental resources, burning precious, hard won calories, it provided us with an inner voice, a personal narrative, explaining the world and the mind’s place in it. Our ability to invent the world rises above the expectations of experience.

Scientists from disciplines as far apart as anthropology and neuroanatomy have speculated that this internal voice may have been perceived as an external intrusion, the voices of spirits or gods.

Regardless of how the source was perceived, humans now had storytellers inside their skulls. Experiences, emotions, and reason were translated into words, and every person became the narrator, however unreliable, of his or her own life.

So why is it so important to have a narrator? What’s the big deal with narration?

Narration is everything.

When I come home at night, after a hard day’s slog, I walk into my house, sit down on my couch, and get mugged by my dogs: two small, furry, lap-seeking missiles.

If you visualized that, it has become part of your story.

But the analysis goes deeper than that. How do I know this is my house? Yes, there’s a record of the purchase in my filing cabinet, but I haven’t looked at it in years. Nor am I merely expressing instinctive territoriality. I didn’t go around with my trousers down marking out a boundary. I know it’s my house because of the story I tell myself about it. My friends and family know it’s my house because of the story I told them. By and large, nobody questions the story of my house. Nobody demands to see the paperwork proving my ownership. More broadly, other people who don’t even know me understand the backstory of our civilization, and are aware of the common trope of home ownership.

In fact, if you back up far enough, it becomes clear that society itself is a narrative, something we collectively imagined into existence. Laws, customs, mores, and borders are things only humans perceive and only by virtue of their narrative we’ve built up inside our skulls. There is nothing outside of us to supply those concepts, no force compelling us to this end.

Terry Pratchett expressed it succinctly in Hogfather, when Death says, “… take the universe and grind it down to the finest powder and sieve it through the finest sieve and then show me one atom of justice, one molecule of mercy.”

We impose on ourselves by means of a narrative what it means to be good or bad, morally right or wrong, ethically acceptable or not.

We humans are the stories we tell ourselves. More to the point, we wouldn’t be fully human without them.

Find his books here!

fantasy, Life, magic, Research, World mythology

Friday essay: the legend of Ishtar, first goddess of love and war

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Ishtar (on right) comes to Sargon, who would later become one of the great kings of Mesopotamia.
Edwin J. Prittie, The story of the greatest nations, 1913

Louise Pryke, Macquarie University

As singer Pat Benatar once noted, love is a battlefield. Such use of military words to express intimate, affectionate emotions is likely related to love’s capacity to bruise and confuse.

Ishtar holding a symbol of leadership. Terracotta relief, early 2nd millennium BC. From Eshnunna. Held in the Louvre.
Marie-Lan Nguyen, CC BY

So it was with the world’s first goddess of love and war, Ishtar, and her lover Tammuz. In ancient Mesopotamia – roughly corresponding to modern Iraq, parts of Iran, Syria, Kuwait and Turkey – love was a powerful force, capable of upending earthly order and producing sharp changes in status.

From Aphrodite to Wonder Woman, we continue to be fascinated by powerful female protagonists, an interest that can be traced back to our earliest written records. Ishtar (the word comes from the Akkadian language; she was known as Inanna in Sumerian) was the first deity for which we have written evidence. She was closely related to romantic love, but also familial love, the loving bonds between communities, and sexual love.

She was also a warrior deity with a potent capacity for vengeance, as her lover would find out. These seemingly opposing personalities have raised scholarly eyebrows both ancient and modern. Ishtar is a love deity who is terrifying on the battlefield. Her beauty is the subject of love poetry, and her rage likened to a destructive storm. But in her capacity to shape destinies and fortunes, they are two sides of the same coin.

Playing with fate

The earliest poems to Ishtar were written by Enheduanna — the world’s first individually identified author. Enheduanna (circa 2300 BCE) is generally considered to have been an historical figure living in Ur, one of the world’s oldest urban centres. She was a priestess to the moon god and the daughter of Sargon of Akkad (“Sargon the Great”), the first ruler to unite northern and southern Mesopotamia and found the powerful Akkadian empire.

The sources for Enheduanna’s life and career are historical, literary and archaeological: she commissioned an alabaster relief, the Disk of Enheduanna, which is inscribed with her dedication.

The Disk of Enheduanna.
Object B16665. Courtesy of the Penn Museum.

In her poetry, Enheduanna reveals the diversity of Ishtar, including her superlative capacity for armed conflict and her ability to bring about abrupt changes in status and fortune. This ability was well suited to a goddess of love and war — both areas where swift reversals can take place, utterly changing the state of play.

On the battlefield, the goddess’s ability to fix fates ensured victory. In love magic, Ishtar’s power could alter romantic fortunes. In ancient love charms, her influence was invoked to win, or indeed, capture, the heart (and other body parts) of a desired lover.

Dressed for success

Ishtar is described (by herself in love poems, and by others) as a beautiful, young woman. Her lover, Tammuz, compliments her on the beauty of her eyes, a seemingly timeless form of flattery, with a literary history stretching back to around 2100 BCE. Ishtar and Tammuz are the protagonists of one of the world’s first love stories. In love poetry telling of their courtship, the two have a very affectionate relationship. But like many great love stories, their union ends tragically.

Ishtar’s Midnight Courtship, from Ishtar and Izdubar, the epic of Babylon, 1884.
The British Library/flickr

The most famous account of this myth is Ishtar’s Descent to the Underworld, author unknown. This ancient narrative, surviving in Sumerian and Akkadian versions (both written in cuneiform),
was only deciphered in the 19th Century. It begins with Ishtar’s decision to visit the realm of her sister, Ereshkigal, Queen of the Underworld.

Ostensibly, she is visiting her sister to mourn the death of her brother-in-law, possibly the Bull of Heaven who appears in the Epic of Gilgamesh. But the other gods in the story view the move as an attempt at a hostile takeover. Ishtar was known for being extremely ambitious; in another myth she storms the heavens and stages a divine coup.

Any questions over Ishtar’s motives are settled by the description of her preparation for her journey. She carefully applies make-up and jewellery, and wraps herself in beautiful clothing. Ishtar is frequently described applying cosmetics and enhancing her appearance before undertaking battle, or before meeting a lover. Much as a male warrior may put on a breast plate before a fight, Ishtar lines her eyes with mascara. She’s the original power-dresser: her enrichment of her beauty and her choice of clothes accentuate her potency.

Next, in a humorous scene brimming with irony, the goddess instructs her faithful handmaiden, Ninshubur, on how to behave if Ishtar becomes trapped in the netherworld. First, Ninshubur must clothe herself in correct mourning attire, such as sackcloth, and create a dishevelled appearance. Then, she must go to the temples of the great gods and ask for help to rescue her mistress. Ishtar’s instructions that her handmaiden dress in appropriately sombre mourning-wear are a stark contrast to her own flashy attire.

‘No one comes back from the underworld unmarked’

But when Ereshkigal learns that Ishtar is dressed so well, she realises she has come to conquer the underworld. So she devises a plan to literally strip Ishtar of her power.

Once arriving at Ereshkigal’s home, Ishtar descends through the seven gates of the underworld. At each gate she is instructed to remove an item of clothing. When she arrives before her sister, Ishtar is naked, and Ereshkigal kills her at once.

Her death has terrible consequences, involving the cessation of all earthly sexual intimacy and fertility. So on the advice of Ishtar’s handmaiden, Ea – the god of wisdom – facilitates a plot to revive Ishtar and return her to the upper world. His plot suceeds, but there is an ancient Mesopotamian saying:

No one comes back from the underworld unmarked.

Once a space had been created in the underworld, it was thought that it couldn’t be left empty. Ishtar is instructed to ascend with a band of demons to the upper world, and find her own replacement.

In the world above, Ishtar sees Tammuz dressed regally and relaxing on a throne, apparently unaffected by her death. Enraged, she instructs the demons to take him away with them.

The Ishtar Gate to the city of Babylon, was dedicated to the Mesopotamian goddess. Reconstruction in the Pergamon Museum, Berlin.
Daniel Mennerich/flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

A goddess scorned

Ishtar’s role in her husband’s demise has earned her a reputation as being somewhat fickle. But this assessment does not capture the complexity of the goddess’s role. Ishtar is portrayed in the myth of her Descent and elsewhere as capable of intense faithfulness: rather than being fickle, her role in her husband’s death shows her vengeful nature.

Women and vengeance proved a popular combination in the myths of ancient Greece and Rome, where powerful women such as Electra, Clytemnestra and Medea brought terrible consequences on those who they perceived as having wronged them. This theme has continued to fascinate audiences to the present day.

The concept is encapsulated by the line, often misattributed to Shakespeare, from William Congreve’s The Mourning Bride:

Heaven has no rage like love to hatred turned, nor hell a fury like a woman scorned.

Before she sees her husband relaxing after her death, Ishtar first encounters her handmaiden Ninshubur, and her two sons. One son is described as the goddess’s manicurist and hairdresser, and the other is a warrior. All three are spared by the goddess due to their faithful service and their overt expressions of grief over Ishtar’s death — they are each described lying in the dust, dressed in rags.

Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, depicting the Roman goddess of love.

The diligent behaviour of Ishtar’s attendants is juxtaposed against the actions of Tammuz, a damning contrast that demonstrates his lack of appropriate mourning behaviour. Loyalty is the main criteria Ishtar uses to choose who will replace her in the underworld. This hardly makes her faithless.

Ishtar’s pursuit of revenge in ancient myths is an extension of her close connection to the dispensation of justice, and the maintenance of universal order. Love and war are both forces with the potential to create chaos and confusion, and the deity associated with them needed to be able to restore order as well as to disrupt it.

Still, love in Mesopotamia could survive death. Even for Tammuz, love was salvation and protection: the faithful love of his sister, Geshtinanna, allowed for his eventual return from the underworld. Love, as they say, never dies — but in the rare cases where it might momentarily expire, it’s best to mourn appropriately.

Ishtar’s legacy

Ishtar was one of the most popular deities of the Mesopotamian pantheon, yet in the modern day she has slipped into almost total anonymity. Ishtar’s legacy is most clearly seen through her influence on later cultural archetypes, with her image contributing to the development of the most famous love goddess of them all, Aphrodite.

There are intriguing similarities between Ishtar and Wonder Woman.
Atlas Entertainment

Ishtar turns up in science fiction, notably as a beautiful yet self-destructive stripper in Neil Gaiman’s comic The Sandman: Brief Lives. Gaiman’s exceptional command of Mesopotamian myth suggests the “stripping” of Ishtar may involve a wink to the ancient narrative tradition of her Descent.

She is not directly referenced in the 1987 film that carries her name (received poorly but now something of a cult classic), although the lead female character Shirra, shows some similarities to the goddess.

In the graphic novel tradition, Aphrodite is credited with shaping the image of Wonder Woman, and Aphrodite’s own image was influenced by Ishtar. This connection may partially explain the intriguing similarities between Ishtar and the modern superhero: both figures are represented as warriors who grace the battlefield wearing bracelets and a tiara, brandishing a rope weapon, and demonstrating love, loyalty and a fierce commitment to justice.

Ishtar, like other love goddesses, has been linked to in ancient sexual and fertility rituals, although the evidence for this is up for debate, and frequently overshadows the deity’s many other fascinating qualities.

Exploring the image of the world’s first goddess provides an insight into Mesopotamian culture, and the enduring power of love through the ages. In the modern day, love is said to conquer all, and in the ancient world, Ishtar did just that.


The ConversationThe author’s book, Ishtar, will be published this month by Routledge.

Louise Pryke, Lecturer, Languages and Literature of Ancient Israel, Macquarie University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Ancient History, Art, fantasy, Life, magic, Non-Fiction, Research

Guide to the classics: the Epic of Gilgamesh

Guide to the classics: the Epic of Gilgamesh

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Gilgamesh explores what it means to be human, and questions the meaning of life and love. Wikimedia Commons

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article

Louise Pryke, Macquarie University

“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. The Conversation

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 in his lion-strangling mode.
TangLung, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY

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.

Mesopotamian mindfulness

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 king-hero Gilgamesh battling the ‘Bull of Heaven’.
Wikimedia Commons, CC BY

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.

A statue of Gilgamesh at the University of Sydney.
Gwil5083, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY

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.

Tablet V of the Epic of Gilgamesh.
Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin, Wikimedia Commons

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.

In 2015, the publication of a new fragment of Tablet V by Andrew George and Farouk Al-Rawi made international news. The fragment’s discovery coincided with increased global sensitivity to the destruction of antiquities in the Middle East in the same year. The Washington Post juxtaposed the “heart-warming story” of the find against the destruction and looting in Syria and Iraq.

Ancient ecology

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.

A cedar forest in Turkey.
Zeynel Cebeci, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY

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.

Louise Pryke, Lecturer, Languages and Literature of Ancient Israel, Macquarie University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Ancient History, Life, Research, University

Christianity, Qumran and a relationship of Assimilation- An Essay

Note: This is an essay I recently completed for my university unit on the Dead Sea Scrolls. It was a fascinating subject and highly recommend it if you enjoy Ancient History.

Since Solomon Schechter first discovered The Damascus Document in a genizah in Cairo, scholars and enthusiasts have sought to connect Christianity with Qumran. The later texts found at the Dead Sea in 1947 spoke of a Teacher of Righteousness and a Wicked Priest, apocryphal visions of battles in the Heavenly realms, and detailed a shared Community life with a focus on purity and Law. The Scrolls have fired scholarly imaginations with theories and possibilities, ranging from Lawrence Schiffman’s hypothesis that Qumran had Sadducean roots, to Barbara Thiering’s extreme belief that John the Baptist was the Teacher of Righteousness and Jesus of Nazareth was the Wicked Priest.

Dated from the Second Temple period, a time of political and religious upheaval, the Scrolls provide another insight into the birth of Christianity, various Jewish sects, and ‘the common ground from which they all sprang.’[1]

The purpose of this essay is to explore the similarities of teachings, esoteric practices, and historical similarities between the Qumran sect and Christianity, revealing that even while they share many common elements there isn’t enough evidence to support a definitive relationship between the two.

To begin with, the most obvious questions regarding Christianity and Qumran is about Jesus himself as an Essene, a Teacher of Righteousness or a Wicked Priest depending which scholar you read, and whether New Testament documents found at the site.

Jesus of Nazareth was a charismatic rebel whose teaching ‘stands out invested with religious individuality and actuality’[2] but ultimately ‘nowhere in any of the scrolls is Jesus mentioned’[3] and the Greek fragments found in Cave 7 were not copies of New Testament writings.

Despite this there are numerous parallels in Jesus’ teachings with those practiced by the Qumran sect such as his emphasis on the kingdom, messianic self-understandings, and the similarities drawn from the beatitudes in Matthew 5:8 and 4Q525 such as, ‘ [Blessed is]…with a pure heart and does not slander with his tongue.’[4] Other comparisons in their teachings are their stance on divorce law, blasphemy and Jesus’ use of calling God ‘Abba’ or ‘Father ‘ is matched with three prayers found in Qumran using the related  phrasing ‘my Father, My God.’

This connection between Jesus and Qumran is often also linked with John the Baptist due to the proximity of his ministry to Qumran and his focus on ‘divine judgement, repentance and ritual washing.’[5] Barbara Thiering controversially argues not only for a direct connection, but that ‘The Teacher of Righteousness is an exact counterpart for John the Baptist’[6] and that his adversary The Wicked Priest ‘did almost everything Jesus was accused of by his enemies.’[7] A more plausible theory is that it is possible Jesus met Essenes during his ministry with some scholars like Riesner suggesting that Jesus stayed near their quarter in Jerusalem, and ‘the house used for the Last Supper was probably owned by an Essene.’[8]

Despite these similarities Jesus taught inclusivity and ate with those deemed unclean and marginalised not only by the Pharisaic Jews but the Essenes ‘were among those most ready to maintain purity through rigid rules of exclusion.’[9] On a theological standpoint, one of  focal points of Jesus’ teaching was ‘Forgive and you will be forgiven’[10] as well as other  provocative acts such as healing on the Sabbath, that Pharisaic Jews saw as a direct violation of the Mosaic Law. The latter is the strongest argument against Jesus being Essene (even a disgraced one as Thiering suggests) as the strict adherence of the Law was intrinsic to every aspect of Essene life including ‘sexual relations or the keeping of the Sabbath, meal practice or business dealings.’[11]

Despite the similarities in some areas of theology, The Teacher of Righteousness in Qumran, focused on the deep teachings and obligations of the Law and he was without the ‘genius of Jesus the Jew who succeeded in uncovering the essence of religion as an existential relationship between man and man and man and God.’ [12] The Scrolls themselves lack evidence of a direct relationship between Jesus and Qumran, but what they successfully do is provide another insight into Palestinian Judaism at the time of his teachings and reinforces the Jewishness of Jesus by reconstructing the world in which he had his ministry.

The next recognizable Christian figure that scholars like to associate with Qumran is the similarity in the seven letters of Paul and writings found in the Dead Sea Scrolls.

According to Kuhn’s research there are over four hundred parallels between Paul’s teachings and those practiced at Qumran that focus on the ‘dualism of light and darkness within an ethical and eschatological framework,’[13] the concept of Community being a temple of God living under a new covenant, and the emphasis with which they concentrated on ‘God’s justice and man’s sinfulness, especially on justification by grace alone.’[14]

The core differences between Paul and Qumran once again is in theology especially with Paul’s faith in Christ and his different interpretation of the Torah. Before his conversion to Christianity Paul was a Pharisee and could have come into contact with Qumranian ideals during this time. He travelled extensively so it is also possible that he would have met Essenes on his journeys, much like Jesus of Nazareth did, or when he went to preach in Damascus, Antioch or his home town Tarsus.

Despite their strong conflicting views on Law and purity, Qumran and Christian theology do find more common ground in many of their esoteric beliefs, especially in the areas of healing and exorcism, Heavenly visions as well as reverence for the enigmatic character of Melchizedek.

In the New Testament Jesus and his disciples are recorded to have performed multiple healings through a laying on of hands (specifically Mark 6:5, Luke 4:40, Luke 13:13 and Acts 28:8), a practice that is not found in the Old Testament, nor in rabbinical literature. The Genesis Apocryphon found at Qumran recounts the story of how Abram’s wife Sarai was taken by the Pharaoh of Egypt and how the Most High God ‘sent a spirit to scourge him, an evil spirit to all of his household.’[15] The Pharaoh is released from this evil spirit when Abram places his hands on his head and prays for him. These passages, composed before Jesus’ time, reveals that this way of healing was ‘not only practiced by Jesus and his first disciples, but other circles as well.’[16]

Exorcism was widely performed by Jesus and his followers, and fragments of The Apocryphal Psalms found in Cave 11 have sections devoted to songs or psalms with ‘the repeated use of the  term ‘demons’ and ‘healing’’ [17]suggesting that exorcisms were also performed at Qumran. While exorcism wasn’t an unknown practice amongst the Jews there was often a traditional minyan (witnesses) needed, with other ritual elements such as washing required beforehand, where Jesus and his followers performed them sporadically with only commands.

The War Scroll found at Qumran details a final devastating but ultimately victorious war between the gentiles and the demonic forces of Belial or Satan, and the Sons of Light with angelic armies commanded by The Prince of Light, the Archangel Michael. According to XVII:5 after the defeat of Belial and his armies God will ‘send eternal succour to the company of His redeemed by the might of the princely Angel of the kingdom of Michael.’ With vivid descriptions on battle formations, priestly duties and thanksgiving ceremonies, the composer makes reference to the Book of Daniel, where Michael is also mentioned extensively as doing battle against the forces of darkness. This theme is also found in the New Testament in Revelations 12:7 where Michael and his angels throw the dragon, or Satan, down to earth in a heavenly war. Like The War Scroll, Revelations is heavy with symbolic imagery and also ends with a victory and praises of thanksgiving as the New Jerusalem is established.

While these visionary books are obviously influenced by other apocryphal writings such as The Book of Daniel, The Book of Enoch and Isaiah, the core messaging in their end of days’ battle and the fundamentals of their eschatology is different. For the Qumranian’s the one that ‘shoots forth from the stump of Jesse,’[18]  the triumphant Davidic Messiah, is to put his adversary, the king of Kittim to death, while for the Christian’s Jesus, the ‘Root and the Offspring of David’[19] will come again, establishing a new Heaven and new Earth.

Striking in both the Qumran and Christian writings is the mysterious figure of Melchizedek. In the Hebrew Bible his first appearance in Genesis 14:18, Melchizedek is described as the king of Salem and a priest of the God Most High, who enigmatically blesses Abram, gives him ‘a tenth of all’[20] and abruptly disappears from the narrative, resurfacing in Psalm 110 where the Lord says to David, ‘Thou art a priest forever after the manner of Melchizedek.’ The New Testament writings of Hebrews speaks extensively on Melchizedek, his unique Yahwistic priesthood ‘made not by virtue of a Torah requirement of physical descent but by the virtue of indestructible life’[21] and Jesus being the High Priest. In The Heavenly Prince Melchizedek found at Qumran, Melchizedek is the heavenly deliverer Archangel Michael who presides over ‘the final Judgement and condemnation of his demonic counterpart Belial’[22] and with neither his birth or death recorded ‘it is easy to imagine him as eternal and therefore that this priest should be present in the heavens.’[23]

Both Qumran and Christianity could agree that Melchizedek was an immortal figure with a priesthood assigned to him, but the conflict arises not only in Melchizedek being the Archangel Michael but also the author of Hebrew’s views of the priesthood’s ‘superiority over the levitical priesthood’[24] and their comments on the requirement of bloodlines being ‘set aside because of its weakness and ineffectiveness – for Torah make nothing perfect’[25] which is a direct violation of the Qumranian view of the Law.

The Dead Sea Scrolls has also provided scholars with an abundance of new material regarding scriptural interpretation and given a wider understanding to the practice of pesher. The sect at Qumran believed that scripture had two levels; a literal version for ordinary readers and a second level that only readers of a higher knowledge could interpret the mysteries hidden by God. Christian writers have engaged in a similar interpretive process with Hebrew prophetic writings having been decoded for foretelling’s of Jesus, such as Isaiah 53.

The writers of the Scrolls and the New Testament literature both ‘recognized the authority of the five books of the Law of Moses, held prophetic literature in high regard,’[26] and sought to find greater meanings within them. The main similarity between both practices of prophetic interpretation is what Brooke describes as the process of ‘This is That,’[27] meaning that one or more of the items within in the text is compared to another.

There is a prominent difference between the two forms of interpretation, even if on the surface New Testament interpretations seem like pesher, the process at Qumran was the ‘primary or base scriptural text always precedes the interpretation’[28] while the Christians focused on proving fulfilment by having the scriptural text recounted after the event in which they are writing.

Moving away from the esoteric to religious history, the Near East saw multiple cultural and religious changes through the Persian, Hellenistic, Maccabean and Roman periods and this impacted on the Jewish belief systems of the times. This period saw the birth of Christianity and the evolution of Rabbinical Judaism, but it also meant that ‘many Judaisms did not survive – the Essenes and the Sadducees among them.’[29] Boccacini claims that Rabbinical Judaism and Christian do not have a ‘parent-child’ relationship but one of fraternal twins birthed at the same time. The discovery of the Scolls at Qumran supports the reality that many forms of Judaism existed at the time of Jesus with their own communities, interpretations of Law and eschatological and prophetic visions of the future.

The spread of Christianity ‘turned Judaism into a multinational religion’[30] with the Rabbi’s reinforcing the concept of Judaism as the religion of the Jewish people, so one could argue that the true historical relationship  between Qumran and Christianity is one that forced assimilation.

The Dead Sea Scrolls are a fascinating insight into the Second Temple Period and are a valuable study in understanding early Christianity and Judaism as well as revealing a pious and vividly literate people that valued their Law and mysteries above religious and social pressures.

The Essenes and Christianity are often curiously similar in their beliefs and practices with parallels being drawn between prominent teachings of figures like Jesus and Paul, their views and practices of healing, visions of Heavenly wars and redemption, and their reverence of figures such as Isaiah, Daniel and Melchizedek. They both held the Temple in Jerusalem with undisguised contempt and believed in a Messianic promise.

The centre of their belief systems they are so starkly different that a definitive relationship between the two can only seriously be drawn at them both being religious products of the time. Christianity with its inclusive ideals and resurrected Messiah flourished, while the Essenes strict and exclusive community could not survive, as it ‘lacked the pliant strength and elasticity of thought and depth of spiritual vision’[31] that allowed Rabbinical Judaism to endure as the dominant Jewish religion.

Note: All images used in this post were Public Domain

Bibliography

Vermès, G. 2011. The complete Dead Sea scrolls in English. 4th ed. New York, N.Y., U.S.A.: Allen Lane/Penguin Press.

Brooke, G.J 2005. The Dead Sea Scrolls and the New Testament. Fortress Press.

Thiering, B 2005. Jesus the Man. Random House.

Kuhn, H.W 1992 The Impact of the Qumran Scrolls on the Understanding of Paul. The Magnes Press.

Flusser, D 1957 Healing through the Laying-on of Hands in a Dead Sea Scroll. Israel Exploration Journal, Vol. 7, No. 2, pg. 107-108

Delcour, M 1971 Melchizedek from Genesis to the Qumran Texts and the Epistle to the Hebrews. Journal for the Study of Judaism in the Persian, Hellenistic, and Roman Period, Vol. 2, pg 115-135

Boccaccini, G 1995 Multiple Judaisms, Bible Review (Feb 1995) 38-41.

Schiffman, L 1990 The Significance of the Scrolls. Bible Review Vol VI, pg 19-28

Messianic Jewish Shared Heritage Bible. (2012). 1st ed. Shippensburg, PA: Destiny Image.

[1] Vermès 2011 pg 25

[2] Vermès 2011 pg25

[3] Brooke 2005 Pg19

[4] 4Q525 Beatitudes pg455

[5] Brooke 2005 pg24

[6] Thiering 2005 Pg19

[7] Thiering 2005 pg19

[8] Brooke 2005 pg24

[9] Brooke 2005 pg 25

[10] Luke 6:37

[11] Brooke 2005 pg38

[12] Vermès 2011 pg25

[13] Kuhn,1992 Pg 334

[14] Kuhn, 1992 pg 335

[15] IQapGen,IQ20 XX:15

[16] Flusser 1957 pg108

[17] Vermès 2011 pg 316

[18] The Book of War 4Q285, fr.7

[19] Revelations 22:16

[20] Genesis 14:18

[21] Hebrews 7:16

[22] Vermés 2011 pg532

[23] Delcor 1971 pg125

[24] Delcor 1971 pg125

[25] Hebrews 7:18-20

[26] Brooke 2005 pg 53

[27] Brooke 2005 pg 60

[28] Brooke 2005 pg 60

[29] Boccacini 1995 pg41

[30] Boccacini 1995 41

[31] Vermés 2011 pg25

Art, fairytale, magic, paranormal, Research, University, World mythology

The female werewolf and her shaggy suffragette sisters

 

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This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Jazmina Cininas, Lecturer in Fine Art, Printmaking, RMIT University – Check out her incredible artwork here on her website

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.

Witch riding a wolf, woodcut in Ulrich Molitor, Von den Unholden oder Hexen, c. 1491.
Wikimedia Commons

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.

Georg Kress’s broadsheet depicting women werewolves.
Wikimedia Commons

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).

Jazmina Cininas, Erzsebet was frequently mistaken for a vampire (2011). Reduction linocut, 37 x 28 cm.

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.

Visible symptoms of congenital porphyria. W. Hausmann, Strahlentherapie, Suppl. 8, 1923.

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.

Hirsute marvels

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.

Lavinia Fontana Portrait of Antonietta Gonsalvus.
Wikimedia Commons

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.

Contemporary readings

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.

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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.

The Conversation