Commander in Heaven

I pity the nation that doesn’t have divine founders. Origin myths help to orient our thoughts about where we belong in the order of things. Given enough time, any national founder will become a god. When a friend recently shared a blog post about Gogmagog, I had to dust a few cobwebs from my memory to place the mythic founding of Britain. During our years in Scotland my wife and I read about the heritage of the British Isles, according to bards before the Bard. Bede, Geoffrey, and the anonymous author(s) of the Mabinogion. Long before the Romans arrived on those islands, there had been gods, demons, and giants. The Medieval writers, of course, were drawing from the Bible. Gog and Magog are figures from Ezekiel, borrowed by Revelation. Sacred writ says enough about them only to make them mysterious. Their combined role in British myth makes one think they might be giants.

The founding of Israel, of course, is treated as history by many. I don’t mean the recent founding of the political state, but rather the biblical version of things. Moses leading the Israelites out of an oppressive Egypt, miraculously through divided waters. Foundation myths are that way. We can watch the process unfolding, even after just a few centuries. George Washington’s literal apotheosis is virtually certain. Even Alexander Hamilton experienced an unlikely resurrection when he was in danger of being removed from the ten-dollar bill. For nations to thrive this kind of transformation must take place.


This is perhaps easier on states whose origins are lost in antiquity. There was nobody there to see the general fall off his horse or the commander in chief inhale. This was what folklorists call illud tempus, the time of events unlike those of today. Quotidian time has become profane—just look at the headlines if you don’t believe me. Those who are gods today are only those who make themselves so. We can see it happening all the time, if we pay attention. The implications should give us pause, when we consider those we think of as heroes or giants. Time makes gods. And it is just possible that we might be better off without a pantheon so terribly large.

Same Old Story

Once upon a time fairy tales were considered appropriate only for children. Unlike myths, fairy tales are frequently oral (yes, there are oral myths but this is not the place to discuss technicalities) and have origins that are obscure. A friend recently sent me a story entitled “Phylogenetic analyses suggests fairy tales are much older than thought” by Bob Yirka on Using phylogenetic analysis, researchers have traced some fairy tales back thousands of years, into the Bronze Age of the ancient Near East. This will no doubt surprise some analysts who supposed fairy tales were a more recent, European invention. The tales change with time and distance, no doubt, but the basic story is very deeply rooted in who people are. Fairy tales are adult fare, after all.

I tried to make this point in an academic article that was rudely rejected by the journal Folklore some years back. I mean “rudely” literally. I’ve had academic articles rejected before—many of us have—but the letter that came with this one was insulting. My “error”? Suggesting that the story of the musician who travels to the underworld came from ancient Sumer. The article had its origins in my wife’s reading of the Mabinogion. The story of Bran’s head being washed down the river still singing reminded me of an Edinburgh ghost story the tour guides used to tell right outside our window. You’ve probably heard similar: a tunnel is discovered, a musician (a bagpiper, since this was Scotland) is sent down while playing so that those above can follow the sound, but the musician never emerges. I traced the story through the Celtic tradition of Uamh ‘n Òir, the cave of gold, through Bran, Orpheus, and finally back to Ishtar’s descent into the underworld. It was a fun piece, but serious. It ended up published in a Festschrift to a scholar with a noted sense of humor.

Photo credit: Kim Traynor, Wikimedia Commons

Photo credit: Kim Traynor, Wikimedia Commons

The fact is, traditional stories often go back very far in history. We haven’t the tools to trace many, nor can the results be taken for Gospel, but the implications can. People are storytellers by nature. We find meaning in what would today be called “fiction.” Too often I’ve had to hang my head in embarrassment when admitting to a fellow academic that I read (and sometimes write) fiction. It is something, however, that ancient mythographers and folklore singers would have understood. We can be academic some of the time, but we are human full-time. And telling stories is something that predates even the Bronze Age. Of that we can be completely certain. And they lived happily ever after.

Seeing the Dark

The Dark may be a movie that tries to do too much, but it does illustrate an idea that has been lurking around my head for a few years. That which we fear and that which we worship are never far apart. Since The Dark was pretty much panned, in brief it goes like this—a separated couple gets back together in Wales to draw their troubled teen daughter back. While there she drowns and the ghost of a girl from the past shows her mother how to get her daughter back. The film is notable as being the first I’ve seen that could make sheep scary. Skulking in the back story is a minister, “the shepherd,” the father of the ghostly girl, who started a new religion over the ocean cliffs of Wales half a century ago. When his daughter died, he convinced his flock to leap off the cliff to reach a place that is a combination of Heaven and a Welsh mythical afterlife called Annwyn. The shepherd, however, is really using their sacrificial deaths to bring his daughter back from the dead. The story is complex and the darkness of the narrative is at times overwhelming, nevertheless, it is a showcase of how religious conviction can be more frightening than consoling at times.

Some years back I researched the Welsh mythology of the Mabinogion. Having been a student of ancient religions, however, I knew there was only so far I could go without the lexical support of learning Celtic languages. (This is a fact of mythological study often overlooked by popular treatments; if you really want to get what is going on there is no substitute for reading texts in their original language. I was too busy learning Ugaritic and the time, and struggling with Akkadian, to pick up Gaelic as well.) Nevertheless, the mythology struck me as particularly compelling. Some of the roots of the Arthurian legend lie deep within this lore, and although often uncredited, it still influences our society today. Mythology is simply religion dressed to go out for the evening. The concepts form the basis of much that we still believe and that which still has the power to terrify.

Although the critics didn’t care for the film, the dense interweaving of misplaced religious devotion, Welsh mythology, and basic human longing make The Dark in many ways a classic horror movie. It may be hard to find the characters sympathetic, but they are in some ways archetypal. With a sinister minister driven by personal loss turning to pagan folklore to bring his daughter back, we have a secondary character who curses the fate of an all-too-human condition. The concept of sacrifice becomes a tool for selfish gain rather than a means of helping others. Possibly those who panned the movie did so without an appreciation of the mythology that pulses just beneath the surface here. And while sometimes horror films are simply puerile escapism, at other times they should give us pause to think, and maybe even learn.