Phad Chitra Notebooks

Just wanted to pass along this awesome project a former student of mine is putting together. Phad Chitra is an Indian folk art, and this campaign is meant to help some of the remaining artists make a living off of their work. Check it out! I think there are only a few days left, so contribute for your notebooks now! They are still short of their goal.


Writing this while a bit too tired after a graduation ceremony, but I wanted to draw people’s attention to my friend Karl Siegfried’s post about the campaign for the recognition of Ásatrú and Heathen as valid choices for religious preference within the military, in particular with regard to the sorts of religious rights accorded to Christians and other faiths within the military. I’m a Christian myself (I would consider myself fairly conservative theologically [ie, believing in the deity of Christ, resurrection from the dead, forgiveness of sins, that sort of fun stuff], though certain brands of evangelical would probably see me as pretty liberal), but I support freedom of religion and equal treatment of people of various faiths, both because I don’t believe I can love others the way my faith tells me to without respecting their self-determination, and because equal treatment and freedoms are essential to an open and reciprocal dialog about faith. What is the use of sharing what you believe is a life-transforming and saving faith with someone if you are going insist that our institutions predetermine that your own perspective is the only valid one? Intentional and mutual vulnerability is essential for religious dialog, especially in a world where religion is as politicized as it is.

And yes, I know, there are also those saying “Um… seriously? Odin and Thor?” Well, don’t assume right off that you know what someone means when they tell you they are heathen–certainly there seems to be a pretty big divide between what I mean by faith and religion in my own experience versus what I have come to understand from those who have shared about their experience as heathens. I don’t want to make any broad characterizations of heathen practitioners, since I am not one myself, and since there is so much variety among those who call themselves “heathen”, but I’ve seen on the one hand folks who perceive a supernatural element to their faith, like an experience in a dream or something like that, while others are interested in showing how one can be religious/spiritual without actually believing in a literally supernatural element at all. My impression is that most become interested in it as an expression of heritage, more concerned with authenticity than with the issue of historical facticity that is central to the Christian/Atheist divide–but heritage is by no means going to be the driving force for everyone, and the only way you would be able to find out is by listening, rather than stuffing a pamphlet in someone’s mouth. I realize also that “neo-paganism” (not the preferred term from what I understand) tends to be associated in the popular imagination with racism and a lot of other nasty bits of National Romantic baggage, and there have been individuals and groups who have been explicitly or implicitly racist in their pursuit of an “authentic” Nordic/Germanic/whatever-religion–this is not the case with those heathen practitioners I have come into contact with the last few years, and my impression is that most such movements nowadays are very inclusive, and aware of and on guard against the abuses that others have engaged in.

Well, that was supposed to be briefer than it was, but oh well. Karl’s website has a lot more on this topic, including interviews with heathen practitioners in the military, so check it out!

IMG_3164Been too long since I’ve posted (sorry), so Memorial Day seemed like a good opportunity. I don’t illustrate scenes from books very often, but it occurred to me that Astrid Lindgren’s children’s book Bröderna Lejonhjärta (The Brother’s Lionheart) is about as appropriate as you can get for a day commemorating the death of soldiers. The story as a whole is about death, and revolves around a dying boy (well, I could be more precise, but I really don’t want to spoil things–the twists and turns of the premise are powerful, though may be too much for some people). Starting as a meditation on mortality and premature death, done fantasy-style as a way of helping kids work through this difficult topic, the book soon expands into a meditation on the evil that people inflict on each other. Near the end of the book a peaceful valley rises up against its oppressors and many die, including some important to the two brothers. The main character’s idealistic (and ideal) older brother Jonatan refuses to fight in the climactic battle (let’s remember as well that he and his brother are still kids, however heroic Jonatan is throughout the book)–in response to those who say “If every man were like you, the Tengils (dictators) of the world would rule everything!” (or some such, I’m going by memory here), the main character Kalle (Karl) points out that if everyone in the world were like Jonatan, there would BE no Tengils (again, Tengil is the primary villain). Maybe feels a bit naive, but I do like it as a way of affirming pacifism at the same time that the story also affirms the freedom fighters, who have been forced to the point they are at. All in all the book is a beautiful meditation on the twin subjects of natural death and death from strife–heavy for a children’s book, but I think it fits the mood of the day. Not that I expect all the motivations and justifications for the wars our country has gotten into to be valid in the end (and plenty are already, and sometimes always have been, manifestly invalid), but I know that there are soldiers who go out there and die doing their best to make the world a better place. My heart goes out to those who have lost anyone in war, and my heart goes out to those who have been damaged by war in mind and body. Again, I don’t want to spoil anything, but the scene I chose to illustrate is the two boys Jonatan and Karl leading the dragon Katla up the mountain with the horn that Tengil had used to control her originally. The battle is done, but death still rides at their heels, and it takes all the bravery they have to walk in its shadow and bring everything to a finish.

Moleskine Doodles

I haven’t had time for new posts for a while, but there are several books I want to review, so hang in there! Meanwhile, this year has been a year for lots of moleskine pen and ink doodles (all I have time for art-wise), so here is an impromptu gallery of my more developed pics from this academic year–nothing really finished, just more therapeutic creating and imagining. Enjoy!

moleskine_sketch__long_dark_hair_by_callego-d7nnp1tboat_and_cliff_pen_brush_sketch_by_callego-d7rjyzpocean_s_silent_brim_by_callego-d815opayggdrasill_sketch_by_callego-d82apt0tomte_in_redwoods_by_callego-d8a4qkkIMG_3004castle_and_planet_by_callego-d8dfdq2the_swimming_hole__goblin_week__by_callego-d8fe1jlstrangers_in_town_by_callego-d8fy6t6woman_sketch_by_callego-d8kc6odSpace girl hide and seekin_the_shadow_of_the_old_woman_by_callego-d8r2zto

Jackson’s Edda

Jacksons EddaOr I suppose we should say Edda Jacksonar? Anyway, I got a(n advance?) copy of Jackson Crawford’s The Poetic Edda in the mail today, and while I don’t have time for a full review (and probably won’t for a while–way way too much to do) I wanted to give some initial impressions and put it on everyone’s radar! And OK, Jackson is an acquaintance of mine (another young scholar in my field and the guy who taught a couple of my current UCLA courses before I got here–he is a linguist though, unlike myself, but that is OK too I guess), and I am kind of a softy when it comes to people I know, so don’t expect any sort of a hyper-critical dissection here–there will be plenty of those I’m sure, as no translation is going to please everyone.

And at this point we should also note (as Jackson himself has) that this is meant to be a translation for the casual reader. He has unpacked many of the kennings, has not attempted to reproduce the original meters (no argument from me there–my favorite translation of the Beowulf poem is entirely in prose), and has left out many of the heiti (alternate names for gods and such)–and tries to avoid any verbal gymnastics, keeping things nicely pithy. You can get a feel for the difference if we contrast some of the first stanzas from Völuspá, the first poem in Poetic Edda, as translated in Andy Orchard’s recent translation and Jackson’s new one (and check out the original here if you want):


A hearing I ask of all holy offspring,

the higher and lower of Heimdall’s brood.

Do you want me, Corpse-father, to tally up well

ancient tales of folk, from the first I recall?

I recall those giants, born early on,

who long ago brought me up;

nine worlds I recall, nine wood-dwelling witches,

the famed tree of fate down under the earth.

It was early in ages when Ymir made his home,

there was neither sand nor sea, nor cooling waves;

no earth to be found, nor heaven above:

a gulf beguiling, nor grass anywhere.


Heed my words,

all classes of men,

you greater and lesser

children of Heimdall.

You summoned me, Odin,

to tell what I recall

of the oldest deeds

of gods and men.

I remember the giants

born so long ago;

in those ancient days

they raised me.

I remember nine worlds,

nine giantesses,

and the seed

from which Yggdrasil sprang.

It was at the very beginning,

it was Ymir’s time,

there was no sand, no sea,

no cooling waves,

no earth,

no sky,

no grass,

just Ginnungagap.

The latter certainly reads a bit easier, doesn’t it? The former, on the other hand, preserves a bit more data (or noise, depending on what you are reading for) from the original. Sorry I don’t have Larrington’s recent revision of her translation available–I’ve heard good things about it though. If you are wondering which translation to go for, I would say 1) Jackson if you want it made easy for you, do not typically read ancient lit (translated or otherwise), and/or are just “checking it out”, or if you are teaching Norse mythology to more of a High School age crowd, 2) Orchard or Larrington if you are more interested in getting more “data” on the original text, even if it makes the reading awkward at times, want more thorough notes (Jackson has an introduction to each poem, while Larrington and Orchard have more thorough endnotes–still aimed more at the undergrad though), and/or are taking/teaching a college level course on Norse mythology, and 3) if you are engaging at a post-undergrad level with the material, well, go learn Old Norse! These translations could be helpful “cribs” while you are starting out, and of course it is always handy to see how someone else has parsed a line, whether they are going for a looser or more direct translation.

One interesting bit about this translation–Baldrs draumar and a few of the “Eddic Appendix” poems are inserted following the poems of “Gods and Elves” (though I kind of wish it was “Gods and minor supernatural creatures”, as that lets us keep the descending momentum of “Gods>Elves>Dwarves in this section, rather than having good old Völundr sandwiched between Thor poems [the story of the smart-ass dwarf All-Wise does involve Thor, though], rather than after the Codex Regius poems (meaning, the full run of poems from the most complete medieval manuscript).

I’m not going to try to go into the relative accuracy of any translation right now, since I don’t have time to hunt down anything I disagree with and since pretty much any translation is going to have bits that scholars disagree with, and even mistakes and misreadings to be corrected in later editions. The point here: Jackson’s translation offers a lighter, more accessible alternative to the other translations out there (or: it is what it is). Even if you have one of the other translations, this is a nice one to pick up as a foil to the others, or just for a nice, quick read on a rainy evening while sitting by the fire in your… um, mead-hall, I guess.

Thanks for a great book, Jackson, and I look forward to reading more!


replace with text from advisoryI’m pretty late on this, but now that we have a sharper image showing the mysterious white spot (now spots in the plural) on Ceres I can’t help but feeling like we’re in an Arthur C. Clarke novel. The most obvious reference would be 2001, of course, which in the original novel (featuring the Saturn system rather than Jupiter) involved, if I remember correctly, a white spot on Iapetus, which turned out to be the location of one of the ancient extraterrestrial monoliths. It also reminds me of Rendezvous with Rama, one of my favorites (the alien spaceship named Rama was initially mistaken for an asteroid, I believe).  And of course the annals of science fiction are filled with ancient spaceships abandoned in various places throughout our solar system (Heechee, anyone?), so I suppose it is just a matter of time before the world governments come to me, asking me to suit up and ship out to investigate the primordial ruins of the space Vikings of Ceres… Fingers crossed anyway.

Update: More detailed images available now. Still just a fuzzy cluster of light bits, but looks a bit more natural now. No crashed spaceship I guess… but who knows! :P  Would have so much fun writing a story about this, but I haven’t and probably won’t because, well, we will most likely know what’s going on before it would get published anyway. Maybe a poem though…

Old Mermaid SketchSorry if I’m overdoing the mermaid stories lately (check out my last much shorter post for the other one), but it seemed not only a handy coincidence, but also very appropriate for my own particular specialty that the story emailed out (and posted online) by Daily Science Fiction tonight is JY Yang‘s “Cold Hands and the Smell of Salt,” a nice little story (very short, as that is how DSF does it) inspired by Scandinavian folklore about the “Havsmannen”, or the merman–though there is a bit of a twist here (will try to avoid any spoilers though). And actually, not that it particularly matters, you may want to read the story before reading the rest of my bit below. Ready? Go! ….

Done? OK. In the “author’s note” JY Yang says that she was inspired by Swedish folklore in which the havsmannen (literally “man of the sea”, = mer-man) will visit a sailor’s wife while she is gone, in the form of her husband, sometimes leading to the birth of some fishy progeny.

A German vision of a merman, from the 1600s. Sorry, Swedish Wikipedia only gave me this image, not a specifically Swedish image…

To be honest, while some parts of my academic work have revolved around folk narrative (the relevant genre here is legend), I’m realizing right now that I haven’t really spent very much time with folklore of the sea at all–I know a few stories of mer-women driving their cattle up on land (apparently they have legs, as well as cattle, which humans can sometimes gain by means dastardly or fair, making them very similar to the hidden-folk or other varieties of supernatural communities in Scandi folklore), or a mer-man getting a glove from a fisherman, things like that, but when it comes to water-beings, I’m more familiar with the Swedish näcken, aka bäckahästen (creek-horse), a fresh-water male nature sprite. But there are some interesting parallels to other Scandi folklore that I think are worth mentioning in this context. One is the way JY Yang’s story starts out as a story of the return of someone drowned at sea–a common motif all the way from the sagas up through the rural folklore of the early 20th century, and an understandable one, as the dead tend to return when something is either left unfinished or they are not buried properly–ie, no ritual is performed to conduct them safely from one mode of existence to the next (actually an exemplary case of something left unfinished, now I think on it…). [spoiler alert] The mer-person in JY Yang’s story is obviously aware of this, and initially passes as such. 

As I noted above, the mer-person folklore does have some similarities to legends of the communities of supernatural others in general. When the supernatural others (again, the hidden folk, the under-earthers, etc) are represented as living in communities, they are often also represented as living parallel to the human community, as well as living very human-like lives. Sure, when you take something from one world to the next (for example, if they give you gold or food as a present), it may turn out to be some symbolic inversion of itself (dirt or crap), but there are stories where (somewhat) typical neighbor-problems come up between the two communities, and with both the mer-folk and the hidden folk we sometimes see one of their girls driving their cattle near the human community, or being given as a reward to a human.

Stattin’s book–in Swedish, I’m afraid. I can’t remember if there is an English translation…

That said, it seems to me that the stories of solitary nature-beings are a bit more relevant here. As opposed to the supernatural beings that live in community, these solitary supernaturals live alone out in the forest, and tend to be gender specific–some are always female, some are always male (not always though–trolls and giants, for example, can be male or female, and could fall into this category to some degree). We see (as noted in a book by Jochum Stattin on näcken) that the ways in which human men and women encounter these creatures can be pretty different–men tend to encounter these representatives of “wild nature” further out from the human community, which may be taken as a socially normative aspect of the legends, associating men with access to the wider and wilder world. Näcken, for example, shows up as a male humanoid figure (or not at all) for men who go to his hideaway at a stream to learn to play the fiddle from him (actually, näcken‘s legends overlap with Satan’s a bit when it comes to sinful pleasures like [shudder] music and dancing), and many a hunter has, wittingly or not, carried out a tryst with a skogsrå, a female forest creature who is beautiful from the front, but if seen from the back is hollow (or has a tale, or is a monster if seen after you cross yourself, whatever)–point being, men get to go out in to the realm of these creatures and treat with them, successfully or not. Women, on the other hand, do not meet the skogsrå, and when they meet näcken it is generally in a threatening way–in the form of the bäckahästen running around the farm (human space) attempting to trick women (or children) onto his back to then dive into the lake with them. The threat of the supernatural Other is often sexualized as well, more or less explicitly, and while men may successfully carry on trysts at times, for women the end result tends to involve a distancing from the human community (unless saved/recovered), including abduction.

The inspiration behind this story that JY Yang shares seems to fit this pattern as well–while men meet the havsmannen out at sea, and may even engage with him in some way (giving him a glove or a sock when he is cold, receiving cattle in return), women meet the havsmannen as an intruder at home–though perhaps even here the folklore is more concerned with the invasion of the “man’s” space–his house, “his” womb, his lineage. But hey, while much of the legend tradition of rural, patriarchal Sweden of the 1800s and earlier was pretty normative, there is still room for debate and dissenting voices at times–for example, you can see differing opinions show up with regard to the potential salvation of the non-human (and therefore non-Christian) supernatural Others. JY Yang’s “Cold Hands and the Smell of Salt” is also nicely subversive of the patriarchy, moving from zombie-story to invasive-merman-story to a story of a woman embracing an unexpected opportunity for a mutual and authentic relationship after an unhappy and undesired marriage (and yeah, a little gender-bending here as well). Nice to see that Swedish legends are still “alive,” and in flux, as legends always are–and also nice to see that they have some purchase in Singapore as well. :)

And one more note–looks like Swedish novelist Carl-Johan Vallgren has a recent novel titled Havsmannen out as well–I will have to get my hand on a copy. Maybe someone will hire me to translate it… hint hint. Though I hear translating fiction really pays like crud. Or otherworldly gold, maybe. :/


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