Tag Archive for mythology

Going Beyond the Fairy Tales with Jacob Grimm

Photo of Jacob Grimm

Jacob Grimm

I recently got to download a Grimm book!

No doubt we’ve all heard of Grimms’ Fairy Tales, a collection of German tales compiled by the “brothers Grimm,” Jacob and Wilhelm, originally published in 1812. This collection has been reproduced and reprinted and added to and told and told again, over and over for two centuries, now. While many of the tales have now been sanitized, removing their original darker elements, in their original form, they reflected something of the true depth of real myth. It’s a collection everyone should become familiar with.

But this is not that book.

In university, years ago and to my joy and wonder, I discovered a set of four volumes entitled, Teutonic Mythology, translated from the originalĀ Deutsche Mythologie, put together by Jacob Grimm, the elder of the two brothers. He was a philologist — a studier of words and their history — as well as a jurist and mythologist. And his extensive studies of many languages and customs allowed him to trace links between the myths and mythical tales and practices of many European countries.

I have been a fanatic about myth since I became conscious. And as in all things, the older the traces of myth are, the more fascinated and enchanted I am. So I read as much as I could of the four volumes, back in my university days. And I have spent a couple of decades since then, trying to find them again. Somewhere, anywhere!

And now, through various downloading sites for more historic and even ancient books, and through Google Books, which seems to have been the main digitizer, I have finally found them. Hurray! I’ve downloaded all four volumes and am well into the first.

But here’s the thing. Two things, actually. First, Grimm was one of those who just assumed that the people reading his work knew the languages he quoted. So as he gives examples of ancient god names and sacred terms that seem to carry through from one language and culture to another (Anglo-Saxon, Old High German, etc.) — he doesn’t often make a translation. So I’m picking out a few words I recognize here and there or tracing the links I can detect, without actually knowing what the quotes are saying. Ah, those nineteenth century scholars. (Theologians and philosophers did the exact same thing.)

But there’s something funny too. Something that shows why not everything can be automated and why humans will always be necessary. I guess Google Books’ digitization process is meant to be kind of automatic. But the print may be faded or slightly unclear in places, in whatever books were used in this particular process. Or the digitizing program just didn’t recognize a symbol and came up a sort of “best guess.”

So take the word “Roman.” Much of the time, it reads “Eoman” in this book. Or, occasionally, “Boman.” It took me a while to recognize what was going on; I mean, this is talking about Germanic, Teutonic, Scandinavian stuff — remember Eomer and Eowyn from The Lord of the Rings? Yeah. So it took a few times before I realized, “Oh, ROMAN!”

Then there is “aU.” Which, it turns out, is a frequent instance of the word “all.” And what the heck is a “Uack hull,” which is being led to sacrifice?? Why, a “black bull,” of course. So here I am, trying to piece together words from fairly ancient Teutonic languages while also trying to decipher Google’s digitization mistakes. It’s kind of funny.

But for the most part, though, I’m doing it. And I am justĀ loving finding out anew all those ancient linguistic connections and the earliest cultural traces of what are probably my favorite deities from any pantheon! (Loki is my patron god, after all; his ancient day is my birthday.)

Thank goodness for the Internet, and for Google’s digitization of a set of books I have looked for, like, forever! Rediscovering all these things is really wonderful. Or should I say, “reaUy womerful!”

Book Review – The Lost Books of the Odyssey

In his debut book, The Lost Books of the Odyssey, computer scientist and author Zachary Mason doesn’t really present a novel in any form we’re used to. What he does, though, is produce a mythos.

Folklorists and historians say that if you go beyond what’s fairly recently been codified in North American culture as “the” Cinderella story, you will find at least 365 distinct versions throughout history. We’re familiar with the more “Disneyfied,” sweeter version, but other equally valid versions have much darker overtones and episodes. (You can see some of them in Stephen Sondheim’s musical, Into the Woods, for example.)

What does this have to do with Mason’s book? Everything! Because all myths, folk tales, fairy tales, and legends have a history, most of them coming to us from a long time ago. And the more ancient they are, the more it’s guaranteed that they will have countless other versions than those we think are the “final” story.

Tabula iliaca Musei Capitolini

The Lost Books of the Odyssey is based on that premise. We already know that even if The Odyssey was primarily composed by the blind Greek poet, Homer, almost three thousand years ago, it was added to and embellished with every telling. The epic tale was transmitted orally, probably for centuries, before it was ever written down, and even the written versions would have had vast differences between them. (We see this with other “national” epics through history. The Indian Ramayana, for example, of which I’m extremely fond, has several versions.)

In his preface, Mason talks about alternate versions of episodes from The Odyssey being found on papyrus scraps, in sculpture and frieze, and in other sources too. So every episode in his own book purports to express one of these variations.

We see different interpretations of who Odysseus himself was, what actually happened at Troy and during Odysseus’s voyage home to Ithaca, and even variations on the real identities of primary characters. (In one episode, for example, Paris, who stole the beautiful Helen from her husband and triggered the Trojan War, was actually Death in disguise, with Troy being his underworld kingdom.) In some episodes, minor characters become very important, while in others, Odysseus’s own deeds are given several different motivations and meanings.

During the reading of the first few episodes, you feel like, “Ah, here’s another variation,” and it feels interesting but not monumental. But that changes very quickly, or at least it did in my case. I began to feel a weight on my shoulders that I thought of as the “weight of history.” It was as though, metaphorically, I could feel the entire Odysseus mythos being built up, piece by piece, over years and centuries. “This,” I thought, “is exactly how it would have happened.” This book – far from a “first novel” as it is – felt old, venerated. It felt like a treasured collection of manuscripts and papyri you might have discovered in an old chest that had long been buried in an ancient tomb.

With The Lost Books of the Odyssey, Mason creates in one place the sort of collective Odyssey that could have been (and maybe was!) dispersed throughout the ancient world. I felt, reading this book, as though I had gained a new understanding of the very nature, growth, and vital significance of mythology.

If you have any interest in the Troy and Odyssey stories, or an interest in the history of myth and storytelling, I think you will love this book, as I do.

Homer's World Map

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