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Trollhunter

15 Jul

As it turns out there is more to Scandinavian cinema than just Ingmar Bergman and bleak, wintry black and white films which contemplate the human condition, religion and death. A new generation of young filmmakers are challenging old stereotypes and forging exciting new ground. Trollhunter is a 2010 Norwegian dark fantasy film, made in the form of a “found footage” mockumentary. It is written and directed by André Øvredal, and features a mixed cast of relatively unknown actors and well-known Norwegian comedians. This is a bit of an oddball film: a found footage faux documentary about a group of Norwegian college students tailing and filming a mysterious hunter who turns out to be a specialist in capturing and killing trolls. The result is a surprisingly believable dark fantasy film with some top notch digital effects.

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Legend of the Avatar

10 Jun

Avatar: The Last Airbender is set in an Asiatic-like world in which some people can manipulate the classical elements with psychokinetic variants of the Chinese martial arts known as “bending”. The series combines anime with American cartoons, and relies on the imagery of East Asian, Inuit, South Asian and New World societies. For the uninitiated, the series takes place in a world defined by water, earth, fire and air. Only the Avatar, master of all four elements, can stop the evil Fire Lord from enslaving the rest of the nations. As it happens, the current Avatar is the last of the Air Nomads, a young boy named Aang, who must learn the ways of waterbending, earthbending and firebending if he hopes to save the world. If you haven’t already seen it, Avatar is seriously a must-watch. In my opinion, it’s one of the greatest animated series of all time. The series was commercially successful and was universally acclaimed by audiences and critics, with praise for its art direction, humor, cultural references, characters, and themes. It was nominated for, and won, Annie Awards, Genesis Awards, a Primetime Emmy Award and a Peabody Award. The series inspired a critically panned but financially successful live-action film, The Last Airbender, directed by M. Night Shyamalan; action figures; a trading card game; three video games; and a sequel series, The Legend of Korra, aired from 2012 to 2014, which perhaps rose to even greater heights.

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Into the Labyrinth

8 Apr

Comedian Robin Ince once said it was impossible for people under forty to experience nostalgia. Real nostalgia meant pain, he argued, a gut-aching, punch in the chest, yearning for home, youth, and a life that no longer existed. Nostalgia was the feeling you had when, having come face to face with the unalterable fact of ageing and mortality, you recognised the things you’d lost, and desperately wanted them back. The under-forties hadn’t yet the distance from their youth to be truly get nostalgia, Ince reasoned. When the under-forties think they’re experiencing nostalgia, he said, they’re just remembering stuff. He’s got a point. While it might make for a decent pub chat, the loss of Pigeon Streetand Mallett’s Mallet hasn’t left me with any inconsolable yearnings. I don’t ache for the days back when Snickers were called Marathons and nobody knew you shouldn’t make school dinners exclusively from hydrogenated trans fats. They’re just fond memories. But there’s a film which, for a lot of us, is more than just a fond memory. A film which, if we under-forties can experience nostalgia, is our generation’s Proustian ticket straight back to childhood. For over thirty years, Jim Henson’s 1986 Labyrinth has been lodged like a bullet in our collective brain. So, following the pearl anniversary of its cinematic release, we ask: what’s all the fuss about?

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Realm of the Rising Sun

11 Feb

In Japan, as in China, there is a large pantheon of gods and demons, but whereas the Chinese mirror the bureaucracy of Earth in heaven, the Japanese pay homage through their state religion of Shintoism to a sun goddess, Amaterasu. Shintoists believe that almost 3,000 years ago Amaterasu sent her grandson down to Earth to be Japan’s first ruler, thus making the emperors of Japan her direct descendants – an actual divine family and not just a divinely chosen one. The persistence and survival of Shinto beliefs are remarkable phenomena in a country in which the majority of people are practising Buddhists. In part Shinto owes its longevity to political factors – it has been used periodically to bolster the authority of the state. Equally significant, however, is the way in which Shinto beliefs are meshed into the very fabric of Japan: into the physical landscape as well as the mental hinterland of traditions. For Shintoism (literally “The Way of the Gods”) has its roots in ancient nature worship: its first deities were the innumerable spirits – the kami or “beings of higher place” – that resided in mountains and waterfalls, or sacred groves of trees. Yet even now, when the emperors have renounced their claim to divinity, the gods have retained a place in Japanese affections. While, today, most these beliefs are consumed as entertainment – in manga or anime – there is nevertheless a sense in which for many Japanese they form an important part of national identity.

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A Touch of Frost

14 Dec

Jack Frost is the personification of frost, ice, snow, sleet, winter, and freezing cold. He is sometimes described or depicted with paint brush and bucket colouring the autumnal foliage red, yellow, brown, and orange. Sometimes he is portrayed as a dangerous giant but, starting in late 19th century literature, more developed characterizations of Jack Frost depict him as a sprite-like character, sometimes appearing as a sinister mischief maker or as a hero. This mischievous sprite is traditionally said to leave the frosty, fern-like patterns on windows on cold winter mornings (window frost or fern frost) and nipping the extremities in cold weather. Over time, however, Jack Frost has become far less prevalent in the modern world due to the advance of double-glazing, but he remains a well-known figure in popular culture. He is a variant of Old Man Winter who is similarly held responsible for frosty weather, nipping the nose and toes in such weather, colouring the foliage in autumn, and leaving fern-like patterns on cold windows in winter. However, he also resembles other similar spirits of winter from around the world, including the Japanese Yuki-onna, Grandfather Frost in Russia and Mother Holle in Germany.

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Faith and Fantasy: American Gods

20 Aug

Scary, gripping and often deeply unsettling, Neil Gaiman’s novel American Gods has reached a new audience since being adapted recently as a television series. Placing it in a specific genre has however proved tricky since its publication – some have described it as urban fantasy while others label it as mythic fiction. One description that is as good as any, given the novel’s subject matter, is religious fantasy. A fantasy of religion is a text that depicts or makes use of commonly understood religious tropes, but which recasts them in the context of additional fantastic narrative elements. A clear example of this approach is the satire employed by James Morrow in his 1990 novel Only Begotten Daughter. Although it has a notionally science-fictional frame, being set a few years in the future and hypothesizing some near-future technologies, the overall effect of the book is clearly that of fantasy, as was recognised when it won the World Fantasy Award for its year. The book begins by following Murray Katz, a celibate lighthouse-keeper, who discovers that a sperm donation he has made has become a foetus: an immaculate conception. Overtaken by responsibility for his child-to-be, he brings home the ‘ectogenesis machine’ containing it, and ends up superintending the birth and childhood of the Daughter of God, Julie Katz. The body of the book follows Julie’s adulthood, as she arrives at her credo despite the best efforts of fundamentalist ministers and the Devil. Of course, fantasies of religion need not be as overtly revisionist as Morrow’s. Gene Wolfe is an author primarily known for science fiction rather than fantasy. His Catholicism is also a well-known part of his worldview; it is prominent in his most well-known work, The Book of the New Sun (4 vols, 1980-83). It is set on a far-future ‘Urth’, and many of the fantasy tropes that appear – wizards, magic and so on – can be understood from the text as, for instance, aliens or energy weapons. However, it cannot be denied that the experience of reading the series has many similarities with that of a religious fantasy. The unlikely protagonist, the torturer Severian, is a Christ figure sent and enabled to achieve the task of a new sun for a dying world. The many layers of imagery this invokes – Christ/Apollo, New Son/Sun, for instance – are left for the reader to understand.

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The Mythic Fantasy of Robert Holdstock

18 Jun

A storyteller par excellence, Robert Holdstock wrote with considerable insight about the power of dreams, the unconscious and human desire. He began by writing science fiction, but although his early books were well received, they remain under-realised. Holdstock had yet to find his true subject and the mode that would allow him to write with passion and depth – this would occur in the Mythago Wood novels. You can find the setting of the novels on any map of England – almost. There’s Herefordshire, a peaceful little county, ‘Middle England’, as is said sometimes; looking westwards towards the Welsh border. The Ryhope estate might be approximately there, and Oak Lodge, and also the ancient forest – the primeval woodland of oak, ash, beech, and the like, with its untrodden dark interior – which gives the first novel in the sequence its magical name of Mythago Wood. Like Holdstock’s characters, we find ourselves lost in the vastness of that ancient eponymous forest when we enter the wildwood with its stench of ash, blood and animal. The Mythago Wood novels exist as a whole, and that whole is no ordinary fantasy story, with its extraordinary beauty. Rather it is about time, time solidified, death pickled, and that way we might have had to live, once upon a time.

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Spirits of the Sacred Skies

22 Jan

The ancient peoples of the vast continent of South America never formed a coherent cultural unit. They cannot, therefore be treated as such in describing their religions and mythologies. Thousands of languages and dialects were spoken throughout South America, but there were no writing systems before the Spanish conquest. The sources of ancient myths are therefore native oral records transcribed by Europeans or European-trained natives in Spanish, Portuguese or, in a few cases, Quecha (the language of the Incas), accounts by contemporary chroniclers and modern anthropological studies. Legends and mythological accounts, together with deductions based on archaeological evidence, constituted the religions of South American societies. Like all peoples, they felt compelled to explain the important things in their universe, beginning with where they came from and their place in the larger scheme of things. Despite the regional and cultural diversity of South America, there were common elements, some almost universal. In most regions, for example, there was a named creator god. Among the Andean civilizations Viracocha, with many variations, was the creator. Although his worship was prevalent among coastal civilizations, there was also confusion and/or rivalry with the supreme god Pachacamac. Among the Amazonian tribes, four almost universal themes can be recognised. First is the presence and power of shamans, and the associated use of hallucinogenic drugs to gain access into the spirit world for the wellbeing and guidance of humankind. Second is the belief in the power and ancient divinity of jaguars. Third is the practice of cannibalism and fourth, less widespread, is headhunting, a practice steeped in supernatural and ritual significance for the purpose of capturing an enemy’s soul.

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Philadelphia by Night

20 Nov

William Penn first landed in the New World in 1682. Armed with a land charter, he founded a colony based on religious freedom that just a century later would give birth to a new nation. Penn named the new city Philadelphia, derived from Greek words meaning ‘City of Brotherly Love’. Magic has lurked in the Philadelphia area for as long as it has been populated (and perhaps even before humanity settled there). Magical beliefs and practices flourished among the indigenous peoples of the area, and as immigrants, missionaries, and colonists were attracted to the area, each brought their own magic with them. Since well before the first European settlers arrived in the early 1600s magic has been a part of Philly’s history. The Lenape tribes who populated the area for hundreds, if not thousands, of years before the European settlers arrived viewed magic (or what the Europeans would label as magic) as an integral part of daily life. It was simply how the world worked and was recognised and treated as such by members of the various Lenape tribes. While many of the specifics have been lost over the four centuries of European intercession in the area, some basic information was preserved through a variety of sources.

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Samhain, Feast of the Dead

30 Oct

Festivals emphasizing death and the supernatural are common in almost all cultures. Modern Hallowe’en, for example, is influenced by and probably originated with the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain (pronounced ‘SAH-win’ or ‘SOW-in’). Around 1,000 BC the Celts – who at the time populated Ireland, Great Britain and northern France – celebrated the first day of winter as their New Year. Winter began, in the climate of northern Europe, in November. The end of summer marked radical change in the daily life of this pastoral people. The herds were brought down from the summer pastures in the hills, the best animals put to shelter, and the rest slaughtered. For the Celts, the period we now consider the end of October and start of November was a time of preparation, festival and plenty before the coming of the long winter. As agriculture became a part of their lives, harvest time also became part of the seasonal activity. This communal celebration became known as Samhain. Linguistically, the word evidently simply combines the Gaelic words sam for ‘end’ and hain for ‘summer’ i.e. end of summer. However, although the bounty of nature and the change of seasons were important aspects of Samhain, it was also a festival of the supernatural.

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