SHAPE SHIFTING DEVILS
I wanted to find out more about the genie (or jinni) when writing “The Jinni of Dreams” and discovered they were devils in early Arabian myth, made of flame or air. They could appear as humans or animals and lived in stones, trees, ruins, earth, fire. They had the bodily needs of humans and could even be killed. But they had no physical restraints and could move magically from one place to another. They could cause accidents and disease but could also be used to people’s advantage.
Where did the idea that they could grant wishes come from? They certainly had super powers and in later belief, they could grant people three wishes and could, reluctantly, become someone’s servant for life, confined to tedious tasks, like cleaning, washing and repairing.
Their profile changed in the 18th century. Frenchman Antoine Galland translated The Arabian Nights for Europeans, the French version appearing in 1704. He added Ali Baba and his Forty Thieves and Aladdin and his Magic Lamp.
The jinni turned into a genie, soon to be imprisoned in a bottle. It is said a fisherman found a brass vessel with a genie inside. It was so relieved to be released, it granted the fisherman three wishes. Another genie was trapped in a lamp, retrieved by Aladdin for a sorcerer. His mum thought it needed cleaning, rubbed it, and of course a genie appeared. So the jinni was tamed, but there are still remote places where it is believed its original, mean spirit secretly dwells…
While writing “The Earthquake” in my collection of Santorini tales, I recalled the polished black rocks thrusting like symbols of a mind perturbed beyond reprieve.They are an eerie legacy on Santorini’s volcano.It is one of those places where one is aware of our hapless attempts to harness nature. We are adept at wrecking its rhythm but unprepared to empathise.
The frequent earthquakes we experience on Crete are humbling enough, although we know now they are due to tectonics – the sliding plates of Europe and Africa, but it was while standing on Santorini’s volcano, that the full implications of our petty place in the scheme of things, hits home. One is daunted by the destructive power of Earth’s inner core, although a little let down by the few puffs of smoke at the rim when the volcano rests.
But its eruptions are of the most violent kind and that of around 1600BC the most cataclysmic of all. It blew the island – also known as Thera – apart and created the deep caldera that defeated even the explorations of Jacques Cousteau.
Did the eruption also destroy the Minoan way of life on nearby Crete? The effects must have been devastating and people terrified. Did they assume the gods were outraged? Had religious cults been neglected? Trade though was dropping off due to competition from the mainland and the Mycenaean invasion may have accounted for the downfall of Knossos around 1450BC. We may never know. But the monster Typhon in the children’s story, “The Earthquake” represents the underground force over which we have no control.
Eastern Crete in particular would have been covered with almost a metre of volcanic ash and all vegetation and crops destroyed, especially since a massive amount of sulphate and chloride spewed from the volcano.
At least the ash preserved the city of Akrotiri on Santorini and most people are thought to have escaped before the final eruption. I visited the excavation of Akrotiri to be astonished by two and three storey buildings, great pots still in tact and reproductions of the paintings taken from the walls for preservation, almost as fresh as when first painted.
Romantically, in the saga of the Argonauts, Triton, a local god, presented them with a clod of earth which one of them threw overboard. It became the island of Thera. When they turned back to Crete they were confronted by Talos, a bronze giant who threw rocks at them so they could not land. But he had a vulnerable vein near his ankle and Medea the witch cast a spell on him so he grazed it on a rock and his ichor flowed out. He weakened and collapsed.
Talos may come from an early memory of the volcano. Thera”guards” the northern approach to Crete. The frame of Talos my have been the newly formed crater on the mountain peak that once rose on the island. The rocks Talos threw could have been those shot from the eruption and his ichor the streams of lava. A tempting analogy.
FLOWERS OF IMMORTALITY
Mythology burgeons with humans seeking immortality and plants played a big part in this foolhardy quest. Gilgamesh is a classic contender in the Mesopotamian poem where he is told a plant that will make him young again may be found at the bottom of the sea. He bound stones to his feet so he could walk on the sea bottom and he found the boxthorn-like plant. He decided to try it out on an old man he knew, but as he bathed, a serpent stole it, leaving just his sloughed-off skin behind.
In Taoist mythology, the peach tree engendered immortality. It was said there was one in the garden of Hsi wang mu (“Queen mother of the west”) whose fruit ripened every 3,000 years, when a banquet was held attended by the eight immortals – transcendents or saints who could give or destroy life. They regularly attended the conference of the magical peach and are still popular images in China.
Ambrosia of course, was the food of other immortals. This is a mixture of nectar and pollen made by worker bees and fed to the bee larvae. It is also a weedy species of plant found mostly in north America with pollen causing chronic allergy!
BIG TOP FLYERS
In my story THE FLEETING FAME OF BENJAMIN SPROCKETT, a boy who has wings because he was reared by fairies, ends up in a circus as a star turn. But earthbound performers have not let a lack of wings prevent them from flying in the Big Top. Trapeze acts appear to have been invented by Jules Leotard (after whom leotards are named) in 1859, who took to the air over his father’s swimming pool in Toulouse.
Soon, in circus acts, a catcher joined the flyer as tricks were performed in the air. Initially this was done without a safety net , although training was in a safety harness up to 4o feet above the ground.
In the early 20th century in Paris”Miss Fillis” became one of the most famous flyers, having made a debut at ten years old. She became a catcher in an act for three performers and later married Alfred, another aerialist ,working until she was 55 in 1946.
OVERBLOWN AND HUNGRY
IN “THE FLYING SHOES,” ONE OF THE STORIES IN MY JUST PUBLISHED CHILDREN’S BOOK, (SEE HOME PAGE), SLOBSKY IS A COMPARATIVELY CONVENTIONAL GIANT. TRADITIONALLY HE ENJOYS A SUPPER OF SUCCULENT CHILDREN. BUT IN LEGEND, THE EARTH WAS MENACED BY GIANTS OF DIVERSE AND DISTINCT PERSONALITY. ALBANIAN GIANTS, FOR INSTANCE, WERE SAID TO BE AS TALL AS PINE TREES WITH BLACK BEARDS REACHING TO THEIR KNEES. THEY CAUGHT MEN TO EAT AND WOMEN TO FAN THE FLIES AWAY!
THE GREATEST GIANT IN MYTHOLOGY WAS ATLAS. WHEN THE TITANS LOST THE BATTLE WITH GOD ZEUS, ATLAS’S PUNISHMENT WAS TO CARRY THE EARTH ON HIS SHOULDERS FOR EVER.
WAS THERE ONCE A RACE OF OUTSIZE BEINGS? SCIENTISTS HAVE FOUND ENORMOUS SKULLS AND JAW BONES FROM HALF A MILLION YEARS AGO – TO WHOM DID THEY BELONG? SOME BRAWNY, BESTIAL BEINGS FROM WILD TRIBES? THE GIANTS’ CAUSEWAY IN NORTHERN IRELAND IS MORE THAN FOUR KILOMETRES LONG AND MADE OF THOUSANDS OF BASALT COLUMNS – REPUTEDLY BUILT FOR IRISH GIANTS TO CROSS TO SCOTLAND.
ANOTHER LEGENDARY FIGURE WAS THE GIANTESS BEFRI, FROM FRANCE. SHE MADE OFF WITH GIRLS WHO DID NOT WANT TO SPIN THREAD INTO CLOTH , AND THERE WAS GRENDEL’S MOTHER IN THE POEM BEOWULF WHO COULD EAT 15 SLEEPING WARRIORS IN ONE SITTING.
BUT NOT ALL GIANTS WERE MALEVOLENT. PAUL BUNYAN WAS TALLER THAN THE TREES HE LIVED AMONG IN NORTH AMERICA. WHEN HIS FOOTSTEPS FILLED WITH WATER THEY TURNED INTO THE TEN THOUSAND MINNESOTA LAKES!
TURBULENT TRAVELS THROUGH TIME
In my story CLUMSILLA’S FLIGHT THROUGH TIME, this schoolgirl does not have the luxury of travelling by magic carpet, but makes do with the worn and constantly complaining family hearthrug. But this prompted me to find out more about legendary magic carpets.
I discovered that Solomon was said to have had a carpet of green silk with a golden weft that was six miles long and 60 miles wide! When he sat on it, it was caught up by the wind and sailed so fast through the air he could breakfast in Damascus and have supper in Media. A canopy of birds shielded the carpet from the sun and when Solomon was in murdering mode, a simple shake of the carpet could send 40,000 victims to their deaths!
And in Russian folklore, Baba Yaga supplied Ivan the Fool, who was always getting lost, with a flying carpet and ball that rolled in front to show him the way, as well as a towel that could be turned into a bridge to help him cross his vast lands. Let me know if you have come across other outlandish tales of flying carpets.
WINNERS AND LOSERS
When writing GODS AND GREEN FINGERS I thought of the numerous plants that will soon have vanished without trace. As trees are chopped down and the planet warms,habitats are destroyed and plants that have not yet even been explored for medical potential, may be extinct. And there are many trees too, destined to disappear. The baobob, for instance, growing in equatorial Africa and India, is an extraordinary example. It is leafless for nine months of the year, storing water in its great trunk, while people may live in its base. And it bears edible monkeyfruit. But how much longer will it survive?
We have used plants and trees for countless purposes, from making dyes, rope and paper to building houses, not to mention helping to cure disease, yet the imminent demise of so many, seems now an accepted aspect of climate change, which in turn, is being seen as inevitable. Now the discussion is not “how can we stop it?” but “how can we adjust to the inevitable?”
One victim is the lovely passion flower passiflora kwangtungensis which grew in China and is now seldom seen. But at least in China ten new species of nettle have been found, which suggests as one species dies, another, perhaps adapting to change, may appear. But when people see pictures in future of bizarre plants that succumbed, they may be incredulous. Because also threatened are such carnivorous plants as the Venus Fly Trap, trapping insects in its sensitively hinged leaves and the Green Pitcher Plant of the southern USA with fleshy blooms as big as armchairs!
Scientists at Kew Gardens in England are doing much to preserve plants and to discover aspects of them that might benefit humanity. But such efforts are feeble in the light of the thoughtless destruction we are wreaking.
My story “The Wicker Man” in my just published book “A Walk on the Weird Side” recalls a time of barbaric belief and pernicious practice. Historically, it was the Druids (Celtic pagan priests) who sacrificed humans within a specially built man of sticks. It was usually criminals who were burned to death, but if they were in short supply, almost anyone would do! Julius Caesar was the first to notice this horrible habit among the Gauls, burning victims as a tribute to the gods and today Neopagans perpetuate the practice. In Denmark on St John’s Eve, a female effigy is burnt within a wooden frame woven with flexible sticks such as willow. Some of these structures are very complex. Burning an effigy of Judas at Easter is a related tradition, still carried out in places by the Orthodox and Catholic communities. I believe it still happens here in Crete. Traditionally Judas is hanged on Good Friday and burnt on the night of Easter Sunday. It still happened in Liverpool in England at the start of the 20th century. Then it was banned. So why has not the burning of Guy Fawkes, one of the conspirators who tried to burn down the Houses of Parliament,not been banned on November 5? I remember as a child making a Guy from sacks, newspaper and a realistic mask and sitting him on the kitchen stool where he became part of the family, then taking him outside and throwing him on the bonfire where he suffered a slow, and for a child,traumatic demise!
CRUEL CODES OF CALAMITY
In my collection HEIDI’S HOUSE and OTHER RHYMES, there are no sinister implications, but the apparently harmless nursery rhymes of our youth often conceal real events of disaster and distress.
It is believed, for instance, that Jack and Jill who fell down the hill, referred to King Louis of France and his wife Marie Antoinette, who were beheaded in the French Revolution (1789).
And “Mary, Mary, quite contrary” was a comment on Mary I (c. 1553-1558), the fanatical Catholic who, denying public opinion, put countless Protestants to death.
The rhyme continues,
“How does your garden grow?
With silver bells and cockle shells
and pretty maids all in a row.”
Her garden was the graveyard. The bells and shells were names for instruments of torture an the little maids, her victims.
“Ring-a ring-o roses” was a reference to the plague or Black Death that swept through Europe.
The rhyme goes on:
“a pocketful of posies ( the herbs carried in the hope of preventing infection)
“atishoo – atishoo, we all fall down” ( the triumph of infection and death.)
Some rhymes were less sinister. Humpty Dumpty did not refer to a lovable egg, but was the name of a cannon used to keep the town of Colchester under control during the English Civil War. The cannon was kept in a tower that was destroyed by cannon balls and Humpty Dumpty fell into marshland below.
Let me know of other colourful interpretations of rhymes you may have heard!
TO MINGLE OR MAKE A DIFFERENCE?
Although it is a children’s story, THE TRIAL OF GREEN TOBY, prompts thoughts about conventional compromise versus outspoken individualism. Toby might have mingled but he was also declared to be different. And he believed he was. There have been those who idealised the mass society, where a small number of interconnected elites control the many through persuasion, manipulation and a mass bureaucracy over which people have little control. But as Albert Einstein said, ” In order to be an immaculate member of a flock of sheep, one must above all, be a sheep oneself.”
Oscar Wilde, on the other hand, took the individualist’s stance, with a degree of tolerance, when he said, ” A red rose is not selfish because it wants to be a red rose. It would be horribly selfish if it wanted all the other flowers in the garden to be both red and roses.”
Individualism developed differently in different countries. In Germany there was a cult of the individual which later became an organic theory of national community. In England it took the form of religious non conformity and economic liberalism. William Godwin, born in 1756, was a philosopher and journalist who advanced atheism, anarchism and personal freedom, believing that “reason determines the right choice”. He believed in small self subsisting communities in place of government, eradicating corruption, tyranny and manipulation, while in America, the universal and idealist became harsher when infused with the idea of “the survival of the fittest.”
What are your ideas on the subject?
My two game old girls in GRANNY PEGG’S GREAT CHASE and GRANNY GRINALOT’S DAY IN THE DESERT may be only fiction. But truth is often stranger – or at least as surprising – as fiction. And old age is no longer a deterrent to living dangerously!
I read about a 90 year old retired builder who wing-walked – balancing on the wing of a biplane at 160 miles an hour, across the English Channel and back. And there was 80 year old Miss Beauchemin who took up paragliding, then started skiing again!
And grannies are eagerly booking adventure holidays – some no doubt featuring a camel ride – as in GRANNY GRINALOT’S DAY IN THE DESERT.
Even a conservative cruise may acquire an element of daring. A game old lady might, for instance, peer through a porthole for sharks, rush up to warn fellow passengers,omitting to say if the shark was in the sea or the swimming pool and defy death on deck, by dodging deckchairs!
And look at those famous women who adventured well into old age. Of course dementia might intervene: Helen Stanhope who died in 1839, was a hardened traveller. But in the ruins of Palmyra she thought she had been crowned queen of the desert and for the rest of her days was bricked up in a palace in the Lebanese mountains.
But mountaineer Annie Smith Peck (1850 – 1935) kept climbing into old age – in 1909 she planted a flag declaring VOTES FOR WOMEN on the top of Mount Coropuna in Peru.
Freya Stark (1893 – 1993) was perhaps the most intrepid of all – writing 30 books about her travels and almost to the end travelling, often by donkey and blatantly taking over friends’ homes en route. These exploits of old ladies suggest another book altogether…..
BIG BUGS AND FRANTIC FISH
Transformation is only part of my children’s story THE STARFLASH OPAL. But it is a major player in mythology and imaginative fiction. In my book mortals briefly become mere beetles but in Franz Kafka’s story “Metamorphosis”, Gregor Samsa wakes one morning to find he has turned into “a gigantic insect.” He is lying on an armour-plated back and when he lifts his head, he sees a brown belly like a dome divided into segments, while his numerous skinny legs wave helplessly. His ensuing fate is one of literature’s most moving and scary.
Even transformations in ancient tales, now known to be mere figments of men’s minds, pack an improbable punch. Ovid summarises this endless shape shifting in his book “Metamorphoses”. Dionysos, the god of wine, is prominent in one incident. He boards a ship bound for Delos, in the guise of a boy “as pretty as a girl” and retaliates when he realises the sailors have rebelled and are not going where he wants. He ensures the ship abruptly halts, immobilised by ivy twining thickly round the oars and sails. He conjures bunches of grapes on his head and flourishes a wand draped with vine leaves. Around him lie the ghosts of wild animals.
Terrified, the sailors leap overboard. One darkens as his spine arches. Another feels his mouth widen, his nostrils become hooked and his skin harden into scales. One oarsman sees his hands shrink into fins, another finds his arms have vanished entirely and springs backwards into the waves. The end of his tail is sickle-shaped like the horns of a half moon and so it goes on….an outrageous warning to those who would deceive and manipulate for their own ends….
After writing the poem “Minotaur” for “IN THE EYE OF THE STORM” I thought about the symbolism of the mysterious labyrinth at Knossos in Crete. It was not the only ancient labyrinth, but certainly the best known, where the Minotaur, hybrid son of Queen Pasiphae and a bull, was imprisoned. I visited the most secret and atmospheric part of the palace of Knossos, before it was closed to the public and where one could readily imagine this unwieldy creature plunging in despair. King Minos was said to have fed him young men and women brought as tribute and retribution for a wrongdoing, from Athens. But one day Theseus, heir to the kingdom, came with them and with the help of Ariadne, Minos’s daughter, he slew the Minotaur, found his way out of the labyrinth by string unwound from a ball given him by Ariadne, and carried her off.
But was the labyrinth only a prison? Speculation is rife. It was no doubt named after the “labrys” – the sacred double axe.But did initiates dance or walk through it to enlightenment in its sacred centre? Did it symbolise death and rebirth? Was the Moon Goddess waiting at its core?
Some psychologists like to think it symbolised the baffling materialistic path man must take to achieve some goal, while Ariadne’s string is his connection with his spiritual nature . But did the slaying of the Minotaur simply symbolise the conquest of the Minoans by invaders from the north. Do you have an interpretation of the legend and the labyrinth? Please leave a comment.
When writing “Moonblind” for Book Two of “Time Trance of the Gods” I had recurring thoughts about the influence of the Moon. Now to most of us it is just another dead planet, but to ancient man, it represented the matriarchy and the elevated place of women. The Minoans, for instance, in Crete, were one of the earliest societies worshipping the “triple goddess” who was creator and destroyer and appeared, in her youth, middle and old age. In a Gallo-Roman burial in France a megalithic pillar was found with two pairs of girls’ breasts. On another megalith, two pairs of mature breasts appeared and a third was broken but may have borne the breasts of an old woman.
The Moon Mother was worshipped as a pillar or cone and she ranged from Astarte for the Canaanites to Ishtar among the Babylonians. The sign of the three fold goddess of the Arabian Magna Dea was inscribed on the Kaaba, the sacred black stone at Mecca – which may not be known by many adorants as the stone is draped in a cloth. Aspects of the natural world also had religious attributes – the soma tree in India, for instance, was sacred to the moon; it was thought that when the dark fruit was eaten, one entered a higher consciousness, resembling that of the early worshippers of the great goddess.
RAPACIOUS ROOTS AND GIANT TURNIPS
“The Bell Flowers of Lymphos” was one of the first stories I wrote for “The Soul Shadow and Other Tales of Tomorrow”. Not long after, I read Anthony Huxley’s wonderful book “Plant and Planet” and realised that eccentric and rapacious root systems are not only the stuff of fantasy, but exist beneath our feet. Roots combine feeding with anchorage. Some grow like flying buttresses – starting high up and descending obliquely to the ground, snaking for many metres along the soil surface before sending up vertical roots to penetrate the earth. In trees like the banyan, fine vertical roots grow to eventually touch the earth. They thicken like pillars and the tree can spread outwards to cover several acres. Banyans are sacred in India; Buddha is said to have meditated under one. There is one banyan in Sri Lanka shading a whole village, with 350 large pillars and around 3,000 more slender aerial roots.
Roots of separate trees may join underground, so a silent means of communication is not far fetched. And, like my fictitious bell flowers, outlandish plants are plentiful on our planet. However, the “welwitschia” has to be one of the most audacious. It has been called a giant turnip or the octopus of the desert. It grows on a narrow strip of desert near the sea in south west Africa and is watered by sea mists and occasional dew. The tap root is around two metres long and there is a mass of lateral roots. Some of these plants are thought to be 2,000 years old. They have only two leaves at the crown which expand as the centuries pass. On one plant they were two metres wide and more than eight metres long. They fray in the wind and scorch on the sand, to be split into ribbons.
One could readily imagine these plants, like John Wyndham’s terrifying Triffids, or my tenacious bell flowers, maliciously colonising the planet. The welwitschia is no doubt limited by its habitat, but as the Earth warms and more of it turns to desert, who knows what may make a bid for dominance?
GAIA AND THE HINDERING HORDES
After writing “Gift of Green Fire and Other Strange Encounters”, I became intrigued by the behaviour of our planet. We know we are abusing its delicate balance daily and that those capable of controlling the damage, do little or nothing. But Earth has suffered many catastrophes in the past – not man-made, but nonetheless formidable. Yet it has adapted and survived. This in no way condones man’s misuse of the planet and humanity will probably be the next species to vanish.
But on reading about James Lovelock’s “Gaia theory”, I was cheered to think that perhaps the planet, at least, will pull through.
The late astronomer Carl Sagan inspired my story “Gift of Green Fire” and he and Lynn Margulis, who explored microorganisms, asserted that life on the surface of Earth appears to regulate itself, in spite of external upheaval and it does this without regard to the species it supports. Nearly all previous species have at some time been virtually wiped out, but the planet, with its countless cells has survived for more than three billion years. Margulis travelled the world exploring microbial communities and their interdependent lives. It seems organisms adapt to their surroundings – and see that surroundings adapt to them and their co-operation is as vital as the survival of the fittest.
Lovelock was a scientist and inventor who studied chemistry at the University of Manchester but could only afford to attend two years out of three. He gained a PhD in medicine at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and developed his Gaia theory while working with NASA as scientists searched for life on Mars. He invented the electron capture detector and helped in the discovery of CFCs (chlorofluorocarbons) and their role in ozone depletion. He explored the atmosphere, discovering how unstable our planet is – a volatile mix of oxidising gases such as oxygen and carbon dioxide and “reducing” gases like hydrogen, methane and ammonia. He compared his Gaia theory to a tree; the redwood for instance is 97% dead, only its needles and a layer of cells under the bark are alive. They are like the thin layer of life covering Earth.The bark is the protective shell and transfer medium, like Earth’s atmosphere, while countless atoms lie deep in Earth’s magma. They were once part of our ancestral life from which we all come.But he predicted that 80% of humans would have vanished by the year 2,100 and that climate change would last for 100,000 years.
Gaia, after whom the theory was named by writer William Golding, was the ancient Greek Earth goddess. Among her off-spring were the Cyclops and the Titans. One of them was Rhea, who with her consort Cronus, a son of Gaia, bore beings including Zeus. Cronus, fearful of being usurped by his children, ate them, but Rhea gave him a stone in swaddling clothes in place of Zeus and saved the life of the future god who was reared in a Cretan cave. So it is appropriate that I live in Crete, a comparatively unspoilt island, devoid of heavy industry, which is good for the atmosphere, if not for the economy. Here, we are daily reminded of nature’s assertion and indifference to man; in winter we are wracked by dramatic storms that must have terrified the ancients (no wonder they had so many gods), winds that sweep through the island like fiends and earthquakes because we are on the sliding tectonic plates of Africa and Europe.
Crete has blatant mood swings – from months of searing summer heat, to weeks of rain that occasionally falls as a “deluge”, with water deep enough to float an ark! The island is truly alive – it is rising in the west and like a ship, with prow facing south, is slowly heading towards Africa! So here there is no doubt who is in control! But this does not mean we should abandon the struggle to preserve our fragile ecosystem.
If you have read the Gaia theory or have thoughts about its implications, or if you think man is in total control of the planet, do send me your comments. And if you are the author of books touching on this subject or a writer of any form of fantasy, I invite you to write a post for this blog.
In TIME TRANCE OF THE GODS I have placed many tales on Greek islands I have explored. Local mythology and the distinctly different atmosphere of each island, prompted vivid imagery which unfolded into fantasy of its own accord.
What, I wonder, will future generations turn into myth, as they consider our present time? Assuming world religions have dwindled to rare pockets of blinkered assumption, how will their former influence be interpreted?
As in the time of the ancient Greeks, the deities will no doubt be seen as the alleviation of man’s need to explain the terrifying extent and turmoil of the cosmos, which is no doubt why his gods had many of the bad habits and instincts of the men who invented them. Few could face this whirling mass of matter without the consolation of a god with whom they felt at home, as well as being the creator of strict survival codes.
Robert Graves has intriguingly interpreted many of the Greek myths in social, political and religious terms. What are your thoughts on the interaction of gods and men?