National Book Lovers’ Day!

 

Are you a reader? Are you an obsessive reader?  Do you become enmeshed in the other worlds of fantasy, futuristic sci-fi or dystopian societies? Do you like heady romances, frightening horror, or historical recreations? Perhaps you like thought provoking non-fiction, or the vicarious thrill of a good biography.  If so, you are in luck. Today, August 9th, is National Book Lovers Day!

While the nay-sayers keep trying to convince us that the art of reading is dead, book publishing and its various forms continue to thrive. And why wouldn’t it? Ever since the dawn of time, humankind has loved story.

The Need to Read 

Storytelling has always been a part of human culture. Some scientists believe as far as 60,000 years ago our ancestors, the Neanderthals, were making their own crude attempts at it.

Cave painting was perhaps the first form of story telling. It can be dated back to around 40, 000 years ago.  The oldest known cave painting is that of a bull in  Lubang Jeriji Saléh cave, East Kalimantan, Borneo, Indonesia. Was there a tale that went along with the bull? Most likely.  “Once upon a time, Jack took his cow to the market in search of some magic beans…”

For thousands of years, oral tradition has existed among the ancients. Eventually they developed the tools to keep the stories in print.  In around 3000 BC, the people of  Mesopotamia developed round cylinder seals for rolling images onto clay tablets.  Societies in China and Egypt also created small stamps that were used to print on cloth. In around  the second century A.D., a Chinese man named Ts’ai Lun is credited for first inventing paper.

The oldest European book in existence was taken from the grave of Saint Cuthbert in the year 1104. The book contains the Gospel of John in Latin. It is believed that the book was buried with Cuthbert in around the seventh century. This leather bound gem is in excellent shape, considering its age!

Throughout the twelfth, thirteenth and fourteenth century, woodcuts were used for printing in Europe and Asia. Reproduction was a tedious and laborious task taken on by scribes. But in 1440, a miracle happened. A man named Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press. The printing press was the first device which used movable type to produce books. It revolutionized publishing.

The press was vastly modernized over the next few hundred years, creating news print, typewriters and eventually the keyboards we have today. Nonetheless, if you are a book lover, you have Gutenberg to thank for the printed word as we know it.

Great Books

Reading frees the mind,  reels the senses and opens doors to the imagination.  What is your favorite book? Perhaps you have several. Here’s my short list, in no particular order:

** Dracula by Bram Stoker. Oh you have never known horror and apprehension until you have read it! Enter the dark abyss of Castle Dracul where the infamous Count lives among his howling wolves and coffins.

** The Witching Hour by Anne Rice. Travel down to New Orleans and become acquainted with the creepy Mayfair sisters. Dark and diabolical things have long occurred in their mansion home, not the least of which are murder and ghost sightings.

** The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Enter the ritzy world of Daisy and Tom Buchanan in 1920’s New York. Daisy keeps a passionate secret regarding neighbor Jay Gatsby, with whom she once had a doomed love affair. Can she rekindle it, now that Jay has amassed a fortune and is on a level playing field with the Buchanans?

** On The Road by Jack Kerouac. Hit the highway with Sal Paradise as he travels the road of America in tears, all the way to Frisco to hang out with some hip cats, perhaps better known as Neal Cassady and Allen Ginsberg.

** Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte. The moors are alive with haunting and torment, as Heathcliff, who was once a nice little orphan, turns into an abusive tyrant who can never reconcile his lost love.

** Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier.  On the cliffs of Cornwall, the newly married narrator is inundated with memories of her  husband’s first wife Rebecca, who died in a mysterious boating accident. Or did she? The creepy housekeeper will do her best to drive our heroine insane.

** Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll.  It’s not just for children! Travel down the rabbit hole with Alice, a girl to be reckoned with.  She comes of age, questions authority and learns to stand up for herself. Among the mad tea parties, faux beheadings and painted roses there lurks political satire, as well as cutting commentary about human nature.

My list could go on and on. What about you? Let me know your favorites in the comments! And whatever you do, take some time out today to enjoy a book 🙂

 

 

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The First Harvest: Lughnasadh or Lammas?

 

Happy August! As the golden sun winds down and the days ever so slightly grow shorter, we find ourselves in the midst of the first harvest feast also known as Lughnasadh or Lammas. This is a cross quarter festival which falls midpoint between the Summer Solstice and the Autumn Equinox in the northern hemisphere.

Some folks call this holiday “Lughnasadh.” Most folks call it “Lammas.” That is probably because Lughnasadh is a mouthful to pronounce. Plus it has a weird spelling. Most people are intimidated by the very sight of the word. Some folks might remember the old movie with Meryl Streep called “Dancing at Lughnasa” and they try to pronounce it.

Be not afraid.

Lughnasadh (also spelled Lughnasa) is pronounced LOO – NAH -SAH. Lammas is pronounced LAH-MIS. The two festivals are similar, and although they are celebrated on the same day, they are not exactly the same.

Lughnasadh & The Sun King

Lughnasadh dates back to prehistoric times. The name “Lughnasadh” is derived from the Celtic sun god Lugh. (Pronounced LOO, or LUKGH rolling the G in the back of your throat.)  The name Lugh literally means “The Shining One”. As the sun god, Lugh’s special mission was to make sure the sun stayed under control and did not burn us up. Hence, this time of year, with the sun’s first fading, is associated with him.

But Lugh was more than a mere sun god.  He was also the patron of all craftspeople, including metalworkers, musicians, magicians, healers, and warriors.

As a Jack of All Trades, Lugh covered a lot of territory and was an extremely popular god. He was the elected King of the Tuatha Dé Danann, the tribe of Fair Folk.  Lugh was a master builder, harpist, poet, warrior, sorcerer, metalworker, and physician. He was also extremely beautiful and eternally youthful.  It’s easy to see why he was worshiped and loved throughout the Celtic world.

Lugh has an interesting history which is necessary to tell in order to fully understand how Lughnasadh came to be.

Forbidden Birth, Unlikely Death

Although Lugh was obviously a golden child, the circumstances of his birth were weird. His father was Cian of the Tuatha Dé Danann, and his mother was Ethlin, daughter of Balor, of the Fomorians. It should have been a great match, uniting the two tribes. However, there was one severe problem; Ethlin was forbidden, by her father Balor, to ever  have children. This was because Balor had once been given a prophecy from a sorcerer that his own grandson would kill him.

Balor’s solution? Simply lock his daughter in a tower and keep her away from all men.

Needless to say, it did not work. Ethlin had already fallen in love with the powerful and dashing Cian. He, using obvious Rapunzel style tactics, found ways to get into that tower.

When Ethlin became pregnant, the Tuatha Dé Danann knew there would be trouble. Balor would seek to kill the baby.  And so, Cian and Ethlin were whisked away to a nearby island. When Lugh was born, he was given to the harvest goddess Tailtiu (pronounced TAL-TU.)  It was she who raised the baby Lugh, and turned him into the fine young man he became.

Alas, poor Tailtiu! She had a lot of work to do. As grain goddess, she had to clear all the fields of Ireland for planting, then reap the harvest. As she grew older the burden became too much. One morning on the first of August, the poor goddess collapsed from exhaustion and died.

Lugh wanted to honor his foster mother. She had requested that only celebrations, with happiness and no grieving, should commemorate her death. And so Lugh held a great harvest feast. There were games, drinking and merry-making. (Arguably this could have been the first Irish wake. These wakes were known to last days on end, mired in celebration.)

Perhaps this festival should have been called “Tailtiuanasadh.” (That would have been an ever bigger tongue twister!) But instead it was named after Lugh, the beloved god who threw the party. It is always associated with the harvest, as Tailtiu was a grain goddess and Lugh was the god of the waning sun.

Lammas — All About the Bread

Some time in the 4th century AD, the Emperor Constantine advanced Christianity in Roman dominated Europe and the British Isles. A lot of Pagan practices, as followed by the Celts and other tribes, were outlawed. The festival of Lughnasadh was probably forbidden, or at least it went underground. However, the first harvest morphed into a new holiday called Lammas.

The word Lammas literally means “loaf mass”. This made sense because, as wheat was harvested in late July and early August, a lot of bread baking took place.  Lammas-tide was not just a one day festival, but was considered more of a baking season. It began on August 1st and lasted for a few weeks.

What’s In a Name? 

Lammas also has an interesting history and entomology. In medieval times the feast was sometimes known in England and Scotland as the “Gule of August”.  The true meaning of “gule” is unknown, but in Welsh there is a term Gŵyl Awst which means “feast of August”. Gule may have just been an alternate spelling. The word gule is also associated with “gullet”. This also makes sense, as all that bread goes into the gullet!

In the medieval agricultural year, Lammas also marked the end of the hay harvest that had begun after the Midsummer Solstice.  At the end of hay-making the tradition was to release one sheep into the meadow. (A rarity because this was not lambing season.)  Anyone who could catch the sheep could keep it. This leads to the suggestion that “Lammas” could also have been derived from “lamb mass”, an additional celebration at the harvest.

Shakespeare famously mentioned Lammas, as Juliet’s birthday in Romeo and Juliet.

“Even or odd, of all days in the year,
Come Lammas-eve at night shall she be fourteen.”

Thus, the festival of Lammas was well known and would have been easily recognizable to Elizabethan audiences.

Regardless of how the words and legends came to be and to be remembered, one thing is certain: Lugnasadh/ Lammas is a great time of year to celebrate!

In Modern Times

We may not all be farmers, and we do not live as close to the land as our ancestors did, but there are still many ways to honor the harvest.  Even the modern day city dweller can hit the local farmers market for some corn on the cob, or the local bakery for a fresh loaf of bread. (Or if you are skilled in the kitchen, bake your own!)

Have some fun today, and also over the next few weeks as “tide” sets in. Thank the earth for her abundance. Thank the overlooked goddess Tailtiu for her hard work and sacrifice. Create an altar dedicated to Lugh, Tailtiu, or Mother Earth.  Offerings could include corn, tomatoes and berries. Candles could be yellow and orange, the colors of the sun. Carnelian, amber, citrine and other yellow crystals are great decorations. Sunflowers are always perfect, as are marigolds and daisies.

Whatever you do to celebrate, have a safe, happy and healthy Lunasadh/ Lammas-tide! Blessed be.

 

 

Mermaid Mentors

 

“I must be a mermaid… I have no fear of depths and a great fear of shallow living.”
― Anais Nin

“The mermaid is an archetypal image that represents a woman who is at ease in the great waters of life.” — Anita Johnson

“Mermaids don’t drown.” ― Suzanne Palmieri

The mermaid represents a woman’s physical and emotional depths. The Siren’s song, in mythology, was typically a thing to be feared, for sailors who followed it often ended up in a shipwreck. And yet, without these mesmerizing mythical creatures, our seas would be sadly lacking.

Mermaids not only weather the storm, they welcome it. Mermaids live in duality, embodying humanness along with a wild, animalistic and instinctual side. They are as changeable as the water itself, and yet they are ancient, a thing of complete and utter permanence.

How long have mermaids been around? Forever! Which is one reason why we should heed the wisdom of these divas from the deep.

The archetype of the mermaid has appeared in the folklore of every culture and people. They have popped up in the South Seas, the Greek Islands, the tundras of Siberia, the coasts of Africa and sun worshipping Scandinavia.

In Brazil, tribute is paid to the water goddess Yemoja. From Syrian legend came the Dea Syria, mother of all mermaids.  Slavic cultures have tales of the Rusalka, water nymphs that can both harm and help humankind. Lithuanian folklore tells of  Jurate, who lived in an amber palace beneath the Baltic Sea.

The far east also has no lack of mermaids. Korean mythology tells of Princess Hwang-Ok from an undersea kingdom of mermaids known as Naranda. There is also the tale of Kim Dam Ryeong, the Korean mayor of a seaside town, who once saved four hundred mermaids from being captured by fishermen. Chinese literature dating as far back as 4 B.C. speaks of mermaids who “wept tears that turned into pearls.”

Folklore from the British Isles is peppered with tales of mermaids. The Norman chapel of  Durham Castle, built by Saxons, contains an artistic depiction of a mermaid that dates back to 1078. (One must wonder why busy Saxon masons would bother to etch a mermaid into the wall. They had cathedrals to build!)

In Cornwall, there is a legend of a mermaid who came to the village of Zenmor.  There, she listened to the singing of a chorister named Matthew Trewhella. The two fell in love, and Matthew went with the mermaid to her home at Pendour Cove. Needless to say, he was never seen again.  On summer nights, it is said the lovers can be heard singing together.

In 1493, Christopher Columbus reported seeing three mermaids near the Dominican Republic.  Henry Hudson (of Hudson River fame)  recorded in his captain’s log in 1608  that his crewmen had spotted  a mermaid in the river. The sailors claimed that from the navel up “her back and breasts were like a woman’s” but when she dove under the water “they saw her tail, which was like the tail of a porpoise.”

In 1614, Captain John Smith (of Jamestown Colony and Pocahontas  fame) recorded a mermaid sighting in his captain’s log. While sailing near the coast of Newfoundland, Smith wrote that he saw a woman “swimming with all possible grace.” He stated: “Her long green hair imparted to her an original character that was by no means unattractive.” (Green hair!)  He also claimed “from below the stomach the woman gave way to the fish.”

Are mermaids real? Would these prominent men lie, and risk looking ridiculous in their logs?

A more recent mermaid sighting occurred in 2009.  In the seaside town of Kiryat Yam, Israel, dozens of other people reported seeing the same astonishing sight: a mermaid frolicking in the waves near the shore.

A mermaid’s endeavors are not to be taken on by the shallow of heart. She moves in synchronicity with the ocean’s tides, rides the waves, rules the waters.   The mermaid is passionate and generous, sometimes even granting wishes.  Just don’t cross her; she can be deadly.

I hope summer finds you near an ocean, lake, pond or pool. (And if you happen to see one of these watery women, approach with caution.)

These beautiful portraits were done by contemporary Russian artist Victor Nizovtsev. Have a lovely, magical and mer-aculous day!

 

 

Happy Fourth of July!

 

“In a chariot of light,

from the region of the day,

the Goddess of Liberty came.

She brought in her hand,

as a gift of her love,

the plant she named Liberty Tree.”

— Thomas Paine, American patriot and Founding Father of the United States

“Give me liberty,

or give me death.” — Thomas Paine

Have a  safe, happy, healthy and blessed Fourth of July! 🙂

 

Remembering Franco Zeffirelli

 

I was saddened yesterday to hear about the death of one of my favorite film directors, Franco Zeffirelli. He was ninety six.

I owe a lot to this man. If you are a regular reader of this blog, you probably know about my Shakespeare obsession. However, I probably would never have had that obsession if it had not been for Zeffirelli, who really made Shakespeare accessible to American audiences through his awesome films.

Zeffirelli was the director The Taming of the Shrew, Romeo and Juliet, Othello and Hamlet. He also directed Brother Sun, Sister Moon (about the life of Saint Francis of Assisi), Jesus of Nazareth, Tea With Mussolini, Jane Eyre, Callas Forever, and several operas, including La Boheme and La Traviata with Placido Domingo.

Of course, in my opinion, his biggest masterpiece was his 1968 version of Romeo and Juliet. Zeffirelli’s genius in this film was that he decided to use teenage actors Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey to play the roles of actual teenage characters Romeo and Juliet. Zeffirelli’s production was the first ever to use teenagers in the roles, as Shakespeare had intended.

The movie was a massive hit. The iconic film critic Roger Ebert called the movie “the most exciting film of Shakespeare ever made.” (That was a pretty great compliment, because if you remember Roger Ebert, he was sort of a discriminating snob! But he knew his movies.)

I have always loved Romeo and Juliet,  it is my all time favorite film. Luckily, Zeffirelli lived long enough to be part of its 50 year anniversary last year, in 2018.  I wrote a tribute to the movie, which can be read HERE.

Gian Franco Corsi Zeffirelli was born on February 12, 1923 in Florence, Tuscany. He was an illegitimate child, the product of an affair between fashion designer Florentine Garosi, and Ottorino Corsi, a wool dealer. Interestingly, the name “Zeffirelli” was totally made up by his mother. It was taken from Mozart’s opera Idomenco, which Florentine was fond of. The actual word was “Zeffiretto” which apparently means “zephyr” or “gentle breeze” in English. However, the name was misspelled on Franco’s birth certificate, and was ever after recorded as “Zeffirelli”.

It was a strange beginning for a man who would become such an important figure in the art world. However, there is a bit of poetic justice, as Zeffirelli’s name was taken from an opera, and he became a director of operas.

As far as being a “gentle breeze” I would say Zeffirelli was not only a breath of fresh air in the film world, but a force to be reckoned with.

FUN FACTS

  • Zeffirelli’s father was a wool dealer. Shakespeare’s father was also a wool dealer (an illegal one! John Shakespeare got in a lot of trouble and went bankrupt in later years for his criminal activity.) However, it is ironic that the man who would help immortalize Shakespeare had this unique connection.
  • Shakespeare was an Englishman who spent his entire life being obsessed with Italy. Zeffirelli was an Italian who spent his entire life being obsessed with England. That is why they fit together so well 🙂

  • When young Franco was six years old, his mother died. As an orphan, he went to live with is Aunt Line. Through his aunt, he met and was largely cared for by a group of upper-class, rather eccentric English women, expatriates living in Italy. These women were known as the “Scorpioni” — so named for their stinging, scorpion-like outspokenness.
  • Young Franco was given English lessons and came to love English culture.
  • The Scorpioni were arrested during WWII under the dictatorship of Benito Mussolini.
  • Zeffirelli wrote and directed the 1999 movie Tea With Mussolini (starring Cher, Judi Dench and Maggie Smith) which was based on his own experiences with the Scorpioni.

  • Zeffirelli’s Taming of the Shrew (1967) starred Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. Burton and Taylor wanted to be in the film so badly, they paid for part of the production and gave up their own salaries. (Both were mega-stars at the time. They could well afford it!)

  • Although Zeffirelli considered himself a conservative Roman Catholic, he received criticism from religious groups for his so-called “blasphemous” portrayals of biblical figures in Brother Sun, Sister Moon and Jesus of Nazareth.

  • Zeffirelli served in the British Army during WWII.
  • In 2004, he was given an honorary knighthood by Queen Elizabeth II.

Franco Zeffirelli, thank you for making me love Shakespeare.

Rest in Peace, sweet knight!

 

 

 

We Dare To Dance

 

Upon Walpurgis Night we dare to dance

the potent potions serving third eye sight

Black earth beneath bare feet, the ghost’s advance,

as bonfires glitter golden cleansing light.

 

Ancestors seen (and unseen) in a glance,

they knock the wood of oak and broomstick flight

where bluebells sprout like fingers, risking chance

of transport into faerie’s eerie plight.

 

The velvet dark, the Pan of necromance,

to shed mundane illusion and all fright.

Hooves hard, the thud and crash of gritty prance,

deep teeth enmeshing blood’s forbidden bite

 

Here lies the edge and nether world’s expanse

Upon Walpurgis Night we dare to dance.

Walpurgisnacht,  the Witches’ Night, is upon us! The veils are thin on this May Eve. Use your power, spells and concoctions to make your deepest dreams come true. Blessed Be.

“WalpurgisNight when the devil was abroad— when graves opened and the dead came forth and walked. When all evil things of earth and air and water held revel.” — from Dracula’s Guest by Bram Stoker.

 

 

 

Anne Sexton’s Ominous Fairy Tales: Part One, Snow White

 

“The speaker in this case
is a middle-aged witch, me-
tangled on my two great arms,
my face in a book
and my mouth wide,
ready to tell you a story or two.
I have come to remind you,
all of you:

Do you remember when you
were read to as a child?”

So begins Anne Sexton’s book Transformations,  a dark and prophetic retelling of fairy tales. True to the Brothers Grimm, she did not balk at gory details, but rather added her own peculiar and twisted endings where the characters live not so happily ever after. Anne Sexton took on many topics with her unique brand of “Confessional” poetry, but her fairy tale interpretations are perhaps the most interesting.

Into the Forest Dark

Most fairy tales, before they were Disney-fied, were pretty terrifying. Don’t forget their origins. They were told by Medieval grandmothers in thatched cottages who had a vested interest in notifying the children of all the evil and malicious things that lurked before them. Death, plagues and hunger were rampant, not to mention wild animals, thieves and kidnappers.  Children had good reasons to be scared. It was a dangerous business, going outside your door. Fairy tales could act as a sort of guide to warn them and toughen them to the fact that life would not be easy.

Anne Sexton’s life was not easy either, fraught with mental illness, an abusive childhood and finally ending in suicide at age forty-six.

Fellow poet and editor Maxine Kumin has said that Anne Sexton read and referenced fairy tales like most writers read the Bible or Greek myths. She was always attracted to the work of Andersen, Perrault and the Brothers Grimm. She herself had been read to as a child by her beloved grandmother.

In Transformations, Sexton takes these tales and revises them for the 20th century, warning the reader of modern day evils.  The princesses and heroines, rather than living happily ever after, end up in the quagmire of trappings that include jealousy, egotism, mediocrity, old age, and just plain bad marriages.

I’ll be looking at several of these poems over the next few days. Stay tuned as I explore Cinderella, Red Riding Hood, The Twelve Dancing Princesses, and more. But first up — that innocent ingenou with skin white as snow and hair black as coal, who decidedly had an aversion to apples…

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs 

Beauty fades, but dumb is forever. Furthermore, no one escapes the ramifications of vanity… There is an evil queen, a fragile virgin, a hunter, some helpful dwarfs and, of course, a handsome prince.

“Once there was a lovely virgin
called Snow White.
Say she was thirteen.
Her stepmother, 
a beauty in her own right, 
though eaten, of course, by age, 
would hear of no beauty surpassing her own.”

“Beauty is a simple passion, 
but, oh my friends, in the end
you will dance the fire dance in iron shoes…”

The evil queen is so jealous, she orders her huntsman to track down Snow White, kill her and bring back her heart for the queen to eat.  But the huntsman cannot bring himself to kill the girl. Instead he kills a boar and brings back that heart.

“The hunter, however, let his prisoner go
and brought a boar’s heart back to the castle.
The queen chewed it up like a cube steak.
Now I am fairest, she said, 
lapping her slim white fingers.”

This is the first of many times Snow White will escape death.  She then ventures further into the forest where “the birds called out lewdly and the snakes hung down in loops, each one a noose for her sweet white neck.”

Eventually she comes upon the cottage of the seven dwarfs, and all should have gone well. Except the evil queen returns, still seeking to kill Snow White who makes the dumb mistake of opening the cottage door. Thus she falls prey to the queen’s poison dress and comb. After saving her twice, the dwarfs warn her not to open the door to strangers, but Snow White just can’t seem to learn her lesson.

“Snow White, the dumb bunny, 

opened the door
and she bit into a poison apple
and fell down for the final time.”

The dwarfs put her in a glass coffin. A prince, passing by, sees the coffin and decides he must have the beautiful creature inside it. While his men carry the coffin home, Snow White’s body is jarred, causing her to spit up the poisoned apple. She then awakens.

Of course, she marries the prince. But what will be her final fate?

“Meanwhile Snow White held court, 
rolling her china-blue doll eyes open and shut
and sometimes referring to her mirror
as women do.”

The poem bleakly suggests that Snow White will become exactly like her evil stepmother, a vain and aging one-time beauty, haunted by, and beholden to her own reflection in the mirror.  The entire poem can be read HERE.

And finally, here is a lovely word/ music/ pictures rendition of this poem. (Running time 7 minutes.) Hope you like it!