The April 2013 issue of National Geographic contains a stunning article by Rachel Hartingan Shea called “Europe’s Wild Men.” It describes a project by photographer Charles Fréger, who spent two winters traveling around Europe to document a spectacular array of winter festival costumes. Collected in his book Wilder Mann, these images reveal the dark vitality of ancient, pre-Christian mythic rites that live on in European celebrations, year after year.
This fellow to the right, for example, is the German character Pelzmärtle (or Pelzmärtel), who appears at your door with the Christ Child on the eve of Saint Nicholas’ Day in the village of Bad Herrenalb, “to scold naughty children and wrap them with a stick.” The elaborate straw costume is sewed onto its wearer. Then Pelzmärtle makes his way through the town, traveling from travels from door to door and ringing the bell with hoots and hollers.
Compare this tradition to the Hopi Powamu Bean Planting Ceremony, described Erna Fergusson in her book Dancing Gods. This elaborate eight-day festival celebrates the return of the Kachina gods to the pueblo with a series of dances and precessions of figures in magnificent costumes (we looked at a related Zuni festival in this earlier post). Fergusson describes the action as follows:
Late on the fifth night Hahawuaqi, “mother of the terrifying monsters,” appears upon the kiva roof and announces in her weird falsetto call that she has arrived and wishes to see the children. An answering voice responds that the children have all gone to bed and urges her to postpone her visit until morning. Thus are the children warned of the presence of the horrible and thrilling beings who bring gifts for good children and punishment for naughty ones. It must fill with trepidation many a little brown Hopi snuggled into blankets and fearfully eager for the coming day.
Yet the monsters and their mother do not emerge until late afternoon, when they appear in procession. The mother, a man, leading, wears the black dress and a white mantle and leggings. Her mask is a flat black face, with hair in pigtails such as the women wear, feathers raying from the crown, and a fox-skin ruff. She carries a long Juniper whip, a whitened dipper, and a flat tray covered with gifts for the children: ears of corn, seeds, and bundles of sticks for little girls, and tiny snares of yucca fiber for little boys. The other woman figure, Soyokmana, is such a terrifying old witch as every people in the world seems to have invented to scare children into virtue. She is dressed like the “mother,” but her hair is straggling, her clothes are old and dirty, and she carries a crook in one hand and a knife in the other. The others (Natacka) usually appear in Navajo velvet shirts, belted around slim waists with heavy silver belts, and with white buckskin mantles over the shoulders. They all wear terrifying masks: great snouts, bulging eyes, and horns. Each carries a bow and arrows in his left hand, leaving the right hand free to receive gifts, for this is a begging expedition.
There are three such groups, one for each village. They visit every house in their own village, and every house in the other two villages into which one of their men has married. For in Hopiland the custom still lingers of a man’s going to his wife’s people. So one meets them everywhere, hooting as they pass along the crooked streets and as the “mother” calls at every door or at the top of every ladder. Her queer cry always brings out women with food or children to be admonished. Children cling to their mothers or to each other, bright black eyes peering bravely over blanket folds, or they stand sturdily to face the fearful being, determinedly not afraid. (1)
It is impossible not to be forcefully reminded of such traditions looking at the array of unnerving costumes so marvelously captured by Fréger.
The full photo gallery is viewable here.
1) Fergusson E. Dancing Gods; Indian Ceremonials of New Mexico and Arizona. The University of New Mexico Press. 1931. pp.127-8.
“I want to live in my veins, in the marrow of my bones, in the labyrinth of my skull.” – Die Hamletmaschine
The following is my original translation of German playwright Heiner Müller’s reflections on the composition of his play “Hamlet Machine,” drawn from his autobiography War Without Slaughter; A Life under Two Dictatorships. For my analysis of the play, see Heiner Müller’s “Hamlet Machine”.
Heiner Müller: When the year 1977 began, I was hanging around in Bulgaria again. I had filled an entire Bulgarian schoolbook with notes, drafts, and sketches of pieces. And just across from the highrise where Ginka had a flat stood the biggest power plant in Sofia, the “Traicho Kostov.”
Traicho Kostov was the Bulgarian equivalent of [László] Rajk. [László Rajk was a Hungarian Communist who was persecuted in Stalinist show trials and then executed in 1949.] Kostov was executed during the great purges.
Kostov had been Secretary under [Georgi] Dimitrov. According to the Bulgarian interpretation, Dimitrov was killed during “medical procedures” in Moscow. He had been in talks with [Yugoslavian autocrat] Tito about leading a Balkan Federation. Then he became ill and flew to Moscow for the better medical facilities, and there he died. Then the trials started up, in Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania, in the USSR, in Poland. That was the beginning of the 50s.
In Bulgaria, Traicho Kostov was the designated agent of imperialism. He was the only one of them who hadn’t made a confession, so they just had him killed, because they had become impatient and time was marching on. And after the Rehabilitation, this central power plant was named after him.
I had been planning for a long time to write a piece on Hamlet. I was interested in writing a version in which Hamlet was the son of a Rajk, Slansky, or Kostov. I didn’t know much about Kostov before – I knew a bit more about Rajk. That was the best-known case. Hamlet comes home from his father’s state funeral, and he has to carry on. Hamlet in Budapest. I envisioned a two-hundred-page work to lay out the whole problem.
Then I came back to Berlin, and [the Swiss director Benno] Besson wanted to stage Hamlet, and he asked me if I could translate it in four weeks, because that’s when he had to start. I said it wasn’t going to happen in four weeks, so he asked “What is the best translation?” I told him the one by Dresen and Hamburger would be the best. The performance I had seen in Greifswald was very good, and it also led to Dresen coming to the Deutsche Theater [in Berlin].
Besson had already started rehearsals with that translation. Matthias Langhoff was the director’s assistant because it interested him. He kept coming by with questions for me from Besson. This or that passage didn’t work, so I should change it.
In the meantime, Langhoff became bored by the rehearsals and was happy when we got together to work on the text. Then it became more and more a new translation. The actors couldn’t learn the new script fast enough, and for the dress rehearsal they delivered a composite of the old and new translations. Subsequently there was a plagiarism lawsuit.
Anyway, when I was finished with the translation, I saw my own plan in a new light. Then came this new nine-page work very quickly, “Hamlet Machine,” like a shrunken head.
I had already noticed in Bulgaria that it would be impossible to create dialog out of this material, if we were to travel into the world of so-called actual Socialism-Stalinism. It was a place where there was no dialog any longer. I had already seen, again and again, that it didn’t work, there was no dialog, only blocks of monolog, and that shrank the entirety down to this text. The theme of Budapest in 1956 also produced no dialog.
The history of the RAF, also material for the play, was [likewise] a single breakneck monolog. [The RAF, or Red Army Faction, was a far-left terrorist group led by the radical activist Andreas Baader and former journalist Ulrike Meinhof.]
After a failed action against the Spiegel [newspaper] offices, the Baader Group, along with Ulrike Meinhof, threw the furniture out the window of the apartment she shared with her husband, the editor-in-chief of Konkret. The destruction of the bourgeois life context, the withdrawal from the bourgeois life and the entry into illegality – that interested me.
[During Ophelia's long monolog near the beginning of the play, she states “I smash the tools of my captivity, the chair the table the bed. I destroy the battlefield that was my home.” (1)]
Then there was the echo of Charles Manson. The final movement [of Ophelia's monolog in “Hamet Machine”] is from Susan Atkins, member of his “family,” one of the murderers of Sharon Tate, who was famous for her “scaring phone calls.” One was cited in Life. I had read about it in Bulgaria by coincidence – in Bulgaria I depended on coincidence, when it came to reading. The sentence was “When she walks through your bedrooms carrying butcher knives, you’ll know the truth.” [This line, spoken by Ophelia, ends the play.]
I had no title for the text. Betty Weber, a German scholar from Texas, had a plan to publish one volume with [the prominent German publisher] Suhrkamp, with my attempt withs and at Shakespeare. So we had to find a title, and through Andy Warhol I came up with “Shakespeare Factory.” That brought me back to Duchamp’s “Bachelor Machine,” and to “Hamlet Machine” as the work’s title.
The Suhrkamp project failed, because it was essential to me to have the photo in there, of Ulrike Meinhof down from the gallows. [Meinhof was found hanged in her prison cell before her trial concluded in 1976.] Unseld said “That’s not possible, that cannot appear in my publishing house.” For me it was a point of honor. That’s why it didn’t appear in Suhrkamp.
One can make many things of “Hamlet Machine.” First of all, the impossibility of using dialog in this material certainly signifies stagnation. And if nothing occurs on the male plane, the women must come up with something. And so forth. Lenin always said, the Movement comes from the provinces, and woman is the province of man.
The machine metaphor may have something to do with the factory opposite the place in Sofia, too. I would have not have been able to write the piece without the trip to America – certainly, not without the travel to the west. Deleuze and Guattari’s book on Kafka was certainly important, because it dealt with the province, with the mobilization of the province. Criminality is also a province.
“Hamlet Machine” was not staged with Hamlet as I had hoped, at that time. It was banned until the fall of the DDR.
It was through the aforementioned plagiarism trial that I made the acquaintance of [the prominent left-wing politician and attorney] Gregor Gysi. There was a plagiarism trial, which took place in Leipzig, brought by Dresen and Hamburger against my translation. Gysi was our lawyer, Hamburger represented himself. He said that history has shown that no one could independently produce a translation of a Shakespeare play in two months. That was completely impossible. Gysi said “That just demonstrates the brilliance of my clients.”
He won the trial.
1) Müller H. “Hamletmaschine”. from Hamletmaschine and Other Texts for the Stage. ed. Carl Weber. Performing Arts Journal Publications. 1984. p.54.
I throw open the doors, to let in the wind and the cry of the world. – Ophelia
Although not well known to English-speaking audiences, Heiner Müller is considered by many Germans to be a leading dramatist of the twentieth century. Many of his plays rework classical myths in a struggle to make sense of the collision between mythology and ideology in post-war Eastern Europe.
His Hamlet Machine is a postmodern masterpiece and a harrowing portrait of life under totalitarian rule. Much of the complex work consists of dramatic monologs, dense with allusions to Shakespeare’s play and other monuments of European culture and history.
The Hamlet-actor begins in Brechtian mode, aware of his own role in the ensuing drama, announcing: “I was Hamlet. I stood at the shore and talked with the surf BLAH BLAH, the ruins of Europe in back of me.” (1) These lines echo the Fisher King of T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” who “sat upon the shore / Fishing, with the arid plain behind me”. (2)
Like Eliot, Müller also presents “a heap of broken images,” where mythological symbols flail like broken engines, gesturing wildly toward inhuman meanings.
In Shakespeare’s play, it will be recalled, the hero’s father fell victim to murder at his uncle’s hands, abetted by Hamlet’s complicit mother. Hamlet Machine describes the funeral thus: “The bells tolled the state-funeral, murderer and widow a couple, the councilors goose-stepping behind the highranking carcass’ coffin, bawling with badly paid grief”. (3)
Müller’s inspiration for Hamlet’s father was Traitscho Kostoff, a Bulgarian communist who was executed in a Stalinist purge. (4) Contemporary audiences may sooner think of the bizarre state funeral of Kim Jong-Il, but the subject of the allusion does not matter. While different actors play the parts, arriving on cue for their prescribed roles, the historical drama does not change. Hamlet reflects:
The set is a monument. It presents a man who made history, enlarged a hundred times. The petrification of a hope. The name is interchangeable, the hope has not been fulfilled. The monument is toppled into dust. (5)
Historical action is fixed by a small number of possibilities, pre-determined by unpersuasive narratives that bind action to violence and oppression. Even the utopian visions they nominally serve have lost the power to persuade or animate. One thinks of the playacting technocrats of Müller’s East Germany, tunelessly singing Marxist-Leninist songs.
As the play proceeds, the Hamlet-actor attempts to reject the role to which he has been consigned, refusing to go along with this murder-drama. The dramatic action breaks down, and a political demonstration explodes onto the stage, suggesting the 1967-8 student protests in Berlin.
The Hamlet-actor is swept up in the angry mob and pushed to the police lines, where, in one arresting image, he confronts his own reflection in bullet-proof glass, and sees himself facing himself from the opposite side of the line.
He responds with rage to his own complicity in totalitarianism:
I look through the double doors of bullet-proof glass at the crowd pressing forward and smell the sweat of my fear. Choking with nausea, I shake my fist at myself who stands behind the bullet-proof glass. Shaking with fear and contempt, I see myself in the crowd pressing forward, foaming at the mouth, shaking my fist at myself. (6)
He then goes home to watch television, “at one / with my undivided self.” (7) In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, inaction is a fatal flaw, but when all courses lead to murder, and the character is forced to choose between several dreadful alternatives. Inaction and action both mean self-betrayal, and purity is found only in death, or, in its political equivalent, television.
“I am Ophelia. The one the river didn’t keep.”
Ophelia chooses suicide instead of murder. Like Nietzsche’s ascetic, her violence turns inward, sublimating her will to power. Her character represents a type for Müller, a woman whose inflexible moral code renders her capable of anything.
She is the “woman dangling from a rope,” suggesting the far-left RAF terrorist Ulrike Meinhof, whose strident critique of hegemonic capitalism ignited a series of bank robberies and murders. (8) Eventually she was captured, and hung herself in her cell.
Müller’s Ophelia would also choose death as a way of dismembering the mechanisms of oppression:
I smash the tools of my captivity, the chair the table the bed. I destroy the battlefield that was my home. I fling open the doors so the wind gets in and the screams of the world. I smash the window. With my bleeding hands I tear the photos of the men I loved and who used me on the bed on the table on the chair on the ground. I set fire to my prison. (9)
Compare to Meinhof’s approving citation of Fritz Teufel’s statement that “It is still better to set fire to a department store than to run one,” written after her group set fire to a Frankfurt department store in 1968 “to protest against the apathy of society in the face of the murders in Vietnam.” (10)
Born in Eppendorf in 1929, Müller spent his childhood under the shadow of the Nazi regime. In “The Father,” an early autobiographical prose-poem, he describes being woken from sleep when he was three years old:
In 1933, January 31 at 4 a. m., my father, a functionary of the Social Democratic Party of Germany, was arrested from his bed. I woke up, the sky outside the window black, noise of voices and footsteps. In the next room, books were thrown to the floor. I heard my father’s voice, higher than the other voices. I climbed out of bed and went to the door. Through a crack I saw how a man was hitting my father in the face. (11)
Two officers of the Nazi SA, the predecessor to the notorious SS, took his father to a concentration camp, where he was held for over a year for his socialist activities. Müller was shunned as the son of a criminal, and other boys in his village were not allowed to play with him.
After he visited the camp with his mother, he was haunted by the image of his father diminished behind the wire mesh fence, and later, by memories of walking for hours in bitter cold to meet his father upon his release.
I wish my father were a shark
Who tore to pieces forty whalers
(And in their blood I had learned to swim)…. (12)
In these early memories, we find the germ of his later political views. Müller would remain a socialist for the rest of his life, though he appears to have been deeply demoralized by Stalin’s tyrannical abuses. He was tolerated as a high-profile artist of the GDR, but was also a fierce critic of his country. Hamlet Machine was banned in East Germany until its final days. (13)
Perhaps in these early memories, we also find the seeds of his feverish, fragmentary style. Hamlet Machine resembles the disjointed impressions of a child-dreamer, woken from sleep by disturbing events for which he has no context or compass.
Perhaps Müller seeks to bring his audience to that moment of his childhood, to share with them his epiphany of chaos. It may be the only truth of which he was certain.
“One can make many things of Hamlet Machine,” Müller said. “First of all, its unperformability certainly stands for stagnation.” (14) Indeed, the play is notoriously difficult to stage. The playwright Tony Kushner notes:
Certainly the most immediately striking fact of Müller’s dramaturgy, of all of his dramatic texts, is that they were written intentionally to resist production, to make of their production an act of appropriation. When one first encounters Müller’s plays one worries how they ‘should’ be done, one searches in vain for the key to their staging, assuming that the author has hidden such a key in the text or that it may be uncovered through some sort of anthropological investigation. Research, and learning, is required; but ultimately, familiarity with the plays’ referents and antecedents will not reveal how they are to be staged. Eventually any theater artists intent on doing Müller’s works will find themselves faced with a heady and alarming freedom, for the key to the staging must, to a far greater degree with Müller’s plays than with any other major body of dramatic work, be invented upon the occasion – by the historically informed, politically engaged imaginations of those doing the staging. (15)
This may gives a clue to the title of Müller’s play. It is sometimes taken to refer to the author himself, i.e., Hamletmaschine (HM) = Heiner Müller (HM). The author himself “carefully disseminated this interpretation.” (16)
I prefer to think of the play itself as a meaning-making machine. It runs on interpreters, directors, actors, readers, and an audience; all are free to move among its fragments, and to create something for themselves.
This essay originally appeared on the Modern Mythology blog here.
1) Müller H. ed. Carl Weber. Hamletmachine and other texts for stage. Performing Arts Journal Publications. 1984. p. 53
2) Eliot T. S. “The Waste Land,” lines 423-5, from The Complete Poems and Plays; 1909-1950. Harcourt, Brace, & World. 1971. p. 50.
3) Müller, 1984. p. 53
4) Müller H. Krieg Ohne Schlacht; Leben in zwei Diktaturen. Kiepenheuer & Witsch. 1994. p. 292
5) Müller, 1984. p. 56
6) Müller, 1984. p. 56
7) Müller, 1984. p. 56
8) Müller, 1994. p. 294
9) Müller, 1984. p. 54-5
10) Meinhof U. “Setting Fire to Department Stores.” from Everybody Talks About The Weather … We Don’t; The Writings of Ulrike Meinhof. ed. Karin Bauer. Seven Stories Press. 2008. p. 248
11) Müller H. A Heiner Müller Reader. The Johns Hopkins University Press. 2001. p. 14
12) Müller, 2001. p. 15
13) Müller, 1994. p. 296
14) Müller, 1994. p. 295
15) Kushner, T. “Foreward,” from Müller, 2001. p. xvi
16) Müller, 1984. p. 51
My first exposure to Schoenberg’s music was Glenn Gould’s performance of the gigue from opus 25 “Suite for Piano” – you can hear it for yourself in the YouTube link to the right. I hope that you will – I’ll wait until you have a chance.
A lot of complete nonsense has been written about Schoenberg’s music, often implying that it embodies an anarchic spirit of modernist rebellion. Some even accuse Schoenberg and his followers of rejecting the very foundations of western music in favor of novel patterns of sound that are not even properly called “musical.”
In truth, Schoenberg was concerned with the history of European composition and theory to a degree seldom found in composers. The care that he took to organize musical ideas is easily discernible in the Gould performances, thanks to the pianist’s miraculous capacity to differentiate and clarify independent voices within compositions.
Certainly, Schoenberg formal interests have little to do with the dramatic principles of tension and release that dominated the western idiom since Haydn. Instead, he is concerned with the melodic and harmonic development of motifs, and in this sense, his work constitutes not a rejection of traditional forms, but a return to the strategies that preoccupied composers from the birth of polyphony in the High Middle Ages all the way down to the classical period. Indeed, Schoenberg reminds me of no composer so much as Bach, with his keen architectonic attention and melodic inventiveness.
Schoenberg’s twelve-tone technique is based on constructing a fixed melodic sequence called a “row” out of all twelve notes of the chromatic series. He then uses the row as the basis for a piece of music, perhaps deploying it as the principle theme, or varying it in countless ways.
This approach resembles the strategies used by all Renaissance polyphonic composers to construct melodic lines based on variations of principle themes, with their inversions, crab or puzzle canons, and fugues. One is particularly reminded of “parody masses,” a common form of composition based on melodies lifted from popular songs. The secular song “L’homme armé” alone was used as the basis for hundreds of masses.
The groundwork for Schoenberg’s compositional theory was laid decades before he began his work. Wagner’s Ring was far too long to be persuasively organized by alternations of dissonance and resolution, so it was stitched together by melodic motives, or recurring melodic figures that he associated with ideas from the libretto. Brahms relied on motives as a framework for instrumental writing in some of his symphonies, and Mahler experimented with progressive tonality, by which his symphonies might conclude in a key unrelated to the tonic.
Schoenberg was precisely the opposite of an anarchist – he was an architect of a very high order, and knew exactly what he was doing, and how he stood in relationship to musical history. He once wrote:
I used to say, ‘Bach is the first composer with twelve tones.’ This was a joke, of course. I did not even know whether somebody before him might have deserved this title. But the truth on which this statement is based is that the Fugue No. 24 of the first volume of the Well-Tempered Clavier, in B minor, begins with a Dux in which all twelve tones appear. (1)
Have a listen to that fugue (again played by Glenn Gould) in the YouTube player to the right, and see if you can note the deep similarities to the gigue we heard before. Both of them are principally organized by parallel melodic progressions that are organized in harmonic relationships such that their simultaneous occurrence with other melodic lines contributes to the overall effect. Both of them are highly chromatic. What, then, is the difference between them?
Schoenberg’s work abound with more dissonant intervals, perhaps, but then, he argued that our perception of dissonance is largely a matter of familiarity.
Now, there will always be those who respond to this argument by maintaining that there is a natural basis for our perception of consonant musical intervals based on simple integer ratios between string length. You can expect to hear the names of Pythagoras, Boethius, and Jean-Philippe Rameau.
This argument is persuasive at a glance, but the diabolus in musica is in the details. It turns out that constructing a musical scale requires substantial modifications of the great Platonic order simply to produce an instrument capable of playing in multiple keys.
And can anyone really argue that dissonant relationships are intrinsically disturbing at this late date? The most dissonant interval playable on a piano is the augmented fourth, and this interval occurs in dominant seventh chords. A malignant dominant seventh might have sent a medieval chorister fleeing from the room in terror, but the Beatles use it in “I Saw Her Standing There,” for heaven’s sake, which is not exactly the stuff of modernism.
Charles Rosen argued in his study of Schoenberg that people are not really disturbed by the nominally dissonant intervals in serialist music, but by the lack of cadence (2). Listeners lack familiar cues that help them predict the flow of a musical passage, and they find it disturbing.
For my own tastes, I find serialism to be most disturbing when orchestral works leap repeatedly from whisper-quiet string segments to sudden explosions of honking brass. I don’t go in for these shenanigans, myself – I regard it as a cheap tactic. Yes, it produces an effect, much as shouting at someone all of a sudden gets their attention.
But anyone who believes that serialist music must be unlovely should really spend some time with Berg’s violin concerto, which may well be the finest concerto written in the entire twentieth century.
I hope to return to this topic at a later date to explore some interesting related issues, including the biography of Arnold Schoenberg, which, if it were presented as a work of fiction, would be rejected as too fantastic to be believed. It’s also worth exploring other techniques for composing outside of classical tonality, such as those employed by Charles Ives and Olivier Messiaen, two of the greatest composers of the last century.
Thanks to DJ for pointing out that the augmented fourth is found in the dominant seven, not the major seven chord.
1) Schoenberg A. “Bach (1950).” from Style and Idea; Selected Writings. University of California Press. 1975. pg. 393.
2) Rosen C. Arnold Schoenberg. Princeton University Press. 1975.
If the traditional accounts are to be believed, Saint Patrick was born at the end of the fourth century CE, when the Roman Emperor Theodosius I was busy consecrating the empire to the sign of the Cross, by which Constantine had conquered at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge two generations earlier.
After establishing Christianity as the official religion of Rome in 380 CE, Theodosius set about uprooting the old order, putting an end to the ancient traditions within the empire. He destroyed the temples of Apollo at Delphi, of the Vestal Virgins at the Roman Forum, and of Demeter at Eleusis, where the mystery rites of Greece had been celebrated annually for a thousand years.
These changes thundered through the empire, but even greater forces were at work in Eurasia. Turmoil in northwestern China displaced hordes of nomadic warriors, and under the banner of Attila, the Huns surged westward in the fifth century, driving Germanic and Gothic tribes before them. The refugees of Central Europe poured over the Danube and into the Roman empire, overwhelming its beleaguered armies and exhausted cities.
As Augustine would lament in his City of God, just as Christianity triumphed within the Imperium, the City of Man fell under the barbarian sword. The Vandals, Visigoths, and Ostrogoths flooded into the empire, and in 486, King Odoacer deposed Romulus Augustus, the last Roman emperor. Warring German tribes would spend the next century picking the bones of the Western Empire clean, until the Merovingian dynasty brought some semblance of order to the lands that would become France and Germany.
As far as the Western Roman Empire had reached, all the way to Britannia in the north, the collapse were felt. Beginning around 58 BCE, Julius Caesar led Roman armies to victory against Transalpine Gaul, and three years later, he launched the first Roman invasion of the southern shores of England. Claudius subdued the Celtic Britons a few generations later, and Rome would weave a network of towns and roads with webs of commerce and civilization, leading all the way to Rome.
But they never took Ireland.
This distant isle known to the Romans as Hibernia was one of the last refuges of the Celts. By all accounts a tall, beautiful, ferocious people, the Celts swept through Western Europe in 1000 BCE, bringing with them their chariots, dazzling metalwork, and Druidic religion.
Most of the Celtic territory, including Spain, France, and England, was eventually conquered by Rome, and everywhere the empire grew, it left towns, roads and trade. When the empire fell, the social and economic infrastructure that sustained these lands fell with it, with predictable consequences.
When the Germans poured into the heart of the empire, the Roman legions withdrew from Britannia, leaving the bewildered Britons a generation or two of peace before new armies of invaders moved in from the east, and the island was overrun by the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes.
Wherever Roman high civilization had flourished in Europe, the people plunged deep into the Dark Ages. The great knowledge of classical civilization all but vanished from the mainland, where the Germanic values of force of arms and tribal kinship were the order of the day for centuries to come. Now, in a curious historical inversion, while the Roman lands fell into darkness, Celtic Ireland became the great center of learning in Western Europe.
Unlike Britannia with its towns and roads, Ireland had no great economic or population centers. When Christianity first took hold, the church had to create its own infrastructure to support the clergy. The form this generally took was the monastery, which functioned, in a manner of speaking, as a micro-town – self-enclosed polities that served as organized centers of learning.
A series of Irish monasteries was built by industrious missionaries throughout Ireland and the British Isles, providing a home for many of the great works of medieval literature and art, including The Book of Kells and the Venerable Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of Britain. The Irish monk Duns Scotus Eriugena translated the writings of the Christian mystic Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite into Latin, whose writings were to have a profound influence on everything from the Gothic cathedral to the writings of Thomas Aquinas.
In the early ninth century, when Charlemagne, the first Holy Roman Emperor, sought to improve the scholarship and literacy of the European clergy, he turned to the Irish monks, knowing full well that their knowledge of Latin and their erudition far surpassed anything that could be found on the mainland.
And this whole process, by which Irish monasteries preserved and enriched European culture for centuries, began with the missionary work of Saint Patrick.
We know nothing about Patrick’s life with certainty, but early biographical sources agree on the basic facts. At the age of 15, Patrick was brought to Ireland as a slave by marauding British pirates. He escaped six years later, but was led by a vision he had in a dream to return to the isle and establish the Christian church. He founded ascetic communities, laying deep roots for the monasteries that would flourish in the sixth century.
Needless to say, the life of Patrick has taken on a mythological and hagiographical dimension, with many of the biographies describing him as a healer and a miracle worker. I’d like to take a brief look at one of these interesting biographies of Patrick, The Life and Acts of Saint Patrick, written by Jocelyn of Furness sometime around 1200. Note that this biography is only slightly later than some of our primary sources for early Irish mythological literature, such as The Cattle Raid of Cooley and the Book of Invasions. I find it evocative for its free blending of Celtic mythological and Christian themes.
Here is one event from Patrick’s early childhood:
And Patrick, the child of the Lord, was then nursed in the town of Empthor, in the house of his mother’s sister, with his own sister Lupita. And it came to pass in the winter season, the ice being thawed, that a well overflowed and threatened to overturn many houses in the town; and the rising of the waters filled the mansion wherein Patrick abided, and overturned all the household stuff, and caused all the vessels to swim. And the little boy, being an hungered, asked in his infantine manner for bread; yet found he not any who would break bread for him, but jeeringly was he answered that he was nearer to being drowned than fed. When the boy dipped three of his fingers into the swelling water, and, standing on a dry place, he thrice sprinkled the water in the form of a cross, and in the name of the Holy Trinity commanded the well that forthwith it should subside. And behold a miracle! Immediately all the flood retired with a refluent course, and the dryness returned, nor was there hurt or damage seen in the vessels or in the furniture of his dwelling. And they who looked on saw that sparks of fire instead of drops of water were sprinkled from the fingers of the holy child, and that the waters were licked up and absorbed thereby; and the Lord, “who collects the waters as in a heap, and lays up the depths in his treasury,” who had worked such great works through his beloved child Patrick, is praised of all; and the child also is magnified who was so powerful in Him, great and worthy of all praise. (ch. IV, trans. Rev. James O’Leary, 1880).
The image that I find especially fascinating here is the emergence of the water up from under the ground. Subterranean water is a primary mythological motif in many cultures – the Qu’ran, for example, makes frequent references to Paradise as a place “where rivers flow underground.”
In psychodynamic terms, water under the ground can be taken as a common symbol the forces of the unconscious. In this story, the forces of the unconscious are uncontrolled and threaten waking life, until they are mastered by Patrick, bringer of Christianity. He is able to drive them back by the sign of the cross – the same sign that appeared to Constantine in his vision.
In other words, from the perspective of Patrick’s biographer, the powers of the unconscious as they were expressed by Celtic mythology were perceived as overwhelming and threatening, unless they were held at bay by the bulwark of Christian doctrine, which subdued and transformed these tidal forces into a sublimated form. Water becomes fire, an element of light and illumination. I’m rather reminded of the Tibetan stories of the Indian master Padmasambhava, who brought Buddhism to Tibet and tamed the demonic supernatural forces that threatened the country.
Two other elements of this story worth noting are the obvious baptismal resonance here, particularly in the light of John the Baptist’s words that Christ “shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost, and with fire” (Matthew 3:11). Also, note that the well is a primary locus of the Celtic magical arts. We can see this illustrated in Gottfried von Strasbourg Tristan, which was written within a decade of Jocelyn’s Life and Acts. In one important episode, the gravely-wounded Tristan is healed by the Irish princess Isolde in a magic pool.
So what happened to the Irish monastery as one of the primary centers of European culture? This bright light of civilization was extinguished by yet another invasion by the northern barbarians. The Vikings put an end to the Irish monastery in a wave of brutal attacks beginning in the mid-ninth century. The great seats of Irish learning were cast down into ruin, one after another, and their riches borne back to Scandinavia on Danish and Norwegian longboats.
One of the primary themes of this blog is the astonishing continuity of certain primary cultural forms, which Adolf Bastian referred to as Elementargendanke, or elementary ideas, and which Carl Jung later termed archetypes of the collective unconscious.
In my reading this morning, I came across a marvelous Elamite alabaster statue depicting a regal male subject bearing a sacrificial goat. Currently housed at the Louvre, it comes to us from Susa (in present-day Iran) from the Early Dynastic, circa 2450 BCE.
Jump ahead nearly 2,000 years, and we find an exceptional Attic marble sculpture of a bearded man carrying a calf offering to the goddess Athena, from the Archaic period circa 570 BCE. It is housed at the splendid Acroplois Museum in Athens, which is one of the great museums.
And, nearly 2,000 years after that masterpiece was carved, we find a beautiful statue of John the Baptist carrying Christ in the form of a sacrificial lamb, which decorates the North Transept Portal of the Cathedral of Notre Dame at Chartres, completed in the mid-thirteenth century CE.
Last night I dreamt that I was talking to a friend about Superman, and how much his selfless heroism meant to us as children.
Before I fell asleep, I was thinking about my old post on the orphan hero, and I guess it put thoughts of Superman in my head.
I remember being really moved by the Richard Donner Superman movies as a kid. I recently saw the director’s cut of Superman II, and had forgotten how much he really seemed to care about people, and how frightened he was that they might be harmed. It’s rather moving, especially in a world of bad-ass anti-heroes.
That bodhisattva-like altruism also came across beautifully in Grant Morrison’s superb limited run The All-Star Superman.
Morrison is pretty much my favorite comic book author, but he’s hit or miss when it comes to established titles. He can’t help bringing his personal oddball interests into play, and that works great in a series like The Invisibles, which is built for it, and is, incidentally, the best comic book series ever written. But when Batman starts talking about Dzogchen (as he does in Morrison’s Batman R.I.P. run), it comes across as forced.
Somehow, in his Superman run, he really nailed the essence of the character in a wonderful way. And if you ever see the documentary Grant Morrison: Talking with Gods, you can hear about how he was meditating on how to treat the character and the story, when he ran into a guy on the street dressed in a Superman costume. Morrison approached Superman and asked him a lot of questions about himself, and the guy replied completely in character, saying some remarkable things, like “Batman is a great man, but he doesn’t truly believe in people.”
Anyway, the point of this story is that later on in the dream, I received a dream notification from D. C. comics, warning me not to use Superman’s likeness in my dreams without their permission (really). I was unsure how concerned I should be, but it was a little anxiety-provoking.
Most likely, D. C. comics, possibly in collaboration with NSA, has developed the technology necessary to monitor dreams for copyright violations.