Archive for July 2012
If you have heard the name Tannhäuser before, there’s a good chance that your source was either Richard Wagner’s opera or the fleeting reference in Blade Runner to c-beams glittering near the dark of the Tannhäuser Gate.
The actual Tannhäuser (d. circa 1265) was a knight and Minnesänger in the court of Friedrich II of Austria, a minor noble who shouldn’t be confused with Friedrich II Hohenstaufen, the great Holy Roman Emperor.
Tannhäuser composed brilliant courtly love poems in the style of the Provençal Troubadours, whom we considered at length in a previous post.
You can easily detect from its dance-like cadence that Tannhäuser’s poetry was intended to be performed with musical accompaniment. Here is a brief example followed by my translation, in which I have tried to preserve the rhythm:
Der winter ist zergangen,
daz prüeve ich ûf der heide.
aldar kam ich gegangen;
guot wart mîn ougenweide
Von den bluomen wolgetân.
wer sach ie sô schoenen plân?
der brach ich zeinem kranze,
den truog ich mit tschoie zuo den frowen an dem tanze.
welle ieman werden hôhgemuot, der hebe sich ûf die schanze!
The winter’s gone away;
so the heath’s informed me.
Thither had I gone, and
much the sight did please me
of the blossoms fairly made.
Who has seen so fine a glade?
From there I plucked a wreath
to bare with joy to ladies at the dance,
and if a man should seek delight, he too should seize this chance!
Tannhäuser wrote in High Middle German, which is about as far removed from today’s Germany as Chaucer’s English is from us. Under the strong influence of the Troubadours’ Provençal, he included a lot of vocabulary derived from Latin. For example, we frequently find the word “tschoie,” which sounds much like “joy,” and that is in fact its meaning. The modern German equivalent would be “Lust” or “Freude.”
It’s interesting as a native English speaker to read Tannhäuser, because his archaic German, suffused as it is with Romance loan words, at times resembles English as much as contemporary German.
Sometime in the fifteenth century, Tannhäuser became a figure of legend. He is said to have traveled to the Mountain of Venus, where he remained enthralled in the arms of the goddess for a time.
The Brothers Grimm collected a typical version of the legend – here is my translation of number 171 from their Deutsche Sagen, Vol. 1:
The noble German knight Tannhäuser traveled through many lands, falling at last into Lady Venus’ Mountain, where he beheld great wonders. Though he dwelt there for a while, happy and in good spirits, his conscience drove him at last to return to the world, and he sought leave. But Lady Venus sought by every means to shake his resolve, offering up her playmates to be his wife. She implored him to think of her red lips, which smiled upon him always.
Tannhäuser answered that no wife could save him from burning in hell forever. He was indifferent to her red mouth and could remain no longer, for his life had become a pestilence.
And so the she-devil, to hold fast to his love (Minne), locked him in his chamber. But the noble knight castigated her harshly, and he called upon the Heavenly Virgin to part them, and so it was done.
Awash with remorse, he traveled over the highways and streets to find Pope Urban in Rome, so to confess his sins, that his repentance might be kindled and his soul saved. But when he confessed that he had dwelt with the Lady Venus for an entire year, the Pope replied “When this barren staff that I hold in my hand blossoms green, then shall thy sins be forgiven, and not before.”
Tannhäuser said “Had I but one year to live upon this earth, I should have offered such remorse and repentance that God should have shown mercy.” And full of sorrow at his damning by the Pope, he went forth from the city and returned to the diabolical Mountain, eternally and forevermore to dwell within. Lady Venus welcomed him back as though welcoming a long-parted lover.
Three days later, the Pope’s staff burst into flower. He sent embassies to every land to find where noble Tannhäuser had gone, but it was too late. Tannhäuser remained in the Mountain, having chosen his favorite companion, and there he must dwell until the Last Days, when perhaps God would show him another way.
This extremely interesting legend illustrates a central tension at the heart of German literature in the High Middle Ages – the conflict between the underlying Germano-Celtic worldview that was thousands of years old, and the more recent overlay of a Christian vision of sin and salvation.
The profound influence of Celto-Germanic myths and legends is visible throughout Europe in the Middle Ages, and the Tannhäuser legend includes its quintessential episode: a hero is sequestered in the castle or realm of an enchantress or fairy. In these accounts, the hero often attempts to return to the mundane world, only to learn that time has passed him by.
One glorious example of this motif is the early Irish story of Oisin, a great warrior who traveled to the timeless realm of Tir-na-nog with the beautiful Níamh Chinn Óir of the immortal folk, the Tuatha Dé Danann.
W. B. Yeats gave a magnificent account of the story in his long poem The Wanderings of Oisin. In this short excerpt, Níamh seeks to entice the hero to the timeless lands:
‘O Oisin, mount by me and ride
To shores by the wash of the tremulous tide,
Where men have heaped no burial-mounds,
And the days pass by like a wayward tune,
Where broken faith has never been known
And the blushes of first love never have flown;
And there I will give you a hundred hounds;
No mightier creatures bay at the moon;
And a hundred robes of murmuring silk,
And a hundred calves and a hundred sheep
Whose long wool whiter than sea-froth flows,
And a hundred spears and a hundred bows,
And oil and wine and honey and milk,
And always never-anxious sleep;
While a hundred youths, mighty of limb,
But knowing nor tumult nor hate nor strife,
And a hundred ladies, merry as birds,
Who when they dance to a fitful measure
Have a speed like the speed of the salmon herds,
Shall follow your horn and obey your whim,
And you shall know the Danaan leisure;
And Niamh be with you for a wife.’
Then she sighed gently, ‘It grows late.
Music and love and sleep await,
Where I would be when the white moon climbs,
The red sun falls and the world grows dim.’
As Yeats’ melancholy poem illustrates, the Celtic heart was deeply ambivalent about the lure of the timeless realm, which was both a flight into eternity and a retreat from mortality.
In most versions of the story, the hero goes for a while, but his mortal heart calls at last for return to the field of time. Frequently, upon his return, the centuries of his absence catch up with him, and he falls to dust.
This motif is frequently found in Arthurian romance, in which a questing knight may aid a queen or maiden under siege or locked in an enchanted castle. For example, in von Eschenbach’s Parzial, the hero’s father Gahmuret comes to the aid of the besieged Moorish queen Belacane in the fantastic land of Zazamanc. He lives with her for a while, until he is called back to battle, where he is killed.
Once Christian morality is in place in Europe, the Celtic psychological predicament takes on a diabolical aspect, for treating with immortals can only be seen as a heathen indulgence. The Celt was untroubled by the sexual lushness of the timeless paradise, and this fit well with the themes of adultery so often found in Arthurian romance, such as the extremely popular adultery of Guinevere and Lancelot. Gottfried von Strassburg, following the vision of the Troubadours, elevates adulterous love to the highest position in the scale of values in his Tristan, literally making an altar of the lovers’ bed.
This only added to the consternation felt by Christianized authors, who associated the sensual license extolled by the Troubadours and Minnesängers with heathenism. In this context, it makes sense that a well-known Minnesinger like Tannhäuser, singing courtly songs of love in the Troubadour style, featured in a moral legend that rejects the old Celtic vision.
This post has already grown long so I don’t want to spend much time on Wagner’s use of the material, other than to observe that he zeroed in on this conflict between pagan and Christian morality and exaggerated it to brilliant effect, even if the opera is not numbered among his greatest works.
Wagner added yet another level to the problem by musically associating the libertine spirit of love with modernism and the avant-garde. The scenes he set in Venusberg are scored in a thoroughly modern fashion, anticipating his development of “continuous music” which rejects the recitative/aria structure of conventional opera. The scenes set in the Wartburg Court, where Tannhäuser is harshly criticized by his fellows for his sinful ways, use conventional forms, including classical arias and duets.
Note about Pictures: In order to make room for so many photographs, I’ve had to use thumbnails – I hope readers will click on some of them to see them full-sized.
The coastal region of the Pacific Northwest, stretching from the Alaskan panhandle in the north to Vancouver Island in the south, has been home to indigenous peoples for thousands of years, including the Tlingit (pronounced kling-KIT), Haida, Tsimshian and Kwakiutl.
These are different groups with distinct histories and languages, but they share deep similarities of culture, religion and art, which combine to constitute what the great anthropologist Franz Boas has called “one of the best defined cultural groups on our continent.” (Social Organization and Secret Societies of the Kwakiutl, 317) I will speak most frequently of the Tlingit, but draw upon other groups participating in this common cultural heritage as well.
One of the most striking features of this cultural zone is what we will call totem poles for lack of a better term. The word “totem” comes from the Ojibwe word for “kinship group,” and does not properly belong to the region. The Tlingit term is kootéeyaa, but several natives I have spoken with used the term “totem pole,” so I will follow their lead.
Originally, most totem poles were probably carved into the pillars of clan houses, like the great totems flanking the magnificent Beaver screen in the Tlingit Beaver Clan House of Saxman, Alaska (shown to the right). Short, free-standing totem poles were also placed in the woods, used to house the cremated remains of venerated persons.
When Russian and European fur traders arrived in the nineteenth century and metal tools became widely available, it became possible to carve much larger poles. These massive poles, sometimes dozens of feet high, were commonly erected along waterways, as the people inhabited narrow strips of land between the coastal mountains and the sea, or in densely-forested river valleys, and traveled by water.
The oldest surviving poles date to the mid-nineteenth century, and those are relatively few in number. Poles are usually carved of cedar, which does not preserve well. However, my understanding is that the demise of a pole is regarded as the completion of its life cycle, not a tragic loss.
Totem poles are emblazoned with figures called crests, which are usually animals, mythological beasts or legendary ancestors. Crests form an integral part of the social and symbolic economy of the Pacific Northwest and are core features of social identity. A crest may only be displayed by a family that owns the right to the crest, and those rights are passed down.
One interesting exception to that rule is the owl crest, shown to the right, which is not inherited and may only be displayed by a shaman.
Crests often signify historical or legendary episodes that help define the identity, status and privileges of a family. The world of songs, legends and myths is intimately bound up with crests, which may explain where the clan came from, why they have the right to fish in a particular stream, and so forth.
Let’s take a look at the striking Eagle Halibut pole of Laay, currently on display at the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, to get a sense of how the symbolism works. The interested reader will find the full account of this complex pole here, but I will only focus on part of it.
To the right you will see two crests that combine to form a single composite image at the base of the pole. The smaller crest depicts a hero named Gunas being devoured by a large halibut, and that image is set onto the chest of a larger figure, an intense-looking figure called Hagwil̓ooḵ’ who carries a bent-wood box on his head.
This is a memorial pole for the Tlingit Chief Laay, who led his people out of their original home in Alaska to the village of Gwinwoḵ on the Nass River in Canada. While they were traveling to their new home, Gunas went swimming in the clear waters near Cape Fox, when he was suddenly attacked and swallowed whole by a giant halibut.
Richard Morgan tells the story:
Everybody got excited, you know, when they saw the huge halibut. They called for Supernatural Halibut and they called for Supernatural Eagle to help them. And the eagle [was] sitting right at the point, and the next thing you know, the eagle managed to get the halibut ashore and capture the halibut. And they cut the halibut open, but the body of Gunas, the remains of the body, [were] already decayed, so they sing a dirge song, funeral song about Gunas being captured alive by a halibut.
This account is typical of crest legends in several ways. It links an episode of the legendary past with a story and a song, and establishes the debt owed by the halibut to the clan. The Gunas crest connects the Nisg̱a’a Tlingit to halibut fishing – Gunas paid for the crest with his life. Crest stories frequently involve someone owing a debt, or violating a taboo or getting into a disagreement with an animal power or deity, and being killed. This death creates a new debt in the symbolic economy, and and the family earns the right to a story, or song, or place, or the right to hunt a particular animal, et cetera.
The concepts of debt and exchange are extremely important in the Pacific Northwest, as we saw previously when we looked at shame poles, which are erected to commemorate unpaid debts. The flip side of this is that if you want to fish, your family needs to have the moral right to fish, and it often seems to be established in stories of this kind.
There is a deeper mythological sense to this pair of images as well. Gunas and his halibut are engraved on the chest of this scary-looking Hagwil̓ooḵ’ fellow. Morgan explains this figure thusly:
And as they [were] traveling, they encountered a huge man from under water. It has a tail of a salmon. It came up with huge spring salmons, huge seafood, a lot of seafood. They call it Hagwil̓ooḵ’. That’s a symbol you will see on the bent boxes. Anybody who is really aggressive, get a lot of food for families, they call them Hagwil̓ooḵ’.
The paired crests of this pole combine the two aspects of the Great Hunt in a single image – we see both predator and prey. The Nisg̱a’a has paid for the right to catch fish with their own flesh and blood; that is, they belong to the cycle.
We’ve looked at this basic tragic image several times in this blog, most recently in the Grimm Brothers story “The Juniper Tree” here. We’ve also looked at the symbol as it was expressed in Iron Age Greece here.
The Eagle Halibut Pole of Laay illustrates the whole symbolic economy of the Pacific Northwest. Clans are characterized by the of symbols that encode their history and establish their rights and powers. These crests are not only displayed on house pillars and totem poles, but found on ceremonial chilkat robes or button blankets worn during ceremonial dances. A Tlingit can tell at a glance where someone is from and what their lineage is, simply be looking at their regalia.
Despite various historical challenges and setbacks, the symbolic culture of the Pacific Northwest remains vital and active to this day. While indigenous populations were decimated by exposure to Old World diseases such as small pox, the numbers have now stabilized. The United States abandoned its disgraceful campaign to eliminate native languages and cultures in the region decades ago, and since the 1960s there has been a great revival of interest in native art and culture. So the old arts are carried on – to the right you can see Tlingit Master Carver Nathan Jackson at work on a new pole in his studio. He was the lead artist of the spectacular Beaver Clan House screen shown above.
Many new artists appear to be interested in incorporating new sources of inspiration and ideas. For example, the superb Kwakwaka’wakw artist Doug Cranmer spent several years in the 1960s using traditional compositional elements of the Pacific Northwest to create entirely abstract work without story or reference. I also enjoyed the work of Averyl Veliz that I saw at the Juneau-Douglas City Museum, such as her wonderful “Wolf in the Moon” (right).
A great example of the harmonious blend of old and new is The Raven and the First Men by Haida artist Bill Reid, currently on display at the University of Anthropology in Vancouver. This magnificent carving depicts a Haida myth of Raven acting as a kind of midwife for the creation of humankind.
Raven is a powerful shamanic trickster figure and is the culture hero of the entire vast region from the Kwakwaka’wakw of Vancouver to the Inuit of Alaska. His stories are especially connected with acts of creation and naming, and the story of how Raven stole the sun from heaven and ended the long darkness is an extremely popular subject. In my next post on the Tlingit and other traditions of the Pacific Northwest, I’ll have a closer look at the mythology of the region, with particular attention to Raven.
The traditions of the Northwest remain with us. Bertha Sleid Guan of the Kaagwaantaan Tlingit told me that in her village, public schools offer classes in the Tlingit language every day, and once a week, the entire school day is conducted in Tlingit. She described her sense of wonder at seeing a young Tlingit girl speaking in her own language with her schoolmate, a blonde-haired, blue-eyed girl of Norwegian descent.
I told Bertha that I had read many wonderful stories of the old days, like the story of how the Tlingit came to move out of their ancient home in Glacier Bay, which I read in the superb book Haa Shuká, Our Ancestors by Norma Marks Dauenhauer and Richard Dauenhauer.
As Susie James told those authors, the Tlingit used to live in peace and abundance in Glacier Bay. At that time, there was a young girl who was kept in seclusion behind her house. We learn from many ethnographers such as Kalvero Oberg that this was a common practice when Tlingit girls approached adolescence. They were sequestered for months or a year in a private little hut behind the family dwelling until they were presented as adults at a great feast or potlatch.
But this girl was kept there for three years, which is a very long time. One day she saw a glacier very far away, and perhaps because she was unhappy with her seclusion, she called to it like a dog, saying “Glacier, here, here.”
To everyone’s alarm, the glacier started to grow, started to advance on the Tlingit, fast, faster than a dog could run. Everyone saw it charging toward them and they got into their boats to flee, to leave Glacier Bay and find a new place to dwell — everyone except for grandmother who didn’t want to go. She said “I will stay here. Whatever happens to my mother’s maternal uncles’ house will happen to me.” So she stayed and gave her life to the glacier, and there is our debt.
When I spoke to Bertha, I told her I had read this story, and I wanted to know, how do the Tlingit hold these stories today? Are they valued as legends, or are they believed, the way history is believed?
She told me that it may be hard for you to accept that a glacier would run as fast as a dog, but we’ve researched the area and we know that the Tlingit of her village came down from Glacier Bay, and they regard it as their sacred home. The archaeological evidence indicates that the area was inhabited around 2000 years ago by a people evidencing cultural continuities with the Tlingit of today, until they were driven out by a long period of ice. When the glaciers receded after the end of the Little Ice Age in the Middle Ages, the Tlingit appear to have moved (back?) into the area.
She told me that there are many stories that can be told to outsiders, like the ones I read in my book, and many songs that are sung for anyone. But then there are stories and songs that are private, known to the families and houses, and those stories have a lot to say about the world, and who we are.
All photos are (c) Barnaby Thieme, except “Wolf in the Moon,” which is my photograph of a work by Averyl Veliz, who retains all rights.
As I’ve mentioned before, one of my favorite compositions from the Renaissance is Thomas Tallis’ miraculous forty-part motet “Spem in Alium.” My favorite performance is by the infallible Renaissance choir The Tallis Scholars.
The Tallis Scholars have recently been reporting on their Facebook fan page that their 27-year-old recording of “Spem in Alium” was poised to take the number one spot on the best-selling classical single chart in the UK. I’ve watched with considerable surprise and pleasure to see them hit the number one spot first in the US and then in the UK.
What accounts for this sudden, inexplicable attention? you may ask. I was equally amazed and appalled to learn that their new-found success has been driven by the bondage-themed mega-thriller Fifty Shades of Grey. Apparently the book’s heroine enjoys some light spanking while “lost in the astral, seraphic voices.”
The Guardian has the story here.
This morning I chanced upon Joan Acocella’s article on the Brothers Grimm, “The Lure of the Fairy Tale,” in The New Yorker. It will surprise no reader of this blog to hear that I’m a huge fan of the Brothers Grimm – you can see a translation I did of “Mary’s Child” here. I was interested to read Acocella’s piece and think through some of the questions that she raises.
She lays out a brief biographical and historical sketch of the folklorists and their work, and puzzles through some of the interpretive dilemmas posed by the fairy tales. They are childish in their brevity and narrative simplicity, but often include gruesome acts of violence, with starving parents abandoning children to die in the woods with startling frequency.
Once upon a time, the story begins, a young bride prayed and prayed for a child, but to no avail.
One fine winter’s day, while peeling an apple beneath the juniper tree in the courtyard, she cut her hand, and when she saw the drops of blood on the snow, she sighed, “If only I had a child as red as blood and as white as snow.”
Well, time went by and the snows began to fade, and the world returned to flower, and as it did, the woman also became fruitful, and when the new growth of the woods came to surround them, she became great with child. And when the juniper tree bore fruit, she ate of it ravenously, and becomes sickened.
In the ninth month following her wistful prayer, she bore a beautiful little boy, and told her husband that when she dies, she is to be buried beneath the tree. And so she did pass away, brought to her death by the life-giving tree.
Time passed, and the boy grew with lips as red as blood, and skin as white as snow. His father took a new wife, and had with her a daughter, called Marlene.
Unfortunately, his new wife hated the beautiful little boy, and one day, moved by the spirit of evil, she invited him to take an apple from the bin. When he reached inside, she clapped it shut and knocked his head clean off!
The evil stepmother then covered the boy’s head with a white scarf and fastened it back to his body. Marlene found him an uncooperative playmate, though, and complained to her mother that the boy would not speak. The stepmother told her “Then go box his ears!”
The daughter soon did, and immediately raced back in terror, crying “His head has come off!”
The evil stepmother told her they must keep it a secret. To dispose of the body, she said, she will cook the boy into a stew. She served it to his father to eat, and he found it so delicious that he insisted he should eat it all, as he was filled with the sense that it was somehow intended just for him.
Well, the daughter was horrified by all this, naturally, and she gathered her half-brother’s bones in her silk scarf and buried them beneath the juniper tree. It was only once they were interred that her anguish subsided.
Then the juniper tree began to move. The branches moved apart, then moved together again, just as if someone were rejoicing and clapping his hands. At the same time a mist seemed to rise from the tree, and in the center of this mist it burned like a fire, and a beautiful bird flew out of the fire singing magnificently, and it flew high into the air, and when it was gone, the juniper tree was just as it had been before, and the cloth with the bones was no longer there. Marlene, however, was as happy and contented as if her brother were still alive.
And so the boy was reborn as a glorious bird with a beautiful song, and he set about making matters right.
It’s really quite a spectacular story – I highly recommend having a look at the whole thing. But what is significant for our purposes here is that Acocella found it to be very disturbing, saying “Parents should simply not read it to children. If they give the child the book, they should get an X-Acto knife and slice the story out first.”
So we have a dilemma, posed by the co-occurrence of a childish narrative style with dark and shocking material. To make sense of this problem, Acocella reviews several scholarly interpretations of fairy tales, ranging from the Freudian readings of Bruno Bettelheim to the comparative approach of Jack Zipes.
Unfortunately, she neglects to consult the author who represents, in my opinion, the strongest interpretation of the Grimm Brothers stories, Joseph Campbell. His approach makes short work of the apparent dilemma.
Campbell articulated his general approach to the Grimm Brothers’ stories in his magisterial essay “The Works of the Brothers Grimm,” written as an introduction to a translation of the tales, and also published in his book Flight of the Wild Gander. In this essay, Campbell interprets many fairy tales as reductions or remnants of very old myths. They contain the same content and quality as the great narratives of the world’s religions. Time and wear, for a variety of reasons, have pared the stories down to their bare bones, and as such, they appear child-like at a glance.
If we evaluate “The Juniper Tree” not as a didactic fable for children but as a myth, we immediately recognize all of the principle elements of the story: the miraculous birth, the association of death and rebirth with a tree or evergreen, the murder of an innocent, and the ritual consumption of the body. This is a myth of immense geographical distribution, as we’ve known since Frazer first published The Golden Bough.
It amuses me greatly to see Acocella recoil from this story, since every one of its basic elements can be found in the Gospels.
We can also see a link between the apple and the pains of childbirth, which echoes the story of the Fall. And there exists, of course, a very old allegorical tradition that links the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden to the Tree of Eternal Life, i.e., the cross. The former is seen as the beginning of history, and the latter is seen as its completion.
We are not dealing with a pedagogical morality tale here, we have a myth – a story which renders an image of basic facts of life. We have a narrative image of the cycle of life and death in which we all must participate, and to which, ultimately, we must all surrender ourselves, for the cycle of killing and being eaten in turn both gives life and brings us back to the root. And the fairy tale, like the myth, presents this problem without judgment or advice.
People preserve these stories for millennia because they disclose something that the audience recognizes to be true. The best place to start, then, is to ask what that might be.
Howdy folks! Miss O’Cosm and I are just back from a trip through the Inside Passage of Southeastern Alaska. I have a lot to tell you – especially about the magnificent Native American cultures of the Pacific Northwest. I had the great good fortune to connect with the Tlingit, Haida, Tsimshian, and Kwakwaka’wakw peoples, and will have a great deal more to say about it in the near future.
We also had a marvelous time with the wildlife of the Alaskan coast. One highlight was seeing a bald eagle by the South Sawyer Glacier in Tracy Arm – it flew perhaps ten feet above us with a large salmon in its claws, followed closely by a few dozen arctic terns, who harried the eagle out of their territory with a great chorus of their ghostly cries.
But the big winner was our evening whale watching excursion out of Juneau – we saw around ten orcas within minutes of leaving the dock.
Not long after that, we came upon a pod of ten humpback whales engaged in bubble net feeding, which is a cooperative hunting technique in which groups of whales ensnare vast amounts of herring or mackerel in enormous bubble nets.
The group of whales swims in formation beginning around 60 feet blow the surface, spiraling upwards while exhaling from their blow holes. This creates a huge cylinder of bubbles that traps the fish. The whales then surge upward from below with their mouths open, swallowing enormous amounts of food and breaking the surface in a stunning display.
We saw the whales perform this behavior about eight times in the course of forty-five minutes or so. Here are two videos that I took of this incredible behavior.
Note that these animals are forty to fifty tons each. In this next video, they’re so close that you can see the bubbles coming right up by the side of the boat, which made us a bit nervous! And if you watch to the end, you’ll see a magnificent display of their flukes as they paddle off.
Sadly, something that I couldn’t capture in these videos is the songs. We had a hydrophone in the water, and on several instances the whales sang a short, intense song just before bursting to the surface.