Inventing Deities? Or Just Trying Too Hard?

The book about Baba Yaga and the lore associated with her was very useful. But looking at some of the material in the bibliography . . . I almost get the feeling that some ethnographers and anthropologists tried desperately to find something that’s just not there. Maybe. I suspect that there were indeed female deities in the Slavic and other pantheons, and that some lingered as folk lore or monsters. It’s the details that have me shaking my head.

Part of my wariness is from seeing one too many nods to Marija Gimbutas. Yes, she was right about some things, including the importance of the culture of the pre-Proto-Indo-European Balkans and Danube Basin (“Old Europe.”) That part of her work has been confirmed and expanded on, and has led to some major shifts in the chronology of technology and cultures in that part of the world. However, her fascination with a primordial Great Goddess and peaceful, egalitarian matriarchy that worshiped the Female . . . Has major flaws. A number of ethnographers, anthropologists, and others took the idea and ran with it. And are still running with it.

The idea resonates with some people, for different reasons. In some cases, they truly think that the problems of the modern world were caused by getting too far from recognizing the importance of women as mothers and from the natural world. They want to find a pattern in the past that worked, and that can be returned to or recreated in a way that brings society and the non-built environment back into harmony as they understand it. Ecofeminism is part of it, or was. It’s a version of the Fall from Grace that appeals to some hard-core environmentalists, some people who conflate Christian theology with the Industrial Revolution and it’s “dark, Satanic mills.” Pagan must be better than Christianity, and female-dominated paganism must be even better than male-dominated paganism, so worshiping a Great Goddess means that women and Nature will also be venerated.

If you sense a lot of 1960s-70s hippie woo in that, you’re right. There are also women who blame Christianity and the modern world for abuse they’ve suffered. In those cases, especially when the abuse was justified or defended using twisted Christian or Jewish teachings, I understand why people would go that way. I disagree with their ideas, but I understand the appeal of a world of loving, caring, peaceful matriarchs who were honored and worshiped by kind, strong, gentle men. There’s a strain of Ecofeminism that tracks that way, where Nature is as badly abused as Women and so both need to get away from the Male. For women like that to seek out and dream of a society of goddess followers, or to try very hard to find traces of goddesses and a Great Goddess in Slavic folklore and other traditions makes a sort of sense.

Some people desperately need to find something new for a thesis or dissertation. Been there, was fortunate in that. Again, my sympathies even when I vehemently disagree.

However, I really have trouble accepting that we can reconstruct a full, tribal-centered religious pantheon and belief system from the existing folklore and a few references in the surviving documents from the time of the conversion of the Russian Slavs. Our sources include official documents like The Primary Chronicle of Kiev, some accounts of the deities venerated by Baltic pagans, some church documents condemning the practices of human sacrifice, animal sacrifice, and idol worship, and hints in folklore. The things I’ve seen lean on the folk-lore, in part because the Slavic paganism as described in official texts was strongly influenced by the Indo-Europeans. Going back farther when we don’t have archaeological materials for much of the region being discussed . . . is hard. So you are left with hints, comparative linguistics, and folk-lore.

In one of the stories, the hero must win the aid of three sisters, all of whom are called Baba Yaga. Ah ha! say the researchers. Here we have evidence of a survival of the three-part Great Goddess as maiden, mother, and crone. Except . . . all three are old women in the story. There are stories where Baba Yaga is a tester and rewards the brave. Ah ha! say the researchers. Here we have evidence of a good goddess who was brutally suppressed by the Christians and patriarchs. Except magical characters, especially tricksters, often serve as testers and as bad guys.

Baba Yaga is just one of the figures I’ve seen people try to turn into a lingering nod to a primordial Great Goddess. The trouble is that so many faiths came from animism, starting with local spirits and deities that became tribal spirits and deities and then expanded into dynastic deities. In some cases, a new philosophic system also gets tagged in, so you have Buddhism, Confucianism (not popular but the official versions), philosophic Hinduism, some of the Greek-influenced groups we lump together as Gnostics, and the three monotheisms. All of those either pair male and female deities with a patriarchal society, or honor a goddess who gives kingship to her chosen male, who rules as a patriarch (Babylonian, Irish, others).

I read Gimbutas, and Graves, and a lot of When-God-Was-A-Woman type stuff back in my teens and 20s. It didn’t stick, obviously. In many cases, I admire the effort and work the archaeologists and anthropologists and other put into their research and translation work. There’s some fascinating straight science out there. But trying to excavate the ghost of a goddess that might once have existed . . . I don’t think we can find that.


Trying a Little Too Hard to Rehabilitate Baba Yaga

So, I’ve been reading a compendium of various tales and discussions about Baba Yaga and figures like her in Slavic mythology and folklore. Some of it is very interesting, and cautious about reading too much into things. Other parts . . . When the quote begins with a paean to Marija Gimbutas, you know where it’s going to go. Baba Yaga is the misunderstood mother goddess, the Matriarch, the creatrix, the mother-of-creatures, and so on. She was vilified by the mean, nasty, unwashed* Christian priests and turned into an evil monster, but the real Baba Yaga is the Great Goddess who terrified the would-be patriarchs and so—

Sigh. It gets boring and predictable after a while. “If it was before Christianity, it must have been good! Otherwise the churchians wouldn’t say that it’s bad and try to chase people away from it, and women ran the place and everyone lived in harmony with nature and was kind and vegan and loved trees and—” Everything was better either before Christianity, or before the Proto-Indo-European speakers arrived with horses and patriarchy. Which one you choose depends on your starting point and which sort of paganism you assume predominated in the place and time under discussion. I’m still waiting to hear someone talk about how China was so wonderful before the terrible Confucians arrived. (No one seems to beat up on the Xia and Shang Dynasties, even though they were patriarchies that encouraged large scale human sacrifice. And horse sacrifice, once they had horses.) The “prehistory was better” wail has a long history with a lot of predictable variations. Like the Slavic neo-pagan who wants to rehabilitate Chernobog. I stopped reading at that point, because I did not care to know how he thought modern neo-pagans should venerate that particular deity in their family religious observances.

Anyone who has read more than one Baba Yaga story knows that she’s both good and bad. She punishes the arrogant, rewards the faithful (Vasilia the Wise), tests the noble, and can be a force of evil. It depends on the story. That means that she’s old, very old, very complicated, and there are probably a number of other stories and traditions that get lumped in under the name of Baba Yaga. The little house on chicken feet might have one foot, or four feet. It may whirl around constantly, it might peck and scratch around the yard like a “normal” chicken, or it might even be up in a tree (only a few stories). The fence may be a standard fence, it might be made of bones topped by human skulls that glow at night. Baba Yaga might travel in a wooden or iron mortar, driven with the pestle, while sweeping away her tracks with a broom. Or she might ride on the mortar (think something more like an American-style upright churn than the short, squat mortar and pestle mostly used today) like riding a horse.

Oh, and her cat is really a folk-memory of the lions who accompany the Great Goddess. Really.

Sure, she might be a “demoted”deity. Or she might be one of the many characters in human archetypes who shifts her nature depending on the person seeking her power or her possessions. Coyote, Anansi, Frau Pechta, some of the unofficial saint stories, the good ruler in some folk-tales, they can all be good or evil, or be seen as good or evil.

Although I think the “Baba Yaga is a folk memory of aliens” and “Baba Yaga and a male partner were Vedic yogis who brought wisdom to the pre-Slavic peoples of Russia” may be my favorites.

*OK, in some cases the unwashed part wasn’t wrong. Some Russian Orthodox clergy gave up bathing, or stopped bathing in winter and then took a rinse before Easter.

Book Review: The Forager’s Calendar

Wright, John. The Forager’s Calendar: A Seasonal Guide to Nature’s Wild Harvest. (London: profile Books, 2020)

I first saw the book in the gift shop at Dawick Gardens. However, the weight deterred me, since over-weight charges on the airlines have become considerable. Once I got home, I tracked the book down again and ordered a gently used copy. It is a month-by-month guide to things in England and Scotland that you can safely forage and eat, as well as a quick reference for major rules about where and when to forage, laws that pertain to gathering edibles, and what will kill or at least greatly sicken you. (Mushrooms have a LOT of ways to do you in, or at least make you lose weight quickly. Ahem. And so do wild carrots.)

The book is small enough to carry around in a bag, but it is heavy because of the illustrations. I would make color copies (especially if you are looking at fungi) and take those instead, if weight and bulk were a consideration.

Wright begins with useful tools for the forager, and an overview of the laws in England, Scotland, and Wales about foraging for wild plants, including mushrooms. The laws vary depending on if the property is on public land, private land, the seashore, or the public right-of-way. As you would expect, if you are on private land without permission, you can get in trouble. Foraging in some parks is also a no-no (just like the US, although some US parks and wildlife refuges allow mushrooming at certain times and in certain parts of the park.) Having separate bags and baskets for each kind of plant or mushroom is also important. One bad fungus in with a bunch of quite edible ones will ruin your day (or the rest of your [brief] life.)

The book starts in January and works around the year. It has lots of illustrations, anecdotes, suggestions for identifying plants, and a few recipes. The first page of each chapter has a list of “things to get now” and “things carrying over from earlier months.” As you would imagine, the lists get longer and longer as winter becomes summer. If a plant or mushroom is better at one point than earlier or later, Wright makes a note of that.

The last chapter has all the poisonous plants in it. They range from “rapid weight-loss will result” to “scary but most people recover. Most . . .” to “is your will up to date? Your estate will want to know.” For readers outside of Britain, this section is more of general interest, although any “wild carrot” or really colorful mushroom is probably best to avoid.

As a writer, this is great for using as a reference for pre-modern or early-modern characters who will be living off the land, or who need to know that certain things should be avoided at certain times. (Or who intend to bump off or scare another character.) Yes, it is Anglo-centric, but it gives a starting place and a way of looking at the world.

I have foraged on right-of-ways and in parks and refuges all over the US, at least for berries. Mulberries and gooseberries are easy to identify and safe to nosh. Wild strawberries have also been nibbled, although not as often (lots of work for not much flavor). I don’t do mushrooms, aside from puffballs, and those I get by asking the land-owner (often home-owner) for permission. Ditto dandelions. I don’t go digging for other things, even when I have identified them, because US and state rules are different and too varied. (I also avoid things that I know have been sprayed for or with something.)

This is a fun book. The author knows what he is doing, and is quite up front about “this tastes great,” “this will keep you from starving,” and “some people like this. I don’t know why.” And “add this to vodka to make a great gin. Here’s a cocktail to try.”

FTC Notice: I purchased this book for my own use and received no remuneration from the author or the publisher.

Glen Coe and the Laws of Hospitality

What duty has a host to a guest? And a guest to his host? Some cultures, including the Saxons and Angles of pre-Norman England, codified it into law. The Tanakh/Old Testament have stories and rules about hospitality and what if any protection a host provides to visitors, and their duties in turn. In a world where strangers were both suspect and needed (information, trade goods, short-term alliances), hospitality mattered. If certain archaeological clues are true, the guest/host rules go back thousands and thousands of years in some places. Like west-central Scotland.

Certain aspects of the Highland Clan culture mirrored cultures of the past as described by the Romans and earlier writers. Leadership centered on descent from a common male ancestor, who might or might not have been documented in surviving materials. Pedigree was more important than paperwork. At best, the chieftain and his brothers, uncles, and nephews had duties to the rest of the kindred, ensuring that no one starved and the the clan itself survived. By the 1600s, this had gotten pushed aside in many cases, especially as people not of the blood rented land from the clan. Trying to fit a cattle-raiding semi-tribal society into a modernizing feudal organization was going to be . . . awkward. Just ask the English and lowland Scots trying to make a living when the reivers came to call, and to collect any “stray” cattle and sheep.

House imitates landscape. The wall is made of turfs. This is the kind of home found in Glen Coe in the 1600s.

However, one of the iron-clad laws that appears early on in English documents and in Scottish tradition (predated the kingdoms of Scotland and the written law) was hospitality. A stranger arriving at a house or hall had the right to ask for shelter and food for the night. The Anglo-Saxon laws eventually codified it to three days. After that, the guest had to become a vassel of his host, unless other arrangements were made. The host protected the guest. The guest in turn defended his host, or at the very least stayed well clear of both sides if his host was attacked. Strangers had to announce themselves and to show that they came without ill intention. People living along a road could not attack a stranger simply because he was a traveling stranger. Strangers brought information, entertainment, and possibly trade goods and useful skills. They could also be a danger, a spy, or a thief or murderer. But hospitality was required.

So, Glencoe. It started with politics, and King William III not trusting the Scots chiefs and clans to stay loyal to the Protestant, Parliament-allied branch of the Stuart family. So in 1691 he demanded that all the clan chiefs swear and sign an oath of allegiance. Maclain MacDonald of the MacDonalds of Glencoe was late signing the documents. They had been moved from Fort William, not far from Glencoe as the raven flies, all the way to Inverary. In miles, this is not far. In Scotland, given the lack of roads, the winter weather, and the need to find the proper legal observers to witness the signing, it meant that Maclain signed after the deadline. King William decided to make an example of the MacDonalds of Gelencoe.

A unit of soldiers, some Campbells, part of the Earl of Argyle’s Regiment and commanded by Robert Campbell of Glenlyon, as well as other Scottish troops, visited the people of Glencoe starting on January 31, 1692. Per tradition, and because feeding and housing soldiers counted as paying your taxes, the Macdonalds fed and housed the 128 men and officers. It is thought, and generally agreed on by historians* that the troopers were not told why they were in the Glen of the Coe river. Late on February 12, the orders went out: kill everyone under age 70, men, women, children and burn their dwellings. Some troopers balked, others agreed, a few warned their hosts to flee into the heavy snow and bitter cold. The clan chief died, along with 37 others. More succumbed to the cold as they waded through snow to reach aid. Word spread.

The Campbells drew the ire of a lot of other people for their participation. Thus signs saying “No dogs and no Campbells allowed,” and the fact that to this day, there are some Scots who will not eat under the same roof as a Campbell. Not many, but memories last a very, very long time, especially when an ancient rule is broken so dramatically. The reaction to the Massacre at Glencoe was far more visceral than to things like battles, even Culloden. It still evokes a visceral reaction. The exhibit and video in the visitors’ center pounded that over and over: it wasn’t the number of deaths so much as the violation of hospitality that made the Glencoe Massacre so infamous.

A battle is a battle. People die in battle. That’s just how it goes, and everyone is aware of it, especially those who bitterly regret the need for a fight to determine a political result. But staying with people for almost two weeks, then killing women and children along with fighting-age men and burning their dwellings? That violated laws of conduct that echoed down thousands of years. King William III made a point, that was true. His troopers also gained the opprobrium of taboo breakers and murderers, an opprobrium that remains to this day, like a black blot on the record of Clan Campbell and of the Argyle Regiment (to a lesser extent).

Glencoe was eerie. Part of it is that because of its topography, the caldera catches weather. It will be sunny and calm to the north and south, while rain or show drench the glen. Part of it was probably my sensitivity to places soaked in strong emotion. I would not want to be there on my own on a February night, especially if there was a storm.

*Popular memory and history don’t always agree, although the distrust verging on hatred of Campbells in some parts of Scotland has faded. Mostly faded. But not entirely.

Food and Taboos

“Fish is brain food.”

“Fish will make you cold and slow and will block medicine power.”

“If it doesn’t have fins and scales, it is unclean.”

Don’t compliment a baby or you will bring down the evil eye. Don’t sit so that the sole of your shoe or the bottom of your foot is pointed at someone. Don’t touch someone on the head lest you interfere with their chi. Don’t eat within one hour before going swimming. Women shouldn’t bathe during . . .

Every culture has things that Must Not Be Done. Some of them seem odd to outsiders, and on occasion, even those inside the culture can’t explain precisely why you Don’t Do That. When anthropologists and folk-lore students start finding patterns, well, then it gets interesting.

Many Plains Indian peoples had taboos about fish – don’t eat them. Either they are just bad luck, or their are bad for medicine power, or they will make you slow, or . . . Up and down the Great Plains of North America, freshwater fish were taboo. Which made ethnographers wonder what the connection was, since these groups all moved to the Plains at different times, and had somewhat different cultures. What probably made fish bad news was the lack of fat. Most parts of the Great Plains, especially the western parts, lack carbohydrates but have lots of lean-meat protein sources. Eating too much lean meat without access to fats and carbohydrates can lead to medical problems, and that may be the origin of the prohibition. Season-dated Paleoindian bison kills show a preference for females in the fall (when they are fattier than males), but males in the spring (when females are far leaner than males.) Some archaeologists have speculated that rules of hunting might have included taboos, although we can’t tell.

The Jewish and Muslim rules about not eating pork are probably the best known food taboos in the western world, although they are not identical. Jewish rules hold pork to be unclean, but pigs may be raised and sold to outsiders. In an emergency, pork may be consumed if the alternative is starvation. Finding a package of bacon on the front step of a synogogue does not render the place of worship ceremonially unclean. The same is not true of a mosque. Pork and pigs are abominations in Islam, and are to be avoided at all costs.

Many food-related taboos are tied in with ideas of ritual purity and cleanliness. Insects and things that creep on the ground may be “dirty.” Likewise many cultures have a ban on consuming carrion eaters, because they eat decayed (and thus corrupt and unclean) flesh. For the Comanche, fish are unclean, and they won’t eat dog because Coyote is close to dogs. Other Indian peoples have no problem with consuming dog meat (the Cheyenne and Maya, for example) but the Kiowa eschew bear meat.

Ritual cleanliness also places a lot of limitations on women of child-bearing age. A woman having her menses is often ritually unclean, or might have the unfortunate ability to break medicine-power or certain blessings. In some cases, women were strictly confined away from sunlight and the rest of society, under the strict care of a post-menopausal woman, until their cycle had finished. In other cultures, the rule was that women of child-bearing age could not go near where the shaman or medicine man lived. Sometimes, women were to avoid hunters for a set number of days before a major hunt, to ensure that hunting magic would remain strong, and that the “scent” (real or spiritual) of blood would not contaminate the hunters and scare away the game.

Some cultures have a lot more taboos than do others. Entire slices of society might be under strict limitations because of a caste system, to the point that if the shadow of a certain person touches the possessions of a different person, the offender is to be executed for polluting the one of higher rank or spiritual authority.

The west doesn’t have as many religious taboos as many cultures, although we certainly have unspoken customs and limitations. Don’t talk about your income or job. Don’t tell dirty jokes or swear in mixed company. Certain cuts of clothing are not suitable for daytime or business attire. Don’t forget to leave a tip for a waiter or waitress, unless the service has been truly terrible. Men should remove their hats when entering a place of worship unless that faith requires the head to be covered. Don’t talk about sex, religion, or politics at the supper table. (Note that “religion” can include college or professional athletics in some parts of the country.)

And never, ever comment on a no-hitter baseball game in progress, or a smooth ride on a flight, or say anything like, “Boy, this equipment test is going really well!” Every fan, pilot, and tech or engineer will turn well-deserved wrath upon thee.

For an intriguing academic look at food taboos around the world:


Tonight, the eve of the feast of St. Walburga (Walpurga), it is said that the witches of Germany gather on the Brocken, a mountain in the Harz. The night is held by many in Europe to be uncanny, for various reasons. Modest Mussorgsky wrote a tone-poem about this, “The Night on the Bare Mountain.”

Book Review: Geköpft und Gepfhält. Vampires in Archaeology

Franz, Angelika and Nösler, Daniel. Geköpft und Gepfählt: Archäologen auf der Jagd nach den Untoten. (Darmstadt, Germany: Theiss Verlag, 2016)

I needed some books about Central European history, books not available in English. So, while prowling and its cousins, this popped up. It translates “Beheaded and Staked: Archaeologists on the Hunt for the Undead.” It is a fascinating look at the evidence for belief in vampires and other undead, going back to the Paleolithic and as recently as the early 2000s in Romania. Probably more recently, although many cases of “vampire” elimination probably stay very quiet. The authors point out that moderns are the first generation to not believe in the undead, in people coming back to warn or destroy the living. At least, that is, if the archaeology and anthropology prove true.

This book combines popular science and hard science in a readable volume. Yes, it is in German. I’m used to reading archaeological reports and the like, so I could follow it very easily, although I did look up some legal terms.

The authors start with an overview of vampire legends and recent cases, along with accounts of vampire “scares” in the 1700s and 1800s. Then they look at “life and death in the middle ages and modern times,” including burial rituals and beliefs about death. From there they consider all the terms for “vampire:” draugr, morioi, shroud-chewer, and others, and where the names came from. The unhappy undead are found all over Europe, even if they are not called “vampire,” and took many forms and acted in different ways. “Count Dracula” of Bram Stoker and the movies was actually a bit of an exception, in that he did not focus on blood relatives or former neighbors.

From types, the authors move to ways of becoming a vampire. Some are just cursed, others became vampires by living an unjust life, or working in occupations thought to incline people toward sin and injustice (like being a lawyer or a surveyor!) Babies who died without baptism, women who died during childbirth, men who died while denying their sin, all might return to claim the lives of relatives and others.

Written sources from the Middle Ages come next, followed by archaeological evidence for vampires. This is some of the most interesting material, because it goes back, oh, tens of thousands of years. When people find bodies with stones piled on top of them, or a rock wedged into the jaws, or a sickle resting on the throat, or the head removed and jammed between the feet . . . vampire. Buried face down, or with the feet tied, or even cut off? Vampire or some other form of dangerous undead. Even priests and abbots were not immune to fears of their return, as certain burials showed.

The last chapters look at the forensics of the undead, and the process of decay (or lack of decay) that were taken as signs of the body housing a vampire. Then what steps were taken to prevent someone from returning, including putting thorns in the shroud, needles or thorns in the feet (to prevent walking), scattering poppy or sesame seeds in the coffin (the dead would have to count all the seeds and gather them before they could leave the grave), taking a winding route to the graveyard, and a different route back (to confuse the dead), burying possible vampires inside thorn-hedges to keep them from leaving . . . There were as many ways as cultures.

The book concludes with the undead of modern times, including Haitian zombies, and the undead in fiction and popular culture. I found the first four-fifths of the book to be the most interesting, especially the archaeology and the typology of restless undead. Popular culture associates vampires with Romania and the Balkans, or New Orleans (Ann Rice and followers), but the undead are found all over the world, and are generally malevolent. There’s no angst or regret for being a vampire in a German “shroud chewer” or his cousins. They want company, and that means killing relatives and neighbors to come join them.

The bibliography includes sources in English, German, and Romanian. Some are popular accounts, but most are academic papers about archaeology and anthropology. I plan to track down a few of the titles, English and German, for future use.

The book is well written and easy to follow. It helps if you know a little about archaeology and about the topic in general, but it’s not needed. Yes, the book is in German. But not academic German, and I had no trouble reading through, even without having a dictionary on hand. The dictionary helped in places, mostly legal terms and a few medical things I couldn’t suss out on my own. Alas, the book was not cheap, but most of that was postage. Boat freight has gone up since 2018, the last time I ordered books from a shipper in Germany.

I highly recommend this book to people interested in the folklore and archaeology of the undead, in vampires outside of Romania, and interested in popular beliefs about death and sin. A basic knowledge of German is needed, and a good dictionary helps.

FTC Disclaimer: I purchased this book for my own use and received no remuneration or consideration from the publisher or authors.

Man’s Search For the Future: Omens, Auguries, and Magic Eight Balls

For reasons only known to my subconscious, as I was strolling the other morning, I thought back to the grand conjunction last winter, and how so many people wondered “What does it mean?” What significance, other than being a really neat astronomical event, did it hold? Was it a good omen, a warning, a sign of something Great about to happen? Astronomers and some clergy got irked at all the to-do, because conjunctions like that are not as rare as they seem, and people were “losing the meaning” of the event, whatever that was supposed to mean (varied between astronomer and clerical denomination.)

Alas for the experts, mankind has been looking for hints about the future, or about decision making, ever since Og observed a shooting star and took it to mean something, back in the days of Neandertal vs. Cro-magnon. As a species, we don’t like uncertainty, so we look for clues and hints as to what might be coming. We count stripes on wooly-worms to determine the length of winter and how hard it will be. We make note of the weather the first 12 days of the year, to see how wet or dry the next 12 months will be. We make wishes on the first star, or on shooting stars. We use cards, or yarrow stalks, or fruit peels, or tea leaves, to try and see into the future or to guide decisions. We watch birds in flight, or animals on the move. As a species, we are superstitious, even those of us who are more inclined toward science than to “woo.” We avoid walking under ladders, or always dress in a certain order when we have a big test or presentation or something. And that’s in the “rational, post-Enlightenment” part of the world.

Reading birds is where we get the term auspix, or augury, and thus auspicious. The Romans looked at bird innerds, watched flocks of birds in flight, or observed feeding chickens to see what the future might hold. Some groups read the future in eggs, although exactly how varies from place to place and over time. Certain birds were considered ill omened, like a rooster crowing at the wrong time, and might signify a coming death, or misfortune. If one flew across your path, you would be well advised to turn around and at the very least try a different path. Better might be to go home and wait another day to depart, if possible.

Comets, novae, noctilucent clouds . . . all have been seen as ill or good omens. Haley’s Comet appears in the Bayeux Tapestry, and in Chinese records. Several diaries from just before the outbreak of the Thirty-Years War describe burning lights in the sky, noctilucent clouds and a comet. “Fire in the skies” or “war in the heavens” what did they mean? Looking back, everyone knew – terrible war, and hunger, and plague. In 1066, after the Normans won, of course the comet meant that Harold Godwinson had been an oath-breaker who usurped the throne, and William of Normandy was just and blessed for claiming what was rightfully his. No one asked the Saxons or Welsh their opinion, one suspects.

People look for signs in smaller things. The Rule of Three – three bad things in a row and then you’re OK for a while. If you button something out of order, undo it all, then redo it all, or you’ll have misfortune. “Sneeze on Monday, sneeze for danger, sneeze on Tuesday, sneeze for a stranger . . .” If a bird flies into a house, someone will die. Shapes in tea-leaves. Finding a penny, or a pin, and picking it up. Don’t walk under a ladder. Do make a wish on the first star, or on a shooting star (but don’t tell anyone your wish). Use something like a Ouija board, or Magic Eight Ball (“future uncertain”) to divine the future, or decide what to do. Horoscopes? Tarot? Rune tiles? We want to know what’s coming, for good or for ill.

But don’t step on a crack. You’ll break your mother’s back, you know.

Which Version of the Story? Fairy Tales and Folk Lore

For reasons I have no clue about, unless it was related to waking up from a dream about doing lesson plans, my mind wandered into fairy-tale heroines and tropes. Oh, or it might have been snickering with a friend about taking a currently popular (and unhealthy) romance trope/reader cookie and subverting or flat inverting it. That was popular for a while in certain circles. You may recall the “self-rescuing princesses!” claims for some books, or last year’s “inverted re-telling of The Princess Bride.” (If you missed that, no great loss, I assure you.)

A while back I posted about a different writer’s frustration with the live-action and CG movie Maleficent, and how it collided with the ideas in Sleeping Beauty. These are both Disney productions, and thus Disney’s version of the Sleeping Beauty story. Those who have read the older versions know that Disney sweetened things a great deal, although the animated movie is a great story on its own. One of the blog commenters observed that she does not like the older fairy-tales and folk-tales, because they place too much emphasis on physical beauty as the only thing of value for a woman, with everything else coming a distant second at best.

I’ve been chewing on that for a while, and I’m not really sure that holds up, when you get away from Disney versions, the sweetened and domesticated editions of stories. I grew up with Andrew Lang, the original Grimm’s stories, and some Russian and Scandinavian stories, along with Greek mythology (unexpurgated). Some are certainly about beauty alone – The Little Goose Girl comes to mind, where it is her lovely hair and her attractiveness (and the talking head of her dead horse) that proves her nobility. Disney’s “Sleeping Beauty” is another one. “The Princess and the Pea,” where physical sensitivity shows noble rank. But a lot of others . . . require the heroine to do a lot of work, or to atone for mistakes, in order to win her man or win her brother’s freedom.

The German Frau Pechta stories are about young women who help others, and who have strong domestic skills. That wins them supernatural aid. So too some of the Baba Yaga stories, where the girl (with the aid of her mother’s blessing) shows respect for Baba Yaga and completes tasks in order to get the wild spirit’s assistance. “East of the Sun, West of the Moon,” is another where the girl must endure hardship and show bravery in order to win back her love. “The Swan Princes” requires the princess to make shirts out of nettles* for her brothers in order to break evil magic. Some other stories, where the prince rescues the heroine, require her to trick her captors in order to stay alive or unmolested.

Those are not about beauty. Yes, they are about following social norms and being a good woman/daughter/betrothed. Yes, the girl is often described as being pretty or beautiful, just like the man is always good looking. The idea that interior goodness or wickedness is reflected in outward appearance goes back a long ways. But looks are also deceiving, as other stories show. The beautiful princess may be the evil one, or the witch-queen uses her looks to seduce the king and take over. (There’s a strong undercurrent of that in Robin McKinley’s Deerskin, a book I do NOT recommend for young readers. Stick with The Hero and the Crown and The Blue Sword as teen reading.)

Andrew Lang toned down some of the stories in his collection. He was a Victorian, and had Victorian sensibilities about what was appropriate for young readers. However, a lot more death, mayhem, and misery are in those stories than people assume. The heroes and heroines have to pay for bad choices, for breaking the rules. There’s a reason for the trope of the evil step-parent, of the negligent blood-parent. If you read a lot of history, then read “The Children of Lir,” you sort of nod. Second wives demanding that their son inherit rather than the son of the first wife . . . The pattern shows up over and over in history. Heck, look at polygamous societies today. Hans Christian Anderson made up his fairy tales, for the most part, but they fit his society and time. The French stories, once you take off the pretty trimmings added to please the nobility, are darn grim and close to the bone, just like French peasant life. Balkan folk-lore is full of “don’t go with strangers, avoid strangers, stick close to home and stay with the group or else.” But often the girls have to be strong, and brave, and take risks to free themselves or their family members from supernatural ills. Or at least to preserve themselves until help can come.

So yes, the “beauty is what makes you successful/happy/loved” appears in some tales, and it’s probably not the best foundation for living your life. But dig a little farther and there’s a lot of self-preserving princesses, some who rescue their lovers, some who stand up to supernatural rulers on their own, and some who provide the critical key to help the prince defeat evil. Like so much, it depends on what you read and watch, and how widely you read and watch.

And I’m going to go right on messing with the current Paranormal Romance patterns in some of my stories. Because some Golden Calves need to be BBQed.

*You treat the stems of nettles the same way you do flax – let the outer coating soften in water by rotting a little, then hackle and rett the fibers, spin them, and weave or knit the thread into cloth. It was a fiber that was available to the very poor when even gleaned wool was too scarce. Sort of like bark-fibers (bast) in Slavic countries.