On Listening to Ravens

From “The Servant and the Raven, “a fantasy novel I am writing inspired by the Brother Grimm’s old fairytale, “The White Snake.” In this excerpt, the two friends, Caedmon mac Cumhaill and Egil Skallagrimsson, resume an earlier conversation about the uncanny powers of ravens.

When the young bard finally returned, the sun had just slid behind the Valley’s high wall and the land within taken on a cool rich emerald hue. Neither youth felt the need to speak. Sitting a little distance from Caedmon, his back against the wall, Egil drew a bone flute from an inner pocket and played meditatively upon it for a while. He then set it beside him, and, as if off-handedly, said, “Speaking of ravens…”

Caedmon turned and studied him. His new friend’s eyes were set in a distant gaze, as if he were about to launch into a tale that had to be gathered up from some far-away region.

“When I was a boy, I travelled much with my father. Those days the petty kings no longer dared stir out of their castles, so strong had the Volsung overlordship become, and so they contented themselves with hunting, whoring, and listening to songs from wandering bards such as my father. It didn’t hurt that my dad was a magician of the sleight-of-hand variety either. Making gold coins appear out of a lordling’s ear always went down well among the rustics.”

Egil laughed bitterly, the memory of those old days still strong within him. Caedmon listened with fascination – what had prompted the bard to share this story with him?

“Of my exiled father’s high art and lineage,” Egil continued, “the kinglets in their tankard thumping halls knew nothing, nor did they care. We eked out a living, and during winter the times got lean indeed.

One evening, my father sat with me before the stingy fire of a miserable inn, tossing our pouch of gold coins up and down in his hand. It was getting perilously light. Outside, an icy wind was gusting out of the North and the dark clouds blacking out the stars over the mountains promised another heavy fall of snow. Although my dad said nothing, I knew we’d need to make the shelter of the next castle soon or freeze in the land of the inhospitable Odin’s Folk.

Yet even in the worst of circumstances, my father never lost his ear for a tale.” Continue reading “On Listening to Ravens”

Revoking the Myth of 1492 and Reclaiming Turtle Island

buffalo ancestors

You know, I think if people stay somewhere long enough – even white people – the spirits will begin to speak to them. It’s the power of the spirits coming up from the land. The spirits and the old powers aren’t lost, they just need people to be around long enough and the spirits will begin to influence them.

Spoken by a Crow elder to Gary Snyder.

Joseph Campbell, whose resonant interpretations of world mythology left such a mark upon the arts and spiritual imagination of the previous century, once offered four functions for any culture’s mythological system. “Mythology,” in this case, does not mean “outdated” or “pre-scientific,” but rather it means the interface of stories about the nature of existence that any culture must utilize to navigate through an ultimately unknowable cosmos. These stories we use to orient ourselves fall into four categories, or “functions,” according to Campbell:

1. The Mystical Function, expressing our awe of the universe; 2. The Cosmological Function, explaining the shape of the universe; 3. The Sociological Function, supporting and validating a certain social order, and 4. The Pedagogical Function, giving direction for living one’s life within the overarching meaning provided by a mythological system.

Apparently, this works by the trickle down effect. Authentic mystical visions of the highest attainable truths are given symbolic form and then stepped down, systematized, and eventually harmonized into the daily life of a society. This was the idea behind Plato’s Republic as well as the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages, in whose cathedrals we can see an entire cosmovision realized in stone.

Yet, as we know, myth can not only point to eternal truths but also be a system of control imposed upon a population. Folk sometimes imagine the sociological function has to do with “socializing” at church or the temple, but it doesn’t. Not at all. It’s the aspect of mythic systems that supports and validates the social order — and like the tradition of sati, where a Hindu widow would throw herself upon her husband’s funeral pyre and burn to death, it can actually be a fairly nasty piece of work. Continue reading “Revoking the Myth of 1492 and Reclaiming Turtle Island”