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Synopsis of Gilgamesh

July 13, 2011 8 comments

As I continue to post selections from my version of the Epic of Gilgamesh, readers probably are growing more curious about the story in its entirety. So I’m following a friend’s suggestion and posting my synopsis of the epic; hope this gives a good idea of the plot!

Synopsis 

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Tablet I: Prologue. Gilgamesh is two-thirds god, only one-third human. He built the walls around Uruk, the city he rules, and restored the proper worship of the gods. He is divinely powerful and handsome, and endured great suffering to bring humanity forgotten wisdom: the story of the Flood.

Story starts. Gilgamesh’s sexual energy oppresses his subjects, the people of Uruk. They complain to Anu, Father Sky, and ask him for help. To absorb his divine energy, Anu decrees a companion for Gilgamesh—Enkidu.  Aruru, Mother Earth, fashions Enkidu and places him in the wilderness. Enkidu grows up among wild animals, and protects them by ripping up the nets that trappers lay for the herds. One of these trappers complains to Gilgamesh, who sends a gorgeous woman, Shamhat, to seduce Enkidu and bring him into Uruk. Shamhat accompanies the trapper and seduces Enkidu.

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Tablet II: Shamhat takes Enkidu into a shepherd’s camp to learn the settled way of life. While at the camp, Enkidu is outraged when he learns of Gilgamesh’s duty to sleep with brides on their wedding night. He vows to go to Uruk and stop this practice; when he arrives at the city, he wrestles with Gilgamesh, who barely wins the match against the newcomer. Enkidu acknowledges Gilgamesh’s authority and the two take vows as partners.

Gilgamesh takes Enkidu to meet his mother, the Goddess Ninsun. Ninsun denounces Enkidu, saying that he has treated Shamhat with disrespect and intends to introduce changes in marriage that will harm Uruk. She ends by saying that unless Enkidu changes his views on marriage and women, he must leave the city.

The next day Gilgamesh and Enkidu discuss ways to circumvent Ninsun and remain together. Gilgamesh hits on the idea of undertaking an expedition to the Cedar Forest to cut down the precious trees. To do this they must kill Huwawa, the ferocious monster who guards the forest. Gilgamesh persuades both Enkidu and Uruk’s Assembly of Men that this expedition will bring great wealth into the city and increase the prestige of men, who are still largely subservient to women and the Goddess Inanna. Gilgamesh believes that once the expedition has succeeded, Ninsun will be forced to bless his love for Enkidu.

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Tablet III: Utu, the Sun God and Gilgamesh’s divine father, tells Gilgamesh that he has blessed the Forest Expedition. The Assembly of Men considers this sufficient protection for the adventure, and consents to Gilgamesh’s plan. But Ninsun is distraught; she understands that the expedition will rouse the anger of the Goddess Inanna, with unknown consequences for her son and Uruk. She prays to Utu the Sun to withdraw his blessing and protect their child; but Utu tells her that the expedition is part of Gilgamesh’s fate and can’t be prevented. He ends by saying that Inanna’s authority in Uruk will not be compromised.

Ninsun reluctantly consents to the adventure, and accepting fate, adopts Enkidu as her son, thereby blessing his union with Gilgamesh. She undertakes rituals to ensure Inanna’s support for the adventure. Gilgamesh instructs the Assembly in how to rule in his absence. He and Enkidu leave Uruk.

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Tablet IV: Gilgamesh and Enkidu cross six mountains on their way to the Cedar Forest. At each mountain Gilgamesh has a dream; initially, the dreams warn of disaster, but Enkidu interprets each positively. Gilgamesh is nonetheless on the edge of turning back when the dreams become more favorable. On the seventh day, they reach the Cedar Mountain.

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Tablet V: The heroes climb the Cedar Mountain and marvel at the forest.

Utu breaks their reverie, telling them that they must attack Huwawa immediately; he is not wearing his full complement of radiant armor and is vulnerable. But Huwawa has heard them enter his territory and attacks them, even though he isn’t fully prepared. The monster’s radiant presence temporarily paralyzes and hinders the heroes, but they struggle free and injure him. Huwawa runs deep into the forest.

Gilgamesh and Enkidu follow, and when they find Huwawa, the monster is wearing all of his deadly haloes. This time his magic paralyzes them completely, and he closes in to kill them. Gilgamesh prays to Utu for deliverance, and the Sun God overcomes Huwawa, binding him in an unbreakable net. Huwawa is now at the heroes’ mercy.

Huwawa pleads for his life, acknowledging Gilgamesh and Utu as his masters and pledging to deliver whatever timber that Gilgamesh wants.

Gilgamesh is moved by the monster’s plea, but Enkidu urges the king to kill him, arguing that if they let Huwawa live, he will turn against them and report their successful incursion to Enlil, the patron of the forest and the most powerful of the gods. Enlil will kill them in revenge; he is stronger than Utu. Gilgamesh can’t find a way around this reasoning, and so he kills Huwawa. The heroes cut down many trees, including the Tree of Heaven, and return with their booty to Uruk.

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Tablet VI: The Goddess Inanna comes naked to Gilgamesh, offers to sleep with him, and tells him that she wants him for her husband, which would make him an immortal god. Gilgamesh replies with contempt, refusing her offer and cataloguing the terrible fates of other lovers she has taken.

Inanna replies, telling him that he is scorning his duty as king and thereby jeopardizing the safety of his people. She explains why each of the lovers he catalogued had failed her, and reminds him that men remain indebted to women because they need the civilizing influence that women provide. Gilgamesh rejects her argument, and the offer of immortality, saying that to do so would compromise the prestige of men.

Inanna goes up to heaven and reports Gilgamesh’s behavior to her father, Anu, Father Sky. He sides with Gilgamesh, and tells her that she should accept the king’s decision. Furious, Inanna threatens to let the dead up from the underworld to eat the living unless she can punish Gilgamesh—she asks for the Bull of Heaven (the constellation Taurus) to be let loose against Uruk. Terrified, Anu consents, and Inanna takes the Bull down to Uruk.

The Bull attacks Uruk, devastating the outlying fields and houses. But Gilgamesh and Enkidu attack the Bull, find its weak spot, and slaughter it. They are received in Uruk as heroes and the city feasts Gilgamesh that night, as Inanna and her votaries mourn over the haunch of the slain bull.

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Tablet VII: The night of the feast, Enkidu dreams that the gods have condemned him to death. He tells Gilgamesh that Enlil has condemned him because they killed Huwawa and the Bull of Heaven. Utu defends Enkidu, but loses the argument when Enlil reminds him that they killed Huwawa in spite of his plea for mercy—Utu is the god of justice and mercy and therefore the heroes broke the code of their champion when they refused the monster’s plea. Enkidu’s dream breaks off at this point, but it seems clear that Utu was forced to consent to his death.

Gilgamesh tries to hold out hope that the gods can be persuaded to change their minds, but Enkidu is certain that his death is near. He curses the Cedar Door, Shamhat, and the trapper, the agents he believes responsible for his death, but Utu reminds him that these people helped him. Enkidu then blesses both of them.

The next night Enkidu dreams that the Angel of Death takes him to the Underworld, and there the Queen of the Dead reads out the Writ of Execution, but says that because Enkidu is Gilgamesh’s beloved, he will enjoy a better condition in the underworld than most mortals. Enkidu reports his dream to Gilgamesh in the morning, and that day falls ill. He lingers for several days, but dies horribly. Gilgamesh begins to mourn.

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Tablet VIII:  Gilgamesh makes a powerful lament for Enkidu. He orders a memorial statue of Enkidu to be crafted and begins preparations for the burial: he selects elaborate and expensive funeral gifts for the gods from the city’s treasury and dedicates each of these to its proper deity in the underworld. Gilgamesh orders the construction of a burglar-proof tomb in the bed of the Euphrates River. When the tomb has been built, he places Enkidu in his sarcophagus and lets the river back into its bed.

That night, still devastated by grief and the fear of death, Gilgamesh leaves Uruk to search for Utnapishtim, the only man to win eternal life. He hopes to learn the secret of immortality from him.

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Tablet IX:  Gilgamesh travels to the edge of the world and finds a pass over the Dividing Mountains into the deathless lands. But while crossing the pass he sees a pair of lions playing in moonlight, and in a fit of ravenous hunger, kills and eats them. The Moon God tells him that in punishment, he must travel the difficult path over the mountains, which lies far to the east.

Gilgamesh travels east and meets the scorpion-guardians, gods who watch over the Path of the Sun through the mountains. Seeing his mortal blood, they initially forbid him passage, but he convinces them that he is more god than man, and so they let him pass.

Racing through the passage, he reaches a garden of jeweled fruit at the entrance to the Immortal Lands. Ravenous once more, he eats fruit from the garden, which restores his strength and vigor. On the far side of the garden lies the shore of the Sea of Death; on the shore Gilgamesh discovers a tavern.

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Tablet X:  Gilgamesh reaches the tavern and its keeper, Siduri, the Goddess of the Temple-as-Tavern. Siduri begs Gilgamesh to become her husband, which would confer eternal life and ease. He refuses; he wishes immortality in the mortal lands, so he can rule and protect his city forever (thus rivaling the power of his mother, Queen Ninsun). Siduri is crushed and at first refuses to speak any more with him, but Gilgamesh persuades her to tell him how to cross the Sea of Death: he must win passage on the boat captained by Urshanabi the Ferryman.

Gilgamesh finds the ferry boat with its crew, but Urshanabi is absent, cutting wood for repairs. The crew disgusts him: they are grotesque monsters, men made of jewels and stones in the same way that the trees of the jeweled garden are, but horrible to look on. Gilgamesh kills them just as Urshanabi returns from his errand. The ferryman is furious, and refuses passage over the waters. Gilgamesh threatens to kill him, and Urshanabi says that he will guide him across, but Gilgamesh must do the work that the crew would have done, a terrible labor. They sail across the Sea and reach Utnapishtim.

Gilgamesh pleads with Utnapishtim for eternal life. Utnapishtim says that the gift is not his to give: only the Assembly of Gods can confer immortality. He advises Gilgamesh to return to Uruk, where his skills and experience are needed to restore the city’s proper worship. Utnapishtim then says that he will tell Gilgamesh a secret that explains the wisdom and necessity of death: the Story of the Flood.

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Tablet XI: Part 1, the Flood.  Utnapishtim says that in ancient times the gods decided to destroy mankind because men had become too powerful. The gods were unable to resist the beauty of mortal women, and so fathered many half-gods on them, people who were almost divine and demanded to be admitted into heaven. The gods were afraid that these mortals would supplant them. Lead by the Goddess Inanna, who was jealous of the beauty of mortal women, they decreed the Flood. Only Enki, the God of Wisdom, and Utu, the God of Justice, dissented. Enki decided to defy the Assembly and save his own son, Utnapishtim.

Enki told Utnapishtim about the imminent catastrophe and instructed him in how to build a ship to save himself, his family, and all land animals. Utnapishtim built the ark and the Flood came, wiping out all life. But the Gods lost control of the Waters: they were powerful enough to start the catastrophe, but not powerful enough to stop it. Specifically, they called to their aid the demons of the underworld, gods who were banished beneath the earth because they refused to obey the Assembly. In revenge, these demons urged the Waters higher, destroying the courts of heaven and forcing the gods to flee to the farthest walls of the world, where they cowered like dogs.

Only Inanna, in her capacity as Goddess of Battle, had the courage to fight these demons. She fought Ushamgallana, the Nine-Headed Worm, and cut off two of his heads. She shrieked out her Battle Cry, which paralyzed the Worm. She moved in for the kill, but Enlil, the God of Storms, attacked her: he did not want to lose his overlordship of the gods to a woman. Enlil held Inanna down until Ushamgallana recovered and raped the Goddess.

The Gods were then helpless, utterly defeated. They would have been killed, if they had not been immortal. The Demons, knowing that they could inflict no further destruction, moved back to the Underworld, taking the Waters with them.

The retreating waters revealed the peaks of seven mountains; the ark landed on one of them, and Utnapishtim released a series of birds, hoping that they will find land; the third bird, a raven, found land, and Utnapishtim burned incense in thanks to the gods. He opened the ark and releases its inmates.

The gods smelled the incense and came down to feed on the offerings. Enlil, however, was outraged: no man was meant to survive the Flood. Enki explained that he has outwitted him and saved mortal life. Enki then cursed Enlil for allowing the Flood, stripping him of overlordship of the gods, which he took for himself. The God of Wisdom then condemned Inanna, saying that in punishment for her role, the children she will bear as a result of her rape will be doomed to live in the Underworld after death. The new mortals, moreover, will not worship the Goddess as they had before. But Enki also commended her courage in fighting against the Worm and said that in reward eventually her prestige will be restored and mortals will gain wisdom and prolong their lives. Finally, Enki took Utnapishtim and his family to live at the Source of Rivers for eternity.

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Tablet XI: Part 2, Envoi.  After hearing the story, Gilgamesh still wants eternal life, so Utnapishtim challenges him to defeat death by staying awake for seven days. Gilgamesh immediately falls asleep, and Utnapishtim devises a way of proving that he has indeed been asleep. When Gilgamesh awakes, he is forced to accept the evidence that he is unworthy of eternal life. But as consolation Utnapishtim tells Gilgamesh how to find an underwater plant that restores youth. Gilgamesh starts his journey home, guided by Urshanabi, and retrieves the Plant of Youth Renewed.

Gilgamesh decides not to eat the plant immediately, however; he wants to test it on someone else before eating it. The next day a snake enters their boat and eats the plant, shedding its skin as a result. Gilgamesh breaks down, sobbing out his sense of total defeat. But Urshanabi consoles him, reminding him of his achievements and that he had brought back the story of the Flood.

The pair reach Uruk and the sight of his city restores Gilgamesh’s spirits. He praises Uruk and its place in the world.

© 2011, Eric Quinn

Images: At top: Gilgamesh Holding a Lion; WikiCmns; Public Domain. Earrings: Parthian earrings found at Nineveh; Nickmard Khoey; WikiCmns; CC 2.0 Generic. Map: Sumer During the Uruk Period; John Croft; WikiCmns; Public Domain; Painting: The Great Flood; Michaelango, Sistine Chapel; WikiCmns; Public Domain.

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Gilgamesh Redux

May 22, 2011 4 comments

File:GilgameshTablet.jpg

Folks:

Just a brief note to say that I’m working on Tablet VIII of Gilgamesh and am making good progress on Gilgamesh’s lament for Enkidu (the first half was easy, the second half has been tougher than nails)… nothing drastic here, just a sometimes irresistible urge to work on the Project… & will post excerpt from the lament soon…   RT

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Photo: Tablet XI of The Epic of Gilgamesh; WikiCmns; Public Domain.

Beauty

April 25, 2011 3 comments

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William Morris has been one of my inspirations since I first saw his patterns back in the 80’s. Poet, painter, pattern designer (perhaps the greatest since the Middle Ages), architect, furniture designer, weaver, head of a major textile firm, socialist, and one of the founders of Britain’s Labour Party, Morris drew his complex patterns freehand (sometimes over breakfast) and wrote his poetry on buses (sometimes). While he lay dying, the physician attending him remarked that his illness was “being William Morris, and having done more work than most ten men.” Artist, poet, thinker, maker, businessman… and certainly one of the most extraordinary men that Europe produced during the 19th Century, an embodiment of diversity…. go out on Wikipedia and the Net and learn more about his talents and creativity!    RT

p.s. & thx to Aubrey for nominating me for a versatility award (more on that in the next post)

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Image: Lea printed textile (1885), William Morris & Co., WikiCmns, Public Domain.

Loomings

March 10, 2011 6 comments

I have never been particularly comfortable at sea–unlike one of my grandfathers, who shipped on with the Navy during WWI. I got seasick on a hovercraft crossing of the Channel back in the 70s–the Chunnel does seem to be a more civilized way of getting to England. When I was a boy, a brief trip onto the open ocean in a small boat (but well within sight of land) frightened me so much that the man who was piloting the boat took us back to calmer waters. Make no mistake: the ocean is to be respected.

Then one summer in college I read Moby Dick. I had no problem finishing the book (which wasn’t required reading); the power of Herman Melville’s voice, his humor, and his drama drew me steadily along. And now, in early March, the memory of his great telling has come back to me–maybe the time of year is appropriate.

Here is Moby Dick’s opening paragraph, a memory of the ocean’s irresistible call, a portent of its dangers:

CHAPTER 1. Loomings.

Call me Ishmael. Some years ago--never mind how long precisely--having
little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on
shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of
the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen and regulating
the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth;
whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find
myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up
the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get
such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to
prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically
knocking people's hats off--then, I account it high time to get to sea
as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a
philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly
take to the ship. There is nothing surprising in this. If they but knew
it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very
nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me.
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--Herman Melville (1851)

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Photo: Maori wood carving; WikiCmns; Public Domain.
Text source: Project Gutenberg; Public Domain

Approaching Light

February 28, 2011 2 comments

As the vernal equinox approaches

(and with it the tender light of spring),

I’m going to take a second and thank the passing winter

for its gifts and dreams.

Frost dreams are still dreams!

Image: Rider, John Bauer, 1914. WikiCmns; Public Domain.

The Dream of Angus

February 14, 2011 Leave a comment

Folks: In my mid-20s, I ran across this story in Lady Gregory’s Cuchulain of Murthemne (1904), the first of her two-volume retelling of Irish mythology and folktale. For sheer beauty and romance (not to mention an unsentimental understanding of love-sickness), it is matched by only a few other stories. Enjoy–and happy Valentine’s Day!   RT

DREAM OF ANGUS

(from Lady Gregory’s Cuchulain of Muirtheme)

ANGUS, son of the Dagda, was asleep in his bed one night, and he saw what he thought was a young girl standing near him at the top of the bed, and she the most beautiful he had ever seen in Ireland. He put out his hand to take her hand, but she vanished on the moment, and in the morning when he awoke there were no trace or tidings of her.

He got no rest that day thinking of her, and that she had gone away before he could speak to her. And the next night he saw her again, and this time she brought a little harp in her hand, the sweetest he ever heard, and she played a song to him, so that he fell asleep and slept till morning. And the same thing happened every, night for a year. She would come to his bedside and be playing on the harp to him, but she would be gone before he could speak with her. And at the end of the year she came no more, and Angus began to pine away with love of her and with fretting after her; and he would take no food, but lay upon the bed, and no one knew what it was ailed him. And all the physicians of Ireland came together, but they could not put a name on his sickness or find any cure for him.

But at last Fergne, the physician of Conn, was brought to him and as soon as he looked at him he knew it was not on his body the sickness was, but on his mind. And he sent every one away out of the room, and he said: “I think it is for the love of some woman that you are wasting away like this.” “That is true, indeed,” said Angus, “and it is my sickness has betrayed me.” And then he told him how the woman with the most beautiful appearance of any woman in Ireland, used to come and to be playing the harp to him through the night, and how she had vanished away.

Then Fergne went and spoke with Boann, Angus’s mother, and he told her all that happened, and he bade her to send and search all through Ireland if she could find a young girl of the same appearance as the one Angus had seen in his sleep. And then he left him in his mother’s care, and she had all Ireland searched for a year, but no young girl of that appearance could be found.

At the end of the year, Boann sent for Fergne to come again, and she said: “We have not got any help from our search up to this.” And Fergne said: “Send for the Dagda, that he may come and speak to his son.” So they sent for the Dagda, and when he came, he said: “What have I been called for?” “To give an advice to your son,” said Fergne, “and to help him, for he is lying sick on account of a young girl that appeared to him in his sleep, and that cannot be found; and it would be a pity for him to die.” “What use will it be, I to speak to him?” said the Dagda, “for my knowledge is no higher than your own.” “By my word,” said Fergne, “you are the king of all the Sidhe of Ireland, and what you have to do is to go to Bodb, the king of the Sidhe of Munster, for he has a name for knowledge all through Ireland” So messengers were sent to Bodb, at his house in Sidhe Femain, and he bade them welcome. “A welcome before you, messenger of the Dagda,” he said, “and what is the message you have brought?” “This is the message,” they said, “Angus, son of the Dagda, is wasting away these two years with love of a woman he saw in his dreams, and we have not been able to find her in any place. And this is an order to you,” they said, “from the Dagda, to search out through Ireland a young girl of the same form and appearance as the one he saw.” “The search will be made,” said Bodb, “if it lasts me a year.”

And at the end of a year he sent messengers to the Dagda. “Is it a good message you have brought?” said the Dagda. “It is, indeed,” they said; “and this is the message Bodb bade us give you, ‘I have searched all Ireland until I found the young girl with the same form and appearance that you said, at Loch Beul Draguin, at the Harp of Cliach.’ And now,” they said, “he bids Angus to come with us, till he sees if it is the same woman that appeared to him in his dream.”

So Angus set out in his chariot to Sidhe Femain, and Bodb bade him welcome, and made a great feast for him, that lasted three days and three nights. And at the end of that time he said: “Come out now with me, and see if this is the same woman that came to you.”

So they set out together till they came to the sea, and there they saw three times fifty young girls, and the one they were looking for among them; and she was far beyond them all. And there was a silver chain between every two of them, but about her own neck there was a necklace of shining gold. And Bodb said, “Do you see that woman you were looking for?” “I see her, indeed,” said Angus. ‘But tell me who is she, and what her name is.“ ”Her name is Caer Ormaith, daughter of Ethal Anbual, from Sidhe Uaman, in the province of Connaught. But you cannot bring her away with you this time,” said Bodb.

Then Angus went to visit his father, the Dagda, and his mother, Boann, at Brugh na Boinne; and Bodb went with him, and they told how they had seen the girl, and they had heard her own name, and her father’s name. “What had we best do now?” said the Dagda. “The best thing for you to do,” said Bodb, “is to go to Ailell and Maeve, for it is in their district she lives, and you had best ask their help.”

So the Dagda set out until he came into the province of Connaught, and sixty chariots with him; and Ailell and Maeve made a great feast for him. And after they had been feasting and drinking for the length of a week, Ailell asked the reason of their journey. And the Dagda said: “It is by reason of a young girl in your district, for my son has sickness upon him on account of her, and I am come to ask if you will give her to him.” “Who is she?” said Ailell. “She is Caer Ormaith, daughter of Ethal Anbual.” “We have no power over her that we could give her to him,” said Ailell and Maeve. “The best thing for you to do,” said the Dagda, “would be to call her father here to you.”

So Ailell sent his steward to Ethal Anbual, and he said: “I am come to bid you to go and speak with Ailell and with Maeve.” “I will not go,” he said; “I will not give my daughter to the son of the Dagda.” So the steward went back and told this to Ailell. “He will not come,” he said, “and he knows the reason you want him for.”

Then there was anger on Ailell and on the Dagda, and they went out, and their armed men with them, and they destroyed the whole place of Ethal Anbual, and he was brought before them. And Ailell said to him: “Give your daughter now to the son of the Dagda.” “That is what I cannot do,” he said, “for there is a power over her that is greater than mine.” “What power is that?” said Ailell. “It is an enchantment,” he said, “that is on her, she to be in the shape of a bird for one year, and in her own shape the next year.” “Which shape is on her at this time?” said Ailell. “I would not like to say that,” said her father. “Your head from you if you will not tell it,” said Ailell.

“Well,” said he, “I will tell you this much; she will be in the shape of a swan next month at Loch Beul Draguin, and three fifties of beautiful birds will be along with her, and if you will go there, you will see her.”

So then Ethal was set free, and he made friends again with Ailell and Maeve; and the Dagda went home and told Angus all that had happened, and he said: “Go next summer to Loch Beul Draguin, and call her to you there.”

So when the time came, Angus Og went to the loch, and he saw the three times fifty white birds there, with their silver chains about their necks. And Angus stood in a man’s shape at the edge of the loch, and he called to the girl: “Come and speak with me, O Caer!” “Who is calling me?” said Caer. “Angus calls you,” he said “and if you come, I swear by my word, I will not hinder you from going into the loch again.” “I will come,” she said. So she came to him, and he laid his two hands on her, and then, to hold to his word, he took the shape of a swan on himself, and they went into the loch together, and they went around it three times. And then they spread their wings and rose up from the loch, and went in that shape till they were at Brugh na Boinne. And as they were going, the music they made was so sweet that all the people that heard it fell asleep for three days and three nights.

And Caer stopped there with him ever afterwards, and from that time there was friendship between Angus Og and Ailell and Maeve. And it was on account of that friendship, Angus gave them his help at the time of the war for the Brown Bull of Cuailgne.

Photo: Swans on Loch Leane, WikiCmns, Public Domain

Art: The Swan Princess, M. Vrubin, WikiC, Public Domain

The Wine Dark Sea

January 24, 2011 3 comments

Albert Pinkham Ryder, "The Flying Dutchman"

I’ve just finished re-reading one of my favorite stories, Robert Aickman’s  “Into the Wood,” which appears in a collection of his stories, The Wine Dark Sea, published in 1988.

Aickman (1914-1981), who was English, found the inspiration for his writing in gothic, horror, and ghost stories, but his work does not belong to any of these genres. He called his stories “strange,” and the difference here may be the depth and range of learning they build on. Be prepared for references to literary figures such as Strindberg and works such as Daudet’s Sapho. But this is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the richness of Aickman’s voice.

Evil is this author’s subject, but not evil as it appears in modern folk-culture’s vampire-and-other-weird-creatures amusements. And Aickman’s writing is not political–he sees no solution in any of the current ideologies on offer. No–these writings are built on Aickman’s understanding of the true source of horror–identification with the monster. We are the monster.

How does one escape this iron-toothed trap? I won’t give you what I take to be Aickman’s answer, but only suggest that you read “Into the Wood” (or any of his other stories). One of the things that makes his work so delicious is the high literary art he commands–a voice at once formal and familiar, distant and whispered into our ear. He can weave the texture of Venice as easily as he can that of Sweden, and romance is never far from the surface of events–but this is the romance of escape into something richer, far more intricate and mesmerizing, than anything in ordinary experience, which the author satirizes in scenes surrealistic and grotesque. Do you have the courage to accept this kind of invitation into dreaming? Aickman asks, and Are you willing to pay the price?

Of “Into the Wood,” I will only say that it involves a brief stay at an old-fashioned (and high-class) residential hotel in Sweden. Don’t expect any hauntings or rivers of blood rushing down the corridors, and do expect to come away having increased your knowledge of art and culture (and the possibilities of imagination).

Because the core of Aickman’s talent is to bring us through the storm of fear into gardens of unexpected delight.    RT

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image: source: WikiCommons; license, Public Domain.