San Francisco, California
June 12, 2013
Heading back in time to the day I left.
9:54am Onboard Flight UA 414 SFO to Newark.
I’m on my way.
I have, in my over-caffeinated hands, a copy of Gods & Myths of Northern Europe, a 1964 paperback written by H.R. Ellis Davidson, which promises in its chapters such tabloid delights as Thor and the Giants, The Berserks of Odin, the Doom of the Gods, Thor and his Hammer, and Njord, God of Ships.
Unfortunately, it was written in 1964, and assumes that everyone in history was both a he and a heathen. I was willing to tolerate such a throwback view if the writing was really good, but after I read that the Vikings were, “… a formidable body of men… in many cases men of culture, discrimination, and wit, with love of a good story and a neat jest… who sowed their wild oats… and grew up to be wise rulers, fathers of fine families… some even saints…” I resisted the urge to flush the book down the lavatory toilet and chalked it up to that gender tic so common for pre-1970s intellectuals: to assume the male gender when writing about humans in general. I also assumed the writer was a man, but behind those tricky initials (it takes an initialed pseudonymer to spot one) writes one Hilda Roderick Ellis Davidson. I decided to check out Sky Mall instead, and then watch The Hobbit, where at least some of the heroes are heroines and the conceit is fiction, not authoritative cultural history.
7:40pm- Second Leg… Newark to Oslo:
After a two-hour layover in Newark, where I spent a great deal of the two hours trying to find an electrical outlet that was not completely taken over by one person charging multiple devices, I decided on the plane to give Gods and Myths of Northern Europe another try. People writing in the midst of a paradigm can’t often see that they are writing in the midst of a paradigm. I too was taught as a young person to assume the pronoun “he” when writing in the third person about shared experience. It was framed to me as a convention, and easier than trying to include both genders. Later, in high school and college I watched as other writers, first in my college classes, and then in the mainstream, began to try to modify the convention- wrestling with putting he/she for every pronoun, or inventing new and awkward gender-neutral pronouns like ‘sie’, ‘hir’, ‘ey’, and ‘zie’, and later changing suffixes for common words like chairman to chairperson, etc. Truthfully, it annoyed me when I first started seeing it, because I thought it muddied the writing itself, and I had come to assume that the masculine assumption was really just a throwback, and that we all when reading would fill in the subtext to include all readers, regardless of gender. At that time, I still did not understand the mistake of assumption, or the power of repetition and reinforcement.
You might think, reading this, that I walk around looking for perceived slights to gender equality and jumping on them. I don’t. Though I have respect for people who fight that battle, even when they overcompensate, I was raised in a very gender-neutral household. I was expected to learn to do my own laundry and cook, but I was also taught to use nails and hammers and power tools. I was allowed to walk in the rain and to come home dirty. I was told I was a tom boy, but not by people in my family. I thought it was perfectly normal to like to hunt lizards and frogs, to bring home injured animals, to go hunting with a bb-gun with my cousin in Arkansas, or to play soccer and little league, even though for years I was afraid of the ball. I simply did not consider my gender as a determinant of my likes or dislikes at all. My heroes and role-models were Pippi Longstocking and Jacques Cousteau.
It was only outside my small paradigm that people questioned the things I inherently loved: adventure, books, playing sports, learning about plants and animals, tinkering with mechanical things, scuba diving, science fiction, martial arts, poetry, the outdoors. And even more so the things I dislike: the color pink, dolls, sentimentality, princesses, frilly clothing, tea, and parties. I was told that this breadth of interest- particularly in things traditionally male-oriented- portended something wrong in me: that wrong thing being that I might not be a normal woman. The moment this doubt and accompanying anger solidified in me occurred when I was working on an island off the coast of California the summer after I graduated college. My job was to hike alone in the rugged hills, following landmarks and animal trails, to locate honey bees feeding on wildflowers, catch them and train them to a food source, mark them with paint, and time their departure and return from the food source, using a compass to determine their bearing. From this information we could locate the colonies. I spent a great deal of time alone on this island, encountering animals, like the indigenous fox, who were completely unafraid of humans. I sometimes caught garter snakes, and sometimes ran away from wild pigs. None of the dirt roads cris-crossing the island were marked, and when I had to take a jeep somewhere it was not uncommon to find washed-out sections of road and have to leave the jeep behind and walk.
About halfway into that summer, I heard that one of the Catahoula hounds down on the ranch- an area where the resident wildlife biologist and some caretakers lived- had had puppies, so I went to visit them. There was an old prospector down visiting that day as well, who, I was told, lived up on Devil’s Peak alone in a shack. He took one look at me holding a puppy in the crook of each arm and said, “You need to have some puppies of your own so you can do something with all that mothering instinct.”
The look on his face was knowing and crude, and it hit me in a moment I had been feeling soft and expansive and unselfconscious. I remember a feeling in my stomach of rage, followed by a sensation of cold, and of closing up. I could have, and did, chalk it up to his age- that he had grown up in a different era and had been taught different things- to his lack of exposure to people in general and different ways of living, and to the fact that he was living alone in a shack on a remote island. But five years later, when I was working in a research facility at Cornell University, a highly-educated man who was the director of a well-known equine breeding center in Texas, and whom I was chatting up while we waited for my boss (the Director of Equine breeding at Cornell) to show up, asked me, “Why is it that the dumb masses are breeding, while women like you, the genes we need, aren’t having children?”
I won’t even begin to address how many things are wrong with that question, but emotionally, personally, it was again like having someone stick a knife in my gut. I had just finished telling this man all the things I was doing with my life, that I was trying to work simultaneously at a demanding job to support myself so that I could spend time writing in the mornings and the evenings- a difficult feat that I am still working at- only to be told that all of this was inherently less important than a biological imperative that defined me and pigeonholed me whether I was uneducated or educated, passionate or passive, talented or mediocre, driven or complacent.
All of this went through my head in the space of a few seconds—which is one of the beauties of time-travel in the mind—and it made me think twice about judging the author of this book, H.R. Ellis Davidson, who I began to imagine had started out with a deep passion for the stories of the Norse gods, and after years of being schooled and deformed into the various shapes that allowed her safe passage through the scholarly world, had arrived in the position of author with that flame still alive in her gut for the stories, but forced to filter them through the legitimizing, emotionless, and authoritative lens that is academic writing.
Assumptions- these were the ones I made, diving back into the book, hoping that underneath the highly-trained and stylized language, I might feel the metaphysical force of these myths. After all, myth-making is something we do all the time: maybe even more quickly and more often than the pre-internet era. Stories arrive instantly now, and rather than being carried from town to town, country to country, continent to continent at the pace of a horse or a caravan or a sailing ship, told and re-told tens of times along the way, they arrive every minute of every day, told and retold hundreds of thousands of times in a single day as they bloom across the globe. If myth is what a story becomes as the details become less important and the lesson or meaning becomes more important, we are more prolific mythmakers than ever before.
What did I want from bringing Gods and Myths of Northern Europe with me on the trip? It’s a significant choice that I made rather arbitrarily- I couldn’t carry much, so the one or two books I chose should have been carefully considered. But what I did was go to my favorite used book store and pick out a book that I pinned my hopes on like a racehorse- not because of the odds, but because of the name. In the spirit of that arbitrary choice, I decided to perform a kind of stichomancy with the book, which is to open to a random page and see what’s there:
“The deities of the Vanir are not easy to define in the northern myths… Yet in some ways they form a clear-cut and convincing group, because we can see the main characteristics of fertility gods and goddesses from other civilizations and other regions of the world repeated… in the figures of Freyr and Freyja and their following…. In some ways the deities of the Vanir are the closest of all the heathen deities to mankind. We have the line of kings, taking it in turn to rule the land and acting as the givers of prosperity if the Vanir favoured them and abode with them. We have the seeresses, a link between men and the Vanir, sometimes possibly appearing as Frigg and Freya, coming right into men’s homes as the Mothers, or the Parcae of the Givers, to convey the blessings of the goddesses. The Vanir were amoral, in the sense that their province was not to distinguish between good and evil, to bring men the ideals of justice or to teach them loyalty to one another. They were there to give men the power that created new life and brought increase to the fields, among the animals, and in the home. They brought also the power to link men with the unseen world. Beside the fruits of the earth and the baby in the cradle, their gifts to men included the wise counsels granted through divination, when the god spoke through a human mouth.”
So there it is again… and rather than rebel again at this imposition of fertility, the seemingly random page I opened to which strikes me again in the face with this badgering label of mother and giver… I tried to look past the insistent refrain in the text of gifts to men and links to men and blessings to men but at what I feel is the essence of the story and the meaning to take away- the myth. This myth is that the power inherent to these female archetypes is the ability to dialogue with the unseen, which is quite literally symbolized by the ability to bear children. From the unseen comes life.
Now, in the 21st century,we can look under a microscope and “see” the unseen components of life in the form of gametes. That particular detail of the mystery of the unseen has been lost to us. Our physical understanding and definition of life has become more detailed since these stories emerged. We know what systems must shut down for life to be lost, and medically define death as as the cessation of all vital functions of the body including the heartbeat, brain activity (including the brain stem), and breathing. (Though that definition is being challenged by current resuscitation science.)
And we don’t need a man and a woman to perpetuate life anymore: we can start with the basic parts and clone it. Beginning with an undifferentiated stem cell, we can grow new tissues or even, potentially, new people. On a more basic level, the Miller-Urey experiment showed that the basic building blocks of life, amino acids, can be created in a beaker in a lab under the right conditions.
Still… the ability to call forth life from pre-life is, at best, a parlour trick, or a demonstration of the greatest knack of the human intellect: mimicry. And to read myth with the arrogance that people two or three millenia ago could only think literally (or superstitiously) is a mistake. What I see in these dry lines about the Vanir is the same kind of mixture of literal and metaphorical thinking people have always used to wrestle with the unknown: an acknowledgment of a deeper human desire to feel less small, to feel more connected to the life that was already there when we entered the world and that will continue after each unique mind passes out of it again. That unseen is what we’re talking about here… the thing you cannot look back far enough with high-powered space telescopes to see, the hidden things that red shift will not reveal, and the low rumble of expansion- not to where we’ll be in another million years, but when we will be, and to what new aspects of reality will still be unseen.
Or, as our rough imaginings of the Norse world tree, Yggdrssil, show… there is a throughline between the unseen and the seen, the material and the immaterial, the literal and the metaphorical. Like most things worth exploring, it is both real and difficult to grasp at the same time.. and just as you crest another peak of concrete understanding, a new horizon of mystery will appear.
In that spirit, I fell asleep and dreamt, hurtling through space and time zones over the Atlantic ocean, of my brother, who in the dream was falling off a bridge and toward the rocks below. It is a recurring dream, but this time it felt different… in this dream it was not one brother but all three, combined into a single person. Strangely, and only in the way that dreams provide, that person falling off a bridge was also me. All four of us were both falling off the bridge, and watching ourselves fall. I would like to say, as a writer who appreciates good endings to stories, that just before we hit the rocks, we suddenly swooped and began to fly… off into the unseen. But that was not how the dream ended… it did not end at all… we fell toward the rocks and watched ourselves continue to fall.
When I woke up, the flight attendant asked me if I wanted some orange juice. She also asked me where I was headed. I told her, since no one ever seems to know where Svalbard is, that I was headed for the North Pole. She said, Oh, that’s great! Now… I can never remember… is Antarctica off South America, or Africa?”