Embracing The Hag: Feminist Implications Of Proto-Pagan Ritual

winter-hag
Illustrated by Mia Carnevale

Mythologies across the world have stories from before the regular pantheon. Before the Norse gods there were frost giants, and before Zeus there was Cronos and the Titans.

The Winter Hag, or Cailleach, is an ancient deity, a goddess of winter and the land who predates even the earliest Celtic pantheon of spirits. My aunt Valeria—an expert on mythology through her own religious practices—once told me a folktale all about how no one could recall the Winter Hag’s age.

The story goes: One day, a parish priest visited Cailleach’s house to asks how old she was. The woman replied that she couldn’t quite remember, but every year on her birthday she would kill a cow and throw the thigh bone in her attic. So if he wanted to, he could go up to the attic and count the bones. In the end the priest sent his assistant to go, and the last anyone heard, the young priest is still counting.

It’s a joke, but it accurately represents the proto-age of the mythos. A dark, scary earth mother from a cold, ancient time where the harsh northern winters of Ireland and Scotland could easily kill. She sleeps throughout the summer and returns in late fall to bring winter across the land.

My aunt has been interested in the legends of the Winter Hag for years. Fittingly, we sat down by the fireplace on a winter night with a glass of wine and talked a lot about the evolution of religion, and how deities are shaped to fit the lands they’re brought to through diaspora and travel. The Winter Hag comes from Ireland and Scotland and was such an integral part of the land there, but being adopted by practitioners across the world shapes the mythology, in much the same way that European and American Christian practices can be so different.

The Winter Hag’s mythology predates the maiden/mother/crone archetypes defining so many women in folklore. These proto-deity earth mothers are found throughout mythologies and come from a time when land was central to existence. The Hag is her own woman, having many lives, faces, and facets representing the whole of her experiences on earth. She’s the grandmother, the spinner, and the weaver, similar to the Fates in other mythologies.

Her appearance is described in the tale of Beira, Queen of Winter as that of a very old, wrinkled woman with a blue face and one eye. In Norse mythology, as recounted in James Weigel’s Mythology, the god Odin shares this feature, having traded his other eye for wisdom.

According to the Dictionary of Celtic Mythology, the name Cailleach means “old woman” in Modern Gaelic, but comes from an older word for “veiled one.” But rather than veiled out of modesty, like the Catholic nuns who came to populate the insular world once Christianity spread across pagan lands, the Winter Hag covers herself in a veil of mystery. She isn’t about hiding her appearance, and neither is it the practice of those who worship her. Valeria described how some contemporary rituals involve looking deep into a mirror to really look at yourself and see the strength of all the qualities you’ve acquired in your life. Seeing Cailleach in yourself means seeing – and accepting – yourself for who you really are.

The stories of the Hag are helpful guidelines when looking at aging, mortality, and change. Old age and ugliness can be seen as terrible things, especially for women in contemporary society. “There’s a lot of this identity where your value as a human being is about being sexually attractive to men,” Valeria mentioned. She feels that, as women grow older, they grow more invisible, but also that this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It can help take focus off of physical appearance, one of many, many aspects of womanhood. “And you get less focus from creepy men,” she laughs, but it is very true.

A lot of the “fear” of the elderly comes from a fear of death. But, as in the case of the Winter Hag, age can indicate how long you’ve survived just as much as it indicates how close to death you are. It’s good for old and young people to share each other’s strength, and it benefits folklore, stories, and wisdom. I experienced this firsthand while I talked to Valeria; I learned about mythology, but I also gained a better perspective on the relationships between youth and age.

The story of the Winter Hag is all about teaching each other from experiences and accepting aging and changing. This folklore came to Valeria at a point in her life when she was accepting change and becoming an elder within her community; it really made her think about the passage of time – in stories and community – and everyone’s place within it. She’s going to be a grandmother soon, which puts it all into a concrete perspective. It’s similar to the sense in which you’re a different person now than you were in high school, but you’re also still the same person. You are aging and growing, both spiritually and physically.

Winter is resisted the same way aging is. But if it was always summer, and we were always young, the natural balance would be upset. “Part of embracing the hag is accepting the seasons and appreciating what winter offers us,” Valeria reminds me. I offer up the idea that winter functions as a “palate cleanser” for all the emotional strife that summer always brings me; something to wipe away all the drama and leave you ready to start over again. Valeria agrees, “If it was always summer it would be out of balance.” The unchanging can only offer so much.

-Contributed by Risa Ian de Rege

Advertisements

Blood-Suckers vs. Hoppers: Vampire Showdown

 

vampire post 2.png
Illustration by Lorna Antoniazzi

Vampires have captivated the Western imagination for centuries. From Bram Stoker’s seminal novel, Dracula, to Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire, to the ‘90s masterpiece that was Buffy the Vampire Slayer, to the current season of American Horror Story, the list goes on and on.

Because the figure of the vampire has become so solidified over time—with each vampire movie and novel reinscribing very specific stereotypes—there is little variance in their defining characteristics. (Twilight, as always, is irrelevant here.) Yet, what about the vampires who appear in cultures other than the Western popular imagination?

Today, East meets West in a cross-cultural showdown between the undead. Our contenders: the Goeng-Si (殭屍; aka “Chinese hopping vampire”) and the Generic Vampire (aka “the dangerous but sexy English-speaking vampire of vague European origin”).

Appearance

Goeng-Si:

Goeng-Si, which translates to “stiff corpse,” gets its name from the condition of rigor mortis—whereby the limbs stiffen after death. With their outstretched arms and taut joints, the Chinese vampires are the literal manifestation of this name. Because of their stiffness and inability to bend their knees, the goeng-si have to hop to move. And so, the hopping vampire was born. As you can see, the Chinese take their horror very seriously.

What I gather from all the Chinese vampire movies I grew up watching is that, apart from the common dominator of hopping, the Goeng-Si takes on one of two appearances. The first involves an incredibly pasty complexion and smudged black circles around the eyes, not unlike my appearance during exams. The second involves markedly more decay and rotting flesh. In this case, a family member has asked a Taoist priest to resurrect a long-deceased beloved one, and he does so successfully.

All Goeng-Si dress in super traditional dynastic attire and have a paper talisman, which resembles a long piece of toilet paper or a shopping receipt, attached to their forehead. In essence, they look like they’re permanently trapped in a poorly funded period piece.

Generic Vampire:

Translucent white skin, cold to the touch. Inhuman eyes. No rotting skin (probably no pimple problems). Perpetual streak of blood meandering down side of mouth. Generally brooding. Often sexy.

Winner: Goeng-Si

I made this decision solely based on the fact that the Goeng-Si hops and belongs to the Chinese equivalent of a Jane Austen film. That is all.

Creation

Goeng-Si and Generic Vampire:

How someone becomes a Goeng-Si is surprisingly quite similar to how the generic vampire is created. The various ways for someone to turn into a vampire include being infected by another vampire, absorbing someone’s energy or spirit, using black magic, and being improperly buried.

Winner: Tie

Abilities

Goeng-Si:

The major difference between our two vampires is that Goeng-Si don’t actually suck blood. Instead, they suck the qi, or life force, from their victims. Envision Dementors, but instead of absorbing your happiness, they just go straight for the good stuff.

Generic Vampire:

They live off drinking human blood (duh), but can subsist on animal blood if necessary. Unlike the Goeng-Si who, to the best of my knowledge, have no other supernatural powers, the Generic Vampire has super speed, super strength, mind control, can climb super high walls (à la Dracula), can shape-shift, and… is looking attractive an ability?

Winner: Generic Vampire

For sheer quantity of skills alone.

Killing Them/Countermeasures

Goeng-Si:

According to many reputable sources (my mother and my stash of 80s Chinese vampire movies), Goeng-Si can’t die because they’re already dead. Garlic won’t stop them. Holy water won’t stop them. Sunlight is a mere annoyance. And a stab to the heart is just a flesh wound! The only way to impede their attack is to stop their hopping. And this is where the paper talisman comes in. The strip of paper must have some kind of binding spell on it, written by a Taoist priest with blood. Attaching this paper onto the Goeng-Si’s forehead renders it indefinitely paralyzed, unless the talisman is removed.

A very legitimate scholarly search on Wikipedia tells me that there are actually a myriad of ways to prevent Goeng-Si from sucking the living qi out of you. Most of them involve some variation of throwing rice and eggs. Call it nostalgia, but I’d like to think the only way to stop those suckers is to smack yellow receipts on their foreheads to stop their hopping, and your impending death.

Generic Vampires:

One thing that I will never understand is why vampires of vague European origin are so delicate. Nearly everything kills them. In a way, they’re almost as fragile as humans are; perhaps even more so, because garlic is amazing and delicious and the vampiric race is missing out on a whole lot of Italian cuisine—human or otherwise.

Winner: Goeng-Si

Imagining me stop a Goeng-Si by smacking a shoddy piece of paper on its forehead, thereby stopping it mid-hop, makes me so happy.

ULTIMATE WINNER: You decide!

 

 

-Contributed by Janice To

 

 

 

 

 

Not Your Usual Post-Apocalypse: The World of Stand Still Stay Silent

Ninety years later, everything is gone. Everything except Scandinavia, that is.

Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, and Finland are all that remain of the Known world, and only Iceland is a completely safe area. As far as anybody knows, the rest of the Silent world is populated by the terrifying and dangerous victims of the Rash Illness, a pandemic that started innocuously and swept the globe, decimating almost all human and animal life. Those who succumb to the Illness either die or become the beasts, trolls, and giants that roam the Silent world in what appears to be perpetual agony. The remaining human life is concentrated in small, safe settlements, and they deal with their dangerous surroundings through a combination of fire, military prowess, magic, and cats.

Yes, that’s right, cats—somehow the only mammals immune to the Illness and invaluable allies to the surviving humans.

Minna Sundberg, a Finnish-Swedish woman and the writer and artist of Stand Still Stay Silent (draws upon Nordic mythology to tell her post-apocalyptic story in this ongoing webcomic, which began in 2013 and updates every weekday. A particular info sheet from the webcomic that depicts the Indo-European language tree has acquired a significant online presence outside of its original context, so all you language nerds out there may have seen her art before without realizing it. Readers may also know her from A Redtail’s Dream, a webcomic she completed as a sophomore about a young man and his shape-shifting dog who are tasked with saving their village from a meddling trickster fox. Both comics feature her beautiful artwork, which brings both the Nordic landscape and mystical dreamscapes to life in vivid colour. Sundberg creates a truly entrancing webcomic experience in her website design, which leaves no detail unattended to and draws the reader seamlessly into the pages of her story.

The ease with which the reader is brought into the world helps us follow the adventures of the motley crew embarking upon an expedition to explore the Silent world. Barely any of the six main characters have combat experience, so the two Finnish cousins and the young Swedish aristocrat follow the lead of a brash Norwegian captain and a chronically unemployable Dane. The Icelander who joins them later is a shepherd, who is even less experienced than the other three characters who are in their early twenties. The poorly funded crew is the first of its kind, in part because most of the remaining civilizations have little interest in rediscovering an old world that succumbed to so much death and decay. Described by Sundberg herself as “a story about friendship and exploring a forgotten world, with some horror, monsters, and magic on the side,” the crew find themselves working through language and personality barriers as they uncover old books and encounter strange creatures in the abandoned cityscapes. The characters are hilarious and compelling, and the world they inhabit is rich and intriguing. Sundberg often inserts worldbuilding pages near the end of chapters, offering insight into aspects of the post-apocalyptic society such as “The Blessed Felines” and their training process, the differences between Icelandic and Finnish mages, or “The Dagrenning program,” akin to in vitro fertilization and allowing Icelandic citizens to have children who are immune to the Illness.

At times, the tone of the comic becomes notably serious, even horrific. As the crew journeys farther and farther away from safe and inhabited lands, they witness the consequences of the Illness first-hand in old hospital wards and through fighting the creatures that attack them. In the Silent world, “the first rule for survival outside the safe areas” is to “stand still and stay silent” rather than running or calling for help when a beast, a troll, or a giant is encountered, because “it might go away.” For the inexperienced crew, the stakes are understandably high. One wrong turn could get them killed, and it seems they can’t help but make wrong turns everywhere they go. Sundberg makes the difficult shift from comedic banter to terrifying and tragic troll encounter seem effortless.

Beyond its excellent art and writing, Stand Still Stay Silent is a prime example of the new ways online publication can bring together fans of speculative work. The comic has an active readership that contributes to its comments section and participates in the fan forum, which has become a repository for the fan work that arises out of the comments. In particular, the fan community of this webcomic seems to favour writing poetry and filk songs (a genre of music related to fantasy and sci-fi, which often parodies of existing music) about scenes and ideas pertaining to the plot and characters. Though most of the works—particularly the filk songs—are written in English, some commenters even write poetry in traditional Scandinavian poetic forms and translate their fan work into English. The cultural exchange that occurs in the comments shows the power speculative fiction has to bring together people from all across the world over a shared interest. This celebration of friendship and adventure parallels the themes of Sundberg’s creation, with many more new fan works sure to come as the webcomic continues to develop.

-Contributed by Victoria Liao

Tales about Nine Tails: an Overview of Eastern Fox Spirits

“狐狸尾巴藏不住.” “A fox’s tail is not easily hidden.” – Chinese proverb

Though usually levelled at scheming individuals when their plots are unravelled, this saying alludes specifically to the idea of the fox spirit, a common mythological figure in Chinese, Japanese, and Korean culture. Foxes can be found in folklore all over the world, but Eastern fox spirits often exhibit more specific traits that render them particularly fascinating. With its sly grin and cunning ways, the fox occupies a trickster role in many mythologies. However, in East Asia the fox is also associated with supernatural metamorphic powers and with dangerously seductive women. Although some have compared the fox spirit to English fairies with their whimsical ways, the comparison doesn’t do justice to the diversity of foxes in Eastern mythology.

Within Chinese mythology, the fox occupies a special spot as one of five spiritual animal species. The fox is in good company, sharing this honour with the weasel, the porcupine, the snake, and the mouse. Their nocturnal natures give them plenty of yin energy  in the yin-yang dichotomy, allowing them to have special powers that increase with time and discipline. All five of these animals are said to be capable of training their bodies and hearts to become spirits (仙 xian), in an elevated state beyond mortality. However, the process is long and arduous: a huli jing’s (狐狸精 fox spirit) strength is measured by the number of its tails, and every additional tail up to a maximum of nine (九尾狐 jiuweihu) takes five hundred years of disciplined meditation and training. This includes energy from the moon (阴 yin energy) and energy from humans—which is where the spirit gets its seductive reputation.

In many stories, the huli jing or hu xian (狐仙 fox immortal) takes on the guise of a beautiful woman in order to interact with the human world. At times, this is a convenient way for the spirit to collect energy from human men for the purpose of strengthening herself. However, huli jing also have other relationships to people. As neutral familiar spirits, huli jing are not deified or worshipped in a sacred manner, but are nevertheless accorded respect. One good turn begets another, and if a human does a huli jing a favour, it may repay the good will by imparting knowledge and wisdom, by passing on supernatural powers to foresee the future, or by cleansing the household of evils. Huli jing have even been known to marry good men and to act as ideal wives.

On the other hand, there are occasionally legends of dangerous fox spirits such as the one that possessed Da Ji (妲己). She was the wife of the cruel King Zhou (紂辛) who offended the goddess Nüwa (女娲). Her malevolent influence supposedly drove him to ruin, and ended the Shang (商) dynasty (around 1600-1046 BCE). Though Da Ji is perhaps the most infamous huli jing in Chinese mythology, the figure can be found even earlier in folk stories. Tushan-shi (塗山氏), whose husband was the hero Yu the Great (大禹) and who is known to be the mother of China’s first dynastic ruler (the Xia 夏 dynasty 2070-1600 BCE), is sometimes said to have been a huli jing, or else to have had the nine-tailed fox as a symbol of her clan. Many other stories about huli jing can be found within Chinese mythology, particularly in Pu Songling’s (蒲松龄) 1740 collection of supernatural folktales Liaozhai Zhiyi (聊斋志异 Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio). Though by no means a religious figure, the mythological fox spirit has a sizeable presence in Chinese culture that has persisted to the present. In modern Chinese vernacular, the term huli jing is often derogatory when applied to a woman, implying that she is a homewrecker or otherwise seductively dangerous to men.

In Japan, the kitsune (狐) carries more Zenko (善狐), the white-furred benevolent foxes who often act as Inari’s messengers, are only one half of the story in Japanese mythology, which also categorizes some foxes as yako (野狐), who tend to be mischievous or malicious. The long-lived Japanese nine-tailed foxes,  kyubi no kitsune (九尾の狐), supposedly gain the power to see and hear anything, or to have infinite wisdom. Like the huli jing, kitsune are known to transform into beautiful young women, often through rituals that involve placing reeds or a skull on its head. The metamorphosis can sometimes be uncovered by searching for ill-concealed foxlike attributes, such as a fox’s shadow or a fox’s tail.

The supernatural powers of kitsune are many, including the power to generate fire or lightning (kitsunebi 狐火), the power to create intense illusions, and the power to possess people. Often kitsune are depicted with their hoshi no tama (ほしのたま star balls—white balls or jewels glowing with kitsunebi), which are said to hold the fox’s magical power or even its soul. These mystical attributes often lend themselves to stories of foxes bewitching powerful people or causing mischief to travellers or within households. In this sense, the kitsune has a more prominent trickster character in Japanese mythology. Nevertheless, they also repay favours and keep promises to humans; they are capable of bringing supernatural good or supernatural evil to the people they interact with.

Given its dual sacred and secular presence within Japanese folklore, the kitsune can be spotted in many modern-day Japanese works that have since gained followings in the West. Popular fantastical manga/anime series such as Naruto or Inuyasha feature characters like the Kyubi/Naruto and Shippo who reference the kitsune figure, as do video game character designs like those of Ninetales from the Pokémon series. The ubiquity of kitsune in Japanese media and its popularity overseas has resulted in this figure becoming the most familiar to outside audiences amongst the three Eastern fox spirits.

While Chinese and Japanese foxes can be positive, negative, or ambiguous forces, Korean kumiho (구미호) tend to be portrayed exclusively as malevolent creatures. These long-lived foxes also have nine tails and some powers, but often strive to become human rather than remaining the spirits that they are. The methods for this permanent transformation differ, but usually require some consumption of human flesh and blood. As such, kumiho are usually depicted as bloodthirsty spirits that can transform into beautiful women to lure their human victims. Rather than possessing young women like some Chinese or Japanese fox spirits, the kumiho often eats and replaces the female victim in order to feast upon her family. Like other fox spirits, the kumiho’s true nature may be perceived because the transformation is incomplete and it still carries fox-like characteristics, such as a tail or whiskers.

One such fairy tale called The Fox Sister tells of a man with three sons who wants a daughter so much that when praying for one, he doesn’t even care if she is a kumiho. After he has a daughter, the family finds that a cow dies mysteriously every night. When two of his sons report seeing their sister enter the barn to eat the cows’ livers, their father throws them out of the home. Years later, the two men return armed with three magical potions from a Buddhist monk. They find their sister living alone, claiming that their parents and youngest brother have all died, and offers them a feast and to stay the night. The oldest brother awakens to find his sister eating his dead younger brother, and flees by defending himself with the potions. As a fox, she fights her way through the first potion’s thicket of thorns, and swims across the second potion’s magical river. However, she is trapped by the last potion of bottled fire and burns to death.

The kumiho also continues to influence modern works. The fairy tale recounted above inspired a webcomic of the same name  by Christina Strain and Jayd Aït-Kaci. Kumiho also feature in a number of fantasy-based Korean dramas, including most notably the 2010 romantic comedy My Girlfriend is a Nine-tailed Fox. Even Western media have used the kumiho as inspiration, as can be seen with the popular character Ahri from Riot Games’ popular MOBA League of Legends.

Although all East Asian fox spirits stem from ancient Chinese culture, they have since acquired unique characteristics in the folklore of Chinese, Japanese, and Korean traditions. With such rich histories and diverse depictions, the fox spirit continues to hold sway over modern imaginations and to appear in Eastern and Western speculative works as an enigmatic supernatural figure. It is almost as though the bewitching nature of the creature has infused its myth and captured the attention of people all over the world.

– Contributed by Victoria Liao

Forty Miles of Mountain Road: Faust and the Blues

The Faustian myth, wherein one sells their soul for fame or fortune, is an incredibly popular motif throughout world folklore and literature. While the story draws on a number of earlier figures and myths, Faust by name originated in Germany in the sixteenth century. In the legend, he was a scholar who, displeased with his life and research, made a deal with the devil and exchanged his soul for insurmountable knowledge. Various retellings of the story give Faust different fates; in the earlier versions, he is inevitably damned to hell for his actions.

Of all the deal-with-the-devil stories, Faust burns the brightest. This can likely be attributed to Christopher Marlowe, whose play Doctor Faustus, published posthumously at the beginning of the early seventeenth century, brought the story to an English audience. Two centuries after this, Goethe published his play Faust, now regarded as a pinnacle of German literature. And these are only two of countless works of literature, art, and music that are derived from the original legend.

Not only has Faust inspired numerous musical works, including symphonic and operatic music by major classical composers like Gounod, Stravinsky, and Wagner, the legend has also inspired stories about the musicians’ personal lives and practices. Niccolò Paganini, the celebrated Italian violin virtuoso, was rumoured to have sold his soul in exchange for his remarkable skill. These occult associations were strong enough that after his death he was initially denied a Catholic burial by the church.

But perhaps out of all music, the blues is arguably most closely associated with the Faustian myth. Arising amongst African-American communities and gaining popularity in the Deep South at the end of the nineteenth century, blues music flourished for decades and set the precedent for the birth of rock and roll in the fifties. Blues songs draw from many influences, including West African and American folk traditions and work songs, often from plantations, which recount racial, romantic, and economic hardships. Ironically, considering its associations with the devil, Christian spirituals were also important to the development of the blues. While it is an overgeneralization to say that all blues music is melancholy, it is of course sad by definition, and thus reflects the historical context of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Faustian legends surround Robert Johnson, one of the most influential and talented blues musicians ever. It was said that Johnson, out of the desire to be a great musician, met with the devil as a young man at a crossroads and gave his soul in exchange for mastery of the guitar. One of his most notable songs, Hellhound on My Trail, can be interpreted as telling the story of the devil coming for what he’s owed and the folk magic used in a last attempt to evade him. Another song, Cross Road Blues, describes the speaker asking God for mercy as he kneels at a crossroads.

The crossroads is an ominous motif in folklore and superstition, regarded as a place where one is likely to meet a ghost or, in this case, the devil. The popularity of the Faustian myth and the fact that Johnson died quite young add to the story. Although the legend has been widely discussed in this context, there is little evidence that Johnson had anything to do with the occult. However, he was said to have practiced in graveyards, as they offered a quiet, private space in which to play.

While the content of these songs is evidence that Johnson was aware of the folklore he was a part of, it is little evidence that he made any supernatural deals himself. When musicians appeal to the Faustian myth, is more for the sake of a good story than anything else. These many great musicians obviously did not really sell their souls for their talent. The ’devil’ or any other great evil feared by African American blues musicians was far more likely to stand for racial discrimination than any supernatural being. However, the key issue behind folklore is not whether any of it is ‘real’; it is the endurance of stories like the Faustian myth that fascinates us.

-Contributed by Risa Ian de Rege

Such a Terrible Room: Bluebeard’s Castle and Erwartung at the Canadian Opera Company

0102 – John Relyea as Duke Bluebeard and Ekaterina Gubanova as Judith in the Canadian Opera Company production of Bluebeard’s Castle, 2015. Conductor Johannes Debus, director Robert Lepage, revival director François Racine, set and costume designer Michael Levine, and lighting designer Robert Thomson.  Photo: Michael Cooper Michael Cooper Photographic Office- 416-466-4474 Mobile- 416-938-7558 66 Coleridge Ave. Toronto, ON M4C 4H5
Image from http://www.coc.ca

There is without a doubt something about opera that lends itself to otherworldliness. The magic of music and stage has, since opera’s inception in the late sixteenth century, often drawn on mythology and folklore for subject matter. The Greek myth of Orpheus and his descent to the underworld to rescue his wife, Eurydice, has been retold countless times in operas by Monteverdi, Gluck, Offenbach, and others. The four operas of Wagner’s Ring Cycle involve characters from Norse and Germanic myth, including gods like Odin and Thor and mythical creatures like valkyries, giants, and dwarves. And these are only the best-known examples of fantasy in opera.

The Canadian Opera Company’s 2014-2015 season ends with a speculative work: a double-bill of Bela Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle and Arnold Schoenberg’s Erwartung, a remount of a COC original that first premiered in the early nineties. Both are early twentieth century operas with similar psychological themes. They complement each other well: Bluebeard, through the discoveries made by Judith, can easily be classified as horror, and the plight of the woman in Erwartung is one of pure terror.

Bartok was a prominent Hungarian composer, musician, and collector of folksongs in the early twentieth century. His contributions to the field of ethnomusicology, particularly in Eastern Europe, were particularly significant, and his love of folk music and tales comes across in many of his compositions. Bluebeard’s Castle comes from a French folktale in which Bluebeard’s young wife finds the bodies of her husband’s former wives locked in his castle.

The COC’s production begins on a dark stage surrounded by a golden frame. Bluebeard enters at the front of the stage, solemn and foreboding, followed by Judith, his new wife. He doesn’t seem like he really wants her there, suggesting she leave and return to the life she had before, but she insists.

The music moves them into the set and the story as Judith enters the dark castle. Its walls weep, but if she’s second-guessing herself it doesn’t show. She asks why it is so cold and sad; she wants to heal Bluebeard, to  fix him. He may want the same. They come to seven doors lining a hallway and she requests they be opened to let in the light and the truth. The castle groans in pain at her suggestion; it is almost a character in itself, a part of Bluebeard that needs to be cared for by Judith as much as he does. “Are you afraid?” asks Bluebeard. “No,” Judith replies. Her white dress billows and trails around her like a ghost as she moves across the stage. It becomes steadily more bloodstained with every door she opens.

Bluebeard gradually opens the first three doors. The first burns like a furnace or like hell and the castle bleeds as she looks upon his torture chamber. The second, blaring white light and brass, reveals  his armoury, and the third, his treasury, burning like pale fire. But there are bloodstains through these doors and darker secrets still. Perhaps he sees her as a saviour: someone who will bring light into the castle and onto his dark past.

Bartok’s score moves between complex, all-out motion to a single bassoon line throughout; a reflection of the edge the characters stand on as well as the mood of the weeping castle. The fourth door reveals a garden and some of the softest, loveliest music in the opera. Judith has some hope that perhaps it’s not all bloodshed and violence, and picks a flower. The set at this point is really incredible, using a projection on the stage to show the trees and setting a moment of peace. But the illusion is shattered when she picks a flower and finds it covered in blood. “Who has bled to water your garden?” she demands, but he knows she won’t like the answer and keeps quiet.

The fifth door shows his vast kingdom before them, clouds, lakes, and land that will all be for Judith. The music at this point is an amazingly loud brass choir so glorious it made my hair stand on end. In gazing proudly at his realm, Bluebeard seems, for a moment, truly happy. But Judith cannot share his emotion, as she sees only rivers of blood and stained earth before them.

As the sixth door is opened, downstage slowly fills with water; a lake of tears. He avoids her initial questions about his former loves, but when she confronts him about their bodies, which she believes she will find behind the last door, he gives her the final key. At the seventh door, his three former wives come up silently out of the bloody lake. They look like ghosts, but Judith says they are still alive. They are his queens of morning, noon, and evening, and Judith will join them in night. They dress her in robes and jewels and lead her back into the seventh door. Darkness falls on the bloodstained stage, and Bluebeard sings of eternal night while the castle shines behind him.

The opera is light and dark and covered in blood, endlessly creepy but also very emotional. Bluebeard is not exactly sympathetic but he is hardly depicted as just a murderous tyrant; the characters, both of them, have more depth to them than first appears. Written in an age when it was first really taking hold, there are strong psychological themes at work in both this and Erwartung, the second act.

Erwartung, by Schoenberg, similarly works with themes of women, weird relationships, and psychology. The opera only lasts half an hour and the plot is simple: the woman, the only real character, wanders through the forest seeking her lover, whom she eventually finds dead. The COC’s production shows everything through a white screen upon which handwriting is projected; the woman is in a psychiatric hospital relating her story to a psychiatrist, whose notes are what we see on the screen.

As she recounts her story she removes her straight jacket like an angelic escape artist to reveal a white gown similar to Judith’s. A bright moon shines above like an operating light. At one point, shadows carry off her hospital bed like pallbearers.

At one point she thinks she’s found her lover in the dark forest, and her singing and the effects at this point genuinely instilled fear into the audience. We felt her terror and her anger as she accuses her missing lover of infidelity, and we felt her hopelessness when she finds him dead and wanders off into the night of the hospital. Branches and blood move across the stage as in Bluebeard, and it’s no wonder these operas are often performed together.

 -contributed by Risa Ian de Rege

Impractical Immortality: Do You Really Want to Live Forever?

holy grail
Image from moviepilot.com

Well, do you? Really?

The idea of immortality, in one form or another, comes up frequently in speculative fiction: elves, Timelords, divine beings, cursed humans, and undying monsters are all easy to find between pages and on screens. Immortality is often a flexible concept, ranging from gods that are all-powerful and cannot die but can—with the right spell, artifact or leverage with another rival god—be subdued, to creatures that can be slain but never fall prey to disease or the ravages of time. The latter includes Tolkien’s eternally beautiful elves and the sometimes benevolent—but usually malicious—Immortals of author Tamara Pierce’s fantasy kingdom Tortal.

Freedom from mortality may sound appealing to some of us, but as a wise wizard once said, “Humans do have a knack for choosing precisely those things which are worst for them.” Immortality is easily one of the worst things that heroes and villains have ever sought after.

For starters—there’s a catch. Always. Immortality comes at a price.

Sometimes the magic that makes you immortal also makes you susceptible to other, unfriendly forms of magic, or you find yourself unable to leave the cloister that the Sangrael is housed in, lest you lose all that you’ve gained. Maybe you get eternal life, but not eternal youth with it. I’m sure the Greek goddess Iris’ lover, who was granted the former but not the latter, would have much to say on the subject.

It is also likely that your immortality is dependent on you having your magic McGuffin on or near your person at all times, meaning that you’re at a disadvantage in life. Your magic ring or medal will be stolen, I promise you. It’s only a matter of time. In this case, the price of immortality is a life of looking over your shoulder, guarding your prize because your eternal life depends on it.

In other cases, the cost of immortality is too hideous to contemplate. Aloysius Crumrin, the aged warlock in the Courtney Crumrin comic series, is offered eternal life by an old flame—in the form of vampirism. He turns immortal life down but does accept her last elixir vitae; the potion lets him live a little longer despite his wasting illness. “Do I want to know what’s in it?” he asks the vampire. “No,” is her firm reply, and seeing as she herself keeps living by draining the life of others, it’s for the best that Aloysius doesn’t question her further.

And of course you’ll be lonely. How could you not be? You’ll outlive everyone you love.

In Ella Enchanted, the fairy godmother, Mandy, tells her goddaughter Ella that the Faeries tend to earn the ire of even their dearest human companions: “We’re immortal. That gets them mad…. [your mother] wouldn’t speak to me for a year when her father died.” The benefit of living to see a whole family line grow is somewhat tempered by knowing that you will have to bury them all.

Similarly, Skysong, the baby dragon who is born in Tortal away from other dragons and is raised by human mages, will outlive her guardian and all the mortal animals who become her friends.

And speaking of being lonely, it must be said that Captain America—who managed to survive a crash landing in the Arctic and being frozen there back during World War II—is starting to look very lonely, having outlived most of his comrades. He is stuck existing in a world that he doesn’t really belong to.

Even if you do your best to fit in the world you find yourself in, you won’t. Yuta, the protagonist of a manga series called Mermaid Saga, tries to live like a normal man after gaining immortality. But his wife can hardly fail to notice that, though she grows old over the years, he remains the young man she married. “I’m afraid of you,” she tells him. And who could blame her?

Finally, just what are you going to do with all that time?

Bowerick Wowbagger the Infinitely Prolonged devotes himself to insulting everyone, forever. If that sounds lame, consider that living forever will leave you running out of hobbies soon enough. You will run out of places to see and things to do because you will simply have too much time on your hands. If you have no plan, you’re doomed.

All that can truly occupy the immortal is watching history being made. This is a dubious prospect; ask the elves of Middle Earth. They never fail to seem jaded about the decisions made over the years, or the doings of the mortals around them. Elvenkind has simply seen too much to fully trust any other race; they remember too much.

Watching eras pass is bad enough, but living through them is much worse. Yuta lives through feudal wars, famine, the bombings of World War II, and murderous multigenerational feuds among those he befriends. Madame Xanadu loses her young lover in the witch-burning fervour of the Spanish Inquisition. And Wolverine seems to do nothing but get caught up in somebody’s war. For every triumph of humanity there are a dozen failures. History is a harsh place to live.

Take the Fame lyric “I’m gonna  live forever” literally and what you have is masochistic madness.

In the genres that ask “what if…?” any exploration of immortality yields fascinating answers. The concept of immortality and the presence of immortal characters in fiction forces us to take a long look at the way we live our lives. An immortal traveler who has seen far too much once said that “A longer life isn’t always a better one.”

What happens if you do away with mortality, a fundamental part of our humanity ? Nothing that we would ever really want.

-contributed by Miranda Whittaker