In the Steps of Finn MacCool (Giant’s Causeway)


Ellen Brundige Giant's Causeway

This October I had a chance to mix two of my hobbies, geology and mythology, on the Giant’s Causeway in northern Ireland.

Geologists tell us that the Giant’s Causeway is a beautiful example of columnar basalt, lava that cooled slowly and cracked into enormous columns of four to eight sides. The audio guide provided by the visitor’s centre suggested that part of the reason for this long-term cooling is that the lava flowed into a river valley, so that the surface cooled off, capped and insulated the interior of the flow for an unusually long time. The formation is 60-50 million years old, created during the enormous lava eruptions that heralded the opening of the Atlantic Ocean.

As usual, traditional mythology attempted to explain the natural world through stories, the easiest way to explain things prior to the invention of the scientific method for testing and verifying hypotheses. And as so often, a local folk hero was given credit for distinctive landforms. However, Finn MacCool (Fionn mac Cumhaill) was not the bravest hero in this myth— in fact, that honor goes to his wife!

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How an Ice Butterfly Taught Me Time

Not Japanese, but a beautiful ice sculpture entitled "Mysterious Pearl."  G.Goodwin Jr. and Snark, Creative Commons (Wikimedia)

Not Japanese, but a beautiful ice sculpture entitled “Mysterious Pearl.” G.Goodwin Jr. and Snark, Creative Commons (Wikimedia)

When I was about ten years old, my parents traveled from Pennsylvania to California. Naturally, they took me to Disneyland. I learned an important lesson that day. Not how to dress like a princess, or that it takes willful suspension of disbelief to enjoy myths re-imagined for the purpose of merchandising.I learned about time.

The city of Anaheim was holding a festival in honor of its adopted sister city in Japan. Disneyland joined in with Japanese-themed events and kitsch.

Around noon, my parents and I stopped to watch a Japanese artist working on the edge of the lake. He was carving a six-foot-tall butterfly out of a pillar of ice. I was fascinated by his meticulous yet swift chisel-work. I marveled at how the sun shone through the ice like crystal. Yet I was troubled.

“But it will melt,” I said. It was a warm, sunny California day.

“Yes,” said he. “That’s the point.”

I understood what he meant almost at once— with my head, not my heart. My heart is still struggling to understand. I have trouble letting go of places, things, people, ways of being. If I had a time machine, I used to say, I would copy every manuscript in the Library of Alexandria. All my life, I’ve been haunted by a nightmare of forever climbing a staircase whose steps close just behind my feet.

That is the story. And yet it is not the story.

Ten years after that trip to Disneyland, I met a girl in college who was a kindred spirit. One day I told her this story. To my surprise, my tale was not new to her.

She had grown up in California. She used to visit Disneyland. She remembered a special day when Disneyland threw a party for Anaheim’s sister city in Japan. She remembered a Japanese artist carving a sculpture of a butterfly out of ice. She remembered my question and his answer.

We had grown up 3,000 miles apart. We met ten years later when she moved east to attend a college an hour from my home. We were together for a good 15 years. Work called me out to California, and work kept her back east. Our bond slowly faded. Distance, as well as time, can melt butterflies.

That is the story. And yet it is not the story.

I have the same conflicting feelings about the web— and computers, and much of our modern world— that I did with that butterfly.

My writing and art are saved on floppy discs and on hard drives. Hard drives fail. Discs deteriorate. Computers that can access them fail. These technologies have been around for only a few decades. Do we really think our data files will be intelligible to any devices in a hundred year’s time?

We are transferring our work to the web, but there is no guarantee that webhosts will last much longer. Of course, paper and books also decay, but so far they have proved longer-lived than ephemeral technology.

Nor is the web the whole story. Our world may be melting.

When the most adamant climate change skeptic, the very one who manufactured the “climategate” scandal, does his own research with the goal of disproving climate change, only to find his data confirms it— we cannot be arrogant enough to assume that the world our great-grandchildren inherit will be just like ours today. Our accelerating 7 billion population is straining the world’s resources already. As a classics major who studied the decay of the Roman Empire, I see the shadow of the past cast darkly upon our future. I wonder whether the global economy and advanced infrastructure currently sustaining our technology will survive these pressures.

I wonder if anything we do or create will outlast the next few centuries, or whether so many unreadable hard drives, flash drives and floppies will be ground up for raw materials, like the manuscripts of Alexandria burned for fuel or stuffed into mummy wrappings as paper mâché.

When these thoughts nag me, I remind myself how the sunlight shone through an ice butterfly’s wings. I try hard to remember the words of an old Japanese man— who may well be dead by now— and tell myself, It doesn’t matter, as long as you’ve sculpted at least a few ice butterflies.

That is the story. And yet it is not the story.


Flower Crowns: Ancient & Modern

Cultural appropriation, according to this blog post.

Cultural appropriation, according to this blog post.

The interwebs are an ever-changing culture, and the blooming trends of today will have withered by next week. Nevertheless, the recent fad of Photoshopping “flower crowns” on popular figures from TV, film and other media has caught my eye.

It’s a consciously ironic way of claiming ownership of a cultural icon, expressing devotion while showing that you don’t take the object of adoration too seriously. Nevertheless, I see that it has deeper roots in—


Er… come again?


Oh, dear.

Do you mean to tell me that when students of Bryn Mawr College participate in our college’s one-hundred-year-plus May Day celebration, a fine old tradition imported (SEE!?! SEE?!!) from England, those wreaths we wear are actually Hawaiian?

President Mary Patterson McPhearson and members of BMC's senior class, May Day, 1990. (My photos)

President Mary Patterson McPhearson and members of BMC’s senior class wearing flower garlands, May Day, 1990. (My photos)


Morris Dancer at Oxford University May Day celebrations, © Matthias Rosenkranz, Creative Commons.

Photo by: Matthias Rosenkranz (CC)

Is the medieval English tradition of “Bringing in the May,” gathering flowers and weaving them into garlands to wear, Hawaiian, too? (Left: Morris Dancer in Oxford, England.)

And when Catholics honored the Virgin Mary by adapting the old May Day tradition of crowning the May Queen, which this traditional hymn commemorates—

O Mary we crown thee with blossoms today!
Queen of the Angels and Queen of the May.
O Mary we crown thee with blossoms today,
Queen of the Angels and Queen of the May.

— were they unwittingly borrowing a tradition from a far-away island?

How about  First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln?

Mary Todd Lincoln cropped

And the ancient Greeks and Romans, not to mention the Minoans?

But you, O Dika, wreathe lovely garlands in your hair,

Weave shoots of dill together, with slender hands,

For the Graces prefer those who are wearing flowers,

And turn away from those who go uncrowned. — Sappho, c. 600 BCE

(The ancient Greek word for garland/flower crown is Στέφανος, by the way, giving us the modern names Stephen, Steve and Stephanie.)

Antinous Pio-Clementino Inv256 n8
Antinoous, Roman emperor Hadrian’s boyfriend, photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen, CC.

Amazing! I had no idea that the ancient Sumerian Queen Pu’abi and the slightly-less-ancient Assyrians buried at Nimrud were actually Hawaiian flower-crown wearers, despite predating the first human settlements in Hawaii by some 3000 years to 1500 years, respectively!

It gets better. The kanzashi tradition of Japan, which dates back thousands of years, also predates Hawaii. In this case, different flowers are used at different times of the year, and may ward off evil spirits or celebrate love and the arrival of spring (which is roughly the meaning of medieval May Day crowns).


Kanzashi, photographed by Joe Baz, Creative Commons License.

In the New World we find an Atzec goddess, Xochiquetzal, whose name means “flower feathers,” since she (and her worshipers) wore a wreath of flowers and feathers in her hair:

Sure enough, she’s the goddess of love, spring and flowers: the maiden-archetype is often associated with flowers and flower-wearing.

I could belabor the point, that flower crowns appear in many traditions around the world, but this commenter to the original “cultural appropriation” blog post said it best:

“…as someone who HATES cultural appropriation, can I just say

are you ****** kidding

You realize that by stomping your feet about something that isn’t actually cultural appropriation, that you do damage to actual attempts to stop cultural appropriation, right?”

Asha, who cites a 1945 photo of her Yugoslavian grandmother wearing a flower crown for her wedding.

Well said.

However, that’s actually not the point I want to make. This Mythphile blog is about the intersection of mythology, psychology, and modern culture. When I see fans  Photoshopping flower crowns onto images of their favorite fandom icons, I see an innocent echo of a very old tradition.

Since ancient times, people around the world have worn flower crowns for communal ceremonies, sacred rites like weddings, festivals in which worshipers embody the May Queen or Xochiquetzal or Persephone.

However, there’s another way in which garlands are used: to decorate sacred statues. I’m most familiar with this practice in Greek, Roman and Hindu traditions, but the more I look at traditions around the world, the more examples I see of cult objects being spruced up with garlands (sometimes as crowns, sometimes as collars).


An image or statue is not alive. Yet it represents something alive, numinous. That’s why worshipers often gift their icons with that natural symbol of life, flowers. It’s both a gift of life and a way of imbuing an inert image with life-energy.

Many modern mythographers have observed that with the breakdown of monocultures — self-contained societies united by shared myths, religions and customs that helped affirm and inspire their communal identity — modern people instinctively reach for stories in popular media from Star Wars to Spirited Away to provide meaningful symbols, stories and characters. The struggling folk hero rings true for us, even if it’s Harry Potter or Katniss Everdeen.

No wonder fans feel the urge to crown their fan totems with virtual garlands. An age-old impulse has reappeared in a playful, digital form.

Brave: “The Bear and the Bow”: Bear Mythology

The Celtic Goddess Artio, photograph by Sandstein, Wikimedia Commons

Having just watched the Disney / Pixar movie Brave, I’m pondering the vaguely Scottish-Irish-Celtic-European mythology and motifs buried in this film. Originally titled “The Bear and the Bow,” the movie weaves a a tapestry of bear and mother goddess symbolism which I find fascinating. Its narrative, set in an idealized 10th century Scotland, straddles myth, fable, and fairy tale.

Before I dive into the mysteries of bear-mythology, here’s a SPOILER WARNING: I’m about to give away a MAJOR PLOT TWIST in Brave.

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The Transit of Venus and of Ray Bradbury: June 5, 2012

Venus seen by NASA's Pioneer Spacecraft, 1979.

It had been raining for seven years; thousand upon thousands of days compounded and filled from one end to the other with rain, with the drum and gush of water, with the sweet crystal fall of showers and the concussion of storms so heavy they were tidal waves come over the islands. A thousand forests had been crushed under the rain and grown up a thousand times to be crushed again. And this was the way life was forever on the planet Venus, and this was the schoolroom of the children of the rocket men and women who had come to a raining world to set up civilization and live out their lives.

So wrote Ray Bradbury of Venus in 1954, in a heartbreaking yet beautiful short story of less than 2,000 words, “All Summer in a Day” (found in The Stories of Ray Bradbury). In that tale, Venus’ clouds thin once every seven years, just enough for the sun to break through for about an hour.  The native schoolchildren tease one Earth-born classmate who remembers and yearns for the sun. They lock her in a closet as a prank when the magic hour approaches.

It sounds like unpromising fodder, but “All Summer in a Day” is the best short story I have ever read, a gently-written parable with a haunting lesson about bullying that has stayed with me since I first read it in fourth grade.

We now know that the clouds of Venus hide not a monsoon world, but a volcanic hellhole where a runaway greenhouse effect has raised the temperature to nearly 900 degrees,  nearly twice the temperature at which books burn in Bradbury’s watershed novel, Farenheit 451. 

Bradbury wrote several stories set on his rainy Venus, as well as his more famous Chronicles set on Mars. His science fiction stories turned airless worlds into vividly realized landscapes which we yearned to explore. Terra incognita: once Earth’s map was completely charted with no more room for “here be dragons,” Bradbury like many science fiction writers dreamed of dragons on other planets, and in so doing told us stories about ourselves.

A few decades later, space probes built by scientists who grew up on Bradbury’s stories went to Venus and Mars and other parts of our solar system and dismissed his Venusians, his Martians, the mythical places he had described.

But myths are not merely lies, as Joseph Campbell was saying: they are metaphors, tales that contain a kernel of truth conveyed through the art of storytelling, and they can survive when the places are mapped and the bards who told those tales have passed away.

One of my photos of transit of Venus, 2012

On June 5th, 2012, I stood with my telescope in a park in southern California gazing through my homemade solar filter at a little black spot against our sun. It was the transit of the planet Venus crossing exactly between us and the sun in a rare planetary alignment that happens very intermittently: once in 2004 (but not visible in my part of the world) and before that, the last time was in 1882.

In the 19th century, scientists around the world observed the transit of Venus to help them calculate, for the first time, the vast distances between Earth, Venus, and the Sun, and so measure the size of the solar system. (Read about this amazing episode of scientific discovery in Chasing Venus: The Race to Measure the Heavens). The numbers they discovered were staggering — almost mythic — and humbling. Again, they put paid to many myths about the planets and our cosmos.

Watching Venus inch across the sun’s disc, I shared the event with a New Age shaman who was weaving her own Venus-myth, constructing her own meaningful if not-literally-true stories. I tried to experience this event from her frame of reference as well as the scientific one, putting down my camera and setting my telescope aside to drum and to feel the wind, to celebrate the symbols and myths of Venus/Aphrodite as a source of love, of fertility, of watery intuition. In the Sun’s glare that rendered the mystery invisible to the naked eye, Venus stood juxtaposed against Apollo, the god of rationality, science, reason and light: a small dark globe against a fiery life-giving furnace that will eventually engulf Venus and our own planet in its own declining years.

From my location, the sun set before Venus had quite cleared its blazing rim. At the same moment, less than a hundred miles from where I stood, Ray Bradbury the bard of Venus passed away in his home in Los Angeles. It seemed as if the planets had aligned to mark his passing. Impossible, of course, just like an hour of sunlight that comes only once every seven years, but it happened.

Bradbury’s stories inspired scientists. Science then killed the myths he told. Yet his stories live on, embodied yet not present on a small black dot, twin to our fragile and transitory home.

Sic transit omnia. Sed verba perdurant.

Ray Bradbury August 22, 1920-June 5, 2012


Venus transiting sun from satellite

NASA/Solar Dynamics Observatory photographs Venus against Sun, June 5, 2012

The Stories of Ray Bradbury