“The Sea Thy Mistress” Elizabeth Bear

The Sea Thy Mistress is the third book in Elizabeth Bear’s The Edda of Burdens series, following on from the end of both of the preceding books (All the Windwracked Stars (post) and By the Mountain Bound (post)). It’s pretty much impossible to talk about this book without some spoilers for the other two, so be warned there are spoilers ahead even for this one.

Both the previous books are stories about the end of the world, whether it be by a bang (BtMB) or a long drawn out whimper (AtWS). The Sea Thy Mistress is about a new beginning, and the tension comes from the vulnerability of the newborn world. At the end of All the Windwracked Stars Muire willing took up the role of Bearer of Burdens and brought life back to the world. But the Lady Heythe has ridden out of the first ending of the world into this new beginning. The world changed while she wasn’t there but she only aims to finish the job she started in By the Mountain Bound.

This story is also Cathoair’s story. With Strifbjorn’s soul but not Strifbjorn’s memories he’s an apt central character for this part of the trilogy. He (and the world) are at root the same as the previous man (world) but he (and the world) is also distinct and his (its) own individual self (world). And I hadn’t thought about it till writing this, but I think there’s a similar resonance for the world & the protagonist of each of the previous books. Muire & the world didn’t quietly give up & die in All the Windwracked Stars, instead they kept on going and even appearing to live despite the despair and/or dying that was concealed inside. I find it harder to articulate how the Wolf and the world match in By the Mountain Bound, but I still feel they do – something about being broken by someone using their very nature against them.

This story might take place a few decades after the end of All the Windwracked Stars, but it’s still a direct sequel. Cathoair hasn’t got over the traumatic events of the end that story. Muire is still gone, Astrid is still dead by his hand. He’s an immortal now – a new angel for a new world, and as such has a purpose and is alive. But he’s not really alive, more going through the motions. That starts to change when he becomes responsible for bringing up his son – Muire was pregnant by Cathoair when she made her sacrifice and the babe has been born and sent back to the living world (the Bearer of Burdens is presumably not a role that meshes well with bringing up even an immortal child).

And it is into this new life that Heythe walks. Of course the reader knows more than the protagonists do about Heythe – except the Wolf, but the Wolf is not trusted by Cathoair. And so Heythe has the cracks and flaws in Cathoair & the world that she needs to drive her wedges in and try to prise it all apart again. But this book is not a tragedy, and this new world is not as fragile as it first seems – there’s genuine hope at the end that the wounds of the last world are healed.

This has been one of my favourite of Bear’s series that I’ve read. I like what she’s done with Norse mythology, and I like the world & the people she’s created to inhabit it. I left it a bit long to write up this book, so I think I’ve forgotten some of the things I wanted to say about it, which is a shame. But I’m sure I’ll re-read it some day 🙂

“By the Mountain Bound” Elizabeth Bear

By the Mountain Bound is the second book in Elizabeth Bear’s The Edda of Burdens series. It is set before the events of All the Windracked Stars (post) so you could read them in either order, but I think it works best as I’ve done it this time (tho obviously as this is my first read of this book I haven’t tried out the other way round yet!).

The three protagonists of the story are the Wolf (Mingan), the Historian (Muire) and the Warrior (Strifbjorn) – the same three as in All the Windracked Stars, although Strifbjorn is reborn as the mortal Cathoair in that book. Muire was central in the first book, this book is the Wolf’s. Strifbjorn and Muire are both immortal Children of the Light, waelcyrge. (Immortal in the un-ageing sense – they can still be killed, for instance in battle.) The Wolf is … not quite the same as them, he is also a survivor from the world before there’s, and was already there when the Children first came into being. When the story opens superficially all is well in the world – we see where the cracks are but there’s nothing threatening about them. The opening chapters establish the world with a wedding between two waelcyrge, where we learn (amongst other things) that Strifbjorn is their war leader and they have no Cynge and no Lady despite setting chairs out for both. Into this good-enough world comes Heythe, who quickly establishes herself as the Lady returned. All is, of course, not quite what it seems and Heythe is soon manipulating the warlcyrge into their seemingly inevitable slide towards apocalypse.

The waelcyrge are not just warriors and avengers of mortals, they are also beings with loves of their own. And this story is also about loving unwisely or too well, and the consequences of that. When waelcyrge marry they share a part of their soul with their spouse via a kiss, but of course you don’t have to be married to kiss the one you love. Yet social pressure keeps most from risking such a thing pre-marriage – after all, if something changes and then you marry someone else then that someone else will discover they are sharing their soul not just with their spouse but their spouse’s previous lover. It’s the idea of pre-marital sex “tainting” those who do it, but applied rather more even-handedly. It’s clear that this attitude is to be seen as one of the flaws of waelcyrge society which Heythe exploits rather than a good thing. Waelcyrge are not terribly fertile, so marrying and having children to replace those who die are exalted to an almost sacred duty – Strifbjorn as war leader is under a lot of pressure to do so to set a good example. And there is no shortage of waelcyrge women who would marry him – some, like Muire, because they are in love with him, some because of the prestige being his wife would bring them. But unknown to the other waelcyrge Strifbjorn and Mingan are not just lovers, but have shared the kiss. And so the world of the waelcyrge is not as robust as it looks on the surface.

This book is a tragedy, not just in the modern sense of ending with dead people but in the original Greek sense too – it’s the inevitable working out of the flaws of the characters & society. The reason I think the ordering of these books works best this way round is that right from the beginning of this book you know where it ends. It ends with the end of the world, in blood and in ice. With Muire, the Wolf and Kasimir the only survivors of an apocalyptic battle pitting waelcyrge against waelcyrge and killing nearly all of them. So even the moments of hope and partial triumph are against a backdrop of watching the world end. It’s not depressing though – in part because for all the world ends in that battle, we also know from the first book that it’s not totally over and that there is yet hope.

In a nice touch this book ends almost exactly where the first one begins. We see some of the same scenes (not word for word, I think, but close enough to resonate), interspersed (and followed) with new information. But the repeated scenes have completely different emotional weight this time. At the beginning of the first book it’s just back story & characterisation – ticking little boxes for who these people are: “Muire, waelcyrge, survivor’s guilt” etc. This time tho, these are people we know and have come to care about over the course of the book and watching them die is heartbreakingly poignant (yet tragically inevitable).

Thoroughly recommended, and at time of writing I’m halfway through the next one & trying to make it last so that my time in this world with these characters won’t be over so soon.

“All the Windwracked Stars” Elizabeth Bear

The next book in my project of re-reading all the fiction I own (that is still on the shelves) is All the Windwracked Stars, by Elizabeth Bear. I actually replaced it with a Kindle version before re-reading it, along with buying the next two in the series (the series as a whole is called The Edda of Burdens). I know I’ve read this before, as I at least recognised the names of the protagonists and something of the world it is set in, but I remembered very little of the actual story so I might as well’ve been reading it for the first time.

We open with the end of the world in the aftermath of an apocalyptic battle, with the survivors – Kasimir, valraven steed of a slain waelcyrge; Muire, child of the Light, one of the wardens of Valdyrgard, poet, historian, metalworker; the Wolf, older than the world itself and has played his part in the ending of it. And after a chapter that establishes the characters (particularly Muire) the story jumps forward nearly two & a half thousand years to the aftermath of another apocalypse. As the book puts it:

Worlds, like gods, are a long time dying, and the deathblow dealt the children of the Light did not stop a civilization of mortal men from rising in their place, inventing medicine and philosophy, metallurgy and space flight.

Until they in turn fell, two-hundred-odd years ago, in a Desolation that left all Valdyrgard a salted garden. All of it, that is, except the two cities – Freimarc and Eiledon – that lingered. Life is tenacious. Even on the brink of death, it holds the battlements and snarls.

And in this end of the world, Muire, Kasimir and the Wolf still live among the shattered remnants of the human civilisation. It’s a world of both technology and magic – where at one moment there are recognisable computing devices, and at another we’re meeting a modified catwoman created from a cat, sorcery and a relic of the past or a modified ratman mage-engineer. The story is primarily Muire’s, although parts are from other points of view. But she’s the central figure, and we follow her from grief-stricken survivor’s guilt through to a realisation that perhaps the world can be reborn (albeit at great cost to herself).

Muire is the linchpin round which the story turns, but I think there are two other legs the plot rests on – the Grey Wolf and Cathoair. The Wolf I’ve already mentioned, he starts in the position of an antagonist – and where Muire feels she should not have survived but somehow can’t help but keep surviving, the Wolf is looking for death and not finding it. He’s been drawn to Eiledon by a sense that a piece of his past is being misused by the mortal ruler of the city, and although he’s no longer part of the company of the children of the Light he’s still not willing to let such things be misused.

Cathoair is a different sort of character – at first sight less mythic, more everyday survivor. He’s one of the mortal inhabitants of Eiledon, living in the slums and making a living in the fighting ring and as a prostitute. But his soul is that of one of Muire’s brothers, returned to life at another ending of the world (although Cathoair never knows about his past life). He gets caught up in the conflict between Muire and the Grey Wolf, as they’re both irresistibly drawn to the presence of someone they had both loved in the past. But he quickly becomes important in his own right, as even ordinary people can make a difference particularly when the world is ending.

The story takes place in a secondary world that is thoroughly steeped in Scandinavian mythology – as is presumably obvious just from the names of people and of things that I’ve mentioned in this review so far. The prose style also has something of that feel to it – recognising the subject matter as Norse in origin predisposes me to think this, but it often feels like some other language’s poetry translated into English prose. Not all of it by any means, but bits like this do:

The song still burns through his mind, scourging, polishing. Stripping him clean.

Madness is nothing. Madness is an old friend, a comfort to him. He is the son of a god and a giantess. He is a god-monster. He is the Sun-eater. He was born to destruction, to mayhem, to wrath. The world is full of things that want destroying, and also full of those who do not covet destruction. So he was chained to the end of the world. There was a poem that was also a prophecy, and he lived it. The wolf, till world’s end.

And now he is a wolf driven by the goad and the hunt, crazed by the cage and the chain. He is the wolf run mad —

One thing I particularly like about the world it’s set in is that magic and technology aren’t mutually exclusive. The bulk of the story is set in the remnants of a world that’s at least as technologically advanced as ours, if not more so. But it also has working magic, and some of (all of?) the technology is magic based – magic doesn’t replace the need for tech, nor vice versa. Which I think grows out of the Norse underpinnings of the world building – magic here is based on the word (runes, poetry, song) and also on metalworking. Muire as poet, historian, smith is also a mage, in a way that seems to go without saying. Some workings require music, some require working at the forge.

Having forgotten most of the story, I’d also forgotten how much I liked this book. I’m not sure why I didn’t get round to buying the other two in the series till now, but at halfway through the next one I’m pleased I finally got round to it 🙂

Around the World in 60 Minutes; Dinosaurs, Myths and Monsters

Around the World in 60 Minutes was a hybrid of a programme – part “what’s it like to be an astronaut?” and part travelogue. The two strands of the programme were woven together by looking at what you see during one orbit of the International Space Station – which takes 90 minutes to go round the Earth. The travelogue side of it went to about a dozen different places round the world, in the direction of the orbit, and told us something about the place and an interesting stat or two. For instance at Greenwich they talked about the meridian, and how in some sense the charts produced by the British after longitude was formalised were the GPS of their day. There was also a distinct environmental message to the whole programme – for instance they visited Brazil where they talked about the Amazon rainforest and how it’s the lungs of the planet. Brazil has had laws against deforestation for decades, but it’s only since they’ve put up a couple of satellites to keep watch over the forest that they’ve been able to enforce the rules. Now any deforestation can be seen by comparing images and the landowner can be fined. But the rainforest still loses something like 450 acres of forest every orbit of the ISS (I think that number’s right, it was something close to that anyway).

This travelogue stuff was interspersed with footage from the ISS (both inside and out) and interviews with an astronaut who’s been to the ISS. The emphasis here was strongly on how cool it is to go to space although they did mention things like nausea in microgravity being a problem initially, and talked a bit about the difficulties of getting in and out for space walks. But overall it felt a little like a recruiting film in these bits 😉 There were also sections about the sorts of scientific experiments that are done in space, like taking viruses up because once they’re returned to earth you can make better vaccines (tho I don’t think I followed why that happened).

It wasn’t quite what I’d expected from the description – I think I was expecting more travelogue and less recruiting for astronauts. It was cool tho, in its own hippy sort of way 🙂

Another quirky one-off programme that we watched last week was Dinosaurs, Myths and Monsters. This was presented by Tom Holland, who opened the programme with a description of how much he was fascinated by dinosaurs when he was a small child. It went on from there to look at how a variety of different cultures have interpreted the fossilised bones they discover – what they made of dinosaur bones.

His main theme was that even though we now know most of the stories are wrong, they’re still attempts to explain these bones and most have some element of truth (or at least you can see where they came from). For instance there are myths from Native American societies that live on the Great Plains that talk of huge birds with teeth and sea snakes with feet that lived a long time ago in a different age of the world when there was water over the land. And if you look at the fossils you find in the area then you can see that once it was a shallow sea (lots of sea creatures), with pterodactyls and aquatic dinosaurs.

He didn’t just stick to dinosaur bones – several Greek myths might have come from discoveries of large mammal fossils. He suggested that elephant skulls look a bit like one-eyed monsters, because of the gap in the skull for the trunk which might look like an eye socket. Back before the Greeks knew what an elephant was perhaps they told stories of the cyclops to explain these bones. But the most striking Greek one was his suggestion for where griffins originate. There aren’t any dinosaur fossils in Greek territory, but if you go out along the silk routes towards China, then there are fossils in the Gobi desert of dinosaurs – they are beaked, and have four legs (with claws) and even nests of fossilised eggs. Stories about these bones could easily have been the original travellers’ tales about griffins.

As well as these older myths Holland also talked about the first more scientific attempts to figure out what dinosaur bones were. He visited Crystal Palace and looked at the dinosaur reconstructions there – which to modern eyes look ludicrously wrong, with their heavyset clumsy looking frames. And he did note that there are still many things we don’t actually know and are still just extrapolating according to our own prejudices.

This was a fun programme, it covered quite a lot of ground and all with a sense of humour. Although it did at times get a bit too carried away with itself (lots of “surely it must’ve been based on this!!”) but mostly it stayed the right side of the line, and anyway it wasn’t taking itself too seriously.

Other programmes watched this week:

Episode 2 and episode 3 of The First World War – a 10 part series covering the whole of the war.

Episode 2 of Unnatural Histories – series about human influence on areas of the world that we traditionally think of as “untamed nature”.

Viking Art: A Culture Show Special – programme about the current British Museum exhibition, tho the programme concentrated more on Britain than the exhibition does.

In Our Time: Lévi-Strauss

Claude Lévi-Strauss is a name I was vaguely aware of, but I couldn’t bring to mind why. And as we listened to this In Our Time programme about him I realised I’d also heard of some of his ideas, at least in passing, but never attached them to the name. The three experts who were discussing him were Adam Kuper (Boston University), Christina Howells (Oxford University) and Vincent Debaene (Columbia University).

Lévi-Strauss was born in France in 1908 to secular Jewish parents. Kuper described him as being part of the French “bohemian bourgeois” intellectual elite of the time. Lévi-Strauss went on to study philosophy at university in Paris, where he had such notable figures as Satre as classmates (Satre was specifically mentioned because of later debates between the two men). After graduating Lévi-Strauss initially became a teacher but hated it, and so took an opportunity that opened up in Brazil as a Professor of Sociology. This is despite not liking travel and not liking fieldwork – clearly it was better than being a schoolteacher. In 1939 he returned to France, but not long after had to flee to the US.

At this point in the programme they also talked a bit about Lévi-Strauss’s politics – he was very active in the socialist movement as a student. He later said something about discovering politics was not for him, and the experts on the programme were suggesting this was due to disappointment over not being called back to France to take part in government during the 1930s. His political opinions became more conservative over the years, and by the 1968 Student Revolution in France it wasn’t something he was interested in participating in.

It was during his time in New York that Lévi-Strauss began to write the first of the books that would make his name. He did a survey of what was known about the kinship rules of every society in the world. What he was interested in was applying the ideas of structuralism to this sort of anthropological data. Structuralism originated in linguistics, looking at the grammatical rules that underlie language and Lévi-Strauss was looking for the underlying structures that determine kinship. His premise was that the big difference between animals and humans is the incest taboo (which is now shown not to be the case – other primates also appear to have the equivalent of the incest taboos when not in captivity). So he saw the whole of the development of human society as growing out of the need to exchange wives with other tribes, and by comparing all the different societies he distilled out of the data a set of three possible models for kinship rules and for how this exchange was achieved. The impact of this book was huge within anthropology, although not so much outside the field. And it’s one of the works that has lead to him being considered one of the fathers of modern anthropology, and the father of structural anthropology.

The book that brought him to public attention outside the field of anthropology was Tristes Tropiques – a memoir of his time in Brazil. But the most famous of his books was La Pensée Sauvage (the title is often translated as “The Savage Mind”, but Debeane was pretty scathing about the accuracy of that translation, preferring (if I remember right) “The Primitive Thought”). In that his thesis was that there is no fundamental difference between the thoughts and thinking processes of “civilised” and “primitive” people; it’s their culture that shapes how their thoughts are expressed rather than underlying differences. He also set out the idea that given modern Western scientific thought is such a small part of the spectrum of human thinking we shouldn’t restrict ourselves to only examining it. Instead we should try to understand the whole range. It was this book that lead to fierce debates between Lévi-Strauss and Satre about the nature of freedom. I think it was Satre on the side of people being completely free to act as they chose, and Lévi-Strauss who felt they were constrained by the underlying rules of society. Which the discussion in this programme tied into the increasing conservativeness of Lévi-Strauss’s politics.

The last of Lévi-Strauss’s works that they discussed on the programme was his four volume book on mythology. This compared the myths of all the indigenous peoples across the Americas and looked at the underlying links and structures. There wasn’t time for them to go into much details, but I think the gist of it was that Lévi-Strauss came to the conclusion that the whole continent shared a common structure of myth and that many of these myths were in conversation with each other.

In some ways I felt like this was a bit of an odd programme – in that it felt like it was made a few decades too soon. Lévi-Strauss only died in 2009 (even if most of his important work was published by the 1980s) and I’m not sure there’s been enough time to get the necessary distance to look back on his contributions. J disagrees with me here, he thinks that would be a different programme and this one was fine as it was.

This Week’s TV with Buried Treasure, Historic London, King Arthur & the Indian Ocean

Secrets of the Saxon Gold

This is another Time Team special this time about the Staffordshire hoard which was discovered in 2009. It was (one of?) the largest collection of Saxon gold to be found in Britain, and so is interesting both to the general public & to archaeologists – hence this Time Team special. Even after a year of examining the items at the point this programme was made there’re still a lot of unknowns – Tony Robinson did his best to nail down a theory for why the hoard was buried, for instance, but really the answer is “don’t know”. I think they all agreed the best guess is it was gathered to be melted down & remade, and buried during a crisis then the owner never returned through death or other misadventure.

But there was also a lot of other information that had been found. Like they’d managed to date it to within about 50 years (after the last datable coin of ~650AD, before the art style changed in ~710AD). So that’s contemporary with Sutton Hoo. They had also managed to trace where the gold & garnets had come from – reinforcing the knowledge that the Saxons were connected to a large trade network stretching across Europe & Asia. And because a lot of the pieces were damaged already they can learn more about how these items are made.

London: A Tale of Two Cities with Dan Cruickshank

This programme about London in the 17th Century was presented by Dan Cruickshank & looked at the changes between two published surveys of London. The first was written by John Stow & published in 1598, the second was an updated edition by John Strype & published in 1720. Between these two years you have the Civil Wars, the Plague of 1665 & the Great Fire of London in 1666. You also have a change in England’s place in the world, which is reflected in the ways the two surveys talk about the Thames. In 1598 it’s all about defence – you would be able to see invaders sailing up the river in time to do something about them. In 1720 it’s more about access to trade & the rest of the world. As well as a potted history of the century Cruickshank also talked about how the geography of London changed – not so much in the centre despite the fire, apparently a lot of people rebuilt their houses where they’d once stood. Instead the changes were in the outward expansion of the city – to the east this was driven by the new docks at Deptford & Blackwall, and the need for closer housing for the workers. To the west it was driven by new homes built for the gentry, and their demand for suitable places to shop and entertainment.

Interesting programme – and a neat way to look at the history of the city during this period.

The Making of King Arthur with Simon Armitage

The Making of King Arthur was originally part of the BBC’s Norman Season a couple of years ago and has been sitting on our PVR ever since. In it Simon Armitage looks at the development the Arthurian legend, from the perspective of how the story evolved rather than whether or not there’s any truth behind it. After a bit of scene setting about how the Arthurian legend is still told in the present day Armitage starts with the appropriation of the Welsh stories of Arthur by the Norman conquerors. From Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Normanification of the legend it gets further Frenchified by poets across the channel. They introduce some of the key elements of the legend we remember – like the quest for the holy grail, and the Lancelot/Guinevere love story. And then it comes back to England & English with Thomas Malory’s Mort d’Arthur (which we listened to an In Our Time about a while ago (post)). Throughout the whole programme Armitage had people reading from the various works he was talking about – normally chosen to thematically fit the work or point Armitage was making. Like the lady who works at Monmouth Priory reading a bit from Geoffrey of Monmouth’s book, or a man (Erwin James) whose writing career started whilst in prison reading from part of Malory’s book. Slightly bizarrely Armitage also visited a woman who keeps the remnants of what she believes to be the Holy Grail – this is said to be the cup that was kept in Glastonbury Abbey until it was dissolved in 1528. It then passed into the keeping of the Powell family until the 1950s, when it moved again to a hidden location. (This is the Nanteos Cup, to disambiguate it from other claimed Holy Grails.)

Indian Ocean with Simon Reeve

The fourth episode of Simon Reeve’s series about the Indian Ocean started in Oman & ended in the Maldives. In Oman he showed us Iranian smugglers, and a remote village on an island that still live in a traditional way catching fish. He skipped over Iran other than to talk about it, and moved on to India where he visited Mumbai. As always we got both sides of the city. First a festival of Ganesh showing the touristy-happy side of life, and then visiting the people whose fishing village has been subsumed into the city for the seedy underbelly. How humankind is fucking up the oceans was the theme for the rest of the programme. First over-fishing in India, where even the captains of the fishing boats say catches are going down year on year yet the industry is expanding. Then on to the Maldives where the coral is suffering from changes in the temperature of the ocean – even a small change of temperature can kill the coral polyps and the death of the whole section of reef is not far behind. And finishing with a visit to the island where the rubbish goes – which is basically a heap of rubbish, bits rotting, bits burning, seeping into the sea through the sand & falling off the edge of the beaches. There were highpoints to that section of the programme too – line & pole tuna fishing, for instance, for a sustainable way to harvest food from the ocean. Also a project to regrow the coral in the ocean and keep the reefs alive.

In Our Time: The Amazons

The Amazons are a staple of Greek mythology. The In Our Time episode about them talked about the sorts of myths that were told about them, whether there was any factual basis for these myths and how they’ve lasted into the modern day. The experts talking about them were Paul Cartledge (Cambridge University), Chiara Franceschini (University College London and the Warburg Institute) and Caroline Vout (Christ’s College, Cambridge).

The Amazons are mentioned in Homer’s poems in a couple of places, and stories are told about them through into Roman times – so they have about a thousand years of appearing in “current” mythology. The feel was consistent across the centuries, although the details often changed. They were a tribe of warrior women who are always situated somewhere on the periphery of the known world – where exactly depends on what parts of the world are best known. Even down to close to the modern day this is true – the Amazon river is named after this myth because an early European explorer came back with tales of being attacked by warrior women as he travelled down the river.

As well as “the people on the periphery” Amazons are women who live apart from men, and so women fulfil the functions that in “proper” Greek society are filled by men – they are warriors and leaders. Vout made the point that the Amazons are one of the “others” that the ancient Greeks defined themselves against. There are reliefs and art depicting Amazons in the same way and the same places that there are reliefs and art of Centaurs. Centaurs are the barbaric people that the Greeks are not – Cartledge told the myth where the Centaurs attend a human wedding and get drunk & try to rape the female guests, sparking a battle. That’s a display of “how not to behave”, the moral is to be Greek not barbarian. In a similar fashion the Amazons are the feminine against which the Greeks prove their masculinity. All three experts talked about particular myths where a Greek hero goes to visit the Amazons & wins over the Amazons or falls in love & brings home an Amazon Queen. The specific legends they mentioned were Hercules stealing the belt of Hippolyta, Penthesilea and Achilles fighting but falling in love as (or after) Achilles kills her, Theseus bringing Hippolyta back to Athens to marry her.

Franceschini talked about the iconography of the Amazons – they are always shown fully dressed. At first in Greek style clothing, but later in a style of outfit that she described as like a jumpsuit. They carried weapons, normally bows & arrows. They were often (particularly later) shown on horseback.

Herodotus was sure they existed – he places them towards the Black Sea, intermarrying with the Scythians. This is one of the legends as to how they managed to have children, another is that often they are depicted as living on an island where men cannot go and they go out into the world to find a man to become pregnant by. Girls are brought up by the Amazons, boys are killed or returned to their fathers depending on the legend.

Cartledge was keen to say that he thought the myths were complete invention – that the Greeks needed no “kernel of reality” to make up their stories from. But there is archaeological evidence in the area roughly where Herodotus places the Amazons for a culture where 20% of the fighting force were women and Vout (I think it was) said she thought this might be the origins of the initial stories. (And that percentage reminded me of this article about how it shouldn’t be a surprise to find women in fighting forces stretching right through history, yet somehow the stories we tell ignore this.)

The programme ended by very briskly moving us up from Roman times to the modern day, talking about how the myths have changed yet stayed a part of the culture. Franceschini was talking about how Queens were often represented with iconography that recalls that of the Amazons – concealing clothing, weapons, on horseback. She said that the chastity of the Amazons (often one of their virtues in myths) is what was intended to be evoked with this. Right at the end Cartledge name checked Xena: Warrior Princess for a modern representation of Amazons.

I was left at the end wondering about other modern re-workings of the Amazons – there’s a sub-genre of SFF that I tag in my head as “worlds run by women”, that’s feminist science fiction written in the 70s or so. A brief look on wikipedia backs me up that this is actually a thing not my invention. Which is just as well coz I can’t actually remember the names of any specific books I’ve read that precisely fit that category. However, what springs to mind are Sherri S. Tepper’s “The Gate to Women’s Country” and Elizabeth Bear’s “Carnival” which are both more recent than the 70s and more in dialogue with that sub-genre than part of it from what I recall. Anyway, I was left curious what debt that sub-genre owes to the Amazon myth and what is “convergent evolution” so’s to speak.

In Our Time: Romulus and Remus

The primary founding myth of Rome is the story of Romulus and Remus, which we know from written sources from the 1st Century BC. It’s clear that the story is older than that, but opinions differ as to how old it is. The three experts who talked about the myth & it’s origins on In Our Time were Mary Beard (University of Cambridge), Peter Wiseman (University of Exeter) and Tim Cornell (University of Manchester).

They opened the programme by giving us a recap of the basic form of the myth, which opens with Numitor and Amulius. Numitor is the true King of Alba Longa, but his brother Amulius usurps his throne and tries to ensure there are no true heirs left. He installs Numitor’s daughter as a virgin priestess to prevent her from bearing more heirs to Numitor’s crown, but despite this precaution she still gets pregnant. One version of the story is that the father of the children is the god Mars who appears in the holy fire as a phallus and impregnates her (which must’ve been a trifle disconcerting for the lass!). The children, Romulus and Remus, are exposed on the banks of the Tiber but instead of dying they are suckled by a she-wolf for long enough to be rescued by a shepherd & brought up. Skipping forward to when they become adults they return to the city of their birth, and once they realise who they are they overthrow Amulius and reinstate Numitor as King. Wanting a city of their own to rule (as Numitor doesn’t look like to die any time soon) they set out to found one. Because they’re twins there’s no obvious answer to which one’s in charge, so they ask the gods to give them a sign. Both see a sign that they think makes them ruler, and in most versions of the myth the arguments continue until Remus is killed (most often by Romulus himself, or by his orders).

That’s the bit I knew already of the myth, but the story continues. Once the city was founded Romulus (and Remus if he’s still alive) wanted to attract new citizens, so that they had people to rule over. And so they allowed refugees and asylum seekers to join their population – regardless of the reasons they were unwelcome at their place of origin. So not just political refugees, but also criminals or runaway slaves were welcome. Most of these people were male, which presented a problem for the proto-city and its ability to sustain its population. So Romulus tried to negotiate marriage agreements with surrounding settlements – but these were turned down on the basis that the citizens of Rome were the dregs of society. So Romulus held a festival and invited all these other settlements to it – they came, with their daughters as well. And then Romulus and the citizens of Rome abducted the women – this is the rape of the Sabine women (which is a phrase I’d heard, but I didn’t remember the story if I’d ever heard it). The other settlements were obviously rather annoyed, and went to war with Rome – most were easily defeated but the Sabines were not. At the height of battle in Rome itself the women (who had now had children with their abductors) appealed to both sides to stop fighting – on the basis that their fathers were killing their sons-in-law, and this was senseless. The two communities made peace, and merged with Romulus now ruling jointly with the Sabine King. The Sabine King later dies, under suspicious circumstances which some versions of the myth pin on Romulus. Romulus lives to a ripe old age, then rather than dying he vanishes – in some versions ascending directly to heaven.

So that’s the story, and then the programme moved on to talking about how old it was and what the Romans themselves thought about it. There are no texts before the 1st Century BC, so what evidence there is for the story being older is more tenuous and based on art. Beard presented a couple of different things – a generally agreed upon one, that there was a statue of Romulus and Remus erected in Rome in the early 3rd Century BC. So there must’ve been a version of this myth then. The other piece of evidence is a mirror from the 4th Century BC which has a design on it that is a pair of infants and a wolf. Beard said that she thought this was pretty good evidence for the existence of the myth at that time. Wiseman disagreed – saying that the design also includes the god Mercury who has no place in this myth but does in a different with with twins in (but no wolf). He also thought that the myth cannot be older than 300BC because that’s when Rome & Sabine merged as a historical event so thus the story must have been invented to explain that.

And then the three experts had a very robust (yet utterly courteous) disagreement about myth, story and the origins of stories. This was clearly a debate these three had had before, they were all aware of each other’s positions on the matter before they started. I’ll attempt to summarise – Wiseman holds the opinion that a story has a single point of creation and that this is a conscious act by a specific person, who is inventing the story in order to explain some event. Beard and Cornell on the other hand think that the stories grow out of older stories and change with time and with telling. That you can compare the writing down of the Romulus and Remus myth in the 1st Century BC to the Grimm brothers collecting old folk tales by going and listening to people telling them and then writing down a “definitive” version of a fairytale which is not necessarily the only or the original version. I’m with Beard & Cornell, personally – I don’t see why there can’t’ve been a Romulus and Remus myth dating back a long time into Rome’s history (perhaps growing out of something earlier), that later incorporated bits & pieces of other stories and events as they seemed relevant to the people at the time*. Yes, Wiseman is right that by definition there must be a first time a particular story is told – but how do you decide when it counts as this story and stops being that other story that’s got a lot of similar features.

*Worth noting that the lack of evidence is lack of evidence for both theories – pre-1st Century BC it’s an oral tradition and we have no way of knowing what exactly that was.

At the end of the programme they also talked about how the Romans thought about the myth, and about what it said about what the Romans thought about themselves. Cornell (I think) pointed out that the Romans often seem embarrassed about this myth – it involves a fratricide, and the earliest Romans are “riff raff”. So some Roman authors try and explain away these elements to sanitise it and make it more “suitable” for their great civilisation. And Beard talked about how it’s interesting that this myth makes Romans foreigners in their own city – and even the other founding myth (Aeneas fleeing Troy and founding Rome) is still a tale of refugees. And I think it was Wiseman who talked about how during the civil wars around the 1st Century BC there was a feeling that of course Rome was turning on itself because didn’t their city start with a fratricide and weren’t they doomed because of this.