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|Thursday, February 27th, 2014|
|Eostre, Ostara and the Easter Fox
It is nearly, but not quite, That Time Of Year Again. Yes, I mean the time when the persevering few take to the keyboard to challenge the disinformation put about by the ignorant but well-meaning many, concerning 'Eostre', the Easter Bunny and all that blather. (On the offchance that you are new to this blog and don't know what I mean, feel free to start here
and keep going until you are a) up to speed or b) very sick of the topic indeed.)
So, as an aperitif of sorts, something a little different. I'd like to cite, once again, the magnificent prologue to The English Year by Steve Roud: 'The real danger is from a far more virulent virus - the idea that all customs, indeed all superstitions, nursery rhymes, and anything that smacks of 'folkiness', are direct survivals of ancient pagan fertility rites, and are concerned with the appeasement of gods and spirits. Although the suggestion of an ancient origin for our folklore was the central tenet of the Victorian and Edwardian pioneers of folklore collection, this notion has only become generally known in the last forty years or so, and has taken hold with astonishing rapidity; the majority of the population now carry the virus in one form or another, while some are very badly infected. The problem here is not simply that these theories are unsupported by any evidence, but that their blanket similarity destroys any individuality. All customs will soon end up with the same story.'
That last line is so chilling, isn't it? 'All customs will soon end up with the same story'. And that's exactly what we are seeing.
Please consider how many of the neopagan 'explanations' for modern customs refer to the most entrenched, corporate-enshrined, iconic versions of those customs. In an age of instant mass communication, the holiday traditions and the characters associated with them have become standardised. Regional variation steadily vanishes. So, when neopagan 'explanations' of The Easter Bunny or Santa appear, they often sound like probes into the secrets of well-known celebrities. The modern icons have become monolithic.
No surprise, then, that the neopagan Easter Bunny origin stories are equally monolithic, attempting as they do to appropriate a standardized, ubiquitous, iconic rabbit by means of a standardized line about a Goddess and her sacred hare. We thus arrive at a notion of Paganism which, in responding to globalised imagery, has become equally timeless, placeless and divorced from actual practice. The Eostre business becomes 'the
story', regardless of what your inherited traditions may be, how they may have changed over the years, or what regional nuances may have shaped them. It is both ironic and tragic that pagan religion, which placed so much emphasis on the local
, should now have been reimagined as Paganism (TM) in all its amorphous boundary-crossing homogenity.
This relentless standardization and homogenization of our common pagan past, with its wilful blindness to any research that does not serve the grim purpose of appropriation, drowns out many exciting and fascinating aspects of folklore that are much more deserving of our attention. It's as if a historical site of immense significance had been buried under a huge concrete bunny with a neon pentagram stuck on top.
Take, for example, the Osterfuchs
- the Easter Fox.
You could be forgiven for not even having heard of the Easter Fox, and yet it's described as an older Germanic tradition than the Easter Bunny. In some places, it was supposedly more popular. A translation of some Easter Fox information by Arkady Rose:Until the mid-20th Century, according to older literature, it was mainly the Easter Fox who was responsible for the eggs in the Easter tradition. Gradually this was then displaced by the Easter Bunny. A note of 1904 from the Schaumburg area states quite specifically that the eggs were laid not from the Easter Bunny, but the Easter fox.
Traditionally, on Holy Saturday the children would prepare a cozy nest of hay and moss for the Easter Fox. They also made sure that the Easter fox was not disturbed during his visit - for example by shutting up pets for the night.
Furthermore, the Easter Fox was described in a Westphalian document of 1910. Interestingly, the tradition seemed at the time to have been in a transition period to the Easter Bunny. Thus we read in Scripture that "... it would look as though the Fox might return before the hare. "
Where the Easter fox comes into the story, we can only surmise today. It was considered early on that it is based on the Pentecostal fox. This is an old custom in which people at Pentecost went with a pet fox from house to house to collect donations. Other descriptions suggest the Easter fox harks back to the tradition of Christmas Gebildbrot pastries.
You won't see any neopagan interpretations of the Easter Fox, or any suggestion that Eostre's sacred animals were a fox and a rabbit. That's because fakelore interpretations only concern themselves with imagery that it is assumed you already know. You continually see attempts to appropriate Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny because everyone is familiar with them. It never seems to occur to anyone that these traditional figures were not always so standardized or internationally accepted, even in the English-speaking world.
In the Easter Fox, however, there is a sniff - possibly no more than a sniff - of a tradition that may
be genuinely old, forgotten and occluded. Personally, I find that wonderful.
|Wednesday, November 6th, 2013|
|In which my daughter plays Dungeons and Dragons, sort of (transcribed from FB)
Our daughter Sabrina, aka 'Bean', is five and a half. She loves imaginative play, especially where superheroes are concerned; having inherited my Lego, she's accumulating a small collection of DC-based stuff. Both Catwoman and Harley Quinn have changed sides and are now good guys, by the way. This is partly because Sabrina doesn't think there are enough good girls' roles in superhero stories - well done, kid - but also because she 'doesn't be baddies'.
This prompts something of a Dad strop last night. 'Why does Daddy always have to play all the bad guys?' I fume. (I am already in a Dark Souls induced frump, the sort where you hate the game forever until five minutes have passed, you have a new idea and you plunge back in.) 'It's like I'm always the DM and I never get to be a player!'
'What's a DM?' asks Sabrina.
'Well,' say I, alert to the possibility that The Time Is Nigh, 'there's a game we all used to play called Dungeons and Dragons...'
Three lines into my explanation, she yells 'I WANNA PLAY IT!'
Oh God, what have I done.
I ask her mother if this is a good idea. Her mother gives me one of those you-dug-yourself-into-this-hole-dearest-h
ave-fun-getting-out looks. Right. Let's do this. I am confident I can improvise some basic, pared-down version of D&D that doesn't baffle or upset my daughter, but still communicates the crucial difference between tabletop RPG and other kinds of play.
To my mind, the difference is that there are Rules. It's not just freeform improvisation, unlike the stories Sabrina and I make up together (what happens when Wheatley from Portal II takes over Willy Wonka's chocolate factory, does Captain Jack Sparrow know Ariel the mermaid, what sort of house would we live in if we had a gazillion pounds and why do Daddy's houses always have disco floors). In D&D, you can choose to TRY to do something, but whether you succeed or fail isn't wholly up to you. It's the living flesh of imagination wrapped around the rigid skeletal structure of system, and that, my friends, is how the magic is made.
We can't find the polyhedral dice. We can't even find a six-sided die. No matter. We shall use the toss of a coin as our conflict resolution mechanic.
'The first challenge is to choose your character class,' I explain, lying on the sofa like some recumbent dictator. 'Fighter, magic-user, cleric or thief?'
'I want to be a witch,' says Sabrina, in a move that literally nobody could have seen coming.
'Right. Okay. As a witch, you can cast four spells,' I improvise wildly. 'Magic missile, light, spider climb and web.'
Sabrina jumps up and down with glee.
'And you have a dagger for fighting with. And some money. And a cloak.'
'Can I have a helicopter?'
'No you can't.'( Cut for length....Collapse )
|Sunday, October 20th, 2013|
|Sunday, May 19th, 2013|
|Saturday, April 13th, 2013|
|Sunday, March 31st, 2013|
|Friday, March 29th, 2013|
|The Pagan Sausage Machine Fallacy
I’d like to broaden my usual ranting this year and talk about a particular problem affecting not only modern paganism, but modern Christianity and modern atheism. In giving it a name, I hope to help others identify it and battle it wherever it occurs.
It’s the Pagan Sausage Machine Fallacy, or if you prefer, the Pagan Homogeneity Error.
This concept may not seem familiar at first, but I’m sure that the more I go on about it, the more easily examples will occur to you.
Neil Gaiman once talked to us about adapting Neverwhere for BBC TV back in the day. He commented that the BBC in those days was like a sausage machine. Whatever you may feed into a sausage machine, you get sausages out the other end. Similarly, whatever you fed into the BBC came out as Doctor Who.
The Pagan Sausage Machine fallacy is similar. Whatever pre-Christian religion you feed into the sausage machine of the early Christian missionary worldview, whatever the regional specifics may have been, whatever deities were involved, the undifferentiated sausages of ‘PAGANISM ™’ come out of the other side.
The Pagan Homogeneity Error is thus the mistake of considering disparate pre-Christian or non-Christian religions to be alike, related, interchangeable and/or sympathetic with one another purely because the label ‘pagan’ is affixed to them.
The error lies in the origin of the term ‘pagan’, which was a disparaging term. It meant ‘civilian’, i.e. one who was not in the army of Christ. By lumping together all non-Christian faiths under one umbrella, the early Christians deemed them to be all equally valueless. ‘Paganism’ was not seen as a religion but a condition, akin to barbarism.
From a missionary perspective, the Gods of the people you’re trying to convert are not interesting or unique. They are merely ‘demons’ or ‘idols’. There is therefore no point in distinguishing between them. After all, if your worldview holds that only Christianity is right and everything else is wrong, it really doesn’t matter what local flavour of wrong it is. This attitude is actually characteristic of Old Testament Judaism: ‘For all the gods of the nations are idols’, reads Psalm 96.5.
So, if you see the pre-Christian world as covered with an essentially homogenous practice called ‘Paganism’ from one end to the other, it’s very easy to conflate elements from completely separate religions. It doesn’t help that there is a certain measure of overlap in some pantheistic religions, sometimes stemming from common ancestry, and sometimes born of the practice of adopting foreign deities into one’s own religion. The Romans were especially keen on the latter, identifying various Gods as local examples of their own: http://www.unrv.com/culture/adopted-roman-gods.php
A monotheistic religion can’t do that, of course. Since there’s only one God in that system, you can’t very well go about claiming other people’s Gods as examples of yours. So what we find is a tendency to adopt local deities either as saints – see Saint Bride – or as demons. For example, the Caananite Goddess Astarte becomes the demon Astaroth.
This throws open the gates for all sorts of bizarre cross-associations with no historical basis. If you hold that there is a literal demon behind every one of your neighbour’s ‘idols’, then it follows that since demons are independent of such trivial concerns as time and place, they can therefore show up all over the globe playing the same sorts of roles in different garb. Pagan deity A and pagan deity B can thus be lumped together based on nothing more than a perceived common ‘pagan’ identity plus a similarity of function.
This is a great problem when it comes to analysing the history of pre-Christian religion. Because of the Pagan Homogeneity Error, Christians tended to deal with local pre-Christian religion in terms of Paganism™ as they understood it. This is why we read in the Lanercost Chronicle of 1282:
"About this time, in Easter week, the parish priest of Inverkeithing, named John, revived the profane rites of Priapus, collecting young girls from the villages, and compelling them to dance in circles to [the honour of] Father Bacchus. When he had these females in a troop, out of sheer wantonness, he led the dance, carrying in front on a pole a representation of the human organs of reproduction, and singing and dancing himself like a mime, he viewed them all and stirred them to lust by filthy language. Those who held respectable matrimony in honour were scandalised by such a shameless performance, although they respected the parson because of the dignity of his rank. If anybody remonstrated kindly with him, he [the priest] became worse [than before], violently reviling him.”
We may raise an eyebrow at the idea of a Scottish priest worshipping ‘Father Bacchus’.
The Pagan Homogeneity Error still persists today, arguably more so than ever before. It provides a sort of deranged hyperspace by means of which any non-Christian concept can be bolted on to any other non-Christian concept in support of whatever argument the speaker is trying to make.
The most obvious sign that a writer is committing the Pagan Homogeneity Error is this: they are associating ‘pagan’ ideas because of a similarity of name or function and not because of a demonstrable historical or geographic connection.
For example, take the error of thinking that the ‘Wheel of the Year’ is historically authentic. (One might think that this was not an error that many modern Pagans are likely to make, but a depressing number of them do.)
The Wheel of the Year uses the Irish/Scots festivals of Imbolc, Beltane, Lammas and Samhain and intersperses them with festivals from the Anglo-Saxon calendar, such as Litha. We can see at a glance that two entirely separate cultures have been cobbled together here; they have nothing in common but a shared ‘pagan’ identifier. But because people find it very easy to conceive of a winter ‘pagan festival’ leading on to a springtime ‘pagan festival’, they swallow the whole thing in one instead of discerning between the different cultural elements.
Similarly, a great kerfuffle is sometimes made at Easter about the Babylonian Goddess Ishtar, who is cludged together with the putative Anglo-Saxon Goddess Eostre. It would be hard to find a better example of the Pagan Homogenity Error than this.
By Google Maps, Ishtar’s holy city of Uruk lies a phenomenal 3,500 miles from Jarrow, where Bede wrote down the name of the alleged Goddess Eostre. (For comparison, that’s about the same as the distance from London to New York.) To make that journey today, you would have to travel through Iraq, Syria, Turkey, Bulgaria, Serbia, Hungary, Germany and Belgium before crossing the English Channel and making the final trip up to Tyne and Wear in the UK.
Many of the people wishing you ‘Happy Easter’ on that journey wouldn’t say Happy Easter, of course. They’d refer you to ‘Paskalya’ in Turkish, ‘Húsvét’ in Hungarian and Pâques in Belgium. In fact, for a long time it was only the English and the Germans who called the festival anything like ‘Easter’ at all. The vast majority of nations called it a variant on Pascha. However, nowadays we have a lot more English speakers, thanks to a wonderful country called America that’s doing rather well for itself since Bede’s time. This tends to exaggerate the perceived importance of the English name for the festival.
Oh – and Ishtar was not only 3,500 miles away from Eostre, she was about a thousand years earlier in time, too.
On top of that, the names Ishtar and Eostre belong to separate language families. Ishtar pertains to the Semitic language family, Eostre to the Indo-European. If you don’t know what language families are, for heaven’s sake go and look them up. It’s fascinating stuff, I promise you.
Also, Eostre was probably a dawn-goddess (if she existed); Ishtar was much more about love and war. Eostre’s festival was in the lunar month roughly corresponding to April; so far as I know, we have no record of when Ishtar’s festivals may have been.
So, how on earth can anyone possibly conflate the two?
Handily, the Pagan Sausage Machine is as efficient as a TARDIS when it comes to ignoring the mundane limitations of time and space. Never mind all that tedious history, archaeology, linguistics and research that stands between them: just bung it all into the sausage machine, mince it all up, and Eostre and Ishtar come out the other side as alike as two pagan peas in a pagan pod:
1. Their names sound a bit alike, especially if you neck a pint of vodka first.
2. They’re both pagan goddesses, which obviously means they’re about sex.
Now you too can create a Facebook meme. Have fun!
|Wednesday, March 13th, 2013|
|Hunting the spurious Eostre Hare
It's that time of year again: daffodils are coming up, the sun is re-establishing itself as a welcome and warming presence instead of some dimly remembered thing of olden time, and people who don't know any better are circulating that bloody story about Eostre's Hare. Again.I've blogged extensively about Eostre in the past
and don't intend to repeat any of that here. The short version: there is only one reference to her anywhere, in Bede; he gives absolutely no information about her except for her name; and everything else that people claim about her, such as having a sacred hare companion, is wholly unsupported by evidence.
This is not even a controversial stance. On the contrary, it is exactly what the Oxford Dictionary of English Folklore states: 'Nowadays, many writers claim that hares were sacred to the Anglo-Saxon goddess Eostre, but there is no shred of evidence for this; Bede, the only writer to mention Eostre, does not link her with any animal.'
The interesting question now, to me, is when this spurious association between Eostre and hares arose. It's not in Bede, as we've already established. It's not in Grimm. (EDIT: WRONG, SEE FURTHER EDIT NOTE BELOW.) Adolf Holtzmann, writing in 1874 in German Mythology
, states "The Easter Hare is unintelligible to me, but probably the hare was the sacred animal of Ostara." This is the earliest example of this association I can find, and it is still speculative at this point.
K. A. Oberle, in the catchily titled Überreste germanischen Heidentums im Christentum, oder die Wochentage, Monate und christlichen Feste etymologisch, mythologisch, symbolisch und historisch erklärt
(1883), writes "Wahrscheinlich ist der Hase das heilige Tier der Ostara gewesen" (Probably the hare was the sacred animal of Ostara), echoing Holtzmann.
However, it's worth noting that in 1892, Charles J Billson writing in the the British journal Folk-Lore states flatly
that "Oberle also concludes that the hare which lay the particoloured Easter eggs was sacred to the same goddess," ignoring the 'probably' that both Holtzmann and Oberle included.
We find another speculative association in Charles Isaac Elton's Origins of English History
(1890), in which it is suggested that certain Easter customs "were probably connected with the worship of the Anglian goddess Eostre", the customs in question being those in which "the profits of the land called Harecrop Leys were applied to providing a meal which was thrown on the ground at the 'Hare-pie Bank".
Elton's speculation is still a far cry from the modern assertion that Eostre's sacred beast was
the hare, so who first made that assertion? John Lanyard's Lady of the Hare
(1944) refers back to Billson, but writes as if the question were more or less settled, rather than being a matter of speculation: 'Since the Saxon Easter Goddess does seem to have been connected with the hare, and the hare so widely symbolizes 'dawn', and as dawn comes from the east, and Easter is the festival of the Resurrection symbolizing the birth of new life, it had occurred to me to wonder whether the actual word "Easter" might have a very simple explanation indeed - so simple that philologists and churchmen alike had missed it - namely that it was cognate to the word "east" as symbolizing the dawn from which new light came.'
By 1976, we have Christina Hole writing in Easter and its Customs
: 'The hare was the sacred beast of Eastre (or Eostre) a Saxon goddess of Spring and of the dawn.' Any suggestion that this is a speculative
association is entirely extinct. Somehow, along the way, supposition has become unexamined fact. I am not aware of any source between John Lanyard and Christina Hole who makes this outright statement, and would welcome any breadcrumbs from readers of this blog who know of one.
So, in summary, here is a very tentative timeline of Eostre's Bunny:
725 CE: Bede mentions Eostre. He does not associate her with hares.
1835 CE: Grim, in Deustche Mythologie
, postulates Ostara; he does not associate Eostre with hares. (WRONG - SEE EDIT)
1874 CE: Adolf Holtzmann states 'probably the hare was the sacred animal of Ostara'.
1883 CE: K.A. Oberle also states 'probably the hare was the sacred animal of Ostara'.
1890 CE: Charles Isaac Elton states that Easter customs at 'Hare-pie Bank' at 'Harecrop Leys' 'were probably connected with the worship of the Anglian goddess Eostre'
1892 CE: Charles J Billson refers to Oberle's association of the hare with Ostara as a conclusion, rather than as a speculation
1944 CE: John Lanyard states that 'the Saxon Easter Goddess does seem to have been connected with the hare'.
1976 CE: Christina Hole states that 'The hare was the sacred beast of Eastre (or Eostre) a Saxon goddess of Spring and of the dawn.'
Please bear in mind that no new evidence arose during this time to change the speculative association into a definite one.
The shift from 'probably the hare was the sacred animal of Ostara' to 'the hare was
the sacred beast of Eastre' wasn't based on any archaeological discoveries, collected oral traditions or unearthed documents. It appears to have been based completely upon authors borrowing from other authors, and in so doing, shifting the goalposts of certainty until one person's speculation had become another's unchallenged fact.
Afterword: it's an interesting time in Eostre studies, folks. As you'll know, I have never been inclined to dismiss Eostre herself
out of hand, though I am happy to take the axe to the massive amount of unsupported codswallop that is circulated concerning her, such as the bunny story. As far as Eostre herself goes, if she's good enough for Professor Hutton, she's good enough for me. She may have been a real figure of worship, she may not. The jury's still out on that one.
And now Doctor Philip A. Shaw of the University of Leicester has added something entirely new (to me) to the ongoing debate, namely linking Romano-Germanic votive inscriptions to the 'matron Austriahenea' to Eostre. I am therefore going to pick up a copy of his work 'Eostre, Hreda and the Cult of Matrons'
just as soon as the next pay cheque arrives. Though one does have to facepalm at the sole comment on Amazon: 'It is not surprising that there is little "hard evidence" considering that there was literally a war waged over hundreds of years to stamp out "the old religion."' I imagine Dr Shaw would probably have a few words to say on that, too.
EDIT: This is fascinating stuff. According to Swain Wodening's review of the book
, Dr. Shaw believes that Eostre really existed but that she and Hretha were entirely local to Kent! So, the selfsame academic who offers up new evidence for Eostre's existence also limits her to a very small part of south-eastern England. Not a pan-Germanic Goddess at all, then; and in affirming an entirely local Kentish Eostre, Dr. Shaw is effectively demolishing the hypothetical Germanic 'Ostara' proposed by Grimm. Indeed, he suggests that 'the German month names Ostermonat and Redmanot were carried to Germany and France by Anglo-Saxon missionaries, and uses this to back his claim that they were local goddesses'! So, the stance is that Christian Anglo-Saxons took those month names over, and (presumably) there is no connection at all to any cognate pagan goddesses in those regions. Well, that certainly jives with Charlemagne renaming the month of April to the old High German Ostarmanot; he would hardly have done so if there were lingering pagan associations.
IMPORTANT EDIT: I done screwed up, folks. Bound to happen one of these days. Holzmann's Deustche Mythologie was simply a reissue of Grimm. So it *was* Grimm who made the initial association between Ostara and hares. I'm going to leave the original with this correction in place rather than edit it out, because I'd rather not pretend to be infallible.
|Friday, November 23rd, 2012|
|Thursday, June 28th, 2012|
|The Tale of the Dancing Man
Originally published at Adrian Bott. You can comment here or there.
Originally published in Ahoy There magazine, Issue 23. Based on the song ‘Jack Dancer’ by The Golden Apple. All musical anachronisms are intentional.
Make yourselves comfortable, lads. It’ll be a good few hours before they give us the signal, and until then we may as well warm ourselves and have a drink or two. One of you keep an eye out of the window and give me a nudge if you see anything unusual out there.
Now, since we’re a merry company at a long table by a goodly fire in a clifftop inn at ten in the evening in the month of November, why, we’d best have a story; and you all know as well as I that the only kind of stories to tell on nights like these are stories of terror.
( Read the rest of this entry »Collapse )
|Saturday, June 16th, 2012|
|Being Lara Croft
When I'm not ranting about Ridley Scott films, frantically redrafting children's stories or acting as the first minister of the newly founded International Church of Space Jesus, I work as a narrative consultant and content writer for videogames. I mention this by way of explaining why I'm about to go off on one about Lara Croft, but not for quite the same reasons as everyone else is going off on one about Lara Croft.( Cut for wall-o-text...Collapse )
|Tuesday, June 12th, 2012|
|Monday, June 11th, 2012|
|Wednesday, June 6th, 2012|
|Thursday, May 31st, 2012|
|Jockeying for space
Seems like nothin' ever comes to no good up on Choctaw Ridge
And now Billy Joe MacAllister's jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge.
Bobby Gentry's 1967 ballad Ode To Billie Joe
derives its ambience both from its tantalising incompleteness, and from the uneasy indifferent stasis that the narrative wanders into at the end. The elements of a mystery are set up, with inferences and implications, but nothing is ever resolved. Any shocking revelation there might have been, any broader meaning a young man's death might have had, is simply allowed to dissipate like flower petals in muddy water. A sultry, implacable indifference reigns over all, and we are left with the impression that only the narrator's private memory retains any value.
'Memory' was the original title for the first half of the story that would become Alien. (Its second working title, Star Beast, was discarded when the word 'alien' leaped out of the page during one of Ronald Shussett's late-night writing sessions, and solved a multitude of problems in a single masterstroke. 'Alien. It's a noun and an adjective.')
Dan O'Bannon's 'Memory' only covered the first half of a movie. The second half, in which the Alien causes bloody havoc on board the Nostromo, was based on another earlier idea about gremlins getting on to a World War II bomber. I don't know it for certain, but it seems to me the chestburster sequence is the exact point of division, splitting the film neatly in two.
The first half, the Memory half, is - to quote Alan Dean Foster's novelisation - 'redolent with alien ghosts and memories
'. Reading through an early draft of the Alien script
, I'm struck by how much of the text didn't make it into the movie but did make it into the novel, almost verbatim in some cases. And yet, for some reason, the Space Jockey sequence is completely missing from the book.
The 'memory' part of Alien is, like many a good ghost story, cryptic. It presents both the characters and the audience with riddles that are only ever partially deciphered. The 'distress signal' that is partially decrypted, revealing it to be a possible warning; the origin and purpose of the derelict vessel; the unexplained fusion of biological and mechanical forms; and of course the greatest enigma, the identity of the grotesque, curiously pathetic, long dead being that the exploring trio discover in its chair.
As with Billy Jo MacAllister, the only certain fact about the Space Jockey is that it is dead. It is so nakedly, explicitly
dead that its deadness seems exaggerated, as if the basic notion of 'skeletal remains' had been overblown into a sort of carnival of ossification, more dead than any previously living thing could ever be. It is hapless, and though grotesque, it is not sinister; in the early draft of Alien, the yet-to-be-Gigerized creature's skull is taken back to the ship and even brought on to the shuttlecraft, where it watches over the final survivor 'like some dead, melancholy pixie'.
The Book of Alien (not a holy text, despite how it sounds, though many of us revere it) comments on the benevolence of the Space Jockey: 'Sitting in repose in its doomed derelict ship, the jockey appears to somehow have been a benign creature. People involved in the film tend to agree on this. But they can't explain why.' This sense of benignity, of possible kinship even, is present in the early Alien draft, in which the character who would later become Ripley says of the dead creature 'I wish it was him we'd met in the first place - things might have turned out different.'
The composite figure of the Space Jockey provides us with too many disparate points of information to triangulate into an easily resolved answer. Confronted with this, our instinct to imagine the possible confluence of events that led to this macabre relic goes strangely awry, like the effect of plunging one hand into a basin of hot water and the other into cold. We can see that, as Dallas exclaims, it looks like it's grown out of the chair, but we cannot visualise how that could have happened. The chair itself is part of some kind of colossal device, presumably important to the ship, but we can't reconcile its form with any guessable function. We can see the Jockey's empty-eyed hose-nosed face with stark clarity, but can't easily imagine the living creature. The Jockey is like an Escher picture in that respect, presenting an architecturally impossible image that cannot exist except
as artwork, except
as a finished, static thing.
I can't help thinking that the elephant-like Space Jockey taps into childhood sentiments. Elephants never forget; elephants are wise, ancestral, tragic; elephants are primal. And, of course, elephants are giants.
The crew of the Nostromo don't say it, but we think it: the dead alien on board the derelict is huge
, and more humanoid than not. This resonates on a mythic level; the whole 'there were giants in the earth in those days' bit. Humanity is saturated with legends of ancient gigantic beings who towered above us and whose fragmented wisdom lives on only in the ill-understood relics they left behind. Seen in that light, the Space Jockey is the same breed of entity as the Titans, the Nephilim, the Fomorians, the builders of the Giants' Causeway.
Giant alien bones in a derelict ship, evidence of ancient civilizations not our own. Before they appeared in Alien, they appeared in the 1965 film Planet of the Vampires. The parallels have been denied, but they're hauntingly apparent. See the following clip, from 6.55 onwards:
The screenwriters of Alien claimed they had never seen Planet of the Vampires. Call me naive, but I tend to believe them. There's some organic sarcophagus deep in our brains where the Space Jockey and his ilk eternal lie - and I don't mean that in some fatuously literal Von Daniken sense, just that when humans make myths, they unconsciously veer in prescribed directions. Giant, monstrous; almost-human bones; fragmentary messages from the past; ruins, relics, images too saturated with meaning for us to understand them. We know
The enigma of Billy Joe MacAllister's suicide eventually, perhaps inevitably, resulted in a movie. It explained every detail, exhaustively but not, one might say, canonically. Bobby Gentry didn't ever say 'Yup, well done, you solved it'. It was an answer given because there was money in giving an answer, and because doing so scratched the maddening itch of the unresolved.
Ridley Scott's Prometheus is now showing at a cinema near me. I am given to understand it offers answers, of a sort, to the enigma of the Space Jockey. I'm going to see it, of course; but I can't help thinking that any definitive answer as to his origins would rather diminish that gnomic icon of long-decayed intelligence. It is the sinister implication
of the alien remains that we take away from the scene, and implications do not gain power by being reduced to explanations.
The xenomorph is Alien; the Space Jockey, I like to think, is Memory.
And for me, no prequel or spinoff or supplementary feature could ever tackle the strangest riddle of the Jockey: its seeming serenity. It seems to me not only benign, in the utterly inhuman way that the eye of a blue whale is benign, but indifferent to its fate. There is no sign of a struggle. Its arms lie neatly by its side. Its trunk lies down the dead centre of its chest.
And I think there is a very slight suggestion of amusement
in its hollow eyes. Like the dead child in 'The Inquest', by William Henry Davies, the victim seems to smile at our unease and bafflement:For as I looked at that one eye,
It seemed to laugh, and say with glee:
'What caused my death you'll never know -
Perhaps my mother murdered me.'
|Monday, May 28th, 2012|
Hmm. Maybe I should start using this again.
|Sunday, September 4th, 2011|
|Saturday, April 23rd, 2011|
|Wednesday, April 13th, 2011|
|Wednesday, February 23rd, 2011|