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INDIA’S ANCIENTS: TALES FROM THE MAHABHARATA AND BEYOND

I first came across the tale of King Yudisthira (pronounced “Judistra”) and his confrontation with the guardian of the Gates of Heaven in William Bennett’s The Book of Virtues. It was such a powerful, beautiful story, I obtained an English translation of The Mahabharata (Bennett found it there) and read it. I quickly found myself in a magical world of gods, storytellers, crystal forests, fantastical journeys and profound truths.

 
I am not Hindu myself, but as an American have been charmed by the religion’s iconography and spiritual complexity for a long time anyway. Not to mention its descriptions of particle weapons and cluster bombs from thousands of years ago. For English readers, I recommend William S. Buck’s Mahabharata translation. Reads like a novel. Shortly after I read it the Art Institute of Chicago commissioned me to create performance tales with music to complement an exhibition of Vedic art.

 

I told the stories there for numerous audiences and to my delight, Americans of Indian descent came up to me after the show, effusive and delighted. Recently I performed one of these tales at the Peabody Essex Museum as part of their Lunar Festival. Including How Ganesha Lost His Head, I’ll be offering these tales this coming Sunday, April 9th, at 8 pm at Grendel’s Den on Harvard Square in Cambridge, MA.

 

Although I own and play a sitar, I don’t perform with it, quite frankly because performing in the lotus position doesn’t work for me (even being in the lotus position doesn’t work for me) and sitars can’t be played seated in a standard chair. However, if you like, you can catch a clip of my sitar playing on SoundCloud here.

 

Loving the sitar ever since I heard Ravi Shankar play his at Woodstock, as a guitar player, I’ve taught myself to play, if not ragas, then raga-like accompaniments on the 12-string. It is this music that will flavor our evening of stories from India. Hope you can make it! Bring an Indian friend. Tickets are here.

A FEW TICKETS REMAIN…

A few tickets remain,
I make this claim,
For this evening’s show,
Just so you know.
Wily Odysseus, on his journey west,
Lost on the sea, doing his best
To hold things together
In all sorts of weather,
Missing his wife
And missing his boy,
Not having seen them in ten years at Troy,
Faces a beast with a glowering eye
And watches again as his best friends die.
But oh, he is wily, which gives him his fame.
Now journeys are odysseys, based on his name.

The Odyssey: Belly of the Beast, an adult storytelling event with live music on harp and 12-string guitar is tonight at Grendel’s Den in Cambridge, MA. 8 pm, April 2. A few tickets remain.

Tickets.

Opioid Addiction in The Odyssey

Meaninglessness is tough for everybody and lately, in the U.S., along with a lot of unemployment hopelessness, it’s led to the Opioid Crisis, as it’s called in the news. Folks from all social strata are now overdosing on heroin and fentanyl, ruining their own lives and lives around them to get that orgasmic rush for a little while.

 
It’s not a new human problem. In fact, in Homer’s Odyssey, set down 2,700 years ago in ancient Greece, the poppy and its effects are part of the tale. In The Odyssey the plant is called “lotus”, but that’s just a word-shift. This isn’t t the thousand-petaled pink lotus of Hindu lore, a symbol for the opening of consciousness. No, this is chewable heroin. At least it is on the Isle of the Lotus Eaters, a place full of drug addicts where Odysseus and his men land, early on in their journey.

 
Blown by a great storm into strange waters, they can smell the island’s alluring perfume from afar. Desperate for water and provisions, they land and Odysseus orders three sailors to explore the island and find provisions. They come upon a group of people, prone on their backs, eating flowers.

 
“Silly foolish man,” says one. “You don’t want provisions. You want lotus.”
“What’s lotus?” asks a sailor.
“Lotus is love. And lotus is bread. And lotus is sport. And lotus is wine,” replies the addict, “depending upon who you are when you eat it.”

 
Trying it once, the sailors are hooked and end up prone with all the others. It’s a humorous episode and they escape alive, but only after Odysseus finds them, realizes what the flowers are, and sails away, preferring to starve a little longer than be trapped there forever. He knows the power of poppies. How they rob a man of his will. Calling to the other fleet captains, he yells, “Nobody eats anything here! Do not breathe if you can help it!”

 
Their next adventure is in the cave of the cyclops, where, in order to survive, Odysseus needs all the will he can summon.

 
I’ll be telling the Lotus Eaters as part of The Odyssey: Belly of the Beast this Sunday April 2nd in Cambridge, MA at 8:00 p.m. with my 12-string guitar to add beauty. It’s a 90-minute show. Grendel’s Den on Harvard Square is the location. Fun evening. Hope you can make it.

 
Tickets are $20 here.

Odds Bodkin

WHEN A GUITAR SOUNDS SYMPHONIC

I’ve been playing 12-string guitars to accompany stories for a long time. Nowadays I play a Taylor 12 and a custom-built Ron Ho made in Port Townsend, Washington, both great instruments. This coming Sunday night I’ll be using the Taylor to score The Odyssey: Belly of the Beast, tuned to a modified open E, a unique tuning that allows the guitar to sound, well, symphonic. Or at least that’s the goal.

 

The music is like a second voice, adding drama to the spoken words, much the way a movie score works. Leitmotif is a cool word coined by Richard Wagner denoting themes for characters and emotions, and The Odyssey is filled with many of them. One is a soothing, broad oceanic theme meant to relax my listeners. Another is a haunting, melancholy theme of longing that signifies Odysseus himself, wishing he were home even as he’s facing terrifying dangers. Polyphemus the Cyclops has his own music, too, bursting atonalities played in double-stops on the bass strings. Musicians tend to enjoy the accompaniment as much as the tale itself.

 

The show is at 8 pm on Sunday, April 2 at Grendel’s Den in Cambridge, MA. If you know anyone in New England who might enjoy this performance, please pass it on.

 
Tickets are $20 here.

INSIDE THE TROJAN HORSE

Homer’s original Odyssey begins with his son, Telemachus, searching for his long lost dad. In my re-imagined telling, it begins with Odysseus himself crouched inside the Trojan Horse along with his men, hoping the Trojans don’t discover and kill them. They are, after all, utterly alone on the battle plain, the thousand ships of the Greek fleet having sailed away to give the illusion of defeat. And Odysseus, who never wanted to come to the war in the first place, reflects on his beloved wife and son––he hasn’t seen them in ten years––and all his fallen comrades.

 

 
I follow Odysseus’s story all the way, mostly from the wily hero’s point of view, since he’s the only one who survives to the end. He makes terrible mistakes, lapses of judgment he only regrets later. His first, to go raiding for extra plunder instead of sailing straight home. This causes the deaths of friends on the beach at Ismaros, followed by a nine day storm that blows his fleet to the ends of the earth. After that, he’s utterly lost.

 

 
So begins The Odyssey: Belly of the Beast, a storyteller’s version of Homer, told with haunting themes on 12-string guitar and a host of character voices. Plus descriptions of the sea, of islands with waterfalls, of grisly caves, and of life aboard a Bronze Age ship.

 

 
Join me in Cambridge, MA on April 2nd at 8:00 pm at Grendel’s Den to listen and imagine this tale, told in English, of course, with no poetry. Just storytelling. The show is 75 minutes, the first quarter of this epic telling.

 

 
Ticket are $20 and available here.

Eye of the Cyclops

He’s as tall as twelve men standing on one another’s shoulders. He sees the world through a single, malevolent eye in his forehead. Although tender with his own flocks, this giant shepherd is quite happy to tear men apart and eat them raw, spitting out the heads as slightly too crunchy. He’s Polyphemus the Cyclops, a character I’ve had fun portraying for years whenever I perform The Odyssey: Belly of the Beast, which I’ll be doing on April 2nd at Grendel’s Den in Cambridge, MA.
Some listeners find him quite sympathetic, they tell me. Perhaps that’s because to me, he’s a gigantic child of sorts, living a simple, solitary life until Odysseus and his men, searching for food, show up in his cave when he comes home. For some reason my right eye always closes and remains shut whenever this character speaks in his deep, roaring voice. Whatever I can see of the audience out there I see through my left eye, often with retinal projections of blood veins, which are actually mine, not fictional in any way. Stage lights cause this strange effect.
Call it solidarity with the most renowned cyclops of myth!

 

Tickets to the Grendel’s Den show are available here.

Learning to Tell THE ODYSSEY

The letter arrived from a teacher in Norwich Vermont, addressed to storytellers across New England. David Millstone, a fifth grader teacher, who ended up writing a great book called An Elementary Odyssey, was searching for someone who could tell a few episodes from Homer’s great epic. The Sirens, maybe. The Cyclops. Maybe the Test of the Bow. I didn’t know any of them, but immediately wrote him back claiming I could tell the whole thing. Hire me! I’ll tell the entire epic in three hours, I told him, two half-hour shows a day for three days.

When I was a kid I’d seen a movie, Ulysses, with Kirk Douglas. Made in 1955 with early stop-action monster effects, it was a mixture of tan guys in knickers, sword fights and beautiful women filmed among blue waters and craggy islands, most of it on a sailing ship with oars. It was a hazy memory at best.

After I’d walked out to the end of this limb, he wrote me back fairly quickly. I was hired. The residency was in three months.

Imaginative work is really good if you can get it, and here I had the perfect excuse to create a new spoken-word tale, but a really big one this time. A storytelling longer than a movie. I’d never tried to stow anything quite that large in my hold, so I bought the Fitzgerald translation and set to reading, jotting down essential details I thought were either crucial to the story or gratuitously gory and fun. I ended up with 42 episodes in all, but still, they were spread over thirty pages in my journal. If you’re trying to forge mental images and remember them while playing a 12-string guitar, a mess like that doesn’t help.

“I need to be able to see this whole thing in one place,” I told myself, and so for my own sanity and the feeling that yes, this was manageable, I forced myself to write the essentials of each scene in teeny tiny script, cramming them all onto a 2-page spread in my journal.

Here are those two pages from many years ago. It was the beginning of an odyssey of my own.

PS: I’ll be performing The Odyssey: Belly of the Beast at Grendel’s Den in Cambridge, MA on April 2nd
at 8:00 p.m. It’s the first 75 minutes of what is now a 4-hour performance. You can buy tickets here, if you’d enjoy such a show. From the Walls of Troy to the Cave of the Cyclops.

DOOR TO IMAGINATION storytelling workshop for adults who work with children 2-6 in Greenwich CT, Sunday March 12

Round Hill Community Church in Greenwich, CT will be hosting an hour and fifteen minute Odds Bodkin Door to Imagination storytelling workshop for parents, caregivers, teachers and librarians on Sunday, March 12 at 2:30 p.m.

Especially designed for those who work with children 2-6, the workshop is free to the public and open to all.

Odds Bodkin Tells Love Stories at Grendel’s Den in Cambridge, MA

Down through the ages, certain stories have tried to capture the mysterious relationship between women and men––everything from Samson and Delilah to Antony and Cleopatra.  Plenty of lesser-known cultural attempts at capturing what trust and love mean are out there, too.

For Worlds Apart: Tales for Lovers, I’ve chosen two of my favorites from the lesser known side of folklore. A haunting, swelling musical theme on Celtic harp tuned to resemble a Japanese koto underlies The Crane Wife, the first tale in the final show of a series at Grendel’s Den in Cambridge, MA this coming Sunday afternoon at 4:30 pm.

Osamu is a poor and lonely sail maker who can’t afford a wife. Living alone in his hillside hut above a salt grass marsh, he often sees the white cranes landing in the wind. He marvels at how it seems to be held in their wings. But when a fierce storm blows a white crane into his door, leaving it stunned, he sees one up close after he brings it inside, nursing it back to health. The bird’s black, shining eyes gaze up at him until he sets it free.

But the season of storms is not over, and a second tempest brings a frantic knocking on his door. Astonished to find a beautiful young woman standing there, soaked and shivering, he lets her in. The mysterious Yukiko will not tell him where she comes from, but she does not wish to leave, either, and so becomes Osamu’s wife.

All is well until they run out of food and she offers to weave him a magic sail to sell in the village, a sail that whispers wind itself and can propel a ship in calm air. Her one condition: never look at her as she works at the loom behind her privacy screen. At the heart of their relationship is her trust in him that he’ll never do it and look. Does he? Come see the show and find out what happens.

The second tale, The Dame Ragnell, originally written in the 14th Century, asks the universal question, “What does a woman desire most?” Sir Gromer, a dark knight who will kill King Arthur unless he can answer it, demands that the King solve it in a year’s time or die. Once he starts to think about it, Arthur falls into a depression. There are just too many answers. He has no clue.

Enter Sir Gawain, Arthur’s best friend and the handsomest of the Round Table men. He’s the most eligible bachelor at Camelot. The ladies-in-waiting have hot flashes as he walks by. They’re all in love with him.

Gawain laughs at the question and says, “I think it best to ask a woman, sire. Or many. We’ve got a year. Let us ride out and ask women everywhere what they desire most, even in foreign lands. Surely an answer will occur again and again. Tell that to Sir Gromer, my liege, and you’ll be free of this.”

Hopeful and excited, Arthur rides out in one direction with a book in which to write down the answers, and Gawain rides off in another. They interview thousands of women, of all classes, and write down their answers. But after the year is nearly out, Arthur and Gawain grow despondent. There are just too many answers. There isn’t one that stands out.

In three days Sir Gromer will cut off Arthur’s head  and Arthur’s code of honor obligates him to die––he’s given his word––unless he can answer the question. Alone, Arthur rides to the glade in Inglewood Forest where it all began and the most hideous woman Arthur has ever beheld appears on a fine pony. The Dame Ragnell knows the answer and will tell Arthur in time to save his life, but for a price. Sir Gawain must marry her of his own free will.

From there, the story becomes hilarious and very moving. Hope to see you there.

Tickets are here.

The Great Mother’s POV

How would you feel if Earth’s creation––mountains, sea and sky, all living things––were your work and you were Gaia, the original creator of it all? She was, at least according to the ancient Greeks. Gaia is the first of the Titans and she’s driven by Eros to create life constantly. She gives birth to the Twelve Titans, all of them perfect. But when she births six monsters, peace in the Titan family falls apart and launches a Game of Thrones-style conflict among generations. Sex, violence, betrayal and rebellion fill this vivid adult story from Greek mythology told from Gaia’s point of view.

Come hear Master Storyteller and Musician Odds Bodkin tell this wondrous and shocking tale at Grendel’s Den in Cambridge, MA at 5:30 pm this coming Sunday, January 22nd. With character voices, a full score on 12-string guitar and fresh narration, Bodkin turns this little-known myth into a vivid imagination entertainment.

Adult storytelling. Not for children.

Bodkin’s first show at Grendel’s Den sold out, so grab your tickets now!

Fall of the Titans: The Original Game of Thrones

What is Gaia Theory? What Does It Have To Do With FALL OF THE TITANS in Cambridge?

This coming Sunday January 22nd at 5:30 pm I’ll return to Grendel’s Den in Cambridge, MA to tell Fall of the Titans: The Original Game of Thrones, an ancient Greek myth. The 90-minute show, told with narration, character voices and a score on 12-string guitar, is prefaced, believe it or not, with modern science, Gaia Theory in particular. Gaia Theory isn’t a belief, it’s a bundle of sciences. Biology. Chemistry. Physics. Ecology. Plate tectonics. Climatology. Paleo-geology. Vulcanology. Glaciology. On and on. It combines these and other disciplines into the grand notion that Earth is a giant, self-regulating organism, creating and sloughing off complex life forms for many hundreds of millions of years.

Pangea (“all-Earth”) is the name scientists have given the ancient super-landmass that fused the continents 300 million years ago but which drifted apart into what we’ve got today. In certain places, rock layers along the west coast of Africa are identical to rock layers along the east coast of South America, after all. Now the Atlantic Ocean separates them, but at one point they were in the same spot on Pangea. Continents drift about an inch a year.

So what’s the link to my storyteller’s version of Hesiod’s Theogony, a poem from 700 B.C. about the ancient Greek gods we see in the movies all the time? The link is paleo-seas, the waters that surrounded Pangea’s break-up. Scientists have given them names. The Tethys Sea. The Iapetus Ocean. The Pontus Ocean. The Rheic Ocean. Where did these strange names come from?

Well, the scientists who named them were obviously familiar with Hesiod’s creation myth, because Tethys, Iapetus, Pontus and Rhea were Titans, children of Gaia, the Earth itself, all of whom are characters in the Theogony (“birth of the gods”). Think of them as the Earth-Makers. The Bronze Age Greeks looked around and saw mountains, sky and seas and had no idea where they’d come from, so they dreamt up a Titan who created each one of them. Tethys, a Titaness, created the streams and rivers. Pontus created the sea. Iapetus created death to make room for new life. Rhea was the mother of the Olympian gods––Zeus, Hera, Hades, Demeter and so on. They were all part of a family that tore itself apart because of imperfection.

At least that’s the story.

So learning about ancient seas made me curious about the names, the names led me to the story, and now Fall of the Titans is a full-blown performance piece. It’s lots of fun with some pretty cosmic music on 12-string guitar and voices for Gaia, Ouranus, Cronus, Rhea, baby cyclopses, Zeus and others. It is an adult story and is definitely not recommended for children.

I’ll have my Celtic harp to help introduce the science part.

Tickets are $15 for tables and $10 bar seating. I hope to see you there!

Truth or Dare: What Details Should I Include? It’s An Adult Audience, After All.

My text of Hesiod’s Theogony reads like this:

Great Ouranos came, bringing the night,
and spread out around Gaia, desiring philotês,
and was extended. His son reached out from ambush
with his left hand, and in his right he held the sickle,
long and serrated and the genitals of his father
he quickly reaped and threw them behind his back
to be carried away.

“Philotês” means a few things in ancient Greek––friendship, love and sexual intercourse. In this case, it’s definitely intercourse and I’m sure you see where I’m going with this. In this scene, Cronus, the last-born of Gaia’s Titan children, un-kings his father Ouranos to become king himself. Gaia, who’s at the center of my Fall of the Titans tale, is furious with Ouranos for having imprisoned her six latest babies. Ouranos is the Sky (Mother Earth/Father Sky) and has been her husband for eons. Gaia is the Earth. All along he’s been a proud father, having watched Gaia produce 12 perfect Titan children after having philotês with her.

But now that she’s given birth to three Cyclopses and three Hecatonchires (scary beasts with fifty heads) and Ouranos fears what they will become when they grow up, he’s made her angry for the first time. He’s dragged the baby monsters in chains down into Tartarus and locked them in giant prison cells. After this, Gaia decides she is done with Ouranos and wants him de-throned. Since kingliness and fertility were one and the same in the Bronze Age when this tale was set down, castration is the solution. Her ambitious son Cronus agrees to do it. Soon he becomes a paranoid king and since Phoebe, one of his older sisters and a prophetess, foresees that one of Cronus’ children will overthrow him, he eats them one by one as they’re born. Baby Hera, baby Poseidon, baby Demeter, baby Hades and others.

I have two Fall of the Titans shows coming up. I’ve told this story to young audiences in a sanitized, PG version (“Wound your father, so that he may no longer be king” is how I phrase it) but these two shows are for adults, one in Nashua, NH and the other in Cambridge, MA (see below for details). Of course, this is just one small moment in the epic tale itself, but a crucial one. It sets up all kinds of wild events, including the appearance of the Goddess of Love Aphrodite––the first of the Olympians––and a poignant moment later in the tale when Gaia is forced to visit her emasculated ex-husband and beg for his help.

So I’m still wrestling with this Lorena Bobbitt moment. Still not sure what I’ll do.

This coming Sunday night (Jan. 15) at 7:00 p.m. at the Riverwalk Cafe and Music Bar in Nashua, New Hampshire I’ll be telling this tale (tickets here) and once again at Grendel’s Den in Cambridge, MA at 5:30 p.m. on January 22nd. Tickets here.

Wish me luck in telling FALL OF THE TITANS: THE ORIGINAL GAME OF THRONES.