Sign up today for Myth Makers, Odds Bodkin’s storytelling workshop for adults coming in January. Read about this 90-minute Zoom experience here.
I just finished listening to Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto #1 in my kitchen, while recovering from a day of hard physical work cleaning out my garage and carting off the last leaves of autumn here in New Hampshire. In my town of Bradford, if you don’t turn on your front porch light this Halloween, trick or treaters will not ring your doorbell. We’re doing that this year, Mil and I. We’re going to light the wood stoves and lay low. Just today I put on and took off my mask numerous times, a task almost as tiring as taking moldy old sleeping bags to the dump.
A young woman (violinist Alena Baeva) was the soloist for the concerto, and she was note perfect and found yet a few new subtleties in performing this beloved and well-worn piece.
Of course, this was a pre-Covid performance. It was a scene of happy aesthetes assembled together in a concert hall somewhere, put up on YouTube. No masks. Everyone breathing the collective air normally. A roaring applause at the end, everyone standing up in joy, just having been transported.
All this will come back. It really will. We just have to hang in there a little while longer.
That’s because our beloved scientists have almost figured out the bioinformatics on this virus. Just as breathlessly as I listened to this concerto, I await that day. It’s just around the corner.
My wife Mil took this photo today after she’d cleared the lilies from the back wall garden. No context, really. They just are what they are.
“I’ve been working with using myths in grief counseling,” she said, “and I was wondering if you know of any Greek myths that might help.”
She was young, seated next to her husband or perhaps boyfriend on a couch in their home. I didn’t know her. She could be anywhere on Earth. I’d just finished telling FALL OF THE TITANS, and she was one of the folks who’d bought a Zoom ticket. This was the Q&A, done live, a new feature.
I scrambled around in my mind and recalled facts from Greek mythology I’d used to explain how the ancient Greeks viewed death. The greatest of warriors went to the Elysian Fields while demigods like Hercules went to Mount Olympus, but these cases were exceedingly rare.
“The Greeks didn’t really have a Hell,” I began. “You know, a place of punishment if you’d been bad in life. Or a heaven, for that matter. Most everybody, kings, queens, all the way down to goatherds–good or bad–went to the Underworld at death. Here, they simply became “shades”, ghosts who remembered their lives but who lost their voices.”
Then I flashed on a scene from THE ODYSSEY, where Odysseus, visiting the Land of the Dead at Circe’s direction, tells his men to slaughter a lamb and fill a hole in the ground with its blood. From the mists emerge shades of famous people he’s known, and he speaks with his dead friend Achilles, but then to Odysseus’s shock and dismay, his mother, Anticlea, whom he did not know was dead, emerges and drinks the lamb’s blood. What she tells him breaks his heart.
It’s almost like a séance.
I didn’t go into all that, but instead flashed on a story from HERCULES I did share with the young woman, where Queen Alcestis, a woman Hercules would have married if she’d not already been married, had taken her own life so that her husband Admetus could live on. Hercules storms down to the Underworld and frightens Hades so badly he lets Alcestis return to life.
“Oh,” I added, “you also might look into how Orpheus harped his way in and out of the Underworld.” It didn’t end well for Orpheus, but he did prove the power of music and love, along with the importance of following directions.
What do I think in these pestilential times? These tales are ancient and universal. Maybe it’s possible to find solace in them. I don’t know. I hope so.
HORROR TALES FROM THE DEEP VAULT/October 19th Outdoor Show
I stopped performing Sedna the Ocean Mother because it’s just too unsettling, especially in the #MeToo era. Still, I’m going to do it. I haven’t told The Phantom Train of Marshall’s Pass in years because the flat picking on 6-string guitar is so fast. Still, I’m going to do it. I haven’t told The Infallible Doctor since I made the mistake of doing so in New Jersey shortly after 9/11 for schoolkids who, I only learned afterwards, had lost loved ones in the Twin Towers. Despite that bad memory, I’m going to do it. And I’ve never told The Demon Heads ever, so I’m going to debut it and see what people think.
Music on Celtic harp, 12-string guitar and 6-string guitar.
October 19th, 2018 at 8 pm, outdoors at the coolest new food and culture hub in New England, the Sweet Beet Market in Bradford, New Hampshire.
Hot chili, freshly baked breads, mulled cider and lots of organics to buy. Bring a blanket or chair, hat and gloves for this outdoor show by the cemetery.
DARK TALES OF THE SUPERNATURAL
VIKING SEDUCTION IN THE #METOO ERA
“Now plainly I speak, since both I have seen;
unfaithful is man to maid;
we speak to them fairest when thoughts are falsest
and wile the wisest of hearts.”*
Odin’s words, of course, speak to how men are generally programmed by evolution to flatter as many women into bed as they can, even wise ones.
Considering the gender wars raging at the moment, that’s central to what infuriates women about men in general––playing the wild card of sex. Since I’ve been married for decades, have three grown sons and am no longer in the mating market, I’ll stay mum about how I think this is all going to turn out.
Instead, I’ll just tell The Mead of Poetry as it was handed down and let the chips fall where they may. In this old Viking myth, Odin’s best friend has been murdered and his blood brewed into a magical mead. Toward the end of his long quest to return the mead to Asgard, Odin learns that a beautiful but deadly giantess, Gunlod, guards it inside a mountain.
What does he do? After sneaking inside, he speaks to her “fairest” when his heart is “falsest” and seduces her. He then steals the mead and flees, feeling no remorse at breaking her heart.
I’m not saying that’s honorable, but it’s certainly timeworn male behavior.
Taking whatever lumps I will for it, with guitar in hand, I’ll be telling this controversial tale on Sunday, April 1 at the Riverwalk Café and Music Bar in Nashua, NH, along with another big old Norse myth, Thor Against the Frost Giants. It’s adult imagination entertainment with compelling, movie score-like music that proves once again: there’s nothing new under the sun.
The show is at 7 pm.
*from Hávamál: The Words of Odin the High One
(illustration created by Meaghan Ingram, after seeing this show in Boston)
“THE BEST ANTI-BULLYING ASSEMBLY WE’VE EVER HAD, HANDS-DOWN”
A school principal wrote me recently, commenting on GOLDEN RULE, my storytelling assembly for elementary kids. Sure, I tell stories for adults, but it’s close to my heart, this empathy issue. Kids raised without notions of civility and simple human kindness toward others––no matter what somebody else looks like or where they come from––just makes the bullies feel that power. In the long run, though, it hurts them just as much.
Although many Americans follow faith traditions, just as many don’t these days, and with that change has come a loss of religious teaching stories, traditionally told to kids by adults in their lives. In their absence and in the presence of cynical cartoons and visual games, the fabric of civility has worn thin in lots of children. It’s not their fault. They’re kids. They’re not born civil; they need to be taught why it’s important.
Be kind. Treat others honorably. Yes, you can say those things to kids, but nothing penetrates the cruelty they see in media like a spoken-world story told by an adult. Instead of saying “do this,” a good Golden Rule story simply offers a lesson about power and its uses. Kids can’t help but internalize its impact because they’ve been opened up. They’ve been opened up because their minds are overwhelmed. The boys. The girls. The ADHD kids, all attentive. With the voices, music and wild sounds, the storytelling is too evanescent for them to ignore.
At a public school in Massachusetts the other day, my young audience looked like the United Nations. Kids from everywhere. Never knowing what religions, if any, their families practice at home, I tell stories from non-religious wisdom traditions. Folktales from Japan, Ireland, Africa, India and Italy. And Aesop’s Fables from ancient Greece, which is about all I can fit into an hour. But I always ask the kids the same questions about them afterwards, and about the Golden Rule.
And if they’ve never heard “Treat others the way you would like to be treated” before they’ve attended a GOLDEN RULE assembly, they certainly know it by the time it’s over.
If kids don’t get these kinds of stories from adults in America when they’re young, stories that buoy up their best angels and sink into their souls, when they get to high school, more and more of them are so fragile and full of violence that they misuse their power and end up thinking it’s okay to bring guns to class, and all to often these days, in the ultimate act of bullying, to use them.
“Smartphone dystopia” is a term recently coined by Google engineers who now send their young kids to elite Silicon Valley schools that ban smartphones and iPads. Read about that here.
To completely escape smartphone dystopia, at least for an hour, tonight I’ll be performing a story show, THE HARVEST: Tales of the Land at 6 pm in Gilford, NH for the Belknap County Farm Bureau. My audience: farmers. Three disarming and insightful adult stories, with echoes of the Monsanto vs organics war. It’s a private function.
However, Sunday night’s show at 7 pm is public. HEARTPOUNDERS: Halloween Tales of Horror unfolds at the Riverwalk Music Bar in Nashua, NH. Composed of the grittiest, most unsettling supernatural tales I know, the show includes mythic material from New England, Russia, China and other far flung places. It also explores Samhain, the old Celtic celebration, and how it was turned into All Hallow’s Eve by the Church during the conversion centuries following St. Patrick’s and others’ arrivals among the Druid pagan sacrificers of Northern Europe.
Tickets are $10 in advance, $13 at the door.
You’ll have a chance to enjoy your natural imagination at work, without a single “Like” button.
Have a great weekend!
Thanatos was the ancient Greek god of death. He seldom made an appearance in person. If you think about it, that makes sense. He only shows up when there’s no time left to tell a story about him.
As the son of Night and Darkness, his siblings were Old Age, Deception, Blame, Suffering, Doom, Strife, Retribution and Atropos, a goddess of death herself. She’s the root of our modern word “atrophy.”
As you can sense by his mythical brothers and sisters (the Greek gods were personifications of various human conditions) Thanatos normally has to do with death in old age. Old people die when their times come. That’s the way of nature.
But a new Digital Thanatos Ethic has appeared among teens. Witness the young Massachusetts girl who was just convicted of urging her depressed boyfriend to kill himself in his monoxide-filled truck. Witness the tens of thousands of other young girls who are cutting themselves, along with the millions of boys who worship all-powerful killer monsters they inhabit inside avatars, living a false heroism that has nothing to do with the real world around them.
“The other day I put up a self-harm picture,” she says. “I was alone and in a dark place. […] Of course, nobody would help, but posting it boosted my confidence a little; finding it buried in amongst all the other self-harm posts reminded me I’m not alone.” Full article in The Guardian.
Sites like these where depressed teens commiserate and urge each other to suicide and self-harm are appearing on the web like poisonous mushrooms. Depression blogs. Teen suicides on Facebook Live. Anorexia-promotion sites. This is a new species of digital connection so unnatural, so profoundly unhealthy, that parents and policymakers should take notice and shut these sites down, or at least get their kids away from them. And from cynical, exploitative TV shows that explore and justify them.
As for First Amendment considerations, media like this is the slow-moving equivalent of yelling “fire” in a crowded theater. Loneliness is one thing. But lonely kids who never meet each other in person gathering together online to compare ways to hurt themselves?
Even in an utterly secular world, that’s just not right. It’s a digital disease.
From a recent Susanna Schrobsdorff Time article, Teen Depression and Anxiety: Why the Kids Are Not Alright:
“If you wanted to create an environment to churn out really angsty people, we’ve done it,” says Janis Whitlock, director of the Cornell Research Program on Self-Injury and Recovery. Sure, parental micromanaging can be a factor, as can school stress, but Whitlock doesn’t think those things are the main drivers of this epidemic. “It’s that they’re in a cauldron of stimulus they can’t get away from, or don’t want to get away from, or don’t know how to get away from,” she says.
In my life I meet families all the time whose kids have grown up with my audio stories. At some point the parents found them in this wild, busy world and exposed their children to them during their formative years. For instance, I just met Stephanie from Pennsylvania, a great mom who invited me to perform there a couple of weeks ago. Afterwards she wrote me a kind letter, part of which said,
“I am proud that in our modern age, your stories played a large role in my children’s lives for several years. I can’t remember if I told you that for years we imitated the saluting bedbugs, or that we created an elaborate drip-sand castle and forest at the beach for the lovely Bargaglina after listening to The Little Shepherd on the way to Cape May Point. And of course you know about the Odyssey on the way to the Bay of Fundy. Your stories were such a gift to my kids’ development!”
So maybe part of the cure for kids going off the rails is mythic storytelling. Old tales, filled with the struggles of men and women who are long gone but whose stories tell us that yes, life is rugged and has its dark times, but heroes are people who overcome those obstacles because they never give up. People who are driven by love or honor or just the deep motivation to survive.
And that’s just the story part. The other healthful factor is imagination itself, the natural sort our minds are capable of. When we imagine, endorphins are released into the bloodstream, much like a runner’s high. The cerebral cortex lights up like a fire, drawing on memories and feelings from deep inside, rather than stimulus from that social media cauldron beyond ourselves. It’s a creative act, and quite refreshing. Imagination in childhood becomes creativity in adulthood, and we live in times when creativity and adaptability are premium skills. If there’s one thing young people can count on in their futures these days, it’s rapid change. Unpredictable change.
For younger kids, fairytales operate in the same beneficial way. The Little Shepherd is one I just performed for three hundred K-2 public school kids last week. For twenty-five minutes they sat, still and quiet, for this longest story in the show, all of them lost in fantasy. What’s the value of that? Well, as Bruno Bettelheim wrote in The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairytales, “While the fantasy is unreal, the good feelings it gives us about ourselves and our future are real, and these good feelings are what we need to sustain us.”