“Fear” is the wrong word

I recently read a fascinating article on Atlas Obscura about the subject of “taboo deformation” (when we call something by a word that is not its true name).  I immediately had some issues with it.  On the surface, this doesn’t come as a great surprise- AO is a fascinating cabinet of curiosities, but the writing (and research) is uneven and not necessarily checked very well.  I signed up for an account there in order to be able to do a near-complete rewrite of the article on the Tortuguero Stela (a key piece of evidence used by promoters of the Maya 2012 phenomenon.

The article on taboo deformation doesn’t have that kind of problem, though. Instead, the author uses the word “fear” where they (in almost every case) should (also) be using “reverence”, “awe”, or even simply “respect”.

The article accurately describes the origin of humorous pseudo-expletives such as “dagnabbit”- an unwillingness to use the “true name” of something, especially while swearing. There’s a very good linguistic discussion of the process.  The author traces it back to (amongst other things) a curious phenomenon in many Western European languages- the word “bear” in English (for example) is not actually descended from the proto-Indo-European word for bear (*h₂ŕ̥tḱos, from which we get such works as “Arctic” and possibly even the name “Arthur”).  The bear is a powerful and dangerous animal, words have power, so people wanted to avoid invoking it directly.  But our of fear, or fear alone?  I think it’s more likely that this circumlocution comes from awe and reverence for something of such great elemental power.

Likewise, the substitution of (for example) “gosh” for “God” isn’t done out of fear but reverence or respect.  So is using “darn” or “dang” for “damn”- after all, damnation is a divine prerogative, and it would be disrespectful for mortals to tread in that area.  And changing “fuck” to “frick” (or my favorite, the Irish “feck“, although that one seems to be a bit more complex) or using the word “crap” instead of “shit”- that’s not fear.  That’s just skimming the edge of whatever society defines as polite language.

I think this points to an impoverishment of our language these days, probably driven by a similar poverty of the imagination.  Words like “awesome” have lost their original spiritual sense, and the idea that someone could revere and respect a powerful force of nature or the divine, as well as fearing it, just don’t seem to occur to most people, the author included.

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Ursula K. LeGuin

Ursula K. LeGuin was one of the first writers I came across when I discovered fantasy fiction.  I found her Earthsea Trilogy fascinating in concept, absorbing in detail, captivating in character… and ultimately, disappointing in its philosophy.  Still, I hold a deep love for the second book, and the work as a whole sparked my early interest in Taoism.

She was a profound influence on modern fantasy and science fiction… John Scalzi described her as “the spiritual mother of generations of writers.”  She was an outspoken feminist and a strong believer in the moral and intellectual value of SF&F.  She believed passionately in the power of imagination to make the world a better place.

I can’t think of a more fitting epitaph for her than her own words:

“Only in silence the word,
Only in dark the light,
Only in dying life:
Bright the hawk’s flight
On the empty sky.

—The Creation of Éa”

Magnetic Poetry

We collect fridge magnets.  Not obsessively, but occasionally… they make great compact keepsakes to bring back from our voyages, and some artists use them as a convenient medium for small pieces.

At out cabin, we have a sampling of the usual mix, plus several different “magnetic poetry” collections- including Shakespearean words and a selection of phrases from The Onion.  This has led to many odd sentences and slogans spread across the doors of the refrigerator there.

This weekend, however, something different happened.  There were three magnets- one with a Brigid symbol, one with a picture of Her, and one with a Celtic cross.  I moved them so that there was a little space cradled between them, and challenged myself to come up with something appropriate from the remaining words.  I did… and then, after pondering the result, She told me to write the rest of the poem:

My Lady’s fire can make drunk
The coolness of this world- only pour out
And see: Her well contains the flame,
Her forge flows with the inspiring drink
Of poets. Petal upon petal, Her flowered
Aspects unfold from either, both, other;
And as hearth flicker and struck spark
Flash across the earth, springs burst forth
From every hidden hollow; water, blaze,
And the hand of Art all strive, all proclaim
The power of Her name to a waiting land.

(The part up to and including “And see” are from the magnets…)

Sometimes we’re living in science fiction. Sometimes it’s more like a Borges story.

[I used to publish my non-devotional poetry on my LiveJournal account, but their recent TOS changes make me unwilling to do so.  Until I figure out whether I’m going to bother with Dreamwidth for anything other than reading others’ journals, I’m going to post it here when I feel so moved.  Honestly, since I dedicate all my poetry to Brigid, none of it is actually non-devotional…]

Inspired by this article from Atlas Obscura, I give you:

Uncharted

In some wind of internet terrain,
A program waits, patient, bits
Ticking over.  The glass turns, algorithms wake-
Random bumps appear, are eroded;
Meticulous calculations churn for
Ninety seconds (geologic ages in server time),
And maps emerge- mountains looming over valleys,
Coastlines carved in with bays and capes,
Islands jewel-scattered across oceans.
All this done in hand-drawn style,
Fantasy-labeled with names hinting of
History and deep language, fit for the
Endpapers of novels.  An atlas
Building itself from water and topography
Every hour- and the rivers always reach the sea.

Poem: Note for the journey

Note for the journey

When you are drawn down that hungry well,
That tunnel, bored through cruel stone,
And your eyes, straining through the blindfold dark,
Desperate for the least glimmer or phantasm,
Catch a firelight-flicker on the edge of sight,
Only to realize it sparks and glows, relentless
From the eternal flame that heats change’s cauldron-
Remember that the skeleton of the flower
Shall be fleshed out in petals of heart-flame,
And you shall rise from the furnace, purified,
Alchemized into the truest gold.

05/27/2007

The Problem of Diarmuid and Grainne

As a devotee of Fionn MacCumhaill, I’m always happy to find books dealing with his legends (and those of the Fianna in general).  So I was very happy the other day when Monster Alice pointed out a lovely book to me in a used book store:  Dermot of the Bright Weapons.  It’s about Diarmuid Ua Duibhne, one of the most famous of Fionn’s Fianna.  The illustrations were just beautiful, and it was in decent shape for something published over 75 years ago, so I snapped it up.

Half the book is devoted to possibly the most famous story of Diarmuid, Tóraigheacht Dhiarmada agus Ghráinne (“The Pursuit of Diarmuid and Gráinne”).  In short, it goes like this:  Gráinne is betrothed to Fionn.  She doesn’t want to marry a man old enough to be her grandfather, so puts Diarmuid under geasa to elope with her.  Fionn pursues them, although the sentiments of the Fianna are more inclined to the eloped couple.  Lots of adventures happen, then Aenghus Og (Diarmuid’s foster father) intercedes and makes peace.  But some years later, Fionn and Diarmuid are on a boar hunt, and when the boar gores Diarmuid, Fionn refuses to heal him and lets him die.

I’ve never been happy with this story.  It casts Fionn as the villain- he acts completely inconsistently with his character in other stories.  I have to remind myself that I’m looking at these stories as myth- and in myths, gods and heroes and other Powers often act in ways that aren’t right by human standards.  Myths aren’t about us, they’re about the Powers, so our values don’t necessarily apply.

A lot of the literary use of this story frustrates me, though.  It got sentimentalized  by a number of the “Celtic Twilight” authors;  the retellings of the story have a tendency to focus on the romantic love aspects, an anachronism at least, and make Fionn out to be some sort of vengeful ogre.   Gráinne tends to come out looking pretty bad, too. But if you remember some other aspects of Diarmuid’s background, the bones of the story become a spare, harsh, but beautifully complete tragedy:

  1. Diarmuid is under a divine curse that he will be killed by a magical boar.
  2. He has a “love spot” which makes him irresistible to women who see it.
  3. Gráinne is fine with being betrothed to Fionn (a grandfather back then wouldn’t necessarily be all that old… and remember what Kissinger said about power).
  4. But she sees Diarmuid’s love spot and falls for him.
  5. She puts him under geasa to elope with her.
  6. Fionn quite justifiably pursues them.
  7. Aonghus Og makes peace, but Fionn still bears a grudge (understandable).
  8. Fionn tries to keep Diarmuid from going on the boar hunt by telling him about the divine curse.
  9. Diarmuid ignores the warning (hubris, a classic tragic flaw) and is gored by the magical boar.
  10. Fionn’s grudge and the curse combine and Diarmuid dies.
  11. In some versions of the story, Gráinne forgives Fionn and ends up back with him.  If she was under an enchantment (from the “love spot”) all along, this makes a lot more sense.

Stripped of all the nonsense, this is a compelling and heartrending story, and works much better as a myth.  It’s not a happy story, but that’s not what myths are for.

Word sonnet for Simbi Andezo

Galina Krasskovka recently introduced the concept of word sonnets on her blog.  So I decided to do one for Simbi Andezo:

Simbi Andezo

Waters
swirl,
salt
and
sweet.

The
serpent
waits
between.

Sometimes,
His
eyes
meet
mine.

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