FICTION: “A leisurely cruise through the stars”, part ten

Antinous allowed a few minutes of silence while they both ate. Melinoe drank more of her water than of the wine, but she seemed to be enjoying the food. “Have you not seen your divine parents since you went to be fostered in the North?”

“I have seen them, from time to time, though only singly. Father visited only when Mother was in his realm, and Mother only when she was visiting with her mother. It will be a pleasure to see both of them at once, and in their own domain.”

Antinous refilled both their wine glasses. “Tell me of Hel’s realm. Until I came to escort you, I had never been there.”

“It is cold!” The goddess spoke so emphatically that Antinous laughed, and then so did she. “I remember that in my first few days there, I was terribly, terribly cold. I thought I would never be warm again.”

“You must have been very young.” The god signalled a hovering servant for more food.

“I was walking,” Melinoe said, musing. “I think this must be a difference between those who are born gods and those who are made so: I remember my infancy, which mortals do not.”
“True,” Antinous acknowledged. It was difficult to remember that Melinoe, so young and vivacious in appearance, was far older than himself.

“It was cold,” Melinoe repeated, “and I was lonely, at first, even though I knew Hel. She and Hekate midwived me, and I had seen her often. But I missed Mother and Father, of course, and Hekate, and our gardens.

“It is cold in Hel’s realm but dry, except near the Gjoll. In Hades there are small gardens Mother tends that have herbs and flowers, and there are orchards where the trees bear fruit. In Hel the lands have the appearance of late autumn. The leaves that cling to the trees are brown and gold, red and orange, like flames, but their fruit is rotted. Water is scarce, ice-cold, heavy with minerals. In one or two places, near the border with Muspellheim, there are hot springs, which smell horrid but feel very pleasant for soaking oneself. It is very quiet everywhere.”

Though her description did not sound at all appealing to Antinous, he could hear fondness in Melinoe’s voice.

“In my first days, my foster-mother took me to visit the god Baldur. He is one of the Aesir, but long ago he was slain by Loki and went to live among the dead. He has his own separate place in her realm, with his wife Nanna. It is warmer and brighter in their halls, and Baldur held me on his lap when I visited so that I got warm.” She smiled. “He and Nanna were very kind to me, and I visited them often. But once I got used to the chill, and had proper clothes, I liked being with Hel and going about her realm. The places of the dead all have much in common, after all, and Hel, too, is very kind in her way.”

Antinous privately thought that he had never encountered a goddess so fearsome as the Northern lady of the dead, but obviously her care had been a boon to Melinoe.

Servants came, took away the empty platters and plates with nothing but crumbs, and brought clean plates and a tray of baklava for dessert. They also brought, on a small table of its own, an urn of coffee with all the accompaniments.

“This, lady, is baklava, a wonderful pastry rich in honey. And this,” he got up to tend to the urn, “is a drink called coffee, made from the beans of a plant, which is excellent with sweet foods and stimulates the mind, especially in mortals.”

He placed a cup of the black, steaming brew in front of her, beside the triangle of baklava. “Try the coffee without any additions, first. If it seems too strong for you, cream or sugar or both can be added.”

Melinoe took a dainty bite of the pastry with one hand and a sip of the coffee with the other. Her eyes and her mouth alike grew round with obvious delight.

“How delicious!” She drank some water, then tasted the baklava again, washing it down with more water. She took a bold gulp of the coffee and licked her lips with relish. “I do like it just as it is. And it provides the perfect contrast to the flavor of the baklava.”

Antinous smiled. “From now on, lady, if anyone should ask you how you take your coffee, you may tell them that you take it black.”


FICTION: A leisurely cruise through the stars, part nine

Antinous dressed for dinner in simple contemporary clothes: A deep red henley that clung to the curves of his chest and shoulders and trousers that clung as determinedly to the curves of his thighs and buttocks. He slipped his feet into a pair of Italian loafers and contemplated his image in the looking-glass, running his hands through freshly washed hair.

“Vain boy,” Hadrian said, passing by with Sabina on their way to the dining hall.

Antinous fluttered his lashes, making Sabina laugh and Hadrian grumble. He had had a long converse with Lucius that included soaking in the baths, fucking in Lucius’ cabin, and showering off after a nap; he was feeling relaxed, happy to have Lucius and Sabina and Hadrian and so many who were dear to him on board the Barque, and excited at the chance for a more intimate conversation with Melinoe, the daughter of Persephone and foster-daughter of Hel.

Hermes himself had come bearing the request that Antinous convey the young goddess from the realm of her foster-mother, lady of the dead in the north, back to the realm of Hades where her parents ruled. Yet though he carried the herald’s staff, the request had been a true request, coming from Persephone, not an order from Zeus or any higher authority. Of course he was happy to oblige; one of the things he enjoyed most about godhood was being the captain of a travelling party in the afterlife. The Barque was a joyful home for the blessed dead in itself and also a transport to any place within the other worlds, and Antinous had found himself a welcome visitor to almost every port.

Satisfied that he looked both sufficiently godly and sufficiently on point, as the youth were saying in the earthly realms, Antinous went to the private dining room by way of the kitchens, making sure that the dinner was in readiness. He was lighting the lamps himself when Melinoe arrived at his door.

“My lady.” He bowed. “May I say that you flatter the dress you have chosen to wear?”

“My thanks to you.” Melinoe tiptoed into the room. “I modeled it after something I saw down below. However, I may be regretting adopting the shoes.”

Her feet were clad in glittering high-heeled sandals with heel and ankle straps–very on point, but difficult to walk in if one were unused to the style. They went well, however, with her gown: A fitted frock of nearly sheer violet stuff with an applique of birds and blossoms in vivid hues that covered her from breast to thigh. Her hair fell loosely over her shoulders, smelling of cinnamon and myrrh.

“Please, sit down,” Antinous gestured to the table, “and don’t hesitate to slip those shoes off–I won’t be looking under the table to scold if you do!”

Smiling, the goddess took her seat at the small round table for two. Antinous lit the last two lamps on their stands and took his seat as well. Small candles burned between them, kindling lights in the colors of his guest’s gown, in her wide grey eyes, in her glossy black and white hair.

“I thought it might please you to sample some foods you have not, I think, had in a long while,” Antinous said. He cleared his throat. “I have ordered a tasting menu of foods from Greece and around the Mediterranean Sea, with local wines.”

“That sounds delicious,” the goddess said. He was struck, not for the first time, by the brightness and happiness of her face, the sheer enthusiasm she radiated. In his experience, most of the deities of the underworlds were more solemn, dealing as they did with human loss and grief, with the multitudes of the deceased and the greater multitudes of those who had not been properly honored at death and wandered restlessly through all the worlds. The realm of Hel was notoriously somber even amongst the lands of death, yet Melinoe had come out of her long fostering there with a smile on her face.

A server arrived with the first course of food, diverting Antinous from gazing at his guest. “Here we have tzatziki, made of cucumber and fresh sheep’s-milk yogurt seasoned with garlic, mint, and dill. This is hummus, made from chickpeas, sesame, garlic, and olive oil. This dish is melitzanosalata, roasted eggplant mixed with tomatoes, yogurt, garlic, and herbs. And finally, we have fresh vegetables and toasted pita bread to dip.”

While Melinoe was exclaiming over the variety of spreads, another server arrived and set down two tall plain modern glasses for water and two heavy glass goblets made in the Roman fashion, the richly figured and colored stuff that Hadrian had been proud of on his tables. A third server filled the modern vessels with water and the goblets with a golden wine.

“This is retsina,” Antinous said, lifting his goblet. “It’s white wine flavored with pine resin. Long ago it was created by accident when mortals used pine resin to seal their wine jugs, but they still drink it for the flavor. I drank quite a lot of it in my hometown and have never lost the taste.” He raised the goblet toward Melinoe. “To your health, lady!”

“To your health!”

They both drank. Antinous watched the goddess sip carefully and savor the pungent taste.

“It pairs very well with the food before us,” he said, when she smiled and made no comment. “Please, guests should eat first.”


FICTION: The turning of the wheel

When she hears his footsteps crunching in the leaves, Pomona knows.

It’s always in the autumn, when the leaves lose their green and the apples, her especial fruits, ripen in the waning days. When the oak leaves turn bronze and drift to the forest floor, when the first chill descends with the setting sun, Vertumnus comes home to the orchard.

Pomona and the nymphs dance less often as autumn settles in. Instead they gather around a fire started with dead leaves, drink cider, and tell stories. Sometimes Vertumnus arrives by night, when the flames are dancing high and the cider barrel is nearly empty. Sometimes he arrives in early morning, when it is still dark and the goddess is still abed in her bower. Sometimes he arrives in the afternoon, when she and the nymphs are hard at work gathering the apples, pressing the cider, and he strolls through the busy throng casually eating an apple, oak leaves in his hair, a twinkle in his eye.

He always returns. In spring and summer he wanders far, turning the wheel of the seasons. He dallies with Flora in the spring, that wanton hussy with her flowers. Every time she laughs in his arms, another flower opens. Pomona counts the blossoms on her favorite apple tree and knows how many times Flora has come. But she does not lie alone while Vertumnus lies with the flower goddess; she has her nymphs to keep her company, with their long tresses and soft flesh, their clever fingers and tongues.

In the summer he ranges yet further afield, seeking the company of other gods. Silvanus, Faunus, Antinous, Cernunnos, Pan–with gods of the woods and the hunt, of the flocks and herds, he sports and spars, wrestling, fighting with staves, gripping and striking until one of them yields and holds turn to caresses, punctuated by rough kisses. She knows that he runs and runs, as a deer, as a bull, as a stallion, as a lion or a cheetah, the strongest and fleetest male of the lot.

But he comes back. He grows tired of wandering. He misses familiar trees and landmarks. He yearns for the taste of Italian springs. He notices aches and pains, scrapes and bruises, and longs for a tender touch to soothe them. He listens for the singing of the nymphs and follows it back, back to the grove, back home.

She is always waiting. She will always be here. She will offer him wine and cider, venison and good bread; she will let him eat his fill and talk himself dry. And then she will send the nymphs away and lead him into her bower, where she will lay him down and take her fill of him, over and over, with immortal passion, until they are both spent, replete, ready for winter’s sleep.

As the nights lengthen, as the cold comes in, as the leaves fall and the acorns, as the calls of the birds grow silent, she will tell him about all the things that happened while he was away, and all the things she plans for the coming spring. And the apple seeds will germinate in the earth of Pomona’s grove while Vertumnus sleeps in her arms, and she will be content.

LIving without a canon

I’ve been reading a book by Joanne M. Harris, The Gospel of Loki. Harris is best known to American audiences as the author of Chocolat, which became a charming movie with Alfred Molina, Johnny Depp, and Juliette Binoche. In The Gospel of Loki, Harris undertakes to retell the myths of the Most Interesting God in the World (TM) from his own point of view. Her Loki is witty, sarcastic, devastatingly unimpressed by the Aesir and Vanir, and, of course, the most unreliable narrator in the world.

I think it’s fair to say that without Loki, Northern myths, as story, would be pretty dull. Loki is the shit-stirrer but also the plot-provoker; Loki makes stuff happen. He is the handy antagonist for almost every story you want to tell. This is the guy who got Thor to dress up as Freyja and go to her own wedding–in order to get back the Hammer he wouldn’t have lost except for Loki, but then he wouldn’t have gained the Hammer in the first place if it hadn’t been for Loki’s shenanigans. You can’t always blame Obama, but you can always blame Loki.

At the same time, I’ve been reading two of the devotional anthologies from Bibliotheca Alexandrina: Potnia, for Demeter, and Queen of the Sacred Way, for Persephone. I am foolishly surprised that there are other people who, like myself, think that Persephone was not abducted but went willingly, or at least stayed willingly, and who have issues with how Demeter behaved in her daughter’s absence, punishing humans with starvation because Zeus and Hades went behind her back.

I’m sure there are people who will point to the Homeric Hymn to Demeter and say, “Well, that’s not how Homer tells it, so it’s wrong.” Others will say, “OMG she was RAPED how can you dismiss that?” I could, in response, point to the Orphic tradition that alleges Persephone was raped by Zeus and became the mother of Zagreus, well before Hades took an interest in her. There’s also a thread in the tradition that Zeus raped her after her marriage to the lord of the dead, taking the face and form of her husband. And I could mention that the primary meaning of “rape” in English, especially in the literary tradition, is “to carry away, to abduct”; hence the word “raptor”, the creature that seizes and carries away its prey.

What I’d rather do, however, is just point out that the Homeric Hymns say one thing, the Orphic writings say another, and the various writers of Potnia and Queen of the Sacred Way say something else. And none of those sources is canonical.

The notion of canon comes from Christianity and the Bible, but it’s also very prominent in fandom. Canon are the stories that absolutely count, in the versions that are deemed to be definitive. The 79 episodes of the original Star Trek series are the basis of Star Trek canon, for example. Then there are six films featuring the same characters. Are those canon? As a lifelong Trekkie, I would grant that the first four films are canon, but I have grave doubts about the fifth and sixth. (Especially the fifth.) How about the line of tie-in novels that Paramount began to produce in the 1980s, before the Next Generation debuted? I’m certain that most hardcore fans of the Original Series would name some of those novels as canon (if the names Diane Duane and John M. Ford mean anything to you, raise your hand) and some not.

And then there’s the fanfic. Unlicensed, unauthorized, and unloved by the pontificators of literary canon, fanfic flourishes. It celebrates Holmes and Watson, Kirk and Spock, and the stars of the shows that are just about to debut. Trek fanfiction was originally written to keep alive a universe that had only three seasons of episodes, but nowadays you don’t even need three episodes to air before people are writing fanfic. (I’m trying not to look at Sherlock fandom here.) I’ve committed fanfic in over half a dozen fictional universes, myself, to the tune of over three hundred stories of varying lengths.

The strange thing is how closely this all parallels Jewish and Christian conceptions of canonical Scripture. The Bible: What is the Bible? What’s the biblical canon? In fact, you’ll get different answers from Jews and Christians, of course, but also from different kinds of Christians. Catholics, Protestants, and Orthodox all have slightly different lists of the canonical books. Roman Catholics sprinkle the “deuterocanonical books”, as they call them, into the pages of the Old Testament. Episcopalians call the same books “apocrypha” and corral them between the Old Testament and the New. The Orthodox throw in a few books that no one else does. And there are dozens, at least, of scriptures that were never accepted as canon by anybody, but some of them are inching toward that status now, thanks to archaeological discoveries: the “Gnostic Gospels” of Thomas, Philip, and Mary, for example.

Look closely at the Bible, however, and the notion of canon falls apart. I have six different English translations of the Bible in my possession, four in print, two only on Kindle. The original texts were written in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, on fragile and often badly preserved materials. The books of the Tanakh exist in the Hebrew Masoretic text, which is the canon for Judaism, in the Greek Septuagint, used by the early Church as well as diasporic Jews in the Roman Empire, and in the versions of the Dead Sea Scrolls–all of which differ from one another. As solid matter breaks down into atoms and atoms into neutrons, electrons, and protons, and those into quarks, so the notion of “canonical scripture”, definitive writings, breaks down into unreliable bits of paper when you look closely enough. Which is why most Christians don’t look, and many who do become unbelievers. If the standard is the book, and the book is unreliable, on what do you rely?

As a polytheist, what I rely on is not Homer’s writing or anyone else’s, but direct experience of the gods. The Homeric and Orphic hymns, the corpus of Greek and Roman writings on the gods, Egyptian texts, archaeological discoveries, and the latest blog post from the Aedicula, all of these are sources, not canon. They are sources of wisdom and understanding, but they are no substitute for the direct experience gained in worship. There is no canon; there cannot be. There are historical and archaeological sources that are more accurate, more reliable, more suggestive than others, but there is no first, best, authentic source for any myth. There is no definitive version. It is not impossible that in some distant future, The Gospel of Loki might take its place with the Eddas as a source of Lore. Diana L. Paxson’s Children of Odin novels might be as important to Heathens as the Nibelungenlied and the Volsunga Saga. And C.S. Lewis’s Till We Have Faces might be cherished as a version of the myth of Cupid and Psyche.

When I sit down to write for the gods, I am prepared for myth to come out of my fingers. I am the poet, the maker. If you’re a writer and you speak of the gods, you are a mythmaker, too.


Theseus gave me two wedding cups
made from the horns of my dead brother
and that’s when I knew it would never work out
between us. He was my brother, you know.
Locked up in the labyrinth like the idiot child
in a home, like the junkie teenager left in rehab,
the embarrassment, the black sheep of the family.
A bull with hooves and horns. A boy’s intelligence
in his eyes, human emotions in his bellowing.
I thought perhaps he might follow the thread
out, once Theseus was dead.

I knew it would never work out, but I left
with Theseus because what else was I
to do? It’s not like my parents deserved
a dutiful daughter. My father thought to
cheat the gods; my mother thought to
cheat my father; it was all ruined, all
wrong. So I left with Theseus and pretended
to sleep while his men carried the supplies
on board, drew up the boats and then
the anchor, sailed away.

I woke at sunset and looked at the night sky.
That’s when he came out of the shadows
toward me, a slender figure limned in light.
He had ivy shoots and grape vines for a
crown, but the crown he offered me was
twined of stars. It glittered in his hand far
brighter than the stars above, if not as
brightly as the stars above. He smiled and
then I took his hand. “You remind me
of my brother,” I said, and smiled.