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I picked up a copy of David Graeber’s Debt: The first 5,000 Years, after an animated discussion about debt with a friend on New Year’s Eve. After reading The Dawn of Everything I expected to be challenged and surprised immediately, and I have not been disappointed.


Some essays from the London Review of Books:

From Asgard to Valhalla: The Remarkable History of the Norse Myths
by Heather O’Donoghue.

Norse Mythology dominates popular culture to a surprising extent, considering that there are only a handful of original sources, none of which were translated to Latin until 1665.

Cleopatra: Histories, Dreams and Distortions
by Lucy Hughes-Hallett.

In spite of her epic ability to outmaneuver the Romans, Cleopatra is not a feminist icon, but I think the snake is overrated.

Helen of Troy: From Homer to Hollywood
by Laurie Maguire.

The famous lines by Marlowe, usually declaimed in rapture, can be read as inflected with irony and doubt: ‘Was this the face that launched a thousand ships?’

Marlowe is also famous for writing the first dramatization of the Faust legend, in 1604, The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus, which was performed only once before he died after taking a knife to the eye in a bar fight. The CBC radio play is available on the Internet Archive.

The Atlantis Story: A Short History of Plato’s Myth
by Pierre Vidal-Naquet, translated by Janet Lloyd.

The neo-atlantean woo drives me a bit crazy, but who doesn’t love an over the top History Channel documentary now and then?

by Marina Warner.

I am mostly unfamiliar with Euripides — the classics are pretty stuffy, don’t deny it — but after reading this I went down a bit of a Wikipedia rabbit hole, and I’ve added the 1969 Maria Callas film to my list.

The article about Alphonse Mucha is a delight. Ivan Lendl has one of the world’s largest collection of Mucha’s works.


Last week we had a fun discussion on Signal about mass delusional events that seem to be a cultural phenomenon that simply won’t go away.

Between the 14th and 17th centuries a recurring social phenomenon of Dancing Mania swept Europe. Nobody knows what caused it, and most of the theories are unconvincing. In particular, the symptoms are not consistent with ergotism, and anyway, the psychoactive properties of certain hydrolyzed compounds of ergotamine are also a completely different thing.

This got me thinking about the effort to book our camping trip this year over the weekend of the solstice, and other possibilities to escape from city life. The impressive endurance of Danish cultural legacies drew my attention to this passage:

Bonfires are lit in order to repel witches and other evil spirits, with the burnings sending the “witch” away to Bloksbjerg, the Brocken mountain in the Harz region of Germany where the great witch gathering was thought to be held on this day.

Goethe described the Brocken in his Faust, first published in 1808, as the center of revelry for witches on Walpurgisnacht (30 April; the eve of St Walpurga’s Day).

Now, to the Brocken, the witches ride;
The stubble is gold and the corn is green;
There is the carnival crew to be seen,
And Squire Urianus will come to preside.
So over the valleys, our company floats,
With witches a-farting on stinking old goats.

I‘ve added The Harz Witches’ Trail to my plans for my next hiking trip in Europe.

Folk Music

Speaking of farting goats, this weekend I learned that Sumer is icumen in is the boisterous theme sung by the villagers during the shocking climax of the 1973 film, The Wicker Man, and I also discovered the 2020 folk compilation named after the song, Sumer Is Icumen In: The Pagan Sound of British and Irish Folk 1966–75.

The official playlist on Wikipedia is incomplete (I made another list with the missing tunes, based on the Wikipedia article). I’ve come across some gems, many of which are worthy of their own rabbit holes.

I was particularly taken by Mad Tom of Bedlam, and of course I keep coming back to Tam Lin and its themes of transformation. I am especially fond of this version.