And Now for Something Completely Different…


Someone asked me recently about one of my old projects, Star Trek: Starfleet Academy. To answer their question, I’m posting the timeline that Paramount approved for the comic book series, before the plug was pulled by Marvel’s loss of the Star Trek license. These are effectively concise overviews of the issues we never got to publish…the further adventures of Matt Decker, Pava, T’Priell, Nog, and Edam Astrun…young Starfleet cadets trying to find their way in a very big universe.

Not really new myth…or is it? Some argue that Star Trek presents a mythic universe, complete with archetypes (Klingons as violent but honor-bound warriors, Romulans as sneaky schemers, etc.). You be the judge, and see if you can find some mythic themes in what we had planned for the series.






Issue #20

Time out of Mind 1: Decker

The cadets are more intrigued by the Viator artifact than ever when it survives being plunged into a star. But when Pava and Decker come into contact with it, with Edam nearby, gene-interfacing properties of the artifact are triggered, interacting unexpectedly with Edam’s telepathic abilities. Decker & Pava drop to the floor, their minds apparently wiped clean.

As it turns out, the artifact accidentally combined with Edam’s telepathy to hurl Decker’s and Pava’s consciousnesses back in time, into the bodies of their genetic ancestors. What follows is a lighthearted “Back to the Future” issue: Decker finds himself trapped in the body of his great-grandfather, Matt Decker, during his Academy days, when he met and wooed his great-grandmother…and now our Decker must fumble his way to seducing her to ensure his own survival! And to make things worse, he has a rival–a lothario cadet by the name of Christopher Pike! Matt manages to win the lady for his ancestor, just in time to be retrieved by Edam, who’s been working laboriously with T’Priell to right things (and sparking unusual romantic fireworks along the way, as her Vulcan side says stay away, but her Romulan side says come hither). Decker, who’s always been intimidated by his family legacy as glorified by his father, realizes from his experiences that his ancestors were human and flawed just as he is.


Issue #21

Time out of Mind 2: Pava

Our “Xena, Warrior Princess” issue: Pava finds herself back on Old Andor, where survival is a daily struggle. The men guard the geothermal hot springs–tropical oases that are the key to the long-term survival of the cluster–with their lives, while the cluster’s women go forth aboard ice schooners, hunting and warring among the snows blanketing most of that world. In the body of an ancestor, Pava is the captain of just such a vessel, committed to slaughter hundreds from a rival cluster under a long-ago vendetta. She must, or she alters history…but if she does, she must live with that atrocity staining her soul. She returns to her own life, thanks to Edam’s and T’Priell’s efforts, finally understanding the futility of vengeance, and how some Andorian customs are better left in history’s dustheap.


Issue #22


Charlie Evans comes crashing in on the Academy, turning to the only people he knows–Omega Squad–for help, with Q hot on his heels. Q has made Charlie an offer he can’t refuse: Join the Q Continuum, or die (there’s somewhat of a precedent for this, from the TNG episode “True Q”). The problem is, joining the Continuum is the last thing Charlie wants, because all he’s ever longed for is human contact. Q agrees that Charlie can stay among humanoids–if he can get Omega Squad to accept him. Weird situations abound as Q throws them curveballs, Charlie gets them out of it, and the squad faces the reality that life with an omnipotent Charlie may not be possible, despite the best of intentions on both sides. (Also, a rivalry starts to develop as Charlie is drawn to T’Priell, making Edam a wee bit jealous.) Finally, Charlie gets Omega Squad to accept him by apparently using his powers to wish his powers away permanently. Q is foiled…

…but having seen the artifact, now locked in a physics lab, Q cryptically tells the squad that they’re in for more than they can handle soon anyway!

SUBPLOT: Somewhere in deep space, a Borg vessel encounters a massive alien mother ship strangely resembling our artifact. Borg attempts at assimilation are futile, and the ship completely ignores them–except to abduct a dozen or so Borg, all the drones between the ages of 16 and 19.


Issue #23

In Search of Kamilah Goldstein

A quiet character study as Edam reaches a crisis. His on-again, off-again relationship with T’Priell is maddening, his psi talent messed with his teammates’ heads and nearly got them lost in time, Zund has been acting weirdly removed since the Romulan affair, the parents he lives to displease are now pleased that he’s at the Academy…all of which puts him one step away from deciding to resign. He’s never quite blended with the other cadets anyway, so before he quits he decides to investigate the one thing they all have in common that he doesn’t share: friendship with the slain Kamilah.

So Edam goes to Jerusalem and, via Edam’s telepathic journeys through the minds of people who knew her, he and we get glimpses of the woman and her life: what was it about this girl that could inspire Pava to turn her back on Andorian vengeance, Decker to find it in himself to forgive T’Priell’s betrayal, T’Priell to struggle to get her personas to work together? In the process, Edam actually discovers the truth about himself–that he’s ready to run from the Academy because, for the first time in his life, there are people he cares about and a place to call home. And that scares him. But rather than run from that, Edam decides to take on Kamilah’s mantle as a unifying force and work to preserve the team…even if he won’t admit that publicly to his teammates!

SUBPLOT: A fleet of Jem’hadar ships attack the massive alien mother craft. It abducts every single Jem’Hadar from one of the vessels–only to spit them back out as unwanted genetic ooze. It then continues on its way, ignoring every other Jem’hadar vessel that uselessly attacks it.


Issue #24

Face of the Reaper

Halakith gets a signal from her people and is lured to a distant world, accompanied by Yoshi. Along the way, the two manage to reach an accomodation, only to discover that the signal is a deception of the beings who built the mystery artifact: the Viators. A powerful humanoid constuct–a Golem–sent by these enigmatic beings relentlessly pursues Halakith; apparently because she’s the last of her kind, her uniqueness somehow makes her valuable to them. With the Viators’ actions confirming that she’s the last one, she turns herself over to the Viators so as to meet the fate of all the other Halakith saurians. In doing so, she saves Yoshi’s life–bartering her own for his–and gives a gift to the Federation by hiding a probe on her person when the Viators take her aboard their massive mother ship, sending the first telemetry on who or what these mysterious beings are.

And I’ll find a way to work in Omega Squad, too.


CHIP: This issue is deliberately vague, since I want to be able to pop in a “How I Spent the War” story, depending on developments on the DS9 TV show regarding the war with the Dominion.



Dark Harvest

Based on the information coming in from every part of the Alpha Quadrant–Kovold’s warning, Murg’s condition, Omega Squad’s mental time-tripping via ancestors, Halakith’s fate and the Viators’ selective kidnapping of other sentients–a pattern begins to emerge. The Viators’ activity centers around genetics. But the abducted sentients have nothing in common genetically; in fact, the only link is that they were all young adults.

The Federation’s attempts at peaceful communication go ignored, just as the attacks of a Klingon fleet go ignored.   But the danger the Viators pose, deliberately or not, becomes obvious once Starfleet figures out that the agonizing, grotesque fate of Murg and Halakith–total genetic instability–has been the fate of everyone the Viators have kidnapped. And worse, the massive Viator vessel is working its way towards Earth.

Viators–mammoth silicon-based lifeforms with chrono-phase technology–are so different from virtually everything previously encountered, that Starfleet fears they may not even realize that the beings they kidnap are sentient. So in a final, desperate attempt to make contact, they bring Edam, a Horta, and Vulcan priestess T’Lathne together in a three-way mindmeld, trying to create a consciousness capable of telepathically reaching the Viators. For a moment, they succeed–and come out of it terrified.

The Viators, it turns out, are “trans-sentient”–their consciousnesses are unknowable to us, as far above our own as ours is above the simple electrochemical “thoughts” of an ameba. They know we’re sentient…and they don’t care. As far as they’re concerned, we’re raw material: Our DNA is the microchip of their organic computing system, its genetic mutations and permutations ideal for solving complex equations. The best of all possible DNA comes when an organism’s biochemistry has stabilized after puberty, but before advancing age causes replication errors and DNA degradation–in other words, young adults. Like Starfleet cadets. And the best sampling of young adults would include lots of different species, offering a terrific variety of DNA. Like at the Academy.

Which is where the Viators will arrive in 24 hours.

Starfleet attempts to evacuate the cadets, only to have one of the Viators’ Golems, sent to scout ahead, set up an isolation field around San Francisco to hold everyone there until the mother ship arrives.

An armada of starships to defend the Academy is utterly ineffectual and gets completely ignored.

And a last scheme to use Omega Squad, partially “invisible” to Viator sensors thanks to their previous exposure to Viator tech, backfires. The cadets penetrate the mother ship’s defenses long enough to release an organic virus, hoping it will destroy the organic computer and thus the Viators. But the computer’s immune defenses wipe out the virus, and the Viators strike back with a chrono-beam that instantly disintegrates Omega Squad.

The Viators then proceed to obliterate the Academy and digest virtually every cadet there is.


Issue #26


Welcome to the world of Reno Sanchez. She’d be real sexy if she didn’t spend her days eating out of dumpsters and her nights sandwiched between passed-out drunks on lower Broadway; now that December has arrived, it’s getting awfully cold on New York’s mean streets, and she’ll take any warmth she can get. She’s hoping all the hoopla over the coming New Year–going from 1999 to 2000–will bring lots of stupid tourists to Times Square so she can pick their pockets. That’s the extent of her hopes for the future. Besides, it’s not like it’s the start of a new millenium–unlike most people, she knows that won’t come until 2001. After all, she’s pretty smart; in fact, she’s a genius, one who couldn’t fit in, fell into some bad stuff–heroin–and the rest she doesn’t like to think about. Now, even though she’s clean, she knows she won’t make it much past 2000 anyway. So she lives day to day. Maybe this chick passing by will give me a handout, she thinks.

Except this chick’s naked. And confused. And blue.

Things really get crazy for Reno as others, just as weird if not so obviously so, keep popping out of nowhere around her. Finally, there are four, only one of whom speaks English. Scared shitless, she runs; they pursue, thinking they must be here for a reason, that she must somehow be important to them. Then they realize that she’s homeless, a derelict…useless. They move on, thinking of their own problems, and, under the circumstances, ignoring hers.

Omega Squad figures out that, because of chroniton resonances from their first experience with the Viator artifact, they weren’t killed by the Viator chrono-disintegrator; instead they were thrown back in time–just them, not their clothes or equipment (Decker is without an eye). But why here, why now, why all drawn by the timestream to that unfortunate girl?

And now that they’re here, how do they get home?

Edam has worse news. Because his consciousness is shifting temporally back and forth between his own body and that of his “ancestor,” his father, in the 24th century (just like what happened to Decker and Pava in issues #20 & 21), he knows what’s happened in their own time. The Academy’s destroyed, and the Viators threaten the rest of the Alpha Quadrant; the cadets have no home to return to, even if they could. They’re trapped in a hostile, primitive world, with no place to go.

They’re truly homeless.

And they discover everything that means as, without money or friends, they’re forced into a hard-scrabble life on the streets. Just when those streets threaten to overwhelm them, Reno steps in and gives them the help they were too preoccupied to give her. She shows them how to survive on the streets.

The issue ends with that survival in serious question, as a Golem arrives back through time and confronts them all, looking to slaughter Reno. And if they could barely defeat a Golem when they had 24th century tech, how will they do it now?

That’s when Gary Seven shows up.


Issue #27

Seven of ’99

Gary Seven (from TOS’s “Assignment: Earth”)–older, grayer, but still a prime specimen of humanity–has been drawn to the scene by the surges in chroniton particles. He and the cadets work desperately to save Reno. The biggest problem, however, is Reno herself. She keeps deliberately putting herself in harms way. Only after the Golem is defeated does Reno explain.

She wants to die, because she has AIDS, and unable to afford life-prolonging medication, she faces a slow, horrible death. She figures this is quicker.

After overcoming initial shock (“You’re denied essential medical treatment…because of money?!?”), the cadets are more perplexed than ever. Through Edam’s telepathic time shifts, they’ve been able to check Federation databases, and there is no record of Reno making any significant contribution to history, nor of her having any descendants. She does indeed seem to die as just one more statistic. So why are the Viators out to kill someone unimportant? Why were the cadets drawn here?

The only explanation Gary Seven can provide is that, for some unknown reason, Reno is charged to the max with chroniton particles. “Oh, and by the way,” he adds, “I think I can use my transporter to send you all home.” The cadets, convinced that Reno is significant against the Viators even if they don’t know why, prevail upon her to make the trip with them; she’s got nothing to lose, after all.


Issue #28

Second Chances

The cadets and Reno arrive back in the 24th Century a split-second after their “disintegration,” back aboard the Viator mother ship, before the Academy’s destruction. And after much conflict, Reno finally puts two and two together…

…and drops some of her HIV-infected blood into the Viators’ genetic computer matrix.

Confronted with not just a virus, but one that attacks the immune system itself, and one that hasn’t been seen on Earth in centuries, the Viators’ countervirus defenses are overwhelmed. The system shuts down, and the Viators are destroyed–but not before they dispatch a lone Golem into the past to destroy this menacing girl at her point of origin.

Hours later, Reno is cured of AIDS with a simple injection, a cure from the 21st century buried in ancient Earth files. But she can’t go back, because to do so would be to change history, for now she’d live, maybe have children…so she stays on as a special participant/observer attached to Omega Squadron.

She’s left with a lot of ironies to ponder: the time paradox that brought her here (she was a magnet for the others because of her chroniton polarity, yet she ended up polarized in the past because of being sent to the future; the Viators dispatched a Golem to destroy her at her point of origin, yet it was that Golem’s presence in the past that convinced the cadets that Reno was important to bring her to the future)…that a disease that was a nightmare in her day ends up saving humanity’s future…that the Viators, to whom we are primitive biological artifacts, were brought down by a microbe, what WE would consider a primitive biological artifact…but most of all, that she’s gone from being a doomed, homeless lowlife, to being a dreamworld’s savior with a new lease on life, in the blink of an eye. And this time, she plans to make the best of it.


CHIP: I think the possibilities inherent in the Reno character are ripe–adjusting to her new world, dazzled by her swift change in fortune, dealing with the legacy of her sordid past, and how her backwards primitivism conflicts with and challenges utopia.

But best of all, she gives us a fresh perspective on the Star Trek universe. Through Reno’s eyes, readers will see that universe again as if for the first time–an ideal way to continue with this book’s introductory spin without alienating longtime fans. In fact, I think it’s longtime fans who’ll love this the most.


Issue #29

Men in Gray

A lighthearted issue as “Mutt & Jeff” from Temporal Investigations hound Reno and make her life a living hell!



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For Gabriel Fernandez, 2005-2013

Gabriel Fernandez

Gabriel Fernandez

Why do we need myth? Because sometimes it gives us a slim chance to bear the unbearable.

In the mythos I write, Fatale, goddess of death, must bear and in turn causes terrible suffering. But also, as often as not, she appears as a woman of incredible beauty. I look to her now, because I need something to hold on to, after reading the story of Gabriel Fernandez. Be warned: This is not an easy story to read.

The Los Angeles Times reports (the full story is here):

“Before 8-year-old Gabriel Fernandez was allegedly beaten to death by his mother [Pearl Fernandez] and her boyfriend [Isauro Aguirre], they doused him with pepper spray, forced him to eat his own vomit and locked him in a cabinet with a sock stuffed in his mouth to muffle his screams…

“Fernandez and Aguirre hit Gabriel with a belt buckle, a metal hanger, a small bat and a wooden club, Gabriel’s brother said. Their mother once jabbed Gabriel in the mouth with a bat and knocked out several teeth…

“The abuse worsened in the months leading up to Gabriel’s death, according to testimony from two of his siblings, both of whom are minors. They said Gabriel was forced to eat cat feces, rotten spinach and his own vomit. He slept in a locked cabinet and wasn’t let out to go to the bathroom. Fernandez and Aguirre called Gabriel gay, punished him when he played with dolls and forced him to wear girls’ clothes to school, the siblings said…

“[On May 22, 2013,] When paramedics arrived, they found Gabriel naked in a bedroom, not breathing, with a cracked skull, three broken ribs and BB pellets embedded in his lung and groin. He died two days later.”

There has to be another ending to this story.

In that ending, in those final moments, Gabriel sees what no one else can. She smiles at him like he’s just been born, the kind of smile he’s been aching for; and from that smile he is certain of two things: She understands suffering, and she means to take his away for good. After knowing only horror from the woman who was supposed to love him best, he is folded into arms that have waited for him his whole life. At last he has found the mother he should have had all along, who loves him for who he is, no matter what. And the pain and horror melt away.

That’s my myth for Gabriel, and I choose to believe it was so.

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Mythcon 45: Days 3 & 4 (Final Report)

At Mythcon, Camelot comes to the costume contest: Chris Gaertner as King Arthur and Sørina as Morgause.

At Mythcon, Camelot comes to the costume contest: Chris Gaertner as King Arthur and Sørina Higgins as Morgause.

I should have learned from last year, but I suppose there’s no way around the exhaustion on Day 3 that comes from so much stimulation from dawn until the wee hours. I win the struggle to keep my eyes open, mostly, by force of will and by keeping my hands busy scribbling notes as I gobbled up the day’s sessions:

  • An analysis of the distinctions that separate genre fiction–fantastic fiction, high fantasy, and science fiction–in the U.S. and France (to probably no one’s surprise, STAR WARS straddles the high fantasy/SF boundary but, push come to shove, lands more in the fantasy camp)…
  • How the Harry Potter series fits squarely into a tradition of dystopian literature, alongside such works as 1984 (I’d say HP has a strong dystopian element, but that’s not the major thrust, as evidenced by the very different outcome for the protagonist)…
  • Janet Brennan Croft’s look at the use of the names taken by and given to characters and things in The Lord of the Rings (it’s a great technique for reinforcing themes, underscoring character, and reflecting plot developments)…
  • …and a search for Darwinian influence on The Hobbit and LotR. (I have to admit, I didn’t get this one; Tolkien’s work shows little evidence of any influence of evolutionary theory, IMHO. It’s not a natural fit for most works of high fantasy, let alone one prominently featuring a race that’s immortal, slow to reproduce, and unchanging–making elves completely removed from Darwinian forces of natural selection.)

But my favorite presentation of the day was grad student John Polanin’s dissection of Hell in the works of Neil Gaiman. (Full disclosure: Despite my long history with comics, until a month ago I’d never read Gaiman, deliberately avoiding both his prose and his comics because, based on what I knew of his work, it verged close to my own, and I didn’t want any undue influence. Now that my own book of original myths is finished–coming soon!–I finally read American Gods…but that’s the subject for a blog post all its own.) For one thing, Polanin has an engaging, conversational style that injects easygoing humor in the right places. For another, Gaiman holds a fascinating place in our pop culture. And best of all, Polanin’s talk led me to another “eureka!” moment…but I’ll save that for another blog post, about superhero comics and myth.

MY BAD: In my previous post I should have mentioned two more events. On Saturday morning, scholar guest of honor Richard West, a truly lovely guy, gave a truly wide-ranging talk on the theme of this year’s Mythcon, “Where Fantasy Fits”; and that night, a collaborative reading of Beowulf (in part) brought the sounds of Old English to remarkable life, each passage followed by the newly released Tolkien translation. The passion of both the poem and the readers came shining through.

On this Sunday evening, the last night of the convention, focus shifted to fan fun, with a dinner banquet where people play with their food (you had to be there), a small everybody’s-a-winner costume contest, a firmly tongue-in-cheek drama from the Not Ready for Mythcon Players (yours truly was drafted), and a clever poetry slam. On the less frivolous side, this year’s author guest of honor, Ursula Vernon (creator of the graphic novel series Digger), humorously reminded us of our duty as storytellers, and the winners of 2014’s Mythopoeic Society awards were announced. Congrats to all!

More socializing, more Bardic Circle, more getting to bed way too late…

…and the wrap up this morning. The sole panel I attended, on interpreting Jung’s archetypes through the lens of C.S. Lewis, triggered all sorts of feedback and follow-up questions; as someone who trades in archetypes regularly, I devoured the ideas offered and, even when I found some of them lacking (need we accept that there’s a connection between the numinous and moral law, just because Lewis says so?), they left me hungry for more.

That’s the general state that Mythcon fosters: It leaves you hungry for more. I realize now that for me, Mythcon offers a brief return to those voracious college days (without the exams!), when a rich stew of intellectual stimulation, new friendships, and quips and insights traded over mealtime conversation (all in a tranquil campus setting) had yet to be backburnered by the daily grind. As we sing a farewell song to Mythcon 45, I find I can’t return to this banquet soon enough.


Mythcon 45: Day 2

The most fascinating presentation went straight to the seam that runs through the middle of Mythcon and ripped it open. Generally speaking, the Mythopoeic Society’s focus on the Inklings draws two types of people: those who approach the material from a Christian perspective (of the Inklings, C.S. Lewis in particular infuses this into his work; Tolkien to a lesser or less obvious extent), and those who don’t. Those (like me) who don’t can have a view of the world rooted in solid science. These differing viewpoints aren’t necessarily opposed, and by and large one won’t even be aware of these differences running beneath the surface at a Mythcon.

Then came Joshua D. Reichard and his presentation on “Matter, Myth, and Meaning: Science, Fantasy Literature, and the Spiritual Quest,” the thesis of which was that “scientific materialism,” in the view of Lewis, is a pathology as extreme as religious fundamentalism; it’s a mythos that has taken hold of the collective Western consciousness with a stranglehold grip.


To Reichard’s credit, he presented the thesis in as neutral and accessible a way as possible. That didn’t stop the room from quickly polarizing into those nodding in agreement (not me) and those raising their eyebrows (and some, their voices) in objection. One of the problems with Reichard’s approach, IMHO, is the definition he and Lewis employ; by this definition, scientific materialism is a reduction of the universe to mechanistic processes devoid of hope or joy. This last part is so contrary to the lived experience of us science-oriented folks that it immediately renders Reichard’s premise suspect. Reichard fares better with his suggestion that fantasy literature may provide a means to reconcile the science-oriented and religion-oriented viewpoints. That line of thought deserves further exploration.

Less controversial but no less dynamic was Vicki Ronn’s examination of the role of fairy tales in reflecting the concerns of contemporary culture, as reinterpreted in Vertigo’s Fables comics and ABC TV’s Once Upon a Time. (Pity poor Ronn, who had to binge watch the entire multiseason run of OUAT; that’s dedication to one’s research…or a new form of psychobludgeoning torture.) She easily merited a full hour to present her work, but crammed in what she could–including some of the delicious visuals from Fables–into half that time.

I have no one but myself to blame for my glazed eyes during a presentation and related panel on bringing Tolkien’s works to digital life. As I should have anticipated, this focused on online gaming, and as I’m not a gamer, meh. But a tip of the hat to Christopher Crane, Jr., and his brother, Elliot Crane, who in an earlier presentation surveyed fantasy literature to explore the power of naming–doing so at the tender ages of 13 and 11, respectively!

The night that followed the day-long conceptual stew was soaked in too much alcohol and went way too late, which is to say, I had a blast. At Bardic Circle, I even sang; no one hemorrhaged.

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Mythcon 45: Day 1

The bad news: I’m spoiled.

Last year’s Mythcon–my first time attending the annual meeting of the Mythopoeic Society, dedicated to the works of J.R.R.Tolkien, his literary contemporaries (commonly known as the Inklings), and the creation of myth and mythic storytelling in general–took place on the campus of Michigan State University, where an entire hotel and conference center was devoted to our needs. This year we’re at Wheaton College in Norton, Massachusetts, and it’s everything you would expect from an old, traditional New England school: lovely quadrangle ringed with stately trees and Georgian architecture…and dorm rooms with spartan decor and shared bathroom facilities. Not to mention food that’s just passable, compared to last year’s multi-cuisine feasts!

But we’re not here for the meals. As before, there’s a surfeit of thought-provoking riches in the various simultaneous presentations, and choosing which one to attend can lead to some maddening choices. I start with Chip Crane’s analysis of Tolkien’s careful use of ambiguity in his prose style (scribbling notes madly as I get ideas for my own writing); followed by an examination of the Hugo Award-winning graphic novel Digger (note to self: get hold of this and read it); and then Elise McKenna’s passionate linkage of Tolkien’s ideas to those of mythologist Joseph Campbell. Many (most?) current folklorists find Campbell’s approach, especially his monomyth, very problematic, and while I find some of his ideas interesting, I share the folklore community’s qualms…but it was hard to resist McKenna for her sheer exuberance and dynamic presentation style!

Then came my big blunder: Exhausted from overnight travel and craving outdoor time on a spectacular August day in such a lovely locale, I skipped Michael Drout’s overview of the hot topic around here, Tolkien’s newly published translation of Beowulf. By all accounts (and I mean all), it was the highlight of the day and packed to the rafters.

The many overlapping and fascinating conversations over meals and social gatherings, which are so much of Mythcon, can’t be summarized. But I finished my night, tired as I was, with a few rounds of Bardic Circle, the sharing of story and/or song that’s one of the best things about Mythcon, IMHO. And luckily, I’ve got two more nights of that…hopefully when I’m less bushed!

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Myth vs. Reality

Few myths are as enduring as that of Hercules. (The legendary strongman’s frequent cinematic revivals–two this year alone–leave little doubt about that.) But is any of it real?

The latest film version of his exploits (reviewed next door by Your Sacrificial Moviegoer) at first blush seems a standard recounting; certainly the trailer (above) seems to position it that way. But that’s where the movie gets interesting:














Virtually everything seen in the trailer is dispensed with in the first minute or two of the film. It’s a visual tease, merely illustrating the over-the-top yarn a storyteller relates to inflate the reputation of the real flesh-and-blood guy named Hercules. He allows (indeed, encourages) all these crazy stories to spring up around him because it helps him do his job. Hercules doesn’t buy his own mythic hype, but he lets the hype prepare his way. The rest of the movie may not have satisfied, but that initially disorienting twist–a theme that permeates the rest of the tale–tasted delicious.

Why? Because it goes to the heart of myth’s importance. Myth isn’t literally true; it’s the truths about ourselves and our world that we glimpse through these fantastical tales that are important: the interrelationships delineated, the essences distilled, the emotional connections forged, in a way that no other genre can communicate. In a sense, the truths of myth constitute something hyperreal, more real in all the ways that matter to the human spirit than the empirical, quantifiable reality of the mundane world.

This new HERCULES goes further, suggesting that by our belief in these myths, we make them come to life. (A quantum physics parallel comes to mind; to oversimplify, current theory suggest that the characteristics of many fundamental particles exist in a state of flux until the moment the particle is observed by someone, at which point the myriad possibilities of its existence collapse into one defined state.) Or at the very least, our belief in myth transforms our perceptions and actions in a way that dramatically alters outcomes. Whether the myth is literally true becomes irrelevant; our belief in the myth holds the key.

An idea to which I can only say: I believe.

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The Stuff New Goddesses Are Made Of

Avia, goddess of feathered bliss [a photo-altered Ursula Andress from the 1965 movie SHE]. Where'd she come from?

Avia, goddess of feathered bliss [a photo-altered Ursula Andress from the 1965 movie SHE]. Where’d she come from?

Where might new gods come from? And by “where,” I don’t mean so much a physical location, but rather, from what space in the human psyche might they emerge?

Birders may have the answer.

We birders–or birdwatchers, to the uninitiated—have several unique expressions. We sometimes refer to ourselves as “the sacrificial birder,” when one of us is that person whose time constraints force him or her to abandon the search for a rare bird while the rest of the group continues searching. Invariably, within minutes of said person’s departure, the bird will be found. The human sacrifice has been effective; some deity has been appeased, allowing the rest of us to enjoy the thrill and beauty of the bird. (And if you recognize a familiarity between the phrase “sacrificial birder” and the name of the blog next door, that’s no accident.)

But that begs the question: What deity has been appeased?

Being one who thinks in metaphorical terms, I found my wheels spinning to come up with the answer, and Avia, goddess of feathered bliss, was born. Mind you, Avia is not a goddess of birds, not exactly; rather, she is the goddess of birding. Gorgeous (like so many of the birds) but sometimes cruel (tantalizing with birds one never gets to see), she doles out delights and disappointments seemingly in equal measure. There are times she demands her due (the aforementioned sacrificial birder) before she will grant her boon, but when she does…ah, the incomparable joy she provides!

OK, so I invented Avia just for fun, to give a name and face to the seemingly random vagaries of the hobby I love. (“No migrants today? Who pissed off Avia?!”) But in her genesis, one can begin to see how deities evolved for specific phenomena or areas of human endeavor–their attributes reflecting something of our experience of that endeavor/phenomenon and of ourselves–and how new deities may yet evolve in a similar manner. Avia isn’t real, but given time and myths about her and belief, could she become real? And what does “real” mean anyway when speaking of the divine?

Food for thought while staking out the next feathered find.

(And literally as I finished writing this while sitting in the garden, a peregrine falcon started circling overhead. It’s a sign She’s please with my work; Avia be praised!)


The History and Future of Myth

A Short History of Myth--cover

“This was the last of the great revolutions in human experience…. Life would never be the same again, and perhaps the most significant—and potentially disastrous—result of this new experiment was the death of mythology.” –Karen Armstrong, A Short History of Myth

“This” to which writer Karen Armstrong refers is the Great Western Transformation, a phrase she coins for the spread of modernity across the globe over the last 500 years. While the entirety of her book A Short History of Myth is intriguing, the last chapter puts forth troubling conclusions.

After chronicling the shifting nature of myth through human history–our sacred stories changing at crisis points to adapt to the new needs of civilization–she arrives at our present era. Here she finds a Western culture so focused on technological progress and the supremacy of rational inquiry that it has discarded the stories that grounded us as useless make-believe.

The problem is, she’s right.

Spiritual and psychological malaise is evident all around us in the West, malaise Armstrong pins on a collapse of myth. It can be seen in the increasing absence of believers in the traditional pews and the fervent embrace of something—anything—from Eastern philosophies to hardcore fundamentalist sects to thetan- and Kool-Aid-consuming cults and other exotic brands of belief. While it’s easy to ridicule these new practitioners (hey, my own tree-hugging neopaganism is a prime target), their craving for meaning is genuine. If our society has failed to feed them, who can blame them for grabbing whatever meal they can?

One danger, which Armstrong ably acknowledges, is that in their grasping some may latch onto unhealthy mythologies, following Jim Joneses, Aryan brothers, radical Islamists, and the like to their and perhaps our society’s doom. But the greater danger is that we’ll end up with no mythology at all, leaving us a rootless, drifting people.

Now hear this: I’m a science guy. I prize rational inquiry above almost anything else (I have no patience for creationism in any form), and I pride myself on a Vulcan-like mentality. So I don’t think we should retreat from the scientific method we use to explore our universe one iota.

But even Star Trek’s Vulcans had their rituals, their kunut kalifi and kahs-wan, shrouded in mystery. Even these fictional paragons of intellect had what served as myth. The idea that we have to give up the stories that tell us who we are in order to reach for the stars is nonsense. Armstrong points out that only relatively recently in our collective history have science and myth been considered mutually incompatible; there’s no reason that we ample-brained beings can’t be comfortable with duality, holding two separate and seemingly contradictory ideas in our ample brains at the same time. We need only recognize the separate spheres that these ideas operate in. And once we acknowledge the separation—that one describes empirical reality, while the other describes not a literal but a moral and psychological truth (are you listening, creationists?), we can see where they cross-pollinate.

We need new myths. “We need myths that will help us to identify with all our fellow-beings, not simply with those who belong to our ethnic, national, or ideological tribe,” Armstrong writes. “We need myths that help us to realize the importance of compassion….  We need myths that help us to create a spiritual attitude…. We need myths that help us to venerate the earth as sacred once again, instead of merely using it as a ‘resource’.”

If like me you yearn for new myth, there’s no reason to despair. Our mythic sensibilities may have atrophied in the West, but the need for myth will never go away; it is fundamental to our human nature. (I’d argue myth survives in the United States in the comics’ superhero genre, full of larger-than-life archetypes engaged in life-or-death struggles. Which, in a world hungry for myth, is no doubt part of the reason that superhero film adaptations have proven to be reliable blockbusters.) Armstrong posits that myth has passed through several crisis points as society morphed around it; I posit that there’s no reason to believe that myth won’t also emerge from the present crisis in a new and compelling form.

So give Karen Armstrong’s A Short History of Myth a read. (It’s easily digested, consumable in a single night). And let’s get busy writing the next chapter in the history of myth.

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Gods of Africa, in the Flesh

by James C. Lewis

Image by James C. Lewis

Every once in a while, someone approaches a pantheon in a way that really brings it to life for a modern audience. James C. Lewis does the job visually for the Orishas, the most well-known deities of West Africa.

Unlike the Greek pantheon, which persists only as an undercurrent (albeit a strong one) in our Western culture–active worship of the Olympians is limited to a small band of neopagan Greek reconstructionists–the Orishas are alive and well, having migrated out of Africa on the slave ships that bore her sons and daughters abroad. Today the Orishas (also spelled “Orisas” and “Orixas”) crop up in various guises in the Americas, in the Vodoun (“voodoo”) of Haiti, the Santería of Cuba and other Spanish-speaking Caribbean islands, and the Candomblé of Brazil, to name a few. And worship of the Orishas continues to this day in Nigeria and surrounding countries. That the Orishas can thrive in so many farflung places, despite colossal and sustained pressures from Christianity and Islam, is a testament to their appeal. (In fact, some of the religions mentioned above are syncretic blends of Christianity and Orisha worship).

What Lewis has done is use his photography and Photoshop skills to pump up this appeal for a contemporary audience. In other words, these gods are hot. And intriguing. Check out his work at his site, linked above, or in this BuzzFeed article; it’s liable to leave you hungry for myths of the Orishas.


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The Jewel at the Heart of Everything

The surface of each jewel in the net of the god Indra reflects all the other jewels, whose surface reflects all the other jewels, and so on.... Change one jewel, and you change them all. Thus the net represents the interconnectedness of all things.

The surface of each jewel in the net of the god Indra reflects all the other jewels, whose surface reflects all the other jewels, and so on…. Change one jewel, and you change them all. Thus the net represents the interconnectedness of all things.

One of my favorite places is right in the middle of the intersection of science and myth. I think most people expect that as we zoom forward on one of these roads, traffic on the other must grind to a halt; otherwise, some horrible collision will litter the landscape with conceptual wreckage. After all, myth was our original way of explaining the world, way back when we didn’t know any better. (That solar eclipse? The god who carries the torch across the sky dropped it for a second.) Now that we have a scientific method of inquiry, we don’t need those myths that those superstitious crazy people of yesteryear took literally.


Here’s where I like to straddle that intersection and see what happens. For example, take a look at a really wonderful recent development in science, the “jewel” that may lie at the heart of quantum mechanics: the amplituhedron. (Let the word alone linger on the tongue for a minute; juicy, isn’t it?)

Quanta Magazine reports on the new framework for fundamental physics that the amplituhedron offers:

Physicists have discovered a jewel-like geometric object that dramatically simplifies calculations of particle interactions and challenges the notion that space and time are fundamental components of reality….

The revelation that particle interactions, the most basic events in nature, may be consequences of geometry significantly advances a decades-long effort to reformulate quantum field theory, the body of laws describing elementary particles and their interactions. Interactions that were previously calculated with mathematical formulas thousands of terms long can now be described by computing the volume of the corresponding jewel-like “amplituhedron,” which yields an equivalent one-term expression.

Okay, Let’s not sink too deeply into the physics of it (because I’ll get lost). Suffice to say that it seems this jewel-like geometric construct accounts for the behavior of matter and energy on the most fundamental level. What an elegant, beautiful idea, which makes my mind flash to another elegant idea; juxtapose the amplituhedron with one of the most gorgeous of mythic constructs, from Eastern religions: Indra’s net.

Far away in the heavenly abode of the great god Indra, there is a wonderful net which has been hung by some cunning artificer in such a manner that it stretches out infinitely in all directions. In accordance with the extravagant tastes of deities, the artificer has hung a single glittering jewel in each “eye” of the net, and since the net itself is infinite in dimension, the jewels are infinite in number. There hang the jewels, glittering “like” stars in the first magnitude, a wonderful sight to behold. If we now arbitrarily select one of these jewels for inspection and look closely at it, we will discover that in its polished surface there are reflected all the other jewels in the net, infinite in number. Not only that, but each of the jewels reflected in this one jewel is also reflecting all the other jewels, so that there is an infinite reflecting process occurring.

That description, from Francis Harold Cook and his book Hua-Yen Buddhism: The Jewel Net of Indra (via Wikipedia) evokes as much wonder in its way as the amplituhedron. And while the confluence of ideas isn’t perfect—one jewel predicts all particle interactions, the other jewels reflect all others ad infinitum—they both give us insight into the fundamental nature of existence, how all things on a deep level are connected.

Instead of smashing into each other and leaving wreckage everywhere, these two modes of thinking, while never merging, seem to have ended up on parallel tracks; instead of gridlock, they’ve managed to clear the road for each other by staying out of each other’s way. As long as you’re clear about which lane you’re driving in at any given moment, there’s no reason great progress can’t be made on both roads.

And that’s the trick, isn’t it? One has to be able to hold two ideas in one’s head at the same time, the empirical reality and the metaphorical Truth–like people in our predecessor cultures probably did. C’mon; do you really think they were any less savvy that their stories weren’t nuts-and-bolts descriptions of how the world does what it does? Do you truly believe that they were more prone to the trap of taking one’s metaphors literally than today’s Christian and Muslim fundamentalists of the lunatic fringe?

That ball of fire in the sky isn’t a god carrying a torch, but the tale still told a people who they were, that there was duty to perform, that even gods stumble and drop their responsibilities every once in a while, but that you pick it back up and get going again…so yeah, in ways that matter deeply to us, that ball of fire is a god carrying a torch. These Truths are what myth is about, and it’s why religion (read: myth) continues in various forms even as science takes its rightful place in our brains and our culture. Myth isn’t diminished by science; properly understood, each in their proper role, they can almost propel each other forward, amplituhedron to Indra’s net.

So get in the fast lanes where myth and science meet, and enjoy the ride.


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