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Posts Tagged ‘mythology’

Beneath the Yew Tree’s Shade

October 31, 2015 | by

In the first of three excerpts from The Work of the Dead: A Cultural History of Mortal Remains, Thomas Laqueur explores the necrobotany of the yew tree, “the tree of the dead”—found in churchyards across the United Kingdom, France, and Spain.

William Turner, Pope's Villa at Twickenham, 1808.

A churchyard was adjacent to a church; both held the bones of the dead. The three—the building, the ground, the dead—were conjoined by a common history that made them part of what by the eighteenth century was a given; if ever there were an organic landscape, it was the churchyard.

The long-lived European yew tree—Taxus baccata, the tree of the dead, the tree of poisonous seeds—bears witness to the antiquity of the churchyard and shades its “rugged elms,” and the mounds and furrows of its graves: The yew of legend is old and lays claim to immemorial presence. We are speaking here of two or three dozen exemplary giants, some with a circumference of ten meters, that have stood for between 1,300 and 3,000 years but also of many more modest and historically documented trees that have lived, and been memorialized, for centuries. At least 250 yews today are as old or older than the churchyards in which they stand. Some were there when the first Saxon and indeed the first British Christian wattle churches were built; a seventh-century charter from Peronne in Picardy speaks of preserving the yew on the site of a new church. Read More »

The Immortality Chronicles: Part One

August 19, 2013 | by


What have we not done to live forever? My research into the endless ways we’ve tried to avoid the unavoidable is released today as The Book of Immortality: The Science, Belief, and Magic Behind Living Forever (Scribner). Every Monday for the next six weeks, this chronological crash course will examine how humankind has striven for, grappled with, and dreamed about immortality in different eras throughout history.

We’ve always had a thing for sequels. The suggestion of a second act is built into the fossil record. Tens of thousands of years ago, Neanderthals were already digging premeditated grave sites. They intentionally buried dead kin in fetal positions, indicating some hunch about posthumous rebirth. By Neolithic times, when we’d gotten the hang of agriculture, food started being placed alongside entombed bodies—presumably so they’d have snacks for their journey to the spirit realm.

Our terror and awe of mortality can be traced back to prehistoric nothingness. Every story about immortality since then has been a story about the meaning of death, an attempt at warding off our innate fear of finality. As soon as we figured out how to write, we started jotting down consolatory tales about living forever.

The cuneiform tablets of Nineveh, among the earliest written documents, tell of King Gilgamesh, whose best friend dies. He is stricken with grief. But he is the omnipotent king of Uruk, the one who gazed into the depths—the one who slayed the Bull of Heaven!—surely he’s almighty enough to bring dead loved ones back from the grave. Mute with sorrow and pride, he buries his friend beneath a river and sets out to find eternal life. The scorpion people, whose knowledge is fathomless and whose glance is death, warn him about dangers ahead. A lady of the vines tries to console him, telling him that love is the closest mortals can come to immortality. Crossing the Waters of Death, he discovers a marvelous underwater plant that contains the secret of perpetual youth—the watercress of immortality, as the clay etchings call it, or the “never-grow-old”—but, alas, a serpent promptly steals it away. History’s prototypical protagonist fails, yet his story ends the only way it can: with acceptance of reality. Of mortality. Read More »


Zeus, and Other News

December 12, 2012 | by

  • On protectionism, e-books, and candlemakers.
  • Biologist Edward O. Wilson and U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Hass on science and poetry.
  • All the best books of 2012 lists that are fit to print, in one place.
  • Zeus’s affairs, graphically.
  • The worst word of 2012?


    Shades of Red: On Indian Summer

    October 1, 2012 | by

    Babie leto. The summer of old women. Even today, years after leaving Russia, that’s what I always call Indian summer in my head. The stress on the first syllable, the second merging seamlessly into that bright le of false warmth. The time of year I’m happiest to live where I do, forgiving for once the winter cold that lasts just a little too long, the days that grow just a little too short a little too quickly—and then seem to stay there indefinitely. The summer of the old women. I’ve often wondered why it is that some elderly hags should get special claim to these days of deceptive warmth, what it is in the ember of reds and honeyed yellows of the leaves that calls to them above everyone else. It seems somehow unfair, that privileged ownership.

    A falling spindle of fine thread, catching the rays of the sun on its way down from the sky, letting the light play off its gossamer thinness. The flower crab spider’s web carried through the air by the autumn wind. It’s the finely spun yarn of a young girl who has been weaving without rest for days and nights on end. Long, long ago she was kidnapped by the sun, and now, she must spend her endless lifetime spinning fine thread for his pleasure. On the bright, clear days of babie leto, you can see her handiwork spiraling through the air. She is the woman of the second summer. And she may be timeless, but old she most certainly is not.

    A lumbering long-haired creature of mythological proportions who comes out of hiding with the first notes of warmth that follow the early fall cold. His name is Baba. His hair is like a collection of finely spun spider’s webs—and he can use it to tickle people to their deaths. He is the true owner of those waning days of warmth, old women be damned. They’d better watch out for his deceptively inviting hair.

    There are the more prosaic explanations, of course. Read More »


    D. H. Lawrence’s “Pomegranate”

    July 11, 2012 | by

    Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library

    Sometimes in life you get yelled at. No matter your moral fiber, it can’t be avoided all the time. It happens in Marine Corps boot camp; it happens in rush-hour subway cars; it happens if your mother catches you reading Lady Chatterly’s Lover at an impressionable young age. But one place you don’t expect to get harangued, one place where the lid’s supposed to stay on the pot, is poetry.

    So cracking open D. H. Lawrence’s seemingly innocuous Birds, Beasts, Flowers is a bit of a shock. Lawrence is, of course, better known for his novels and short stories; verse can unleash in him an irritating Whitmanesque mania, an exhibitionist verbal autoeroticism. But that’s not the case here. You flip past the title page and the index to the first poem, “Pomegranate,” and before your eyes can adjust to the typeface, you’re in trouble. Big trouble:

    Read More »