Once in a while on Tumblr, where I indulge mostly my fannish interests and my love of birds, I post what I call a “Who’s your daddy?” list, where I ramble about who are the definitive actors in certain iconic roles. For example, Jeremy Brett is my Sherlock Holmes, Leonard Nimoy is my Spock of Vulcan, and Spock is canonically a descendant of Sherlock Holmes because he said so in Star Trek VI.
Lately I’ve been thinking about the gods and about the influences that have formed my conceptions of them. To do that, I have to look back to my childhood and think about the books I read.
I was a voracious reader as a child and a precocious one. I was always interested in myths and gods and religion, and I read and re-read a lot of books, both children’s collections of stories and adult books on archaeology, history, and world religions. The truth is, most of the children’s books on mythology I can’t remember, except for the ones with my favorite illustrations.
You know the books I mean. You read them, too, I’m sure. Many of them are still in print, a fact which gladdens my heart.
I somehow skipped over the D’Aulaires’ book on Greek myths. I cannot remember whether my neighborhood library owned it or not. But I don’t know how many times I borrowed their Norse myths book.
That’s Thor. That’s always going to be what Thor looks like, in my head. A big man with red hair and red beard, tall, muscular, a hint of beer belly. The sort of guy who loses his temper quickly, shouts and crashes around, cools down and apologizes ten minutes later. A guy who’ll always lend you his ladder or help you move something heavy. Not Chris Hemsworth; more like Ray Winstone.
Anthony Hopkins made a pretty awesome Odin for Marvel, but in my head, Odin still looks like this:
The D’Aulaires weren’t the only book on Norse myths I read, however. More influential in terms of the text than the illustrations was The Children of Odin by Padraic Colum, illustrated by Willy Pogany. Colum included the story of Sigurd the Volsung, which may be why I mutter darkly when I hear Wagner’s Ring operas–“Sigurd, not Siegfried!” It was Pogany, however, who gave me my images of Loki, in graceful Art Nouveau lines:
Yes, Sif’s lovely naked breasts appeared in a children’s book. We weren’t quite so sensitive in those days. And my personal favorite Loki illustration:
The determination and malice in Loki’s face as he eats the heart of Gullveig, knowing that he does not know what the consequences will be and not caring. Colum and Pogany sanitized the stories less than the D’Aulaires, I think. For all the delicacy of Pogany’s drawings, they carry a menace in them, a seriousness.
I think children’s books about the Greek gods influenced me less than photographs of the abundant statues and vase paintings that portray the gods. I even had a coloring book of Greek art that reproduced some of the most famous vase pieces. Likewise Egyptian art, which I liked very much as a child, was full of depictions of the gods in their human and animal forms. (For a long time I only drew human figures as the Egyptians did, in profile, with the eye looking out from the side.) Perhaps because I absorbed the idea so early, it didn’t seem odd to me that a god of writing should have the head of a bird, or a goddess of war and violence the head of a lioness, or that Zeus should become a bull, a swan, a shower of light.
People wonder if children can tell the difference between what’s real and what isn’t, if they’ll confuse the stories in books and on television with accounts of real life. I’m not sure if I can say definitively, I thought the gods were real, or I thought the gods weren’t real, or I thought Jesus was real but not Hermes and Odin and Thoth. In a sense all the gods, and Jesus, and Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, Moses, Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock, Captain America, even, are all equally real to me because they are all stories. There are real stories and then there are not-real stories. If a writer creates a story which mentions an important book that doesn’t exist, is that book real? Is the Necronomicon real? Whose Necronomicon is real? Which is the “real” Bible–the latest translation, or the Authorised Version, or the crumbling manuscripts the translators used? Which is the real book of Isaiah, the Masoretic Hebrew, or the Septuagint, or the version from the Dead Sea Scrolls?
What is fictional is real to me. What is mythical is real to me. “News” is not real in my universe. Propaganda is not real. Facebook is not real. Yet I don’t want to pray to Captain America, I only want to write stories about him. I did not encounter Antinous in my childhood reading about the gods of the world; I only heard him referenced, later, as the lover of a Roman emperor, a beautiful youth who died young. But having discovered him as a god, I pray to him, and he responds.