“Alice” in Revolt

Lewis Carroll’s Victorian grotesquery (DeDisnification, Part 7A Addendum B)

Following the wild success of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, there was a rumor that Queen Victoria had loved the book so much she asked the author to dedicate his next work to her. The author was Lewis Carroll, actually the nom de plume of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, an Oxford lecturer on mathematics. His next book was An Elementary Treatise on Determinants: with their application to simultaneous linear equations and algebraical geometry (1867)—a dainty dish to set before a queen, who, one imagines, was unamused. This rumor, while entertaining, is easily debunked, as one biographer wrote:¹

He always refused to admit to any but especially privileged persons that he was Lewis Carroll. […] It would have been clean contrary to all his practice to identify himself as author of Alice with the author of his mathematical works.

And indeed, one of the biggest failings of the Victoria and Albert Museum’s (V&A) show, “Alice: Curiouser and Curiouser” was in conflating Carroll with his alter ego, Dodgson. They effectively drew a straight line from the staid Victorian Oxford don to the production of the Alice books. While this may seem a slight oversight, it actually erases some crucial information about both the author and his work.

First, Dodgson was very much a man of his times. Besides being a mathematics lecturer, he was also an ordained deacon in the Church of England, and was conservative personally and politically as well. As the quote above notes, he maintained a clear separation between his “normal” life and his fanciful writings about the world of Alice. Another of the many who have written about Carroll describes him in his day job as:²

An inveterate publisher of trifles [who] was forever putting out pamphlets, papers, broadsheets, and books on mathematical topics [that] earned him no reputation beyond that of a crotchety, if sometimes amusing, controversialist, a compiler of puzzles and curiosities, and a busy yet ineffective reformer on elementary points of computation and instructional method. In the higher reaches of the subject, he made no mark at all, and has left none since.

And indeed, where Carroll is almost entirely known for his two Alice books, Dodgson published no fewer than 15 works on mathematics, logic, and other serious subjects. None of these received any accolades to speak of, let alone becoming the kind of massive international phenomenon the Carroll books did.

There’s another myth Carrol himself created and which the V&A show perpetuates, that the first Alice book is largely the same as the tale he told Alice Liddell, whose name the protagonist took, and her sisters while they boated and picnicked along the River Isis in Oxfordshire. In fact, the book’s publication and this incident were separated by over three years and with multiple successive versions and expansions. Apart from some of the basic themes, it’s difficult to believe a work of such depth and complexity, running to 27,500 words, was anything like an extemporaneous tale of an afternoon, even if Carroll were some kind of savant.

And despite scientific and technological advancements, the general character of the Victorian era (1837–1901)—and even more so the mid-Victorian heyday from 1851–79—was just as drab as Dodgson outside the Alice books. Culturally, it was a repressive and moralizing time. These societal values came about as industrialization drove the rise of the middle class. As one literary critic noted of the status of art in Victorian England:³

[B]ourgeois capitalism restructures social and political life in such a manner that art and society appear related and yet somehow unrelated. 

A different pair of literary critics put a still finer point on it:⁴

When the bourgeois consolidated itself as a respectable and conventional body by withdrawing itself from the popular, it constructed the popular as grotesque otherness. But by this act of withdrawal and consolidation it produced another grotesque, an identity-in-difference which was nothing other than its fantasy relation, its negative symbiosis, with that which it had rejected in its social practice. 

It should already be getting clear on which side of the equation of acceptable literature versus grotesque the Alice books fall on, but for comparison, we can look at some of the other children’s literature of the age. Moralism, above all else, was the matter of such works. The fairy tale, which had been introduced into literature in the 18th century, was pressed into new service by the Victorians. The model provided by Hans Christian Andersen earlier in the century, using the form to present protagonists showing virtue and determination in the face of troubles, was an especially favored one. Even this was criticized by some as being too focused on amusement rather than education. Stories for Victorian children focused still more on teaching boys how to become diligent and loyal workers and girls, wise and dutiful wives and mothers.

When urged by his publisher to make some pretense toward moralizing in his first book’s title, Carroll ultimately refused, writing:⁵

Of all these I at present prefer “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”. In spite of all your “morality”, I want something sensational.

This book, first published in 1865, would come to be more commonly known simply as Alice in Wonderland (AiW). It’s also worth noting that while the papers of the time did review Carroll’s later works—and none measured up to AiW in the critics’ eyes—that original work was all but unheralded; a simple announcement of its publication was all that appeared. Regardless of title, however, there could be no disguising the book’s content, however, as James Adams, a scholar of Victorian literature, noted of it:⁶

Alice in Wonderland engages in a […] thoroughgoing frustration of moralism; few works have ever been more subversive of the pieties of childhood.

With this information, we’re able to place Alice solidly in the realm of the grotesque. And, as it mocks the Victorian-bourgeois status quo, it’s all the more marginal to that milieu. None of Carroll’s classical, historical, and mathematical references, his puns and witticisms directed at the highly educated, can save it from this categorization. Two elements in particular cement the works as grotesque: nonsense and satire.

Nonsense literature was clearly an offshoot of literary otherness. However, it’s not without precedents, even from ancient times. Horace, for example, in the first century BCE recommends it thus:⁷

Misce stultitiam consiliis brevem:
Dulce est desipere in loco.

Mingle a little foolishness with your prudence;
It’s pleasant sometimes to be unwise.

But the form truly blossomed in Victorian England with the nonsense poetry of Edward Lear, and then later, the works of Carroll. This, again, can only be seen as a reaction to the repressive culture of the times:⁸

Nonsense literature charts the fear of meaninglessness which bubbles below the surface of Victorian culture, with its terror of godlessness and anarchy, and it does so by distorting and exaggerating precisely those new ideas and images which most shocked and disturbed the contemporary world view.

In part, the nonsense in Carroll’s work is a spillover from Dodgson’s professional realm:⁹

This is the […] insight of a logician who appreciates the limits of his own speciality. When the characters at the mad tea party demand that Alice speak in logically rigorous language, they absurdly fail to appreciate that the conventions governing everyday social life are fundamentally arbitrary. When logic is applied outside its proper sphere, it can seem mere bullying—which is what Alice encounters in most of her attempts at conversation.

This misapplication of logic joins puns, parodies, strange anthropomorphic creatures, and usually inanimate objects imbued with life, so that:¹⁰

The effect is “nonsense” not as sheer gibberish, but as a concerted comic disruption of ordinary sense. In Wonderland, Alice experiences the power of rules in everyday life—the rules of language, social conduct, legal institutions—precisely through their subversion, which makes her experience akin to playing a game whose rules have been withheld, or are constantly changing in unpredictable ways.

Some of this, of course, plays into the satirical element of Carroll’s works. A parody can simply use the form of another work, but more typically, it’s meant as a commentary on that work. Especially in AiW, other contemporary literature for children, particularly of a moralizing kind, is targeted. For example, Carroll turns Isaac Watts’ tedious and preachy “Against Idleness and Mischief”, now remembered via AiW if at all—essentially a verse praising the industry of bees and informing us idle hands are the very workshop of the devil, and apparently required knowledge for British children of the time—into this sublime piece of topsy-turvy:¹¹

How doth the little crocodile
Improve his shining tail
And pour the waters of the Nile
On every golden scale!

How cheerfully he seems to grin,
How neatly spreads his claws,
And welcomes little fishes in
With gently smiling jaws!

Nor does Carroll shy away from lampooning major Victorian institutions, including politics, the legal system, and the monarchy, among others. Indeed, Alice’s many size changes are a metaphor for one of AiW’s central concerns: how a girl can fit into this society whose rules are both strict and arbitrary.

Just as with nonsense literature, satire reached new levels in the Victorian era, driven in part by the growth of education and the middle class, which led to an explosion of literacy—90% for both men and women by 1870—and with it, engagement with politics. This was embodied in particular by Punch magazine, launched in 1841. And the fact that Carroll chose John Tenniel, the satirical magazine’s chief cartoonist, to illustrate AiW is by no means coincidental.

Carroll even somehow manages to satirize satire itself, as Adams points out thus:¹²

Of course the very phrase “make fun of” reminds us that aggression is an integral part of humor. It was Carroll’s genius to discover this impulse in the heart of Victorian domesticity.

One can see why Dodgson let only a few close personal friends and relations know he was behind the Alice books, and would even deny it if asked directly. The works were an act of rebellion in an age of conformity, which reflected rather poorly on a serious and respectable member of the Victorian bourgeoisie, an educator and ecclesiastic.

Read Subsequent Articles in This Series

Part 7B: Alice’s Adventures in the Cousins War

Part 8: Guerrillas and the “Jungle”

Part 9A: Through a Magic Mirror Marred

Part 9A Addendum: The Woods “Over the Wall”

Part 9B: The Sum of its Versions

Part 9C: The “Snow White” Studio

Part 9D: Snowhaus

Part 10: The Little Less-Than

Read Previous Articles in This Series

Part 1: Straightening out “Hunchback”

Part 2: Making over “Mulan”

Part 2 Addendum B: Your Western Wuxia Is Weak

Part 3A: “Hercules”: Myths and Mistakes

Part 3B: Doing Hera’s Work

Part 4: “Belle” Epoch

Part 5: Putting “Pocahontas” to Rest

Part 5 Addendum: Powhatan’s Mantle

Part 6: Trouble with “Tarzan”

Part 7A: Down the Rabbit Hole

Part 7A Addendum A: Curious Curation


  1. T. B. Strong, “Mr. Dodgson: Lewis Carroll at Oxford”, The Times, January 1932.
  2. Peter Heath, The Philosopher’s Alice: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-glass, 1974.
  3. Kathy Alexis Psomiades, “‘The Lady of Shalott’ and the Critical Fortunes of Victorian Poetry”, The Cambridge Companion to Victorian Poetry, 2000.
  4. Peter Stallybrass and Allon White, The Politics and Poetics of Transgression, 1986.
  5. Lewis Carroll to Tom Taylor, 10 June 1864, quoted in Annemarie Bilclough, “Creating Alice”, Alice, Curiouser and Curiouser, 2020.
  6. James Adams. “Literature for Children”, A History of Victorian Literature, 2009.
  7. Quintus Horatius Flaccus, Carmina (Odes), VI.12, 13 BCE. My translation.
  8. Jackie Wullschläger, “Victorian Images of Childhood”, Inventing Wonderland: The Lives and Fantasies of Lewis Carroll, Edward Lear, J.M. Barrie, Kenneth Grahame, and A.A.Milne, 1995.
  9. Adams, 2009.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland, 1865.
  12. Adams, 2009.

Curious Curation

V&A’s wonderland not so wonderful (DeDisnification, Part 7A Addendum A)

Back in October, my family and I were finally able to go to an exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) celebrating the “origins, adaptations and reinventions over 157 years” of Lewis Carroll’s Alice books. This show, titled “Alice: Curiouser and Curiouser” had been set to open in spring of 2020, but as that was to become peak plague season, it was understandably delayed. So I’d been looking forward to it for some time when we actually saw it last month. Perhaps because of this anticipation, and likely also because of how well I know the subject, it was something of a disappointment.

The top-line papers presented unmixed reviews of the show, singing its praises. The reasons for this are multifarious, but I’ll sum up some I think are at work.

First, I think they’re reviewing Lewis Carrol and his Alice books rather than the show. This is akin to Rami Malek’s Oscar win—his performance in Bohemian Rhapsody (2018) was fine, but it was really an award for Freddie Mercury, whom he was portraying. Similarly, there have been award nods or wins for actors pretty clearly riding the coattails of their biopics’ subjects: Abraham Lincoln, Ray Charles, Johnny Cash.

Second, there’s a definite undercurrent of jingoistic fervor, not to say imperialist nostalgia. The Victorian era (1837–1901) was the halcyon of the Empire, as well as the time in which Lewis Carroll lived and worked. This is coupled with a longing for the great British polymaths and influential writers, who also represent a bygone age.

Finally, the supposed stoicism of the British, often expressed in terms of the well-known wartime propaganda quip, “keep calm and carry on”. This remains a notable myth valorizing dealing with adversity by pretending everything is fine. This is despite the fact the slogan is actually:¹

[…] the forgotten remnant of a rather spectacular failure, a failure of planning, of understanding, but mainly just a failure caused by events.

I went to art school where we would ruthlessly critique one another’s works daily. The object of this wasn’t to knock someone down or tell them they sucked, but to help them improve their craft. Certainly, Whiplash (2014) presents an extreme of this spectrum. Sycophancy has the opposite effect: faults receive positive reinforcement, and so are likely to be repeated. One of the things that confirmed to my family North Carolina was a cultural wasteland from which we needed to flee was when we attended a performance of Turandot. This serious opera quickly turned into a comedy of errors—the set broke and the last part of one act had to be performed in front of the curtain, midperformance Norton Antivirus started its check on the PC running the supertitles, which also featured a terrible translation, among many other things. The newspaper of record ignored all of this, mindlessly raving, “‘Turandot’ a Triumph”.²

In any case, after a thorough search of the V&A show’s reviews, I could only locate one that presented any critical balance whatsoever:³

It’s just a shame these exhibits are not better presented. The links between Carroll’s work and the phenomena it inspired are barely explained: we learn that surrealists like Max Ernst and Dorothea Tanning “adored” his books, but little about how they affected them. Later, we are told that CERN has named an experiment after Alice; it’s a fascinating detail, but “no attempt is made to elaborate” on it.

Despite all the four- and five-star reviews the show garnered, I’d give it three at best. 

The biggest issue, which isn’t the fault of the exhibit itself, was the people; I’d give them one star. As I’ve mentioned before, museumgoers often have zero clue about etiquette here, and often are more interested in gramming their awesome trip to the exhibition than the experience itself. We encountered people carrying on lengthy conversations having nothing to do with the artifacts they were blocking the view of, and which they weren’t even bothering pretending to look at, people texting with their backs to the items we were trying to see, and many other obnoxious activities.

People impeding one another’s ability to view objects was also built into the design of the space. This is a complaint I often have about exhibitions and sometimes museums generally: if you hang two things in proximity on the inside corner of a wall, you’re creating this situation. This seems so obvious there should be a rule about it.

The Getty—which certainly presents one of the best museum experiences I can think of—at least expresses proper concern and the mindfulness required, though without specifics on how to address it:⁴

To display more art within a finite amount of gallery space is a quintessential museum struggle, so during design development we had ongoing discussions about density to ensure optimal environments for delivering an ideal visitor experience. Museum staff prepared the maximum number of objects and cases for deployment. Then, during gallery installation, there were further adjustments to improve sightlines and address overcrowding.

I found another article which, while it was more focused on proper lighting, summed up some shortcomings of exhibitions I’ve been to recently, also characterizing it as a modern and self-perpetuating problem. But even this author mainly discussed proper lighting rather than offering any specifics on the spacing of objects for optimal viewing.⁵

Modern museum design tends to emphasise visual impact and “interpretation”, sometimes augmented by interactive displays and dramatic lighting and sound, where often it seems that the objects of interest are subordinate to the general “environment” and “experience”. The opportunity to educate as well as to entertain should not be lost in modern exhibits. Some very simple, basic principles should be adhered to when developing […] displays.

A friend of mine who works at museums describes what goes on behind the scenes as:

[…] a struggle / collaboration between academic curators with highly detailed subject knowledge whose instinct is to cram in as many objects and screeds of text as possible and interpretation / design people who will have design qualifications and an instinct to clarify and simplify the visitor experience.

The subject of our discussion then was “Troy: myth and reality” at the British Museum, which I have to say was one of the worst exhibitions I’ve ever attended. Likely because he’s on the design side, my friend suggested the fault in that show may have been in curation, but I think it was actually both, which was what made it such a terrible experience. The crowning folly was definitely brought to us by designers: they built a Trojan horse on the floor, creating a narrow space within which many artifacts were displayed, with a narrow chokepoint at either end. Even though there were timed entries, as most of these shows have, it was such a swarm of humanity we gave up seeing any of the horse’s contents. This dubious feature was such a clusterfuck more than 20 people would have made it unmanageable, let alone the hundreds in attendance. If the designers’ intent was to create an immersive experience of being shoved into a small, dark space with an uncomfortable mass of humanity, then job well done.

On the curation side, not only were there far too many objects, I recognized many of them as belonging to the British’s permanent collection, and so could be seen at one’s leisure at any other time without all this tsuris. Indeed, the net effect on me of the show—which again garnered fours and fives in the press—was to secure my fervent vow to limit my visits to anything but the exhibitions in the future.

The “Alice” show too suffered from over-clever design, much of it intended to reflect the topsy-turvy atmosphere of Wonderland. Its first room, containing materials about the context and creation of the Alice stories and books, was clearly intended to emulate the museums of the Victorian era, with vitrines, dark walls, and dim lighting. While this was effective in creating that atmosphere, with small objects—including Sir John Tenniel’s drawings, which were at 1:1 scale to the tiny woodblock prints made from them—tightly packed together and a general lack of flow, it was hardly conducive to viewing anything.

My final criticism of the show is along the lines of what I found in the press: lack of depth. Yes, I realize that, as my museum-worker friend suggests, this is at odds with the issues I’ve outlined above. Again, I’ll quote the article on modern museum design:⁶

[Recognize] that there are varying levels of interest and hence information required, by the visiting public, and therefore that a “layered” approach has much to commend it. i.e. do not “dumb everything down” to the lowest common denominator.

As I may also have made clear in other posts, I’ve been to a few museum exhibitions, and I know it can be done. Thus far among UK museums, the Ashmolean has by far got the best show game. While I did offer a critique of it, their “Last Supper in Pompeii”, the exhibition was excellent overall and I only nitpicked a translation. The show was well curated and well designed, offering excellent breadth and depth on the subject of food in ancient Rome, and specifically in Pompeii. And I at no point had the urge to strangle anyone. Yes, the Ashmolean benefits from being in Oxford, and so less crowded, and the people I’ve encountered there are generally much better behaved, but even without those advantages I feel their show was laid out well enough to cope with any issues.

Anyway, remember, I gave “Alice: Curiouser and Curiouser” three stars; by no means a brutal pan. Apart from the design, there were a few things content-wise I’d have liked to have seen covered in a bit more depth. I’ll try to provide this myself in future posts, so I’d say the show was inspirational.

Read Subsequent Articles in This Series

Part 7A Addendum B: “Alice” in Revolt

Part 7B: Alice’s Adventures in the Cousins War

Part 8: Guerrillas and the “Jungle”

Part 9A: Through a Magic Mirror Marred

Part 9A Addendum: The Woods “Over the Wall”

Part 9B: The Sum of its Versions

Part 9C: The “Snow White” Studio

Part 9D: Snowhaus

Part 10: The Little Less-Than

Read Previous Articles in This Series

Part 1: Straightening out “Hunchback”

Part 2: Making over “Mulan”

Part 2 Addendum B: Your Western Wuxia Is Weak

Part 3A: “Hercules”: Myths and Mistakes

Part 3B: Doing Hera’s Work

Part 4: “Belle” Epoch

Part 5: Putting “Pocahontas” to Rest

Part 5 Addendum: Powhatan’s Mantle

Part 6: Trouble with “Tarzan”

Part 7A: Down the Rabbit Hole


  1. “What a Carry On”, Quad Royal, July 2011.
  2. I can’t find the exact issue to cite it, but I remember the headline being in the Raleigh News & Observer in May 2004.
  3.  The Week Staff, “What the critics are saying about Alice: Curiouser and Curiouser at the V&A”, The Week, August 2021.
  4. Amanda Ramirez, “Redesigning the Getty Villa Galleries”, The Iris, June 2018. Also, for reference, Museo Nacional del Prado is one of the worst museumgoing experiences I’ve had.
  5. Roy Starkey, “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly Museum Displays—why do we keep making the same mistakes?”, 2021.
  6. Ibid.

The Row over “Hollywood” Continues

I throw in with neither Team Tarantino nor Team Lee (Mythmaking in the martial arts, Part 5 Addendum B)

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (OUaTiH) has been back in the news lately because of various high-profile comments about Bruce Lee’s portrayal therein. The first came from Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, whose arguments, I’d sum up like this:¹

  • Lee taught him martial arts, discipline, and spiritualism, which allowed him to have a long NBA career with few injuries.
  • Lee fought against the racist stereotypes in Hollywood, through his acting, writing, and creation of Jeet Kune Do.
  • Tarantino is punching down in his film just as Hollywood did in the ’70’s.
  • Lee would never accept challenges, though there were many.

I’m pretty far down the list of people who are going to say Hollywood’s not racist; indeed I know the opposite is true. And I agree that Tarantino is using the platform of a big-budget Hollywood film to tarnish the image of Lee. I hope I have established in this series that such is not my intent. My goal was to set the record straight about Wong Jia Man, whose name the Lee mythmaking machine has used a ton of money and power to defame for decades.

As to Lee’s teachings allowing Abdul-Jabbar to stay injury free, perhaps, though Lee did manage to badly injure his back by failing to warm up properly before a workout in 1970. This rookie mistake saw him laid up for months, and some even link it to his untimely demise because of drugs he took to manage the pain, so not a great advertisement for training with Bruce.

On the part about Lee never taking challenges, there are other sources among the caretakers of his legacy who say he did, and always won. I’m much more inclined to believe Abdul-Jabbar on this one as having firsthand knowledge and no vested interest in perpetuating the myth of Lee the unbeatable martial artist, in addition to jibing with my research for this series.

More recently Tarantino fired back at criticisms like Abdul-Jabbar’s in an interview. I’d summarize his points thus:²

  • His source indicates Lee had contempt for stuntmen in the Green Hornet era,
  • And would deliberately make contact instead of pulling blows in fight scenes with them,
  • So Gene LeBell was brought in to keep him in line.

Mathew Polly, whose book Bruce Lee, a Life, Tarantino cites as his source, differs with this characterization:³

What I said in my book is that Bruce wanted to change American fight choreography so that the blows would miss by millimeters rather than by feet (aka the John Wayne punch) in order to better sell the technique. But in the process, Bruce did bang up some of the stuntmen on The Green Hornet, which pissed them off. So they asked Gene LeBell to settle Bruce down.

Now I’m not going to run out and buy Polly’s book to track down what he says there, but his description of the LeBell incident is paraphrased in an article, “Q&A: Bruce Lee & ESPN”, thus:⁴

[…] Lee had, apparently, been rough with the stunt actors while shooting The Green Hornet, and the stunt coordinator told Labell [sic] (who was already a heavyweight Judo champion) to restrain him. Labell picked up Lee in a fireman’s carry and started running around the set with him.

So it seems despite my initial sense of convergence, Tarantino came at his portrayal of Lee from a very different place than my series: he’s both factually incorrect as well as buying into the Lee myth to the extent that he uses it to index Cliff’s martial prowess.

Shannon Lee again responded to Tarantino, with her main arguments being:⁵

  • Tarantino repeatedly rips off Bruce Lee without giving him credit, e.g. in Kill Bill, but now in OUaTiH when he finally does name him it’s only to denigrate him.
  • She’s tired of being white/ mansplained to about who her father was.
  • Bruce Lee was a true martial artist, taught it, wrote about it, created his own, and innovated in training, but didn’t fight in tournaments because he thought “combat should be ‘real’”.
  • He also had a huge impact on action films and fight choreography, inspired interest in the martial arts, and continues to inspire people as a source of pride for Asian Americans and people of color.
  • Tarantino uses him to establish Cliff’s badassery, and tears him down as “a mediocre, arrogant martial artist”.
  • Going after Bruce Lee again, now that there is increasing violence against Asian Americans is pretty tone deaf

These are some pretty good points, and I agree with most of them—especially that Tarantino essentially fails with his portrayal of Lee because it doesn’t work: Cliff beating up Bruce Lee the martial arts icon shows us how tough the character is, but Lee’s really just a blowhard without a lot of skill—and you can’t really have it both ways.

The part of Shannon Lee’s article I disagree with, obviously, is about Bruce the martial artist. He did teach martial arts, but with a maximum of two years of experience when he started. He did create and write about his own, which was largely transparently plagiarized from other sources and has never produced a champion. And finally—and Shannon Lee slips up a bit here—if he avoided tournaments because he wanted combat to be real, why did he engage so enthusiastically in the inherent fakery of martial arts films?

As for the current climate of violence against Asian Americans, It’s disgusting, especially since those perpetrating it seem to target older people, and so couple cowardice with their virulent racism. Full disclosure: yes, I am a white dude, but these articles were written in defence of Wong, a Chinese-born American wronged by the Lees. Maybe that makes me the kind of “social justice warrior” conservatives like to bash because I’m offended on behalf of someone else who’s not, since, as I’ve mentioned, Wong would joke about the lies told about him. And I am sad to report, since I began this series, this true master of  Hsing-I-Bagua (形意-八卦), T’ai Chi Ch’üan (太極拳), and Northern Sil Lum (北少林, Běishàolín) passed away in December of 2018.

Returning to the feud between Tarantino and Shannon Lee, again, it helps them both: on Tarantino’s side, there’s a saying that a work can succeed either by being good or being controversial—for instance getting something banned like The Satanic Verses only sold more books—and mouthing off in very public fora and in highly inflammatory ways about Martial Arts Jesus is sure to reach a large audience. On the Lee, Inc. side, as I said in the previous Addendum, this controversy only serves to renew interest in Bruce, so Shannon Lee is just a pot to the kettle she accuses Tarantino of being

Present also is the kind of divisiveness and polarization much of our discourse these days tends toward. You have to decide if you’re going to be on Team Lee or Team Tarantino, because the kind of nuanced, fact-based view I’ve presented is either TL;DR, or puts me in Quentin’s camp, where I really don’t want to be.

Read Previous Articles in This Series

Part 1: The Bruce Lie

Part 2: Enter the Tycoon

Part 3: Fists of Flim-Flam

Part 4: Urban Lee

Part 5: The Littlest Dragon

Part 5 Addendum: Kato’s Comeuppance


  1. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, “Bruce Lee Was My Friend, and Tarantino’s Movie Disrespects Him”, The Hollywood Reporter, August, 2019.
  2. “Quentin Tarantino”, The Joe Rogan Experience, June, 2021.
  3. Mathew Polly (@MatthewEPolly), July 1, 2021, Twitter.
  4. Starke, “Q&A: Bruce Lee & ESPN”, How to Fight Write, 2020. Polly liked a Tweet of this blogpost, so I assume it’s accurate.
  5. Shannon Lee, “Does Quentin Tarantino Hate Bruce Lee? Or Does It Just Help Sell Books?”, The Hollywood Reporter, July, 2021.

Public Sausages, Private Votives

Lucanians and Lararia (Pompeii and Pigs, Addendum)

I’ve always loved museums. Growing up in Chicago, I’d clamor to go to them. And we had some good ones, mainly owing to the World’s Fair of 1893 and some robber-baron noblesse oblige in the 1930s. When I was very young, the Museum of Science and Industry was my favorite, despite a recurring nightmare that I was locked in at night with its chattering animatronic fiends. For its time, the museum was quite interactive, with buttons to push, wheels to spin, and even games to play.

After my parents split up, when I was a preteen living in Skokie, my brother and I would have Jewish holidays off, our mom had to work, and if left at home with no TV, we’d have wrecked the place. Instead we had memberships to the Field Museum of Natural History, and after taking the El downtown and explaining what Rosh Hashanah or what have you was to Chicago cops looking to bust us as truants, we’d make our way to the lakefront museum campus to wander the lesser known halls of the cavernous institution for the day. 

A great side benefit of this latchkey-kid babysitting service was their Members’ Nights. There was some awkwardness meeting acquaintances from school who we’d certainly never see on those holidays, and their families. But all the mysterious doors were opened, and you could see all the cool stuff that was normally hidden from view, relating to the daily work of conservation, education, and research.

I visit museums of all descriptions wherever I go. Depending on the topic, I often know more than the typically far-too-brief interpretive plaques can tell. I get audio guides, I take docent tours. I crave greater access but seldom get it, having no credentials as an academician or researcher of any sort. So when I saw there was to be an online lecture, Last Supper in Pompeii, Revisited, delivered by Dr. Paul Roberts, the original exhibition’s curator, I jumped at the chance.

One really clever thing about this talk was how it used Zoom’s features so that typing into the chat sent a private message to the person who was organizing the call rather than interrupting anyone, and at the end, she read the questions to the speaker. This meant two things for me: first, I could write my questions down as soon as they came into my mind rather than trying to remember them until the end and second, I could ask whatever questions I had without feeling self conscious.

And so I did. Roberts was discussing how the city had passed through the hands of various peoples including Oscans, Greeks, Etruscans, Samnites, and Romans and mentioned the Lucanians in that context. I had recently seen λουκάνικο (loukániko) on the menu of a Greek restaurant and thought, wow, they mean lucanica — Lucanian sausage — and since the talk was about food, I asked if they really were related.

It turns out that the sausages were not just favored by the Romans, they were shipped all across the ancient Mediterranean world. Indeed just as bible came to mean book because of the strength of exports of papyrus from the Phoenician city of 𐤂𐤁𐤋‎ (Gebal) which the Greeks called Βύβλος (Búblos) or parchment to refer to the cheaper animal-skin substitute for papyrus from the Hellenistic city of Πέργαμον (Pergamon) in Asia Minor.

You can see the name of the sausage travel and morph—certainly across the Mediterranean, where it’s fun to watch the scripts change—but also, via  Portuguese and Spanish, to the New World, and via the latter, as far as the Philippines. Here are some of the modern versions of the name:

  • لَقَانِق‎ (laqāniq), Arabic
  • lekëngë, Albanian
  • likëngë, Albanian
  • linguiça, Brazilian/ Portuguese
  • llonganissa, Catalan
  • llukanik, Albanian
  • longaínza, Galician
  • longaniza, Latin American/ Philippine/ Spanish
  • longganisa, Cebuano/ Tagalog
  • лоуканка (loukanka), Bulgarian
  • lucánic, Aromanian
  • lucanica, Italian
  • lucanică, Romanian
  • luganega, Italian/ Venetian
  • lukainka, Basque
  • луканци (lukanci), Macedonian
  • луканец (lukanec), Macedonian
  • луканка (lukanka), Bulgarian
  • לוקניק‎ (lūqānīq), Aramaic
  • مَقَانِق‎ (maqāniq), Arabic
  • نکانک‎ (nakânak), Persian
  • نَقَانِق‎ (naqāniq), Arabic
  • נַקְנִיק‎ (naqnīq), Hebrew

In the US, I’ve definitely tucked into the odd linguiça or longaniza entirely unaware of its Lucanian descent.

Sausage is a fairly ancient concept, stemming from the need to store meat without it rotting, the name itself coming from the Latin salsīcius meaning “seasoned with salt”, an important preservative. The first written evidence of sausage comes from a tablet written in Akkadian cuneiform around 1500 BCE.¹ So it’s old news by the time of the first attestation of the lucanica, coming from Marcus Terentius Varro in the first century BCE, which is straightforward enough:²

Quod fartum intestinum crassum, Lucanicam dicunt, quod milites a Lucanis didicerunt […].

A sausage made with the large intestine of pork is called Lucanica because the soldiers learned how to make it from the Lucanians […].

In the next century, Marcus Valerius Martialis gives us an idea of how this popular sausage was to be served, in one of his Epigrams, a little poem written to accompany a gift of this food to a friend:³

Filia Picenae venio Lucanica porcae:
Pultibus hinc niveis grata corona datur.

I come, a Lucanian sausage, daughter of a Picene sow;
hence is given a welcome garnish to white porridge.

You can see it’s an inflected form of puls (pultibus is the dative plural) that’s being translated as “porridge here, but which a Latin dictionary describes as:

[A] thick pap or pottage made of meal, pulse, etc.

Sausage and beans or sausage and polenta—which in Latin originally referred to barley rather than New World corn—remain popular ways of serving the product, with a thousand permutations. It’s also worth noting that Picene pork is being used, coming from a northeastern part of the peninsula rather than the southern former home of the Lucanians. 

Caelius Apicius, also writing in the same time period as Martial, gives us a fairly complete recipe:⁵

Lucanicas similiter ut supra scriptum est: Lucanicarum confectio teritur piper, cuminum, satureia, ruta, petroselinum, condimentum, bacae lauri, liquamen, et admiscetur pulpa bene tunsa ita ut denuo bene cum ipso subtrito fricetur. Cum liquamine admixto, pipere integro et abundanti pinguedine et nucleis inicies in intestinum perquam tenuatim perductum, et sic ad fumum suspenditur.

Lucanian sausage is prepared as written above. Pound pepper, cumin, savoury, rue, parsley, spice of bay berry [sic]. Also add liquamen and meat that has been pounded well, in such a way that it blends well with the pounded (spices). Add liquamen with whole pepper corns [sic], plenty of fat and pine nuts. Put it in skins, draw them quite thinly, and hang them in the smoke.

Liquamen here refers to the ubiquitous Roman umamiful fermented fish sauce condiment, also known as garum. What we learn from these accounts is that at least by Apicius’ time, the lucanica was a heavily spiced, cured, dried, smoked pork sausage. This certainly could describe many such today, and some combination of its flavor and the preservation methods used in its production seem to have been what spread its fame across the ancient world.

In Italy today, there are sausages that still bear some form of this name, including various luganeghe from Lombardy, Trentino, and Veneto, but the most authentic is apparently lucanica di Picerno, from an area called Basilicata, part of the original territory of the Lucanians.

The modern version contains chilies which obviously came to Europe via the Columbian Exchange and would not have been available to the original makers, who, if Apicius is to be believed, used both powdered and whole Piper nigrum—black pepper—instead.

My second question related to the votive pig my original article discussed at length, asking if it was really from a lararium rather than a temple. Interestingly, Roberts confirmed not only that it was from a lararium, but also that such finds are common. I suppose it makes sense that votives in temples and shrines would be more plentiful as well as better known and researched, which would be why I would know of them rather than ones from lararia.

Additionally, Roberts disagreed with the translation of the pig’s inscription given in his own exhibition, which just shows you have to trust but verify. Nor does he agree with my version. He said it was simply:

To Hercules, a votive
Herculi VO(E)tivus (M L)

Obviously he’s oversimplifying, since he’s left out the M L, but this implies that he agrees with the EDCS’ interpretation, that it is:⁶

HERculi VOt(E)um [solvit] Merito Libens
To Hercules, (he) fulfills? (his vow) willingly and deservedly

To be clear, the inscription VOE is a hapax legomenon; this is literally the only instance of its use, so we’re all of us guessing. But given that the item is from a lararium, I’m more inclined to accept this interpretation. In a public temple or shrine, there’s a bunch of votives from various people, and it’s important not only for the god to know who’s made good on their oath, but also for other people, who will see that Quintus Domitius Tutus is a man of his word, and reveres the gods. In a lararium, within the atrium of a family’s home, the gods should already know to whom the votive pertains, and people who visit similarly know that this family has dutifully given a votive to the gods, so inscribing a name is less important.

In any case, this kind of program from museums is great, and it was awesome to get my quite specific questions answered directly rather than fishing around on the internet as I usually do. I’ll be looking for more in the future.

Read the Previous Article in This Series

Pompeii and Pigs


  1. Many sources say such a tablet exists, though I couldn’t find it.
  2. Marcus Terentius Varro, De lingua latina libri XXV, V, 111, ca. 1st century BCE.
  3. Marcus Valerius Martialis, 13.35, “Lucanicae”, Epigrammata, 86–103 AD. trans. from D. R. Shackleton Bailey, ed., Epigrams, 1993.
  4. Charlton T. Lewis and Charles Short, Latin Dictionary, 1879.
  5. Caelius Apicius, IV, “Lucanicae”, Book II, “Sarcoptes” (“The Meat Mincer”), De re coquinaria, ca. 1st century AD, I used a translation from Christianne Muusers, “Lucanian Sausages, a Roman Recipe”, Coquinaria, 2012.
  6. Epigraphik-Datenbank Clauss/ Slaby (EDCS).

Loosening “Tenet”’s Hold

Palindrome and film (The Mysterious Square, Addendum)

Something strange happened recently: views on this site spiked. Although spread across Medium and here, some of my more popular posts have a lot of views—the one on Icelandic magical staves, for example, has some 7,600. I’m also aware that views do not equate to reads, which are likely less than half that, especially given my penchant for exploring arcane subject matter with some degree of abstruseness.

These views accrue quite slowly in general, Medium doesn’t promote content that isn’t monetized and I can’t be bothered fiddling with Google AdWords or any of that sort of nonsense. For example, the article I mentioned earlier was published in 2016, so those views are spread fairly evenly across more than four years. A few of my posts did get a lot of attention when they came out, such as my series on the mythmaking around Bruce Lee, because they were controversial.

So it was odd to see traffic to my site balloon to over 30 times its usual rate over the course of a few days. I wasn’t sure exactly how to feel about this—as I’ve said, there’s no money in it for me and I’m not trying to develop any kind of following but it’s still cool to see people interested in what I have to say.

I remember Art Spiegelman saying in a lecture I attended that when he boiled down comics as a medium, it was images arranged in sequence to form a narrative printed on paper for mass distribution, and he could have simply drawn his deconstructive work in Raw on a piece of paper and showed it to the five people who would get it. While I have to admire the will to power that brought us Maus—likely the greatest anthropomorphized narrative of the Shoah—I have no such qualms. Publishing on the internet is cheap and easy. I don’t have to worry about wasting ink and paper or fighting for shelf space in a physical store. I simply write these missives and dispatch them into the intervoid hoping they’ll be read and enjoyed by at least a few people who get them.

Looking into the explosion of views on my site, I could see that they centered around the pair of articles I had done back in 2017 about the so-called Sator Square. There was no rise in likes, follows, comments, or even many views of other articles, so it was hard to tell how my writing was being received. Again, I’ve given up on the idea of any sort of community or interaction around these articles, instead spending time in some highly specific subreddits like /r/Etymology and /r/Cuneiform. Ultimately these articles scratch an intellectual and creative itch. Indeed, it’s similar to my day job though exploring different realms; I’d also do that for free if not for the bills I have to pay.

Committing to (usually) monthly deliveries of complete articles ensures that my exploration of the ideas they contain don’t simply remain as indefinitely open browser tabs. Instead I carefully research, synthesize ideas, and try to write them all down in a coherent and hopefully compelling way. And so the work goes on.

As this surge in views is centered on the Sator Square, I assume they have to do with the movie Tenet, which will have stoked interest in this rebus. I had already been intending to do a follow up to these articles but I felt I should prioritize it, so with no further ado here it is.

In 2020, during the early days of the plague, I remember seeing posters for a movie that featured the leading man, John David Washington, cutting a rather dashing figure in a suit and wielding a handgun. I was reminded of a recent groundswell of support for the idea of casting Idris Elba as the next James Bond—perhaps that was too radical a move for Hollywood, and they were serving up something merely Bondesque instead? Apart from this, there was nothing very remarkable about the poster except the film’s name, Tenet.

Of course this word is familiar to me in English as meaning “a belief”. And also the Latin word whence it comes, the third-person singular active indicative inflection of teneō, “to hold”, so he/she/it holds. But it seemed clear that neither of these could be the intended sense. Was it the name (or code name) of the character on the posters? The spy or military group to which he belonged? There was one other possibility that I thought was remote: was it a reference to one of the Sator Square’s lines?

I later learned Tenet was a Christopher Nolan film. His films are positively cerebral compared to the usual Hollywood fare; even his take on Batman had some pretty clever elements. The slim chance of the film’s name being related to the last of the above points grew, and I was still more intrigued to see whether Nolan was among the cognoscenti and if so, to what degree. So in this frame of mind I watched the movie.

One of the central tropes of Tenet is playing with the chronology of the narrative. The tradition of non-linear storytelling has been around at least since the Iliad began in medias res. Still, there was a time and place when it violated norms, as painter El Greco was to find out after painting The Martyrdom of Saint Maurice in 1582:¹

[I]n between the main figures—the main Christian Roman generals—are contemporary generals. What El Greco is doing here is making a very clever, concise, contemporary point about the fight against heresy, and linking the 16thcentury struggle with the struggle of the early Christian martyrs. But in a way he was being too clever, because in Counter-Reformation Spain anything that transcended Christian orthodoxy was viewed with suspicion. And Philip II had real problems with this picture because time was conflated […].

Nonetheless, analepsis was a widely used trope appearing in the Mahābhārata as well as Arabian Nights tales such as “Sinbad the Sailor”. In Film, Citizen Kane in 1941 has the protagonist die in the film’s opening, with the remainder consisting of a series of flashbacks framed as interviews of those who knew Kane. And 1950’s Rashōmon (『羅生門』) shows us flashbacks of conflicting testimonies at a trial. Quentin Tarantino’s 1994 film, Pulp Fiction, is generally acknowledged as having ushered in the current trend for slice-and-dice narrative structures. 

Nolan, certainly, has explored it extensively, notably with the fractured narrative of Memento, the film that put him on the map, so to speak, in 2000. Indeed, I’d say that he’s guilty of using the trope when it’s not needed as in 2017’s Dunkirk. I definitely understand the instinct to try to spice up a distinctly British piece of jingoism about how a terrible military defeat could have been worse. Sure, it’s a very familiar tale with a plodding gait, but chopping up the timeline doesn’t fix it. Nolan’s penchant for inventive storytelling lets him down here: present is the disorientation caused by such chronological gimmickry but there’s no clever reveal, no reconfiguration of narrative expectations—in short, no payoff. Still, I see that as a rare lapse among his films.

And so we move to Tenet. This film employs a different narrative strategy: the chronology, apart from the occasional flashback, is straight; time itself is what’s distorted. Certainly there are many time-travel films—it’s nearly its own subgenre—but this is a bit different. Instead of time travel as such, people, things, and the events related to them are happening via time that is moving in two opposing directions. Furthermore, rather than avoiding the tropes that have arisen among these films, such as timeline damage or splitting and various other temporal anomalies, Tenet leans into them. In particular, the classic grandfather paradox is everywhere: characters meeting themselves going the other way in time impel their own actions.

This means that free will is an illusion as everything has already happened in one time direction or the other, so there’s no tension in that sense, despite the many action scenes and explosions. This isn’t to say it’s not an interesting watch. I have long believed that so-called spoilers should be no obstacle to the enjoyment of a story, as the storytelling itself should be what provides that. So with Tenet, seeing how we get to the various encounters with inverted people and things that we’ve already seen from the other direction is an absorbing experience. The mental contortions needed to choreograph car chases and hand-to-hand fights that make any kind of sense in both directions are equally impressive.

Crete - law of Gortyn - boustrophedon.JPG

And here we come to the connection between the film and the ancient rebus. The Sator Square seems to have provided the inspiration for the film’s palindromic structure. In particular, the idea of the square being read in boustrophedon seems to be operative in Tenet, as the various characters change directions in time multiple times on screen—and many more off screen. Of course the Sator Square has more directions it can be read in, which are omitted by the film, as are the deeper resonances I’ve pointed out previously, but given the limitations of a medium that’s inherently linear, it’s a pretty good realization of a very tricky structure.

In case there’s any doubt about the film’s inspiration, it is literally spelled out:

  • Rotas is the name of the security company that guards the free port, in which art, some of it forged, is also held, but also the location of a turnstile that reverses entropy, which in form and function is also a wheel.
  • Opera is where the opening scene takes place in Ukraine, but also part of the name of the anti-terrorist squad, КОРД, (KORD), Rapid Operational Response Unit (Корпус Оперативно-Раптової Дії—it also works in Cyrillic) that the Protagonist acts alongside.
  • Tenet obviously the name of the film, as well as a code word the Protagonist is given early in the story.
  • Arepo is the name of an art forger working with Kat Barton (Elizabeth Debicki), estranged wife of:
  • Sator, first name Andrei (Kenneth Branagh), the villain of the piece.

Tenet was clearly chosen as the film’s title because as the central line of the rebus it is also a palindrome itself. Just as with the correspondences above, there are many ways each word is realized, so there is a literal tenet offered in the film as well, by Neil (Robert Pattinson):

What’s happened, happened. It’s an expression of faith in the mechanics of the world, it’s not an excuse for doing nothing.

This is essentially a recapitulation of the paradoxical Calvinistic beliefs about predestination, which state briefly that while the ultimate fate of an individual is foreordained, they still retain moral agency and responsibility. Only more so in this case—these people already know exactly what will occur but must perform it nonetheless.

Regarding tenets, the beliefs the Protagonist and others who become embroiled in this story have about the nature of the world they live in at its beginning are slowly broken down over its course. What Tenet ends up reminding me of is Jorge Luis Borges’ “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”.² For a brief description of this short story, here’s psychology professor David Pizarro:³

It turns out that the minute that people become aware of the radical idealism of the fictional world Tlön that was supposedly the product of a real world Uqbar, which was in fact itself a fictional world created by neoplatonic secret societies, […] the hardcore idealism of this […] meta, this third world, makes its way into our existence and starts changing reality because people believe it […] and therefore destroys [reality].

Note that the sense of the term idealism here is not that of striving toward perfection, but the metaphysical one that states briefly that there is no reality other than what one perceives.

Is it far-fetched to impute a Borgesian reference to Nolan? I think not. First, the director said in an interview:⁴

[…] I started thinking about the narrative freedoms that authors had enjoyed for centuries and it seemed to me that filmmakers should enjoy those freedoms as well.

When you think “narrative freedoms”, you have to think of the avant-garde, where Borges’ influence is widespread. But if that isn’t compelling enough, consider that Memoriam is but an inversion of “Funes the Memorious” (“Funes el memorioso”). And just as the Protagonist and other characters do in Tenet, Borges meets an older version of himself in a spatial-temporal anomaly in “The Other” (“El otro”) in a way that nullifies time itself.⁵

More directly, in “Tlön”, there is a discussion of the various metaphysical doctrines on the fictitious planet of the same name:⁶

One of the schools of Tlön goes so far as to negate time: it reasons that the present is indefinite, that the future has no reality other than as a present memory. Another school declares that all time has already transpired and that our life is only the crepuscular and no doubt falsified and mutilated memory or reflection of an irrecoverable process.

Not only do these statements turn our perceptions of time on their heads, but the last sentence connects directly to the password given in the opening minutes of Tenet: “We live in a twilight world.” Twilight, of course, having a dual meaning as the beginning of the day and the end of it. But also this metaphysical concept from Tlön, which Nolan nearly plagiarizes, is that we are actually permanently frozen in the temporal condition of twilight.

Borges was arguably one of the first postmodern writers, reacting, particularly in “Tlön”, to the horrors—including WWII, which had already begun at his time of writing—created by the rejection of history that was modernism. As he says near the story’s close:⁷

[A]ny symmetry, any system with an appearance of order—dialectical materialism, anti-Semitism, Nazism—could spellbind and hypnotize mankind.

Our post-ironic times too are plagued with new forms of dangerous irrationality where conspiracy theories are embraced and facts denied. For this reason Nolan chooses climate disaster, which we are rushing headlong toward, as the impetus for people from the future to infiltrate the past to attempt to rectify, though they must ultimately fail. Perhaps this film is in fact an expression of Nolan’s feelings of helplessness to stop what seems to be inevitable.

Read Previous Articles in This Series

Part 1: Sator Square Non-Starters

Part 2: And the Rotas Go ’Round


  1. “El Greco”, Great Artists with Tim Marlow, 2001.
  2. Jorge Luis Borges, 1940, translated by Andrew Hurley in Collected Fictions,1998.
  3. “Episode 154: Metaphysical Vertigo”, Very Bad Wizards Podcast, 2018.
  4. Geoff Andrew, “The Guardian Interviews at the BFI: Christopher Nolan”, The Guardian, 2002.
  5. Jorge Luis Borges, 1942 and 1972 respectively, both also translated in Collected Fictions.
  6. Jorge Luis Borges, 1940.
  7. Ibid.

The Celtic Undercurrents of Bath

Native religion in rebellion (Defixiones, Part 9)

I’ve detailed in this series how magic spread from the Ancient Near East (ANE) right across Europe and eventually to Britain, at the farthest northeast edge of the Roman Empire. How this occurred in these islands—likely similar to other regions—is related by Cameron Moffett, curator of collections at English Heritage:¹

The Romans brought with them both literacy and this extensive material culture, which was more substantial than what had existed in Britain before. And it’s usually in all this new stuff, which was spread across most of mainland Britain by the mechanism of a newly introduced market economy, that we see the evidence of magic.

But some of the specific elements of native beliefs also in evidence generally in the Celtic world and specifically at Aquae Sulis (modern Bath) are worth examining further.

In fact, there were certain similarities in Celtic and Roman practices that likely made the adoption of some systems of the latter so quick to catch on over and above the elements Moffett mentions.  This also muddies the situation and makes it difficult to untangle which is which. For example, like the Romans, the Celts had a reverence for springs and other watery spots.

The Gauls, one of the main groups of Continental Celts, established a shrine at the source of the Seine near modern Dijon in the 2nd or 1st century BCE, prior to Roman conquest, and another at the spring of Chamalières, the source of the Rhône, near modern Clermont-Ferrand.  The former seems to have been consecrated to the goddess Sequana, the patron goddess of the Seine, and indeed the river’s name derives from hers. She is known for her mischievous duck familiars. The latter was to Maponos, meaning “great son”, a god of youth—and likely a trickster himself—who was syncretized with Apollo after the arrival of the Romans.

In both locations, there is evidence of pre-Roman construction as well as the deposition of wooden objects, which are apparently votives. Similar to Aquae Sulis, the Romans, as well as the Romano-Gauls worshipped syncretized versions of the native gods with the deposition of a large array of items, including defixiones (lead curse tablets).

Indeed disentangling the Roman votives from those that predate their influence becomes quite difficult because of the cross-pollination of some of these traditions. While I think I’ve been able to argue for the ANE as a clear source of cursing traditions, votives, particularly their deposition in bodies of water, is a clearly attested Celtic tradition. So while curse tablets don’t appear before the Roman period, and so we can assume that the knowledge of them came with the Romans, we can also see them as a continuation of an ancient British practice of deposition at watery sites.

Even though the archaeology is tricky as the Roman construction overlays and supplants the earlier Celtic structures, it is generally agreed that there was a temple to Sulis sited at modern Bath. Some estimate this could have occurred as much as 10,000 years ago, placing it in the Early Neolithic period, which, to be honest, seems exaggerated, as the Windmill Hill culture only dates to around 3000 BCE. In any case, it seems clear there was a Celtic Iron Age temple to their local deity, Sulis, when the Romans arrived.

One noteworthy example of Celtic water deposition is the Battersea Shield. This gorgeous La Tène-style bronze repoussé shield dates from the 2nd-1st century BCE and was found during excavation for a previous incarnation of London’s Battersea Bridge in the mid-19th century. The shield is believed to have been deliberately put in the Thames as a votive. This mighty British river was a site where many items of arms and armor were offered in sacrifice in the Bronze and Iron Ages, including notable finds such as the Wandsworth Shield and the Waterloo Helmet.

The Thames also figures as a locus for divination during Boudica’s doomed uprising against the Romans (c. 60 CE) when the waters themselves were used as a kind of scrying object. Although Tacitus only mentions it in passing, a vision in the river is given as one of the omens seen by the Britons as fortuitous for the rebellion:²

[…] visamque speciem in aestuario Tamesae subversae coloniae […].

[…] and in the estuary of the Thames had been seen the appearance of an overthrown town […].

Other sites were still more important; excavations at Fiskerton, on the Witham, have yielded a rich selection of Iron Age artifacts, including several swords, spearheads, an axe and a dagger, many of them ritually damaged or destroyed before their deposition in the river. There are several similar sites throughout the British Isles and mainland Europe, such as Llyn Cerrig Bach in Wales, the Lisnacrogher Bog in Ireland, Orton Meadows (on the former course of the Nene) in East Anglia, and the eponymous La Tène on Lake Neuchâtel, Switzerland.

Circling back to Bath, even with all the Roman-period construction, eighteen Late Iron Age coins were found in modernity, hidden in the anaerobic mud of the spring’s reservoir. Given their condition, and barring some unlikely event such as a hoard being dug up and then redeposited, it seems clear they must have been there prior to Roman influence.³

This would seem to invalidate the hypothesis I had previously accepted from Marina Piranomonte that the use of coins as votives was because of the decline in literacy and the ability to inscribe defixiones, but so it goes in science. And perhaps both can be true; at Aquae Sulis the deposition of coins may have returned because of the decline of public epigraphy and in the case of the Fons Annae Perrenae (Piranomonte’s subject) the cross-pollination of an originally Celtic practice might be what’s at work.

Furthermore, the lead pig I mentioned in Part 1 may also have been a votive. One of the original archaeologists surveying the site, Barry Cunliffe, noted it as such.⁴ Its presence is certainly strange, appearing in the temple itself, rather than at some outbuilding where pipes might have been manufactured. Indeed, it is the only such object found on the site, and bears marks that appear as if they might’ve been made by an axe blade to ritually damage it prior to deposition.

Another important Celtic tradition is what is known as “the cult of the head”. Summed up, this cult venerates the head as the source of an individual’s soul, personality, and spiritual potency, and a symbol of the regeneration of life. This is true to such an extent that the physical body is a sometimes disposable element of this complex symbolic structure. Indeed, the cult of the head was a core part of Celtic religious ideology, from the culture’s origins through to its demise, evidenced in its folklore, myth, and art.

While heads on stakes is a well known medieval trope, the message in that context being a warning that transgressors will be punished, the same sort of display had an entirely different meaning to the ancient Celts. Classical sources clearly relate—and local vernacular traditions verify—the importance of heads as war trophies, which decorated the exteriors of both dwellings and temples in their villages. Certainly martial prowess is thus shown, but these heads also acted as amulets as well.

One source on the topic is Strabo, who tells us:⁵

[…] βάρβαρον και το ἔκφυλον, ὃ τοῖς προσβόρροις ἔθνεσι παρακολουθεῖ πλεῖστον, το ἀπο τῆς μάχης ἀπιόντας τας κεφαλας τῶν πολεμίων ἐξάπτειν ἐκ τῶν αὐχένων τῶν ἵππων, κομίσαντας δε προσπατταλεύειν τοῖς προπυλαίοις. […] τας δε τῶν ἐνδόξων κεφαλας κεδροῦντες ἐπεδείκνυον τοῖς ξένοις, και οὐδε προς ἰσοστάσιον χρυσον ἀπολυτροῦν ἠξίουν

[T]hey have a barbarous and absurd custom […] of suspending the heads of their enemies from their horses’ necks on their return from battle, and when they have arrived nailing them as a spectacle to their gates. […] The heads of any illustrious persons they embalm with cedar, exhibit them to strangers, and would not sell them for their weight in gold.

Archaeological evidence also appears to back this up, with skulls found in settlements mainly near fortification walls, gates, doorways, etc., just as classical and vernacular traditions suggest. The Celtic homeland areas of central Europe and Gaul, and in particular the unique temple sanctuaries of southern Provence, such as that at Roquepertuse, have direct and datable archaeological evidence for a head cult making use of votive human skulls. In the case of Roquepertuse, whose temple’s portico featured pillars with cavities for the deposition of skulls, that date is at least 3rd century BCE but possibly even from as early as the 6th century with the temple’s destruction by the Romans in 124 BCE giving us a clear terminus ante quem.

In Britain, too, finds giving evidence of the head cult are relatively common from the late Iron Age and early Roman period. These include skulls kept as trophies, skulls buried by themselves, and—importantly for our purposes here—skulls found in springs and wells:⁶

[H]uman skulls were frequently offered in ritual contexts at watery places during the Roman period, apparently as a direct continuation of a deeply-rooted native British tradition. One skull found on the site of the Bank of London was found as part of a deliberate filling of an early Roman well, dating from the first to the third century AD, which suggested it was part of a complex foundation ritual. […] The existence of a long-standing tradition of offering skulls to watery places may explain a number of isolated finds in the archaeological record, such as the skull of a young woman […] which was found buried in the lining of a well at a first century settlement in Odell, Bedfordshire. In Brigantia, a well at a Romano-British settlement site at Rothwell near Leeds dating from the fourth or fifth centuries AD yielded a single human skull. […] [?] Merrifield has noted a number of similar instances from Roman London, and another skull from the third century well of a Roman villa at Northwood, Hertfordshire […]. Describing these puzzling finds, he says heads are unlikely to be dropped into wells by accident or as discarded rubbish, and sees significance in the fact that heads are often found as “closing” deposits into wells which previously supplied water for domestic or industrial purposes.

In addition to actual heads, watery contexts for votives symbolic of heads are common. For example, in both the Fontes Sequanae and Chamalières some of the votives I previously mentioned were human heads carved from wood. These seem to date from the pre-Roman period because they show no signs of Mediterranean influence in their style, bearing instead the oval eyes characteristic of Celtic art. The carved jack-o’-lantern of modern Halloween clearly relates to this tradition via the co-opted insular festival of Samhain, even down to the locations in which they are displayed.

We see such symbolism repeatedly in stone heads, including tricephaloi and janiform heads, face pots, wooden carvings, masks, and antefixes. One such head was discussed by Professor Anne Ross, thus:⁷

[In the territory of the Belgic Remi tribe] the deity is symbolised by an enormous bearded tricephalos, having a leaf-crown, and usually equated with the classical Mercury. These particular representations would seem to testify to the concept of some autochthonous deity as a head alone, the head sufficing for the total being, the vital part, embued with the power of the whole.

Although Strabo wrote with contempt of the Celtic fascination with severed heads, there is one that appears regularly in the Graeco-Roman tradition as well, even including the apotropaic function: that of Medusa. Also known as a Gorgoneion, the image of this grotesque severed head is a well-known device on armor and shields as well as coins, temple pediments, antefixes, garments, dishes, and weapons. Thus it shared similar ubiquity and longevity to the Celtic head cult, even exceeding it, as it survived well into Christian times and was revived in Renaissance and neoclassical contexts, right down to the present where it appears in the logo of the Versace fashion brand.

The prevalence of the image of the Gorgon’s disembodied head, while of course referring to the Perseus myth, closely also matches the spirit of the Celtic head cult:⁸

It is […] apparent that in her essence, Medusa is a head and nothing more; her potency […] resides in the head […].

If one superimposes the Gorgoneion and the image of the enormous, bearded, disembodied head Ross has given us (minus the triple aspect), it’s hard not to think of one of the more famous images from Aquae Sulis, which she also discusses:⁹

The Gorgon’s head on the shield of Sulis-Minerva in the pediment of the temple is the finest example of the blending of native and classical imagery. The head is male, bearded and moustached, and its ancestry can be traced directly to the human heads which are so prolific on La Tène metalwork. The furrowed brow and two-dimensional features are typical of many examples of Romano-British heads in stone, as is the expression of the face. The convention of the writhing serpents which here spring from the hair and are entwined in the beard and moustache is classical, but the connection of serpents with human heads is found deeply rooted in the native tradition.

Another head emblematic of the site at Bath is that of Sulis-Minerva. This gorgeous, gilt bronze head evinces Graeco-Roman influence and is believed to have once worn a Corinthian helmet as well. This is generally interpreted as a fragment of a full-body cult statue, but given the significance of the head in Celtic religious practice I’ve just discussed, I’m not so sure. Obviously, there are many factors, but much older finds such as the shields I’ve mentioned are in excellent condition, so the idea that the rest of the statue dissolved in its entirety seems odd. The head isn’t perfect to be sure. There is some pitting on the lower right of the face. But it also shows six layers of gilding, which would have provided additional protection against corrosion and there’s no reason to believe the rest of the statue would not have been similarly gilt. Why then would it not make sense that this, too, was either a disembodied head representing cultic beliefs or even a votive head deposited in the spring?

Certainly Roman religion had some traits in common with that of the Celts, and the interpretatio romana combines the names of their deities, but the Britons didn’t necessarily think of their own gods in this way. Besides Graeco-Roman gods and syncretized ones, the names of distinctly Celtic ones appear in inscriptions from Bath: Nemetona, the Suleviae, Sulis, “the mother goddess”. And even syncretization can be a form of rebellion, as African slaves could worship a native deity such as Ogun, who they recognized in the image of the Christian Saint Peter.

While Romanization was quite thorough in some parts of the Empire, it was less so in Britain. Resistance to the invasion was quite stubborn and prolonged even though native military tactics were not up to the task. The adoption of Roman customs, too, seems to have been met with little enthusiasm in many parts of the isles. Rather than building temples in the classical style, Romano-Celtic ones were the norm and indeed there are many natural sites that votive finds attest were sacred, such as groves and springs. These, it is clear, predated Roman influence, and some of them, like that of Sulis at Bath, had structures added to them under their rule.

And indeed, there seems to have been a revival of Celtic practices as Roman power waned. For example, in the late Roman period decapitated burials reemerge, clearly relating to the cult of the head. And indeed, many such beliefs continued past the Anglo-Saxon settlement of Britain, even down to its Christianization.

Read Previous Articles in This Series

Part 1: The Curses of Aquae Sulis

Part 2: Malefic Traditional

Part 3: Sympathy for Sauron

Part 4: Bargaining with the Gods

Part 5: Secundina’s Beef

Part 6: More Than Money Can Buy

Part 7: The Punic Curse Trail

Part 8: Hellenism Schmellenism


  1. Episode 93, “Superstition, magic and the Evil Eye in the Roman world”, The English Heritage Podcast, 2020.
  2. Cornelius Tacitus, Annales, 14.32, c. 115–c. 120. I’ve used the Alfred John Church and William Jackson Brodribb translation, 1888.
  3. Barry Cunliffe and Peter Davenport, “The Temple at Bath (Aquae Sulis) in the context of classical temples in the west European provinces”, The Temple Of Sulis Minerva At Bath Vol. I: The Site, 1985.
  4. Barry Cunliffe, Excavations in Bath 1950–1975, 1979.
  5. Strabo (Στράβων), Γεωγραφικά (Geographica), 4.4.5, c. 15 BCE. I’ve used the William Falconer translation, 1903–06.
  6. David Clarke, “The Head Cult: tradition and folklore surrounding the symbol of the severed human head in the British Isles”, 1998.
  7. Anne Ross, “The Human Head In Insular Pagan Celtic Religion”, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, 1958.
  8. Jane Ellen Harrison, “The Ker as Gorgon”, Prolegomena to the study of Greek religion, 1903.
  9. Ross, 1958.

The Ironclad Test Oath and Why It Doesn’t Work

Mentalis restrictio in the US Constitution (Gladwellocalypse, Part 3 Addendum)

As the new members of the executive branch were inaugurated in the US, I was struck by the language of the Vice Presidential oath of office—notably, it’s quite different from that of the President. Here’s how it runs:¹

I, [full name] do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me God.

And there’s that term; the casuistry-based Jesuitic proposition condemned by Catholics and Protestants alike since the 17th century. This is the doctrine of equivocation employed in order to say one thing while having something entirely different in one’s mind, the “lie of necessity” that might allow a traitor to be inserted into a government in this particular case.

The use of this phrase in the oath seems archaic and so one might think reflects the country’s founding in the late 18th century. Looking at what is provided for the swearing in of the President in the US Constitution, however, there’s much simpler language:²

I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.

This is the oath as used by George Washington in 1789, and it’s remained much the same since; identical to what was said in the latest inauguration except for the inclusion of the oath-taker’s full name, and the concluding line, “So help me God.”

The Vice Presidential oath of office is not set out in the Constitution and instead uses the same language as for any member of Congress. That document merely specifies that such members, “shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation to support this Constitution.” The first Congress interpreted this fairly literally into a brief statement, thus: 

I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support the Constitution of the United States.

So how did these 14 words expand to the rather lengthy oath we now hear and how did it come to include one swearing not to be engaged in Jesuitical equivocation? According to the website of the US Senate, these changes stem from the 19th century:³

[T]he current oath is a product of the 1860s, drafted by Civil War-era members of Congress intent on ensnaring traitors.

Termed the “Ironclad Test Oath”, the current affirmation was spurred initially by President Abraham Lincoln himself, who used an expanded oath for civil servants within the executive in 1861. In an emergency session, Congress enacted legislation for their own expanded oath to be taken by employees in the legislature. The new language was drafted, argued, delayed by war, and eventually applied across the board in 1884.

“Without mental reservation” appears in many oaths as it turns out, including that used by US military enlistees, though I highly doubt that any but a very few understand what they are swearing to. And in fact the phrase actually refers to a specific type of untruth in which one utters one part aloud and the rest in their mind, thus “telling the truth to God”. Quite literally this unspoken part is reserved from human ears and is instead mental. Thus, theoretically one could take the original congressional oath of office and practice mental reservation like so:

I do solemnly swear that I will support the Constitution of the United States (only as far as it serves my own interests).

So the mental reservation language is added to the oath presumably to prevent this sort of thing, but it seems to me one could still take the same approach:

I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation (as far as you know)….

There is, of course, another element to the doctrine of mental reservation which moral  theology and philosophy has struggled with essentially forever, which is when it is permissible to lie. One prolific and popular moral theologian, St. Alphonsus Liguori (1696–1787) says it must be for a “just cause”, which he defines quite broadly:⁴

Justa autem causa esse potest quicumque finis honestus, ad servanda bona spiritui vel corpori utilia.

[A] just cause can be any honest end whatsoever, for the keeping of things good for the spirit or useful to the body.

To be fair, the specific cases of just cause he lists do seem reasonable, including a priest protecting the seal of confession, a defendant or witness illegitimately interrogated, and a traveler coming from a town falsely believed to be infected with plague. Still he goes on to say that, “an absolutely serious cause is not required”.⁵

And another respected scholar in much more recent time, Benoît Merkelbach, clearly knowing the history of deception and specifically Liguori’s work on the subject, makes it still more general:⁶

[…] dummodo ad veritatem occultandam iusta causa adsit et aliud medium desit honestum […].

[…] as long as a just cause is present, and other honest means of hiding the truth is wanting […].

First it’s entertaining that such works are still written in a moribund language in modern times, second, the lack of irony with which Merkelbach produces the phrase, “honest means of hiding the truth,” is astounding, but third, and most importantly to our topic, it seems that exactly the process of casuistry described by Pope Francis is at work here, where general laws are established on the basis of exceptional cases.⁷ It’s also worthy of note that the pontiff’s comment was in the context of the sexual abuse cases that have plagued the Catholic Church in recent decades, in which many officials were clearly far less than honest, often using casuistry to rationalize their mendacity.

Moving to the realm of moral philosophy, Immanuel Kant makes his case by positing a man who needs to borrow money, realizes no one will lend it to him unless he promises to repay it, and that he won’t be able to repay it—all of which is consistent with the doctrines above—and therefore produces the maxim:⁸

[W]hen I believe myself to be in need of money I shall borrow money and promise to repay it, even though I know that this will never happen.

And Kant further states that were this case to become a universal law, just as Francis felt such things would:

[If] everyone, when he believes himself to be in need, could promise whatever he pleases with the intention of not keeping it would make the promise and the end one might have in it itself impossible, since no one would believe what was promised him but would laugh at all such expressions as vain pretenses.

And while all of this may have been a matter of conjecture in the 17th and 18th centuries, as we know this is exactly what has come to pass. Regardless of what may be considered moral, people have lied to benefit themselves to such an extent that a matter such as a loan has become a highly legal one, with few options apart from bankruptcy to escape a debt, and sometimes not even that in the case of student loans, among others.

And furthermore, this slippery slope has led us inevitably to the Russian doctrine of what Timothy Snyder calls “implausible deniability” that weaponizes the combination of fact and its evil twin, disinformation. The example he cites is the Russian invasion of Ukraine:⁹

The adage that there are two sides to a story makes sense when those who represent each side accept the factuality of the world and interpret the same set of facts. Putin’s strategy of implausible deniability exploited this convention while trying to destroy its basis. He positioned himself as a side of the story while mocking factuality. […] Western Editors, although they had the reports of the Russian invasion on their desks in the late days of February and the early days of March 2014, chose to feature Putin’s exuberant denials. And so the narrative of the Russian Invasion of Ukraine shifted in a subtle but profound way: it was not about what was happening to Ukrainians, but about what the Russian president chose to say about Ukraine. A real war had become reality television, with Putin as the hero. […] When Putin later admitted that Russia had invaded Ukraine, this only proved that the Western press had been a player in his show.

OK, I know I said in my previous article that I was going to give politics a rest, but these things are closely intertwined and certainly this is a realm where various types of deception are most at play. Neither of the moral theologians I’ve discussed here could possibly have foreseen how things have ended up. Right or wrong, they believed that people are essentially good and that even if there were a bit of fibbing, society would not be harmed. Instead they have released a jinn that can never be returned to its bottle.

On the other hand, Kant’s view is a utopian one; as Umberto Eco tells us, truth is in the realm of the theoretical: our limitations as humans determine how well we are able to perceive and communicate it. And of course there are those white lies we all tell to preserve the feelings of others. Still, the issue with the products of casuistry is how they seek to create statements that are sort of true, but really not, As Liguori says:¹⁰

[N]on decipimus proximum, sed ex justa causa permittimus ut ipse se decipiat.

[W]e do not deceive our neighbor, but for a just cause we allow that he deceive himself.

Where I would reply with the Berber saying:

A smooth lie is better than a distorted truth.

Read Subsequent Posts in This Series

Part 4: The Immaculate Miscegenation

Read Previous Posts in This Series

Part 1: The Limits of Revisionist History

Part 2: The Unfit “King”

Part 3: Descent into the Absurd


  1. Emphasis mine.
  2. US Constitution, Article II, Section 1, Clause 8.
  3. United States Senate website.
  4. Alphonsus Maria de Liguori, Theologia moralis, 1905-1912.
  5. Ibid, “non requiritur causa absolute gravis […].”
  6. Benoît Henri Merkelbach. Summa Theologiae Moralis, 1938.
  7. Francis X. Rocca, “Pope to meet with sex abuse victims for first time in June”, Catholic News Service, 2014.
  8. Immanuel Kant, Groundwork for the Metaphysic of Morals (Grundlegung zur Metaphysik der Sitten), 1785, Mary J. Gregor, trans., 1998.
  9. Timothy Snyder, The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America, 2018.
  10. Liguori, 1905–1912.

Your Western Wuxia Is Weak

New film, new issues (DeDisnification, Part 2 Addendum B)

Against my better judgment, I watched the live-action remake of Mulan. It was visually stunning and had a ton of star power and flashy martial arts. Still, it did little to address the issues of the original film, managing instead to open new ones, and ultimately lacked depth.

There are, of course, several political issues with the film, which have been well discussed elsewhere; I would encourage readers to be aware of them, but don’t feel they need to be rehashed here, especially since I’ve been on that sort of soapbox too much recently, and I’d like to get back to my usual media-culture-history bailiwick.

As my earlier article suggested, the new film did lose the anthropomorphic animals, but also the singing and has instead become a wuxia flick (武俠电影). I’m down with the genre in general, but using it in this context is pretty strange, especially as it typically favors style over substance even more than a Disney film. Additionally, there are very few Hollywood success stories in the genre, which doesn’t mean no one should try, but it should at the very least be a caution sign.

And this film crashes: although Mulan is replete with martial skills, the essential story remains unchanged. Her accomplishments are no more spectacular; she merely does them with greater flair. Furthermore, the emperor Mulan is trying to save is played by Jet Li (李连杰), who naturally displays his own fighting prowess and so seems in little need of saving. Nonetheless, they somehow contrive to make a rescue necessary.

This also means there’s no character arc: Mulan as a young girl is already running across rooftops like Spiderman, so where can she go from there? Only some vague idea that females have to hide their chi (氣) holds her back, but the struggle to set this aside feels as abstract as the “rule” itself. Again, it’s great that they didn’t present someone as inept as Mulan was at the beginning of the original film, but the result is this flatness. All that happens is she decides to stop hiding her chi and be the badass she is—not much of a change.

Mushu (Eddie Murphy) has been replaced with a phoenix, which makes some kind of sense, as the Chinese fenghuang (鳳凰) is often used as a feminine counterpart to the masculine dragon. However, they clearly have in mind the Western mythical creature, having only superficial resemblance to the Eastern king of birds. The legend related in the film of the creature rising from its own ashes has nothing whatsoever to do with the lore of the fenghuang. In the end, this new “character” does nothing—it doesn’t speak; it only turns up when Mulan needs help, though it provides none and she has to rely on herself instead.

By contrast, the witch Xianniang (線娘, played by Gong Li; 巩俐) is pretty cool and intriguing new character. She reminds me distinctly of Baigujing (白骨精, White Bone Demon) from Journey to the West (《西遊記》, Xī Yóu Jì), who I imagine the creators may have had in mind. Indeed, it’s probably no coincidence that Baigujing was also played by Gong Li in 2016’s The Monkey King 2 (《西遊記之孫悟空三打白骨精》). This demon is able to transform herself and uses the ability to deceive all but the wily Sun Wukong (孫悟空) who eventually defeats her. Xiannang too can change shape at will, including assuming the forms of other people as well as a falcon, and indeed, she seems to be a replacement for Shan Yu’s trained falcon. 

It’s interesting that ultimately, as her name implies, Baigujing is a skeleton spirit, since depictions of bones are anathema in games in the PRC, where I’ve had to change art many times in order to meet these standards. Certainly 500-odd years have passed since Journey to the West was first penned, but it’s still quite an odd shift in cultural norms. I wondered while watching Mulan whether the bony details of Xianniang’s headdress and belt would make it past the censors.

The name of this new character seems to be a reference to Dou Xianniang (竇線娘), a female Chinese general who defeats and captures, Hua in an early Qing Dynasty (大清, 1636–1912) fanfic of the tale by Chu Renhuo.¹ Even though she is a barbarian, Hua wins the enemy commander’s respect through her display of Confucian virtues, and they become blood sisters. Indeed, this background might be what informs Mulan’s Xianniang abruptly choosing to take an arrow for the protagonist, which makes no sense to the actual film. In fact, the witch is the most powerful character in the film, making one wonder why she serves Böri Khan (Jason Scott Lee), the new film’s replacement for Shan Yu.

On the plus side, the film is beautiful. The scenery is breathtaking, with filming mainly taking place in New Zealand rather than the PRC. The island nation was easily the biggest star of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit film trilogies as well. In fact, one of the locations tipped me off to the fact we weren’t in China even before the credits rolled: Mulan rides past a rock outcropping that I distinctly remembered being overrun by warg-riders.

In the end, the film does nothing to address the likely non-Chinese identity of the “real” Hua Mulan (花木蘭). Hua’s Chineseness is widely acknowledged to be incorrect, as I’ve previously mentioned. One of the surnames under which she is known, Wei (魏), is drawn from the name of an Empire to the north whose people the Chinese referred to as suolu (索虜, “Plaited Barbarians”) because of the requisite male hairstyle of long, braided hair coiled atop their heads. Even Chu’s version clearly states Hua’s half-Han (漢人) race and status, describing her as a jienu (羯奴; “barbarian slave”) after her capture.² As professor of Chinese literature Wilt Idema notes:³

[O]nly in the final years of the Qing is Mulan turned into a Han dynasty Chinese maiden patriotically fighting the northern Xiongnu.

The historicity of the setting is improved where the original film was a hodgepodge of elements from throughout Chinese history, but the time period they depict is that of the Tang dynasty (唐; 618–690, 705–907). This is not correct to the known-but-lost original 5th century Ballad of Mulan. Chu’s version contains authentic details the film omits entirely: the Xianbei (鮮卑) with which she would have been associated underwent a program of Sinicization, intermarrying with their southern neighbors. This meant that mixed ancestry became common, though mainly among the nation’s elites, so not squaring with the film’s low-status Mulan. These programs of cultural borrowing also included Taoism, Buddhism, and Confucianism (道教, 漢傳佛教, and 儒家 respectively), so aspects, particularly of the morals of the last, which are portrayed in both films may well have eventually penetrated even to remote villages.

Overall, it seems that the production team took some pains to educate themselves in the lore of this woman warrior, as there are clear references to not just one, but a variety of versions  of the Mulan tale in the film, which even quotes knowingly from the 6th century version’s closing passage about the hares as I did in my original article. But being informed didn’t stop them from making bad decisions as to their protagonist’s ethnic origin, the historical time period portrayed, and their retention of much of the original film’s structure.

One reason for this is that although the production staff did contain several women—most notably the director and most of the writing staff—there was a distinct lack of East Asians of any kind. Another factor was the hard courting of the Chinese audience, which, while it’s something many studios have been doing of late, often yields not-so-great results because of how forced it is. Presenting a non-Han Mulan would hardly have endeared a film to those viewers, but even this nationalistically Chinese one failed to find favor. Despite an all-Asian cast, audiences in the PRC found the performances wooden and the themes and trappings stereotypical.⁴ Ironically, it ends up falling short in many of the same ways as the original, but viewers missed the humor and music of the first one.

Furthermore, very much in keeping with Disney’s risk aversion, the story of Hua Mulan has already been told repeatedly, with no fewer than 17 large- and small-screen versions having been produced in China since 1920. Although I might not be able to find my Xianbei Hua among them, I can only imagine there would be some that improve dramatically on this flashy-but-flat one.

Read Subsequent Articles in This Series

Part 3A: “Hercules”: Myths and Mistakes

Part 3B: Doing Hera’s Work

Part 4: “Belle” Epoch

Part 5: Putting “Pocahontas” to Rest

Part 5 Addendum: Powhatan’s Mantle

Part 6: Trouble with Tarzan

Part 7A: Down the Rabbit Hole

Part 7A Addendum A: Curious Curation

Part 7A Addendum B: “Alice” in Revolt

Part 7B: Alice’s Adventures in the Cousins War

Part 8: Guerrillas and the “Jungle

Part 9A: Through a Magic Mirror Marred

Part 9A Addendum: The Woods “Over the Wall”

Part 9B: The Sum of Its Versions

Part 9C: The “Snow White” Studio

Part 9D: Snowhaus

Part 10: The Little Less-Than

Read Previous Articles in This Series

Part 1: Straightening out “Hunchback”

Part 2: Making Over “Mulan”


  1. Chu Renhuo (褚人獲), Romance of the Sui and the Tang (《隋唐演義》, Sui Tang yanyi), c. 1675.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Wilt Idema, “Blasé Literati: Lu T’ien-Ch’eng and the Lifestyle of the Chiang-nan Elite in the Final Decades of the Wan-Li Period”, Erotic Color Prints of the Ming Period with an Essay on Chinese Sex Life from the Han to the Ch’ing Dynasty, 2004.
  4. Rebecca Davis, “China Hates Disney’s ‘Mulan,’ but It Has Nothing to Do With Politics”, Variety, 2020.

Appropriating a Missing Past

The rewhitening of film (Back to the Future”, Addendum B)

Yet another reason for revisiting Back to the Future was an almost throwaway comment from John Oliver:¹

[…] Marty McFly was white, because black people don’t generally hang around John C. Calhoun lookalikes who’re obsessed with going back to the 1950s.

This was an excellent reminder of the cultural and political scene that spawned the film and its messages about race and history. Oliver’s aside came within a piece about these same topics, so despite its brevity, it was quite well aimed.

I’ve discussed previously how white flight set the stage for new cheap-to-produce film genres for urban audiences including Spaghetti Westerns, Kung Fu, and blaxploitation, but by the 1980s, these trends had reversed. Karina Longworth details this occurrence’s particular effect on African Americans in film:²

The decade of the 1980s saw a decline in Hollywood films featuring mostly black casts and black heroes. In 1974, the peak of blaxploitation, at least in terms of volume, 7% of the films released by the major studios told stories primarily about black people. That number had dropped to 2.5% by 1981. […] Perhaps wary of […] controversies, on the big screen Hollywood steered clear of tackling the black experience, historically or in the present. In the interest of trying to target as many demographics as possible in each film, black movie stars like Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy were frequently paired with white co-stars in movies that were set in largely white worlds.

I’d differ slightly with Longworth as to the two actors she mentions: both Pryor and Murphy had enough star power—not to mention talent—that they frequently wore multiple hats for their films, including various combinations of writing, directing, and producing, ultimately meaning that they shaped the worlds in which they appeared. This resulted in films like Pryor’s autobiographical Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life is Calling (1986), Murphy’s African fairy tale, Coming to America (1988), and Harlem Nights (1989), a historical crime drama for which the two teamed up. Still, they are only notable exceptions to the trend Longworth otherwise describes correctly.

The first episode of Glow, set in 1985, captures the situation in a brief conversation between a director and a black actress at a casting call:³

Sam Sylvia: Resume gets kinda thin after 1979.
Cherry Bang: Movies gettin’ a little white after 1979.

And alongside this trend, beginning in the mid-’70s and intensifying in the ’80s, there was a glut of films featuring nostalgia for the ’50s. A short list of the better known ones is:

  • American Graffiti (1973)
  • Grease (1978)
  • Diner (1982)
  • Back to the Future (1985)
  • Stand by Me (1986)
  • Peggy Sue Got Married (1986)
  • Driving Miss Daisy (1989)

And on the small screen Happy Days—closely related to American Graffiti, as the film sold the concept, as well as borrowing Ron Howard from the TV show’s pilot, among other elements—aired for 10 years (1974-1984), spawning multiple spinoffs.

The surge in ’50s nostalgia and the simultaneous drop in films starring people of color is far from coincidental. The blacklash in all these works is pretty evident, with no major roles and sometimes not even minor ones for people of color in any of them with the exception of Driving Miss Daisy. Even in that film, Morgan Freeman plays the titular white woman’s servant, so he’s far from an equal.

So what was behind these changes in the film business? Longworth suggests that it was due to a corresponding shift in the overall political climate. In particular the “conservative revolution” ushered in by the Reagan administration, which she characterizes as:⁵

[A] presidential administration which married a nostalgia for a white-supremacist past with Hollywood production values. […] [“Post racial”] terminology […] was used by conservatives as part of the argument against affirmative action and other social programs aimed at balancing racial disparity. In the republican argument—an argument that was inherently racist in that it demonized people of color for needing things like welfare, or asking for any acknowledgement of continued imbalance—the work of balancing the playing field was supposedly finished, and urban violence of the 1970s was a sign that white people needed to start looking out for themselves again. Reaganism reframed the activism and fights for equality of the 1960s and -70s as “chaos” and posited Reagan and the republican party as the solution to restore the order of the 1950s.

This last feature of conservatism is what Oliver was referring to on his show; one that continues to define the movement to this day. Not only were governmental policies based on these misguided ideas, they also precipitated a spike in violence by groups like the KKK throughout the decade. Anthropologist Wade Davis filled in further details on the topic in a recent article for Rolling Stone:⁴

For many years, those on the conservative right in the United States have invoked a nostalgia for the 1950s, and an America that never was, but has to be presumed to have existed to rationalize their sense of loss and abandonment, their fear of change, their bitter resentments and lingering contempt for the social movements of the 1960s, a time of new aspirations for women, gays, and people of color.

But the political scene, as well as that in Hollywood were ultimately symptoms of a cultural shift: Having fled to the suburbs, boomers were settling down, having kids, getting jobs, and the appearance of new suburban megaplex theaters coincided with these trends. Some would even say that the drug of choice for this generation went from the laid-back slacker cannabis to the vigorously capitalist cocaine, which, in addition to amping up energy, also required a straight” job because of its expense. In any case, one result was that the supposed family values” of the ’50s were revalorized, but this version of the past was an imagined one.

Additionally, art itself suffered a reversal, moving from the irony of postmodernism to the so-called earnestness of post-postmodernism. This translated to a certain lack of depth, which literary critic Fredric Jameson described in 1983 as pastiche:⁶

Pastiche is, like parody, the imitation of a particular or unique style, the wearing of a stylistic mask, speech in a dead language: but it is a neutral practice of such mimicry, without parody’s ulterior motive, without the satirical impulse, without laughter, without that still latent feeling that there exists something normal compared with which what is being imitated is rather comic. Pastiche is a blank parody, parody that has lost its sense of humor[…].

Even at this, Jameson sees the wave of nostalgia films as embodying a particular form of pastiche, and further connects it strongly to the political and cultural realms:⁷

Nostalgia films restructure the whole issue of pastiche and project it onto a collective and social level, where the desperate attempt to appropriate a missing past is now refracted through the iron law of fashion change and the emergent ideology of the generation. The inaugural film of this new aesthetic discourse, George Lucas’ American Graffiti (1973), set out to recapture, as so many films have attempted since, the henceforth mesmerizing lost reality of the Eisenhower era; and one tends to feel, that for Americans at least, the 1950s remain the privileged lost object of desire […].

But the ’50s nostalgia film was just one part of this new cinematic landscape. There are a few other films released in the decade worth discussing as part of this cultural trend. 

There is much to love about one of the biggest hits of 1980, The Blues Brothers. In addition to some amazing comedy and an absurd number of car crashes, it also features many excellent performances from black musicians including James Brown, Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, and John Lee Hooker. It’s still problematic that the titular duo is white. The backstory is that Curtis (played by Cab Calloway) essentially raised Jake and Elwood Blues and schooled them in the musical form from which they take their name so they are effectively black on the inside, an act of twisted alchemy similar to the rationalization of Scarlett Johansson playing Kusanagi Motoko (草薙 素子), in 2017’s Ghost in the Shell. In both the film and eponymous band, John Belushi and Dan Ackroyd have stolen the headliner glory from the musicians who should take center stage.

With much more on-the-nose minstrelsy, the 1986 film Soul Man is the tale of a white guy who pretends to be black in order to win a Harvard law scholarship set aside for African Americans. NAACP Chapter President Willis Edwards summed up the issue even more at the core than a main character appearing in blackface for much of the film’s running time:⁸

We certainly believe it is possible to use humor to reveal the ridiculousness of racism. However the unhumorous and quite seriously made plot point of Soul Man is that no black student could be found in all of Los Angeles who was academically qualified for a scholarship geared to blacks.

Such criticisms did not deter the first couple from screening it at Camp David, though they did at least have the excuse that their son Ron Reagan appeared in it. A White House spokesman let The LA Times know, The Reagans enjoyed the film and especially enjoyed seeing their son Ron.”⁹

The final film that should be noted here is not a new one, but a rerelease: 1946’s Song of the South returned to theaters in 1980 and 1986 to wild success. Rather than confronting the work’s appropriated folktales and depictions of happy slaves, Disney and their apologists tried to dismiss the film as a lighthearted fantasy. But as Longworth notes:¹⁰

[T]o reposition [Disney’s] movies as fully escapist was in keeping with a level of denial and wishful fantasizing that was integral to Reagan America[…].

And indeed, there was widespread controversy and protest of the film this time around, with Ron Finney of the LA Times declaring:¹¹

We’ve seen 1980 close with the re-release of a film that has debased blacks for 34 years.

Criticism extended to protests that shut down some screenings of the film to such a degree that following its 1986 showing it went back in the “vault” forever, with only carefully curated clips shown on television. Eventually, these too disappeared until only Oscar-winning “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” as the theme song of the Disney parks attraction, Splash Mountain, remained. This song was based in part on the racially-charged song Zip Coon”, which also gave rise to a minstrel show character of the same name. This year Disney quietly decided to cease playing the song as well.

And here we come again to the theme of cancel culture. If you’ll remember, in the previous Addendum I wasn’t so sure if I was on board with it. Since then, I’ve changed my mind. It turns out that it’s of a piece with the right wing’s weaponization of liberal values against the holders of those same values. My first clue should have been Bill Maher’s wholehearted embrace of it, and my second should have been how unevenly the term is applied. As Billy Bragg noted on a recent episode of Intelligence Squared:¹²

Any cursory review of recent high-profile cases of “cancel culture” will reveal a troubling pattern: the victims of this trend are always defenders of the status quo.

Billy Bragg, who I have enjoyed since his self-roadied first tour of the US, isn’t just a musician, he’s a pretty astute guy, especially when it comes to politics, a realm into which his music regularly ventures. He goes on to sum up the case up quite well:¹³

Like the term “political correctness” before it, cancel culture is a trope used by reactionaries to police the limits of social change. It allows the proponents of white male supremacy to portray themselves as the victims of discrimination, undermining the rights of the real victims of structural inequality.

And so we’ve returned to the beginning of this tale. We see that the rhetoric of the right hasn’t changed, only their level of desperation has, with the Trump administration recently issuing an executive order outlawing any teaching about our nation’s white supremacist past. But all this posturing hasn’t stopped society from becoming increasingly enlightened—although quite gradually, I’ll admit. And let’s be clear, although it was protested, Song of the South was never

cancelled ; Disney seems to have decided that it simply no longer embodied values they wanted to project and removed it quietly and without prompting.

Read Previous Articles in This Series

Roll Over McFly

Addendum A: The Immaculate Miscegenation


  1. “U.S. History”, Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, 2020.
  2. Karina Longworth, “Splash Mountain”, You Must Remember This, 2019.
  3.  “Pilot”, Glow, 2017.
  4. Longworth.
  5. Wade Davis, “The Unraveling of America”, Rolling Stone, 2020.
  6. Fredric Jameson, “Postmodernism and Consumer Society”, 1983. I’ll note that he describes this trend as postmodernist but Umberto Eco and others make it clear that Jameson is actually describing the shift to post-postmodernism.
  7. Fredric Jameson, “Postmodernism, Or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism”, New Left Review, 1984.
  8. Bob Thomas, “Los Angeles NAACP Protest”. The Lewiston Daily, 1986.
  9. “Reagans on ‘Soul Man’: Thumbs Up”. The Los Angeles Times, 1986.
  10. Longworth.
  11. Ron Finney, “‘Song of the South’ Again Sings its Debasement of Blacks”, Los Angeles Times, 1981.
  12. “Debate: Cancel Culture is Threatening Our Freedoms”, Intelligence Squared, 2020.
  13. Ibid.

The Woods “Over the Wall”

Monomyth tropes well done (DeDisnification, Part 9A Addendum)

Autumnal tidings, readers. As I’ve noted before, I’m a good one for being late to the party, so I’ve only just learned about an excellent animated series, Over the Garden Wall (OtGW hereafter) from six years ago. The work is set on Halloween, which makes it a good one to discuss around now, and also plays with folkloric elements, which makes it fit well with this series.

Myth & Moor: Into the Woods, 7: The Dark Forest

I became aware of the cartoon through another source; a quite good series of video essays, What’s So Great About That?, in which Grace Lee thoughtfully discusses various aspects of film, animation, and culture. Her piece,“Over the Garden Wall: Why Is The Unknown So Familiar?”¹ sold me on the animated seriesnot a hard sell since, as I mentioned, it already fits with a field of interest of mine. In fact, I wondered why my hipper friends hadn’t already brought it to my attention.

The setting the series spends much of its time in is called The Unknown, which is described in the first episode thus:²

Somewhere lost in the clouded annals of history, lies a place that few have seen—a mysterious place, called The Unknown, where long-forgotten stories are revealed to those who travel through the wood.

The title of Lee’s essay plays on the fact that despite the place’s name, the material is familiar:³

There’s this uncanny feeling that we’ve been here before. Snow White. Babes in the Wood, Hansel and Gretel—the idea of children lost in the woods is one of the most familiar fairy tale conventions. And Over the Garden Wall even makes explicit reference to several of these stories.

And again, as she notes, The Unknown consists largely of a forest. And here is where my interest grew beyond Lee’s essay: she spent a lot of time discussing the elements that recall classic film and animation but the folklore was my interest—in fact, I’d say that OtGW’s creators used the references Lee talks about because they are the modern audience’s main connection to folkloric materials, and so made sense as a way to reach that audience and get this tale across to them. 

As to the mythical role of the woods, let me point to the same quote I did in the article to which this is an addendum:⁴

Being deep in the forest at the house of the dwarfs, Snow White has symbolically returned to the mythic beginnings of time, the liminal period of chaos when the mysterious gods and ancestral creatures of creation were active.

Even without the house of the dwarves, which serves only to deepen the mythic themes, the woods remain a liminal and primal space. As Lee states, this is a common theme, particularly in folklore and myth, as Joseph Conrad relates one branch of:⁵

A very common [motif] that appears in Celtic myths, of someone who had followed the lure of a deer or animal that he has been following, and then carries him into a range of forest and landscape that he’s never been in before.

While OtGW’s protagonists end up in the woods as a result of running away from the police rather than chasing something, the trope remains nearly identical. And it doesn’t appear only in myths and folktales; Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy opens:⁶

Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura
ché la diritta via era smarrita.

In the middle of the journey of our life,
I discovered I was in a dark forest,
having wandered from the straightforward path.

OtgW’s girl transformed into a bird, who guides the other protagonists, Wirt and Greg, around The Unknown, is named Beatrice, a clear reference to Dante’s guide of the same name. The figurative wood also appears in the title and body of Robert Frost’s poem “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”. The woods are just one common version of what OtGW refers to as The Unknown, which again has mythic resonances, many of which the show goes on to explore.

Putting a name to this mythic realm is difficult, which is why OtGW uses the term it does. Campbell quotes the Upanishads about what he sometimes terms the yonder shore:⁷

There the eye goes not,
speech goes not, nor the mind.
We know not, we understand not,
how one would teach it?

So what is it? Death or the nether- or underworld is one version, as suggested by both Dante and Frost. Death is also referenced in OtGW repeatedly: Wirt and Greg dig what they think are their own graves in Pottsfield⁸ and in the “real” world, we find out that the garden over whose wall the pair went was a cemetery.⁹ The cemetery’s name is Eternal Garden, but “garden of the dead” was a standard metaphor for a graveyard in times past. Additionally, the ferry they take to get to Adelaide’s house costs two cents,¹⁰ corresponding to the ὀβολοί (oboloí) needed to pay the ferryman Χάρων (Kharon) to get to the Graeco-Roman underworld.

This well-known fare first appears in Aristophanes’ comedy, The Frogs, in which Dionysos (Διόνῡσος) is bound for Haides (ᾍδης):¹¹

Herakles [Ἡρακλῆς]: Which will you try?
Dionysos: The way you went yourself.
Herakles: A parlous voyage that, for first you’ll come to an enormous lake of fathomless depth.
Dionysos: And how am I to cross?
Herakles: An ancient mariner will row you over in a wee boat, so big. The fare’s two obols.

I’ll note that the correspondence between an obolos and a cent is inexact, as this silver coin is worth eight copper khalkoi (χαλκοί), but again, it’s a pretty standard rendering in modern works. And as for Aristophanes, although the cloud city Greg visits makes obvious reference to The Wizard of Oz (1939) with Munchkinland-style welcoming committees—just as Adelaide’s death by exposure to night air recalls the Wicked Witch of the West’s undoing by water—the kingdom of the titular animals, Νεφελοκοκκυγία (Nephelokokkugía, Cloud Cuckoo Land) in The Birds is a pretty clear reference as well.¹²

Greg visits cloud city in a dream within this dream, as he turns further to his unconscious to help him and his brother out of their troubles:¹³

Greg: I better take a nap too. I need to dream up a good way of leading us home.

And speaking of birds, the way Adelaide plans to change Beatrice and her family back into humans is by cutting off their feathers with a pair of scissors, recalling the crude methods of Hans Christian Andersen’s sea witch.

Water  is another liminal space referred to repeatedly in OtGW. I’ve already mentioned the ferry trip, but Wirt and Greg also sail across a lake. And it turns out that in their normal world, they fell into a body of water after nearly being run down by a train, and so the show can be seen as taking place as they hover between life and death by drowning.

Greg has a frog, whom he spends much of the series trying to find a name for. But this is a common mythic harbinger as well; a liminal creature, at home as much in the human world as in the underwater realm. We see them repeatedly in folktales as frog princes, calling heroes to adventure. In The Frogs, the amphibians’ only appearance is during Dionysos’ trip across the Ἀχέρων (Akheron), so literally at the border between worlds. Birds too, for similar reasons, but pertaining to realms above rather than below, make repeated mythic appearances.

The point of the journey into The Unknown in OtGW is, as in many folktales, initiation. Wirt is a teenager, poised on the brink of adulthood, and needs to figure out how he needs to change in order to take on this new role. All the creatures in this realm are, again quoting the same Girardot passage as I did earlier:¹⁴

[D]ivine ancestors, teachers, refiners, guardians, or helpers necessary for a successful initiation.

And it’s certainly not  the case that the peril of these encounters is not real. In fact, Wirt’s normal world problems are so daunting to him that he’d rather die than face them, and in fact, in the reading I mentioned earlier, he nearly does. The progression through the episodes toward winter—a common metaphor for death, as well as, more literally, the cold of the lake they are immersed in—reflects this. His problems—being responsible for a younger sibling, liking a girl, risking being hurt, losing her to a rival suitor—seem trivial, but they’re also entirely relatable to just about anyone who’s been a teen.

And indeed, Wirt returns triumphant from this night sea journey having learned these lessons: Sara, who he didn’t dare to approach before his journey, he now talks to easily and invites on a date. He saves his brother (and himself) from drowning. Just as in The Wizard of Oz, the passage through The Unknown can be seen as having been “just a dream”, with elements such as the light of the onrushing train having been transformed in the logic of the unconscious into the eyes of the Beast who dogs the brothers’ steps in the otherworld. But the magic bell previously owned by Adelaide’s sister, Auntie Whispers, which returns with them to their normal world, glowing in the belly of Greg’s frog tells a different tale.

While I’ve been critical of how folktales are realized on screen, I’m happy to have been proved wrong. OtGW’s creators have done well here: as I noted earlier, they used nostalgic film and animation references to relate to modern audiences, but didn’t shy away from classical ones either. They didn’t attempt to usurp the place of folktale traditions with a retelling. And they didn’t dumb down the messages or supplant them with corporate myths.

Read Subsequent Articles in This Series

Part 9B: The Sum of Its Versions

Part 9C: The “Snow White” Studio

Part 9D: Snowhaus

Part 10: The Little Less-Than

Read Previous Articles in This Series

Part 1: Straightening out “Hunchback”

Part 2: Making Over “Mulan”

Part 2 Addendum B: Your Western Wuxia Is Weak

Part 3A: “Hercules”: Myths and Mistakes

Part 3B: Doing Hera’s Work

Part 4: “Belle” Epoch

Part 5: Putting Pocahontas to Rest

Part 5 Addendum: Powhatan’s Mantle

Part 6: The Trouble with “Tarzan”

Part 7A: Down the Rabbit Hole

Part 7A Addendum A: Curious Curation

Part 7A Addendum B: “Alice” in Revolt

Part 7B: Alice’s Adventures in the Cousins War

Part 8: Guerrillas and the “Jungle”

Part 9A: Through a Magic Mirror Marred


  1. Grace Lee, “Over the Garden Wall: Why Is The Unknown So Familiar?”, What’s So Great About That, October, 2017.
  2. Episode 1, “The Old Grist Mill”, OtGW, 2014.
  3. Lee, 2017.
  4. N. J. Girardot, “Initiation and Meaning in the Tale of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs”, The Journal of American Folklore, 1977.
  5. Episode 1, “The Hero’s Adventure”, The Power of Myth, 1988.
  6. Dante Alighieri, Inferno, Divina Commedia (The Divine Comedy) I,1, 1320, my translation.
  7. A. S. Woodburne, “The Idea of God in Hinduism”, The Journal of Religion, 1925.
  8. Episode 2, “Hard Times at the Huskin’ Bee”, OtGW, 2014.
  9. Episode 9, “Into the Unknown”, OtGW, 2014.
  10. Episode 5, “Mad Love”, OtGW, 2014.
  11. Aristophanes (Ἀριστοφανης), Βάτραχοι  (Bátrachoi—The Frogs), 405 BCE, O’Neill translation, 1938.
  12. Aristophanes, Ὄρνιθες (OrnithesThe Birds), 414 BCE.
  13. Episode 8, “Babes in the Wood”, OtGW, 2014.
  14. Girardot, 1977.