(1/26/01 4:37:43 pm)
Would anyone hear like to discuss
Godfather Death, and other representations of death in folklore
and fairy tales? I'm thinking of doing a Folkroots article on the
subject some time in the next few months.
Note (8/14/2006): Godfather
Death is now annotated on SurLaLune and Terri's article is available
on Endicott Studio at Godfather
Death: Death in Fairy Tales.
(1/27/01 11:49:53 am)
|Re: Godfather Death|
I would. I like those kinds of fairy tales.
(I'm new here, I hope I'm allowed to post!)
(1/27/01 12:04:48 pm)
|Re: Godfather Death|
Welcome Jen! Anyone with a related interest is allowed to post on this board.
Terri, I am not very familiar with these tales--just haven't gotten around to them yet. Any tales that you are thinking of in particular? I think it is a fascinating topic.
I am also still thinking about birth tales. I want to get a collection of them together for myself which I may be persuaded to share on the SurLaLune site. Guess I'll start another thread on them so as not to move away from Godfather Death.
(1/27/01 12:19:37 pm)
Welcome to the board. It's always great to have a new voice.
It's funny you should bring this subject up because it's one my mind too these days. Mostly as I think of narratives about death, death is personified as a male figure. You used the image of "godfather" death...godfather being a kind of "stand in" for a biological father who would be associated with procreative forces...which got me thinking about my own dilemma as I work through a story about a young woman married to death. Can death, as a figure in the narratives, ever be procreative? There are a number of wonderful tales about women being married to death but its interesting that they don't focus on the marriage unit as a procreative one, but one that softens, humanizes and offers the face of compassion to the figure of death that might otherwise be terrifying. The medieval images of "death and the maiden" are all about false procreation--the maiden tempted into a relationship that can not be productive. Is that why the image of death is so often male? Because culturally we weight images of fertility and birth with the female presence...the binaries of male/female are also death/life ? How does one construct a satisfying balance in tale of marriage in which the usual implied fertility of the relationship is no longer a factor? What takes it place? (on a tangent it's similar to a question I asked my daughter about the early Buffy series...what longing, or emotional itch is being scratched by having a boyfriend that can't die, that can't procreate in the usual way (i.e without first causing another's death) and which one can not possibly grow old with?)
What happens to the mortal women when they enter into a companionship with "Mr. Death"?
But there's also the image of death in relationship to the binary of limited time/eternity. I think the Henson series did a wonderful tale about a guy who gambled with death and managed to win...keeping him trapped in a sac so that no death could occur....including his own. The result was a stagnate eternity which got deadly dull (sorry for the pun). The man who thought he had succeeded at something realized that he didn't have the stamina for eternity...and released death even though it meant his own. So I am puzzling this out myself...death has a dialectical role to play in the life cycle, but it is also strangely outside that cycle in terms of a narrative of time, where it seems permanent to itself, but disruptive to others.
(1/28/01 7:06:41 am)
|Re: death tales|
Midori, I confess that I thought you were probably thinking along these lines when I brought the topic up, knowing that death is a character in the book you're working on. Plus, death is an underlying theme of your other novel-in-the-works, "Hannah's Garden," as well, is it not? And an underlying theme in my own life these days, due to a terminal illness in my family -- so I've been thinking about it a lot lately.
There must be instances in myth and folk lore where death is female, not male, but none instantly come to mind...I'll have to explore further. In contemporary fiction, there's Peter Beagle's classic story, "Come Lady Death," in which death is not only female but young and beautiful. And Jane Yolen wrote a wonderful version of "Godfather Death" (which you can find in Grimms, Heidi -- and in other fairy tale collections) called "Godmother Death," published in Black Swan, White Raven. And Rachel Pollack wrote a rather wild urban fantasy novel with a lesbian theme based on the tale too, called Godmother Night.
Another tale that comes to mind is Ellen Steiber's story "The Shape of Things," published in last April's issue of F&SF magazine. (Ellen, are you here on the board?) It's based on a Guatemalan story about a characotel, who is the servant of death, carrying spirits into the Otherworld.
I have a vague memory of reading a story years ago about Death and Sleep, who were...brothers maybe? By George R.R. Martin or someone like that. Does this ring a bell with anybody?
Midori, as to what emotional itch the Angel-Buffy relationship scratches, to me he seems like the perfect adolescent boyfriend: the one you can safely lust for like mad, knowing the feeling is mutual and that the guy is utterly devoted to you, but you will never actually need go further than long smootching session because the guy *can't* have sex. When I was young and not ready for a sexual relationship, that would have been mighty appealling. Instead, the pleasure of kissing and snuggling was always mitigated by the fear that by doing so one would be pushed too far too fast. One thing I like about Angel, and Oz, and Riley, is that they are so completely supportive of their girlfriends (at least until the demands of the plot caused Angel and Oz to split, that is), backing them up in every way without trying to take them over, or insisting on taking the lead, or demanding to be the top priority in these girls' lives themselves. If guys had actually been like that in high school/college, I'd probably be married by now.
(1/28/01 9:30:43 am)
|Death is the Maiden|
Because I'm naturally contrary, I've been sitting here trying to think up female Deaths - I was wondering if one could count female *heralds* of death, or death-bringers. La Llorona comes to mind, as well as the bean-sidhe.
(1/28/01 11:12:40 am)
|Re: Godfather Death|
There is one tale I've read (somewhere, although I wish I could find it again) that is called "The Child of Death", but it doesn't really involve death as a figure.
As for female Deaths, my absolute favorite is Neil Gaiman's, in the Sandman comics.
Thanks for the welcome! I really like this board. Now I have yet another thing to do when I'm not writing.
(1/28/01 6:38:56 pm)
|death and sleep |
Are you thinking of the Greek twins Hypnos (god of sleep) and Thanaos (god of death)? They are the sons of the primordial goddess Nyx -- the essence of the night.
(1/28/01 11:36:08 pm)
I don't know if she counts exactly, but what about the Grandmother in "The Little Match Girl" who comes to collect her granddaughter?
She might be more like an angel figure than a death figure?
Hecate is sometimes known as the queen of dark and death.
And then I think the banshee and bean-nighe might have been mentioned - as at least harbingers of death...?
(1/29/01 8:59:33 am)
I would add to your list of tales Tom Disch's "Getting into Death", which is a contemporary fantasy satire utilizing "death & the maiden" elements quite cleverly.
The collection (of the same title) is out of print, but worth seeking out, I think. It includes, as I recall, an "Apollo in New York" story that does some wonderful splicing of mythology to reality as well.
(1/30/01 2:00:33 am)
|The Nightmare Life-in-Death|
Most Deaths are certainly male, but what about the metaphorical language of Death which is almost always uterine? The earth opens its mouth to receive us. Freud interprets a man's life as a series of swallowings- by mother, lover, earth ("Three Caskets"). It is more than a little curious that this emphatically uterine imagery continues unabated alongside the dominant figure of the Grim Reaper. And, speaking of Grim Reapers, there was a quite notorious AIDS-awareness campaign screened on Australian television in (if I remember rightly) the late 80s and early nineties. The Grim Reaper was depicted knocking people over with a bowling ball. It was absolutely terrifying to me as a young 'un and it could only be screened after a certain time at night, so that children wouldn't get nightmares!
To be contrary, I think there is a strong female tradition to parallel the Grim Reaper/Godfather Death thread. In Coleridge's "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner", the becalmed speaker spies a boat approaching from the distance:
Alas! (thought I, and my heart beat loud)
How fast she nears and nears!
Are those *her* sails that glance in the Sun
Like restless gossamers?
Are those *her* ribs through which the Sun
Did peer, as through a grate?
And is that Woman all her crew?
Is that a DEATH? and are there two?
Is DEATH that woman's mate?
*Her* lips were red, *her* locks were free,
Her locks were yellow as gold:
Her skin was white as leprosy,
The Nightmare LIFE-IN-DEATH was she,
Who thicks man's blood with cold.
The naked hulk alongside came,
And the twain were casting dice;
'The game is done! I've won! I've won!'
Quoth she, and whistles thrice.
You can trace the development of the Life-in-death figure through Coleridge's poems and notebooks- it's quite fascinating- he associates her with a druggist from The Arabian Nights at one point (I've been working on this a little lately) and, of course, she becomes increasingly intertwined with his opium addiction. For instance, he writes The Rime of the Ancient Mariner in 1798, but doesn't name the female figure "Life-in_death" until he revises the poem in 1816. And there are parallel figures- for example the living dead (also blonde) woman who haunts (terrorises!) the opium-addled narrator of Poe's "Berenice". It wouldn't be drawing too long a bow to connect her with Keats' La Belle Dame Sans Merci. She's not a Death exactly, but she subjects the speakers of all these texts to something somewhat worse, a torture which is often explicitly sexual in nature, and she is a far stronger player in the metaphysical struggle than Death is- she wins the sailor's soul in their game of dice.
Moving on to another point, I think there is an implicit connection between storytelling & death and writing & death. In "What is an Author?", Michel Foucault writes:
"Arabic stories, and *The Arabian Nights* in particular, had as their motivation , their theme and pretext, [a] strategy for defeating death. Storytellers continued their narratives late into the night to forestall death and to delay the inevitable moment when everyone must fall silent."
Scheherazade, of course, is an example of this principle taken to its extreme- she tries to avert and invert murder with her verbal skill.
In an essay on The Thousand and One Nights in Seven Nights, Borges mentions the *confabulatores nocturni*, a group of men who were employed to tell stories during the night. An ancient Persian text calims that the first person to assemble these men of the night to cure his insomnia was Alexander of Macedonia.
It's interesting to consider this tradition (a facet of oral culture) alongside many of the critical developments of recent times. WE now tend to understand writing to implicitly bring about the "death of the author". The writer writes his/her own Death, producing an artifact which will outlast (hopefully!) her/him, and thereby acknowledging her/his own mortality. Roland Barthes declares "the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author". The reader becomes the source and holder of interpretative power in post-structuralist discourse. Writing becomes a process of self-oblitteration, a little Death, perhaps even a rehearsal of one's bodily Death.
(1/30/01 6:12:39 am)
|Re: The Nightmare Life-in-Death|
Karen, what a juicy reply. Thank you! I adore that Foucault quote. Where precisely is it from?
(1/30/01 9:20:23 am)
|death in all forms|
The Foucault quote is an essay that appears in a variety of translations. But the one I've read is from a translation by Josue V. Harari in "Textual Strategies: Perspectives in Post-Structuralist Criticism" (Cornell University 1979). You can also find a reprint of that text in a Foucault reader, "The Foucault Reader" edited by Paul Rabinov from Pantheon.
Karen's reply has me thinking however that for the purposes of your article it becomes important to clarify the idea of death as a figure in the tales. Foucault's wonderful quote is not about the physical death, or even the confrontation with death, but the metaphorical death of the author in the relationship of the reader (and critic) to the text. The author can not be present to intervene in the moment of the reader's act of reading...which Foucault also suggests is not only reading, but reinventing meaning to the text--so the author is metaphorically "dead" removed, no longer part of the creative process as the reader takes over. Heroes/heroines also metaphorically die in narratives when they are spelled or transformed in that rite of passage from adolescence to adulthood. But it is temporary, only a moment in between one stage and another.
There are also characters that are associated with death as death dealers and death announcers but I would suggesat that they are not "Death" as in a Mr or Ms Death, personified in the tales. Morrigan, the Irish goddess of War revels in carnage, in death as an act of violence. She messes with men to make them kill each other, because she enjoys the violence of war, the taste of fear, of blood, of madness and anguish that battle brings. But she isn't "death" herself, only a creature who delights in witnessing the moment of violent dying. The various incubus and sucubus are also death dealers...their actions always bring death to the mortal who gets tangled up with them. But they aren't "death" either...again I think because they, like Morrigan, usually bring death to a specific group of individuals in a narrative (Morrigan to warriors, incubus and succubus to adult women and men) but are not associated with the deaths of others. The persona of death does have that equal opportunity kind of thing--he/she takes the child, the adult, the old, the young, the strong/ the weak--Mr. Death doesn't discriminate, but moves over everything in a constantly shifting pattern that can't be nailed down. That is what is so terrifying, the way death resists being slotted into a known plan. All we know is that it will happen...but never when and never how.
That's why I think the tales about Godfather Death, (which I think is what you were thinking about for the article) specifically address the idea of death as the arrival of an anybody at anytime...as opposed to death dealing creatures who have very specific places/victims that they select. "Masque of the Red Death" works on the idea that one imagines one can fore-know, identify "death" and keep him/her out. And what is chilling in the tale is the ease with which death infiltrates, in the same guise as the rest of the revelers.
When I wrote "Jack Straw" a story about a girl who riddles death (who appears to her like an old scarecrow "harvesting" folks) to keep her life a little longer, I remember thinking about how hard it was to fit into one image, the complexity of my feelings about death. Death, when not associated with those otherwise violent sorts of death-dealers, is very ambiguous. At some point we must accepot and embrace it, because it is the fate of us all, yet we resist it (at least at certain times in our lives) because of its finality. And we recreate it in figures that allow us to personalize our contact with it long enough to confront it, to argue with it and perhaps if we are lucky, to make peace with it.
I have been also thinking about the differences in those stories where the dead live in an alternate world to ours. Hades is less Mr. Death and more the king of the dead, content to rule once the souls have crossed over and come to him, rather than go out and get them. Same perhaps for Judeo/Christian traditions, where those who die are "born to eternal life" somewhere else, their new lives overseen by someone else. Christ isn't a "Mr. Death" and neither is Satan (especially if one thinks of Dante's image of him, frozen in a bed of ice.) though both have something to say about the dead. What about those tales where "death" is brought into the world (doesn't coyote bring death?) and when death is introduced, is it personafied? or does it move like a force of nature, invisible and ubiquitous in those tales? Death (like that other now famous slogan) happens. I just think in the transition from the aetiological sense of death as a force of nature moving across everything, that eventually death might acquire a momentary face, a figure, a point of consolidation, that would allow the character of the tale, confronted with mortality to recognize the moment at hand. And it seems then that those humanized images of "Godfather death" are of the wanderer, the traveler, the one not bound by place or position. The very anonimity, flexibilty of the personified death insures that equality with which death meets us all...high and low.
Godfather death is also a mirror reflection of ourselves. It is afterall, "our" death that we meet. So I wonder if that dynamic is in the tales of Godfather death too? Mr Death is a reflection, a concrete, externalize image of the character's death? And if it is, then how Mr.Death appears in the narrative would certainly have something to say about the character whose death it is that has arrived.
(1/30/01 11:24:52 pm)
I was quoting Foucault's essay from *Language/Counter-Memory/Practice* which has a different translation.
I agree with Midori- the tradition I was gesturing at above could be regarded as something of a sideline and, certainly, the death of the author is not a physical death, but rather a rehearsal or performance of death- and yet, any representation of death must needs be circumscribed by the artistic form which produces it. Godfather Death is not truly Death either- more a cipher, a sign which bears (leaving psychological motivations aside) very little resemblance to what it is supposed to signify- and isn't this distance, this gap between signifier and signified another instance of storytelling both removing us from the reality of our own mortality at the same time as it reinforces that mortality?
(1/31/01 6:40:58 am)
Ah, of course, I forgot about "Language/Counter-Memory/Practice". I've been hauling around the Rabinow reader this last year because it just seemed to contain more of the essays I wanted in one place! Have you read both translations? Is one really better? (Anything to make Foucault clearer!)
Foucault's essay is really interesting for me when he evokes the Arabian nights and the act of Shaharazad's story telling to stave off death because I think of the death of the author as a sort of trickster's death and resurrection. I know, Foucault argues that Shahrazad's storytelling is to keep death at bay (out of the circle of life)...but she also does so by never finishing the tale in the morning, where it's conclusion might signal the arrival of her own promised death. Instead, she leaves off at a cliffhanger, which requires another night, to finish, and then promptly, starts another tale before the night is over. The moment of completion, the rehearsal of "death" does come but in the middle of the night, which enables to resurrect herself in yet another tale before the night is over. So its as though each story produces its own moment of death, followed by a new work that resurrects the story teller (and the author). It's sort of like trickster's death in the coyote cartoons...never final, always returning, repeting a movement between creation and death.
It also seems to me that such rehearsals, such little deaths, occur in a variety of art productions and cultural events that celebrate dialectical changes...(ala Barthes I think of high school graduation ceremonies as the sign of the death--the death of adolescence--dressed in black robes, diplomas like death certificates, one is not initiated into a new order, but booted permanently out of the old.)
And yes, yes, yes, Godfather death is a sign/a cipher...but I am curious as to what that sign is composed of, where we draw our images to construct that particular sign...from the Grim Reaper to Fosse's woman in white in the film of his life, "All That Jazz," from Shiva with her voluptuous form and deadly arms to Johnny Depp as simultaneously death and deadman together in a film whose name escapes me at the moment. Death appears in a variety of signs but also functions diferently in the narratives as a sign--Coyote's or trickster's death is experienced (read as a sign) very differently than death in the sign of the skeleton when it comes to the Maiden--the first isn't really read as permanent, while the other is frighteningly so. Godfather Death is not, as you say, truly Death, but it can be experienced as truly death by the characters in some narratives, and as a moment of temporary interruption of events by other characters in other narratives.(how many times does coyote experience some outrageous seemingly fatal accident only to rise, renewed in his effort to get the roadrunner?) So for me, its when the sign of Death functions differently in one setting than in another that I become curious as to what makes those distinctions...
as always Karen your posts are so intriguing and I hope I'm not making a mush of my reply...
(1/31/01 9:20:49 pm)
|Re: Godfather Death|
Midori, your comment "Johnny Depp as simultaneously death and deadman together in a film whose name escapes me at the moment" is, I presume, about Jim Jarmusch's _Dead Man_, from 1995. It's a haunting, bizarre, intriguing, wonderful film -- I've been meaning to revisit it -- and quite appropriate for this thread. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in this topic. Actually, I've been thinking about Ingmar Bergman's _The Seventh Seal_ (1957) the whole time I've been reading this. ::sigh:: Need to get to that one too. :-)
(2/1/01 4:21:43 am)
Yes! Thanks...you know I thought it was "Dead Man"...but then that seemed too easy! Jarmushc is another artist fascinated with death if you think of that movie and also, "Ghost Dog" which like "Dead Man" has this irrevocable movement of the hero towards his own death--as though everything else that happens is secondary only to that head long rush to embrace one's own death. I find Jarmusch's work fascinating...and Terri, the Dead Man movie would make a nice reference in your article only because it has become something of a cult film (like most of Jarmusch...and Johnny Depp's work).
(2/2/01 7:18:52 am)
Thanks, everyone, for so many stimulating ideas on this subject. It looks like I'm going to have to hit up my local video store for those films.
I'm not due to write another Realms article until early April, so I'm just gathering information at this early stage....so any other thoughts you have over the next several weeks, please post them! Ellen Steiber wrote to me to say that she wants to join this discussion, but it will have to wait because she's away from home right now and using a computer that doesn't connect to the web properly.
Midori, thanks for reminding me of your story "Jack Straw" -- how on earth could I have forgotten it? I *love* that story!
Edited by: Terri at: 2/2/01
(2/4/01 11:34:11 am)
|another movie on this topic|
On Turner Classic Movies next Wednesday (the 7th) is the following film:
9:30 PM On Borrowed Time (1939) An old man and his grandson trap Death in a tree. Lionel Barrymore, Cedric Hardwicke, Beulah Bondi. D: Harold S. Bucquet. BW 99m
Sounds right on the money, I hope!
(2/4/01 7:44:23 pm)
|another movie on this topic|
hard to tell if these are right or not (all times Eastern)
On TCM Sunday the 11th
6:00 AM Between Two Worlds (1944) Passengers on a luxury liner realize they are en route to the afterlife. John Garfield, Edmund Gwenn, Eleanor Parker. D: Edward A. Blatt. BW 113m
2:30 AM Blood of Jesus (1941) A rural black woman lying near death is torn between heaven and hell. Spencer Williams, Cathryn Caveness, Juanita Riley. D: Spencer Williams. BW 56m.
(2/7/01 1:59:46 pm)
I'm fascinated by the connection you make between the death of the author and trickster death- I think it's a very wonderful idea, sheds much light on the processes of literary transmission and iconisation- Shakespeare is a coyote! I especially like it when I consider it in terms of much nineteenth and twentieth century American women's poetry- are Dickinson, SExton, Plath constructing a literary identity which is implicitly trickster in nature? It's especially interesting when you consider the mythologies which have built up around each of these figures.
I'm trying to rattle my brain for more films- I vaguely remember a Hollywood blockbuster with Brad Pitt in the role of Death (I think it had Anthony Hopkins in it too). Then there's Monty Python- that scene in "THe meaning of Life" where the reaper visits the dinner party and informs the American guests that they never shut up and the British hosts that they're "all so %$#@!* pompous".
translations- I haven't consulted the Foucault reader, so I'm not sure which translation is best. I find the one in Language/etc lucid and easy to read. Of course the translation might make some difference to the sense in which we understand Foucault's comments on the Arabian Nights....
Anne Heiner |
The Brad Pitt/ Anthony Hopkins flick
is "Meet Joe Black."
I actually never saw it, but I remember the name!