Season of Epiphany | by Marina Warner


Dan Welldon

Marina warner

In our vacation issue, Marina Warner writes about the enduring werewolf myth. Antiquity is littered with stories of men turning into wolves, The epic of Gilgamesh at Ovide Metamorphosis. But the legend itself changed form several times before giving birth to the lunar creature we know today, and werewolves have various connotations of brutal violence, warlike courage, and a dark sexual attraction. “As with mermaids, the figure’s meanings are not fixed but vary widely,” Warner told me in an email this week, saying she finds that “monsters of all kinds, especially intermediates The charismatic, ambiguous rather than outright terrifying hybrids are good to think of.

Marina Warner, it’s fair to say, is the undisputed queen of fairyland. She holds, among many honors, the distinction of being the first female president of the Royal Academy of Literature, and is the author of dozens of books, including several novels and children’s books. In the Review, she talked about sea monsters, mermaids, Grimm folklore and New Testament phantasmagoria. His prolific contributions to the scholarship of mythography have always been driven by his own palpable enjoyment of stories and his respect for their original audience:

It is because fairy tales and folklore are so strongly linked to women and children who as subjects, transmitters and main audience were denigrated as illiterate, gullible and susceptible that I was drawn to this tradition. literary in the first place. I had loved reading Greek and Roman myths, legends and fairy tales when I was young and later wanted to understand their hold on me and still try to understand!

Warner was born in London and her father was a bookseller who moved the family to Cairo and then to Brussels. “I feel very lucky to have grown up in a bookstore,” she told me. “Whenever my sister or I showed interest in something, [my father] would bring me a book about it. She read Andrew Lang’s colorful series Fairy books, and still has its book of classic French fairy tales. “I used to sit on the floor in the store and read. I was a bookworm, with my torch under the sheets after the lights went out, once I was sent to boarding school.

Her mother, Ilia, was Italian. His parents’ relationship is the subject of Warner’s latest book, Esmond and Ilia: an unreliable memory. Growing up, “I thought they were very badly matched,” she said. “But the chasm between them was even deeper.” Her research into their unhappy union – which began in earnest during her mother’s later years, when Warner interviewed her and perused the boxes of old letters and diaries in her garage – yielded “a series of shocks, which I had to absorb before I could start writing again. The project lasted two decades:

It was an exciting and very moving endeavor, trying to see them from the inside, as if they were characters from a book… that’s what I transformed them into. I often felt like they were talking to me, making sure I saw things I didn’t know because I was a child during the time I was exploring.

By making sense of the past, myths and legends have indeed given Warner a framework to “think with”: in the book, she writes that her father’s unstable temper was “a curse which, in the stories, s ‘sets up to turn a husband into a werewolf. “

Warner was raised in the Catholic Church and received a convent education, but renounced his Catholicism and returned to question his religious education as a scholar. In 1976, she published Alone with all his sex: the myth and the cult of the Virgin Mary, a daring study in which she explores the history of the figure of the Virgin and its influence on secular culture and notions of femininity.

After leaving the Church, she “felt very distressed by religious rituals, or even by religious music,” she told me, “because I had once been able to surrender myself entirely to them and to feel all that consolation, security and joy, but had now been exiled. Although it gradually came to an unbiased appreciation of religious art, “I have no belief at all in the history of hi Christian, “she said.” You could say I fear her fate, so I’m much happier with stories that don’t ask me to consent to their principles or believe in their heroes. to have a Christmas tree, for the smell of the pine forest, a pagan ritual!

For Warner, the legends of the holiday season are their own source of fascination: “I find that I can almost now enjoy Christianity as if it were another source of wonderful mythology. Before being Christianized in the 10th century, Yule was a pagan winter festival celebrated by the Germanic peoples, in honor of the Norse god Odin. When she was a child, one of Warner’s favorite stories was the Norse myth of Baldur the Beautiful; Baldur, son of Odin, was immune to evil except by mistletoe. “Sure enough, his wicked and jealous brother Loki is in collusion to get the blind god Hodr to shoot him a mistletoe arrow.”

Her mother’s hometown of Bari in southern Italy is also part of the international amalgamation of Christmas traditions. The body of Saint Nicolas, the donating bishop who inspired Father Christmas, is preserved there; in 1701, Italian sailors saved his bones from the basilica in the city of Myra, which had been conquered by infidel Turks. “Another living figure of local Christmas history in southern Italy is la Befana,” Warner told me:

an old witch figure whose name is a corruption of Epiphany (Epiphany), because when the three kings asked her if she knew a baby born in the neighborhood, she denied it. For this, she has become a bogeyman with which bad children are threatened at Christmas. But she also appears on the frontispiece of storybooks as an old age storyteller.


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