This week’s entry: Mythological objects
What it’s about: Since the dawn of history, mythology around the world has been concerned with divine beings, great heroes, and their fantastic deeds. But it’s also been interested in stuff. Weapons, books, jewels, magic stones—centuries before Diablo combined fighting and shopping, even the most spiritual of stories have focused on material items.
Strangest fact: There’s a fair amount of mythological food. Greek mythology tells of ambrosia, the food of the gods, which bestowed immortality on whoever ate it. Hindu mythology has the almost-identical Amrita, which keeps the gods immortal. Chinese mythology has the similar Peaches Of Immortality, and peaches are still a symbol of longevity in modern-day China. But food doesn’t just grant eternal life. In Norse myths, drinkers of the Mead Of Poetry can solve any problem or recite any information.
Biggest controversy: Some bows were used just as weaponry, like Shiva’s bow Pinaka, whose arrows could not be blocked, or Heracles’ bow, whose arrows were tipped with Hydra poison. But besides Cupid’s bow, famous in Roman mythology (and in Greek, under the name Eros), for making its victim fall in love with the first person they saw, one of Buddha’s disciples, Kaundinya, used a magic bow to make a Naga princess fall in love with him.
Thing we were happiest to learn: Some of these objects actually exist. The Hallows Of Ireland were four treasures central to that country’s mythology, brought from over the sea by the Tuatha Dé Danann, the mythical race that ruled over Ireland of ancient legend. Lugh’s Spear, which was invincible in battle, and The Dagda’s Cauldron, which could produce unlimited food, have no real-life counterpart. But the Stone Of Fál, where the High Kings of legend were crowned, actually exists on the Hill Of Tara, raising questions as to whether the supernatural figures in Irish mythology were based on real people.
Thing we were unhappiest to learn: Even thousands of years ago, people were plagued with remakes and sequels. Thor’s hammer, Mjölnir, is “reimagined” in Finnish myth as Ukonvasara, and in Slavic as the Axe Of Perun. King Arthur’s sword, Excalibur, is often conflated with the Welsh Caledfwlch and the Sword In The Stone (also from Arthurian legend). Another Welsh sword, Dyrnwyn, appears in Lloyd Alexander’s terrific Chronicles Of Prydain series. And, of course, Roman mythology is essentially a remake of Greek mythology with the names changed.
Also noteworthy: There are several mythical chariots, several of which carry the sun or moon across the sky. While most of them are pulled by horses, Thor’s chariot is pulled by his two goats. Freyja (the Norse goddess of love, sex, war, and death) rode a chariot pulled by cats. Persian king Kay Kāvus flew around on a magic throne pulled by eagles. But the strangest vehicle of all may be Naglfar, a Norse ship that will sail during Ragnarök, and is made out of the fingernails and toenails of the dead.
Best link to elsewhere on Wikipedia: Because virtually every mythological tradition included its own significant objects, this Wikipedia page acts as a hub to pages on mythology from every corner of the world. You can follow links to Abenaki, Arthurian, Ayyavazhi, Aztec, Canadian, Chilote, Chinese, Christian, Egyptian, European, Finnish, German, Greek, Hindu, Icelandic, Irish, Japanese, Jewish, Māori, Malay, Mayan, Mesopotamian, Mongolian, Norse, Persian, Phonecian, Roman, and Slavic legends. There’s even a secondary list of mythological objects just from Hindu mythology.
Further down the wormhole: Mythology and folklore lead naturally to folk art, art that draws from a larger cultural tradition, and not from any formal art movement or school of thought. There’s a great deal of overlap between folk art and outsider art, made by artists without formal training, usually with little or no connection to any larger community of artists. The largest-scale form of outsider art is the visionary environment, a large-scale installation, sometimes comprising an entire building or outdoor park, which intends to create an entire world for the viewer to experience. We’ll delve into a few of those worlds next week.