Taylor Swift’s Temple: Celebrity Worship and Archetypal Energy in a Social Media Age

Last week I had the privilege of presenting a paper at the annual Popular Culture Association national conference, held here in Seattle. My paper, which had the same title as this blog post, was on a phenomenon I’ve been noticing around celebrities for the past few years. I’m a mythologist, so it’s natural for me to pick up what one might call “mythological patterns” in daily life.

Photo by Scott Summerdorf, The Salt Lake Tribune

Taylor Swift reacting to her fans in concert.

In fact, a few years ago, after the mass shooting incident in Isla Vista, California, I wrote this blog post, then this one, which represented some of my earliest thinking on this topic. As I continued to cogitate on the energy surrounding celebrity, however, it began to occur to me that celebrities hold a space in culture that goes far beyond mere entertainment.

In polytheistic religions such as that of Classical Greece, having multiple gods and goddesses available for worship ensured that a member of that religion had opportunities to turn to different members of the pantheon at different times in life, depending on what was taking place at the time. For example, a young girl might feel a strong connection with Artemis, as she was the goddess of prepubescent girls, whereas later in life that same young woman might feel more drawn to Demeter when she was approaching motherhood for the first time. A offering of fresh flowers might be left for Aphrodite for assistance with a love affair, or a bull could be sacrificed to Poseidon to ensure success in a business transaction across the sea.

In the modern west, polytheistic religions have become the exception, rather than the rule. If a person is a believer at all, they are most likely to be bringing all of their issues to a “one true god,” rather than finding one sympathetic ear among many. However, I don’t believe this ancient human need just goes away. Instead, I think that we have settled this archetypal energy, as it were, around the shoulders of celebrities.

It is this core idea that was central to my paper. I primarily looked at goddess archetypes, due to the limitations of a 20 minute paper. I think that the archetypal energies around love, sex, and desire (as represented by Aphrodite for the Greeks) have moved between women, primarily actresses. We can see the energy shifting as it moves from one generation to the next, from Marilyn Monroe in the 1950s, through different types of women such as Farrah Fawcett in the 1970s and Pamela Anderson in the 1990s. Kim Kardashian West seems to be our “Aphrodite” of the moment, but there are others who hold a similar energy as well.

monroeaphrodite

Marilyn Monroe holding Aphrodite, 1950s

In this paper I wanted to examine Taylor Swift’s archetypal energy in particular. She does not represent what one might call an “Aphroditic type.” Her image is much less sexual. In fact, I would argue that the archetypal space that she is holding in culture is much more like Artemis. She is, of course, the goddess and protector of young girls, and Taylor Swift, with her millions upon millions of fans worldwide, is connecting with her young female fans in particular in a way that seems unprecedented by any other celebrity. Taylor is quite young herself at 26, and she has spent the past 10 years of her career utilizing social in such a way that she is able to connect with her fans in a very personal way. She follows their blogs on Tumblr, sends personal messages and phone calls, and even occasionally sends Christmas presents (known as “Swiftmas”).

Now Taylor Swift, like every other celebrity, is a regular person. She has every human foible that any other human being has. Beyond her personhood, however, there is a great deal of archetypal energy that has accrued around her, and it is here that we start to approach the realm of the gods. Over the past year she has given 85 concerts worldwide in support of her most recent album, 1989. Unfortunately I didn’t have the opportunity to see one live, but I did recently watch her tour video. What I saw there seems strikingly similar to what might happen if 76k people were worshipping at a temple, and their goddess came to life. There was a profound energy exchange that was going on, between Taylor and her fans. I like Taylor’s music, but I don’t consider myself a “Swiftie,” or super-fan. Despite that, even I was profoundly moved (to tears, in fact) by what I was seeing, watching the concert on my 17″ laptop screen. This is the power and presence of the gods.

Taylor was interviewed on the “Graham Norton Show” in the UK as she promoted her new album. Taylor was being asked about the fact that she had invited some of her “Swifties” to her home(s) to listen to the new album, before it was released. Now, given what I’ve just been saying, I’m sure you can imagine how these people responded to being invited to Taylor’s house. Graham read multiple tweets of people who had been invited, and they ALL talk about how they “died” by meeting Taylor. A quote from Taylor, from the interview: “they always talk about ‘dying.’ Like, ‘rest in peace, me.'”

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Yes, because that is the proper  human reaction to confronting god energy in person. A fragile human psyche will feel profoundly taxed in that moment.

I’m happy to report that my paper did seem to engender a lot of discussion in the room at the conference; people seemed really energized by the idea of celebrities holding the same archetypal space as the gods.

The human psyche does seem to fall into regular, recognizable patterns. A few thousand years ago, a young girl might have prayed to Artemis. Now, she blasts Taylor Swift songs from her bedroom and thinks about the fact that Taylor really gets her. Then, she goes to a concert and worships at her goddess’ temple. Sometimes, the goddess might tweet her back. Wouldn’t that be something?

On Showrooming Amazon Books

This blog has been intentionally quiet for the past few months, as I work on finishing my novel and my book on myth and creativity. However, I had a little adventure last week, and I’d like to share it with all of you.

As I’m sure many of you know, behemoth internet bookseller Amazon recently opened their first physical store in my home city of Seattle. On Friday I was doing some shopping nearby, when I saw a challenge on Twitter by Paul Constant. He promised a gift certificate to Elliott Bay Book Company to the first person to go into Amazon Books, shop for a book there, then go buy it from their favorite indie bookseller.

For some context, for years Amazon has actively encouraged their customers to browse for books in physical bookstores, then buy the book from Amazon instead, a practice called “showrooming.” See Paul Constant’s write up about it here. Paul thought it’d be cool if someone did the same thing to them. I was only about 100 yards away when I saw his tweet, so I went over to Amazon Books.

I found it a strange experience. It definitely doesn’t feel like other bookstores to me. I saw multiple copies of MM Kaye’s The Far Pavilions, which was a huge bestseller in the eighties. I read and loved it then, but is there really that big a demand for it in Seattle thirty years later? I suppose if the algorithims say so, it must be true.

I found a copy of a book I’d been wanting to read, Alice Hoffman’s The Marriage of Opposites. I took a picture of the book, then went to the website of Queen Anne Book Company and bought it.

I was excited about this challenge because I love shopping in local indie bookstores. To me they feel like temples to the life of the mind, and I love being in a shared space with other book lovers, even if I don’t talk to any of them. I can afford to pay full list price for books, and I feel a responsibility to help keep these communities alive. Full disclosure, I do still shop at Amazon. With four voracious readers in our family, we buy a lot of books. Buying from Amazon is certainly convenient, but I love the experience of being in a bookstore and finding a book that I love that I never would have thought to look for. I’ve found some of my favorite authors that way, and read books that have changed my life.

I was the first person to “reverse-showroom” at Amazon, as such I won a $75 gift certificate at Elliott Bay Book Company, here in Seattle. We went in on Saturday, and each member of our family found something new to read. I thought that it was a fun adventure, and that would be the end of it.

However, today the UK newspaper The Guardian did a story about my little adventure. Very exciting stuff!

It’s been interesting to see how this little stunt is being discussed on the internet. Some people think it’s elitist to pay more for a book than you absolutely have to. Others think it’s great to stick it to Amazon, even in a small way. Most seem to love the support for indie bookstores.

I don’t know if this story will have any more “legs” than this, but it’s been fun to have 15 seconds of internet “fame,” if it can even be called that. The last time I caught the attention of strangers from the internet it was a very discouraging experience, and this time it was nice to have strangers thinking I’m awesome, instead of hating me.

Go buy a book from your favorite indie bookseller today!

On Truth, Lies, and Critical Thinking Skills

In our family we talk a great deal about both science and myth, which reflects the interests of my husband and myself. Our children, two boys ages 8 and 6, have thankfully developed a deep curiosity about both subjects, which keeps things lively in our home, to say the least.

The boys often ask me to tell them myths, and we have lots of wonderful conversations about the stories I tell, about what they might mean, and what might be going on underneath the surface of the stories. They are both at the age where they have questions about whether the stories are “true.”

Yesterday was one of the times that this question came up. The boys are out of school for spring break, and we were driving home from an outing when they asked me again if myths are “true.” I was reminded of the wonderful quote from Pablo Picasso, in which he says that “art is the lie that tells the truth.” I amended this slightly, and told them that “myth is the lie that tells the truth,” then asked them what they thought that meant. We talked about understanding the difference between something being “literally” true, like the fact that the sun rises in the east and sets in the west, and being a truth that teaches us something about who we are as human beings. This is the kind of true that myth is, and I love that they’re starting to understand this, at such young ages. Having these kind of conversations with my children is such a joy to me as a parent. It’s both fascinating and wonderful to see them developing the critical thinking skills that allow them to differentiate between these two kinds of truth, and to appreciate what myth has to offer them without needing it to be a literal truth.

On Myth and Landscape

Chugach Mountains

Chugach Mountains

I had the privilege of leading a workshop in Boulder, Colorado this past weekend. I had never visited that part of Colorado before, and I was blown away by the beauty of the landscape; the mesas and red rocks jutting up out of the mid-western plain like sentinels guarding.

It reminded me profoundly of growing up in the Chugach Mountains, in my home town of Eagle River, Alaska. While I can see mountains from my current home, they’re off in the distance, on the other side of Puget Sound from us.

I noticed right away how different the feeling was, between watching the ocean and its moods every day, versus the stalwart presence of the Rocky Mountains. It got me thinking, as I spoke about myth, creativity, and how our stories influence who we are and what we create. The ocean is a part of who I am and how I tell my story, particularly to myself, but the mountains are a part of my creation myth, one might say. In the workshops we talk about our origins, about how the myths that we were born into can affect our perceptions of ourselves and our work, and by examining them we can decide if those stories still serve us.

The landscape that formed us is the unspoken presence in those stories. The times I spent in the Alaskan bush are an important part of my mythos, as are the times I spent in regular American suburbia. They are all a part of my story, which is a core part of my being. How did the landscape you grew up in become a part of you? If you choose to live elsewhere as an adult, have you noticed a change in your story as your landscape changed? I’d love to hear from you in the comments.

I feel like a 12 year old girl this week

I’ve spent much of this week reviewing my lecture and workshop materials, preparing for my talk in Boulder on Friday night and its accompanying workshop on Saturday morning. One of the myths that we delve into in both the lecture and workshop is the story of Inanna and her descent into the underworld to visit her sister Ereshkigal. Inanna’s journey makes an excellent metaphor for the creative process and what it requires of us. I tell the myth, then we talk about it. However, rather than using the standard Wolkstein and Kramer translation of the text that is the most well known of the versions of the myth, I use Catherynne M. Valente’s long poem retelling instead. So, the lines from the poem are rattling around in my head as I prepare for the lecture. Here are the first lines…

Down.

Her foot is pointed like a dancer’s, laces inward,
indicating darkness. The bend in her knee is not quite classical–
the bone protrudes, white-blind, and her calf is mapped:
scar, welt, sun. It hesitates, ostrich-elongate,
and the ribbon knotted at the perfumed hollow of her ankle
flutters.

The wind out of the deep smells of myrrh and cardamom,
and meat just shy of spoil.

Does she hear the sea far off from her? Does she hear the working
of worms in the ceiling of loam?

In an exciting turn of events, I was able to hear Ms. Valente speak on how her education in classics has influenced her work in a keynote speech at The Once and Future Antiquity: International Conference on Classical Traditions in Science Fiction and Fantasy that I attended over the weekend.

I discovered Ms. Valente’s work in 2008, and I’ve been singing her praises to my friends who love myth ever since. I even presented a paper on her Orphan’s Tales books at the 2012 Sirens Conference, my first and only conference presentation.

I’m excited to announce that Cat has agreed to be interviewed by me, for this blog. She is doing a book signing in Seattle tomorrow night at Queen Anne Book Company, and we should have a chance to talk myth for a bit before the signing. I’ll post the interview when I’m back from Boulder. I’m so thrilled to be having a conversation with one of my favorite authors!

Check back early next week for the interview.🙂

Update: I finally wrote about my conversation with Ms Valente, nearly two months after our initial talk. What stuck with me about the conversation was her dismissal of Joseph Campbell and his work, or at least my perception of that dismissal. I was struggling with this question: at what point, if any, do we need to reject the work of writers or other artists if they turn out to be bad people? In our talk (which was very brief; less than twenty minutes) it seemed clear, to me at least, that Ms. Valente felt that the validity of Campbell’s work was in question because he was, or was perceived to be, a misogynist, racist, anti-semite, etc. Because of my respect for her, her work, and her intellect, I found myself questioning Campbell and his place in my own intellectual pantheon, as it were. I opened the question to the blog’s readers thus: do we have an obligation to discard the work of writers who may have been distasteful people? I had hoped to spark a dialogue around the shadow aspects of the people whose works we admire.

I did invite Ms. Valente to comment on my perception of our conversation. She did so, and vehemently objected to my take on what she had said. She accused me of setting her up to accept the interview just so I could trash her in print (to paraphrase), and then banned me from her fandom. I did apologize to her for getting our conversation wrong. I’ve really struggled with this entire incident, and I ultimately decided to delete the post, as it was attracting the attention of her fans, who turned out in droves to support her. It’s my first experience of really getting trolled/bullied online, and it’s been hard on me. So, now I’m hoping to put the whole incident behind me. I continue to reflect on this issue, and try to separate the shadow aspects of my favorite writers and teachers from what they have to offer in print.

Mythic Transformation

Actaeon being transformed into a deer

Actaeon being transformed into a deer

I’ve had the theme of transformation on my mind these past few days. Myth is so often about transformation after all, and the creative act is in its essence an act of transformation, from something to nothing. There are even some scholars who believe that the only true myths are creation stories, and that any other type of story should fall under the category of folklore, or some other designation.

Sometimes the first thing that people ask me when I talk about my work is what mythology and creativity have to do with each other, and my answer is usually somewhere along the lines of examining the role of transformation in myth, and how we can use those lessons to bring about “creation myths” of our own, so to speak.

Transformation is such a prevalent theme in myth that the Roman poet Ovid themed his greatest work, Metamorphoses, around mythic stories of gods and humans transforming.

Sometimes it seems to me that the act of transformation is the one true magic that we as humans are able to perform or experience. As children, it’s a daily part of our lives; our bodies and minds are changing and growing every day. Once we’ve reached adulthood, however, transformation is something that must often be fought for. We become set in our ways, the Gorgon head of habit moving us into immutable tracks that should be fought against, resisted, jumped if possible.

Reading myth helps me to remember the magic of creating something from nothing, and from changing my bad habits to better ones. I remember Pygmalion’s story, and I know that stone can turn to flesh.

On Frigga, Queen of Midgard

Frigga with her spindle, and with Fulla and her box nearby

Frigga with her spindle, and with Fulla and her box nearby

In honor of Friday, her name day, I would like to dedicated today’s blog post to the high queen of the Norse pantheon, Frigga. Frigga, or Frigg, is the wife of Odin, and she is associated with both fertility and prophecy. In some images she is seen weaving the clouds from her spindle. She lives in Fensalir, which is a fen, bog, or spring, and this aspect of her character leads us to a deeper understanding of both her fertility aspect and her relationship to the chthonic feminine.

Frigga has become an important character for me these past months, as she holds a crucial role in my current novel, as does her handmaiden Fulla, seen close by in many images of Frigga, always holding a small box. The plot of my novel revolves around this box.

Frigga is also considered by some scholars to be the alternate name for the goddess Saga. Saga is also described as living in a bog or fen, and she is often shown drinking with Odin, a drink meant to maintain immortality. It is from Saga that we get the word saga, a word that means a long story of heroic achievement. In some images Odin is seen dictating a story to Saga/Frigga, and the origins of the word lie in that particularly Norse style of tale, full of battles and bravery.

Frigga’s most well-known story revolves around the death of her son Baldr. Baldr is the god of light, purity, and beauty. He is similar to Apollo from the Greek tradition in many aspects. Baldr’s death starts a chain of events which leads to Ragnarok, the end of the world as described in Norse myth.

Frigga’s dreams prophesy Baldr’s death. Frigga is so distraught at the thought of her son’s death that she travels the world, asking every plant, stone and animal to keep Baldr safe. All agree, but Frigga forgets to ask the seemingly-harmless mistletoe for its promise. Of course, as must happen in myth, it is the mistletoe that is his downfall.

Loki is behind the death, of course. More on him later. The gods are having fun trying to kill Baldr in any way they could, knowing that nothing could harm him. Loki creates an arrow out of mistletoe and gives it to the blind god Hoor, who naturally throws it at Baldr, killing him.

Frigga’s grief in this moment is real and palpable. She had done everything she could think of to prevent Baldr’s death, but, like with the Greeks, what was prophesied must come to be.