Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Analysis: Katabasis, by Kathryn Anthony

       The collection of seven short stories by Kathryn Anthony entitled Of Myth and Memory is based on retellings of myth.  I originally reviewed this book on Amazon and Goodreads back in May 2012, but it was impossible to consider all the stories in depth  there.  Since their themes fit my proposal to broaden this blog with discussions of the use of myth in literature, my plan is to discuss at least three of these stories over the coming weeks.  Today we’ll talk about “Katabasis.”
       The author is a strong writer with a fine command of the English language.  Two highlights of this collection are her ability to create mood and atmosphere and to turn a metaphorical phrase.  Here are a couple of examples from “Katabasis”: “She heard a distant, brittle clash of laughter, like shards of dawn, splintering and smashing into a fine, crystalline powder.”  He was grappling with a dilemma, his gaze touching on her brows, her lips, her chin, like the feather-light explorations of a blind man’s fingers.”) 
       Here is what the author herself says about this story in her book description: “‘Katabasis’ is a narrative of rivalry, loss and sacrifice that blends motifs of Snow White with the myth of Inanna's descent into the Underworld.”  The term “katabasis” derives from the Greek words meaning “a going down” or “descent.”  It can mean a military march from the interior of a country to the coast, but in mythological usage it means a descent into the underworld.  Its opposite is “anabasis,” the return from the underworld, which (Wikipedia points out) is essential to creating a “katabasis” rather than merely a death.  The descent into the underworld is a ubiquitous element of epic myth, occurring in everything from the Odyssey to Dante,  and it plays a central role here.
       I must confess the allusions to the Snow White theme rather eluded me at first.  My knowledge of the theme was pretty much restricted to childhood viewings of the Disney version, so I had to do some homework, including reading the original Grimm version, which can be viewed at http://www.pitt.edu/~dash/type0709.html#snowwhite. 
       It happens that I’ve explored Sumerian myth before, with a view to basing a piece of fiction on it.  However, that was back in 1983, right at the time when family problems caused me to give up writing.  In preparation for this post, I pulled out all my old notes (this was in pre-computer days), but I find that even though the notes and copies of material are extensive, they don’t make much sense to me now, so I did some exploring on Google.  If you want to read a translation of the original myth of Inanna and the Underworld, go to http://etcsl.orinst.ox.ac.uk/section1/tr141.htm (part of The Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature, based at the University of Oxford).  For a paraphrase and psychological interpretation of the myth, go to http://www.halexandria.org/dward385.htm (an interesting, New-Agey sort of site).
       “Katabasis” opens with a premise of blood related to “Snow White”:  “All that business about the ebony windowsill, the white snow, the embroidery needle – nonsense, all of it.  The one true thing about that story was the blood. … Blood is life.  … We’re born on its slippery tide and when that tide ebbs out of us … that’s when we die.”  And then immediately we learn that “Elana” (as Anthony calls her “Inanna” character) is Queen of the Wolves – she’s a werewolf.  A new element is introduced that is not present in either myth. 
       After all, what becomes of ancient goddesses when the world moves away from belief in them?  Any goddess worth her salt ought to be able to shape-shift, so an introduction of a werewolf identity isn’t so odd as it may at first appear.
       Furthermore, she’s a modern woman.  We’re never told whether her husband or any acquaintance has the least inkling that this person they live with is also an ancient goddess.  And this modern woman and primitive Great Goddess is about to undergo egg extraction because she can’t get pregnant:  “Elana, Queen of the Wolves, watched as the nurse pricked the back of her hand with the i.v. needle.  Before the other woman could connect the needle to the drip, blood spurted out of the puncture and onto the downy white sheet covering the hospital bed.”  And so we continue the opening of “Snow White.”
       Later in the tale, Elana’s child is stolen from her womb by her sister, Ereshkigal, the Queen of the Underworld (whose name is retained in its common transcription), as payment of a debt and the distraught Elana assumes her wolf form and flees to the forest (an element of the Snow White tale), not to escape an evil queen but to learn how to find and defeat one.  She ends up being rescued by seven woodsman – conflating the dwarves with the Huntsman.  These people can give her the answer she is seeking:  Can anybody be brought back from the underworld?  The answer is yes, but there will always be a price to pay.  Elana dies in childbirth and in so doing initiates a final ironic plot twist that means a good deal more if you are familiar with the Inanna myth.
       The main elements of the Inanna myth that Anthony keeps are the need to enter the underworld, the ritual shedding of garments as Elana passes through the gates, and the birth pangs of Ereshkigal.  Anthony omits many elements, such as Inanna’s death in the underworld and her resuscitation by spirits who take the form of carrion flies.  She also adds elements, such as the emotional price that must be paid at each gate of the underworld in addition to the shedding of garments.  But that’s what you do when you use myth as a foundation for a story of your own: you add and subtract elements to gain a new perspective.
       One other aspect of the myth is retained.  When Inanna returns from the underworld, she must send someone to take her place.  She ends up sending her husband Dumuzi, who had remained largely indifferent to her absence.  In Anthony’s version, Elana’s husband meets a fate that is different but ironically related to what happens in the myth (I can’t really discuss it because I don’t want to spoil the end of the story).
       What makes Kathryn Anthony’s approach so interesting is her ability to seamlessly conflate primitive mythic and folkloric elements with everyday modern life.  She moves among worlds with only minimal transitions, or none at all.  Here are a couple of examples:
       Elana in her wolf form is being nursed back to health by the seven Woodsmen, who are also caring for a seven-year-old boy named Alex:  “It was Eoain’s turn to keep Alex entertained – the plan, from what Elana could infer, was to take the lad to IKEA to play in the ball room, while Eowain picked up a few items, including a pet bed for her.”
       What could set the story more firmly in the modern world than that? – unless it’s this:
       Elana stands before the first gate of the underworld.  “She had donned her full ceremonial regalia: crown, scepter, mantle and gown.  The jewels studded into her breastplate gleamed dully under the compact fluorescent bulbs mounted above the gate – even the underworld was subject to cost cutting imperatives, it would seem.”
       All the tales in Of Myth and Memory are fascinating reads that require some work to appreciate properly.  They get better on the second or even third reading, and they benefit from having some background knowledge.  I recommend them for anyone who likes to probe depths.  The book is available at http://amzn.to/QekB0t


  1. Lorinda, thanks so much for this wonderful and insightful analysis of "Katabasis"--you've hit the proverbial nail on the head with your comments and I was particularly delighted to read the ways in which you extracted the threads of the different structural mythologies that were woven into the story. It's always exciting when someone reads your story and "gets it" at so many levels! This is spot-on--I could not have said it better myself.

    1. It was fun to do! Sooner or later I plan to do something similar with "Lucretia's Smile" and also with "River of Sigh" or "Village of the Lost," although those last two will necessitate some research - I know almost nothing about Japanese myths.
      I agree - it's very rewarding when somebody reads one of your stories and "gets" it!