Monday, March 16, 2015

Book Review: Breaking the Mother Goose Code

I really wanted to like Jeri Studebaker’s Breaking the Mother Goose Code: How a Fairy-Tale Character Fooled the World for 300 Years (Moon Books, 2015). I’ve been on something of a folklore kick for the last couple of years, trying to incorporate as much Scandinavian, German, and English folk-practices into my own religious practice as I could, tracking down similarities, resonances, etc. So when I saw this book advertised as a pre-order, I leapt at it, thinking it would make some solid connections between the “Mother Goose” nursery rhymes and folklore, and possibly pre-Christian material as well. Based on the blurb on the back, that’s what it should have been:
“This book delves deeply into the surviving evidence for Mother Goose’s origins – from her nursery rhymes and fairy tales as well as from relevant historical, mythological, and anthropological data.”

Alas, it was not to be. What we get is an exercise in wishful thinking, circular logic, outright incorrect information, and discredited theories. The frustrating thing is that the author does make one excellent connection, which could have been ground-breaking, but was so intent on pursuing a defense of her ideological predilections that it is treated as a mere afterthought, and not given the development it deserves. More on that later. To begin with, this book is steeped in the feminist myth of the “Great Mother Goddess”, and the so-called matriarchal civilization that supposedly existed 6,000 years ago in an idyllic egalitarian world. The long-since discredited theories of Marija Gimbutas are prominently referenced (there are seven direct references to her in the index, and , and indeed the whole premise of the book rests on the notion that 6,000 years ago, a matriarchal civilization was overthrown by nasty patriarchal Indo-European invaders:
“Although we homo sapiens have been stomping around planet earth for at least 150,000 years, it’s only been during the last 0.04 percent of that time – i.e., the past 6,000 years – that we’ve been plagued by patriarchy.” (Studebaker, p. 90)
To say that this is not a view of history embraced by mainstream scholarship is an understatement. It is the anthropological equivalent of Flat Earth-ism. Even feminist anthropologists don’t feel she makes her case: “The story that has been presented by Goddess literature is neither the only story nor “the” story, despite its power and seduction for those who actively seek to re-imagine the past and to create a “usable” past for contemporary contexts. … It may seem more satisfying to be given the “facts” of temples, of shrines, and reverence for a deity, but as feminists we are sure that longer-term interpretive satisfaction is more complicated than that.” (Ruth Tringham and Margaret Conkey, “Rethinking Figurines”, in Ancient Goddesses: The Myths and Evidence, Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1998)

Indeed, entire books have been written (by female scholars, it must unfortunately be noted), refuting the myth of the idyllic matriarchal society destroyed by evil patriarchal invaders. Look no further than The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory: Why an Invented Past Won't Give Women a Future by Cynthia Eller (Beacon Press, 2000):
“Feminist matriarchalist interpretations of ancient myth are rather transparently driven by ideology. Mythical evidence can by its nature be given various incommensurable interpretations. In this case, it provides no real support for the proposed prehistoric patriarchal revolution, though it does offer a fertile field for imagination.” (p. 179)
Although an in-depth study of the fallacious nature of the matriarchialist view of prehistory is beyond the scope of this review, suffice to say that it is recognized as ideologically, rather than academically, based, and respected scholarship in the field finds the idea suspect at best.

That said, it would still be possible to find value in The Mother Goose Code, were it to engage in a study of the rhymes themselves, making attempts to link them to pre-Christian beliefs and practices. Unfortunately, the book places such a focus on the myth of some matriarchal Goddess culture that it largely ignores much of what we do know about pre-Christian society. And where it does try to make associations, it gets even the most basic facts wrong.

To take but one example, the author asserts that the Norse mythological figure "Angr-boda" (ON Angrboða) is “of the Vanir” (p. 59). This is untrue; Angrboða is, in fact, a Jötunn, and there is nothing whatsoever to link her to the Vanir in Norse mythology. That is but one of many instances of sloppy research.

The author makes similar leaps in trying to tie the figure of Mother Goose to pre-Christian religion to the 16th-century figure. As the number of examples of goose-related goddesses is extremely limited, the author makes the completely unwarranted assumption that anything to do with animals in the family anatidae (which includes ducks, swans, etc.) should also be swept up in the net, and later brings anything even vaguely bird-related in to make her case. It is perhaps understandable, since examples of actual swan-related myths are few and far between (which would seem to be a strike against the thesis; if Mother Goose were truly the vehicle for the survival of some Goddess-culture lore, surely geese would figure more prominently).

Here we also see the first of many instances of circular logic; birds are related to the Goddess, and thus Mother Goose is the Goddess, because she has the word “goose” in her name, so thus all birds are related to the Goddess…

The author also seems to be confused as to what, exactly, constitutes her pre-patriarchal society. When it suits her purpose, her Mother Goose/Goddess stretches back 6,000 years (before the invasion of the Indo-European peoples), but at other points in the text she doesn’t scruple to use examples from Indo-European religion and myth to make her case. Which is it? Is Indo-European Paganism the evil patriarchal destroyer, or is Christianity the evil patriarchal destroyer? Depending on the circumstance, either it seems will suffice. We see this most strongly in her use of the Frau Holle myths in Germany; Frau Holle is linked to either the Germanic goddess Freya or Frigg (the evidence is inconclusive), but either way both goddesses were part of the Indo-European cultus.

There is also a sudden divergence into folklore and folktales, which are, strictly speaking, outside the purview of a book on Mother Goose. For a book that is ostensibly concerned with a specific corpus of literature (the Mother Goose rhymes), to bring in a discussion of Grimm’s fairy tales seems somewhat extraneous. It does nothing to advance the central thesis that Mother Goose’s rhymes are a survival of a 6,000 year old social/magical/religious tradition.

The author also fails to make any sort of convincing case for why the figure of Mother Goose, specifically, would be a vehicle for retaining pre-Christian (or is it pre-Indo-European?) lore. As the author herself admits, the figure of Mother Goose is no older than the 16th century, well after the demise of Paganism in Europe.

Unfortunately, the author brings in yet another well-debunked myth; the “burning times”. In her conception, Europe was thick with tens of thousands of Goddess-worshippers (how they survived through five thousand years of patriarchal Indo-European oppression is left unexplained), who were put through a deliberate campaign of genocide (although it might more properly be termed memocide) akin to the Final Solution. And lest this seem like an exaggeration:
“Is there evidence that European foundling homes were designed to serve as re-education and death camps for the offspring of non-Christians? I believe there is. First, the timing is suspect. Foundling homes began when the witch trials began – in the 1300s. They quickly swelled in size and almost immediately began showing incredible death rates.” (p. 240)
Setting aside the fact that the whole myth of the “burning times” has also been thoroughly debunked, the section of the book that diverts into this discussion is not only completely non-sequitur, but verges on paranoia. It smacks of someone desperate to establish themselves as the victim of some enormous tragedy, and unfortunately it once again is completely without historical merit.

The author does not, however, make any sort of argument as to why Mother Goose would be the embodiment of the surviving Goddess Culture. There is a 6,000 year gap (or perhaps 500 years; she doesn’t make clear whether the villain in her piece are the Indo-Europeans or the Christians) that remains completely unaccounted-for. All of a sudden we’re supposed to think that a figure evolved out of nothing, to encapsulate all of that secret knowledge.

It should be noted that Mother Goose wasn’t the only figure that occupies that role. There’s also Old Mother Hubbard and Tom Thumb, who are both also credited with being the source of these fairy tales and rhymes as well. (Something that is mentioned only in passing in the current work.) Clearly it is not the specific figure that is significant, but the content of the knowledge.

This is all on top of the author’s other failings, she seems to take the view that any book published before she was born must somehow have some deep significance. That 1950 was the year in which the True Nature of Mother Goose was lost, until she rediscovered it in 2015. How else to explain her bizarre notion that commercial images of Mother Goose on the cover of books published well into the modern era has some hidden significance? Some commercial artist commissioned to do a drawing of Mother Goose in 1950 is not encoding any deep truths. He is making an image that will sell the most books, period.

With all these failings, it would be easy to set aside the book as a complete loss, but there is one idea that it raises that I find completely inspired, but which is lamentably not developed to any degree. That is the linkage between the nursery rhymes of Mother Goose (et al) and the Germanic tradition of charms and charming.

Simply put, in the Germanic tradition, folk charms take on the form of a story that is told, with the story itself being the magic spell that will achieve the desired result. We see this in the First and Second Merseburg Charms, which are a spell of release and a spell of healing, respectively. As the story is told, the desired result comes about. The use of the fairy stories and nursery rhymes in the same capacity is frankly an inspired one, but one which enjoys but a single paragraph in the book. Chapter thirteen is even entitled “Fair Tales as Magic Spells and Incantations”, but the rest of the chapter is given over to a flight of fancy wherein they are said to be representations of shamanic journeys.

This is perhaps the most wasted potential of the book. Imagine if you would a book that gave the original Mother Goose rhymes, with perhaps a chapter of background, and then spent the rest of the work explaining how each could be used in specific magical contexts. Assuming that at least some of them were surviving charms, what use was “Cock Robin” (#109 in the Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes)? Which ones were based on 17th or 18th century events, and thus could be excluded? Which could be traced back to pre-Christian practices and beliefs (gods as well as goddesses)? All this potential for real analysis of the existing folklore, squandered in a single paragraph in favor of speculation on shamanic journeys. It’s both sad and infuriating.

It's all the worse because when she does attempt to fit some ancient lore into the context of magic spells, it's not the Mother Goose rhymes at all. It's more conventional folk tales such as those found in the Brothers Grimm. Given the non-lyrical format of those tales, to try to shoehorn them into a European-type charm, and not the Mother Goose rhymes (which I thought were supposed to be the focus of the book)? The rhymes would seem to have been a much better fit, but they seem to have been forgotten as the author goes off on a fairy tale tangent.

There are some more prosaic failings with the book as well. The author spends a lot of time discussing various images of Mother Goose (and related images), but there’s not a single illustration in the whole book. While she does an admirable job of attempting to describe the images, the book would be much better served with a series of plates containing the images. This is a failing to be laid squarely on the shoulders of the publisher, rather than the author, however.

All in all, this book is a complete waste. It is based on an anthropological theory that has been debunked, invokes historical events that never occurred, indulges in circular logic, gets basic facts wrong, and buries the one flash of insight it contains in a stew of conjecture and wishful thinking. Some people who are already invested in the myth of a utopian Goddess-based matriarchy will doubtless eat this drivel up. Anyone who is actually interested in real scholarship and its possible application to modern-day religion will need to go elsewhere.

1 comment:

  1. That's really too bad, as it does seem like a potentially fertile area of exploration. For instance, there are a number of nursery rhymes that make use of something very like the metric form that is described by Kuno Meyer as the earliest Irish poetic metric (see his A Primer of Irish Metrics), which is lines of (generally) four stressed syllables divided into two half-lines of two stressed syllables each. Of course, that is as likely to have survived because of its relative simplicity as a metrical form as anything (especially as I haven't noted consistent use of the other features of the Irish forms, such as ending each line in a disyllable), but nonetheless it is intriguing.