Mythology, adaptations, and a witch’s heart

It comes as no surprise to longtime readers of the blog that I love stories which adapt old myths, especially if those stories are told by women.

I have a lot of feelings about how all the old European mythologies — the Greek, the Roman, the Norse, the Celtic — have been filtered through the lens of Christian patriarchy, becoming fundamentally toxic with regard to gender dynamics. This is not to say that no aspects of toxic gender relations exist in pagan mythologies — I am not so naive as that. Patriarchy is hardly exclusive to Christianity as a religion, and I know many delightful Christians who don’t choose to take that aspect of the institution into their practice. But Christian scholars were the ones who wrote down or translated and transcribed many of the myths we know, and Western scholars in general built upon that work. Many times, they wrote out the things that didn’t fit their own worldviews, and that includes women and gender nonconforming persons.

The pagan religions — a somewhat inaccurate term but I’ll use what I have — as they were practiced were fundamentally pluralistic. We can see evidence of this today in places where polytheism still holds sway — different villages, different geographies, worship different gods, or different versions of the same god. You can also see this historically in Overly Sarcastic Production’s breakdown of the cults of the goddess Aphrodite, who it is believed may have been a god of war as well as love, depending on which part of what is now Greece you were in, or in this excellent set of tweets by Theodora Goss, where she talks about the likelihood that Medusa was an aspect of Athena in some cults. To be clear, I’m not arguing that there was per se some vast conspiracy to write these stories out of history (at least not an always-intentional one), but I do think there is a justified fascination with delving into these alternate myths, and with retelling the myths we have. I also feel a compelling need to do this — to tell stories that allow me as a woman a role besides spiteful seductress or virginal saint.

Enter The Witch’s Heart by Genevieve Gornichec — a retelling of Norse myth focusing on the witch Gullveig, thrice-burned and terrible, who prophesied the end of the world.

This story is a complicated one emotionally. Angrboda, as Gullveig chooses to call herself, is ultimately scarred, passive, forgiving, a healer who wishes to be left well enough alone. She spends a good chunk of the plot simply reacting to other characters — Odin of course, who is her abuser, but also Loki, who holds all of the power in their relationship. Despite all these things I was absolutely enthralled with this story. Angrboda is fundamentally vulnerable, but she never views her vulnerability as a negative trait. She loves and loves again, and does what she can within the confines of her fate. The storytelling style has a dreamlike aspect that works well with the archetypal nature of the characters, exploring the myths in new and powerful ways. I was reminded strongly of one of my favorite books, All the Wind-wracked Stars, which tells a story of the aftermath of Ragnarok and all the complicated trappings of an immortal life; and of the Novels of New Asgard by Tessa Gratton, specifically Glory’s Teeth, which speaks to the weight of fate and how you can choose to make your destiny your own. Both of these stories, like The Witch’s Heart, read like a balm, like a healing, and gods know we need that these days.

If you have enjoyed either of these books or just want to explore Norse mythology from a new lens, I can’t recommend The Witch’s Heart enough. It’s helped me see old myths in new ways — and I am always thankful for that.

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