Friday, 3 April 2015
Breaking the Mother Goose Code
Somebody I sort of know had put up a post demanding that we all boycott Cadburys because they're selling "Halal Easter eggs".
Now, the idea of halal chocolate was a new one on me, so I thought I'd check it out. What had actually happened was this: Cadburys had put up a page on their website, indicating which of their many products are "halal certified". In other words, it's essentially dietary guidance - a bit like listing which Cadburys products are "Suitable for vegetarians". There was nothing "halal" about any of it, just a page letting Muslims know which Cadburys chocolate bars and so on are okay for them to eat.
I pointed this out. But, no, that wasn't good enough. Because, apparently, Easter eggs are Christian and so, by making them "halal" Cadburys were pandering to the Islamists and helping to sell Britain downriver.
So I came back - no religious text, to the best of my knowledge, refers to chocolate eggs and no religion has a monopoly on them (let's face it, God neglected to let most of the world know that chocolate even existed until comparatively recently). But I was wrong, it seems, because the word Easter in front of "eggs" makes them Christian, and exclusively so. And I was apparently attacking my friend's religion, which was a big No-No. And that's when I explained that "Easter" comes from "Eostre", a pagan goddess - which explains the eggs, bunnies, chicks and other Eastery thingies. There's no "Easter" in the Bible, only Passover.
And there endeth the Facebook friendship.
Which brings me to the subject of this post. I was very keen to read Jeri Studebaker's Breaking the Mother Goose Code - How a Fairy-Tale Character Fooled the World for 300 Years, partly because it looked interesting, and partly because my theatrical hero - Joey Grimaldi, King of Clowns - appeared in the first modern pantomime, Harlequin and Mother Goose; or, the Golden Egg, which did great business when it hit the stage at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, in December 1808.
I wondered - just wondered - whether Jeri Studebaker might mention the Mother Goose pantomime in her book. And I was not disappointed. Jeri had done her homework.
The first part of Breaking the Mother Goose Code really does focus on the character of Mother Goose, drawing attention to the similarities between this alternately beautiful and grotesque figure and certain ancient European mother-goddesses, especially Holda-Perchta. The second half takes the argument further, beyond Mother Goose herself, to examine the ways in which so-called "fairy tales" function as a kind of oral memory of the time when Goddess worship was widespread (and largely uncontested), and how these fairy tales - especially when shorn of their latter-day accretions - can be thought of as shamanic journeys and/or magical rituals and spells.
The idea, overall, is that patriarchy is a fairly new phenomenon. And it's a stinker. Whenever and wherever it appears, it pursues a sort of scorched earth policy. But people - whole populaces - don't just alter everything they believe overnight because an angry man tells them to. Those pre-patriarchal belief systems were natural and hardwired into our collective psyche. In the face of barbaric violence and blanket intolerance, the old ways lived on - surreptitiously - and did so, partly, through the transmission of fairy tales.
I like this idea. Mainstream history has been rather naughty, I feel, in taking such a dismissive and lofty attitude towards "folk" history (local legends, place-names, fairy tales). Just because these things weren't written down till a late stage, doesn't mean that they don't provide us with important glimpses of ancient knowledge. The Australian aboriginal sang the world back into existence with his song-lines, re-making the landscape by telling its stories, long before the White Man arrived to tell him he'd got it all wrong, and then make a slave of him.
Jeri Studebaker's research for this book is ample and impressive. She really knows her subject and has gone into it in great depth, producing a book that is both readable and stimulating. Hard facts mingle with interesting theories and speculations. And nowhere, I feel, is Jeri at her best more than when she is taking a wrecking-ball to patriarchy.
The differences between patriarchy (recent, bloody) and pre-patriarchal societies (been around for ever, generally equitable and non-violent) are brought out in such a way as to illustrate, not only what a disaster patriarchal structures have been for the species and the planet, but what we lost when we allowed our more natural societies to be steamrollered by the maniacs of patriarchal thinking. So many lives lost. So much wisdom lost. So much damage done.
In fact, Studebaker doesn't belabour this point, but chooses her examples carefully, citing experts in these matters. Her argument - that fairy tales like Mother Goose represent a sort of quiet resistance, a continuation of pre-patriarchal values in a time of patriarchal thuggery - grows, little by little, from her near-forensic analysis of Mother Goose (Holda-Perchta) herself to the wider world of fairy tales and their magical methodology - until, in my case at least, I was convinced. Strip away the Disneyfication, and fairy tales really can take us back to a pre-patriarchal age of equality and possibilities.
For an illustration of how disgusting and despicable patriarchal thinking can be, one has only to consider that online run-in with my "friend" over the matter of halal chocolate eggs. The intolerance, the ignorance, the "I can attack anybody's religion if I choose, but nobody can attack mine!" attitude (even though nobody was actually attacking her Christian faith) and that vague sense of a call-to-arms, a sort of "Let's have another crusade" subtext, are all indicative of patriarchal thinking. It is crude, divisive, and usually ends in tears.
Mother Goose and her fellows, as Jeri Studebaker shows in her rather wonderful book, can show us that it doesn't have to be like that. The Golden (Easter) Egg has nothing to do with Christianity, and those who squabble over it - "I can have it, you can't!" - are infantile and deluded. The Egg was delivered by Mother Goose, the Eternal Feminine, and we can all have it, if we're prepared to play the game.
Click here to go to the Moon Books page for Breaking the Mother Goose Code.