REVIEW: Daniel Cohen's Goddess Stories
The Labyrinth of the Heart: Changed Myths for Changing Lives by Daniel Cohen, Wood and Water, 2011, trade paperback, 135 pages. Also available as an ebook.
In his introduction to this book, British Goddess feminist Daniel Cohen writes of his familiarity with the feminist re-telling of myths and folktales by women, and that he has found many of these stories "both profound and funny." Yet he also has felt "dissatisfied" because they didn’t speak to the his experience as a man. He writes:
I guess the feminist response. . . is that these stories were not written for me, that if I wanted stories to which I could relate directly then I should write such stories myself. This I have done.Yes, this Cohen has done, and done well. So well, in fact, that his stories hold meaning not only for men, but also, I would say, for everyone.
In the Introduction, which he titles "Surprising the Soul: The Secret of Stories," Cohen, a retired professor of mathematics, writes:
We live in two worlds, the world of facts, which we call the real world, and the world of stories, which we call the world of imagination or fantasy. Many people think the world of the imagination is unimportant. But there is no meaning in the world of facts. All meaning comes from the world of stories, which makes it supremely important.The first story in this book elaborates further on Cohen’s approach to "the story." The next 16 stories are based on mostly well-known myths and fairy tales. Then a re-telling (or midrash) on the biblical Adam and Eve story (which also appeared in the anthology, Patriarchs, Prophets, and Other Villians, edited by Lisa Isherwood) forms a bridge to 8 more stories, most of them in more modern settings.
Each reader will likely have favorites among these stories of depth and humor in which men (or male deities or demigods), through their encounter with goddesses or through other spiritual experiences become not "feminine" but more fully developed beings, whether human or divine, as they find new, more effective, ways of being.
Some of the stories that I found particularly intriguing are: "The Heart of the Labryrinth," a story about Theseus and the Minotaur, with its unexpected turns; "Face of Wisdom, Face of Dread" and "Maiden and the Monster," both about my namesake Medusa and Perseus, with their surprise endings and insights; "The Ferryman," written from the point of view of the title character, who also appears in at least one other story; and "Happy the Land that Has No Heroes," another story about Perseus." Of the stories with contemporary settings, I particularly liked "The Man Who Did Not Like Spiders." which contains a trick for removing spiders from the bathtub without hurting them; "The Mathematician who had Little Wisdom," about an interaction between a salmon and a mathematician, and the almost-last story, "The Dancer and the Dance."
Cohen has provided a section of Notes that explain each story. In fact, he explains some of the stories with other stories!
Knowing of Cohen’s background in mathematics, there were places in some of the stories that seemed to me to contain mathematical allusions, even jokes. One example occurs in, "The Interpreter: or An Introduction to Hermeneutics." In his Notes, Cohen describes the story as being about Hermes, "trickster and lord of language" who " likes puns," and writes that the subtitle and last line are puns. In this story, there appears in place of the letter "o" a series of zeros in the word constant on page 59. Since I never went further than Algebra 1 and Geometry in school, I needed to use my special Google magic decoder ring to find out if there was any relationship between "constant" and the numeral 0. Indeed there is: for starters, in calculus 0=constant speed or a derivative of "constant function." (Just jump in any time and explain this right, math whizzes). The zeros are repeated, replacing the oo’s within the syllable "proove" in another word a few lines above the story’s closing pun. And then there’s this: the first page of "Face of Wisdom, Face of Dread," a story about Medusa, her sisters, and Perseus, starts on page 13, while the story,"Happy the Land that Needs No Heroes," about Perseus and Medusa told by one of the sisters (Graiae), begins on the page numbered the reverse of 13, page 31. Did the author intend this, or is it a magic mathematical coincidence?
Cohen writes that he favors the oral tradition of reading stories aloud. The stories in his book are well suited to this, written as they are in casual, easy-to-understand language even as they are profound. Some of them reach cadences that could be considered ritualistic, mostly through the use of repetition of words or phrases. Several of them contain ballads or poems.
This book has received praise from a wide range of well known authors, including Carol P. Christ, who included Cohen’s story, "Iphegenia: A Retelling," in the epilogue of her 1997 book, Rebirth of the Goddess.
Francesca De Grandis has provided the preface to The Labyrinth of the Heart. The artist Z*qhygoem’s 15 stylistically-related drawings, and other drawings by Wen Fyfe and Cathy Dagg, are among the illustrations for the stories.
Cohen dedicates the book to
all those in whom the Goddess has shown herself to me. Most especially to Asphodel Long (1921-2005), companion and guide on the journey. Her life and her work are good enough reasons for the world to turn.