Friday 17 May 2024

Corn King and Spring Queen

Zofia Stryjenska

"After that the King began to wake, coming quietly out of the drowning, dim awareness of some shapeless disaster, over the threshold of dreams into full and sharp consciousness of everything. For half an hour he would face it with no physical stirring, no tears. he could not, perhaps, have spoken. Then, as his body overcame his mind, the thing he saw would waver and blur and rock out into blackness again, and for another space of time he was unconscious and gathering strength against the next awakening."


I Really Liked This Book

I recently finished 'The Corn King and the Spring Queen' by Naomi Mitchison, a longish book which took me a long time, and boy, was it pretty great. Five star book for sure. And an actual five stars, not just a relative to experience five stars that I give out for some reads.

Like a lot of very long, very deep, rich books, it ends up being about everything, a mirror to the world and psyche of the writer as well as of its imagined events. 

The two books this reminded me of were 'Black Lamb, Grey Falcon', by Rebecca West, and 'A Tale of Bali' by Vicki Baum. All of these books are about the ancient and reawakened borders of one kind of morality interacting with another. But I will go into troubling depth about this in the final part of the essay.


"There was much that Panteus was in a way too happy to understand fully; he was country bred and he had not the scepticism about appearances that comes more naturally to someone who had been brought up in a complicated place with pictures and literature. All the same, if ever the thing should happen which would wake him fully to life and show him that everything could not possibly be done either simply of happily, then he might be able to think."

Zofia Stryjenska

What Happens in the Book?

The story is set towards the latter end of the Hellenistic Age, just before the rise of Rome, (the first Punic War takes place in the storied afterword). It opens in the town of Marob; a fictional settlement on the shores of the Black Sea with a culture imagined, or interpolated by Maomi Mitcheson based on general record and archaeology of the area, circa 1930 (she roamed across the Mediterranean, Black Sea and Russia for five years during the writing of the book, but more on that later).

Marob is a recreated Scythian-'type' society with some strong Hellenic inflections. Its culture is considered 'barbaric' by Hellenes but discoveries over the course of the story suggest a deeper older commonality

It’s important to talk about culture because the book is partly about cultures. Where they come from, what they mean and how and why they are maintained. If we think of this essay as a tool to affect the mind, and of an epic tale to be a tool to affect the heart, then one aspect of 'Corn King' is about human social cultures being tools to interface with the soul; both managing and expressing the deep unseen engines of that buried thing.

Marob is what I will call a 'Sacrifice' Culture. They have a deep sequence of largely organic rituals, yearlong, which tend to be more bottom-up than top-down. Marob is built around the growing of Corn and its faith/ritual cycle is all built into the seasons, weather, harvest and growth. But it is also an expression of the unstated moods, tensions, desires, factions, hungers and fears of the community. Everyone 'of Marob' takes part in these festivals, dances, sacrifices and acts of worship. They are so built into the psyche and spirit of the place that its inhabitants would not really recognise these things as 'culture' or a thing they do separately. To those of Marob rituals are the substance of their lives not objects in it.

Marob has a Corn King. The Corn King is chosen, or made, when the old Corn King is sacrificed. They eat part of the old King and become the new King. The new King is given near-total license over the community to fulfil whatever desire they wish. (Though in truth this is constrained in a way through ritual, social expectation and other forms of unstated power*). The Corn King rules until they are no longer virile and powerful, then they are sacrificed and fed to the new Corn King. 

(*It’s also possible for a Corn King to 'fail' at being the Corn King, to get the rituals wrong, to fail to intuit, manage and reflect the psyche of the community, to make political mistakes or piss everyone off too much, and to be deposed, in which case it is decided they were no longer a right king, and a new one is made.)

While the Corn King usually rules till their sacrificial death, there is also a Spring Queen; the female part of the ritual and religious dyad, who performs a complimentary role and has similar powers, but who can be replaced more easily and less lethally from year to year and who does not need to be sacrificed.

Erif Der is a teenage witch and daughter of Harn Der, a powerful man in Marob. Tarrik is the current Corn King. Erif is recruited by her father to seduce Tarrik into becoming the Spring Queen, and then to “magic” and trick him into failing as Corn King, so he can be replaced by one of Harn Ders choosing, making him the effective ruler of the tribe and town.

Erif Der begins this process but during it, starts to actually fall in love with Tarrik. Tarrik is broadly aware of the conspiracy but goes along with it, also falling for Erif.

Both Erif and Tarik are highly perceptive and intelligent people, and Tarrik in particular is brave, subtle, cunning but also deeply chaotic, impulsive, charismatic, tricky and perhaps disordered. He is aware Erif is 'magiking' him but is broadly along for the ride, either because he is very far sighted or because he just likes to roll the dice like that, (probably both).

Both Erif and Tarrik are struggling psychologically, spiritually and morally with their place in the society and faith of Marob, and in Erifs’ case, also with her impossible dual role of daughter of a conspirator and of Spring Queen.

We actually come in half way through this dynastic conspiracy story, because another completely different story is going to smash into it in the night, in the form of a ship crashing into a sandbar outside Marobs harbour; Tarrik and his young men dash off to bravely rescue those onboard the ship, (later some will be ransomed, some distaff-enslaved, some probably-brutally enslaved and others just let go). The last person off the ship is a Greek Philosopher; Sphaeros.

Sphaeros brings two extremely dangerous things to Marob; the Philosophy of Stoicism and the story of a brave Spartan King trying to rescue his culture from decadence, inequality and failure, and to enact a kind of social revolution, returning Sparta to its old roots and purging wealth, ownership, decadence and foreign influence. (This is the historical Cleomenes III, who did in fact attempt just this.)

These are both extremely attractive to Tarrik, even more so after Sphaeros saves his life from a curse or spell made by Erif during the annual bull-running. Tarrik escapes from the problem of his beloved wife/possible assassin, by announcing that he will be haring off on an adventure to Sparta to meet with this revolutionary King and presumably do heroic deeds over there for a while.

From this point on the story is about two places and things; the spiritual challenge of Marob, and the fate of the revolution of Cleomenes. Erif and Tarrik follow and rescue each other, seperate and re-unite, change and grow, face physical, moral, magical and intellectual challenges and the whole thing ends in the extremely cool and decadent Alexandria of Ptolemy Philopater, another God-King, this time way more of the Epstein’s Island type.

And if you want to know how it ends you can look up the story of Cleomenes III.

The afterword cuts a generation ahead to the children of Tarrik and Erif Der as they meet with and free a Spartan Slave of the galleys who gives them a brief potted history of the rise of Rome and the fate of the ideas of the revolution in general.

Evgeny Kray


"They had come to a kind of peace and understanding, based on not saying or being aware of a great deal about one another, a pattern of exclusions which made for great courteousness, tenderness even, and which went easily with the life they must both lead at this time of year when there was so much to do. Yet it was essentially temporary, a breathing space in which they could just continue to live without facing one another, until the child was born."

Naomi Mitcheson

I had no idea why I was reading this book, then I looked up Naomi Mitcheson and realised; she’s the sister of JBS Haldane! I must have read about here while looking into JBS and then ordered the book and then forgotten I had.

JBS Haldane some of you may remember as the extremely clever Geneticist, subject of his own somewhat wild experiments, rare Chemical Weapons enthusiast, science populace, low key eugenicist and communist traitor.

Born of the same womb, one good way to describe Naomi Mitcheson is 'What if JBS Haldane had a soul'. She combines Haldanes ferocious intelligence and deep grasp of history with a subtle and perceptual emotional sense and generally not being a semi-autistic half-soul. The range of people who are both extremely brilliant and are also skilled at living life is small and she is in it.

Naomi Mitcheson by Wyndham Lewis

Over the years of writing 'Corn King' she had a marriage, a lover, two children, lost one, and wandered around the Mediterranean and black sea collecting evidence and information for her sorcerous generation of a past epoch.

The depth of the scholarship shows, but a merely clever writer could do that. The resurrection and recreation of a lost world would require a merely brilliant writer. The depth, perception, accuracy, wit, subtlety and the very deep awareness and understanding of a human life as it is lived, and of the thoughts and feelings of all the people involved in living it, requires more. There are probably many perceptive writers but generally they are boring while Mitcheson is not. Added to this the epic range, the historic spread with all its battles, dramas, plots, decadent courts, magic, strange rituals and so on. 

For the simple range of things she could do and ability to do them Mitcheson might be amongst the most skilled writers I have read. 

Flauberts 'Sallambo' is as good in terms of its prose, invention vividness, savagery and excitement, but its characters are (appropriately) inner savages as well, living in an alien mode, abstracted from their own emotions as we would see it. Mitchesons characters have all the strange otherness of those who have grown under a foreign system of belief, but manage to bridge the gap between us and them, they live and breathe and give us strange windows into their half-alien souls , and her characters manage to live the whole of life in equal vividness. Especially the women and especially Erif Der who, by the end is the main character and probably also a Mitcheson self-insert. Like Mitcheson Erif Der has a child but loses one and it’s difficult to believe the events of Mitchesons life didn't affect the character.

Mitcheson lived a lot of lives. In her castigated story/memoir of life on the borderlands of communism in the 1920’s and 1930’s ‘We Have Been Warned’ its said she had to create two self-insert characters to fit in all the varied stuff she did. Born a child of peers and nobles she lived through the entirety of the 20th Century and died just after its end. She was an advisor to a South African tribe? A proof reader for Lord of the Rings? Helped start the Eugenics society but left if over political differences? Was on Orwells watch-these-commies list? How to find Mitcheson in the intellectual life of 20th Century Britian? Throw a rock in the bushes apparently, you will probably hit her. Woman was a real-life Jennie Sparks. 

It’s the range and the depth of real-life human experience that shines from her work. Most Philosophers are mildly disappointing people and learn little from their lives as-lived, being creatures of thought. Mitcheson is the opposite

Z Stryjenska

“The baby lay in front of the fire on a blanket: he was awake and staring, first at his own fist and then at the bright, steady flaming of the logs. His eyes were blotted and brimming with flames. His fat legs bent and unbent in a steady kicking; they thumped softly on the blanket; when they stayed still one of Tarrik’s hounds would stretch across and lick the toes. …….  

Bye and by he began to give little panting, eager cries of desire for food and the warmth and tenderness that went with it. Erif’s breasts answered to the noise with a pleasant hardening, a faint ache waiting to be assuaged. Their tips turned upward and outward, and the centre of the nipple itself grew velvet soft and tender and prepared for the softness of the baby. She unpinned her dress and picked him up and snuggled down over him on to a heap of cushions. He moved his blind, silly mouth from side to side eagerly. For a moment she teased him, withholding herself; then, as she felt the milk in her springing towards him, she let him settle, thrusting her breast deep into the hollow of his mouth, that seized on her with a rhythmic throb of acceptance, deep sucking of lips and tongue and cheeks. Cheated, her other breast let its milk drip in a large bluish-white drops on to his legs, then softened and sagged and waited. For a time he was all mouth, then his free arm began to waver and clutch, sometimes her face, sometimes a finger, sometimes grabbing the breast with violent, untender little soft claws. She laughed and caught his eye, and the sucking lips began to curve upward in spite of themselves. He et go suddenly to laugh, and her breast, released, spirted milk over his face.”


Magic in 'Corn King' occupies a psycho-spiritual space very close to that in Baums 'A Tale of Bali'. It is real in the minds of the characters and since the story is told through them, it is real enough. Yet magic does nothing necessarily supernatural or physically impossible from the readers point of view. (Though there are certainly a number of edge-cases and some very unusual, though not impossible, events.)

Erif Der and some other women in Marob believe themselves to be Witches and to have certain magical powers. Everyone else in Marob also believes this and so certain of the powers work. Tarrik is a half-Greek by descent and so both he and Erif believe that her magic can't really affect his Greek side.

Zofia Stryjenska Magic of the Slavs

"On the last day she came in sight of the house under the elms, and brisked up the pony. She rode down through shallows, knocking up clouds of sweet golden pollen; fat shining leaves were unfolding out of the mud. But between her and Yellow Bull's farm was a brown mile of floods. Westwards the sun dropped towards red reflections. She rode a few yards through the water, splashing, and suspected it was nowhere deep, but she grew nervous and the pony, feeling it through her, refused to go on. She felt shaken and sick. At last she did what she had not meant to do. She crouched in the brim of the flood among the muddied grass stems and stirred the water into ripples, talking to it all the time; the ripples went off towards the island with the elms. She sat in the saddle and waited. Before it was quite dark two of Essro's servants rowed over in a flat-bottomed boat. Erif stepped in and the tied the pony behind.'Essro sent you at once,' she said contentedly, glad to think of the fire and dry bed waiting for her. But the men frowned at one another. 'We saw you - didn't we?' said the elder of the two."

With the people of Marob Erif can interrogate, cause shallow wounds to stop bleeding, form magic circles others cannot cross, but even outside Marob, in the general Greek world, people are still magic-conscious enough that her powers can have some affect. At Delphi she and her brother save an annoying philosopher from a baying Mob;

"'They'll be back in no time! Oh Erif, can't you leave things alone!'

She said: 'I can make a circle, Berris, I know I can. Look at the knife!' There was blood on the tip of it, from someone - but the rest of Tarrik's knife was glowing as it had not since it was in Greece.

'Then that's all right,' said Berris. 'Make a line while I get the ban away behind it.' If she said she could she would be able. 

She made it with the knife and the green shells and a few shaken blood drops. The first people who came back to finish off their atheist and whoever else there might be, found her ending it. She went along it again, to strengthen it. Then she invited them to come. But instead they all ran to fetch a priest and show him what was being done in Apollo's own ground."

The full depiction of the Oracle at Delphi is pleasingly touristy, with a mixture of deep Greek history (at that time), present at the site, but also the effects of being essentially a religious/tourist preferred location, with the logistics and accommodations of a tourist town in the ancient world, mixed with an active temple complex and a class of clever Priests set to facilitate the oracle, who we never see and who's prophecy at first seems like gimcrack fortune cookie stuff but which actually comes true in the books last part, perhaps guided by the deep psychologies of the character and maybe with a bit of actual magic.

Whether any of the magic represents what we would call actually supernatural events is open for argument. Blades and wooden charms 'glow' at times but these may be in the eyes of the beholder. There are a handful of rare and unusual events like premonitions of danger and snakes acting strangely, which suggest but don't confirm actual-magic.

Probably much more important is that there is no 'magic' as we would see it in the story. The world of the characters is impregnated with what we would call supernatural powers but to them are largely expressions of reality, be it the cycle of the seasons, the great engine of ritual, the moral exchange of sacrifice, the well-wishing or evil eye of practitioners or any of a flowing wash of things which easily cross the boundaries between what we would call real and unreal.

Towards the end Erif Der collaborates in a happenstance miracle; finding a woman who had been her enemy in an Egyptian temple, unseen she hears the woman asking the Goddess for the curse on her to be lifted. Erif retrieves a dagger this woman would recognise from their shared life in Marob previously, takes it to the temple and asks the priestesses to single out this woman, take her aside and tell her the Goddess has heard her and given this, then to perform a ritual in which the curse is 'cut' with the dagger.

This works pretty well, with the mysterious appearance of this forgotten dagger and the cutting ceremony having the required affect, the woman now believes the curse has been lifted by divine power and goes away happy. Erif has also forgiven this woman and taken back the harm she meant her. This is trickery, but when discussing the matter with the Priestesses of the Temple, not 'true' trickery but an arrangement of fate into which the women have fitted themselves. As much the work of the Goddess as if she had done it Herself, which, for them, she did.

The Magic, Rituals and powers everywhere spin like a flywheel between the hunger of human souls for order and meaning, regularity, sanity and an escape from chaos, on one side, and the relentless semi-random cycles of nature, and cruel or indifferent cracklings of fate and power on the other. Imagine a mill-wheel set in, not just one river running below it, but a second, utterly different and alien river, of some strange material, running upside down above it. The wheel dips into both rivers, each running strange directions with irregular surges and droughts, and somehow has to even out and make sense of the movement of these two near-random, crazy and mutually indifferent flows. That wheel is the culture of belief in 'Corn King', and though it is all different in the different cultures presented, these cultures are clearly shown as having either similar roots or deep connections.

The Magic and Ritual, and the way it forms the substance of organic order and meaning for the people of Marob and others to act in, though it be savage to us, works exactly as it does  in Baums 'Tale of Bali'. Erif Der would immediately understand the cults and rituals of Bali as being like her own and a Balinese practitioner or priest would easily grasp the rituals of Marob and the Gods of Egypt.


Z Stryjenska

"The Chief always gave several feasts at the beginning of winter. Everyone liked them. People told stories and sang and played games and laughed a great deal; they were probably very happy, but hardly any of them thought about that; they did not think about happiness was. Only, it was stupid to be sad and not laugh. If for some reason you could not begin laughing at once when everyone else did, if you were feeling winter or death or pain, it was a good thing to go to a feast and have plenty to eat and drink, and hear funny stories and remember and tell others, and see a lot of lights and girls and coloured things to make the blood run quicker. If you had not got enough food in your own house to last over winter, someone else in Marob would be sure to give it to you. If your wife died, court and marry another. If your child died, make yourself another. It was no use trying to interfere with the seasons, with the life of the year. Some lived and some died. As well expect your wheat to be all grain and no chaff!"



These people are savages, they sacrifice animals, enslave shipwreck victims, murder slaves on a whim. They are irregular, impassioned and unpredictable. There are laws in Marob but not written ones and while everything the High Status Characters do makes sense according to unwritten ritual law and to the deeps of their own psyches that lie beyond it, they would still be some chaotic and frightening people to meet in real life.

In modern terms all of these characters are evil, especially Tarrik and Erif Der, but not within the world of the tale. 

Death, terror, sacrifice and secret power are at the heart of their world. Deeds done against equals, or near-equals, can matter. Erif Der unexpectedly cuts her father’s throat during a Spring Ceremony, (somewhat justified as he killed her child previously). One of the first major acts we see Tarrik perform is the murder of a shady Greek artist where he gets the man drunk and then persuades, tricks and pressures him into demonstrating Greek diving in a swamp at night. The Greek knows he is doomed but he is dealing with the Corn King of Marob, who has power and license over the flesh of everyone in town and, sadly, and hoping for a miracle, leaps into the swap and is lost.

When Tarrik has what we would call a mental breakdown or loss of faith and starts running wild he kills slaves without comment but only randomly assaults some townspeople. While this is far from ideal, it is accepted as part of his right and pattern of rulership. In 'Corn King' people quite like, or if not like, they quite expect to be somewhat terrified by their rulers now and again, and expect them to have wild tastes and impulsive desires. Tarriks heroic leadership during the midnight shipwreck is as much as part and parcel of his role as his technical license over every unmarried women in town. His culture expects him to regularly do heroic and charismatic things and, for the most part, he wants to and can do such things, from intuitively grasping the right words and actions during a ritual to riding off to defend the town from raiders. At the end of it all they will kill him and his son will eat him.

Erif Der is less directly murderous but she does cut the throat of a slave girl she mistakenly thinks is plotting against Tarrik, and this leads to the death of another somewhat innocent man who witnesses the scene and fears her vengeance. When she returns to the place of the Spring Queen her women are shocked but not astounded,

"When she got to the Chief's house the women had to carry her in; they took off her clothes and bathed her, hushed and horrified. She longed for complete darkness and quiet; she gasped and lay very still, contracted and faintly shivering. pains of one sort and another went flitting about her, but these her women could not see. They only saw that the Spring Queen too had, like the Corn King, perhaps had to give herself a sacrifice."

Yet, in this system/psyche that requires blood, there is something like a murky half-justice, or at least, balance. The mind and memory of the community seems to soak in all these reciprocal acts of terror and if too many are performed, or performed against the wrong people, or at the wrong time, or in the wrong way, then there must be some form of balancing. This will come about, not through any particular single act but almost from the deep emergent belief of the community that it will happen. As well as that the mind and soul of the guilty or excessive party will collaborate in this dark balancing.


"Reality and beauty had been taken out of past and present, and the substitute was this dull, hopeless pain; he saw nothing else in the future. Berris Der looked at the world and found it evil, and promised himself to return its evil with his own. He looked at his statue and got some momentary satisfaction; that was a slap on the mouth for the kind and hopeful people who thought everything must come right in the end if only one waited patiently! He had made a portrait of what there really was at the end. But did anyone seriously hope? Yes, probably always the quite young. And the saved. He would have to make something worse before he could get at them. he would, some day. Once, a very short time ago, Berris Der had been innocent - not hurting, not wanting to hurt. Now he knew the innocence had dropped off him. He did want to hurt."



A key strand and eventually the dominant one of 'Corn King' is Sparta, and the attempted social revolution of Cleomenes III. Cleomenes finds Sparta riddled with sensuality, corruption, wealth and weakness and wants to transform Spartan society to something more like that of its noble past.

What this means, for fictional Cleomenes, real historical Cleomenes, for Mitcheson and for us are all probably somewhat different things. The real historical revolution would perhaps have been a combination, difficult for us to parse, of hyper-conservatism; returning to the ancient rules and ancient practices of eating the black broth together and suffering the disciplines together), and some kind of Spartan renaissance/jubilee in which the high are pulled down, land redistributed and new citizens made.

Mitcheson was a commie sympathiser, at least up until the mid 1930's, and she wrote this book while she was roving around the Med, the Baltic the Black Sea and Russia during that period. She had a lot of deep and complex feelings about Revolution and pours them all into the revolution of Cleomenes which is noble, self-absorbed, brave, ruthless, immoral, fundamentally good, is about returning Sparta to the past, and is about making slaves citizens, and about stripping the wealthy of their gold, and about making the King supreme over all, and bringing equality between the people, and ends up kind of being the Last Supper somehow? There is a lot going on. Everything that could be good or bad about a Revolution is there somewhere in the Revolution of Cleomenes and is felt to be so.

I mean there was a lot going on in Europe in the late 1920's and 1930's, a lot going on with Mitcheson and there is a lot going in in this book. It’s clearly not just a reflection of the Communist revolution in Russia but it definitely has something of the holy glow of Final Equity you get from early Communism-enjoyers.

AND (I was going to put this in a separate section but as I come to think about it I think this is part of the same thing), Cleomenes kind of ends up as a proto-Jesus figure?

There are rumblings of tectonic Christianity under the surface of 'Corn King'. All through the book different people face deep spiritual conflicts between the bones and tendons of their societies and some distant other thing they can't quite put a face or name to, but something or way of being that would change their spiritual and moral circumstances. And bits and pieces of the Christian Story, both good and bad, keep erupting like pimples through the face of its events. 

Tarrik is 'killed' (captured by raiders), then escapes and returns in secret, taking a place in the upcoming Harvest Play, (the same on in which Erif Der sacrificed her father for real and so 'poisoned' the society). At the climax his 'character' returns to life and he takes off his mask to reveal the actual Corn King has actually returned to live for real. A Resurrection he performs partly due to his impish nature, partly to seal his safety and the sense in Marob of him being the 'True' Corn King, and in part perhaps as an intuitive leap to heal the society of the poison, grief and shame it feels over Erif Ders true-sacrifice.

Eventually Cleomenes and his few remaining loyalists turn up in Egypt after the revolution fails and, after screwing up a coup there, they commit ritual suicide. Then the body of Cleomenes is degraded and put on ritual display, and then a magic snake turns up to hover over his body like a crown or spirit and the people of Alexandria start paying homage, or worshipping at the feet of the sacrificed man they refused to help earlier. 

Later Berris Der, Erifs Brother, makes a series of paintings for his Love of the last moments of Cleomenes, which turn out a LOT like the 'Last Supper', (I guess in the reality of 'Corn King' this arrangement of figures left an echo in Greek and Roman painting which Leonardo then copied). Then these paintings are taken to Sparta and kept secretly as symbols of the revolution.

Erif Der helps a young woman and her child escape the vengeance of Tarrik when he is having a crazy, they disappear into the swamp following a secret road in echoes of Herod and of Moses.

There is probably a lot more I forgot. Echoes and presentiments of the New Testament are scattered through the book and only a few of them are probably deliberate. We can read this in-fiction as some new form of morality or new story trying to take shape and birth itself through the structures of the world at that time. As a book, this may simply be Mitcheson so deep in the mythos that she unconsciously echoes and brings forth pretty much everything she has learned and been taught from her own (Edwardian) youth, which as it turns out the commie atheist actually had a pretty strong Christian cultural base.

The meanings of this can be turned like hanging mirrors so I will leave that to you but this 'pre-birth' of Christian morality does link 'Corn King' at one end of time, to Wests 'Black Lamb and Grey Falcon', at the other end of the chronology. But more on that below.


"Therykion bent nearer: 'I am not sure if I can explain it. I think - there is a kind of beauty which is utterly lost in living and being rational and making plans and having material hopes: even for ones country, even for the New Times, even for Sparta. I think that is what is at the back of what Zeno and Iambulos say when they write down their dreams of what a state should be. You will not get this beauty for yourself by dying. I know you are right to say that even if we die looking on those hills, they will fade out for ever at the moment of death. But I think that your people and your revolution will get the beauty. I think your dying will put a bloom on them, Kleomenes.'

The King stayed very still. 'You think my blood can buy something, Therykion, that my life and my work and my reaon will not be able to buy?'

'Yes,' said Therykion.”


Wheel vs Word, round two baby!

What kept reoccurring to me as I read it was that, along with two other very rich and capacious books written by women around the 1930's and 1940's, it was about the moral and spiritual challenge of the Araya, a challenge partially resolved by the end of World War Two, but with shards and shadows of its moral and intellectual origins essentially put on ice for 70 years since then and only now re-emerging.

Why is this book like the other two? 'Black Lamb' by West, and 'Tale' by Baum?

The obvious first; they are all capacious books dealing with history, written by women in the inter-war years. The links between 'Corn King' and 'Black Lamb' seem more geographical to begin with. 'Corn King' is set in a triangle between the shores of the Black Sea, Greece and Egypt. People have to sail past Byzantium a few times, though it doesn't play a role in the story. 'Black Lamb' is set in the Balkans, just north of Byzantium, only a little way out of the range of 'Corn King' and its depiction of somewhat tribal mountain people carries echoes of Marob. I think in 'Black Lamb' West even runs into an actual mountain Macedonian who speaks in an archaic patten and the Macedonians intervention in the Spartan war is essential in 'Corn King'. That character could easily have been a descendant of those Macedonians depicted in 'Corn King'. They are so archaic they felt like an actual character from that book.

Shield of Philip of Macedon

The obvious links to Baums 'Bali' are those of Ritual, faith and selfhood. Baum depicts Bali from within as a society, (here growing rice, not corn), deeply interwoven and expressed through ritual, which interrelates both to the management of land and agriculture, and to more cosmic concerns. Bali is also a Sacrifice Culture, mainly of farm animals and food offerings, though sometimes of eyes, and wives. 

The deeper relationship is that these books are all about the boundaries of the Indic or Aryan, or Indo-European world, and its conflicts with the Abrahamic, or Monotheistic or Christian or 'Civilised' world.

This takes us back to the time of writing, and to the sleeping giant of Indo-European studies.

In the early 20th Century it became pretty widely obvious that a lot of European, Persian, and Indic cultures had some kind of common shared root. This was demonstrated through artefacts, symbols, language and similarities of mythos. The Nazis really ran with this one and made the 'Arya' and their favourite Sun Wheel symbol the axis of their racial cult, an original and savage 'master race' of which the derivations were lesser.

'Corn King', 'Bali' and 'Black Lamb' were all written during this period of ethnography. 'Corn King' itself is about a range of Mediterranean and Back Sea cultures with interrelated God-concepts and rituals, and the sacrifice cult of Marob, with its male/female sex/fertility/death rituals seeming pretty Indo-European. ‘Bali’ ‘is part of the furthest eastward extent of this Indo/Aryan culture; the chariot riders come down into India, crash its artistic culture for 500 years, get absorbed as Brahmins, change the culture and add their own principals and mythos, then eventually this Indic culture expands across the ocean, hitting the islands of South East Asia, forming part of the substrate there, before shrinking or being pushed back by Abrahamic cultures like Islam, then later Western Christianity. Bali itself being something of a refugium for those folkways and beliefs. The wife burning in Bali is a reflection of the Suttee of India, which is probably an import from the Indo-Europeans, considering wife/slave burning shows up in the mysterious proto-Vikings encountered by Ibn Fadlan in his ‘Lands of Darkness’. Ultimately the cults of Bali are 'Civilised' via gunfire and mass suicide by the Christian Dutch, the distant genetic cousins of those who created the ideas which shaped Bali.

'Black Lamb' is a more contempered book for its period, covering the years directly before World War Two and written during that war. In 'Black Lamb' the sides have switched places. That book valorises the Serbs and Balkan Christianity generally and the 'Enemy' if there is one in that book, is either the Turks or the Fascist future. The Fascists of course, are play-acting as reborn Aryan/Indo-Europeans, the main characters of both 'Bali' and 'Corn King'. The principal of sacrifice and the dark and bloody nature of that Primeval world-view, gives the title to Rebecca Wests book; the Grey Falcon symbolising the doom of the Serbs at Kosovo, (and for all she knows, the West itself during the writing of the book), and the Black Lamb literally being a sacrificed animal, for in the depths of the Balkans she finds a rank bloodstained altar rock where the locals continue to carry out the old sacrifices, about 1,200 years after the same sacrifices described in 'Corn King'.

So all of these are about the conflict and relationship between two general world-views, showing its heart or axis of change in 'Corn King', its furthest geographic extent in 'Bali' and its ancient survival and possible nightmare-zombie rebirth in 'Black Lamb', where the Sun Wheels the characters of 'Corn King' and 'Bali' would both recognise, have returned in a dark(er) form. 

In each case these are opposed by what we would broadly call something like the Christian/Monotheist/Civilised/Universalist world-view, in 'Corn King' this is represented initially by Sphaeros and then by a range of characters and situations reaching for spiritual growth across the book, in 'Bali' the brutal and murderous but technically correct, (about the wife-burning at least), Dutch are its carriers and in 'Black Lamb' we have West, her poor Greek Jewish friend, (who could also easily have been a character in 'Corn King') married to his evil Fascist German wife, and ancient Serb Christian nobility, (as West would see it), vs rising fascism.

Well, to spoil the climax of that story; the Nazis lost, and in the lee of that defeat, any study of the 'Indo-European' question was dumped right in the deep-freeze. No-one in Germany wanted to talk about ancient racial or cultural origins and European origins were slid to the back of the file, covered over with decades of near-noble academic interpolation of 'pots are not people' and ideas of cultural exchange and transformation rather than a world of guys bonking each other on the head. 

No-one ever said the Indo-European thing was false, it was just de-emphasised, confined to language and mythos studies, with fragments of archaeology and investigation pricking at the matter here and there but never really being forcefully combined. No-one really wants to be the one to let the Sun-Wheels out.

But here they come regardless. unfortunately we can read genes. And we can now read the genes of the long-dead, drawn from bones and teeth, with incredible depth and accuracy, and with modern computing and programming, we can organise and compare these huge genomes in vast numbers and across vast ranges, building libraries and maps of ancient movements. We can scrape the bones from the floors of tombs and rebuild family trees two thousand years old and more. And the long and the short of it is that, perhaps unfortunately, pots are people.

The phrase 'pots are not people' was used by archologists to remind historians that, just because an old pot style was dropped and an entirely new one spread across the same area in the past, that doesn't mean necessarily that everyone got bonked on the head and “replaced”. They could have just had a fashion for new pots. Happens all the time.

Unfortunately in late stone age and Bronze/Iron age Europe, especially regarding the spread of the Indo-Europeans/Yamnaya/Aryans, the pots are actually people and in fact everyone got bonked on the head, except sometimes the fertile women, and 'replaced'. In short, the picture of ancient Europe and the origins of its people is enough to give Hitler a massive boner.

The full picture is complex, and has a lot more loops and interrelationships, and is still often obscure, but in terms of the deep passions of man, it doesn't really matter what the exact truth is, it matters what you can say, and you can now say that the Northern European people had (VERY broadly), a general common ancestor tribe or race, and that they were really into Sun Wheels and 'replacing' populations.

So this old European nightmare of blood and soil is stirring, distantly, beneath the earth again. You can't really hear it yet as it exists divided up across academic reports and little-read books, with everything re-named; 'Yamnaya' and 'Indo-European' rather than 'Aryan', 'Population replacement event' rather than 'they killed everything they didn't rape'. But probably this will very gradually seep into culture, despite the best efforts of a lot of people to pretend it isn't happening.

This is why I find some hope in what I call this 'Indic Trilogy'. I look around the modern scene to find minds or ideas that can be brought to bear on this awakening and bloody ghost, and find generally nothing. The liberals hide from it and ban it if they can, the Geneticists uncover it while re-naming and academicizing everything in the hopes they can abstract it into non-existence, the Conservatives are either too stupid to think about it or looking forward to it, or Catholics.

But this great moral conflict has already been fought once and big minds have dealt with it in depth, in the glory and beauty and attractions of a culture of sacrifice and the rule of power and what in the mind or spirit might oppose it and try to escape and transform it. So I find some cold hope in this trilogy of books and I would recommend you read them.

Extra Stuff

There is a whole bunch of stuff and themes I was just too tired to dig into with ‘Corn King’.

Art – The Book starts and ends with art and artists. Berris Der, the brother of Erif Der, and his complex artistic journey almost makes him a third protagonist. If you want to dive into the mind and perceptions of a brilliant part-Greek, Part Scythian artist dealing with the cultures of the ancient world and his own reflections and comprehension of them in art, here you go. 

Sex – Free Love baby! There is a fair amount of sex in this book and it is generally very adult in theme, in both of the ways in which that word can be used. i.e. its got some horny explicit stuff and some very real and complex psychological and emotional depth. Sex is deeply integrated into this most-human of books 

Aristocracy – Mitcheson was the child of the High Born on both sides and, possibly without her realising it, this awareness of what it means to be a child of the nobility, what it means to be clearly and self-evidently part of the aristocracy, the simple relentless confidence, the ability to walk into a Kings or a God-Kings court and simply expect to be listened to, the ability to travel freely without the sheen of fear that covers the poor, once-poor or less confident. Its characters are a ‘natural aristocracy’ and so was Mitcheson, though she might not have liked that idea.