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Sneakily taking the hinges off the doors of perception

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Elizabeth Sandifer

Elizabeth Sandifer created Eruditorum Press. She’s not really sure why she did that, and she apologizes for the inconvenience. She currently writes Last War in Albion, a history of the magical war between Alan Moore and Grant Morrison. She used to write TARDIS Eruditorum, a history of Britain told through the lens of a ropey sci-fi series. She also wrote Neoreaction a Basilisk, writes comics these days, and has ADHD so will probably just randomly write some other shit sooner or later.Support Elizabeth on Patreon.

29 Comments

  1. Laurence Price
    August 20, 2012 @ 2:04 am

    Interesting use of the Goth-rooted word "heathen" rather than the arguably more common Latin-founded term "pagan"- especially as you said that the Romans called them "heathen". Etymologically, the two are close cousins- both words mean country-dwellers, cognate with the German "heide" and the Latin "pagus" respectively.

    I think there's a lot to be said for looking at the Doctor in the light of Odin- or Wotan, in the Wagnerian versions of the myths. In particular, I've always been fascinated by the picture in the Ring Cycle of the greatest god failing to live up to his role as arch-manipulator and guarantor of morality- and instead, voluntarily giving up his identity and wandering the world speaking riddles. (Indeed, a Bakeresque long coat and big hat seem to be very common for Wotan/Wanderer to wear in productions of Siegfried- Google Images has dozens of examples!). To a large extent, Wotan takes on the role of Loki/Loge the trickster. For Wotan, this is a diminution- a sad shadow of his earlier greatness and a prelude to his total disappearance from the world of the Ring cycle. But for the Doctor, that paradoxical dancing unity of the joker and the most powerful god makes him live. The ultimate source of power in the universe can toss its scarf over its shoulder, grin manically and offer evil a jelly baby.

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  2. jane
    August 20, 2012 @ 3:56 am

    Makes me wonder if River Song is an nod towards The Rheingold! Great stuff, Anna, thank you for your erudition. So, would I be safe in saying you consider Doctor Who to be a modern myth?

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  3. 5tephe
    August 20, 2012 @ 4:26 am

    Fascinating read! Thanks.
    One other figure I have always associated the Doctor with is another trick wanderer: Odysseus. Are there any links between that myth, and the Odin ones, to your knowledge?

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  4. BerserkRL
    August 20, 2012 @ 4:51 am

    During the Christian era there were various attempts to euhemerise the Asgardian gods by connecting them with Greek legends, most famously by Snorri Sturluson here and here; and certainly he was happy enough to seize on similarities of names to make his points. But the main connection is to make the Aesir descendants of the survivors of Troy, Aesir/Asians (as Layamon in Brut had made the Britons, both inspired by the tradition of the Romans' being so descended), so an Odin/Odysseus connection probably wouldn't have worked.

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  5. Ununnilium
    August 20, 2012 @ 8:15 am

    Ooooh, "euhemerise". My vocabulary grows so much when I visit this blog. (insert obligatory qlippothic here)

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  6. Josh Marsfelder
    August 20, 2012 @ 8:21 am

    Great post, Anna! Fascinating stuff.

    Having just rewatched "Terminus" and re-read Phil's appraisal of it, the choice of Davison's Doctor to hang from the tree suddenly makes a lot of sense. Phil makes the argument Davison's Doctor is meant to be a young Odin, travelling the universe in search of knowledge and "Terminus" is (intended as) the point where The Doctor shifts from a Hermetic figure to an Odinic one. Granted, "Terminus" is rubbish and does little to elaborate on these themes and the Odinic nature of The Doctor doesn't really return in a significant fashion until the McCoy tenure, but I can see the clues are there. Frankly, given this reading, the choice seems to me to not only make sense but it become the staggeringly obvious one.

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  7. Josh Marsfelder
    August 20, 2012 @ 8:23 am

    Off-topic, but I, weirdly and perhaps wrongly, have always felt The Doctor's role was closer to Athena's in The Odyssey rather than Odysseus. That's a thread I'm sort of interested in exploring myself, if only for my own edification.

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  8. Josh Marsfelder
    August 20, 2012 @ 8:28 am

    This comment has been removed by the author.

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  9. Josh Marsfelder
    August 20, 2012 @ 8:43 am

    Great post, Anna! Fascinating stuff.

    Having just re-watched "Terminus" and re-read Phil's appraisal of it, the choice of Peter Davison's Doctor to hang from the tree makes a lot of sense to me now. Phil argues that "Terminus" casts Davison's Doctor as a young Odin wandering the universe in search of knowledge and is (intended as) the point where The Doctor's role shifts from Hermetic to Odinic. Granted, "Terminus" is rubbish and does little to elaborate on these themes and the concept of The Doctor as Odinic doesn't really come into play in any significant fashion until the McCoy era, but I can see the clues are there. Given this reading, the choice seems to me to not only make sense, but become staggeringly obvious.

    Sorry about the repeat posting, by the way. Having a lot of problems commenting today for some reason.

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  10. encyclops
    August 20, 2012 @ 10:35 am

    Philip: for the new series, I'm finding Burk and Smith?'s [sic, don't ask me why] Who Is The Doctor to be a nice successor to the About Time series. It's not as intensely detailed (what could be?), but the approach is similar, the criticism independent-minded (if less overtly academic), and the authors charming enough. There's probably a good chance they'll be able to get along with one another long enough to write at least one more volume together. 🙂 I'm not sure if it gives you what you need from a guidebook (About Time is the ne plus ultra for me), but it's the best I've seen so far and covers up through the end of season 6 if I recall correctly.

    Anna: thanks for a fascinating read! You raise all kinds of questions for me I think I'll have to read more about the mythology itself to answer. There are a couple of sentences I'm not sure came through the ether intact (what's missing from "So the Doctor manipulates people and events Odin."?) but I think I got the gist.

    I'm not sure how to type the names properly, but the one that looks like "Vidarr" makes me wonder about the history of the Time War that we haven't ever quite learned. Was it the Ninth Doctor who fought the Time War, or the Eighth? When did he regenerate ("Rose" implies it wasn't long before that story)? I ask because if he's Vidarr (sorry) then perhaps the vengeful Ninth Doctor is Vali?

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  11. Ununnilium
    August 20, 2012 @ 11:04 am

    Honestly, I'd say that the Doctor is sort of the opposite of Odysseus – wanderer by choice versus wanderer by nature, home as a goal versus home as a negative motivation.

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  12. Ununnilium
    August 20, 2012 @ 11:07 am

    Personally, I always figured that the end of the Time War was the moment of regeneration – that the specific mechanics of whatever he did to wipe out Daleks and Time Lords both was enough to devastate his body.

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  13. Anna
    August 20, 2012 @ 11:38 am

    I certainly think that Doctor Who draws on mythic modes of storytelling, but I hesitate to refer to it as outright myth, if only because I personally associate that word with stories about beings that are worshiped. I might instead call Doctor Who a folk legend or saga, like the Völsungasaga – mythic in form, but not myth per se.

    Or maybe I'm being overly pedantic.

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  14. Anna
    August 20, 2012 @ 12:15 pm

    Ahh, well, I didn't want to dive into the whole pagan vs heathen thing in the post itself, but my choice primarily comes from the modern uses of the words. In the neopagan community, 'heathen' is not typically used for self-identity, but within the germanic/norse reconstructionist faiths, the word 'heathen' prevails.

    On further research, it looks like I did have a fact wrong: it was post-Roman Christiandom that coined the term 'heathen', not the Romans. I must have confused two different sources, because I thought I remembered the word 'heathen' from Tacitus' Germania.

    I'll be blunt: I'm not a big fan, personally, of the Wagnerian versions of the myths, and I haven't studied them deeply. I dislike the equating of the wanderer role with dimunition – the earlier versions of the myths don't give me that impression, and it doesn't really fit with the sense of power that Odin commands even as he wanders. I also dislike the elision of Odin and Loki, and at the root of that is an objection to the Campbellian tendency to throw the 'trickster' label at any deity who shows the slightest bit of cleverness.

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  15. BerserkRL
    August 20, 2012 @ 12:29 pm

    Are you trying to qlipp me oth?

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  16. Ununnilium
    August 20, 2012 @ 12:55 pm

    I think "saga" is a good word for it (if one that's been diminished by its use in some circles as a synonym for "arc").

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  17. daibhid-c
    August 20, 2012 @ 1:06 pm

    That was fascinating. Quick anecdote, since it's a bit of iconography I don't think you mentioned: When I was 19, I read The Discontinuity Guide's section on Battlefield, and it said that in the title sequence, the Seventh Doctor winks the eye that Merlin is said to have sacrificed for wisdom.

    And I thought "I don't remember ever reading that about Merlin. Tell you who I do remember reading it about, though…"

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  18. BerserkRL
    August 20, 2012 @ 3:31 pm

    Well, Merlin wasn't such a fool as to sacrifice his own eye ….

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  19. Anna
    August 20, 2012 @ 4:55 pm

    For me, the line I quoted about the half-human Doctor just feels exactly like Váli. When I first saw that episode I thought about Váli immediately.

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  20. Anna
    August 20, 2012 @ 4:56 pm

    In Odin's defense, he had a spare.

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  21. BerserkRL
    August 20, 2012 @ 5:09 pm

    Why isn't the Brigadier Odin?

    What about Madame Kovarian?

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  22. Gavin
    August 21, 2012 @ 5:37 am

    The pagan* Romans (like Tacitus) wouldn't have been liable to label German religion under any categorizing heading such as "heathen," in fact. They didn't conceptualize religion as a separate and unified identity in that way, or, to put it differently, as "religion." What Tacitus talks about are German beliefs about the gods, how Germans honor the gods (etc.).

    *Which is to say, in calling them "pagan," I'm doing the very thing that they didn't. "Pagan" is a Christian category, and there are classical scholars who avoid the word on principle for that reason, preferring "traditional polytheist."

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  23. Gavin
    August 21, 2012 @ 6:21 am

    I didn't have time to comment on the earlier discussion of myth, but here, for what they are worth, are my two cents. (Worth two cents, I suppose, if I'm lucky.)

    Before one gets into whether modern pop culture figures/stories are myths, one needs to define what a "myth" is. This is a notoriously difficult thing to do.

    In some ways, it's easier to say that using the term "myth" locates what one is talking about in a tradition of discourse about certain stories going back, more-or-less, to a very specific Greek origin in the 6th century B.C. (which is closely involved with the contemporary development of Greek philosophy and Greek historiography). A consequence of this is that what we mean by "myth" often tends to be"stories like the Greek stories that are traditionally called "Greek myths."

    A consequence of that is that "myth" is arguably a category that should be used with caution when talking about other cultures. (It is, however, often felt to apply well to Norse myths – not something I know much about myself – but in the same breath the person saying that often points out that these share important features with Greek myths.)

    Indeed, it's a category that needs to be used with caution even when talking about Greek myths. What we call "the Greek myths" tends to be pegged to what mythographers like Apollodorus selectively collected and retold as "myths". Kristopher Fletcher has shown, for instance, that the symbolic map of relationships between peoples that Apollodorus creates by what he includes and excludes is framed to cut the Romans out of the picture. It is therefore addressed at the contemporary situation of Greeks living under the Roman Empire, and is by no means a naive or random selection from traditional sources.

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  24. Iain Coleman
    August 21, 2012 @ 11:17 am

    "And then I turned round, and they were all Odin!"

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  25. jane
    August 21, 2012 @ 8:35 pm

    I think the "worship" caveat is problematic. Like, if there were beings you personally worshipped, would you consider their stories Myths? Or would this be more properly a Faith? Most worshippers tend not to refer to their objects of veneration as Myths… so it's kind of a pejorative attitude, what Other People believe (mistakenly, of course.)

    And then there's the matter of The Doctor himself. Couldn't one make a case for fandom "worshipping" him in some fashion? Do his stories become Myths if people actually start praying to him as if he were real? Do they stop being Myths if they turn away?

    Would you discount the testimony of someone who claimed a religious experience after such prayer, to avoid categorizing Doctor Who as myth?

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  26. Laurence Price
    August 22, 2012 @ 12:53 am

    This comment has been removed by the author.

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  27. Laurence Price
    August 22, 2012 @ 12:56 am

    Anna wrote: "I dislike the equating of the wanderer role with dimunition – the earlier versions of the myths don't give me that impression, and it doesn't really fit with the sense of power that Odin commands even as he wanders."

    I do rather like that aspect myself, as it plays into theological ideas of true power expressed through kenosis- self-emptying. At the height of his power in the Wagnerian version of the epic, Wotan is actually the un-free-est (ouch! It works better in German, as "unfreieste") of all men and gods, because he relies on a network of social contracts and agreements that prevent him from following his own wishes. Brunnhilde, the Valkyrie, his "wish-maiden", knows his heart better than anyone- and that's why she breaks the rules, going along with Wotan's deepest desires. But Wotan has to use his own power against the people he loves and to thwart his own plans. Consequently, he leaves Valhalla to find a new sort of freedom, the playfulness of Loge/Loki. But by the end of the cycle he becomes resigned to the twilight of the gods and the new age of men, which he had fought to stave off originally by constructing Valhalla. In that silent acceptance of fate at the end of Gotterdammerung is his true power and wisdom- not in his political manipulative power in Rhinegold, nor the supernatural powers he displays in Valkyrie, or the joker's power as freedom from responsibility in Siegfried.

    As a parallel, we can see it in Shakespeare's Richard II- he becomes more human as his political power is stripped from him. And of course, the whole Christus Victor reigning-from-the-cross theme in Christian theology.

    (Apologies for the deletion- I was trying to sort out some consistency between English/German/Norse versions of the names and failing!)

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  28. DrJosephObi
    October 18, 2015 @ 3:16 pm

    that’s really great post i like it

    i’m also a Doctor

    if any kinds of information u guyz can Contract with me

    here is my twitter id : https://twitter.com/DrJosephObi

    Reply

  29. Tony Dwyer
    February 28, 2016 @ 11:19 am

    Morning! Practising “modern” heathen speaking.
    This is a really well-thought-out article, but you have the Doctor’s runes wrong. As depicted in “Timewyrm: Revelation” (page 157, but also brought together in bindrune form on page 190) they are, in order: Jera, Eihwaz, Perþro. This sequence is of three consecutive runes from the centre of the fuþark (or “alphabetical order” if you’d rather.) Their basic archetypal symbolism would be:
    Jera: year, harvest season. Refers to the cyclic nature of the solar year, thus “time”.
    Eihwaz: yew tree. Refers to the cosmic tree which unites the worlds, but also death and transformation, thus “travel between worlds and regeneration”.
    Perþro: as you say, an obscure word – “dice cup” is its usual interpretation, but I’ve also heard “tune”, “fruit tree” and “burial mound”. Regarded as the rune of mystery and things unrevealed, thus “secrets”.
    So, we have: “time, travel between worlds, regeneration, secrets.” This is about as Doctorish as it gets!
    One glaring absence is the fourth rune Ansuz, “the god” (i.e. Óðinn) which is also traditionally linked with magic and speech, and thus “galdr”, or spoken/chanted magic, of which Óðinn is patron and master. Given Doctor McCoy’s trick of talking his opponents into submission, this is the rune I’d really expect to be present, and it’s conspicuous by its absence!
    Thanks for acknowledging the heathen aspect to the Seventh Doctor’s adventures – it’s been a bit of an Easter Egg for a long time. I enjoyed your post.

    Reply

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