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Goodreads Review: Waking the Moon

Waking the Moon

Waking the Moon by Elizabeth Hand

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

July was a misery. A global heatwave, strong earthquakes in California, fires in the American Southwest, and other signs of catastrophic climate change were all around. In DC, power outages and random violence were attributed to the miserable weather. Tourists listlessly thronged the museums while residents inched through endless construction between their mediocre-paying civil service jobs and their overpriced apartments. The Benandanti, a powerful cult of archaeologists who secretly control the world, really dropped the ball in the summer of 1994.

With the (possible) exception of that powerful cult of archaeologists, I found Elizabeth Hand’s 1995 Waking the Moon an uncannily accurate reflection of reality as I read the book in the summer of 2019. Despite the hyper-realism afforded my reading experience by climate change, gentrification, and sweaty tourists, Waking the Moon is fiction – a Tiptree Award winning novel by an author whose work I’ve long admired.

Spoilers are few and far between and most of the plot details I reveal are either in the book blurbs, on the back cover, or occur within the first 2 chapters of the book. Still, you’ve been warned.

The story opens in 1975 at The University of the Archangels and Saint John the Divine, aka the Divine, a vaguely fictionalized version of Catholic University in Washington, DC. Although the real-life, over-the-top Shrine is vital to the plot, the Vatican isn’t in charge in this world. The Catholic Church can only dream of wielding the power and influence of the ambiguously religious, multi-faith Benandanti, who run the place in Waking the Moon.

Look, if I controlled everything and I wanted to hide in plain sight, Academia the cover I’d choose. But members of the Benandanti aren’t hiding, exactly. I actually love that it’s unclear how well known they are. What little Hand reveals about their history and machinations is much more evocative than what we get in the combined works of Dan Brown.

At The Divine, the Benandanti seem to devote most of their resources to fostering a culture of favoritism and privilege on campus, teaching ethically hinky anthropology courses, and fretting about when someone will reawaken a bloodthirsty Moon Goddess. It’s all rather vague. What matters here is that this is a world in which Anthropologists and Archaeologists are wealthy and powerful and Feminist Archaeologists are celebrities.

I know, right?

So where was I?

1975. Right.

Summer is ending and visiting Divine professor/Benandanti member Dr. Magda Kurtz, a world-famous Feminist Archaeologist, is preparing to head back to California.

I assume Magda was inspired by UCLA Archaeologist Dr. Marija Gimbutas, a controversial figure who was largely responsible for the late 20th Century Goddess craze. Magda’s dissertation-turned runaway bestseller seems to be an homage to Gimbutas’s 1974 book, The Goddesses and Gods of Old Europe.

At the Divine, Magda’s seminars are legendary opium-infused gatherings filled with magic and mystery. (I may be in the wrong DC Anthropology Department).

Magda, we soon learn, is a traitor to the Benandanti and possessed by Moon Goddess Othiym.

Magda’s backstory is the stuff of a thousand archaeologically-influenced horror tales. Dig financed by a rich industrialist with an unethical collection of Antiquities. Superstitious locals. Rumors of tainted or unholy ground. The discovery of a Powerful Sacred Object. Magda’s realization a Dark Power led her to the site. The dig-site accident to inject a bit of dramatic tension, followed by a scene of Archaeologists running for their lives. The meteoric career ascension of the Archaeologist who unethically kept the Sacred Object.

Honestly, I can overlook all the horror-archaeology clichés, because that’s not what tried my patience. Stumbling around the site at night, Magda accidentally exposes the burial of an ancient human sacrifice which proves that the Mood Goddess was more than a minor local Minoan deity.

Even if Magda was an expert in skeletal analysis, I’d call shenanigans. By the light of the moon and a weak flashlight, she casually determines sex, cause of death, and age at time of death of a partially exposed set of human remains down in a pit? Nope.

Fine. OK. Yes. I get it. I’m being pedantic and realistic while reading a splendid, atmosphere-oozing fantasy novel.

Let’s just accept that the Goddess chose Magda, led her to the site, gave her knowledge, and enabled her to earn early tenure. All she had to do was use the lunula she found with the remains to slit her colleagues throat, feed the Goddess some blood, steal the artifact, and keep it all a secret. I appreciate that Hand didn’t spend time detailing how the Goddess finessed it so Magda could turn that circumstantial evidence into a career. It just is and here we are.

Anthropology Department Chair Balthazar Warnick and his Benandanti pals invited Magda back to The Divine to do whatever it is she’s been doing there all summer. One thing we know she wasn’t doing: fooling the Benandati. They totally know she’s a traitor, probably because she runs around wearing the lunula, that large sacred crescent-shaped necklace/weapon.

The real action begins when the students arrive on campus for the Fall semester.

Impossibly beautiful freshmen Angelica di Rienzi and Oliver Wilde Crawford are Benandanti legacies. Oliver’s parents are “famous (and famously wealthy) anthropologists.” (79) Sure, why not?

The Benandanti see A Sign. Impossibly beautiful Angelica and Oliver are fated for something or another! And! There’s a second portent! A plot complication named Katherine Sweeney Cassidy!

Angelica and Oliver befriend Sweeney on the first day of class.

The story unfolds predominantly through Sweeney’s first-person narration. Strategic shifts to the third person provide glimpses of the growing Goddess cult out in the world, as well as assurance that Sweeney is pretty reliable, she’s just doesn’t seem terribly observant or inquisitive about how or why her life unfolds the way it does.

A pair of angels showed up in Sweeney’s dorm room her first night on campus and watched her sleep, but otherwise Sweeney seems to just be a smart kid who somehow chose a super-elite university brimming with Benandanti legacies without knowing about the Benandanti.

Hand deftly demonstrates that magic is imbricated in this world in the first few pages. Warnick is at a lodge in West Virginia when he’s called back to the Divine on short notice. He casually opens an ordinary wooden door and steps through a portal back to the campus in DC. In my opinion, the second half of the book is overstuffed with incantations and lyrics which felt like ponderous and twee intrusions amongst the otherwise elegant, atmospheric scenes. Fortunately, Hand doesn’t bog down the plot with elaborate metaphysical explanations for magic or wizarding bowel movements, so I guess plodding through some incantations is a small price to pay.

So. Yes. Magic. On the first night of school, at a bacchanal, Professor Warnick shoves Magda through a portal, presumably sending her to her death in a hellscape of giant insectile beings. Sweeney and Angelica witnessed this horror and the memory haunts Sweeney forever.

Magda gave the lunula to Angelica before she was hauled to her doom. The Benandati don’t take it away from Angelica because, let’s be honest, they don’t seem great at many parts of their job.

Sweeney and Oliver drink a lot and do a lot of drugs and spend a lot of time at gay clubs in Southeast DC and very little time going to class. Bloodshed ensues when the students visit the Orphic Lodge in West Virginia. Things end poorly for a bull (dead), Oliver (institutionalized), and Sweeney (threatened with expulsion on trumped-up drug charges, but ultimately exiled from the Divine to the inferior archaeology program at nearby George Washington University).

The book then jumps ahead to 1994. I have the 512 page UK edition. 120 pages were excised from that for the US edition and it’s my understanding that the first half of the book bore the brunt of this sacrifice. This probably for the best, because it’s in the second half (incantations aside) that the story truly gets its hooks in you.

Sweeney now works in the Anthropology Department at the Natural History museum and lives in the carriage house behind the Capitol Hill home of her boss, Dr. Dvorkin. She’s oblivious to Angelica’s rise to worldwide stardom as a super-famous and influential Feminist Archaeologist with a New Age cult until she catches her appearance on a daytime talk show. Angelica’s bestsellers are presumably homages to Dr. Marija Gimbutas’s later books, The Language of the Goddess (1989) and Civilization of the Goddess (1991). I could do some research on this, but I didn’t, because this started out as a quick Goodreads review and is already a bit out of control.

Where was I? Right. New Age. If your definition of “New Age” is “abducting and murdering pretty young vulnerable men who society considers expendable every month under the light of the Full Moon,” that is.

Sweeney doesn’t seem to use email and there’s no mention of the Internet. It’s 1994, after all. Angelica now uses her married name – Angelica Furiano (Italian for Avenging Angel) – but Sweeney is still in touch with all of their mutual besties from the Divine and, not to put too fine a point on it, she and Angelica are professionals in the same field.

Clearly, the Benandanti put a lot of energy into conspiring to keep anyone from spilling the beans to Sweeney that Angelica is now leader of a worldwide cult of Goddess-worshipping women. I’m joking about Sweeney’s cluelessness, but the subtle ways this is revealed add immeasurably to the sense of unease I felt as I read. This is some damn good storytelling, intertwined with damn good worldbuilding.

As the world catches fire and Angelica advances her blood-soaked mission to get the Goddess back up to full strength, the Benandanti finally quit wringing their hands about her true genocidal nature and…still don’t really do much.

Well, they do finally clue Sweeney in that they’ve been greasing the wheels for her for 19 years because they saw A Sign way back when that suggested that she’s going to save the day for them somehow maybe they hope.

Sweeney is rather upset to realize how much of her life has been guided by the Benandanti, which include not only the faculty at the Divine but her boss at the Smithsonian and who knows who else.

She’s never forgiven the Benandanti for exiling her from the Divine without explanation that weird night in West Virginia. Or for what she saw them do to Magda. She seems feisty enough to let the world burn and them with it. It’s a testament to Hand’s skill that Sweeney doesn’t come across as helpless or compliant or foolish for being led down this carefully crafted path for all these years.

I must confess that, from the start, Sweeney seemed to me a foremother to Cass Neary, the protagonist of several of Hand’s excellent crime novels, so from the moment she arrived in the story I felt like she was going to come into her own, possibly before there was any actual evidence to support this outcome

Ultimately, she does save the day, but not out of any sense of obligation to a patriarchal cult, and I’m not going to tell you how because spoilers.

To be fair, although she didn’t ask for their meddling, she got a lot of stuff out of the Benandanti, like free Anthropology degrees and Federal employment and an office with a window on the Mall side of Natural History and affordable rent on a cottage in an idyllic garden.

On the other hand, that adorable cottage she lives in through over a decade of DC heat and humidity doesn’t have air conditioning so maybe even with all of the assists, Sweeney and the Benandanti could just call it all square.

But, they got her that super-hot 19 year old intern who’s good in bed and slavishly devoted to her.

What super-hot 19 year old? You ask. I told you I skipped over quite a lot because I didn’t want to ruin your fun and I also wanted to get to a few serious points.

First, the novel is quite progressive and has aged pretty well. It’s lovely that the fluidity of gender and sexuality are neither questioned nor pathologized, and I imagine that epic conference papers have been written about this book, but I don’t want to ruin many of the interesting twists in the story for you by discussing these characters or their story arcs here.

Second, the heroes and the villains. If you want to know which is which, I can’t help you.

The Benandanti certainly aren’t heroes. They excel at infiltrating every element of society and gliding through bureaucracy, but their entire mission statement is to maintain the status quo and to be vigilant for the rise of this genocidal moon goddess. The status quo sucks. And when it’s obvious the Moon Goddess is on the way they just sit on their thumbs for decades. By 1994, apocalyptic shit is going down all over the planet and a lot of people are dying, both directly at their hands and indirectly due to their inaction. Not heroic, dudes.

Plus, they didn’t give Sweeney air conditioning.

In DC.

Seriously?

While they may not be heroes, they aren’t the sole villains of the piece.

Angelica isn’t any easier to pin down. As the Moon Goddess she’s going to crush the patriarchy, but then she’s probably going to eat everyone and sandblast the Earth.

Third, I think it’s vital to mention that pseudoarchaeology is a prominent tool in regressive ideologies that promote Nationalism and erase or obscure the histories of Indigenous and historically oppressed people, among other issues. A critical component of these false narratives is the idea that archaeologists suppress knowledge, destroy data, horde treasures, and generally work to mislead the public in order to secretly control the world. This is bad for society and it’s dangerous for archaeologists, who are reporting increasing threats from members of the public who accuse them of conspiring to hide “the truth.”

While I greatly enjoyed Waking the Moon and recommend it highly to fantasy readers, especially archaeologists who enjoy literary fantasy fiction, the endlessly reproduced image of the archaeologist as secretive keeper of divine wisdom and true knowledge will always make me a little uneasy. It’s because of this that I knocked 1 star from my rating. Okay, that and maybe also all those insufferable incantations.


View all my reviews

Categories
academia anthropology television

Cautious optimism about the postponement of Nazi War Diggers

updated 2:30 p.m. EST with two more links at the end of the post.

I was on campus until rather late last night and didn’t get a chance to update the list of articles critiquing and opposing the National Geographic Channel’s Nazi War Diggers, a proposed 4 part series which appeared to portray archaeology as treasure hunting and showed human remains being excavated in a grotesquely cavalier manner.

My previous link round-up posts are here: Nazi War Diggers: Part II and here: Nazi War Diggers: Part I.

There are some excellent articles that I’ll link to at the end of this post, but I’m going to start with the good news Tom Mashberg reported in the New York Times: “National Geographic Channel Pulls ‘Nazi War Diggers’ Series.”

It should be noted that the show does not appear to have officially been cancelled – it has been “postponed indefinitely,” which can mean a lot of things in the world of broadcast media and video on demand.

Still, it’s a positive sign and one that the National Geographic Channel should be given credit for, particularly in light of how firmly they seemed to be digging their heels in as recently as Friday.

I want to highlight a few sections of the article since it may be behind a paywall for some readers.

First, it’s important to note that the National Geographic Society did listen to the archaeologists affiliated with the society and acknowledged their concerns:

National Geographic Channel said Monday that it would “indefinitely” pull a planned television series on unearthing Nazi war graves after days of blistering criticism from archeologists and others who said the show handled the dead with macabre disrespect.

The channel said that after “consulting with colleagues” at the National Geographic Society, it would not broadcast the series, “Nazi War Diggers,” in May as scheduled “while questions raised in recent days regarding accusations about the program can be properly reviewed.” The show was to have been broadcast globally except in the United States.

Additionally, this section explaining that the Latvian War Museum opposed the show is important because inaccurate rumors about their involvement could have serious consequences for them in the future:

The channel said in its Friday statement that the Latvian government had approved the team’s work, which took place on Latvian and Polish soil. But the critics contacted the Latvian War Museum, which said in a statement that it had opposed the show.

National Geographic also said that none of the items dug up during filming would be sold but instead would be donated to war museums. The critics however found a posting on a military collectors’ online forum in which Mr. Gottlieb described locating a Latvian war helmet in June and preparing it for sale.

On to the links I intended to post yesterday, which raise many relevant questions and concerns and explain why NatGeo TV’s defensive arguments on Friday were so problematic.

I think these are vital reads regardless of the fate of the show because they get to a lot of larger issues that archaeologists, public historians, curators, and others face on a regular basis, particularly in the age of Infotainment and manufactured television “reality.”

Sam Hardy at Conflict Antiquities: ‘No trouble with customs.’ Perhaps trouble with repeatedly written confessions?

Alison Atkin at Deathsplanation: “On the Importance of Context.”

updates:
Andy Brockman at Heritage Daily: Springtime for Hitler and “Nazi War [Death Porn] Diggers”

Additionally, this letter from the Presidents of a number of major anthropological and archaeological professional organizations has been added to the American Anthropological Association site:

The Society for American Archaeology (SAA), the Society for Historical Archaeology (SHA), the Archaeological Institute of America (AIA), the American Anthropological Association (AAA), the European Association of Archaeologists (EAA), and the European Association of Social Anthropologists (EASA) wish
to express our deep disappointment and grave concern about the upcoming National Geographic Channel
International’s (NGCI’s) show, Nazi War Diggers. Together, SAA, SHA, AIA, AAA, EAA, and EASA
represent more than 10,000 professional archaeologists and more than 600,000 individuals interested in
archaeology. Our members live and work in all parts of the world, including the areas ravaged by World
War II.

(read the rest of the letter here).

Categories
academia anthropology television

Nazi War Diggers, part II

Yesterday, I posted about a new NatGeo TV show, Nazi War Diggers. The list of blog posts and open letters criticizing the show continues to grow.

Alison Atkin (Deathsplanation, doctoral researcher at The University of Sheffield Department of Archaeology) “Dear National Geographic Channel UK.” This post also contains a pdf of the letter the National Geographic Channel has sent out in response to the outcry.

Dr. Donna Yates (research fellow on the University of Glasgow’s Trafficking Culture project): “Nazi War Diggers: Looting war graves on TV.”

Paul Mullens (Archaeology and Material Culture, Chair of the Anthropology Department at Indiana University-Purdue University, Indianapolis): “The Peep Show of Death: Televising Human Remains.”

Even as the National Geographic Channel scrambles to argue that everything will be fine once we see the context of the clip, they fail to acknowledge a key issue. As Mullens writes:

Shows that tear bottles and bullets out of archaeological context violate archaeological ethics because they make no effort to systematically interpret the material record and they quite often recover things simply for commercial benefit. Reducing human bodies to the same status as bottles to be trafficked online has consequential methodological, ethical, and moral implications alike.

Tom Mashberg’s New York Times article, “TV Series is criticized in handling of deceased,” will hopefully reach an audience beyond the bio/archaeology community. The National Geographic Channel is quoted in the article:

“Part of it is our fault because we released a clip completely out of context that was not representative of the show,” he said. “But I hope people will withhold judgment until the show starts.”

This raised many an eyebrow on twitter. The clip, which shows a group of men cavalierly scraping dirt away from human remains and prying a broken femur out of the ground in a manner that no amount of context will make acceptable. The article concludes:

One of the two metal-detecting specialists on the show, Kris Rodgers, said on Twitter that he agreed the show had been promoted with “a very bad clip.” In response to the outcry, however, he added: “Trust me. It was done properly.”

No. It clearly wasn’t.

Additionally, Archaeosoup has a special episode about the show. Although NatGeo TV has taken down the clip, you can see it in this episode.


Oh! Bodies and Academia is also collecting up links about the show: “Grave Robbing” on TV?”

Categories
academia anthropology television

Nazi War Diggers

That title sounds like the lead-in to a post about craptacular SyFy movies. Or maybe a political post about the rhetoric around the NeoLiberal military-industrial complex. Sadly, it’s about neither of those things. Nazi War Diggers is an upcoming 4-part series on National Geographic International. TV Wise announced it will begin airing on May 13th.


Nazi War Diggers, National Geographic Channel
Photo posted on Nazi War Diggers show site

NatGeoTV, which is owned by FOX and promoted as a partnership with the National Geographic Society, already airs an ethically-challenged show called Diggers. Despite critiques by professional associations such as the Society for American Archaeology, the show continues to air and is now in its third season.

The clip posted yesterday on the Nazi War Diggers website showed these self-professed metal detector enthusiasts digging up human remains from an unmarked Latvian grave. The clip has since been removed but the page remains and the publicity photos were still online as of this afternoon.

I’ve been rounding up blog posts about the show.

Bioarchaeologist Kristina Killgrove (Powered by Osteons blog): “Who needs an osteologist, volume 11.”

John R. Roby (Digs and Docs): “We don’t need a TV show about looting Nazi battlefields.”

Archaeologist Paul Barford (Portable Antiquity Collecting and Heritage Issues blog): “National Geographic use metal detectors, find new low.”

Conflict Antiquities: “urgent ethical and legal questions for National Geographic, ClearStory and their Nazi War Diggers.”

Alison Atkin of Deathsplanation summed up my feelings with an animated gif: “Nazi War Diggers.”

Archaeologist and TV producer Annelise Baer (Archaeologist for Hire blog): “Let’s talk more about Nazi War Diggers.”

I’ll add posts as I run across them.

Added March 28, 2014: Nazi War Diggers, part II.

Categories
academia

Dr. Isis: On Waking Up From Your Fear of Academic Writing…

Dr. Isis: On Waking Up From Your Fear of Academic Writing…

While directed at scientists, this post is applicable all academic creatures. Unless you’re a delicate flower & can’t handle profanity…in which case you should read this shit twice because you might actually need an extra dose of Dr. Isis’s character-building ass-kicking. Or not. Whatever. At the end of the day, only you can make you get your work done.