Book Review: A Bell and the Power of Karma

Written by Rocco Astore.

Folklore, or a set of customary stories belonging to a specific culture, has contributed to the way that people understand and interpret the world. Within this piece, I will first give a brief summary of the Japanese myth A Bell and the Power of Karma. I will then give a short overview of the Buddhist concept of karma, in order to convey the importance of this notion in Eastern moral thought, so that the reader can better understand how this concept is central to the meaning of this fable. Finally, I will hope to show that this myth is a good parable to know, due to the fact that it stresses the importance of being committed to one’s duties, even when their interests are in opposition to them, as well as the usefulness of karma.

The Japanese legend A Bell and the Power of Karma, is a myth about a young and beautiful tea-house maiden, Kiyo, and a Buddhist priest who becomes intoxicated by her charm. Though this Buddhist priest knows that he is not to engage in any sensual pleasures, such as luxurious food, drink, or frequenting tea-houses, he is nonetheless tempted to do so because of his lust for Kiyo. The priest then visits her at the tea-house, and even though he knows it is a grave sin for him to frequent such a place, he nevertheless visits and his stay results in him and Kiyo succumbing to their passion for one another. Though intense, their relationship does not last long, due to the priest ending his affair with Kiyo, because of his guilty conscience, which especially torments him as he continually ponders how he was so disregarding of his monastic promise to seek true spiritual liberation by giving into the weaknesses of the flesh.

The fable continues with Kiyo, who has now taken notice of the priest’s recent aloofness as well as his lack of frequenting the tea-house, cursing him and wishing that he may die an agonizing death. Though Kiyo tries everything in her power to make the priest love her once more, nothing works, he refuses, and consequently, she visits the Japanese god of wisdom, Fudo, in order to learn how to kill the priest she once loved. After diligent prayer, Fudo leads Kiyo to a shrine of the god Kompira, who can teach Kiyo the ways of sorcery, so that she may be able to put an end to the clergyman’s life. Overtime, Kiyo does learn magic from Kompira, who accustoms her in the ways of being a sorceress, and though she continually calls upon the priest to love her again, he unfortunately refuses and takes refuge in his theological studies. Finally, this not only infuriates Kiyo, who continues to try win over the priest’s heart, it also leads to strengthening her resolve to end the priest’s life.

The last part of this parable begins when Kiyo transforms herself into a dragon-serpent. This is due to her desire to destroy the priest for not loving her in return. With her heightened abilities as a monster, she pursues the priest who is now hiding under a bell. Upon seeing the bell, she destroys it, despite the priest’s brethren praying that Buddha would intervene and end Kiyo’s life, who is now an evil beast bent on annihilation. Finally, this legend ends with the smashing of the bell, which kills the priest, and leaves Kiyo to remain as a dragon-serpent who cannot return to her former beauty, and thus, this fable closes with both characters damaged forever, due to their nefarious acts that contributed to their bad karma.

The Buddhist doctrine of karma, or the belief that one’s actions heavily influence the life they will continue to lead, is not only a religious belief, it is also an integral component needed to understand the workings of the world in Eastern thought. This is important to note, due to the fact that it plays a central role in the aforementioned tale, which I believe displays karma at work in the sad situations people sometimes put themselves into. In a sense, karma can be understood as a fatalism which is based on, yet can be altered by, a person’s actions. Furthermore, karma, which is believed to have a serious impact on the course of one’s life, is also to be in awe of, because it shows both the power of human choice and the power of that which transcends the limited control an individual has over their life.

As a moral law of the universe, karma affects all people, and though in the case of A Bell and the Power of Karma it was proved to be a force to be reckoned with, it can in fact have benevolent effects on a person’s life. For example, if the priest had embraced his duty and had not faltered, one can infer that his life would’ve been contently maintained, due to the good karma that would’ve resulted from his dedication to his path towards spiritual awareness. Also, if Kiyo had not succumbed to her rage and jealousy, she wouldn’t have sought to learn the ways of sorcery from Kompira, and consequently, would not have the ability to become a dragon-serpent, and thus, may have maintained her ineffable magnificence. Finally, these workings of karma, I believe should be remembered, especially when one analyzes the intricacies of this fable.

I believe there are two karmic lessons which one can take from A Bell and the Power of Karma. These moral lessons include the importance of harnessing the mind to avoid being swayed only by the passions of the body and the utility of honoring karma. In regards to harnessing one’s mind, the character of the priest is supposed to use reason as a tool to quell any slavish infatuation that may tempt him to stray from his path towards spiritual liberation. Also, according to the text, the monastery in which this priest is a member, instructs their clergymen to live a life that is both devout and filled with simplicity. This is important to note, because of the fact that the situation the priest has played a role in is anything but a simple affair. I make this claim because by frequenting the tea-house, which is a mortal sin for a clergyman to do in this Japanese town, the priest unnecessarily complicates his life because he cannot ignore his desire for Kiyo.

It is in my belief, that if this priest had not given into his bodily desires, he would have successfully remained a dutiful priest, and this could’ve been done had he adhered to the instructions of his monastery to refrain from pleasures of various sorts. This is so that as priests, the monastery together can focus on spiritual liberation, which, in Buddhism, is believed to come, in part, from the renunciation of the flesh. Also, the priest, who is haunted by his conscience, for having relations with Kiyo, repents and takes refuge in his priestly duties and prayer, which I believe indicates that he knows that he can exert reason to quell his desires. One can interpret this as an acknowledgment on the part of the priest, that though he failed to stay true to his oath, he knows that bodily desires are not in harmony with the path he has chosen to follow as a religious man.

Furthermore, the anguish he faces as well as his unfortunate death, I believe could’ve been prevented, had he stayed true to his religious duties throughout this parable. Finally, the character of Kiyo, the fairest of all women in the tea-house, is another character who could’ve avoided her predicament, or the punishment of losing her beauty by being stuck in the form of a dragon-serpent, if she had only denied her bodily desire for the priest through the application of reason.

The usefulness of staying true to one’s duties, I believe is adequately described in this folkloric tale. I make this claim because if both characters had stayed true to their duties, their karma would’ve been maintained, and hence, their unfortunate predicaments would’ve never came to be. This is especially true of the character of Kiyo, who, one may recall, did not die, but instead became stuck in her dragon-serpent form, never to be the beautiful tea-house maiden again. In the story, the laurels of her prettiness are vast and it is in my belief that this could’ve remained to be so, if she had stuck to her ways and neglected the advances of the priest.

Furthermore, had she not given into desire, one may infer that she would’ve been spiritually unharmed, due to the fact that there would’ve been no reason for her to dabble in magic, or that which gave her the ability to become a beast. Hence, the usefulness of karma, in relation to the character of Kiyo, who had neglected it, showed itself in a negative way. Yet, this was not the fault of karma, rather it was Kiyo who brought unwanted hardship to herself, which one may claim was useful, at the karmic level, insofar as it taught the other priests of the Buddhist monastery not to fall into the same problems which their fellow priest and Kiyo did

Also, the usefulness of karma can be seen in the actions of the character Kiyo herself. This is interesting to note, due to the fact that it may not be so apparent when one reads this tale. Kiyo who has neglected her duty to be true to herself and to her spiritual purity, unknowingly cursed herself when she transformed into the beast that caused this Japanese town to endure extreme havoc, as she was hunting down the clergyman she became so utterly obsessed with. In turn, she not only suffered from her decision, which brought about her bad karma, she also took karma into her own hands and ended the priest’s life, without having the patience to see what would have been his punishment in the future. The usefulness of karma here, though nefarious in nature, is that it can give power, yet one must remember, there is always a price to pay in return, which may not be beneficial to those who use karma for their own ends. Therefore, it is in my belief that by studying as well as taking notice of the subtle intricacies of the character of Kiyo, one may see the difficulties surrounding the use-value of karma.

It should also be remembered that karma did not play a good role in the lives of the priest and Kiyo once they had chosen to cross this force’s path, so to speak. These events can provide ample reason to remain diligent in the practice of one’s duties and at a deeper level, to not take matters into one’s own hands, especially when it is concerning spiritual issues or spiritual forces. Though saddening, I believe both characters experienced the aftermath of their unwise choices and I can understand the view of those who believe these characters were deserving of their fates, especially in regards to the Buddhist priest. Finally, the importance of keeping one’s oaths, as well as the good reasons to avoid tampering with karma, is supportable by the text of this Japanese folktale, which I believe provides a powerful and at times disturbing insight into the nature of righteousness and its effects at a grander, more universal scale.

With this essay I have tried to adequately describe the Japanese parable A Bell and the Power of Karma, as well as its importance as a piece of moral folklore. I have also briefly described the Buddhist’s concept of karma, in order for the reader to become more accustomed to the ethical understanding of the East. I have then argued that through the application of reason, one may be better able to quell desires, which in turn, has karmic benefits that are useful to maintaining a more peaceful and content life.

Image: Christian Reusch


Burtt, E.A. (ed.), The Teachings of the Compassionate Buddha (New York, 1955), pp. 11-241.

Davis, F. Hadland, Myths and Legends of Japan. (London, 1912), pp. 1-396.

The Great War Column: The University of Edinburgh, Rudyard Kipling, and the Great War

Written by Ashleigh Jackson.

The University of Edinburgh, like many other institutions across the country, did not escape the Great War unscathed. A Roll of Honour was published in 1921, after the cessation of hostilities, to commemorate the fallen alumni of the university. This record provides a wealth of information for those hoping to research the war and its impact on society.

The introduction of the document is written by J.A. Ewing, the principal and vice-chancellor of the university from 1916 until his retirement in 1929. The duration of his appointment meant he presided over the university during part of the conflict, witnessing the effects of the war on further education first hand. 944 members of the university were killed in action during the war.  The record comprises a ‘Roll of the Fallen’, as well as a record of those who survived the conflict, detailing alumni who served during the war, chiefly concerning those at the front. Where possible, the record includes photographs of alumni [as can be seen above]. The editor has also sought to include personal details such as education, occupation, military service details and where they died.

Upon the outbreak of war, 600 students and graduates received commissions in the army. A significant proportion of university alumni became medical officers, owing to Edinburgh’s large and prestigious medical school. It is clear then, that the war significantly disrupted university life. Notably, Lord Kitchener, who was Secretary of State for War in 1914-1916 was also the rector of the University during this period. As such, his portrait is included in the Roll of Honour, highlighting a significant connection between the university and the First World War.

Interestingly, Rudyard Kipling visited the university in July 1920, delivering a speech which is included at the beginning of the Roll of Honour: “That they turned without fear or question from the Gates of Learning to those of the Grave in order that free men might still continue to learn freedom, is their glory but not their glory alone.”

Kipling captures the great sacrifice made by these men, who fought not only for their freedom but for the freedom of others. Throughout the war, Kipling was a prolific orator, supporting the war effort by calling for recruits.  He is famous for his poetry and short stories but during the First World War, he also became a key propagandist. His articles sought to uphold morale. He stressed the bravery of the soldiers at the front and wrote in an upbeat tone, becoming something of a spin-doctor. When reporting on the Battle of Jutland in 1916 he gave a positive interpretation of the conflict despite huge losses to the British army.

Kipling’s poignant speech at Edinburgh in 1920 connected the fallen alumni through their mutual commitment to academia. He sought to highlight how their sacrifice enabled future generations to ‘continue to learn’. Kipling’s attitude was perhaps at odds with the general feeling of grief that captured the nation after the war, despite victory. This speech, like many of his other speeches, is undoubtedly a piece of propaganda, an attempt to revive a nation paralysed by loss.

This column will endeavour to bring this document to life throughout the coming academic year. Forthcoming articles will focus on individuals from the Roll of Honour, in an attempt to understand the university’s connections to the Great War and the experiences of alumni during the conflict.  The size of the record alone indicates the scale of the sacrifice and the university’s contribution to the war effort.

Wicked Women: The Stepmother as a Figure of Evil in the Grimms’ Fairy Tales

Wicked Women: The Stepmother as a Figure of Evil in the Grimms' Fairy Tales

Written by Anahit Behrooz.

The recent scholarly resurgence of fairy tales and folklore, and the litany of rewrites, spin offs and adaptations, prompts a reexamination of many of the genre’s characteristics and tropes. The character of the wicked stepmother has gained notoriety as one of the most evil villains to be found in fairy tales, frequently set up as a foil to the innocent and virtuous step daughter whom she mistreats and who ultimately gains victory over her. Indeed, the evil stepmother was the first antagonist to be portrayed in a Disney feature-length film, and since then her terrifying presence remains one of the key features of many fairy tale adaptations. Yet why did this particular figure gain such popularity as a literary villain, and what role specifically did the fairy tales of the Brother Grimm have to play in this? By referencing four specific tales within the Kinder- und Hausmärchen collection – Aschenputtel (Cinderella), Hänsel und Grethel (Hansel and Gretel), Rapunzel and Sneewittchen (Snow White) – this essay sets out to explore these questions: Why did a stepmother provide such a suitable figure of evil? In what ways did the Brothers Grimm set out to emphasise her brutal and malevolent nature? And, finally, whether, despite these strategies of characterisation, the figure of the stepmother in fairy tales arouses any sympathy as a character who is more complex and multi-faceted than a simple, two-dimensional foe.

Firstly let us begin by examining the reasons behind why the stepmother was selected as an appropriate antagonist within the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm. The term ‘selected’ is apropos here as, through an examination of the editorial changes made by the brothers throughout their various editions, it becomes clear that the stepmother was not always the original villain of the story. This is not to say that the Brothers Grimm invented the stepmother as a fairy tale antagonist; if we examine earlier versions of the tales, such as Perrault’s Cendrillon, written in 1697 and equivalent to the Grimms’ Aschenputtel, we see that the stepmother is a key character who behaves in the malicious, cruel way that modern readers have come to expect of her. This is not the case for all the tales, however, and a comparison of the Grimms’ original edition and their later editions quickly reveals this: while all the later versions of Sneewittchen – that is, from 1819 onwards – begin by describing a queen who longs for a daughter and dies in childbirth, only to have the father remarry, the 1812 version depicts a queen who longs for a daughter and quickly becomes jealous of her when the child grows and is deemed fairer than her. Thus in the original version, the role famously played by the stepmother is played by Sneewittchen’s real, biological mother. Similarly, in Hänsel und Grethel, it is not until the 1840 edition that the mother who encourages the father to abandon the children in the woods becomes a stepmother. It is therefore evident that the decision to make the stepmother a villainous figure in the tales was a conscious one. What is less clear is why such a selection was made.

Critics have offered various explanations as to this deliberate change: Bruno Bettelheim takes a decidedly psychoanalytical approach in arguing that ‘the typical fairy-tale splitting of the mother into a good (usually dead) mother and an evil stepmother serves the child well – the fantasy of the wicked stepmother not only preserves the good mother intact, it also prevents having to feel guilty about one’s angry wishes about her’. Thus the child is able to compartmentalise and justify their negative reactions to a maternal figure without becoming overwhelmed by what they consider at that stage to be unnatural feelings. Although it is unlikely that the Brothers Grimm would have had a similarly Freudian rationale for making the change, it could be argued that they did not wish to disturb young children with tales of murderous parents, or destroy the ideal of a close family unit: an outsider to the family would be far simpler to villainise. Yet it must be pointed out here that, particularly in the case of their first few editions, the Grimms’ intended audience was not small children, but rather scholars and academics, who would presumably be far less easily horrified by tales of a wicked mother. Perhaps then the key reason for this change was in order to reflect the social reality of the period. Given the high mortality rate for childbearing women, the presence of a stepmother in a family would have been far more common than it is today. Furthermore, older widowed men would often marry much younger women as their second wives, thus radically reducing the age difference between the daughter and the stepmother and creating a dynamic which is open to much of the jealousy and competition seen between the female characters within fairy tales.

We can therefore begin to understand why the figure of the stepmother was vulnerable to appropriation and transformation into an evil character. But what narrative and characterisation strategies did the Brothers Grimm employ in order to emphasise her wicked nature within the tales themselves? One of their most striking strategies is to draw parallels between the character and actions of the stepmother, and other malevolent figures and creatures of folklore. One such example is the stepmothers’ tendency towards cannibalism, which draws direct links between her and the ogres of tales such as Blaubart (Bluebeard). In Sneewittchen, the stepmother demands that the huntsman bring back Sneewittchen’s lungs and liver: ‘Der Koch mußte sie in Salz kochen, und das boshafte Weib aß sie auf und meinte sie hätte Sneewittchen’s Leber und Lungen gegessen‘ (‘The cook was ordered to boil them with salt, and the wicked woman ate them and believed she had eaten Snow White’s liver and lungs’). The jarring simplicity with which this horrific deed is told, combined with the Grimms’ judgement of her as a ‘boshafter Weib‘ (‘wicked woman’) serve to underline the almost unnatural, evil nature of her act. In Hänsel und Grethel meanwhile, the witch in the gingerbread house – who I argue is strongly implied to be the stepmother, given her malevolent attitude towards the children, and the mysteriously convenient death of the stepmother at the end of the tale – cruelly plays on the starvation of the children in order to lure them into her house and eat them. Moreover, she forces Grethel to aid her in her attempts to eat Hänsel, and would have thus made her complicit in the crime if her attempts had succeeded.

There have been many different interpretations of the stepmothers’ urge to cannibalise her stepchildren: it could be argued that the stepmother in Sneewittchen believes that by consuming the girl’s body, she will somehow imbibe her beauty, while Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar defend that the act symbolises an attestation of power, pointing out that by ‘thinking she is devouring her ice-pure enemy, the Queen consumes instead the wild boar’s organs; that is, symbolically speaking, she devours her own beastly rage, and becomes (of course) even more enraged’. I would add that the act of cannibalism is specifically used in this context as it defies all the characteristics normally associated with a maternal figure: one who is nurturing, caring and protective. As Maria Tatar states, ‘cannibalistic female villains withhold food and threaten to turn children into their own source of nourishment, reincorporating them into the bodies that gave birth to them’. Thus by going against their intended maternal natures, these women transform into something monstrous and ogre-like.

Another way in which the Brothers Grimm emphasise the evil nature of the stepmother is through her association with witchcraft. Witches, as evidenced by the large-scale witch-hunts and trials which took place particularly throughout the Europe of the sixteenth- and seventeenth-centuries, were considered to be figures of great terror and misfortune. In the fairy tales, it is the power which the witches wield what sets them apart as characters to be feared. In the majority of the editions of Rapunzel (those from 1837 onwards), the first mention of the stepmother cum witch describes her as ‘[eine]…Zauberin…die große Macht hat, und von aller Welt gefürchetet wurde‘ (‘A witch with great power who was feared by all the world’). By immediately making the second clause follow the first, the Brothers Grimm imply causality. This is to say, the fear with which everyone reacts is a direct cause of her great power. This is also evident in the true parents’ reaction: the father is so frightened by the witch’s presence and her anger that he agrees to give up his own child to her immediately rather than risk her wrath. In Sneewittchen, meanwhile, the queen uses her witchcraft to kill Sneewittchen not only once, but three times, thereby highlighting her great power. Alfred David and Mary Elizabeth David also draw attention to the queen’s reaction to her supposedly successful murder as the glee with which she reacts is more pronounced in the Brothers’ last editions. So, while in the first ones, the reader is simply told, ‘sie freute sich‘ (‘she was pleased’), in editions of 1837, her pleasure has become sadistic: ‘[sie]…lachte überlaut, und sprach »weiß wie Schnee, roth wie Blut, schwarz wie Ebenholz! diesmal können dich die Zwerge nicht wieder erwecken’ (‘she laughed aloud and said: “white as snow, red as blood, black as ebony! This time the dwarfs cannot wake you.”’). By taking pleasure in the evilness of acts brought about by dark magic, the queen reveals herself to be irredeemably wicked.

Furthermore, the way in which this power manifests is noteworthy. The evil stepmothers are not the only beings who have magical abilities in the fairy tales, the virtuous characters can have them too. In Aschenputtel, the eponymous character calls to the birds to help her sort the lentils as her stepmother has ordered, and when her stepmother abandons her at home, she goes to the tree next to her mother’s grave for aid and says: “Bäumchen, rüttel dich und schüttel dich/ wirf Gold und Silber über mich” (‘Little trees, rustle and shake, throw gold and silver over me’). Written in this rhymed form, Aschenputtel’s words becomes almost incantation-like, and the results are certainly magical – they cannot be explained in any rational or scientific way. The profound difference between this type of magic and that of the evil stepmothers is that Aschenputtel’s magic is linked firmly to nature – to the work of the birds and animals and plants. This positive representation of the power of nature is perhaps a reflection of Romantic ideology, and provides a strong contrast to the magic of the stepmothers, which is unexplained, unnatural and dark. Thus, it is not only their link to witchcraft which paints the stepmothers as evil beings, but the way in which they harness and use this power.

What is striking in the tales is how the power the stepmothers have reflects itself in the narrative. Unlike the pure, virtuous protagonists, these women provide much of the narrative drive of the tales and possess a considerable amount of agency in their actions. The main action of Sneewittchen only happens when the stepmother takes a violent dislike to Sneewittchen and acts on it; Aschenputtel lives an uneventful existence until her father remarries; it is the stepmother’s decision in Hänsel und Grethel, firstly to drive them out, and then to attempt to kill them and, it is the actions of the witch in Rapunzel which bring about almost all of the key points of the plot – the taking of the child, locking her in the tower, abandoning her in the wilderness. Gilbert and Gubar argue that the stepmother in Snow White is indeed driven by want of an ‘”unfeminine” life of stories and story-telling’; each of her three attempts on Sneewittchen’s life become three tales or plots which she invents, and through such subversive “story-telling”, she attempts to control the narrative of her own life. Therefore, through their overwhelming influence on the plot of the tales, these women demonstrate again their strength and power, and pit themselves against the fragile, passive heroines.

Although the stepmothers assert their superior power over the young girls they terrorise, they are ultimately vanquished, usually not by the girls themselves (although Hänsel und Grethel is an exception) but rather by men: by the princes who fall in love with and ultimately rescue the heroines. Although throughout the majority of the tale, these women are depicted as strong, dominating characters, they are rendered ultimately powerless in the face of these male figures. I would argue that these endings are in fact indicative of a pervasive trend from the very beginning of the tales: that of the power of the patriarchy in controlling these women’s lives and ultimately contributing to the development of their evil nature. Thus, these fairy tales become part of a patriarchal literary tradition which seeks to undermine powerful and dominant women by presenting them as malignant and associating them to witchcraft and cannibalism. The shift from mother to stepmother as seen through a patriarchal lens also becomes more profound: evil, destructive mothers presented a challenge to patriarchal family values, whereas stepmothers were outsiders and could therefore act as a warning to other women without completely defying patriarchal structures. These depictions of stepmothers were so powerful that even today, we have internalised the narrative of a powerful woman equating to an evil woman.

The ultimate powerlessness of the stepmothers at the hands of men is not only portrayed through their violent endings, it is also depicted in female dependence on male approval throughout the texts. In Sneewittchen, for example, the main conflict revolves around the jealousy between stepmother and daughter surrounding the daughter’s beauty when she begins to mature from a small child. The idea of beauty within the Grimms’ tales is highly gendered; Lori Baker-Sperry and Liz Grauerholz carried out a study by coding references to beauty and physical appearance within the tales, and cross-referencing this with mentions of gender and age. Their findings, rather unsurprisingly, revealed that references to beauty were highest among the female characters and especially amongst the youngest ones. This attitude towards the importance of physical attractiveness in females is presumably indicative of the general social attitude of the time, and goes some way towards explaining the stepmother’s bitterness and jealousy towards the character she naturally sees as a rival. Gilbert and Gubar argue that the voice in the mirror which haunts the stepmother can be seen as the voice of her husband or, I would argue, the voice of any dominant male which ‘rules the Queen’s (and every woman’s) self-evaluation…’. In Aschenputtel we see the darker side of this beauty ideal, where the stepmother encourages her daughters to mutilate their feet in order to fit into the slipper and trick the prince. Particularly for modern readers, this will be uncomfortably reminiscent of the present-day beauty industry, of the plastic-surgery, Photoshop and eating disorders which twist and conform women into the requisite beauty ideal. If this is the world the stepmother is forced into, where she must viciously compete with other women in order to attract and keep men, and therefore status, stability and significance, her resorting to evil in order to maintain her position becomes, if not justifiable, at least understandable. By seeing the stepmother as a victim of patriarchal values, much in the same way the heroines are a victim of her, her character becomes more than the trope of “Wicked Queen” or “Evil Stepmother”, but rather a complex character deserving of the reader’s consideration and sympathy.

In conclusion, the Brothers Grimm played a great part in contributing to the construction of the “evil stepmother” character in fairy tales. Through the editorial changes they made, and their emphasis on the monstrous, cruel and unnatural aspects of her character, they transformed the figure of the stepmother into the ultimate fairy tale villain whose legacy continues to this day. Yet, as feminist critics such as Tatar, Gilbert and Gubar have demonstrated, the stepmother has also become a scapegoat, a terrifying figure who goes against all of the expectations of women and motherhood, but who is nevertheless herself a victim of the situation and the society she finds herself in.


Abate, Michelle Ann, ‘”You Must Kill Her”: The Fact and Fantasy of Filicide in Snow White’, Marvels and Tales, Vol. 26 (2012), pp. 178-203.

Baker-Sperry, Lori and Grauerholz, Liz, ‘The Pervasiveness and Persistence of the Feminine Beauty Ideal in Children’s Fairy Tales’, Gender and Society, 17 (2003), pp. 711-726.

Bettelheim, Bruno, The Uses of Enchantment: The Importance and Meaning of Fairy Tales, (London, 1976).

David, Alfred and  David, Mary Elizabeth, ‘A Literary Approach to the Brothers Grimm’, Journal of the Folklore Institute, 1 (1964), pp. 180-196.

De Blecourt, Willem, Tales of Magic, Tales in Print: On the Genealogy of Fairy Tales and the Brothers Grimm, (Manchester, 2012).

Gilbert, Sandra M. and Gubar, Susan, The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth Century Imagination, (London, 2000).

Grimm and Grimm, Kinder- und Hausmärchen, <> ; accessed 28 March 2014.

Haase, Donald, ‘Feminist Fairy-Tale Scholarship: A Critical Survey and Bibliography’, Marvels and Tales, 13 (2000), pp. 15-63.

Robinson, Orrin W., ‘Does Sex Breed Gender: Pronominal Reference in the Grimms’ Fairy Tales’, Marvels and Tales, 21 (2007), pp. 107-123.

Tatar, Maria, The Hard Facts of the Grimm Fairy Tales (Princeton, 1987).

Williams, Christy , ‘Who’s Wicked Now? The Stepmother as Fairy-Tale Heroine’, Marvels and Tales, 24  (2010), pp. 255-271.

Zipes, Jack, The Brothers Grimm: From Enchanted Forests to the Modern World, (Houndsmill, 2002).

Pharaoh Akhenaten’s Ordained Benevolence

Written by Jenisha Sabaratnam.

As Pharaoh of Lower and Upper Egypt, King Akhenaten undoubtedly had immense power over his land and subjects throughout his seventeen year rule of the 18th dynasty of Ancient Egypt. Though it was common for Pharaohs to justify their rule through religion, Akhenaten took it one step further. He changed the primary god of worship from Amun to Aten, and used poems and steles* – among other things – to assert his dominance, validate his rule, and defend his religious reforms.

Akhenaten uses both the poem, ‘Hymn to the Aton’, and the stele ‘House-shrine’ to promote his authority and power over Egypt and his subjects. Throughout ‘Hym to the Aton’, Akhenaten unduly praises the God Aten to the point where he indirectly asserts his own kingly power to be greater than even that of Aten’s. While in stark contrast, the image carved into the stele depicts Akhenaten as affectionate and familial, with Aten approving and blessing the Pharaoh in this respect. However, though the stele presents the king’s supposedly tender and benevolent personality, rather than his military might – as earlier Pharaohs had done – Akhenaten uses the altruistic message of the stele as a way to deceptively promote his own kingly supremacy and justification of his reign.

King Akhenaten asserted his dominance as a righteous ruler of Egypt by focusing on religious power exclusive only to the king. Upon becoming king, Akhenaton changed the traditionally central god of worship from Amun (known as the king of all gods) to Aten, the sun god, while also evidently merging Aten’s name into his own. In fact, Akhenaten dedicated so much of his time on religion and religious reforms, that he ended up ‘…ignor[ing] the military and administrative problems of the Egyptian empire.’ It is interesting to note however that Akhenaten experienced no dire consequences to his extreme actions, whether it be heavily controlling one aspect of everyday life or having a complete lack of control in another. In fact it wasn’t until Akhenaton’s son, Tutankhamen, came into power that these religious reforms – to many of the people’s relief – ended. This clearly shows that those under the Pharaoh, either out of respect or fear of his power, were constrained from speaking out – no matter how much the Egyptian people may have disliked his actions. This speaks immensely of a Pharaoh’s power during the height of Egyptian civilization.

In ‘Hymn to the Aton’, Akhenaten excessively praises the god Aten; his position as the only ruler to actually worship this god portrays him as the supreme leader. This further indicates that he has power matching, even surpassing that of Aten’s. Akhenaten’s praises to the god are seen right from the beginning of the poem in which he declares: ‘Thou appearest beautifully on the horizon of heaven, / Thou living Aton, the beginning of life!’ Though Akhenaten continues to compliment Aten, he does so by referring to himself in the third person: ‘Thou art in my heart, / And there is no other that knows thee / Save thy son [Akhenaten], /For thou hast made him well-versed in thy plane and in thy strength.’ Akhenaten indirectly honors himself by claiming that God Aten’s actions have in fact been to elevate himself as the king. This is emphasised in the final lines of the poem: ‘But when thou risest again, / Everything is made to flourish for the king, / Since thou didst found the earth / An raise them up for thy son, / Who came forth from thy body: /The king of Upper and Lower Egypt, … Ahk-en-Aton’ Thus, regardless of the manner or expanse that Akhenaten credits the God Aten with, it is only another technique employed in order to benefit the establishment of his own authority. The subjects reading this poem are presented with the image that their king, ordained by god, has a direct link to an immeasurable amount of holy power.

In contrast, Akhenaten use the stele – titled ‘House-shrine’ – to similarly boast of his power, but in a more modest and shrewder way than in ‘Hymn to the Aton’. The stele features his family gathered under the blessing of Aten, and illustrates to the people that Akhenaten’s family – his wife, Nefertiti, and his three daughters – is privy to the authority and access that comes with being descendants of Aten. The stele shows that Akhenaten along with his wife are the only representatives of God on Earth.

Anything Aten claimed to express to Akhenaten relating to religion, rule and power had to be taken as the utmost truth. This gave him power beyond that of any earlier Pharaoh. He could single-handedly make decisions for Egypt based on his personal preferences and opinions, while using religion and his sole connection with Aten as the justification for his judgments and actions. This stele was small enough to be mass produced and for people to keep in their homes, serving as a physical reminder of  Akhenaten’s authoritative governance in his subjects’ private homes. Akhenaten managed to deceive his people and bring them to believe that his power was really just a byproduct of his humbleness and kindness.

The stele also has a second component that is subtler in the way Akhenaten defends his power. One major feature of the stele is the way Akhenaten is portrayed in relation to his wife, Nefertiti. In a day and age when women were undoubtedly secondary to men, and when Pharaohs themselves had multiple wives, the stele would have had a huge impact on the population of that time to see Akhenaten not only carved to be directly facing his wife, but also sitting on the same plane, as opposed to above her. He is tenderly and carefully holding his child, probably his eldest due to the larger size of this child compared to the others, for a kiss, while his wife holds their other two children. This image of a complete family is significant as it depicts to the people that Akenaten is both loving and caring. 

To add to this message, Aten, portrayed as a sun disc, is centered directly above the family, extending his rays in the form of hands out towards them and his hands almost touching both Akhenaten’s and Nefertiti’s faces, approving and blessing them as the rightful rulers of Egypt. By changing the primary god of worship and therefore the religion of Egypt during this reign, Akhenaten became the only link between the god Aten and his subjects. This would have given him immeasurable power in the way he could rule by using Aten’s name as a validation for any of his actions. However in so doing, he also needed to prove to his people that he was as powerful, or even more so, as previous kings. 

Through ‘Hymn to the Aton’ Akhenaten desired to show his direct authority by praising the god Aten and ended up honoring himself more than the god. He is able to gain justified supremacy through the worship and reverence of his people towards him. ‘Hymn to the Aton’ and the ‘House-shrine’ are valuable sources in understanding how the Pharaoh wished to portray himself – as more commanding than the gods themselves – and, therefore, cannot be used as the consensus for the beliefs of the common population.


Edited by Pritchard, James B. “Hymn to the Aton: Religious Reform and Monotheism”. Ancient

Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1969. Translated by John A. Wilson.

“House-shrine” stele. New Kingdom, Dynasty 18, ca. 1340 BCE.


* A stele is a stone or wooden slab, erected as a tall monument and was used in Ancient Egypt for funerary purposes, to mark sacred territories and as territorial boundaries, as used by Akhenaten.

Review: Scotland and Europe – The Past Shaping the Future

Written by Felix Carpenter.

A review of Professor Sir Tom Devine’s lecture ‘Scotland and Europe: The past shaping the future’, September 2016.

Sir Tom Devine enters the stage, introduced as the foremost historian of modern Scottish history. Professor Devine is that unusual thing: an establishment figure who in 2014 supported Scottish independence, at the cost of – he would later remind his audience – the friendship of our last Labour Prime Minister. While this lecture more directly pointed itself towards the realities of Brexit Britain rather than the Neverendum, the two naturally conflated as the hour drew on. Whatever the politics at hand, Professor Devine has a rare grasp of Scottish political and social affairs of the past few centuries. Among his first remarks, ‘the future is not my period’.

It is a peculiarity of British Imperial history that Scots were so overrepresented in colonial pursuits of all kinds. During the nineteenth century, between a quarter and a third of all posts in the Empire were filled by Scots, even though their number made up only a tenth of the United Kingdom’s population. Today, when Scots think of their role in the past internationally, it is this phenomenon that is most striking. But Professor Devine’s thesis requires us to delve back deeper, to an ‘old Scotia’ obscured by amnesic clouds. A picture is painted of Scots as a nomadic people; restless, transient, mercantile. During the seventeenth century it is estimated up to 60,000 Scots descended onto the European continent in search of prosperity. Professor Devine inserts his eponymous ‘Devine Paradox’ theory, that by 1851 Scotland was the most industrialised country per capita in Europe, yet had almost the highest levels of emigration.

A series of politically potent historical curiosities are brought up. Scots colonising Poland, with 400 merchant communities lining the Vistula. The phrase ‘as mean as a Scot’ emerged from this, describing a certain Thomas Chalmers, known for his ability to undercut Polish rival businesses due to his unscrupulousness. These Scots were also nicknamed ‘the Jews of Poland’ for this tendency. After the Reformation, the Act of Union of 1707 and the Jacobite rebellions, political refugees fled south to the low countries, and in turn brought back the intellectual European idealism that would flower into the Scottish Enlightenment. Non-industrialised nations, such as the Russia of Peter and Catherine the Great, sought highly trained Scottish engineers and doctors to boost society – Professor Devine offering the truism ‘Beam me up, Scotty!’. By 1760 Scottish banks were owed a non-inflation adjusted £2.6 million across the globe, due to their ambitious global credit schemes.

In the pre-Empire era, it was Europe that dominated Scottish internationalism, but it was these internationalist forays that positioned Scots so naturally to assume the imperial banner and lead Britain’s exploits in the following century. Professor Devine notes that £10,000 worth of that total of Scottish loans was to a certain George Washington of Virginia. Scotland was already looking beyond the European continent. Concluding, Professor Devine refers to former US Secretary of State Dean Acheson’s phrase, ‘Great Britain has lost an Empire and has not yet found a role’. His parting question: whether Scotland will find its role either in Europe or as part of the UK? Brexit is mentioned, but doubt is cast on its materialisation.

In the question and answer session, I go back to a point made in the lecture about the lack of pro-Brexit voices in mainstream Scottish politics – particularly the Scottish National Party – and whether this is due to a genuine pro-European sentiment or politicised anti-Englishness. The response points to polls showing more violent opposition in Scotland to the perceived unreformed, opaque European bureaucracy than even in England, as well as to a general lack of knowledge about European institutions or European representatives among Scots; tellingly, anti-Englishness is not addressed. The last question of the evening asks whether the hypothesised European connection is overshadowed by the Anglo-Scottish relationship, and union. Professor Devine fumbles momentarily, and then offers wryly ‘when you are in bed together you get the warmth, but it can be too warm.’

The Legend of Classical Greek Theatre

Writtten by .

When reading Euripides’ The Bacchae and Medea, a comparison with Arthur Miller’s The Crucible does not instantly come to mind. Their settings are very different: The Bacchae and Medea are set in ancient Greece, and the Massachusetts town Salem is well known as the setting of Miller’s Puritanical play. However, within these geographical settings, all three plays revolve around male-dominated environments where the roles of women are seen to be traditional and inferior to men. Although the plays were written thousands of years apart, they share distinct similarities in their themes and their characterization of leading females. For a leading female, it seems near impossible to gain and retain a position of power or influence without losing it in a tragic way. This often results not only in her social and moral collapse but also the demise of those closest and dearest to her. Comparing these plays within the context of history exposes the limitations that leading female characters have constantly faced throughout written history.

In The Crucible, Abigail Williams uses her position of power and influence among her female peers to create religious hysteria in Salem in pursuit of revenge as a scorned lover. After her lover, John Proctor, rejects her she is dismissed from the Proctor’s employment. She feels rejected and humiliated and extremely jealous of John’s wife’s position, so much so that she goes to extreme lengths to destroy their marriage. She uses her position of control over the gullible young Puritan girls by creating a situation where witchcraft is a believable phenomenon. By exploiting her sexual precocity Abigail develops manipulates naive and susceptible teenage girls within the puritanically oppressed community. Abigail’s extreme and calculated measures result in her unintended ending of Proctor’s life following his confession, and, as a consequence, she ruins her own future.

In The Bacchae, vengeance is carried out by Queen Agave, via the god Bacchus. Bacchus seeks to clear his betrayed mother’s name and punish the city of Thebes by using his divine and supreme powers to entrance Queen Agave and the Theban women by controlling them in a subconscious state of hysterical frenzy. Within this emotionally volatile state, Queen Agave brutally murders her son, King Peleus. In doing so she ruins the royal household of Thebes and destroys the royal legacy. Bacchus’ true usurping intentions are revealed via his tragic manipulation of the Theban women. By entrancing Agave and taking away her power and consciousness she becomes a vehicle for Bacchus’ omnipotence. In a state of hysteria, and thinking Peleus to be a lion she is hunting, Agave beheads her son and returns to the royal palace to present the trophy head to Cadmus.  Being under Bacchus’ control, Queen Agave’s savage act causes her downfall.  The divine gods were believed by the Greeks to have heightened emotions, therefore explaining Bacchus’ extreme barbarous and fierce retribution. Nevertheless, Agave and her royal family are publicly humiliated and stripped of authority by Bacchus.

In Medea, the lead female, Medea, is a barbarian princess who marries the hero, Jason, after assisting him and his Argonauts in their quest for the golden fleece. As a barbarian, Medea is implicitly portrayed as uncivilized and inferior, and her power is removed from her by King Creon of Corinth, who wishes Jason to marry his daughter Princess Glauce and inherit his throne. Despite his marriage to Medea, Jason abandons her and their two sons and agrees to Creon’s proposal. Hence, Medea seeks harsh vengeance not only on Jason but also on the city of Corinth. Religious hysteria plays a central role as Medea uses her sorcery skills to carry out cruel acts of revenge; she kills Princess Glauce with a poison-laced dress and crown. Upon seeing his daughter suffer such a hideous death, Creon joins her in an embrace and they die together. In removing her position as a powerful woman, Medea retaliates through vengeance and religious hysteria to carry out the murder of her own two sons to ensure Jason’s eternal misery. Revenge gives her a position of power and she destroys Jason’s future as a powerful ruler of Corinth. Medea triumphs in her regained power by causing misery for Jason. The first act of Medea’s revenge by proxy on Creon and Jason and the turning point of the play is the death of Princess Glauce. This hideous murder changes the direction of the play and creates a hateful abyss in Medea and Jason’s relationship. Medea’s downfall is poignant by being so conscious, in that by ensuring Jason’s suffering, she destroys herself; her family and marriage have collapsed and her sons are dead. Yet her family and marriage would have been destroyed with Jason marrying Princess Glauce and inheriting the throne of Corinth. The imbalance of Medea’s vengeance is emotionally overwhelming in that she must sacrifice her own children to succeed.

Therefore, only after the removal of their power do the leading females in each of these plays actually have an impact on the outcome of the play. However, this impact is often self-inflicted and ultimately leads to their downfall and demise. For Abigail Williams, as an inferior woman in her society, the loss of her power ruins her life for the worse. In The Bacchae, Agave’s fate, too, is that of a powerless woman whose fate is decided by men. In Medea, Medea fulfils her vengeance on her husband with drastic and fatal results and sacrificially denies herself of her children. Hence, in all three plays, none of the female leads are left happy.

The desperate situations of the central female characters undoubtedly draw on the audience’s sympathy towards the portrayal of women in each of the plays. Euripides is generally sympathetic towards women, by depicting their disasters in situations often out of their own self-control; whereas, Miller has no intention of portraying Abigail as a pitied victim; she is the master of her own downfall. The themes that affect the central female characters in both the plays and theatrical society over the last two millennia reveal that even in our current society there has not been a hugely obvious and evident mark of change to society regarding the position of women. Clearly, there has been dramatic change, but considering the role of women in Euripides’ and Miller’s plays, it can be argued that the change has not been heavily altered. Their recent revival of the study and performance of Greek tragedies is partly due to the revival and resurge of the academic subjects of Classics, Greek and Latin. The legend of Greek tragedies is increasingly relevant in our current society. Looking back and reflecting on ancient times sheds much light on our present society and informs that there is much to be developed regarding the portrayal of women in the 21st century.

Between Psychotherapy and Spirituality: Buddhist Interaction with Freudian Psychoanalysis

Written by Christopher Harding.

In the West, Sigmund Freud is thought of as one of the greatest critics of religion that has ever lived. In our own times, we are quite familiar with attempts to integrate psychoanalysis and psychotherapy more broadly with religious traditions including Christianity and Buddhism. The rise of a ‘mindfulness’ culture, which encompasses a publications boom, classes, retreats, and media usage of a mixed spiritual and psychological language, is a major example of such integration in the early 21st century.

But for Freud and his generation in Europe there wasn’t so much ‘integration’ of psychoanalysis and religion as reduction – of religious sensibilities, hopes, beliefs, and practices to various kinds of psychological functioning and malfunctioning and from there, ultimately, to our physiology. Religious worldviews, religious habits: these are things out of which the human race must gradually grow, claimed Freud, whose book The Future of an Illusion (1927) became a classic statement of this case.

My interest in the relationship of Buddhism with psychoanalysis came from a sense that there is interesting and important territory to be explored here on three levels. Firstly, there is our contemporary blending of religious and psychotherapeutic cultures, which feels too easy, too superficial, and not always very fulfilling. Secondly, there are the encounters of Freud’s era, where real difficulties were acknowledged in how psychoanalysis and religion might fit together. Finally, it is interesting to consider the divide between Europe and Asia in this argument – and in Japan and India in particular.

To give a flavour of this divide, here is a short exchange between Freud and an Indian academic from Calcutta University, Suniti Kumar Chatterjee, who visited Freud in the 1930s and tackled him on his materialism. Chatterjee later recorded the encounter in his diary, as follows:

‘I said to Freud: One of the great doctrines of the philosophy you have built up is, as far as I understand, that libido or the sex impulse is intimately connected with all art and spiritual aspiration. The saints and sages of our country too, some of them, were conscious of this.

[He then read from a short piece of poetry by an Indian mystic]:

‘I adore that Supreme Being Govinda or Vishnu, who because he is the very soul of Bliss, of Knowledge, and of the Highest Joy, takes up the nature of Smara – the sex urge – and in this way manifests himself in the minds of all creatures. And through this sport of His, is forever triumphing in all these worlds.

‘I then asked Freud: What do you say to that? I would like to put a straight question to you. What is the real thing, the permanent or abiding thing in existence? What relationship has man’s life with that reality? What is the final conclusion you have arrived at?

‘Freud laughed at me. He said: You see, from all that I have thought over this matter I have found no connection between man’s life and some permanent or abiding thing about which you speak. Here on this earth, with death, everything pertaining to man has an end. My powers are gradually coming to an end, and finally everything will be finished.

‘This despite being an appreciator of art? I asked.

‘Art, beauty, joy – all these centre round the body. And this is my considered conclusion: nothing exists after death.

‘What of those who say “I have seen, I have known?”

‘All that is self-deception of persons who are emotional, and who have only imagination and nothing else.

‘What I feel is that unless one has some touch of mysticism in life, some sort of feel or glimpse of a realization of this Unseen Reality, he cannot properly live. The fine arts, music, these bring into our minds this glimpse of the mystic being that is behind life.

‘Possibly you are accustomed to think like men of your own people, Freud replied. You are talking just like one of them. All this is [but] the transformation of our emotions.

Here was a radical materialism, combined with an apparent refusal of the kind of cultural relativism that allows people today to accept differing religious and psychotherapeutic cultures as equally valid, even while they may not be clearly compatible. Given Freud’s hard-line position, how could a pioneering psychoanalyst and loyal Freudian like Kosawa Heisaku in Japan, working in the 1930s-1950s, truly be both a Jōdo Shinshū Buddhist and a follower of Freud? What did he believe about his own fundamental being, and about the world around him – about where these things come from, where they are going, and what meaning they have? Is Jōdo Shinshū Buddhism a collection of metaphors that reduces, ultimately, to the kind of human psychology Freud described? Or might it be vice versa: Freudian psychology gives us practical, scientific, manageable ways of understanding and coping with the human imperfections that Jōdo Shinshū Buddhism describes?

I put this question to a former analysand of Kosawa from back in the 1940s, Dr Nagao, who is celebrating his 90th birthday this year. He taught me two crucially important things – both of them about language.

Dr Nagao suggested that language and logic be regarded as human tools: useful in making sense of things around us as long as we don’t confuse their parameters with actual limitations out there in the world. For Jōdo Shinshū Buddhists, to believe that language and logic can do any more than this is to succumb to jiriki: the deluded belief that as humans we possess an advanced ability to know the world, to work out our salvation within it, and shape ourselves to it.

The second thing that I learned from Dr Nagao was how, for Kosawa Heisaku, Buddhism and psychoanalysis were first and foremost ways of living as opposed to grand theories about how the world is. Their shared aim, for Kosawa, was helping people to see: to see as clearly as possible the flaws and deceptions that cloud and mar their lives. One of the biggest of these is the deception that we are truly independent agents. Kosawa thought that we are not, and that what psychoanalysis may achieve for us is a harrowing, embarrassing but inescapable realization that we are very deeply the creation of others. First we are creations of our family, especially in those early life interactions with mothers and fathers about which Freud had so much to say; of friends and society at large; and finally, ultimately, of the workings of ‘Other-power’ (tariki). This is the ‘infinite light of compassion’ that some Jōdo Shinshū Buddhists talk about as a celestial Buddha, Amida (the most famous representation of which is the giant statue located in Kamakura, Japan). The more we know ourselves through psychoanalysis, or indeed through other sorts of therapy, the more that we will come to see Other-power at the very root of our being. Kosawa believed that Shinran, Jōdo Shinshū’s founder, had had this insight many centuries ago, and that in his own time Sigmund Freud was pursuing the very same path – despite his antipathy towards the religious systems of his day.

Two lines from the poet Kai Wariko, a near contemporary of Kosawa Heisaku, express this well:

‘The voice with which I call Amida Buddha
Is the voice with which Amida Buddha calls to me’

In other words, even at the moment ‘I’ call out to Amida for help – a prayer known in Japanese as the nembutsu – I realize that at the deepest root of myself, my subjectivity, there is nothing other than Amida.

It was perhaps for this reason that Kosawa talked as much about ‘living’ psychoanalysis as he did ‘doing’ it: not just practicing a technique as a professional, but living in the light that psychoanalysis was shedding on his experience. For Kosawa, this way of living included engaging in a solo form of ‘free association’. This is the psychoanalytic technique whereby a client allows thoughts to come and go as they please, speaking them out loud, which the therapist then uses as a source of information about his or her client. As a solo undertaking, in Kosawa’s hands, this became almost a kind of mindfulness practice.

As such, it was ahead of its times. Kosawa’s young students, in the 1950s, disliked much about his technique and his worldview. They worried – and perhaps they were right to do so – that what Kosawa insisted was a philosophical insight about our false sense of selfhood (jiriki) might really be more about a very conservative form of cultural politics, in which individualism was regarded as pathological. Having just come out of fifteen years of war (1931 – 1945) for which an ultra-conservative military elite bore much of the responsibility, and during which Japanese people had explicitly been encouraged to set their own desires and interests aside for the sake of something greater, Kosawa’s view of the world looked distinctly suspect.

This is a problem with which contemporary spiritualities, not least mindfulness and the engaged Buddhism movement, must continue to wrestle. We might worry that forms of mindfulness that seem to do no more than contribute to one’s work efficiency, emotional stability, or general attractiveness as a person are superficial, missing something fundamental. But equally, ideas such as ‘going beyond ego’ or rejecting a ‘false self’ are open to abuse as rationalizations for subtle forms of personal or political complacency – a withdrawal from crises around the world, or at least a failure to meet them with a measure of those very things that many forms of spirituality tend to underrate: assertion, passion, anger, and a refusal to delegate to some ‘Other power’ work that can and should be done by ordinary puny old human beings.

Image: John Lodder


Dale, Peter N., The Myth of Japanese Uniqueness (London, 1986).

Freud, Sigmund, The Future of an Illusion, (London, 1928).

Harding, Christopher, ‘Japanese Psychoanalysis and Buddhism: the Making of a Relationship’, History of Psychiatry 25.2 (2014).

Safran, Jeremy, ed., Psychoanalysis and Buddhism: an Unfolding Dialogue (Boston, 2003).

Young-Eisendrath, Polly and Muramoto, Shoji, eds., Awakening and Insight: Zen Buddhism and Psychotherapy (Hove, 2002).

Presidential Campaign 2016: Thoughts from Across the Pond…

Some thoughts on the current Presidential Campaign from Professor George H. Gilliam, UVA.

The great philosopher Woody Allen once remarked that 80 per cent of life is just showing up. Most Americans have stopped showing up at political events. This year, only about 9 per cent (fewer than one in ten!) of the population actually voted in the Republican and Democratic caucuses or primaries. We are now paying the price for years of political apathy and avoidance. Clinton and Trump! Is this really the best we have to offer?

It is very easy to become influential in American politics. One simply has to show up, and be present to vote. The vice presidential candidacy of Sarah Palin in 2008 showed that one need not be well educated or well informed in order to reach political heights. Two years later, a swarm of angry, misinformed Republicans joined to so-called TEA [Taxed Enough Already!] Party movement and not only hijacked the Republican Party but gained control of the legislative branch of both the federal and many state governments. What had been a slow race to the bottom accelerated. Many citizens who were well prepared for public service – women and men who had been leaders in their businesses or professions, who pay attention to civic issues, who care about community – chose not to engage in hand-to-hand combat with the insurgents: Americans claim not to be class conscious but in fact issues of class played a large part in the decision of many to abjure political participation. In a year in which the ‘best and brightest’ did not want to dirty their hands, it was easy for highly-motivated outsiders to win control. The Republican Party now is run by a minority of the minority. The Democratic Party narrowly avoided being captured by a man who never theretofore had claimed to be a Democrat; the price Democrats paid to avoid Sanders was reluctant acceptance of the heavily damaged Clinton.

In the past few dozen years, African-Americans who have offered for public office have found that pre-election polling consistently overestimates their support. Apparently, respondents to surveys do not want to appear racist, so tell the pollster that they will vote for the black man or woman when, in the privacy of the polling booth, they in fact vote white. The same phenomena may be at work this year. Trump is so – for want of a better word – disreputable on so many levels that many likely Trump voters are embarrassed to admit their preference. Many Americans are still virulently racist. They won’t admit to it, but they will vote Trump because they know his real slogan is ‘Make America White Again’. Unless Clinton had a lead in national polls of 8 to 10 points in the days leading up to the election she will be in trouble.

Regardless of the outcome of this election, one hopes that it will serve as a wake-up call to those who have chosen to remain on the sidelines. Good people cannot abdicate leadership to the likes of Trump and Clinton. But to take politics to a higher ground the good people have got to re-emerge in the nitty-gritty of politics. They have to start showing up.

– Professor George H. Gilliam, Corcoran Department of History, University of Virginia. Thoughts as of September 2016.

Review: American Historian Professor Frank Cogliano’s September lectures

A Review of Professor Frank Cogliano’s lectures, ‘The 2016 American Presidential Election: Precedents and Reflections’ and ‘You think the 2016 US Election is bad? You should try 1800!’, September 2016.

With the U.S. presidential election looming ever closer, there has been no shortage of exhibits, film screenings and lectures to entertain American history enthusiasts in Edinburgh this September.

Over the last month, I had the good fortune to attend not one, but two lectures delivered by Edinburgh University’s inimitable and well-loved Professor of American History, Frank Cogliano. The first, titled ‘The 2016 American Presidential Election: Precedents and Reflections’, was hosted at the National Library of Scotland and was so popular that I arrived to discover tickets had sold out two months in advance – luckily, I was able to sneak my way in. In his usual humorous yet informative style Professor Cogliano deftly guided the audience through the history of the Electoral College system, pausing to explain that yes, it is technically possible for the election to end in a tie (hint: keep your attention fixed on Nebraska and Maine). Drawing upon a range of historic presidential elections, Professor Cogliano offered potential outcomes for the forthcoming election, but neglected to go ‘on record’ with any prediction for November 8!

With the upcoming presidential election it made perfect sense for an American historian to kick off the Edinburgh University History Society’s annual lecture series. Professor Cogliano reprised his role as the ‘unofficial guide to presidential elections’ in addressing a busy lecture theatre full of young history enthusiasts. His title, “You think the 2016 US election is bad? You should try 1800” undoubtedly drew some curious audience members (and fans of the trendy Broadway musical Hamilton) and he provided some much-needed reassurance that perhaps the 2016 election is not as unprecedented as the media would like to have us believe. Both lectures were thoroughly enjoyable and I would encourage any presidential enthusiasts or otherwise to keep a look out for the many events happening around Edinburgh as Election Day draws closer.

Finally, for any keen election enthusiasts, Professor Cogliano highly recommends visiting where visitors can manipulate the political map of America to predict various election outcomes. (Professor Cogliano is sorry to say that his Fantasy Football team has suffered dreadfully as a result of this newfound source of entertainment.)

Fiction: Liberté, Egalité, Tranquillité

Paris, 8th Thermidor, Year II
‘Behold! The head of a counter-revolutionary who would have us bend our knees to a monarchical tyrant!’

To his eyes, Martin Colbert resembled a peacock garbed in his blue and red tailcoat and hat. The matching ribbons placed sporadically on his person added to this effect. Colbert never seemed to walk like an average Parisian but bounce with every step like some iridescent rabbit. As he watched, the lawyer-turned-judge bounced on his heels making the ribbons comically dance up and down; it would almost be laughable if Colbert had not executed over 50 people over the last year. All Louis the innkeeper had ever done was say that the Jacobins had made it difficult to make a few livres extra because they had ensured that all his regulars had lost their throats. His head now being forced onto a pike reiterated how he now had emulated his regulars!

‘Constables!’ Colbert bounded ecstatically towards them, the crowd parting like the Red Sea for Moses before him. ‘We have plucked another weed from the garden of France. Vive la Nation! These aristocrats and traitors wish to befoul our beloved revolution but we shall stop them!’

‘Will you be attending the Convention, Monsieur Colbert?’ Emile asked from beside him. He could feel his heart palpitate. This could go one of two ways and he prayed to God, and even to the Supreme Being, that he would not see Emile up on the guillotine for asking such a question. Someone heard his prayer as Colbert burst into a smile.

‘Why of course! I must make sure that Robespierre knows that the people of France are behind him. Robespierre a tyrant? A perfectly absurd accusation. Now gentlemen, I must make my way to the Convention.’

With that Colbert bounded down the twisting street with his brightly ordained ribbons flapping in the wind. Emile ambled off into the other direction, so he followed his friend. Hanging from the wooden buildings either side of them were red, white and blue banners flapping lazily in the wind. Each house had tried to outdo the last by sewing revolutionary slogans into the cloth or had tried to hang multiple banners simultaneously out of the same window. It was either outdo one another or face a close shave with the National Razor. It was strange to think that just five years beforehand they were shouting ‘Vive le Roy!’ with the rest of the city that was not starving. Now it was a battle to prove who was the most revolutionary.

‘We have a habit of stumbling across executions,’ Emile gave a gravelly laugh.

He had not noticed that they had arrived at Place de la Révolution. Still as glamorous as it was under the royalty, it screamed beauty and elegance. Only the rotting heads on pikes fouled the image of grandeur. Two crows as black as the night were fighting over an eye which they had plucked out of one of the skulls. ‘The Terror’ was aptly named. He had wanted an end to tyranny; he wanted a France where he could say what he wanted to say, and eat without fear that it would be his last meal for the week. Did Louis the innkeeper really want despotism for having a little jape at Robespierre’s expense? Was that one little jape enough to warrant a trip to the guillotine just around the corner from where the other Louis lost his head?

‘Robespierre will lose his head,’ Emile said suddenly.

‘What?’ he could not believe it. Saying that out loud, let alone thinking it, would earn you a summary execution. ‘Have you lost leave of all your senses, Emile?’

‘Robespierre’s been accused of tyranny. So were Louis, Marie Antoinette, Danton and the Girondins. Notice a pattern?’

Two days later
He cringed at Robespierre’s screams. It was like a knife piercing his skin, going straight through to his soul. The executioner could have at least kept his bandage on; a thin strip of fabric would not stop the sharp blade of a guillotine. He was relieved when he heard the thud of the blade and then silence.

‘Told you,’ Emile was neither smug nor sullen. What they had just saw had been commonplace for the last year or so. Out of the other 16 executed in front of the Palace that day, Martin Colbert was the fifth to feel the guillotine’s kiss. Still wearing his array of blue and red ribbons he hopped towards his fate. With one thud his body bounced for the last time.

‘Do you think this is all over?’ he asked Emile. Surely now the Terror must have claimed its final victims. An end to the bloodshed must be in sight.

‘Hard to say, my friend. If I am to be brutally honest, I think we will only see an end to this when someone with true power surrounding them takes the country’s reigns.’

Would that ever happen?

Paris, 2nd December, 1804
‘Papa, put me on your shoulders. I cannot see!’ Anthony cried up to him. Smiling, he lifted his son up above the cheering throngs of the crowd. Virtually everyone was waving handkerchiefs and flags in front of the majesty that was Notre Dame. ‘Remember what you asked me, about ten years ago, when they executed Robespierre?’ Emile whispered into his ear, although it was more like a shout thanks to the rapturous applause of the crowd. He nodded. How could he forget that day?

The crowd started screaming praise at even a higher volume. The doors to the cathedral had thundered open with a choir singing with all their hearts. Ahead of a throng of people was a man in a white velvet vest, a crimson tunic and a golden laurel upon his brow. He smiled and waved at the crowd. The People’s Emperor.

‘I told you so,’ Emile laughed.

As Anthony laughed on his shoulders, he remembered the last 20 years. Had they substituted one tyrannical terror for another?

Africa’s Haven of Peace? Elections, Politics and Violence in Post-colonial East Africa

As I write, it is the 28 October 2015, and three days have passed since Tanzania went to the polls for the fifth time since the return of multi-party elections in 1995. Elections in Africa are always moments of high tension, and this election is no different. Today, the BBC News Africa page leads with ‘Tanzania poll crisis.’ Immediately below this headline is more information: ‘Zanzibar poll scrapped because of “rigging”’ and ‘Opposition calls for Tanzania’s entire election to be annulled’.

For many countries in the region, this chain of events is depressingly familiar. East Africa is no stranger to challenged elections. In December 2007, a hotly contested election in Kenya, which pitted Raila Odinga against the incumbent President, Mwai Kibaki, led to violence after Kibaki claimed a victory that Odinga believed to be rightly his. While early results had suggested that Odinga was ahead, as counting continued Kibaki pulled in front. Odinga alleged fraud and demanded a recount, but on 29 December the Electoral Commission declared Kibaki the winner and he was quickly sworn in as President. In the violence which followed over the next two months, more than 1,000 people lost their lives and a further 300,000 people were displaced.

The magnitude of the violence that characterised 2007-8 exceeded anything that had been seen previously in Kenya. Nevertheless political violence had been a feature of Kenyan elections since independence. In contrast, mainland Tanzania, excluding Zanzibar, has been characterised by relative peace, including at election time.

How do we explain these divergent post-colonial histories? One answer that is often given is the different role played by ethnicity in the two countries. In the 2007 elections in Kenya, the election pitted a Luo politician, Odinga, against a Kikuyu President, Kibaki. The voting and the political violence that followed the election were similarly divided along ethnic lines. In mainland Tanzania, conversely, ethnicity has rarely played a decisive role in elections.

This is often seen as a product of Tanzania’s distinctive history. Ethnicity matters less in Tanzania, it is said, for historical reasons. Some cite the presence of a common language, Swahili, while others draw attention to the role of Tanzania’s first post-independence President, Julius Nyerere (an Edinburgh graduate), who moved swiftly after independence in 1961 to ensure that ethnically-based associations were removed from any political role, and devoted himself to nation-building efforts that aimed at transcending ethnic identity in favour of a shared Tanzanian national identity.

But the relative absence of ethnicity from overt political debate in Tanzania is not the whole story. On closer examination, another striking contrast between Tanzania and Kenya rapidly becomes apparent. Political violence has been used in Kenyan elections because parties know that a great deal is at stake, and that they have the potential to win or to lose. In Tanzania, in contrast, the nationalist party which won independence in 1961, the Tanganyika African National Union (TANU), and which in 1977 united with the Zanzibar nationalist Afro-Shirazi Party to become Chama Cha Mapinduzi (the Party of the Revolution, CCM), has never before looked to be at serious risk of defeat.

Explaining political dominance

Our task, then, is to explain this dominance. On one level, the answer is simple. Julius Nyerere, leader first of TANU and then of CCM, commanded overwhelming support at independence and moved swiftly to establish a system of one-party democracy which made it impossible for a rival party to build up support. But this does not in itself explain CCM’s dominance. In other countries where political space was rapidly closed down after independence, ruling parties were eventually overthrown in coups, or their leaders removed by rivals. Why did this not happen in Tanzania? It may be because in Tanzania, the nationalist party did not simply close down political space in legislative terms, it also succeeded in monopolising political space in imaginative terms.

Immediately prior to independence, Julius Nyerere and TANU were able to link the demand for uhuru (freedom) to themselves as the only means of achieving independence. In contrast, in Kenya, two rival parties offered two competing visions of a post-colonial future, one a decentralized state, the other a strong centre. But what is perhaps even more striking is the way in which Julius Nyerere and TANU were able to respond to growing political criticism in the 1960s, once independence had been achieved and the fruits of independence seemed not to be forthcoming. They did so by setting out a new vision of the future.

This new vision of the future was encapsulated in the Arusha Declaration of 1967, which set Tanzania decisively on a socialist path. Where other post-colonial leaders were overthrown in coups or pushed aside by rivals, Nyerere was able to create a new narrative which put him at the heart of a struggle against illegitimate accumulation and corruption in politics, redefining politics as a moral struggle. While on one level the Arusha Declaration was a political manoeuvre, which shored up support and eliminated rivals, it also served to recapture and re-moralize public space, re-enchanting nationalist discourse in a narrative that put Nyerere firmly at the centre as author of the new aims of TANU.

The Arusha Declaration

The Arusha Declaration, published on 5th February 1967 after consultation with TANU’s National Executive Committee but based on ideas formulated by Nyerere himself, marked a bold shift. It announced that where TANU had once been open to all who wished to fight for Tanzania’s self-government and independence, it would henceforth be a party only for those committed to building a society based on the principles of Ujamaa (African Socialism).

Immediately afterwards a series of nationalisations were announced, along with “Education for Self-Reliance,” a new educational system which aimed to educate all in a way fitting to Ujamaa rather than focusing attention on an academic few, and a plan for rural resettlement and villagisation. A Leadership Code made clear that those who held political office must be fully committed to TANU’s objectives, and must give up any private or business interests which contradicted those objectives and placed them in the class of “exploiters.”

In the letters’ pages of the Swahili press, the Arusha Declaration was understood as an answer to the sorts of problems which had led to the fall of other African governments, particularly that of corruption. Links were sometimes explicitly made to circumstances in Kwame Nkrumah’s Ghana, where growing criticism of corruption had led to the overthrow of Nkrumah in 1966. A letter that appeared in the newspaper Ngurumo lamented the great wealth which many politicians had acquired and asked: ‘where have they acquired this wealth if not from injustice?’  In Ghana, the letter writer declared, one of Nkrumah’s ministers had ‘bought a gold bed,’ and this bed had now been seized by the new government and would be sold. There were lessons here, he argued, for Tanzania, writing that ‘[i]f we have discovered this sickness, and we seem to have done so in announcing the Arusha Declaration and the policy of ujamaa, should we not also seek out this remedy? There is only one remedy – this property should be seized and the money which is received should be put into the Government purse.’

The Arusha Declaration provided a new language for attacking corrupt officials. Thus on 21st October 1967 an article entitled ‘Against Ujamaa’ reported that C.R. Chipanda, working in the office of the Ministry of Lands in Mtwara, in northern Tanzania, had appeared in court for the offence of having failed to pay his servant enough and for not having paid for insurance for him. While the defendant claimed that the servant was a relative, the judge asserted that “exploitation has many faces”, and that this was an example of misusing the principle of African brotherhood.

The Arusha Declaration succeeded in re-legitimising TANU through re-establishing its claim to authority, no longer simply as the party which brought freedom from colonialism but as the party which would combat corruption and ensure justice for all. It did so by harnessing a language of political morality, and turning it to new ends. That the nationalist party therefore succeeded in crowding out alternatives is a product of a successful ideological project as much as a project of state repression.


CCM’s ideological hegemony helps to explain Tanzania’s stability over the fifty years which followed independence in 1961. Yet although the 2015 elections seem, as this article goes to press, to have ended in victory for CCM’s candidate, John Magufuli, it is striking that this year people have been seriously asking the question: ‘Could CCM lose?’

There are immediate practical reasons that help explain why, over the last few months, CCM has looked seriously at risk for the first time since independence. A large part of the reason is that a former CCM Prime Minister, Edward Lowassa, switched sides and joined the opposition party Chama cha Demokrasia na Maendeleo (Party for Democracy and Progress, CHADEMA). Furious at being left off the list of candidates to run on the ruling party’s ticket, Lowassa deserted his party and was welcomed with open arms by an opposition that finally scented the possibility of election success with Lowassa as its presidential candidate. He stood as the candidate for the opposition coalition Umoja wa Katiba ya Wananchi (the Coalition of Defenders of the People’s Constitution, UKAWA), which unites CHADEMA with three other opposition parties. So for the first time, voters had a straight choice between two heavyweight candidates, John Magufuli for CCM and Edward Lowassa for UKAWA.

But if 2015 does turn out to mark the beginning of the end of CCM dominance, the seeds of this change go much further back in time. If Nyerere succeeded in constructing a political discourse which responded to widespread concerns within Tanzania society and sought to provide an answer to those concerns, this ability to be all things to all people could only ever be temporary. CCM remains in power, but it no longer has a monopoly over visions of the future. And for this reason, Tanzania’s elections may continue to make headlines in the years to come.


Anderson, David, and Lochery, Emma ‘Violence and Exodus in Kenya’s Rift Valley, 2008: Predictable and Preventable?’, Journal of Eastern African Studies, 2.2 (2008), 328-343.

Hunter, Emma ‘Julius Nyerere, the Arusha Declaration, and the Deep Roots of a Contemporary Political Metaphor’ in Fouéré, Marie-Aude ed., Remembering Julius Nyerere in Tanzania: History, Legacy, Memory, (Dar es Salaam, 2015). [Publication forthcoming].

Hunter, Emma Political Thought and the Public Sphere in Tanzania: Freedom, Democracy and Citizenship in the era of Decolonization, (Cambridge, 2015).

Lynch, Gabrielle I Say to You: Ethnic Politics and the Kalenjin in Kenya, (Chicago, 2011).
‘Tanzania elections: could CCM lose to Ukawa’? 23 October 2015, <>,  accessed 28 October 2015.

‘Tanzania election: Zanzibar vote annulled over ‘violations’’, 28 October 2015, <>, accessed 28 October 2015.

Fiction: The Eclipse

Walking through the cotton fields was one of Sarah’s favourite things to do. Her mother would take her every afternoon after lunch as they were walking to the village and Sarah always looked forward to it.

But one day, Mama would not take her.

‘We’ll go tomorrow. Today, I have to make sure the laundry is done.’

Even at the tender age of four, Sarah knew her mother was lying. But what she didn’t know or understand was that her mother was terrified. That morning the family of a plantation owner only a few miles away had been found dead in their home. Rumours were that slaves had risen in rebellion, and subsequent investigations found other plantation owners dead in their houses. Warned by local officials to stay indoors unless absolutely necessary, Sarah’s mother was not willing to risk the walk into town.

As night fell, Sarah watched her parents pacing round and round the house, double- and triple-checking every lock on every door and window. Sarah trailed behind her father, too scared to be more than a few feet from him. She dared not ask what was happening or why her parents were so anxious.

She was taken upstairs soon after and put to bed. Her mother lingered longer than usual but eventually, she left Sarah to sleep. Night-time was usually a magical time for Sarah; she would watch the moon rise from her bed. But not tonight.

Sarah was just dozing off when she heard a loud bang outside. She jumped from her bed and peered out the window. In the dim light, she caught a flash of light on metal and hurried back to bed, pulling the covers up round her head, sobbing in terror.

There was a scream, followed by a gunshot. Footsteps on the stairs. They were coming for her. She slid out of bed. Taking her teddy bear with her, she climbed into the fireplace. There was a recess just big enough to fit her tiny body. It was where she hid from her mama when she was in trouble.

The door handle to her room squeaked. Footsteps came nearer.

‘The bed’s been slept in!’

‘Search the room!’

These exclamations were followed by loud crashes of furniture being tossed aside. Sarah pressed herself further into the recess, trying to stay as quiet as she could. She wanted her mama!

‘We don’t have time for this!’

Sarah heard the men leave. She slid down the wall and curled up in a ball on the floor.

She didn’t know how long she stayed there. Time slipped into eternity. She would have stayed there forever, had her uncle, who had come to check his sister had not been affected by the rebellion, not remembered that Sarah liked to hide in her fireplace. He heard her ragged breathing the moment he opened her door. He lifted her out of the recess, her trembling body, cold and stiff. He carried her downstairs to the awaiting officials. Sarah peered out. A limp hand was visible from behind the door, lying in a pool of blood.

Sarah tried to wriggle free but her uncle had anticipated this. So instead she screamed, ‘Mama!’, before she was bundled out of the house.


I still remember that day vividly. I don’t think you can ever get over something like that. I was orphaned that day. My father’s body was found by the door from the servants’ quarters. He had obviously been trying to hold the rebels back.

Eventually, they found Nat Turner, the leader. And hanged him. It brings me no comfort. But his capture did offer something of an explanation: the inspiration for the rebellion, he said, was an eclipse.