I’m a sucker for stories based on myths and folktales, and even if I don’t know the original, I love that sense of ancient days, with kings and gods and priests, and impossible situations evaded with cunning. “Immortal Snake,” by Rachel Pollack, is mythic from beginning to end.
Long ago, in a time beyond memory, Great Powers owned the land, the water, and even the sky. Of all these empires, the strongest was a land called Written in the Sky. The soldiers of this land, who called themselves the Army of Heaven, travelled in rolling multi-levelled engines covered in sheets of black glass so that pillars of darkness moved across the earth.
It’s set in a kingdom where the Readers see everything in the stars, up to the death of the king. Then the ruler in name, Immortal Snake, gets all the pleasures and power of life, until the Readers decide he must die. The strongest character is the king’s sister, who is caught up in his fate. The magic comes from a storyteller, who is a peer to Scheherazade.
I loved the names, of the characters, the places, and the customs. I loved the versions of the myths he tells, and in the story no one can resist stopping to listen. This effect got me thinking about the power of stories. We are often told that a strong narrative can teach us to live. But these people were enchanted and did nothing. One of the stories is a warning, and I half-expected it to be a warning about the power of the storyteller himself. But no, that was just me thinking about it too much.
And maybe I was thinking too much as I tried to figure out the source of this story. The elements of pyramids and sacrifice had me envisioning the setting as maybe a variant on Babylon, Sumeria, or Central America. And a character in a mask and braids seemed African. Then I came to the endnote, where the author reveals that it’s based on the Ruin of Kasch, which may have happened in the region now called Darfur. Interesting. But, but the people on the cover of the magazine look like ancient Romans as envisioned by the costume designers for Stargate. Would it have been so scary to make them Sudanese? Or if that’s too hard to research, I suppose Egyptian would be less of a cop-out. I guess it won’t matter when you read it in a collection.
The title “The Ruin of Kasch” refers to an African legend of Sudan, recorded by the great anthropologist, Leo Frobenius, as it was narrated to him by an unknown camel driver in 1911. The legend is about an ancient kingdom which was based on the periodical sacrifice of the king, decided by the priests in relation to the positions of certain stars in the sky. One day, a stranger coming from the East which implies coming from the Indian Ocean…. His name is Far-li-mas and he is a great story-teller. The power of his stories is so overwhelming that the priests forget to look at the sky in order to decide when it’s the right moment to sacrifice the king. So their regime is overturned and a new era starts, when there will be no more sacrifices of the king. But this era too doesn’t last long, because some envious neighbours invade the kingdom of Kasch and make the new regime collapse. So this is the ruin of Kasch.
So if you like legends and nested stories, this one’s for you.