Myths and legends are a part of life, more so for a celebrity. Taylor Swift is essentially known for her confessional, autobiographical songwriting. Her music is deeply infused with visual imagery and elaborate metaphors, often smearing through time in the various projects. Just like most art, her music blurs the boundaries of fact and fiction. Even in her deeply personal albums, the concept of absolute truth may be a myth.
Her life has been the topic of mainstream discussion for most of this century. Swift has been a topic of folklore in many ways, long before she penned the album of the same name. People have observed her up close and talked about her at length. They made her into a living and breathing folktale of American mythology.
It is only apt that her storytelling prowess should crossover to the unknown, mystical lands of her imagination. On folklore and evermore, she creates a whole new world in her bedroom and shows it musically. She moves away from the celebrity, though not totally, and delves into a mythical realm of interwoven, intricate storylines.
Folk, Myths, and Taylor Swift
A myth explains the creation of something and how it came into existence. Rooted in tradition and often religion, myths become symbols with time. Time strengthens the mythology that stands its test, refining and redefining it ever and evermore. Not quite the same, but somehow similar, is a folktale. These are stories that are passed on from one generation to the next, mostly orally. They often get lost in translation and smudged by time. Almost in all the cases, one never knows where it all began.
Taylor Swift perfectly blends mythology and folklore in her sister albums. She escapes into “fantasy, history, and memory.” She asks the listener to pass these stories down like folktales. Most of the parallels drawn here were probably not even thought of by her when composing the songs. But they invariably connect the genius of this current artist to the legends of ancient peoples. Regardless of the time, human beings love a good story of love, tragedy, and magic.
The Rapture of Persephone
Seasons are big in Taylor Swift’s folkmore. She has talked about how folklore signifies spring and summer while evermore, fall and winter. The music is ripe with seasonal imagery right from the album covers. Since seasons are such an essential part of these albums, let us go back to the Greek legend of Persephone to understand it better.
Persephone, the goddess of life, death, vegetation, and destruction, was the daughter of Demeter and Zeus. Demeter was the goddess of the earth’s fertility, and Zeus was the supreme god of Olympus. Persephone was associated with flowers, herbs, and the perfume of the fields. She was a beautiful young woman whose beauty enchanted even her uncle Hades, the god of the Underworld. Eventually, he kidnapped her while she picked flowers and took her to his infernal domains below the earth.
Meanwhile, Demeter was devastated as she did not know where Persephone was. She walked the earth looking for her daughter but failed. The greater her sadness at the loss of her daughter grew, the more the land became dry and infertile. Eventually, Demeter learned from Helios, the sun god, what had happened. She was angered immensely and sent the earth into a great famine.
To end the plight of humans due to infertile lands, Zeus mediated the release of Persephone by sending Hermes to deliver Hades the message. Eventually, Hades agreed to let her go.
The Power of Longing
Hades offered Persephone a pomegranate, intending to have her by his side forever. Whoever ate any fruit from the realm of the dead must stay there for eternity. Hades tricked her. So it happened, and Persephone was to join Hades in the Underworld. But she did not know that then.
Upon her return to Olympus, Demeter asked Persephone if she had eaten anything in the Underworld. She was devastated to find out about the treachery of Hades, for she knew it meant that her daughter had to go back. To prevent yet another famine and ease his wife’s sorrow, Zeus mediated once again.
Demeter and Hades agreed that Persephone would spend half the year with her mother and the other half with him. Thus, the seasons of the year were born. When summer ended and autumn began, she went to the infernal abode of Hades, taking with her all the beauty of the land and fields. When winter ended and spring began, she returned to her mother, who rejoiced and restored life and fertility.
1. Pandora’s Box and Female Vilification
Let’s go back to the myth of Pandora, the first woman ever created in Greek mythology. According to Hesiod’s ‘Theogony’ and ‘Works and Days’, Prometheus had stolen fire from Mount Olympus and given it to humans. As a result, Zeus was furious and determined to punish everyone. Prometheus was chained to a rock, eternally condemned to have his liver eaten by an eagle every single day.
Man-kind, on the other hand, suffered a much more cruel fate. It was presented with a godly creation: a beautiful woman. She came all-gifted by the gods, with a tiny box said never to be opened. She was the first woman to live among men. Also, she was naive and curious. Her curiosity, a gift from the goddess Hera, ultimately led her to open her box. Thus, it released evil onto the world. There were rampant diseases, famine, death, and cruelty.
Taylor’s Myths and Mythology
There are three instances in the Cardigan music video where Swift lifts the top lid of a piano or a stool. She enters a whole new world each time, quite like Pandora. She sings about the permanent nature of things, alluding to the irreversible action of opening Pandora’s box. “Marked me like a bloodstain” might be a reference to the said permanence. She also nods at the gift of curiosity by Hera in the line, “I knew you’d haunt all of my what-ifs,” as she steps into yet another world. But, she gives the listener some hope at the end, as she finds some familiarity, the cardigan. It’s just a Taylor Swift thing to do.
Taylor Swift loves to turn a phrase. It is something that I call, Swiftonance, a literary device where an existing phrase is molded to completely change its meaning and yet retaining its essence. A brilliant example is “if the shoe fits, walk in it, till your high heels break.”
Another two songs on folklore, The Last Great American Dynasty and Mad Woman reflect on female stigmatization. These two songs pretty much highlight the notion of how a woman’s reaction, attitude, and feelings towards an event are always a catalyst for disgrace, ruin, and sorrow. Of course, this is nothing but a cowardly way for men to deal with the intensity and unpredictability of women’s emotions.
Swift and Harkness
Rebekah Harkness became a hot topic of gossip for doing what she wanted, despite what society thought. Quite similar to how Pandora became a male chauvinist legend in a world where women are assumed to be responsible for all disgrace and evil. “She had a marvelous time ruining everything,” Swift sings. Also, this story can be linked to folklore when Swift says, “no one likes a mad woman.”
Pagan Equivalent Myths
Finally, besides Pandora, have you ever heard of a woman who was held responsible for all sorts of evil in the world? Here is a hint: she likes to hang with snakes. Admittedly born in a patriarchal society, the story from Adam and Eve explicitly blames the first woman. Time and myth vilified her for her curiosity and for all the disgrace humankind ever came to face. It is a classic example of singling out women for the misdeeds of a collective. Swift takes a jab at the male-centric society when she sings, “who knows, if she never showed up, what could’ve been.”
Read more about the similarities between Taylor Swift and Rebekah Harkness here.
2. The Major Arcana Tarot: The Lovers
Briefly, the Tarot goes far beyond just predicting the future. Its cards are mainly instruments of self-knowledge and portraits of human evolution. It is why the Tarot portrays a love triangle. The power of conflict and indecision is the driving force for the growth of an individual.
In the card, a man and a woman stand in the Garden of Eden. There is the Tree of Life behind the man and the Tree of Knowledge behind the woman. One can see the serpent wrapped around the Tree of Knowledge. The Lovers is a representation of choices and relationships. Moreover, it symbolizes the irreversibility of bad decisions and the consequences of lost innocence. It also depicts a decision regarding an existing relationship and the temptations of the heart.
The folklore Love Triangle
In the folklore Long Pond Studio Sessions, Swift revealed that Betty and James had a happy ending together, in her mind. Fans have also reflected on Augusta/Augustine not necessarily being the villain of the story. A love triangle is such a common and powerful human experience that so many stories explore its theme. Swift talks about a man who is conjugal with two women.
Before moving on to the symbolism in tarot, it is worth noting that Swift alludes to Shakespeare when she sings, “would you lead me to the garden?” This means the loss of virginity, and hence innocence, of a character… in this case Betty and Augustine. In the Cardigan music video, Swift also reminds the fans of The Star Talers by the Grimm Brothers. She is dressed in a white gown in a fairyland, symbolizing her purity and innocence.
The Misalliance in Swift’s Myths
In this version of The Lovers, the man has his gaze set on the woman to his right. The woman to his left is reaching out to him, but he pays no heed. The cupid’s arrow points to the two on the right, despite the man’s distracted eyes. It references the love between the yearning woman and the man and the lust between the other two. One can see in The Lovers card above, from left to right, Augusta/Augustine, James, and Betty.
A Closer Look
The first woman, Augusta/Augustine, has a very steady look in her eyes, almost as if she’s saying, “meet me behind the mall” or “get in the car.” She has one hand on James’ shoulder and the other in an inviting gesture. It suggests that she gives advice or whispers something suggestive to James. Perhaps, she knows some of his thoughts and feelings unknown to Betty. Hearing “James, get in, let’s drive” has never been more tempting.
The second woman, Betty, coincidentally resembles Taylor in the cardigan music video. The innocent, kind woman reaches out and puts her hand on James‘ heart. The card indicates that, regardless of Augusta/Augustine’s maturity and lust, his heart will always belong to Betty. Her gesture makes it clear that she would be willing to take James back after the betrayal. It is referenced in the song cardigan when Swift sings, “I knew you’d miss me once the thrill expired.”
And lastly, we have James in the middle. His head, full of fantasies and daydreams, is turned towards Augusta/Augustine. Meanwhile, his body, soul, and heart are moving towards Betty. As stated before, conflict is essential for maturation. And this Tarot card is precisely about that relationship. Ultimately, James has matured to the point where he can apologize and win Betty back. Finally, admitting that you know little or nothing is a stage of growth and self-knowledge. Although, it can be seen as an excuse as well. “I’m only seventeen, I don’t know anything,” Swift sings as James in the song betty.
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