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The Uninvited Guest
September, 2021

Dear Friends,

It was the tenth day of an epic celebration on Mount Olympus for the marriage between a mortal and a sea nymph. Thanks to Zeus, the guests were having a very good time, with unlimited quantities of the finest food and drink. 

Then, in the middle of the party, there came an ominous sound:  three loud, slow knocks on the door.


As storyteller Jeff Wright explains in The Trojan War: The Podcast, knocks like this are never a good thing. 

Zeus dropped his dinner fork and looked stricken. The groom, seeing the fear in his eyes, asked him what he was afraid of. "There are forces in the universe even more ancient and powerful than the Olympic gods," Zeus replied. 

The door opened and in came an uninvited guest: a woman who walked deliberately to the head table, reached into her cloak, and handed the groom a present:  a golden apple engraved with the words "For the Fairest." Then she left the party with a smile.

Though the apple seemed like a nice-enough gift, though not very practical, it was bad news indeed. That's because the woman who gave it was Eris, the Goddess of Discord, who delighted in stirring up misery and conflict. Sometimes she caused small-scale mayhem at family gatherings such as weddings and reunions, and at other times she brought about monumental tragedy. (That golden apple, for example, started a competition between Aphrodite, Athena, and Hera that led to the ten-year Trojan War.)

When I recently heard this story, I thought about my new book. In one sense The Soul of the Family Tree is about genealogy, but its themes touch on larger subjects. In particular, I'm struck by how many people are taken by its chapter on Badly Behaving Relatives.  At my launch party, for example, guests were trading stories about the dead murderers, thugs, con artists, and Nazis who populate their family trees, as well as the living relatives who give them heartburn.

And so when I heard that story about Eris, I immediately recognized her. The ancient Greeks, those shrewd observers of human nature, had a perfect explanation for why discord spreads its poisonous tendrils through so much of our lives.

It certainly seems as if Eris is hard at work these days, doesn't it, wreaking havoc in countries around the globe? And if you haven't had Eris show up at any of your family events--well, good for you. I hope your streak of luck continues. As a friend puts it, "It's not really a family reunion unless someone is crying in the bathroom." It all can make you wonder if families--or any sort of human connection--are worth it. 

I can't solve the larger problems swirling around the globe, but I can offer a little bit of perspective about families after having just written my book. I hope one of the lessons readers take from it is a rueful recognition of the ways in which good and evil---and their cousins harmony and discord---are intertwined in every clan. Here's what I say in my chapter about Badly Behaving Relatives:

Genealogy . . . makes it difficult to claim the moral high ground. If we go far enough back, all of us have many examples of both the oppressed and the oppressor in our lineages (and sometimes, of course, they were both, as people who are abused tend to abuse others when they get the chance). It’s hard enough for contemporary people to keep out of ethical quagmires, but the brutal realities of life during most of human history meant that one’s survival often depended on cruelty and violence. . . 

A tendency to smaller-scale misbehaviors can also run in families. From alcoholism to abuse, destructive patterns often pass from generation to generation. While it can be disheartening to realize you come from a long line of people who’ve struggled with addiction or perpetuated abuse, it can also be liberating. Knowledge, after all, is power. Multiple forms of dysfunction may have existed for generations in your family, but those destructive patterns can stop with you. And while it’s nice to find ancestors who served in the French Resistance or who were part of the Underground Railroad, sometimes the best thing that can come from genealogical research is a clear view of all the crap that’s accumulated in the clan over the centuries, floating like turds in the family gene pool.

If you want to climb onto a perch from which you can judge the rest of the world’s iniquity, in other words, genealogy is not the hobby for you. Research on the twists and turns of our lineages reinforces the perennial truth that within all of us is the potential for good and evil.

So the next time Eris shows up at your family reunion, you may have to let her in---she is, after all, ancient and powerful. But it doesn't mean you have to spend much time with her. Give her a drink to sip, find her a chair in a corner, and go back to trying to relate to your family members, as frustrating as they may sometimes be. I have a hunch that your ancestors are watching it all with a sympathetic gaze.

Best wishes,


(image: Wikimedia Commons)

Recommended Listening and Reading:

Jeff Wright does a marvelous job of retelling Homer's epic poem The Iliad in contemporary language in his podcast series The Trojan War. Full of family dramas among both gods and humans, it's a riveting tale.

Sometimes the best way to deal with difficult families is to read about even more dysfunctional ones. Try Jeannette Wall's The Glass Castle, Mary Karr's The Liar's Club, and Tara Westover's Educated.


Recent Media:

I've been pleased with recent media coverage for the launch of my new book The Soul of the Family Tree on August 24. Highlights include: 

Interview on Iowa Public Radio’s Talk of Iowa Program: What genealogy and a ‘boring hobby’ can teach us about ourselves

Interview on the Frommer’s Travel Show: Lori Erickson on genealogical travel

Podcast with Kenyatta Berry of the PBS program Genealogy Roadshow: Genealogy as pilgrimage

Daily Iowan: Erickson combines her personal heritage with Scandinavian lore and culture

And finally, I had a fun interview relating to spiritual travel in general with travel journalist Lea Lane: Places I Remember With Lea Lane

Upcoming The Soul of the Family Tree Book Talks and Signings:

September 9, 6:30 pm, Beaverdale Books in Des Moines, Iowa.

September 21, 7 pm, Dragonfly Books in Decorah, Iowa.

October 9, 11 am, Norway House in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

October 16, 1 pm, Livsreise Norwegian Heritage Center in Stoughton, Wisconsin.

October 28, noon-1 pm, Chew on This! Program at The History Center in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Bring a sack lunch; dessert provided. Admission is $7 for general public and $5 for History Center members.

 My Previous Books:

Near the Exit: Travels with the Not-So-Grim Reaper is about places that have helped me come to terms with mortality. 

“This book’s journey to spiritual places near and far is worth taking.” Library Journal (starred review)

Holy Rover: Journeys in Search of Mystery, Miracles, and God is a memoir told through trips to a dozen holy sites around the world.  

“Whether describing mystical visions or the rhythms of everyday life, Erickson turns the spiritual journey into a series of exciting transformations.” Publishers Weekly (starred review)

If you've read and enjoyed my books, I hope you'll write a review on Amazon, Goodreads, or other online sites. Your review will help other readers discover my work. 

Lori Erickson is one of America’s top travel writers specializing in spiritual journeys. She's the author of The Soul of the Family Tree, Near the Exit and Holy Rover. Her website Spiritual Travels features holy sites around the world. 

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