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Archive for the ‘Myth and Legend’ Category

Katniss Everdeen

Katniss Everdeen (from the UK "Hunger Games" video game)

    When the rules no longer exist and  “life as we know it” is over,  will human intelligence and resourcefulness still win the day?

     Civilizations have wondered “what if” since before the Visigoths and Vandals had their way with the Roman Empire. (Exhibit one: the Mayan calendar.)   Modern society has had a profound incentive to ponder “what if/then what” since the advent of the nuclear bomb.  The allure of what happens after the worst-case scenario has given rise to a modern archetype, the post-apocalyptic hero: an individual who survives when confronted with a dystopian society and constant, mortal danger.  If you are an archetype geek as I am, the notion that archetypes continue to form as society continues to evolve is a dazzling one. (They didn’t stop with Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung? Oh, joy!)  To that end, Dr. Eric Dodson  of University of West Georgia has crafted a thorough profile of the post-apocalyptic hero here.

     It’s easy to see that the post-apocalyptic hero and her/his environment breed with gusto in the modern public’s imagination: consider the wild popularity of Katniss Everdeen of The Hunger Games, Robert Neville of I Am Legend, and Max Rockatansky of the Mad Max/RoadWarrior trilogy to cite but three.  Furthermore, there are more post-apocalyptic video games today than I can even begin to name.

The post-apocalyptic hero is not confined to an imaginary future civilization ravaged by corruption and mass destruction, however.  Arguably, both Nazi Germany and the pre-civil rights era American South make valid settings for the post-apocalyptic hero.  I submit that the following men are two of the most compelling heroes in modern literature precisely because their stories are true:

Maus

Maus (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Few would argue the apocalyptic nature of Nazi Germany. The horrible fates inflicted upon those of Jewish descent during the Holocaust suit  “apocalypse” to sickening perfection.  The central figure of Maus I and II, Vladek Spiegelman, is a post-apocalyptic hero in that he devises ways to survive in a society gone criminally insane.  Although the Germans are bent on the destruction of any Jew, Vladek’s cunning responses to situations in the camps ensure his survival.  For example, shortly after arriving at Auschwitz, Vladek encounters a prison camp guard who wants to learn English.  Vladek offers to aid the guard, who appreciates the instruction and takes steps to protect him (Spiegelman, 32).  Later in his confinement at Auschwitz, Vladek overhears a high-level prison guard complain about his damaged boot. Vladek quickly offers to repair the boot, falsely claiming that he had been a shoemaker before his imprisonment (Spiegelman, 60).  Vladek manages such a clever repair of the boot that the officer is delighted.  Vladek receives special protection from that officer, as well as more cobbler work from Gestapo officers.    Vladek’s wiliness in this instance results not only in his survival, but also in a comparatively luxurious standard of living for him at Auschwitz: he regularly receives extra food in thanks for his handiwork.   Finally, Vladek has the presence of mind to carry a blanket aboard with him one of the Nazi “death trains” (Spiegelman, 85).  Forced by the hundreds into a railcar meant for livestock,   many debilitated prisoners suffocate, are trampled, or succumb to disease. Vladek, however, uses his blanket to rig a makeshift sling in the train car. Able to stay in a virtual hammock above the fray, he survives many days of imprisonment.  Clearly, Vladek Spiegelman is a textbook example of a post-apocalyptic hero in his crafty survival of the Holocaust death camps.

Another apocalyptic scenario occurs in John H. Griffin’s Black Like Me (BLM).   A factual story set in the South in the mid-1960s, BLM chronicles Griffin’s journey through the deep South while disguised as a black man. The virulence of Southern backlash against civil rights legislation from Washington puts black society under constant mortal threat: it is true dystopia. Judges refuse to prosecute those who lynch blacks, while violent crimes against blacks are investigated loosely, if at all.  Vicious, racist activists have carte blancheto destroy anyone of color.  Griffin finds that he, in his role as a black man, is subject to that same peril, making him a post-apocalyptic hero.   Little time elapses after Griffin’s skin color transformation before he receives the first of many “hate stares” from a white person. Describing the stare, Griffin observes, “It shows humans in such an inhuman light. You see a kind of insanity, something so obscene the very obscenity of it (rather than its threat) terrifies you” (51).   Griffin quickly adopts coping strategies in his dangerous existence, showing the reader his post-apocalyptic heroism. Seated on a bus with a surly, racist driver, Griffin endures the driver’s cruel cat-and-mouse game when the driver refuses to let Griffin off at his stop, pausing instead eight blocks later (Griffin, 44).  Subsequently, Griffin seeks out the publisher-activist P.D.East, whose aid assists him in dealing with rampant bigotry in the civil-rights era South (Griffin, 72).  Furthermore, Griffin cleverly aligns himself with East as well as with Sterling Williams, a street-smart shoeshine man: these strategies enable Griffin to avoid confrontations with Southern whites who would cheerfully kill him if they disliked his facial expression. Having survived his experiment, but obviously shaken by it, Griffin writes, “The real story is the universal one of men who destroy the souls and bodies of other men… I could have been a Jew in Germany” (preface).  Confronted with the brutal reality of life as a black man in the white-supremacist South, Griffin contrives to survive with a post-apocalyptic hero motif.

Black Like Me

Black Like Me (Photo credit: Amazon)

Both BLM and Maus I & II are set against backdrops of dystopian, apocalyptic social fabric. Each story, therefore, has a post-apocalyptic hero whose actions not only highlight the hideous environment in which he must function, but also deliver powerful meaning about the ugly truths of  “worst-case” scenarios.  John Griffin and Vladek Spiegelman are good men who act constructively in the face of unrelenting, mortal danger: each has a profound message to share.  Each character is a potent example of the post-apocalyptic hero archetype. Each is more compelling than any hero in theaters today because his story is not fantasy, but fact.

You might also enjoy Archetypes: Surprising “Warrior”, Archetypes: The Rebel in Multicultural Literature

Resources:

Dodson, Eric. Post-Apocalyptic Film and the Postmodern Apocalypse. University of West Georgia. http://www.westga.edu/~psydept/dodson-postapocalyptic.html

Griffin, John H. Black Like Me. New York: Signet, 1996.

Spiegelman, Art. Maus II.   New York: Pantheon, 1986.

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Jason bringing Pelias the Golden Fleece; a win...

Jason bringing the Golden Fleece to Pelias (image via Wikipedia)

Consider this:  Young Greek hero Jason is preparing to defy death in his quest for the Golden Fleece. He and his comrades will face unholy dangers in their quest:  strength, courage and wits will be crucial for survival.   Knowing this, Jason selects as one of his ship’s crew not Hercules, but Joe the Stoner.      Wait… what?

Or this: Hector, Prince of Troy, has just completed a diplomatic mission to the kingdom of Sparta.  Hector learns en route to Troy that his brother, Paris, has abducted Helen, Queen of Sparta. Hector shouts, “Dude, are you insane? Turn this ship around!” and returns Helen to her husband.    Behold, no Trojan War.

How about: Bellerophon, hero who tamed Pegasus, flies all over the world on his winged horse.  He considers flying to Olympus, home of the gods… then decides that’s not the smartest idea he’s ever had. Bellerophon lives to a ripe old age.

Or, finally:  Pirithous approaches his pal, Theseus,  for help with  a road trip. Pirithous wants to marry Persephone, Queen of the Underworld.  The guys will have to fight their way into Hades, grab Persephone (her husband, Hades, might object… he’s the lord of death, by the way) and fight their way out.    Pirithous wants Theseus to come along and help him. Theseus recalls that  no living soul has ventured into the Underworld and returned alive.  “Man, that sounds like a bad deal,”  Theseus says.  “No thanks.”  Theseus and Pirithous avoid being glued to chairs in the underworld… for eternity, in Pirithous’ case.

As you probably guess, the actual story arcs in these myths did not go as described above.  Hercules was a member of the celebrated crew of the Argo (at least for a while), Hector did not take Helen back to Sparta and the ensuing Trojan War brought down his father’s kingdom.  Bellerophon decided to fly Pegasus to Olympus, so the winged horse bucked the hero’s  impudent butt off high over  Arcadia.  Pirithous and Theseus did charge into the underworld, intent on kidnapping Persephone; Hades was not amused, and glued them to chairs. Forever.

Teaching with stories has been a useful model since Aesop and his fables.  Jesus used parables quite often in the Bible, and Buddha taught with stories as well.  The “story as learning tool” model works.  Children and teenagers enjoy mythology, and a life skills discussion that starts with a story is less likely to seem like the much-dreaded “lecture”.   Personally, I find that  myths make terrific stepping-stones for conversations with my preteen son.

“Yes, there he sat, on the back of the winged ...

Bellerophon, revving Pegasus' engine (image:Wikipedia)

One: Choice of Friends.  An excellent book for teens and parents is  The Six Most Important Decisions You’ll Ever Make  by Sean Covey.  “Choice of Friends” ranks high on Covey’s list of life-changing choices.  The first myth cited above, Jason and the Argonauts, plays into that discussion.  The crew of the Argo did not pick Jason! Jason recruited his crew for that adventure, knowing that his choice of companions would be vital to not only to the success of the mission, but also to everyone’s survival.   My son and I have had fun imagining what would have happened if Jason had screwed up and did take Joe the Stoner instead of Hercules.  None of the outcomes are good; often they are hilariously bad.

Two: Conscious Loyalty.  The conflict between Hector’s loyalty to his brother versus his loyalty to what’s right makes this decision one of my favorite tools from The Iliad.  It is easy to translate this situation aboard the ship bound for Troy to a modern scene:  a teen sees a friend endanger himself or someone else, for instance.  Telling a responsible adult about a buddy’s bad behavior violates The Boy Code according to Dr. William Pollack  and girls dislike being “snitches”, too.  Counteracting this issue could involve a conversation about such choices, a talk prefaced by retelling this part of The Iliad to your teen.  It is a great story, and the importance of Hector’s action is obvious.

Three: Self-regulation.   Teens can be surprised to learn that sometimes it’s best not to do something, even though they can. Having more freedom as a teen equals more opportunities to screw up in that regard, unfortunately.  Bellerophon’s story of overreaching with his supernatural horse is like that of  a teen who realizes that Mom and Dad are out, but the keys to Mom’s Charger are on the kitchen counter.  Yes, she could take the 425-horsepower chariot out for a drive… but should she?

Four: Handling Peer Pressure. This issue is one that keeps parents up at night.  Sean Covey ranks peer pressure as a subset of his “Choice of Friends” category for major life decisions.  Teens have one main mission: to be cool at all times, no matter what. The Theseus/Pirithous story is a perfect lead-in for a conversation about what to do if one of your teen’s friends approaches him/her with a dangerous, destructive, or just plain stupid idea.  For instance, I have used this story with my son in talking about whether to get in a car with a buddy who has been drinking.

The power of mythology reaches across milennia, as its lessons in life issues apply still today.  Creative parents can put a modern spin on a myth, like any of those above, and have an effective tool for talking with their children about important choices.

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Hercules wrestling with the Nemean lion

Is this you? (cr. Zubaran via Wikipedia Commons)

Random hazards seeking to control your life abound today. Not all are pharmaceutical, technological, nor psychiatric: one of them has been around since before Julius Caesar hit the marble streets. This ancient beast has a modern incarnation.  He’s out there, prowling,  and he wants you…in fact, he likely has you in his claws already.  The question is, gentle reader, will you stay there?

A famous random hazard of the ancient world was the Nemean Lion.   One day for no clear reason,  a monster of galactic proportions showed up in the pastoral Greek province of Arcadia and began ravaging the countryside.   The creature’s  pelt was not fur, but shards of bronze.  This cat was supernaturally large, had teeth like silver sabres, and sported bronze claws that tore through armor,  as Arcadian soldiers learned to their eternal regret.   The creature rampaged and fear reigned across the formerly peaceful province.  The area depended on its shepherding and farming for sustenance; the monster destroyed Arcadia’s livestock in two days.   Horrified citizens stayed indoors while crops rotted in the fields beside carcasses of half-eaten sheep.

A plea for aid to the ruler of the region, King Eurystheus in Mycenae, went unanswered. The King cared little for a distant, dusty farm territory.  Resolving to take action on their own behalf, the Arcadian citizens worked to protect themselves with walls, spiked pits, boiling oil… but the  Lion’s traffic pattern was unpredictable and nothing stopped him.  The Lion remained in control of their existence despite the populace’s noble efforts at self-preservation.  Times were grim. The Lion prowled Arcadia unchallenged, having vanquished all conventional means of defense.   He was a super-sized guarantor of utter destruction, havoc on four enormous paws.

As many seekers of advice did in ancient days,  Arcadian officials consulted their friendly neighborhood oracle.  The oracle revealed that the Lion had been sent by the goddess Hera as retribution for Arcadia’s slack worship of her.  Making matters worse, the oracle added that  Hera had ensured that the Lion “could be killed by no mortal weapon”.

The Arcadian council slouched home to contemplate living underground.  The Arcadian province was paralyzed with dread.  Death and destruction continued unabated as the Lion roamed the countryside.  His Olympian sponsor was pleased.

Meanwhile, in the Mycenean court of King Eurystheus, a fearsome stranger arrived with word of a mission from the Oracle of Apollo: he was to serve the King for twelve years.  This ungodly foreigner was larger than any man Eurystheus had seen, and so musclebound that the cowardly king was afraid to have him in court.  (Gentle reader, do you recognize this man? He was Hercules.)  Recalling the frantic dispatch from Arcadia where its citizens appealed for help against some bizarre invader, Eurystheus ordered Hercules to the distant province, and hoped he would not return.

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Image via Wikipedia

As luck would have it, the Lion was prowling the Arcadian road from Mycenae when the would-be hero arrived.  Even Hercules felt startled at the size, ferocity, and seeming indestructibility of the monster.  Hercules threw his ever-effective club at the Lion, but it merely bounced off of the creature’s impenetrable fur.  Hercules’ spear did the same.  Rather than being wounded, the Lion became enraged, and was preparing to pounce.

As the Lion’s volcanic roar assaulted his eardrums, Hercules realized his dilemma: his trusty bludgeon was of no use against the Lion, nor was his spear. He was not, however, out of options.

Confident in his own abilities, the hero confronted the Lion and began wrestling with the beast.  Amazed at this battle (humans always fled before him in terror, what botheration was this?)  the Lion succumbed to the pressure of Hercules’ hands around his throat… and was no more.  Hercules went on to complete many more heroic labors, to the dismay of King Eurystheus;  meanwhile, the Arcadian population regrouped and life bloomed without the Lion.

Now, gentle reader, to the present day.  Although he no longer pads across the Arcadian high country seeking cattle and sheep to kill, the Nemean Lion is with us. As he did in ancient Greece,  the modern monster is creating terror.  The twenty-first century Nemean Lion is omnipresent, is seemingly indestructible, and comes at the populace from a Power with an agenda.

He is now digital, a beast of  data, images, currency, and HTML code; his eyes are flickering video screens, his fur is a glittering mass of microchips, his mane a tangle of fiber-optic cable.  He prowls the corridors of Wall Street as confidently as he stalks the plains of Kansas.   The Power behind him has sent The Lion with one mission only.  That mission is, “Fear sells”.

The Power that created our modern Lion is what author Jon Katz calls “the Fear Machine”.  Katz has often observed that  the cable news networks, pharmaceutical companies,  and health insurance megaliths (among many others)  have a profound financial interest in convincing the public that we are in imminent, irrevocable danger unless we subscribe to their service, take their pills, buy their policies and take their tests.  Do as they say, or else: the Lion is out there, they warn,  and he will prevail.

The modern Lion wreaks dread and despair in the population, to the benefit of his sponsors.   Katz describes our fear-based society this way in his blog post of September 23, 2011:

Thoreau believed in free thought and choice, but in our culture people seem to be losing the instinct and habit of thinking for themselves, prodded instead by what marketers in the Fear Machine want them to think.  We are taught there is one way to do things…. This, I think, is what sheep do, not what individual and free wills do.

The idea of awakening for me, I think, came when I began to realize how much I was living in fear, how many choices in life were driven by fear. As I stopped living in fear, I began to awaken. To listen to my voice. To hear it and to trust. To make my own choices. 

Katz reminds us all that,  like Hercules, we are not out of options.  We have the choice of listening to the Fear Machine, or not.  We can  believe the negative news, buy into the fear-based sales pitches, allow the Lion into our homes, or decline.  We have the prerogative of living on our own terms.

The modern Nemean Lion  can indeed be destroyed by our own two hands.  Are we confident in our abilities, as Hercules was?  Or will we allow the Lion to sink his virtual claws into us,  draining our lives of joy?  I agree with Jon Katz: the future is not a thing to be dreaded and I refuse the Fear Machine’s recipe for survival.

Confront this Lion, he who is unused to being confronted, and see how quickly he disappears.  Using your own two hands, reach for the remote control or the radio dial.  Turn off the news for three days and see if you agree with me.


 

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PegasusIt’s true:   The Greek god Zeus had an eagle.  Artemis, the Greek goddess of the hunt, had her ever-present hunting dogs and stags with silver horns to pull her chariot.    For us lesser beings, one of my favorite things about mythology is Joseph Campbell’s concept of “magical helpers” along the path.  These often (but not always) appear as animals. Some interpreters of Greek myths add that the animal companion symbolizes Nature’s approval of the hero, or of his mission.

If one cares to look, Greek mythology is a garden of animals with fascinating powers, often acting as helper or companion to a hero.    Here is an introductory list:

  1. Pegasus, probably the most famous mythical animal of the Greeks, was a magnificent winged horse which sprang from the neck of Medusa after she had an unpleasant encounter (read: beheading) with the hero Perseus.  Pegasus’ name in Greek means “springing forth”.  The Greek hero Bellerophon tamed Pegasus before riding him into airborne battle with the monstrous Chimera.  The “magical helper” part of their relationship ended when Pegasus gave Bellerophon a forcible dismount: the hero, drunk with victory,  attempted to use the magical steed to ride to the home of the gods. The winged horse, however, was welcomed to Olympus, becoming a member of Zeus’ stable and a famous constellation as well.   Pegasus is known as Zeus’ thunderbolt carrier; the arrival of his constellation is the herald of spring.
  2. A loyal hound named Argus was the companion of young Odysseus, hero of the Iliad and of the Odyssey.  Argus was renowned for his speed, power, and near-supernatural ability to track game; the hound was at Odysseus’ side when the hero received his famous scar on the thigh (it later helped him prove his identity).   Argus stayed behind when Odysseus  left his kingdom of Ithaca for the decade-long Trojan War, followed by the Odyssey ‘s ten years of struggle to return home.   Argus was still waiting when, twenty years after his departure, Odysseus entered his own palace courtyard dressed as a beggar; despite all of that, the elderly Argus recognized his master, greeted him with a tail wag, and then died.  Argus is a touching, enduring example of love and loyalty: today, the Argus Institute at Colorado State University is named for him.
  3. The nearly-invincible hero of the Trojan War, Achilles, was a true demigod: his mother was a sea goddess.   The two magnificent horses that pulled Achilles’ war chariot, Balius and Xanthus, were wedding presents to Achilles’ parents from the Greek sea god, Poseidon.   As gifts from Poseidon, creator of horses, Balius and Xanthus were immortal, swift, and fearless.  Their father was Zephyr, the west wind.  Legend says that Balius and Xanthus hung their heads and wept when their charioteer, Patroclus, was killed in the Trojan war (Greek war chariots had a charioteer to handle the horses and  a soldier- Achilles in this case-  to do the fighting).  When Achilles took their reins in battle-rage, ready to ride for revenge upon Patroclus’ killer, Xanthus spoke, warning  him, “The day of your death is near… for you there is destiny to be killed in force by a god and a mortal” (Homer).   The Iliad then describes Achilles’ glorious charge toward Troy, his armor shining like the sun,  the two immortal horses’ hooves gleaming as they raced through the battalions with the speed of their sire, the West Wind.
The ancient storytellers knew of nature’s bonds with mankind.  This is but a tiny slice of the treasure trove of myths about marvelous animals:  as helpers, companions, and fellow warriors, their tales march down the halls of the ages still.  For further reading, you might enjoy this article about magical helpers.  

References:

Homer, Iliad, 19.32 via Theoi Greek Mythology

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Greek Goddess Athena

The Greek goddess Athena, patron of wisdom and battle strategy.

As parents, we know that “lectures” don’t work,  but sometimes we need to get a behavioral tidbit across to our little darlings.  Have courage: before there was “the book you can’t put down”, there was “the story circle you can’t  leave”.  I have seen it time and again in my roles as a parent and as an educator: kids love mythology. Put it to use for you.

I believe that myths and legends keep a firm grip on society today  because these are “reach-out-and-grab-you” tales.    For instance, whether Homer, the author of Greek epic poems, was one person or he was actually a collective of blind/disabled beggars  given the storytelling job to be useful in society, he/they kept their audiences riveted with action, heroics, and derring-do.  It still works.

  • Want to talk to your teenager about good decision-making? The Iliad, adapted into a film as recently as 2004, is one of the greatest stories in world history.  Period.  How many  authors merit  having their work celebrated more than two thousand years after its introduction?  (And made into a Hollywood blockbuster starring  Brad Pitt, no less…but I digress.)  Greed, arrogance, family loyalty, and the consequences of one’s choices all are central to the story; the actual poem can be a challenging read for a teen, but there are graphic novels of The Iliad that make it more approachable.   I have had fantastic life-issue talks with my son based on scenes from the movie Troy. (Note: the film is R-rated, but you can find appropriate clips of various scenes on YouTube.)
  • Worried about alleged “role models” for girls in the media these days? Tell your daughter about the Greek goddess Athena, patron of wisdom and battle strategy.  No, the Greek god of strategy was not a dude.  The Greek god of war (Ares) was a dude.  So, for brute force, the Greeks had a guy; for doing things the smart way, they had a woman. ‘Nuff said.  Consider telling your daughter about the Greek heroine Atalanta, an Arcadian princess, whose father had her taken to a mountaintop and abandoned  because she was born female. Atalanta survived, though, and became an acclaimed fighter who slew an  ugly, oversized,  trashing-the-place monster called the Calydonian boar.  She would only marry a guy who could beat her in a footrace; even then, he had to trick her to win.  Athena and Atalanta rock the house.  Girls can learn a lot about can-do attitudes from them.
  •  Is your child working through anger issues? So was the  Greek hero Hercules, who was so ferociously strong that, as an infant,  he strangled a poisonous snake.  People were afraid of Hercules, who had trouble controlling his temper (to put it mildly), but when Herc learned to behave himself, he became a hero and did a lot of good for his society.   Hercules had to perform twelve famous labors as punishment for losing his temper (kind of an ancient-Greek style time out): he did such a marvelous job that he was invited to live with the twelve Greek gods on Mount Olympus… the only Greek hero ever to get that reward.  Hercules can show your child the benefits of managing his/her temper.

These are simplified versions of myths and I have only scratched the surface, but you get the idea.  Myth and legend had  historical and educational purposes in the ancient world; put these intriguing stories to work for you in talking with your children.   Kids love the plots and you will have a good time getting your point across.  Tell the story, make your point; ideally, your child will want to know more about myths.  If that happens, you will have a cornucopia of teaching opportunities at your fingertips.

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