Archive for the ‘Mythology’ Category

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.  


Homer, Iliad, 19.32 via Theoi Greek Mythology

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