Thursday, September 23, 2010

The great myths

So, back from Greece – miss me at all? Even notice I was gone? Two weeks not blogging and I have to tell you, I missed it a little. Because the last post was a little shorter than usual, I take the liberty of making this one a little longer (yeah, I can hear the groans). But, I have loved this topic most since I was a little child and I rarely write on it.

While I was overseas my friends’ 10 year old son was grilling me on mythology, which made me think, what are my favorite mythological tales (let’s call them the “ten greatest” for fun). Admittedly, I am biased towards Greek and Norse Mythology, but even I don’t know what the list will bring yet as I start. Here, we go – in reverse order, and excluding myths associated with the Bible, and Homer, both of which I like to treat separately. I can only say so much about them as myths can be long and complex, but it is just to see if you are interested in them:

No 10: The little elephant headed boy.

Hindu mythology is as incredibly rich and imaginative as Greek or Norse mythology and loaded with more gods than either of those two branches which are much more familiar to us and infused in our culture (the days of the week, the planets, and so on). I won’t try a synopsis here because it would take to long, but the three main gods are Brahma – which at least in some sense is equivalent to what we call God, as he is comprised of everything, Vishnu, the creator, whose avatars or incarnations provided millennia of heroic figures, and Siva or Shiva, the destroyer, both of whom are aspects of Brahma. You may be familiar with the figure of the dancing Shiva.

Many of the Hindu gods had wives or consorts and Shiva had one too by the name of Parvati or Parwati (they all have a bunch of names, actually, depending on what country you are in). Actually, Parvati was reincarnated from Siva’s first wife, Sati, who has the distinction of giving her name to the Hindu custom of widows throwing themselves on their husbands’ burning funeral ghats. Parvati was sometimes said to be Vishnu’s sister and symbolized the energy in the universe.

Anyway, one day our heroine is at home taking a shower (how godlike) when she realizes there aren’t any servants at home to guard her, so she creates a boy out of her soap and sends him out front. The boy was Ganesha, sometimes called Ganapat(h)i. Sure enough, Shiva comes home and Ganesha won’t allow him in the house. After trying to reason with him, Shiva loses his temper and cuts off Ganesha’s head with a trident he carries around with him on which the three points have sharp blades.

Naturally, when Parvati comes out and sees her son dead, she’s not too pleased. Unfortunately, Shiva has quite a way with his trident and the boy’s head went pretty far. So, after realizing they weren’t going to recover it, the servants were ordered to go take the head of the first creature they came too, which, turned out to be that lovable pachyderm, the elephant.

Of course, reading it for the first time, I was thinking, why didn’t she just make another head out of soap, but it’s a myth. So, now, Ganesha, one of the most celebrated of Hindu gods, has an elephants head. He doesn’t seem to mind, even seems quite proud of it and his corpulent figure.

There are actually a few versions of how Ganesha got his head, a number of which have to do with demons and some of which I know by heart, but space is precious and you’ll just have to read up on it yourself. 

9. Who lets himself get shut up in a chest? Really.

I always felt bad for the Egyptian god Osiris, although his own stupidity or trusting nature led to his problems. We learn most of his tale from Plutarch, who supposedly got it from ancient Egyptian texts. Osiris was the ruler of Egypt and the son of a god. His wife was, as was typical back then, also his sister, namely Isis, whose influence has been felt in other mythologies.

Another god, Seth, has Osiris over for dinner, and tricks Osiris into being shut up in a chest which is promptly hurled into the river. Hence, the Egyptians referred to him as the drowned god. Isis is heartbroken and goes in search of him. Osiris comes to rest in Byblos (now in Lebanon) where a sycamore tree forms around him. When the local king decides to have the tree chopped down to use for a column, out pops his body. Isis happens to come upon it and takes him with her.

But, because nothing can be easy when there are villains about, Seth finds the coffin and chops it up into a gazillion pieces. But, Isis, as indomitable s they come, once again tracks down all the pieces and puts him together, with the unfortunate exception of his, you know, thingee, which was eaten by a fish.

Magically Isis restores him to life (which makes you wonder why she didn’t just do that in the first place) and conceives a child (again magically because of the hungry fish). Osiris goes off to become the judge of the dead in the underworld, but is avenged by his magically created son, Horus, who kicks Seth and his crony’s collective asses, losing an eye in doing so.

Osiris has been at times compared to Jesus, having died and been resurrected and the theme of a son avenging his father has lasted millennia, most delightfully in modern times in one of my favorite movies, The Princess Bride.

No 8: Half man/half beast

One of my favorite mythological creations is Enkidu, from the Epic of Gilgamesh, somewhere from 4-5000 years old now. As I wrote in depth of this epic on 7/11/07, and I am fairly lazy, I’ll quote from there rather than rewrite:

“The hero, Gilgamesh, is a young but powerful king, mostly divine but also part human. He is purely mortal though and a tyrant.

In order to combat him, the people pray to their great sky god, Anu, for some relief and he answers their call by creating a half man/half animal named Enkidu, who possesses the strength of many wild beasts.

Despite his prowess, he is easily tamed. A local trapper who learned about Enkidu from his son advises his son to tempt him with a temple harlot. He follows through, and Enkidu immediately has sex with the girl, named Shamat, which drains him, Samson-like, of much, but not all, of his great strength.

Not surprisingly, he is disturbed by his loss of vigor and the fear he now causes in the animal kingdom. Shamat then takes him to Uruk (the city) to introduce him to Gilgamesh.

In the meantime, Gilgamesh is having troubling dreams in which he is forced by his mother to compete with a meteorite and an axe (which he “embraces as he would his wife” -- hmmm). He learns that this means he will meet a man who will be a competitor but then help him accomplish great things.

Soon, Gilgamesh is at a wedding in the city. Rather than bring a gift, he claims his right of primacy, i.e., he may have sex with the bride before the husband (a right kings and rulers of many civilizations have claimed).

Even at this early time in civilization, this caused great unrest with the groom. Enkidu, who has been somewhat civilized by some shepherds, faces off against Gilgamesh to prevent his taking the bride.

They fight. Gilgamesh has almost met his match, but the hero must prevail, then as now, and Gilgamesh is the hero. Defeated, Enkidu pledges his undying support to him.

They become inseparable friends. . . .”

At the end of the day, it seems to me that Enkidu had more heroism in his pinky than the hero has in his whole body, but like in many buddy adventures, even in ancient Sumeria, his life is forfeit. I find Enkidu quite attractive for the loss of his natural self and his loyalty beyond death.

No. 7: The bear

His name was Beowulf – perhaps meaning the bee-wolf, an epithet for a bear (there are a number of other possibilities including Thor-Wolf and War-Wulf). He was likely entirely fictional, but it appears that much of the names and some other aspects are in fact taken from history. Tolkien, at one time the world's most reknowned expert on it (even before the Lord of the Rings, and he acknowledged Beowulf's influence on his own work), thought it was written in the 700s A.D., but other scholars believe it was as late as the 11th century. There is really only one original copy, mostly complete.

Not yet a king, Beowulf and his men, who are Geats, came to the aid of Hrothgar (“famous spear”), a Dane, when the monster, Grendel, a descendant of the accursed Cain, the son of Adam who slew his brother ("Am I my brother's keeper?") was terrorizing Hrothgar’s hall.

Showing no fear, Beowulf, stripping himself of armor and weapons, defeated the monster by ripping off his arm. Grendel fled home to his mother before dying, and she herself visited the hall the next night to take revenge. Beowulf tracked her to her lair in a pond and armed with a powerful sword given to him by a prior antagonist, dove down into the deeps to slay her. Holding his breath underwater was no problem for the bear. Earlier the story had been told of a swimming contest he had with a friend, that lasted days and which Beowulf lost, but only because he paused to fight and kill a few sea monsters.

Unfortunately, the famous sword he carried, Hrunting, which had never failed before – failed. It was useless against her. In trouble, Beowulf spots the sword of a giant in Grendel’s mother’s armory, and that does the trick.

Beowulf’s last great feat occurs when he is an old man and king of his own people. This time he must defeat a dragon. He is aided by one young man, and great as Beowulf is, he can not defeat the giant monster but at the cost of his own life. The courage and devotion of the young man is probably the most touching part of the story, as it is otherwise filled with arrogant men, like the protagonist himself.

Beware the recent animated film which featured Angelina Jolie as Grendel’s mother, as it takes great liberties with the story, although the dragon scene was rather remarkable and had me ducking in my seat.

No. 6: Siegfried/Sigurd

Two of the greatest tales I have ever read are the Nibelungenlied and the Volsunga Saga, the German and Norse versions, respectively, of the tale of a swashbuckler as great as Beowulf, Siegfried or Sigurd, prefiguring Beowulf, Tolkien’s Aragorn, and many other a hero. His tales are, naturally, too long to tell here, and there are too many forms, but, because it is convenient and I have it on hand, I shall use one which Edith Hamilton uses in her classic Mythology, by summarizing her summary.

Sigurd is a great hero who comes upon a ring of fire. Within it lies Brynhild, a Valkyrie, who being punished by Odin is put to sleep until she is awoken by a man whose courage has no parallel (hence the ring of fire). Siegfried leaps into the ring with his horse and awakens her. Realizing his prowess, she agrees to marry him. He leaves for a while at this point, the reason for which has never been clear to me.

Coming to the kingdom of Gunnar, he becomes fast friends with the royal family. The king’s mother desires that Sigurd marry her daughter Gudrun and bewitches him so that he forgets Brynhild. Then, to aid his friend Gunnar, Sigurd takes his form and repeats his effort to get into the ring of fire and claims Brynhild, who naturally thinks Sigurd has forsaken her, for Gunnar. However, he remains there for 3 days next to her, but lays his sword between the two of them.

He leaves again and, eventually, Brynhild, thinking Gunnar is Siegfried’s equal, marries him. She is somewhat content until one day when Siegfried’s wife reveals to her the truth and that it was Sigurd in Gunnar’s form that lay beside Brynhild, and is now married to her. Devastated, Brynhild tells Gunnar that Sigurd betrayed her and slept with her in the ring of fire. Gunnar has his little brother do Sigurd while he sleeps.

The dark deed does not go unpunished. Everyone suffers or perishes for it. I could have chosen the part of the myth concerning the dwarf’s gold, the dragon and the gods made so famous by Wagner’s Ring Cycle, but this will do. I cannot not recommend anything more passionately to a lover of tales than the Nibelungenlied or William Morris’ version of the Volsunga Saga, and Tolkien’s own retelling of Sigurd and Gudrun’s tale, released only last year by his son, was also quite fascinating.

5. A man and bull go into a maze

I just told the story of Theseus and the Minotaur last week, at least sort of, so I won’t repeat it. But, it ranks just below . . .

4. A tale of my favorite god . . .

. . . who happens to be Thor, the Norse god of thunder. I’ve written on Thor before – in fact on 11/2/06 I posted one of my all time favorite articles – A day of thunder and lightning, where I explain how, contrary to the opinion of pretty much everyone else in the world who might be interested in it, Santa Claus more closely resembles this Scandinavian muscle man than any other fictional creation. In fact, I’m sure of it.

At one time, before the appearance of Odin in Germany, Thor was top dog, much as the lightning hurler Zeus was tops in Greece. But, when followers of Odin came along Thor was tucked in as his son, and was no longer the chief god. I think it just made a better story, and Thor could be a bit of a knucklehead.

Most of what we know about these gods comes from two slender sources, what is known as The Elder Edda, a collection of poems, and the Prose or Younger Edda written by a Snorri Sturluson, a 12th-13th century Icelandic politician, historian and myth collector, who, like the Grimm Brothers much later, was trying to preserve his heritage (I wrote on the Grimm Bros. here on 11/7/09, and their own history might surprise you a bit).

My favorite tale about Thor comes on one of his travels with the evil Loki, but who there not the bad guy, as usual. After some strange adventures on the road, they came to the hall of one Utgard-Loki (who I'll call U-L here, and, yes, I know the names are similar; not a mistake – probably he represented some other aspect of Loki). Anyway, Loki was first challenged to an eating contest, and lost to one of U-L'smen. Then another of U-L’s men ran three races against a swift servant of Loki's, and beat him worse each time. Finally Thor was challenged to three contests – drinking – where he was unable to drain a goblet in three mighty gulps, then lifting U-L’s cat off the ground – he could only get one paw up, and last, a wrestling match with U-L’s step-mother, an aged woman – Thor was forced to one knee when the match was stopped.

The powerful Thor was humiliated, but then U-L confessed the next day that he had fooled them with magical spells. The retainer who beat out devoured Loki was fire itself; the impossibly fast runner was U-L’s thought. When Thor drank from the goblet, the other end was in the ocean and Thor drank so much of it he created what we call ebb-tide. When he thought he was lifting a cat, it was actually part of the Midgard Serpent (Thor's special enemy) which encircled the globe, and Thor had nearly lifted it to the sky. Last, when he wrestled the old woman, she was old age itself, and even Thor could not defeat her (Norse gods were not necessarily immortal, just immensely powerful beings, and could be killed as was the beloved Baldur in another classic tale).

Thor tried to bashl U-L with his great hammer, Mjolnir, but he disappeared, leaving Thor frustrated, a condition in which the incredibly strong but not all too bright hero-god sometimes found himself.

I always found Thor more endearing than his similar Greek counterpart, Herakles or Hercules, whose own tale though, must be ranked slightly higher.

But, first,

No. 3: The benefactor of man

Prometheus (whose name means to us – forethought) is one of the most fascinating characters in Greek mythology and I have an unprovable theory that he was more important before Homer and Hesiod wrote and perhaps even before the Greeks conquered the land that now bears their name. I suspect, like the other titans, he was an earlier god.

But, as he comes down to us, he was one of the giants or titans who ruled before the coming of the gods. When Zeus and the Olympians (and a host of monsters) dethroned them, it was Prometheus who also took the gods’ side and helped defeat the giants. Prometheus may have made humans of clay (but others say it was the gods) and Prometheus and his brother Epimetheus (afterthought) were charged with giving animals their characteristics. Epimetheus, naturally, not thinking ahead, handed everything out, and had nothing good to give man. Prometheus decided to give them the arts and also fire.

Prometheus is wise, perhaps even wiser than all-knowing Zeus, whom he fools (seems it wasn’t really that hard to fool the bearer of the lightning bolt though, as many do). But, Zeus is far more powerful. After Prometheus tricks him so that men get the good part of animal sacrifices (not so important to us, but a biggee tot he Greeks) and gives fire to men, Prometheus is chained to a rock upon Zeus’s command and a vulture appears everyday to eat his liver, which grew back every day (very similar to what the Norse gods did to Loki for a while).

Zeus sends Hermes to wrest Prometheus’ secrets from him but even the cleverest of the gods cannot get him to give up his secret of who shall come along to defeat Zeus. Prometheus would rather suffer.

One day while he is chained to the rock a creature appears. He recognizes her as Io (after whom is named the Ionian sea and the Bosphorous (cow crossing) between Asia and Europe in modern Turkey, who has her own sad tale. Once, she was desired by Zeus and to protect her from Hera’s wrath, Zeus changed her into a cow. Hera didn’t want her changed back, so she set a bodyguard, Argus, with a hundred eyes, to watch her. Zeus again sent Hermes to fix his problems. Hermes, disguised as a mortal, played his pipe and then told Argus boring stories, watching some eyes fall asleep, but not others. Finally, he managed to put them all to sleep and slew him. But, it was to no avail as Hera sent a gadfly to endlessly sting Io and drive her mad.

When Io and Prometheus meet they share their sad tales like two lonely souls might over a cup of coffee today, or on the phone or by email. Prometheus though can see the future and he tells her that she will remain plagued for a while, but one day reach the Nile where she will be restored by Zeus and bear his child, whose bow-stringing descendant would free him.

That bow-stringer was Herakles.

No. 2: The guy with the club

Thor had his hammer and perhaps that was modeled on the great club of Herakles, the quintessential Greek demi-God hero who Herodotus tells us was first known to the Egyptians. There are many tales of the mightiest of demi-gods, and there are continuous re-tellings even down to this day, including a few years ago, including Hercules, The Legendary Journeys, for a while the most popular show in the world (and from which spun off Xena, which surpassed it), a mini-series, a Disney movie, an Elton John song, and so on. He is also an icon for strength.

Two parts of his story come to mind immediately. One is the story of his birth. Like many others who were sired by Zeus, Hera hated him and tried to prevent his birth. Failing, she sent two snakes to the infant’s crib which he strangled all by lonesome.

But best known of Herakles’ tales are his famous labors, which he undertakes upon another Hera trick. You can go to Wikipedia or endless other sites for the list, but he mostly subdues a monster in each labor (and does one heck of a cleaning job in another). My favorite, though, is the stealing of golden apples which bestow immortality from the garden of Hesperides, three nymphs who dwell in the west, either Spain or Morocco, but which was really the property of Hera.

Herakles goes on the journey and first kills the giant, Antaeus, who draws his strength from the earth, whcih gave birth to him.  Herk can only kill him after he lifts him off the ground and gives him a bear hug. Some say Herk stole the apples himself, but the better tale has him getting the titan Atlas to do the deed, as he was related to the nymphs. Herk has to bear the weight of the world on his shoulders while Atlas goes on the mission. He comes back, but decides not to take the world back (this was his punishment for opposing Zeus when the gods took over). Herk agrees to continue, having no choice, but asks if Atlas can take over for just a bit while he better adjusts his clothing. And this the idiot titan does, only to have Herk walk away with the Apples.

Herk dealt nicer with Atlas’ brother, Prometheus, and freed him from his bonds, one of the few acts of mercy you can find in Greek mythology. If anyone deserved it, it was Prometheus.

Unlike Thor, for whom there are really only a handful of tales, Herakles is subject of many, and he is often plagued by or driven mad by Hera. At one point he kills his beloved wife and his own children and another time his best friend. When he dies, Zeus makes him immortal, driving scholars crazy ever after that Odysseus meets his shade in the underworld, which, if he's a god . . . .

No doubt, Herakles was the greatest of Greek heroes, and perhaps the greatest hero the world has ever known – sort of the Superman of mythology. But, as you can tell, he is not my number one choice, who is, however, his ancestor and also half brother (also fathered by Zeus), by the name of . . .

1. Perseus

In some ways Perseus' tale seems more Norse than Greek with its magic weapons and witchlike women and a dragon-like creature. However, it would be more intelligent to say Perseus' tale was a forebearer of the Germanic myths.  Althoguh Perseus precedes Herakles in mythological time, for some reason his story is less well known and told through the ages, even if he is still legendary (Perseus, for example, is the name of the wonderful website I visit which translates word by word Greek and other classics).

His story is one of the most riveting in all mythology, which great images and drama. I rank it ahead of the labors of Hercules for one simple reason. I like the story better.

Danae (wish I knew how to make an umlaut on the e), Perseus' mother, was the daughter of the king of Argos (whose unimpressive ruins I just visited in Greece), was imprisoned by her father because it was foretold her son would dethrone him (how many times was that plot device used by the ancients? Yawn). Zeus, not one to miss a beautiful woman, visits her as a shower of gold, one of the best visual images from all mythology.

When Perseus is born, he and his mother are thrown into the sea in a chest (sound like Osiris. It is another constant mythological theme, although usually without the mother along). They are rescued, but a king who also would like to be with the beautiful Danae tricks him into volunteering to go on a mission to kill Medusa, one of the Gorgon sisters, who has snakes for hair and can turn a man to stone with her gaze. Yikes.

But, Perseus has help. He steals the one eye shared by three other witchy sisters named the Graea, and returns it only when they tell him where to find the Hesperides (yes, same ones from the Herakles' tale), from whom he gets a magic sack to hold Medusa’s head. The gods give him a magic sword, Hades’ helmet of invisibility, a magic mirror, and winged sandals so he can fly.

Finding the Gorgon’s cave, he safely views Medusa in Athena’s mirror and cuts off her head. From it spring Pegasus, the winged horse, and Chrysaor (either a hero or winged boar, depending on your source), whose parents were Medusa and Poseidon (at the time, she didn’t have snake’s hair and was supposedly smokin’). When the two sisters chase him he dons the helm of invisibility and flies away.

On the way home, he rescues the princess Andromeda, who is chained to a rock, scheduled to be eaten by a sea monster as a sacrifice to Poseidon. At their marriage, he reveals Medusa’s head in order to turn his enemy to stone, a rather dramatic moment I am giving short shrift to here. Both Andromeda and he are eventually made into constellations (I’m guessing you have heard of the Andromeda galaxy). There are various endings to the tale of Perseus, none of which interest me like the other tales, but he likely founds the city-state of Mycenae, whose impressive ruins I just visited in Greece as well.

And that’s the list, sports fans. I realize I left out the tales of Daedalus, Pandora, the Golden Fleece, Ragnarok (the Norse Armageddon), Coyote and any of the billion other stories. Pick your favorite one I left out and if I agree with you, I will acknowledge it as I did when I left Rocky and Bullwinkle out of my top ten cartoon animals. What a stupid thing that was to do, and perhaps I blew it here too.

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About Me

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I started this blog in September, 2006. Mostly, it is where I can talk about things that interest me, which I otherwise don't get to do all that much, about some remarkable people who should not be forgotten, philosophy and theories (like Don Foster's on who wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas and my own on whether Santa is mostly derived from a Norse god) and analysis of issues that concern me. Often it is about books. I try to quote accurately and to say when I am paraphrasing (more and more). Sometimes I blow the first name of even very famous people, often entertainers. I'm much better at history, but once in a while I see I have written something I later learned was not true. Sometimes I fix them, sometimes not. My worst mistake was writing that Beethoven went blind, when he actually went deaf. Feel free to point out an error. I either leave in the mistake, or, if I clean it up, the comment pointing it out. From time to time I do clean up grammar in old posts as, over time I have become more conventional in my grammar, and I very often write these when I am falling asleep and just make dumb mistakes. It be nice to have an editor, but . . . .