Category Archives: Classical Mythology

Greco-Roman mythological themes appear in these posts.

Devil of a Time

thedevilOne might be excused for thinking so much about the Devil these days. Displays of lies and evil intentions are on pretty obvious display at the highest levels. Indeed, the current political situation has me reassessing my skepticism about the Antichrist. One of the truly well thought out books on the subject is Jeffrey Burton Russell’s classic, The Devil: Perceptions of Evil from Antiquity to Primitive Christianity. The first in a series of books Russell wrote on the topic, The Devil opens with evil. Noting that the Devil defies easy definition, Russell begins rather disturbingly with literary descriptions of acts that can only be described as evil. This allows him to point out that real life events often surpass those that authors can get us to read, intimating that something is seriously wrong with the world.

Having noted that, the emergence of the Devil is not an easy one to trace. Evil has been recognized in many cultures and it has been explained in many ways. Some have personified it, but even that took a long and circuitous route to the dark lord we know today. Bits of Greek philosophy and Zoroastrian cosmology combine with an emerging monotheism among the Israelites and their kin until eventually we have an embodiment of evil appearing. Even so, the Bible has no clear image of who “the Devil” is. This took further developments beyond the New Testament and the image that eventually won out, so to speak, borrowed heavily from classical mythology. Eventually Old Scratch emerges in a recognizable form.

Belief in the Devil still runs high in American culture. I suspect it will run even more so in months to come. At the end of Russell’s well researched study, the Devil comes down to the blatant disregard for the suffering of others. One might think of the mocking of the disabled or the favoring of the wealthy over the poor. Evil may be known by many names but it is easily recognized by those not caught up in its worship. This became clear in the biblical quotations sprinkled throughout the book. “Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil,” for example. Or “when an ungodly man curses Satan, he curses his own soul.” Mirrors may serve multiple purposes. The vain look into them and see only beauty. Those who believe in the Devil can’t help but know who it is that stares back.

Where Arthur?

Arthur Rackham - "How at the Castle of Corbin a Maiden Bare in the Sangreal and Foretold the Achievements of Galahad," Wikimedia Commons

Arthur Rackham – “How at the Castle of Corbin a Maiden Bare in the Sangreal and Foretold the Achievements of Galahad,” Wikimedia Commons

We’re all grail hunters. It doesn’t matter what religion, if any, you claim. We want to find that grail. If I was as rich as Donald Trump I wouldn’t bother with the presidency. I’d spend all day on Atlas Obscura. A friend recently sent me one of their stories, “6 Stops on the Hunt for the Holy Grail” by Meg Neal. As the story points out, the grail may not be real, but many places claim it. We want it not because it’s real, but because it’s magical. Midas’ touch without the consequences. Blessings in this life and bliss hereafter. You can have it all.

Nobody knows where the legend of the holy grail begins. One thing’s for certain: it’s not the Bible. The Gospels merely state that at the “last supper” (not a biblical phrase) Jesus took the cup. That definite article implies a certain cup, not just any cup. While speculation has it that this meal was a Passover seder we can’t be sure even of that. If it were that wouldn’t tell us much about this cup in any case. Since the tale is especially prevalent in Celtic lore (many grail sites are in regions loaded with Gaelic influence) some have suggested that the story comes not from ancient Palestine, but from Hibernian traditions of the caldron. This would send seekers back to the mythology of Bran and his life-giving cauldron. In other words, it would share some roots with a modern kind of grail—that of Harry Potter fame. Bran, I once argued in an academic paper, has echoes of some ancient eastern tales. Scholars, of course, are not convinced.

The grail doesn’t come into prominence until the Arthurian legend. Arthur seems to have been an historical person, but facts about him are as rare as they are about Jesus. How he came to be associated with the grail is anybody’s guess. Both Arthur and the grail share a place in Celtic legend and it is perhaps here that the two were brought together. A more crass form of the cauldron is the pot of gold associated with leprechauns—those Gaelic sprites. The grail represents our wishes fulfilled. It’s seldom the spiritual journey that’s sometimes portrayed. The grail represents power. If Indiana Jones has taught us anything it’s that where there’s power, there’s also abuse of power. Then again, we don’t need fiction to know the truth of that.

O Brother

o_brother_where_art_thou_ver1When teaching mythology at Montclair State University, I had students watch O Brother, Where Art Thou? Based on Homer’s Odyssey, the movie follows a trio of convicts during a election campaign through depression-ridden Mississippi. The populist candidate, Homer Stokes, runs his campaign with a little person (but as a true Republican, he can call him a derogatory name and nobody blinks). Both Stokes and “the little man” are members of the Ku Klux Klan and even Mississippi of the 1930s won’t have that. How things have changed!

The movie comes to mind because of Friday’s march on Washington of women in favor of anti-abortion legislation. Look for the numbers to grow as the White House inaugurates comments about it. A few thousands gathered after last weekend’s 1.2 million—yes, a million more than expected—Women’s March on Washington. I respect these folks’ right to protest, of course. They might’ve done well to watch O Brother before heading out the door, however. The incumbent in Mississippi is Pappy O’Daniel. His clueless campaign managers have no ideas how to counter the populist Stokes. Junior O’Daniel suggests they could get an even shorter “midget.” Pappy, as if speaking to Friday’s marchers says, “Wouldn’t we look like a bunch of Johnny-come-latelies, bragging on our own midget, doesn’t matter how stumpy.” With apologies for the insensitive terms, size does matter. The First March had world participation of nearly 5 million. And that’s just those who were free that day.

I’ve been drawing quite a bit of wisdom from cinema lately. Maybe because it is often in harmony with vox populi. If it weren’t the industry wouldn’t be thriving. I think of O Brother and how the south in the 1930s makes us look regressive today. The good, Christian folks of Mississippi wouldn’t have a racist for their governor. When they saw what he really stood for, they voted for the lesser of two evils. Today we have a president that would’ve had a hard time being elected in that past. The tide has shifted to a more selfish and shortsighted instant gratification without benefit of education. “And our women, let’s not forget those ladies, y’all. Looking to us for protection! From darkies, from Jews, from papists, and from all those smart-ass folks say we come descended from monkeys!” Homer Stokes preaches in the light of a burning cross. Instead of booing him out of the town hall, we’ve asked him to lead the free world.

The First Weak

“Oh, what a tangled web we weave. When first we practise to deceive!” I always thought this couplet came from Shakespeare, but in fact it’s from Sir Walter Scott’s poem “Marmion.” The quote has been in my head all this first week of the new administration as alternative facts, lies, and statistics have flooded out of the White House. Along with gag orders slapped onto federal agencies. I’ve worked for people who rely on gag orders. This obvious lack of transparency signals loud and proud that they have facts to hide. Then they will feed the public alternative facts and later claim they never did. Mission accomplished. Sir Walter Scott may not have been William Shakespeare, but he sure got that web analogy right. At times like this we need our writers. Of course, Trump bragged in pre-inauguration interviews that he didn’t like to read.

Since last weekend sales of George Orwell’s 1984 have spiked. From the first words out of Sean Spicer’s mouth (or any words out of the mouth of Kellyanne Conway}, many of us knew the only thing Orwell got wrong was the date. Frankly I’m surprised the government hasn’t tried to ban 1984 yet. It was required reading when I was in high school and that date was still in the future. The press—what still exists of it anyway—passed along stories that Trump had ordered photos of the inauguration day crowds hung in the White House in his first week. Such pressing matters of state! The photos had the wrong date on them. Facts are cheap. This should be good for the economy. You can get them in any flavor you like—true facts, false facts, alternative facts, statistics. Arachne has returned to her loom.

Although “Marmion” wasn’t written by Shakespeare, I can still say it was because I need a segue to Harold Hecuba. Hecuba was a Hollywood producer who accidentally landed on Gilligan’s Island. After he insulted Ginger the castaways put on a performance of Hamlet to showcase her acting skills. Hecuba, the unelected president of the island, awoke during rehearsal and, like other narcissists we know, took over. He says that Shakespeare was a hack and that if he were alive he’d have him working on a complete rewrite. Of course, he doesn’t know what Hamlet’s about. Or “Marmion.” Actors only mouth the words. They make us believe what is not true. We’re in for a period when we’re going to rely on the authors for the true story. I suggest we all start with 1984.

William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare

We Are an Island

moana_teaser_posterApropos of both building your own deity and Disney, my family went to see Moana. Now, I have to admit up front to being a bit behind on my Polynesian mythology. Scholars of the history of religions feel terribly insecure if they don’t read the languages or haven’t spent time with the culture first-hand. I’ve seen the Pacific Ocean a few times, but never from the point-of-view of an islander. In fact, one of the areas of growing interest in biblical studies is the interpretation of Holy Writ by islanders. Their perspective, it seems clear, is different from others in more populated land masses. So Moana, which delves into Pacific islander mythology, was a brand new world for me. More than hearing about the demigod Maui, it was a chance to consider what destruction of our ecosystem looks like to those who have more limited resources at hand. Those who, when global warming really kicks in, will be the first to become homeless.

One of the strange things about living in the post-truth world (defined as the world after 11/9) is that many movies, novels, and other creative explorations I encounter seem to underscore the demon we’ve invited in. Moana is about a girl who saves her people, but she only does so by defying the man in power. Had she not journeyed beyond the reef, her people would’ve starved on their island. Meanwhile the big white man prepares to assault the White House and all that our founders held dear: an educated leadership. Progress. Fair treatment for all. Someone needs to remind these short-sighted individuals that every landmass is an island.

As we approach the end of 2016 it’s time to think of where we’ve been. At the theater, an ad by Google showed the newsworthy events of the year. There could not have been a better rendering of the high hopes with which we began and the sorrow with which we’ve come to an end. Our scorn of education has caught up with us and we’ve asked “the man” to please destroy our world and enslave our women and deport anyone who’s different. We need a lesson in how to build better deities. We need to be willing to admit that a girl might know more than her father. We need to learn the wisdom of the islanders.

The Wicked Man

I confess, it was a moment of weakness. Or I could say that it was dedication to research. In either case, I subjected myself to watching the remake of the 1973 classic, The Wicker Man. The reviews that I’ve read over the past decade since its release had warned me not to subject myself to it. Not only did I, but I had my wife gamely watch it with me. If you plan to watch the flick but haven’t, I’ll first of all beg you to save your time and secondly warn you of spoiler alerts. So here goes.

By Source, Fair use, Link

By Source, Fair use, Link

In a movie that may be either pro-feminist or misogynistic, depending on which way you look at it, this version of The Wicker Man takes place in the United States. We’ve got all kinds of New Religious Movements in this country, so that much is believable. The film has a group of women who mute, deafen, and enslave their males moving from Salem, Massachusetts, across the country to Puget Sound where they can find an island to be left alone with their rituals. Superfluously adding an “s” to the original’s Summerisle, they come up with the sloppy-sounding Summersisle where they can raise bees. They worship the great mother-goddess, which is cool enough, but their religion appears to be cobbled together in a way that suggests those responsible for the movie didn’t do their homework. Although Sister Summersisle (five “s”es—count ‘em!) claims this to be a Celtic religion there are merely the weakest echoes of such.

To make matters worse, Edward Malus goes around beating up women when they get in his way. Yes, he is the unwitting victim—we’ve seen the original and know how this plays out—but it makes the viewer uncomfortable watching this unsympathetic protagonist punching, kicking, and even bicycle-jacking with a gun, the women of the island. A man comes ashore and the first thing he does is try to take over. Were there evidence of a deeper plot here it might suggest that this was intentionally written into it. As it turns out, however, as we enter a fearful era of the rich white man’s revenge, such scenes only suggest that Mr. Malus had it coming. Perhaps the movie is prophetic after all.

I really don’t recommend spending your time on the remake of what has become a horror classic. If you’ve seen the excellent original, you already know how it ends. And despite his brusque manner Neil Howie didn’t shout invectives at women or punch them in the face. In short, he took his fate in what might be a way that is also prophetic.

Foundation Myths

Foundation myths are some of my favorite myths. If you’ve got to believe in something, it may as well be something fun, right? Usually before I travel to a place I do some research on it. For some reason November of this year has proven to be under a kind of shadow and I wasn’t thinking clearly in the run-up to this year’s AAR/SBL meeting in San Antonio. I’d traveled here once before, and when I raise that occasion with anyone the automatic response, like so many automatic sprinklers, is “that was the year it rained.” This may be the year of the flood, but at least the skies have been dry. I decided to make up for my lack of knowledge by taking in the markers along the River Walk. There’s quite a lot about saints and the founding of this city. I learned that it was named for Saint Anthony of Padua. The site of the first mass, in 1691 (just a year before hell broke loose in Salem) is marked with a granite slab along the green river with its endless supply of ducks.

We’re fond of naming cities after saints. San Francisco, Saint Louis, Saint Paul, San Diego, Saint Petersburg. Perhaps we’ll soon be adding Leningrad to that list. I suppose we like to compare our communities to our better angels. We’re all trying to be good, after all, aren’t we? With all these saints looking over us these ought to be very kind cities indeed. We have yet to name a major city after Jesus, but that doesn’t stop the saintly communities from trying to cash in on the big name.

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Conversion has become a somewhat problematic concept. In current doublespeak we would all be better off if we were the same. If what I’m hearing is correct that means Caucasian, male, pseudo-Protestant, and rich. Well, we don’t want too many to be rich—it’s hard to feel special if too many join the country club. Our saints are those that know how to shuffle the money and make it all look above board. Meanwhile we can sell our Jesus tee-shirts and have those admittedly Catholic saints stand guard over our walls and bless our rifles and condos. It’s pleasant to live in the new promised land. Too bad the good Lord made some kind of error the first time around, but to forgive is divine, after all. I think we can afford to be magnanimous when we’ve got the saints on our side. Myths are so much fun to believe.