Guide to the classics: the Epic of Gilgamesh

Guide to the classics: the Epic of Gilgamesh

Image 20170322 27966 yag6gc
Gilgamesh explores what it means to be human, and questions the meaning of life and love. Wikimedia Commons

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article

Louise Pryke, Macquarie University

“Forget death and seek life!” With these encouraging words, Gilgamesh, the star of the eponymous 4000-year-old epic poem, coins the world’s first heroic catchphrase. The Conversation

At the same time, the young king encapsulates the considerations of mortality and humanity that lie at the heart of the world’s most ancient epic. While much has changed since, the epic’s themes are still remarkably relevant to modern readers.

Depending upon your point of view, Gilgamesh may be considered a myth-making biography of a legendary king, a love story, a comedy, a tragedy, a cracking adventure, or perhaps an anthology of origin stories.

All these elements are present in the narrative, and the diversity of the text is only matched by its literary sophistication. Perhaps surprisingly, given the extreme antiquity of the material, the epic is a masterful blending of complex existential queries, rich imagery and dynamic characters.

The narrative begins with Gilgamesh ruling over the city of Uruk as a tyrant. To keep him occupied, the Mesopotamian deities create a companion for him, the hairy wild man Enkidu.

Gilgamesh in his lion-strangling mode.
TangLung, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY

Gilgamesh sets about civilising Enkidu, a feat achieved through the novel means of a week of sex with the wise priestess, Shamhat (whose very name in Akkadian suggests both beauty and voluptuousness).

Gilgamesh and Enkidu become inseparable, and embark on a quest for lasting fame and glory. The heroes’ actions upset the gods, leading to Enkidu’s early death.

The death of Enkidu is a pivotal point in the narrative. The love between Gilgamesh and Enkidu transforms the royal protagonist, and Enkidu’s death leaves Gilgamesh bereft and terrified of his own mortality.

The hero dresses himself in the skin of a lion, and travels to find a long-lived great flood survivor, Utanapishtim (often compared with the biblical Noah). After a perilous journey over the waters of death, Gilgamesh finally meets Utanapishtim and asks for the secret to immortality.

In one of the earliest literary anti-climaxes, Utanapishtim tells him that he doesn’t have it. The story ends with Gilgamesh returning home to the city of Uruk.

Mesopotamian mindfulness

Gilgamesh and his adventures can only be described in superlative terms: during his legendary journeys, the hero battles deities and monsters, finds (and loses) the secret to eternal youth, travels to the very edge of the world — and beyond.

Despite the fantastical elements of the narrative and its protagonist, Gilgamesh remains a very human character, one who experiences the same heartbreaks, limitations and simple pleasures that shape the universal quality of the human condition.

Gilgamesh explores the nature and meaning of being human, and asks the questions that continue to be debated in the modern day: what is the meaning of life and love? What is life really — and am I doing it right? How do we cope with life’s brevity and uncertainty, and how do we deal with loss?

The text provides multiple answers, allowing the reader to wrestle with these ideas alongside the hero. Some of the clearest advice is provided by the beer deity, Siduri (yes, a goddess of beer), who suggests Gilgamesh set his mind less resolvedly on extending his life.

Instead, she urges him to enjoy life’s simple pleasures, such as the company of loved ones, good food and clean clothes — perhaps giving an example of a kind of Mesopotamian mindfulness.

The king-hero Gilgamesh battling the ‘Bull of Heaven’.
Wikimedia Commons, CC BY

The epic also provides the reader with a useful case study in what not to do if one is in the exceptional circumstance of reigning over the ancient city of Uruk. In ancient Mesopotamia, the correct behaviour of the king was necessary for maintaining earthly and heavenly order.

Despite the gravity of this royal duty, Gilgamesh seems to do everything wrong. He kills the divinely-protected environmental guardian, Humbaba, and ransacks his precious Cedar Forest. He insults the beauteous goddess of love, Ishtar, and slays the mighty Bull of Heaven.

He finds the key to eternal youth, but then loses it just as quickly to a passing snake (in the process explaining the snake’s “renewal” after shedding its skin). Through these misadventures, Gilgamesh strives for fame and immortality, but instead finds love with his companion, Enkidu, and a deeper understanding of the limits of humanity and the importance of community.

Reception and recovery

The Epic of Gilgamesh was wildly famous in antiquity, with its impact traceable to the later literary worlds of the Homeric epics and the Hebrew Bible. Yet, in the modern day, even the most erudite readers of ancient literature might struggle to outline its plot, or name its protagonists.

A statue of Gilgamesh at the University of Sydney.
Gwil5083, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY

To what might we owe this modern-day cultural amnesia surrounding one of the world’s greatest works of ancient literature?

The answer lies in the history of the narrative’s reception. While many of the great literary works of ancient Greece and Rome were studied continuously throughout the development of Western culture, the Epic of Gilgamesh comes from a forgotten age.

The story originates in Mesopotamia, an area of the Ancient Near East thought to roughly correspond with modern-day Iraq, Kuwait and parts of Syria, Iran and Turkey, and frequently noted as “the cradle of civilisation” for its early agriculture and cities.

Gilgamesh was written in cuneiform script, the world’s oldest known form of writing. The earliest strands of Gilgamesh’s narrative can be found in five Sumerian poems, and other versions include those written in Elamite, Hittite and Hurrian. The best-known version is the Standard Babylonian Version, written in Akkadian (a language written in cuneiform that functioned as the language of diplomacy in the second millennium BCE).

The disappearance of the cuneiform writing system around the time of the 1st century CE accelerated Gilgamesh’s sharp slide into anonymity.

For almost two millennia, clay tablets containing stories of Gilgamesh and his companions lay lost and buried, alongside many tens of thousands of other cuneiform texts, beneath the remnants of the great Library of Ashurbanipal.

Tablet V of the Epic of Gilgamesh.
Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin, Wikimedia Commons

The modern rediscovery of the epic was a watershed moment in the understanding of the Ancient Near East. The eleventh tablet of the Epic was first translated by self-taught cuneiform scholar George Smith of the British Museum in 1872. Smith discovered the presence of an ancient Babylonian flood narrative in the text with striking parallels to the biblical flood story of the Book of Genesis.

The story is often repeated (although it may be apocryphal) that when Smith began to decipher the tablet, he became so excited that he began to remove all his clothing. From these beginnings in the mid-19th century, the process of recovering the cuneiform literary catalogue continues today.

In 2015, the publication of a new fragment of Tablet V by Andrew George and Farouk Al-Rawi made international news. The fragment’s discovery coincided with increased global sensitivity to the destruction of antiquities in the Middle East in the same year. The Washington Post juxtaposed the “heart-warming story” of the find against the destruction and looting in Syria and Iraq.

Ancient ecology

The new section of Tablet V contains ecological aspects that resonate with modern day concerns over environmental destruction. Of course, there are potential anachronisms in projecting environmental concerns on an ancient text composed thousands of years prior to the industrial revolution.

Yet, the undeniable sensitivity in the epic’s presentation of the wilderness is illuminating, considering the long history of humanity’s interaction with our environment and its animal inhabitants.

A cedar forest in Turkey.
Zeynel Cebeci, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY

In Gilgamesh, the wilderness is a place of beauty and purity, as well as home to a wild abundance. The splendour and grandeur of the Cedar Forest is described poetically in Tablet V:

They (Gilgamesh and Enkidu) stood marvelling at the forest,

Observing the height of the cedars …

They were gazing at the Cedar Mountain, the dwelling of the gods, the throne-dais of the goddesses …

Sweet was its shade, full of delight.

While the heroes pause to admire the forest’s beauty, their interest is not purely aesthetic. Gilgamesh and Enkidu are aware of the economic value of the cedars, and the text provides a clear picture of competing commercial and ecological interests.

Where to read Gilgamesh

Since Gilgamesh’s reappearance into popular awareness in the last hundred years, the Standard Babylonian Version of the epic has become accessible in numerous translations. This version was originally compiled by the priest, scribe and exorcist, Sin-leqi-uninni, around 1100 BCE.

The scholarly standard among modern translations is Andrew George’s The Babylonian Gilgamesh Epic: Introduction, Critical Edition and Cuneiform Texts (2003).

Despite its all-around excellence, the two-volume work is decidedly unwieldly, and the less muscle-bound reader would be well directed to The Epic of Gilgamesh: A New Translation (1999), by the same author. Most readable among modern treatments is David Ferry’s Gilgamesh: A New Rendering in English Verse (1992), which gives a potent, poetic interpretation of the material.

Like the snake that steals Gilgamesh’s rejuvenation plant, the Epic of Gilgamesh has aged well. Its themes – exploring the tension between the natural and civilised worlds, the potency of true love, and the question of what makes a good life – are as relevant today as they were 4,000 years ago.

Note: Translations are sourced from Andrew R. George 2003. The Babylonian Gilgamesh Epic: Introduction, Critical Edition and Cuneiform Texts, Volume 1. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Louise Pryke, Lecturer, Languages and Literature of Ancient Israel, Macquarie University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Guide to the classics: Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

Original article from the Conversation by Joy McEntree, a look at Hunter S Thompson and his Gonzo work. He’s a favourite writer of mine and I can’t help but wonder what he would be writing about at the moment with the current political climate… 

American journalist Hunter S Thompson is a mythical figure, partly by his own design, and partly, perversely, against his wishes. Norman Mailer called him “a legend in successful self-abuse.” Biographer E. Jean Carroll reported Thompson’s daily working regime, which allegedly started at 3pm.

While writing he consumed: Chivas Regal, Dunhills, cocaine, orange juice, marijuana, Heineken, huge helpings of food, LSD, Chartreuse, clove cigarettes, gin and pornographic movies. He then spent some time in the hot tub with champagne and Dove Bars.

Compare this with the drug collection of Raoul Duke, the first person narrator of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1971):

We had two bags of grass, seventy-five pellets of mescaline, five sheets of high-powered blotter acid, a salt shaker half full of cocaine, and a whole galaxy of multi-colored uppers, downers, screamers, laughers … and also a quart of tequila, a quart of rum, a case of Budweiser, a pint of raw either and two dozen amyls … The only thing that really worried me was the ether.

The parallels between the Duke persona and Thompson’s own life have led to a conflation of the two. This arises in part from the approach which Thompson made famous: Gonzo journalism.

Hunter S Thompson in 1997. REUTERS/Christian Thompson

Gonzo journalism

Far from being an objective observer of the action, the Gonzo journalist becomes a participant in it and reports on it subjectively. Thompson went further: he was often a provocateur. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was a fictionalised account of two trips Thompson made with his friend Oscar Zeta Acosta from LA to Las Vegas.

It was published by Rolling Stone magazine in 1971 under the byline of Raoul Duke, but Thompson’s name does appear. Presented with a photo of himself, Duke identifies it as Thompson: a “vicious, crazy kind of person”.

Rather than effacing himself as a chronicler of the scene, Thompson injects himself, via his Duke persona, as a character. Acquaintance Peter Flanders observed:

Hunter was a theatre. He was a roving kind of theatre. He was not just a writer … he was an actor. He was creating his own subject matter.

The aim of Gonzo journalism and other kinds of New Journalism was to write factual reporting that read like fiction. In Thompson’s case, the truth was outrageous, and then it was outrageously embellished by means of fantasy and hallucination.

What is the book about?

“It was time,” says Duke, “for an Agonizing Reappraisal of the whole scene.” The novel confronts “the brutish realities of this foul Year of Our Lord, 1971,” when the “whole scene” consisted of the state of America as a nation, the squandered promise of the 1960s counter-culture, and the inadequacies of traditional journalism to cope with the chaos that confronted it.

Cover of the 1998 edition of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Vintage Books

As a reading experience, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is a wild torpedo ride through some of the strangest scenes in American fact, or American fiction. Or whatever bizarre hybrid of fact and fiction this book represents.

In terms of its plot, the book falls into two halves. In the first, Duke, a journalist, and Doctor Gonzo, his attorney, travel at high speed in a red convertible from LA to Las Vegas so Duke can cover the Mint 400 motorcycle race. He fails conspicuously to do so, and they wander in a drug-addled state among the various sensory intensities of Vegas. They behave despicably, “burning the locals, abusing the tourists and terrifying the help.”

They thoroughly trash the hotel room and run up a stupendous room service tab. They destroy the car. They flee before there is a reckoning. Duke, however, encounters a highway patrol officer who interferes with his plans, so he turns back to cover the National District Attorney’s Conference on Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs. He feels it is his obligation to represent the drug culture.

The conference only serves to demonstrate how out of touch law enforcement is. The second half of the book follows much the same trajectory as the first, with the pair compounding their felonies of (statutory) rape, fraud and larceny.

Duke and Doctor Gonzo must be admired for their sheer bravado, if condemned for the political unsoundness of their behaviour. The novel alternates hilarious scenes of madcap knavery with elegiac essays on the lost promise of the 1960s, but it does not become bogged down. This is because of its gleeful, manic energy.

Tom Robbins says:

It lifts you out of your seat when you’re reading it. It’s out of control … in an exhilarating, hallucinatory way.

Anthony Bourdain has said:

Thomson’s wild, hyperbolic prose … showed me not only a whole new way to see and think about things … a whole new way to live. I embraced the doctor wholeheartedly, developing a lifelong love for melodrama, overstatement, lurid imagery and damaged romanticism.

Christopher Lehman-Haupt described the novel’s “mad, corrosive poetry.”

The setting of Las Vegas is exploited for the surreal images it offers, and because the protagonists’ enormities are accepted. As Raoul Duke says: “the mentality of Las Vegas is so grossly atavistic that a really massive crime often slips by unrecognized.”

Raoul Duke chases the American Dream in a red convertible. Chad Horwedel/Flickr

This might not be as disturbing as it is if the trip to Vegas were not also a quest for the American Dream.

The American Dream

Duke and Doctor Gonzo’s trip is “a gross, physical salute to the fantastic possibilities of life in this country.” Their ostensible mission is covering the Mint 400, but their actual goal is ill defined:

What was the story? Nobody had bothered to say. So we would have to drum it up on our own. Free Enterprise. The American Dream. Horatio Alger gone mad on drugs in Las Vegas. Do it now: pure Gonzo journalism.

Alger was a 19th-century author who typically wrote rags to riches stories; in Vegas, his relevance is about greed as a distinctively American quality. In fact, Duke eventually finds the “main nerve” of the American Dream in the Circus-Circus casino. The owner, who dreamt of running away to join the circus as a child, now has his own circus, and a licence to steal. He, it is said, is the model for the American Dream. If this seems cynical, so it should.

Other references to the contemporary condition of America include discussions of Nixon’s perfidy about the Vietnam War. Of Thompson, the anti-war Democrat Senator George McGovern once said:

Hunter was a patriot… [but] he was not a jingoist. He hated that war in Vietnam with a passion. He hated the hypocrisy of the establishment. Basically, I think he wanted to see this country live up to his ideals. And he wanted us to do better.

The Kent State University protests against the Vietnam War, in which four students were killed when the National Guard opened fire, occurred a year before Thompson published Fear and Loathing. May 4 Collection/Kent State University Libraries/Special Collections and Archives/Handout via REUTERS

The 1960s

One of the things Thompson wanted America to do better was fulfil the promise of the 1960s. Some of the novel’s most trenchant criticisms are levelled at counter-cultural gurus like Timothy Leary who, it seems to Duke, set up new regimes of authoritarianism to replace the old. One of the novel’s most famous passages reveals its bitter nostalgia:

San Francisco in the middle sixties was a very special time and place to be a part of. Maybe it meant something. … It seems entirely reasonable to think that every now and then the energy of a whole generation comes to a head in a long fine flash, for reasons that nobody really understands at the time … There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning. … that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. …. Our energy would simply prevail. … We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave. … So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark — that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.

Journalism

Finally, the novel addresses a contemporary crisis in journalism. Duke starts out full of his professional obligation to “cover the story,” but quickly abandons all pretence. Throughout the narrative, there are traumatic encounters with traditional news coverage, from mendacious TV broadcasts about the war in Laos and Vietnam to newspaper reports on police killing anti-war protesters, to grotesque stories about the consequences of drug taking. “Against this heinous background,” says Duke, “my crimes were pale and meaningless.”

This culminates in a cynical statement at the end:

Why bother with newspapers, if this is all they offer? …The press is a gang of cruel faggots. Journalism is not a profession or a trade. It is a cheap catch-all for fuckoffs and misfits.

Thompson might proudly have self-identified as a misfit, but he was also a journalist, so this seems a strangely self-castigating statement, until you consider what it was that he did for journalism, which was to redefine it. This is his contribution to the American canon.

Contemporary resonance

Pondering all this in the age of Donald Trump, another of Thompson’s books comes to mind: Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ‘72, in which he covered the campaign of the Democratic Party’s nominee McGovern (the Presidential race was eventually won by Richard Nixon). Profoundly critical of the relationship between political processes and the media, this collection of articles again attacks both America and journalism at the same time.

Perhaps it is now, more than ever, that we need Gonzo journalism to help us understand the bizarre nature of US national politics today.

Beware The Slenderman: how users created the Boogieman of the internet

Original article on The Conversation by Adam Daniel – Ph.d Candidate, Western Sydney University

For as long as humans have been interacting with new media technologies, they have also created monsters to haunt them. When photography became mainstream in the late 19th century, for example, it wasn’t long before entertainers and spiritualists were using the technology to “capture spirits” through the process of double exposure.

Similarly, the radio, the telegraph, the cinema and video have all become, at various points, “haunted” as their presence in modern life became more ubiquitous.

It is therefore unsurprising that the internet gave birth to its own boogieman: a supernatural creature called the Slenderman. The preternaturally tall and faceless man in a black suit is the subject of the HBO documentary Beware The Slenderman, released today.

The documentary will examine the mythology of the Slenderman and the horrific 2014 “Slenderman stabbing”, involving two US 12 year-olds who attempted to murder their friend in order to prove their loyalty to him.

Victor Surge’s original Slenderman image #1. Victor Surge/Deviant Art

The Slenderman came to life in June of 2009 in a post on the website Something Awful called Create Paranormal Images.

Credited to Victor Surge, an alias for artist Eric Knudsen, the Slenderman began simply as two photoshopped pictures. In each they revealed an unusually tall, faceless man with tentacles growing from his back, watching over a group of children.

These two simple photos instigated a communal act of creating the Slenderman’s mythology, an early example of what has come to be known as creepypasta: short form horror stories, often in the form of fake eyewitness accounts, that were easily shared via the internet.

These creepypastas became “digital campfires”, a virtual location that in some manner replicates the old act of telling scary stories around a campfire.

Victor Surge’s original Slenderman image #2. Victor Surge/Deviant Art

It could be argued that in a sense the Slenderman is a tulpa: a Buddhist term used to describe a being brought into creation through collective thought. Victor Surge described Slenderman’s proliferation as an “accelerated urban legend”. It differs from earlier urban legends in that, despite the audience’s awareness of its origins, it still managed to spread.

Key to the dispersal of the Slenderman legend is the manner in which he transcended the medium that created him. He quickly moved from photoshopped pictures, to web stories, and then into the various other forms of media, from the webseries Marble Hornets and TribeTwelve, to video games such as Slender: The Arrival and even into the cinema (in a poorly received low budget horror film).

Slender: The Arrival video game. from http://www.theslenderman.wikia.com

In an age of scepticism and increasing access to information, how do we account for this growth of a mythological monster? Horror scholar Isabel Pinedo poses one possible explanation, in that horror narratives can be an “exercise in recreational terror… not unlike a roller coaster ride.” In the case of the Slenderman, the communal participation in his creation is a way to bring about the pleasurable aspects of scaring ourselves, with the safety of knowing he is just a fictional construct.

However, even the participants of the original forum identified the risks in doing so. A user named Soakie was one of the first to identify the Slenderman as a potential tulpa, writing:

Even if we don’t really believe in supernatural, even if our rational minds laugh at such an absurdity … we are cutting [the Slender Man] out and sewing him together. We’re stuffing him with nightmares and unspoken fears. And what happens when the pictures are no longer photoshops?

One terrifying answer to this question emerged in May of 2014 in Waukesha, Wisconsin, when two 12 year-old girls allegedly enticed a third 12 year-old girl to follow them into the woods (a location which figures prominently in the Slenderman mythology). After doing so, they allegedly stabbed her 19 times in an attempt to prove their worth as Slenderman proxies.

The victim survived, having crawled to a nearby roadside where she was discovered by a passing cyclist. She has since recovered. It is this act, and the origins of the delusions of the two perpetrators, that is the subject of the HBO documentary.

Screenshot from Marble Hornets. DeLage/Wagner

What is clear from this event, and the Slenderman’s still evolving presence as an internet boogieman, is that unlike the urban legends of the pre-internet world, these new monsters may become untethered to their fictional origins. Despite a general awareness of his artificial creation, the Slenderman has, like Frankenstein’s monster, been stitched together by communal storytelling and escaped the bounds of his creator’s intentions to simply scare the members of the original forum.

Part of the Slenderman mythology is the Slender Sickness, a fictional illness that affects those who have been in the presence of the monster. Its symptoms include coughing fits, memory loss and, ironically, irrational acts of violence.

While it is highly likely that mental illness contributed to the actions of the perpetrators of the Slenderman stabbing, it’s also worth examining the effects of the new monsters of the internet and how effortlessly they can escape the bounds of “recreational terror”.

Rare coin from King Antiochus’s rule discovered in Jerusalem

I’m currently studying The Dead Sea Scrolls as a part of my university degree and one of the areas of the Second Temple Period we cover is to do with King Antiochus and the Maccabean revolt. It was such a buzz that this was found this week as I read all about it! – Amy

 

An image of the coin

An image of the coin. (photo credit:TOWER OF DAVID MUSEUM)

Original Article found here on Jerusalem Post

Antiochus sparked the Maccabean revolt that led to the victory of the Maccabees and reclaiming of the Temple.

Nearly 30 years after the completion of excavations in the courtyard of Jerusalem’s Tower of David, outside the Old City’s walls, archeologists thought no stone was left unturned. However, during routine conservation work in the museum’s archeological garden, Orna Cohen, veteran archeologist and chief conservation officer at the Tower of David, spotted a metallic item among stones near a wall.

Upon closer inspection, Cohen determined the object was a bronze-leaf cent, once used in Jerusalem during the days of King Antiochus IV Epiphanes, a decidedly unwelcome guest in the history of the city.

Antiochus was a reviled king who made draconian decrees, sparking the Maccabean revolt that led to the victory of the Maccabees and the reclamation of the Temple.

The coin was found near the Hasmonean walls that cut through the center of the citadel’s courtyard, next to the tower base built during the day of Yonaton and Shimon, brothers of Judah the Maccabee.

During the original excavation of the Tower of David, ballista stones and iron arrowheads were found, evidence of the battles that took place in Jerusalem in the days when the city struggled for independence against the rulers of the Seleucids.

A portrait of Antiochus is engraved on one side of the coin, which was worth roughly 10 agorot back then. On the other side, a goddess is shown wrapped in a scarf.

While researchers are having difficulty dating the relic with precision, it is known that such coins were minted in Acre, a city on the northern shore of Israel that was once called Antiochia Ptolemais, after Ptolemy, and as such the coin is dated sometime between 172 and 168 BCE.

Eilat Lieber, director of the Tower of David, said the timing of the finding is auspicious.

“It is thrilling to hold in your hand a piece of history that brings the stories of Hanukka right up to present day,” he said.

 

The underrated wonder that is Mahabalipuram — My Favourite Things

I first heard about Mahabalipuram in my Class 8 or 9 Hindi textbook. While I don’t remember who the author of that piece was, but I do remember that it was about the ruminations of a sculptor who wondered about the glorious temple ruins by the sea-shore and how they came to be. Though the […]

via The underrated wonder that is Mahabalipuram — My Favourite Things

Theories on the Enduring Power of Myth

Myth is defined as being a traditional or sacred story, the latter essentially distinguishes “myth from other forms of narrative such as folktales, which are ordinarily secular and fictional,”[1] however whether or not these stories are universal or only culturally significant for their intended audience is debatable. Psychoanalytical studies of myth theorise that myths express unconscious desires or anxieties, or in Carl Jung’s case they are the result of a collective and inherited consciousness, whilst the Naturalists like Max Müller claim they are pre-scientific theories to explain natural phenomenon. Mythologists such as Geoffrey Kirk argue that  “all universal theories of myth are automatically wrong”[2] as the complexity of each myth differs and are made up of cultural symbols, traditions and charters of that people. Despite similar themes and archetypal characters, it is man’s desire to use story to answer larger truths that is the core of the universality of myth. It is through their retelling that keep these stories, myths and morals alive and relevant in today’s global society.

1922 --- Carl Gustav Jung (1875-1961) Swiss psychologist and psychiatrist. Head and shoulders photo, 1922. --- Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

Carl Jung created his theory regarding myth through a method of proof focusing on archetypes or primordial images, found in the collective unconscious of humanity and accessed by dreams. His perspective was that “myths are essentially culturally elaborated representations of the contents of the human psyche”[3] which is why there are common characters and themes such as the Saviour Child and Devine Mother found throughout the world. Jung’s archetypes can be applied to a whole manner of story not just myth, his Hidden Saviour Child figure can be likened to Moses, Horus, Jesus as well as Sleeping Beauty, Harry Potter and Kal-El.

'Moses'_by_Michelangelo_JBU140            horus_nefertari_afterlife

Max_Muller Max Müller focussed his studies on attempting to “trace scientifically the development of human thought in terms of the artefacts of language, mythology and religion”[4] and theorised that people were inspired to write allegorical stories to explain natural phenomenon and create anthropomorphic personifications of these in the form of Gods. Müller’s studies could be used to explain why the Greeks had Zeus to create lightning just as the Norse had Thor. Universal theories on myth, while presenting an interesting study and view point, “can be negated by citing many obvious instances of myth that do not accord with the assigned origin or function.”[5]

Despite the similarities that can be drawn from various myths they are filled with symbology, social and religious charters and other codes of conduct which makes them all genuinely unique. Geoffrey Kirk’s research and deconstruction of myth reinforces the concept that myth cannot be defined in any universal way, citing that “the wide range of morphorical and functional variation…from practical charter type uses to responses to abstract dilemmas of human existence…suggests that the mental and psychic process of myth-formation are themselves diverse.”[6]

42-fightpatroklos“That myths are sacred means that all forms of religion incorporate myths of some kind”[7] and it is the interference of the Devine that separates mythology from other traditional stories. Each mythology incorporates God or Gods in some form or fashion, which is why despite The Iliad having every indicator of being a legend, it is through the squabbling Greek Pantheon that it is classed essentially as a myth. With Gods comes religion and these stories often provide insight and explanations to religious ceremony or charter through origin stories.Foster_Bible_Pictures_0062-1_The_Angel_of_Death_and_the_First_Passover For example, the final plague of the Angel of Death in Exodus is the root of the Jewish Tradition of Passover still celebrated today, and why only bones and fat were sacrificed to the Gods in ancient Greece that is explained in the story of Prometheus who tricked Zeus out of the best cuts. In both examples these myth stories explain the reason behind certain practices but without specific cultural knowledge a person not sharing that cultural background might never understand why such rituals are performed, thus reinforcing Kirk’s position on why universal theories of myth should be rejected. “Mythology constitutes stories, symbols and rituals that…together they construct the truths of a culture”[8] and therefore can’t be studied with the broad universal ideologies some scholars like to apply to them.

Elias_Lönnrot_portrait-2Myth is so culturally significant that it can be used as a vehicle to strengthen a people’s social customs and national identity in postmodern times. The Kalevala , a collection of epic mythology oral stories collected by Elias Lönnrot and published in 1835, became “a rally-flag for national aspirations, and its regarded as the ‘national epic’ by modern Finland.”[9] The Kalevala played an intrinsic part of the Finnish people regaining their cultural identity in the early 20th Century which contributed and finally led to their independence from Russian rule. These mythological tales spanning from Creation myths to the Christianisation of Finland inspired a Renaissance of music, literature and art helping to cement Finland’s social and cultural heart.display_image.php A strong example of a social charter found in this mythic poem is in Canto 22 Laments, where the Witch of the North, Louhi the Hag of Pohjola, is instructing her daughter on how to be a good wife to the Smith Ilmärinen, thus imparting the traditional women’s wisdom onto the young maidens who would have heard it recited.

Ancient Greek philosophers defined myth as mythos and from it came “oracles and the arts…while logos came science and mathematics. From mythos came intuitive narrations, from logos reasonable deliberations”[10] and it is through mythos that the larger and more ambiguous questions of life, such as why does man exist and where does inspiration come from, were studied and answered.

It is therefore a mistake to study myth with the eyes of an logos academic, as if myth were only an ancient construct of pre-scientific peoples, as “myths are compost”[11] from which new stories, interpretations, art and revelation can grow from. Myth composition is an evolutionary process that grew from oral storytelling and the defined artistic preferences of the performer. This inevitably resulted in inconsistent interpretations when writing down these mythic stories and collecting them in latter time, as seen with the conflicting Jahwistic and Priestly interpretations of story cycles like the Flood Myth in the Book of Genesis.

“Scholars agree that myth has meaning, yet there is no consensus on what that meaning might be,”[12] but one thing that is certain is that myth has the ability to appeal to readers from varying cultures and religious beliefs from all over the world.

4666eaf0b49411fa40b9f3aa7dfc162f“These stories have power”[13] because “myth is truth which is subjective, intuitive, cultural and grounded in faith.”[14] They have universal appeal and longevity because they are symbiotic in nature and it is through retelling of these stories that core truths are passed on through each generation; Cupid and Psyche begat Beauty and the Beast which begat Twilight respectively.

Despite the variations of culturally specific symbols or the possibility of these stories being a representation of a collective unconsciousness, myth represents “ways of making sense of universal matters…and exert more of an inspiration and influence than we think.” [15] “Stories are ways that we communicate important things”[16] as a human culture and society and it is through the universal vehicle of myth that man has always sought to answer the larger, often metaphysical, questions in life.

 

Footnotes

[1] Dundes, A., 1984. Sacred narrative, readings in the theory of myth. Univ of California Press.pg 1

[2] Kirk, Geoffrey S. 1977 Methodological Reflections on the Myth of Herakles. In Il Mito greco: atti del convegno internazionale (Urbino 7-12 maggio 1973), edited by B. Gentili and G. Paioni, 285-297.

[3] Walker, S., 2014. Jung and the Jungians on Myth. Routledge. pg 6

[4]  Stone, J. ed., 2003. The essential Max Müller: On language, mythology, and religion. Springer.pg2

[5] Kirk, G. and Dundes, A. (1984). On Defining Myths. In: G. Kirk, ed., Sacred Narrative: Readings in the Theory of Myth, 1st ed. University of California Press, p.54

[6] Kirk, G. and Dundes, A. (1984). Sacred Narrative: Readings in the Theory of Myth, p.55.

[7] Dundes, A., 1984. Sacred narrative, readings in the theory of myth pg1

[8] Pattanaik, D. (2006). Myth = Mithya. New Delhi: Penguin.pg16

[9] Lönnrot, E. and Bosley, K. (1989). The Kalevala. Oxford: Oxford University Press. pg8

[10] Pattanaik, D. (2006). Myth = Mithya. New Delhi: Penguin.pg1

[11] Gaiman, N., 1999. Reflections on Myth. Columbia: A Journal of Literature and Art, pp.75-84.

[12] Plant.I., Myth In the Ancient World, Palgrave MacMillan, South Yarra, 2012

pg 23

[13] Gaiman, N., 1999. Reflections on Myth.pg84

[14] Pattanaik, D. (2006). Myth = Mithya. pg1

[15] Warner, M, 2010. Managing monsters. Random House. pg3

[16] Brain Pickings. (2015). Neil Gaiman on How Stories Last. [online] 2016