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Life Hacks from Ancient Myth #2: How to treat a chest wound, or “Harold wasn’t always allergic to bees.”

At my house whenever something unexpected happens, you’re liable to hear someone say, pensively, “Harold wasn’t always allergic to bees.” It’s a line from the 1993 rom-com Sleepless in Seattle, from the crazy dinner conversation full of crossing narratives and non-sequiturs, and it struck us as so random that it stuck, and we’ve been variously applying it and misapplying it ever since.

Today, as I write another installment in the Life Hacks from Ancient Myth, I have a lesson that seems less broadly applicable, but is still surprisingly relevant from time to time, so we feel like it’s a truth that no one sees coming: If someone takes a spear to the chest, don’t just pull it out right there. Resist the temptation to relieve your comrade of the stabby thing that seems to be paining them. Be calm.

This is, believe it or not, a recurring lesson throughout literature. I know it from two pretty dissimilar texts—one Roman, and one Anglo-Saxon. It comes up more often than that, really, but these two are very vivid for me.

In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, completed in the year 8 CE, he parodies the Trojan War material with a raucous wedding scene where a centaur tries to steal the bride. (That hilarious parody and Ovid’s neat reduction of the Trojan War to a couple embarrassing moments for Achilles is the subject for another blog.) Today I’m interested in the tragic love story he drops in the middle of the ‘red wedding’-style brawl.

As humans slaughter centaurs in defense of the bride, and centaurs rise (or not) to glory in self-defense, the narration pauses to hold a light on perfect love: Cyllarus and his beloved Hylonome have come to the wedding as a happy couple to celebrate another happy couple. They are described as almost nauseatingly sweet—“she honeys him” at 12.411, and just as we’re imagining this loving centaur couple (for me, thanks to the Disney animators of Fantasia, I have a very clear image), Cyllarus takes a spear to the chest.

We’re told that it did not pierce his heart, but it’s close, so for a moment the possibility of his survival fills our hearts. Then Hylonome, crazed with fear and grief, rips out the offending projectile.

Oh, Hylonome.

Did she not take War Time Triage 101? When she pulls out the spear, hoping to help, she instead rips his chest open, and his lifeblood pours out. She tries kissing him to stop his soul escaping with his breath, but she’s already lost him. She runs herself through with the same spear, and the tragedy is complete.

So what have we learned? Centaurs are terrible wedding guests; they arrive drunk and only get worse. But also, beware of chest wounds. They need special care.

A later example of this type scene comes from the Old English poem ”The Battle of Maldon,” wherein the defending earl of an English tribe is hit with a spear from an invading Viking ruffian. Byrthnoth, the lord, has exhibited tremendous arrogance in allowing this battle to take place at all (he gave up a position of advantage out of pride). And to prove his manhood, just seconds before the fatal chest wound, he had wrenched a spear out of his own shoulder and sent it back at the Sea Dog who threw it.

So perhaps we forgive poor Wulfmar, who at fifteen years old is fighting his first and last battle. He sees his lord go down and rushes to help. But our narrator reminds us it’s his inexperience that is to blame. You can almost hear a chorus of seasoned warriors scream “NO!—Don’t do it!” as he slides the spear head out and Byrtnoth slumps to the ground.

Why wasn’t this covered in basic training? In both tales someone pulls the blade who didn’t know any better—a woman, a new soldier—because everyone else knows not to do that until you can treat it carefully.

But now we know. If you or someone you love is ever pierced by a spear, don’t try to remove it on the battlefield. Or in the classroom. Because Harold wasn’t always allergic to bees.

In a Texas elementary school in October of 2000, six-year old Destiny Lopez was trotting back to her desk when she fell on her newly sharpened pencil, and it pierced her heart. A pencil is just a small spear, after all—wooden shaft, sharp point.

Her heroic and self-possessed teacher did not act rashly. She lay down on the floor with Destiny as the pencil pulsed with the beat of her heart. She did NOT remove the weapon from the wounded warrior’s chest.

And that little girl lived.

So let that be a lesson to us. And go get some first aid training, or at least read some good battle poetry.

Here are two articles about Destiny and her teacher:

Nora Ephron, screenplay and director. Sleepless in Seattle. 1993. Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan starring.

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