Living · Reading

Learning to Love

At our most base and primitive, all we care about is ourselves—survival. We protect ourselves and our families, so the line will survive. We hoard. We fight. We resist others and fear them because they may take what we need to survive.

But the history of world civilization—and of mythology, literature, and religion—is the history of refuting those impulses, of raising us up to higher selves, of forming communities and cultures that enhance the lives of all. These help us to thrive, not just survive.

This is why so many cultures have a myth or parable about gods visiting humans in disguise: why The Odyssey is essentially a long disquisition on hospitality; why Odin and Thor visit Midgard and Jesus appears to poor people to test their generosity. Because even though the strong, animal instinct in us compels us to protect what we have and exclude others, the higher path, the path toward community and humanity, is helping others.

In Ovid’s Metamorphoses¸ Zeus visits Lycaon and, disgusted by his behavior (Lycaon does not believe Zeus is a god and tries to feed him human flesh and plots his murder). Zeus’s reaction is to flood the world and kill off this undeserving race.  The lesson here is multiple, including an admonition to have faith in the gods, but how one demonstrates that faith is in being a good host. Lycaon should have fed his guest, offered him shelter, protected him—not tried to kill him.

Lycaon should have read The Odyssey.

Photo of children embracing their animal natures. In children, it’s ok. 🙂

In The Odyssey, Odysseus the Greek hero and king of Ithaka is trying to get home from the Trojan War. His journey is a return trip. The main action of the war has passed (see The Iliad), and all he’s trying to do is get back. Why? That’s not really as exciting a premise for a book as chronicling the cause and scope of a war. It’s not a meteoric rise to fame for a hero who fights a monster or saves a maiden. It’s a voyage. It’s full of scenes where Odysseus is welcomed or attacked, of examples of good hospitality and, for lack of a better phrase, bad hospitality. The Odyssey is about how to treat people, and ultimately about how to be human.

Odysseus fails with some regularity.

He starts out with a host of men. Some are eaten by Laestrygonians. Some are eaten by a cyclops. Some are eaten by Scylla, the flying monster with six heads who fills each of her six gullets with one of his men. You’re seeing a trend here, yeah? It’s not about the guys; they’re essentially pawns (“red shirts,” in Star Trek parlance). It’s about Odysseus learning to be a person who is worthy to rule when he gets back to Ithaka. Odysseus learns how to deal with all different kinds of humans and monsters. He stops all over the Aegean on his way back, and when he stops in lands governed by good kings, he is welcomed and feasted and encouraged to speak. When he stops at a monster’s house, his guys get eaten. Lesson? Anyone? Humans, at least good ones, welcome guests. They care for their fellow human beings. They give of their resources, knowing that if they are washed adrift, they’ll be able to count on being welcomed and sheltered and protected.

The Christian tradition (and others) shares these stories. In the Old Testament, God floods the world when people forget how to be good people. In the New Testament, we are reminded to show hospitality because some have “entertained angels unawares” (Hebrews 13.2). And then there is the story of Jesus visiting the shopkeeper in the guise of three poor people (Johnny Cash’s “The Christmas Guest,” which derives from Helen Steiner Rice’s version of a French folktale, probably).

It’s a common enough trope, though. The same scene begins Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, really. A powerful enchantress tests the young French lord, and when he fails to be gracious and generous to another human being, she punishes him by turning him in to a beast. He acted no better than an animal; his appearance should reflect his monstrosity.

Why do we have to keep telling this tale? Does each generation need to learn it for themselves? Are we still so ruled by fear of scarcity that we require acculturating over and over again?

Apparently.

Fortunately there is no shortage of material, ancient to contemporary, that we can read or watch or listen to in order to find this lesson. To quote a friend who has learned it very well, “We belong to each other.”

Reading · Teaching

Creation Myths as Backstory, or When Your Papa Really Was a Rolling Stone

I’ve always been interested in Creation Stories. Where we think we came from says a lot about where we want to go—who we want to be.  As I think through how my mythology class will change when my campus converts from quarters to semesters, I’m considering what texts to add. Now I teach Greco-Roman and Norse—the obvious addition would be another culture. Egyptian, maybe. But I’m also considering an anthology of a type of myth, like a broad, comparative collection of Creation stories.

Ovid serves wonderfully to illustrate the prevalence of Creation stories by supplying no fewer than four different accounts in the first book of his work.  Either humans were made by the great architect-god who separated the heavens from the earth, or maybe Prometheus sculpted them out of clay. Or maybe, after the war between the giants and the Olympians, when the conquered giants’ blood spilled on to their mother, Gaia’s, ground, she used the blood and dust to form humans.
Or maybe we’re all descended from Deucalion and Pyrrha’s stone babies.
In this fourth account of the creation of humankind, Ovid recounts the great flood that Jove visits on the earth to exterminate the corrupt humans. Of all the world, Deucalion and Pyrrha alone are spared as virtuous and deserving of mercy. If it sounds like the story of Noah and his family, it should. Deucalion and Pyrrha are both grandchildren of Iapetus, the titan father of Prometheus and Epimetheus, and his name is a cognate for Japeth, one of Noah’s sons.
So Deucalion is the son of Prometheus, and Pyrrha is the daughter of Epimetheus. They are first cousins, so the incest taboo didn’t apply, and they complement each other beautifully. But Deucalion is descended from Prometheus, whose name means “forethought.” It is Prometheus who creates humanity in one version of the Creation, and it is he who either gives the gift of fire or who teaches his creation how to sacrifice. If you believe the fire story, the gods became jealous because humanity acquired a skill that raised them above their prescribed station.
In another story Prometheus counseled mankind to sacrifice the useless parts of the animal to the gods, putting them on top so Jove would see them when he descended in his eagle form to retrieve them, and thereby saving the meat for the good of humanity. This first sacrifice became the norm, and Jove was tricked out of the best parts of the animal forever. In both these myths, Prometheus infuriates Jove to the point where he chains Prometheus to a rock and commands that an eagle rip out his liver daily. He must have been pretty angry.
Epimetheus, however, means “afterthought.” Poor Epimetheus. Second born, and second-class. Even though Prometheus warns him not to accept gifts from Jove, he can’t resist Pandora when she appears. And we have that happy couple to thank for all the ills of society that emerge when Pandora opens the forbidden box.
But this was a story about Deucalion and Pyrrha. Deucalion is Prometheus’s, but Pyrrha is Epimetheus’s child. When the flood comes, they cling to one another and sail in a tiny skiff, just trying to survive. When Jove lets the waters recede, they disembark and find a shrine of Themis to pray. The goddess hears their prayers and pities their loneliness, and her oracle gives, for an oracle, pretty direct orders: as you leave this temple, drop behind you the bones of the great mother.
Poor Pyrrha is scandalized. How can she desecrate her mother’s corpse by throwing her bones on the ground?
But Deucalion, the first literary critic, suggests they think metaphorically. Maybe the great mother is the Earth, and her bones are stones.
Pyrrha is pacified, and so is Themis, and the stones they drop behind them soften and shape themselves in to human forms—Pyrrha’s stones become women, and Deucalion’s become men. And we have our toughness, our hard-headedness, maybe also our rough edges, from our stony origins.
In an age where people take online quizzes to tell them what Harry Potter character they are or what color their aura is in the present, maybe it’s time to revisit the stories of our pasts. Knowing something’s true name or its origin gives you power over it, or so the stories go, so the real power will be when we can discern our own beginnings and understand why we are the way we are, not just bicker over the superficial results of those origins.
Oh, it’s going to be another good quarter.
(Picture taken on a trip to Bryce Canyon in Utah, 2017.)