Saturday, January 22, 2005

Classical Mythology by Mark P. O. Morford and Robert J. Lenardon

Textbook for that mythology class I took freshman year of college, and much more readable than I thought it was going to be. It’s real interesting the way traditions and mythologies of different cultures merge and adapt over time. The whole of Roman mythology, for example, is based on Greek mythology. So much so, in fact, that the best Greek mythology tales are told by Roman writers. But Jupiter is not just the Roman name for Zeus. Jupiter existed in the minds of the pre-Romans long before their culture ever heard of Zeus. He was one of their many gods with his own rituals and celebrations. He was lord of his pantheon much as Zeus was lord of his, so when the Romans did learn of Zeus, and became enamored with him, they adopted his stories and rituals and attributed them to Jupiter. They did the same with a dozen others, changing both who the Roman god was and who the Greek god had been in the process. The Greek Ares did not become the Roman Mars. Quite the reverse, the Roman Mars became the Greek Ares, just as the Roman Venus became the Greek Aphrodite, each Roman god becoming something they had not been before when taking on the literary history of their Greek counterpart.

The book teases you a few times with the idea that the same kind of thing happened with certain elements of Christianity. Figures in the Christian tradition who bore resemblance to those in Roman and Greek mythology adopted the pre-history of those mythologic figures and became something that already had a religious and sacred meaning to the worshippers. The most intriguing example of this is the story of Aphrodite and Adonis, the Greek mother goddess and her beautiful young lover who is killed and resurrected of the form of vegetation, and how some of that may have been adopted by the early Christians as a basis for the relationship between Mary and Jesus. “It is possible,” the authors say, “to detect similarities between Easter celebrations of the dead and risen Christ in various parts of the world and those in honor of the dead and risen Adonis. Christianity, too, absorbed and transformed the ancient conception of the sorrowing goddess with her lover dying in her arms to that of the sad Virgin holding in her lap her beloved Son.”

There’s more. Attis is another figure in mythology like Adonis, loved by a goddess, killed, and resurrected as vegetation. The authors state the evidence of springtime ceremonies at which the public mourned and rejoiced for the death and rebirth of Attis.

Our information as to the nature of these mysteries and the date of their celebration is unfortunately very scanty, but they seem to have included a sacramental meal and a baptism of blood. In the sacrament the novice became a partaker of the mysteries by eating out of a drum and drinking out of a cymbal, two instruments of music which figured prominently in the thrilling orchestra of Attis. The fast which accompanied the mourning for the dead god may perhaps have been designed to prepare the body of the communicant for the reception of the blessed sacrament by purging it of all that could defile by contact the sacred elements. In the baptism the devotee, crowned with gold and wreathed with fillets, descended into a pit, the mouth of which was covered with a wooden grating. A bull, adorned with garlands of flowers, its forehead glittering with gold leaf, was then driven on to the grating and there stabbed to death with a consecrated spear. Its hot reeking blood poured in torrents through the apertures, and was received with devout eagerness by the worshipper on every part of his person and garments, till he emerged from the pit, drenched, dripping, and scarlet from head to foot, to receive the homage, nay the adoration of his fellows as one who had been born again to eternal life and had washed away his sins in the blood of the bull. For some time afterwards the fiction of a new birth was kept up by dieting him on milk like a newborn babe. The regeneration of the worshipper took place at the same time as the regeneration of his god, namely at the vernal equinox.

I could be wrong, but I see precursors for the last supper, baptism, the Eucharist, Lent, the resurrection of Christ and eternal life washed clean of sin in this one ancient ritual. How many of those traditions in the Christian faith were divinely inspired and how many were based on the mythologies that people already knew and embraced?

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Another legend from the book on classical mythology I just read that speaks to me is the flaying of Marsyas. Marsyas was a satyr who was so proficient at the flute and so confident in his talent that he challenged Apollo to a contest. He lost. And for his presumption, Apollo had him flayed alive. Ovid writes:

Marsyas cried out: ‘Why are you stripping me of my very self? Oh no, I am sorry; the flute is not worth this torture!’ As he screamed, his skin was ripped off all his body and he was nothing but a gaping wound. Blood ran everywhere, his nerves were laid bare and exposed, and the pulse of his veins throbbed without any covering. One could make out clearly his pulsating entrails and the vital organs in his chest that lay revealed. The spirits of the countryside and the fauns who haunt the woods wept for him; and so did his brothers, the satyrs, and nymphs and all who tended woolly sheep and horned cattle on those mountains—and Olympus, dear to him now, wept as well. The fertile earth grew wet as she received and drank up the tears that fell and became soaked to the veins in her depths. She formed of them a stream which she sent up into the open air. From this source a river, the clearest in all Phrygia, rushes down between its sloping banks into the sea. And it bears the name of Marsyas.

To me, this is the plight of the true artist, struggling to succeed and fated to fail horribly. But even in such failure, sometimes the whole world sees the beauty and dedication that drove the artist to such delusional heights, and it affects them and changes the way they see the world.

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The last thing I want to mention from this classical mythology book is Aeneas’ flight from Troy. The only Trojan leader to escape when the city is destroyed, the scene of Aeneas leaving Troy is heavy with symbolism, as he carries his father, Anchises, and is joined by his young son, Iulus, and his wife, Creusa. As Virgil had Aeneas narrate:

‘Then come, dear father, sit on my shoulders; I will carry you, the load will not weigh me down. Whatever chance may fall, we will share a common danger and a common salvation. Let little Iulus walk beside me and let my wife follow.’ …With these words I spread a cloak and the skin of a tawny lion across my shoulders and neck and lifted the burden. Little Iulus took my right hand and, hardly able to keep up, walked beside his father.

With hope for the future, but burdened by the past, Aeneas leaves the doomed city.

Monday, January 17, 2005

Even Cowgirls Get the Blues by Tom Robbins

The latest audiobook from the library. I remember years ago seeing a friend with a copy, and I think I can unequivocally say that he liked this book. His and the book’s counter culture view of the world and of literature are one and the same. I didn’t like it as much, but there were parts and ideas that did catch my interest.

Most reviews I found on the Internet were about the movie instead of the book (Which was almost universally panned, by the way, why anyone would try to make this book into a movie is beyond me, with Pat Morita as the Chink for crying out loud) but those that were about the book started out by saying the book was about Sissy Hankshaw, a girl born with obnoxiously big thumbs that carried her into the hitchhiking hall of fame. I’m sorry. This book is no more about Sissy Hankshaw and her thumbs than Moby-Dick is about Ishmael and the restlessness that takes him to the sea. This book is about looking at life in a way different than western society has demanded, life not measured out in days and years but life not measured at all, life experienced for what it has to offer rather than regimented to fit some false construction. That’s what the book is about and that’s interesting, but too much of Sissy and her big thumbs get in the way of enjoying that.

I think what I liked best about it was the freedom with which it was written, both in terms of structure and narrative voice. Although sometimes I thought Robbins’ metaphors were a little far-fetched and stupid. Whatever I write next I would like it to be freer than what I am writing now, unrestrained by period or structure. Even Cowgirls Get the Blues is a lot like that, more about Robbins and his own quest for understanding than it is about any of his characters.

Saturday, January 1, 2005

Battles of the Bible by Chain Herzog and Mordechai Gichon

I kept pushing this one back—back when I actually chose what book I read next, that is—because I thought it would be a real snorefest. Turns out it was not so bad, although I doubt I’ll take the time to read it again. An analysis of the strategy and tactics used in many of the battles described in the Bible, it was fairly readable on that level, as well as occasionally interesting for the spoken and sometimes unspoken revelations about the Bible it contains.

For example, much of the Old Testament is apparently a historical account of the various kings of Israel and the wars they fought to preserve the Jewish Kingdom. But not all such kings are mentioned there. “Omri was the king who succeeded in re-establishing Israel, in close coalition with Judah, as the major power in southern Syria and Greater Palestine. Surprisingly enough, however, nothing of his deeds has been preserved in the biblical records. A Jewish king who did not bow to the crown of David and did not accept the uniqueness of the Temple of Jerusalem—which means any of the kings of the Northern Kingdom—was mentioned by the biblical chronicler only insofar as he felt the matter was relevant to his own representation of the history of Judah.” That’s interesting to me because it shows that the Bible is not the single authoritative source it is sometimes held up to be.

The authors deal with and rely on other sources throughout their book, and even though they are writing from a decidedly “pro-Jewish” perspective, it’s clear that they acknowledge that the Bible, which contains a lot of historical facts, also contains some historical distortions if relied on as the only source material. The “discovery” of the Book of Deuteronomy is also briefly mentioned, and is said to have “served as an incentive for cleansing the country of alien influences.” I don’t think the authors agree with my college professor’s interpretation of the discovery—that Deuteronomy was in fact a book cooked up by contemporary church leaders to resolve some puzzling contradictions in the first four books of Moses and then ascribed to that ancient author through its “discovery” in the Temple—but their comment on Deuteronomy and its use makes me question anew how divinely inspired it actually was.

Josiah was king of Judah at the time, and he used Deuteronomy to oversee a “rapid process of religious rejuvenation.” Moreover, “the spirit of national elation [caused by Deuteronomy] served as a magnet for the leaderless Israelite rural population on both sides of the Jordan, as well as for the foreign ethnic groups who had been transplanted in Israel and had adopted themselves to the Jewish cult.” Consequently, “during the first decade of his reign, Josiah achieved virtual rule over most of former Israelite Cis-Jordan [land west of the Jordan River], as well as over parts of Gilead.” Lucky for Josiah that book was “found” during his reign, huh?

Even after Josiah’s death, when Judah became a vassal state under the Neo-Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar, the nation did not lose its sense of itself or its faith in its ability to shake off the foreign yoke. The authors say: “The religious enthusiasm brought about by Josiah’s reforms [precipitated by the discovery of the Book of Deuteronomy] was so persistent and deep-rooted that people from all walks of life refused to take matters at their face value. Against the isolated voice of the prophet Jeremiah, who preached temporary submission to Babylonia as a divinely sanctioned step within the concept of diplomacy as the art of the possible, many a ‘false’ prophet called for active measures and rebellion.”

I don’t know. Phrases like “cleansing the country of alien influences” and “rapid process of religious rejuvenation” taken in another context—say Nazi Germany—leaves one with a very different impression about what might have been going on than the one the Bible chronicler wants to leave you with.