4thofeleven: (Default)
Cerberus, the name of the three-headed dog that guards the river Styx, is the Latin form of the Greek 'Kerebos'. Some etymologists speculate that name is related to the Sanskrit word ‘karbarah/karvara’, and may be either derived from it or share a common root from the proto-Indo European language.

And what does that word translate as? ‘Spotted’.

Because, after all, even if you’re the god of the underworld, Spot is still a good name for your dog...
4thofeleven: (Default)
So here’s an interesting thing: the new DC comics reboot of Wonder Woman has made some… changes to the Amazons. Normally an idealistic utopia of immortals focused to a greater or lesser degree on consensual bondage, the Amazons now...

…go to sea every once in a while to force men to procreate with them. When they are done with the unsuspecting sailors, they murder them and dump their bodies overboard. Nine months later, some have daughters and are very happy while the rest give up their sons to be sold into slavery…(link)

So, yeah, bit of a change in theme there.

What’s interesting is that this is, apparently, part of a storyline that tries to bring the elements of Greek mythology that have always vaguely been in the background of the comic back to the forefront. Except.

Well, except that’s not how the Amazons reproduced in mythology. In Greek mythology, traditionally the Amazons had a deal worked out with an all-male tribe, the Gargareans. Every year or so, they met up, had lots of sex, and any male children from the last year would be turned over to their fathers to be raised by them. That’s it. No murder, no rape, nothing like that at all.

I find it faintly astonishing that the ancient Greeks – the ancient Greeks – could conceive of an all-female society existing that wasn’t determined to go out and kill all the menz, but that a twenty-first century western comic writer apparently can’t.


May. 20th, 2010 08:23 pm
4thofeleven: (Default)
An odd thought regarding Medusa: Persus slew Medusa, decapitating her and taking the head as a trophy.

Except. Medusa's sisters and fellow Gorgons are immortal. And the gaze of Medusa's severed head was apparently still capable of petrifying people with its gaze.

Who says the head is dead?
4thofeleven: (Default)
Rereading Gilgamesh for class this week, I noticed something cute: Gilgamesh asks Utnapishtim how he achieved immortality. Utnapishtim responds by giving a summarised version of the pre-existing Sumerian flood myth, but his story ends with the god Enlili saying “In the past Utnapishtim was a mortal man, but now he and his wife shall become like us gods!”, with no actual explanation of how or why he’s now to be immortal.

Then it hit me – The whole story’s about how one cannot achieve immortality, except through the monuments and achievements one leaves behind. Utnapishtim becomes immortal when he becomes the hero of an epic!
4thofeleven: (Default)
Do cherubs creep anybody else out? I mean, there's only two possibilities - they're either dead babies, or they're inhuman creatures that assumed the form of human babies to further some unknowable plan. Either way, they're not something I want associated with romance.

(Cupid's also creepy, but, hey  - Greek mythology; you expect a fair amount of creepyness in its icons of romantic love. Naked child with a bow and arrow is downright normal compared to most of the stuff associated with Aphrodite.)
4thofeleven: (Default)
So, look, have I just sat through too many lectures in mythology or fantasy units about Joseph bloody Cambell, or does his 'monomyth' basically boil down to "The Hero goes somewhere and does something. Other characters will aid or hinder him." Because every time his work comes up, I end up beling less impressed at how many different myths and legends follow his scheme, and more baffled as to how a story could possibly *not* follow his system.

(Admittedly, it can be interesting to take the generic 'quest' story, and see how various traditions treat it - but I suspect you'd end up with more subversions than straight examples. Hell, Gilgamesh, the oldest written story, subverts the 'universal' quest narrative, by having the hero fail to attain immortality and return home empty handed and chastised for his arrogance!)

4thofeleven: (Default)

An odd thought occurred to my while writing up an essay on the development of the Grail myth in Arthurian legend:

The only version of the Arthurian story I can think of in which King Arthur personally participates in the quest for the Holy Grail... is Monty Python.

4thofeleven: (Default)
I’ve mentioned before I’m doing a unit on Arthurian legend this semester; this is just some barely coherent babbling while I try and put my thoughts in order for my main essay…

So one of the interesting aspects of the Arthurian legends is that they’re initially very much about Arthur as the heroic leader of the pre-Saxon British; the legends largely survived through the Welsh and Cornish. Arthur’s largely forgotten during the Saxon period, but then following the Norman Conquest there’s a sudden burst of interest in the stories, with them being very rapidly adopted by the new Norman aristocracy.

Despite that, there’s some fairly radical reworking of the focus of the stories in the Norman period. The Arthur story we get in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s history – who was almost certainly working directly from Welsh oral tradition* - has Arthur as British warlord, who carves out an empire that includes most of Northern Europe and challenges Rome itself. Notably absent from this narrative are the Round Table or its Knights.

Once the Matter of Britain takes off in popular culture in the twelfth century, though, the Knights become the focus of the stories, and Arthur seems to become increasingly irrelevant – or at least, no longer the sole focus of the narrative. The existing Lancelot and Tristan stories are assimilated into the Arthurian canon. The focus becomes the Round Table, of individual knights and their chivalrous quests. In particular, the quest for the Holy Grail becomes central to the Arthurian legend – a story that didn’t exist at all in the original narrative and one in which Arthur himself plays no role.

What I’m thinking is significant here is that by minimising Arthur’s role in the story, one removes the British nationalist nature of the legend. The pre-Saxon culture of Britain was still strong in some parts; Norman rule over Wales was largely theoretical for a very long time after the conquest, and Cornwall was still very culturally distinct from the rest of England. Geoffrey’s history of the kings of Britain was written during the civil war between Stephen of England and the Empress Matilda – during a time when it wasn’t clear that Norman rule was going to endure.

So on the one hand, one seems to be looking at an attempt to co-opt the existing tradition; for Norman-English monarchs to claim themselves as part of the existing British tradition – but on the other hand, Arthur remains a politically dangerous figure, a potential rallying point for the Britons, so he ends up being played down, and the stories change from being the conquests and victories of the British nation to less sensitive and more universal quest narratives, with the focus being on individual heroes with no specific political background.

* Geoffrey claims he was just translating a ‘very old book’ given to him by the Archdeacon of Oxford. Of course, that claim’s about as plausible as Tolkien’s claim to have just been translating the Red Book of Westmarch…
4thofeleven: (Default)
Huh. Wikipedia claims that Medea and Achilles married in the underworld after their deaths...

Now, sure, Wikipedia isn't always the most reliable of sources, but it's generally pretty good for mythology - still, it's such an utterly random pairing I'm wondering if I'm looking at a particularly subtle example of page vandalism. I mean, you'd be hard pressed to find two characters in Greek mythology less connected that Medea and Achilles.

Still, I'm not willing to automatically dismiss it just because it makes very little sense - if I did that, I'd have to chuck out half the mythology...

Has anyone heard of this before and know what the original source would be?
4thofeleven: (Default)
I picked up a copy of The Epic of Gilgamesh the other day at the university bookstore while I was buying some textbooks. There’s something exciting about reading a story five thousand years old – the age of the story is impressive, even compared to the classical Greek mythology I’m used to. It is old enough that most of the surviving fragments are themselves second generation Babylonian translations of what was even then an incomplete Sumerian version – several of the Babylonian tablets include the original scribe’s notes that lines are missing from the source they were originally copying from.

It’s a pretty good read, once you get used to the style and the occasional gaps. It’s not a particularly cheerful read, though – the focus of the story is Gilgamesh coming to terms with his mortality. It’s kinda cute that Gilgamesh eventually realises that his quest for immortality is futile, and that he should be focusing on ensuring his deeds are remembered after his death – a rather appropriate theme for the oldest surviving work of human literature, no?

It’s interesting for me coming from a classicist background to compare Gilgamesh to the Greek heroes. See, the thing about the Greek heroes is that, well, they’re jerks. Agamemnon? Jerk. Achilles? Petulant jerk. Jason? An asshole on such a massive scale that Medea’s murder of their children seems an almost justifiable response. Odysseus? Better than the rest, but in a ‘magnificent bastard’ sort of way, rather than in a ‘worthy of emulation’ sort of way. So I found it rather refreshing that, yes, Gilgamesh is a jerk – but the whole story is about how he stops being a jerk! He's an absolute bastard to his subjects, so the gods send Enkidu to knock some sense into him. He goes off into the wilderness like any good archetypal hero, to complete a great quest – only to fail it completely and realise what a selfish jerk he’s being, going off questing for immortality while leaving Uruk without a leader. It's a nice change to have a hero who's hubris leads to him - well, realising he's being a dick, rather than just leading to his death.

Another fun note – about a third of the way in, Gilgamesh rebuffs the advances of the goddess of love, Ishtar. Why? Well, because like in all mythologies, getting sexually involved with deities isn’t good for your long-term health or prosperity. I find it pretty neat that Gilgamesh is already familiar enough with Ishtar’s reputation to automatically reject her; he’s probably one of the few mythical heroes who’s actually paid attention to previous myths. I imagine that if it ever came up, he’d also prove be genre savvy enough to check for alternate interpretations of prophesies, and to be very careful about the phrasing of any wishes he gets… *grin*

Can anyone recommend any good sources on other Sumerian or Babylonian myths? I’m thinking this is a mythology I want to become more familiar with.


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David Newgreen

August 2017

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