Transcending Hektor and Achilles: The Death of Osama Bin Laden

I try and keep these blogs topical if possible, and in light of recent events I’ve been thinking about the Iliad. The past few days have been a maelstrom emotions for Americans; relief, closure, anger, rage…etc…Two looming controversies remain. Where are the death photos? and why was his body disposed of quickly and respectfully in accordance with Islamic tradition?

Just recently, the President has made the decision not to release the photos. But what about the whole burial at sea? In my honest opinion I predict that even if the photos get released, there will be no end to conspiracy theories? Why? For the same reason that we still have groups who refute the moon landing.

One of the most significant events of the moon landing, was the first photographic evidence that the earth was round. This may seem like a small discovery, but to the flat-earthers, it was, well- earthshaking. If you truly don’t see the significance of this discovery, then go and speak with a flat-earther. You’ll find they are very passionate about their belief and will have a seemingly rational answer for everyone of your arguments! But when you provide hard evidence like a round photo of the Earth, you have them cornered. The logical answer is to say the photo is a fraud and the events leading up to taking the picture are also a fraud. Now I’m not saying that every person who thinks the moon landing was a fake believes the Earth is flat, but I do think that belief contributes to the conspiracy. But what does that have to do with Bin Laden?

We hate him. He is the symbol of all that is evil. He killed indiscriminately and he must die. Our emotions are incredibly tied up in the mans demise and for many of us, a respectful burial at sea just isn’t good enough. Just like the photos of Earth, the news that Bin Laden was laid to rest respectfully goes against what we want to believe. Some of us will actually hope he still lives, only so that he can be punished properly.  The retribution is not at sea. He should be stoned, hung upside down, put in a cage and left to rot. Maybe, just maybe, we should tear holes in his ankles, run a leather thong through them and drag his body behind a tank. Is this sounding familiar?

In the Iliad, Achilles finally defeats his arch-enemy Hektor. He takes up the body, runs a leather thong through the ankles, and drags the body around the city of Troy showing extreme disrespect. It wasn’t until the God’s interfered that Hektor’s father Priam was able to retrieve the body from Achilles. Now one thing I want to make clear.

I am NOT implying that Bin Laden is Hektor.

Hektor is a good man. In fact, this is a bit of a Mythology 101 conversation. Who has the true heroic attributes in the Iliad? Hektor. He is a warrior, he is wise, he loves his family, he demonstrates restraint; a pretty solid dude.

What I am implying is that we had an opportunity to become Achilles.

Achilles is by no means the perfect Hero. In fact he is a bit of a whiny brat! He is a fierce and powerful warrior, but he throw tantrums. He sits in his tent and pouts while a plague kills his fellow men. He continues to do nothing while his best friend Patroklus fights in his place and gets killed. And he brutally disrespects the body of the enemy.

So what am I getting at? I believe that something very symbolic occurred when we quietly slipped that body into the sea. We could have done worse, and I think it would have been generally excepted. After everything done to us, our allies would have been understanding to whatever gruesome actions we decided to take. But we didn’t. We could have, and we didn’t.

In taking the high road, we cast away the negative attributes of Achilles and took on the positives of Hektor. Amalgamating into something new! We are the powerful warriors. We are the just. We are Americans, and I am proud to be one.

I understand there is a lot of pain out there. Victims and families who have only just begun to heal. I know that not everyone will agree with me and I completely respect that. My heart goes out to each and every person who lost someone because of this horrible man. Hopefully now, some of us can begin to find closure.

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Odysseus Vs. Captain Hook

How Postmodernism, Polybius, and the Battle of 1066 changed the way we tell stories.

No one fears a Pirate named James. The name doesn’t conjure fierce imagery. One almost pictures a prudent captain in a naval uniform standing at the wheel of his ship. But James is fierce; in fact he’s downright evil. And while committing one of his evil acts he receives a terrible wound; an eternally young boy cuts off his hand. With a missing hand, James is forced to find a substitute in cold metal; Captain Hook is born.

A rather common “bad guy” has been reborn a much more powerful villain. “Powerful” meant in the literal sense, but also the literary. The tradition of Mythic Injury, a key part in the rise of a hero in the earliest forms of oral tradition, has now been taken on by the villain. To the point were we even resurrect our villains multiple times before they truly fall.

Mythologists and Anthropologists use the term “mythic injury” in reference to the point in a Hero’s story in which he is marked physically. This can happen in a number ways. The hero can cause an injury to himself such as Pinocchio who burns his own feet to cinders. A villain can also cause a mythic wound such as the witch pushing the prince from Rapunzel’s tower, causing his blindness. But the mythic injury can also come from a divine interaction.

When Moses returned from Mount Sinai after being in God’s presence, he had two horns coming from his head. There is great debate over the translation of this section and some argue that instead of horns, Moses had “Rays of Light” coming from him. For the purpose of this blog, it doesn’t actually matter. What does matter is Moses, after encountering God, had been changed in some way.

Moses with Horns

There are other forms of Mythic Injury. Sometimes they are a mark of a good deed done by the hero. In the Argonautica, Jason stops at a river and sees an old crone (Actually the Goddess Hera in disguise) who is unable to cross on her own. Jason agrees to carry her across, but in doing so loses one of his sandals.

Many have written on the subject of mythic injury. It appears among the 32 “functions” recognized in Vlademir Propp’s “Metamorphosis of the Folktale. Here it is identified simply as function 17, the “Hero is Branded.” According to Propp’s, the hero can receive the branding during a skirmish with the villain, or he can receive an injury from a princess who awakens him by making a small cut on his face. She can also kiss him, burning the mark of a star on his forehead.

In the book “Iron John,” Robert Bly describes the purpose of mythic injury in folktale and myth as a representation of one step in becoming a man. As a young man grows, as he gains more life experience, he is likely to acquire injuries. Sometimes major, sometimes just a scrape, he receives a mark that symbolizes becoming a man.

Bly brings up that one of the most notable figures in epic mythology, “Odysseus,” has special meaning when it comes to mythic injury. His roman name “Ulysses” roughly translates into “wound above the knee.” When Odysseus was a boy he was hunting a Boar on Mount Parnassus. He did manage to kill the boar, but only after receiving a deep wound above his knee. Here we have a perfect example of a wound symbolizing a transitional period to manhood, but the wound plays a specific role in his story.

Odysseus

When Odysseus returns home to Ithaca, disguised as a beggar, his old nurse recognizes who he truly is by a scar on his leg. Here we have a hero who not only has a mythic injury, it literally defines him; just like Captain Hook.

In more recent times, these injuries have been happening to our villains. We have already mentioned the Captain, but there are other examples. In 1995, “Waterworld” came out with its villain “The Deacon,” played by Dennis Hopper. At the beginning of the film, Hopper’s character is rather minor. He’s mean and he’s in charge of the bad guys, but he has no relationship with the main character. Then the Hero and Villain meet. After the clash the Deacon has received a major injury; he is missing an eye. After this point he becomes a menacing villain with a real emotional vendetta aimed at the protagonist. Like Captain Hook, the deacon really didn’t have a true villain’s presence until he received his injury.

The Joker

For Comic Book Fans, the Batman villain “Joker” is also a prime example of a villain’s ascent after an injury. Before falling into a vat of acidic chemicals, our villain is simply a masked bandit. Afterwards, he is not only changed physically, but mentally. He has become one of the most memorable villains in comic book history.

So why do contemporary stories bestow villains with what used to go to the hero’s. And when did it start? I believe this is a topic you could write an entire volume, if not volumes on, and there may not be a simple answer. But I have found some contributing evidence.

While reading a piece on the Battle of 1066, I found a peculiar piece of information. One of the key historical figures, Harold Godwinson, was killed in a battle by an arrow to his eye (some sources say he was killed shortly after by a sword, but was still hit in the eye). I then found that an arrow to the eye was a symbol of perjury in medieval Europe.

An Arrow To The Eye

Harold, although king at the time, had promised the throne to William the Bastard, even if the throne was given to Harold. This promise was made while Harold was being held captive by William, so its very likely that he was pressured into swearing this oath. The winners, however, write history, and according to them, Harold went back on his word; this act of perjury leads up to the actual Battle of Hastings.
So hear is an example of a “villain” receiving a significant injury to the face. It is possible that our villainous injury motif was rooted somewhere in this earlier perjury motif. The roots could go even farther back. The bible does write of an “eye for and eye.” Maybe we didn’t just start giving our villains a hero’s motif, but evolved a much older idea.

There is another possibility that can be found within the history of the Punic Wars. Many historians debate over Hannibal’s military genius. Some argue he was brilliant, while others think he was just lucky. The controversial point in the timeline takes place after the battle of Cannae. Hannibal had been decimating the Roman legions and at the battle of Cannae, he successfully encircled the Romans and slaughtered 60,000 of them. Before Cannae, Hannibal has killed another 15,000 men. In both these battles, Hannibal lost very few of his own men.

Hannibal Barca

After the success at Cannae, Hannibal was told by one of his generals that if he marched on Rome, they would take it. Hannibal said something along the lines of “maybe.” This is why people argue over his military intelligence. If he was so brilliant, why didn’t he take the big win? The answer may be found in the work of Polybius.

Polybius is one of the major sources for the Punic Wars, but he wasn’t there for most of it. It seems that Polybius was asked to write the histories by the family of Scipio Africanus. Scipio was the one who defeated Hannibal’s army at the battle of Zama. Some historian’s believe that Scipio’s Ancestors wanted to really build up Hannibal as a great warrior. This would elevate Scipio, and therefore his future ancestors, for his victory over an epic villain.

So maybe our contemporary use of villains is a reflection of Polybius’s Method; make a stronger bad guy, and your good guy is all the stronger for defeating him. No one would care much if Batman defeated the Red Hood, but taking down The Joker is a major victory.

The Villains don’t simply stop at this point anymore. They’ve now continued forward, borrowing another motif from our hero’s; resurrection and rebirth. In 2006, under the authorization of the Great Ormand St Hospital, Geraldine McCaughrean published “Peter Pan in Scarlet,” the official sequel to “Peter Pan.” In the story, the character of Ravello is introduced. He is an old circus ringmaster who joins in the adventure as Peter’s butler. Towards the end of the story, we find that Ravello is none other than Captain Hook. After being swallowed by the crocodile, Hook incubated within the stomach, changing, until was reborn as Ravello.

In the Scream movies, the masked murder finally is overcome, only to swing the knife a few minutes later once the audience has relaxed again. Sometimes, even when the Hero has truly won the day and walks away with the girl, after the credits have rolled, the audience is given a sneak peak that there is life in the villain and he’ll probably be back again in another sequel. In Carrie, we see this at the end of the film with a hand shooting out of a grave.

And so it would appear that our villains don’t die; they simply change into something stronger. Now we see how this motif can be useful. What better way to prepare for the dangers in life than admitting that they aren’t going to go away, but only come back in a new form; sometimes recognizable, sometimes not.
I like to think that Polybius’s method has had a strong influence on how we tell stories. In a time where writers are trying to come up with a new, powerful story, we make our villains super-villains and our hero’s into super-heros. In our post-postmodern society were issues are no longer quite so black and white, we like to see a little bit of our hero’s in our villains, and vice versa.

Hades is not Satan

An Opinion on the De-secularization of Myth

I feel I should warn you there Spoilers in this blog for the film Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightening Thief, as well as Clash of the Titans (the 2010 version as well as the 1981 version).

Three brothers met after a battle, a heavy burden lay on their shoulders, they were now the masters of the world. As seen as a fair way to divide the earth, sky, and underworld, they drew lots. Zues received dominion over the sky, Posiedon the Sea and land, and Hades the underworld.

Hades was not tricked into ruling the land of the dead, nor was he sent there as punishment. These are popular misconceptions that are unfortunately growing more popular. With a lack of understanding for the ancient world we combine little bits of what we know with other bits. This is far from objective, and so the majority religions cast a shadow over these wonderful ancient stories and taint them.

Now let me be clear, this is not a rant against Christianity, nor a rant against the mono-mythers or the diffusionists, more of a rant on anti-intellectualism and a lack of objectivity when it comes to examining myth. I bring the figure Hades up in this piece, because he seems to become the victim more so than his other brothers.

In the new remake “Clash of the Titans” Hades as represented as being “tricked by Zues” into ruling the underworld. And when he appears in the court of Olympos, telling Zues that he has been to loving to the humans and that he must be cruel as well, one sees a scene more akin to something from the Book of Job than from any story from ancient Greece.

Now this is not to tear apart a film for straying from the original source material. The original “Clash of the Titans” did not stick perfectly to the legend of Perseus (the character “Calabos” never existed until the film, also there aren’t any “Titans” clashing in the film either), had a great story structure and was still able to represent the stories of the Greeks, that it was often shown in schools! Unfortunately, the version of the film does not have that same value.

But this is not the first time our modern culture have tried to pin the sins the devil onto poor ol’ Hades. In the 2010 film “Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightening Thief” the first time we see Hades, we see a giant monstrous figure made of burning embers with giant bat-like wings and devilish horns, more akin to something from Dante. Later in the film we find out that this is only a disguise and that the real Hades is something more like a man, but even then we see that he is dressed in a leather vest and sports an electric guitar. This is a very funny image, but its funny this guitar wielding Hades is a representation of the Satanism that all those worried mothers thought was in rock n’ roll in the 80’s.

This has been going on for a while. In the 1997 Disney film “Hercules” Hades is seen a plotting schemer sending out his henchmen Pain and Panic. Its fairly certain there are many more examples of this of this mythological projection in our culture and it makes sense. In the Christian faith, Satan plays a big role. He’s responsible for the fall from grace, he destroys Job’s life, he is seen as a liar and a scemer; He’s already rebelled once!

I think its partly the connotation of the UNDERWORLD that makes some modern Christians project Satan-like qualities onto Hades. The belief in an underworld is something we share with the ancient Greeks, but there was no Heaven for the Greeks. Now there was Elysium, a special section of Hades designated specifically for Heros, but that was about it. You weren’t roasted over a spit a demons jabbed at you with pitch-forks.

Now there are tales of punishments in Hades that might mislead as well. Two of the most famous being Sisyphus and Tantalus. Sisyphus is the one who must forever roll a large stone up a hill only to have it roll back down whenever he nears completion. Tantalus must stand in water neck high with grapes above him, but whenever he bends his head down to drink the water recedes; whenever he reaches for a grape, wind takes the branches out of reach.

Harsh, customized punishments like this often might sound like what some believe to be a private Hell, but these stories of punishment are rare and usually meant to teach a moral lesson. Even in Homer’s Odyssey, the dead are merely “Shades” who’s only real punishment is existence. And so even though we confuse the two and their masters, Greek hell is much less dramatic than the Christian Hell. It is really just a place of drab existence. This would make sense since the Greeks viewed the human experience as the ultimate experience. Their focus was not on the next life but living in this one.

But to get to the heart of this, here’s the real question. Who cares? What does it matter? By endowing mythical gods with the powers and intentions of our modern day spiritual archetypes, we make them bigger than who they really are, and that is an injustice to the Greeks. For the Hero’s story was not about the Gods, it was about the men.

Traditionally, Hero’s are endowed by the Gods with Gifts and/or protection that help them complete their quests. If it was really about the gods and their gifts, it wouldn’t matter who received them. Anyone could complete the quests with the right gifts. But it is the actions of the Hero that earn him those gifts. Just like Jason who helped Hera, disguised as an old crone, across a river. It is these simple acts of kindness, wisdom, humility the allow men to become Heros.

The real magic of this line of thinking is that if it really only takes these simple actions to be a hero, then we are much closer to these Heros that we realize, and in so are that much closer to the Gods. But if we tear apart this culture were man and his intelligence come second to Supernatural figures that we give power to, then that culture, that way of thinking is lost

The real irony is that this rant started from a movie based on a Hero, Perseus, who actually represents all three brothers mentioned earlier. He is the son of Zues. Being buried alive as a baby he has already experienced death in the eyes of Hades. And he was cast into the ocean, Poseidon’s realm, and was delivered to safety.