mythtake episode 6 mythological tour of the solar system 3: venus/aphrodite

venus copy

Image courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech. http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/visions-of-the-future/

img_6482The third stop on our Mythological Tour of the Solar System is Venus (Greek goddess Aphrodite). We take a look at the origins of this mysterious goddess of sexuality.

Be advised, this episode includes discussion of sex in mythological contexts.

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Hesiod Theogony 188-206

As soon as he cut off the genitals with adamant,
he threw them from land into the turbulent sea;
they were carried over the sea a long time, and white
foam arose from the immortal fresh; within a girl
grew; first she came to holy Cythera, and
next she came to wave-washed Cyprus.
A revered and beautiful goddess emerged, and
grass grew under her supple feet. Aphrodite
[foam-born goddess and well-crowned Clytherea]
gods and men name her, since in foam she grew;
and Cytherea, since she landed at Cypher;
and Cyprogenea, since she was born in wave-beat Cyprus;
and “Philommeides,” since she appeared from the genitals.
Eros accompanied her, and fair Longing followed,
when first she was born and went to join the gods.
She has such honour from the first, and this is her
portion among men and immortal gods:
maidens’ whispers and smiles and deceptions,
sweet pleasure and sexual love and tenderness.
(Trans. Richard Caldwell)

 

Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite 53-74
So he cast in her heart sweet longing for Anchises,
who, at that time, like the immortals in build, was tending cattle
on the lofty peaks of MT. Ida rich in springs.
Then indeed, seeing him, laughter-loving Aphrodite
was struck with love, and astounding desire seized her heart.
To Cyprus she went and entered her fragrant temple
at Paphos where her sacred precinct was and her fragrant altar.
There she went inside and shut the gleaming doors.
And the Graces bathed her and pointed her
with ambrosial olive oil, such as is poured over the gods who are forever,
divinely sweet, which was made fragrant for her.
Having clothed herself well in all her beautiful robes
adorned with gold, laughter-loving Aphrodite
hastened to Troy, leaving behind sweet-smelling Cyprus,
swiftly making her way high up among the clouds.
She came to Ida rich in springs, mother of beasts,
and went straight to the shepherd’s hut across the mountain.
And fawning after her leapt grey wolves and flashing-eyed lions,
bears and swift leopards hungry for deer.
Seeing them she rejoiced in her heart
and cast longing in their breasts, and together they all
lay down in pairs in their shadowy lairs.
(Trans. Susan Shelmerdine)

 

Euripides Hippolytus 1-23

I am powerful and not without a name among mortals
and within the heavens. I am called the goddess Cypris.
Of those who dwell within Pontus
and the boundaries of Atlas and see the light of the sun,
I treat well those who revere my power,
but I trip up those who are proud towards me.
For this principle holds among the race of the gods also:
they enjoy being honoured by mortals.
I shall now show you the truth of these words:
Theseus’ son, Hippolytus, the Amazon’s offspring,
reared by pure Pittheus–
he alone of the citizens of this land of Trozen
says that I am by nature the most vile of divinities.
He spurns the bed and doesn’t touch marriage,
but donors Apollo’s sister, Artemis, the daughter of Zeus,
considering her the greatest of divinities.
Always consorting with the virgin through the green wood,
he rids the land of beasts with swift dogs,
having come upon a more than mortal companionship.
I don’t begrudge them these things; why should I?
But I will punish Hippolytus this day
for the wrongs he has done me.
(Trans. Michael Halleran)

 


Selected Sources

Theogony. Trans. Richard Caldwell & Stephanie Nelson. Newburyport MA: Focus Publishing, 2009.

Homeric Hymns. Trans. Susan Shelmerdine. Newburyport MA: Focus Publishing, 1995. Print.

Euripides. Hippolytus. Trans. Michael Halleran. Ed. Stephen Esposito. Newburyport MA: Focus Publishing, 2004.

Nasa.gov “Venus” (http://solarsystem.nasa.gov/planets/venus )

Nasa.gov “Your Weight in Space” (http://solarsystem.nasa.gov/kids/index.cfm?Filename=puzzles)


Shout Outs & Notes

Check out The Endless Knot (http://www.alliterative.net) podcast by Mark Sundaram and Aven McMaster.

Gods Behaving Badly (http://www.hachettebookgroup.com/titles/marie-phillips/gods-behaving-badly/9780316067638/) by Marie Phillips, 2008.


 

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This week’s theme music: “Super Hero” by King Louie’s Missing Monuments from the album “Live at WFMU” (2011). Used under Creative Commons license. Music used under Creative Commons license and available from Free Music Archive.

mythtake episode 05 mythological tour of the solar system 2: Mercury/Hermes

The second stop img_6482on our Mythological Tour of the Solar System is Mercury. Meet the Greek god Hermes (Roman= Mercury) in the Homeric Hymn to Hermes as he goes from baby to Olympian god in just two days!

Passage: Homeric Hymn to Hermes 20-42, 163-181

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Photos: (left) A tortoise munching on grass, Athens; (centre) A herma National Museum of Archaeology, Athens; (right) A headless herma on display on the south slope of the Athenian acropolis. All photos ©AlisonInnes 2009.


Homeric Hymn to Hermes (20-42, 163-181)

And after he leapt up from the immortal limbs of Maia
he did not stay for long lying in his holy cradle,
but sprang up and sought the cattle of Apollo,
walking over the threshold of the high-vaulted cave.
There, finding a tortoise, he won endless joy.
Hermes indeed was the first to make the tortoise a singer,
as she met him at the courtyard gates,
feeding on the rich grass in front of the house,
going lightly on her feet. And the swift son of Zeus
laughed watching her and immediately spoke a word:
:Already, a very useful token for me! I do not scorn it.
Hail, comrade of the feast, lovely in shape, played at the dance,
a welcome sight! Whence did you, a tortoise living in the mountains,
clothes yourself in this beautiful plaything, this gleaming shell?
But I will take and carry you into the house, and you will profit me,
nor will I dishonour you; but first you will help me.
It is better to be at home, since the outdoors is harmful.
For surely you will be a defence against baneful attacks
while alive, but if you die, then you would sing very beautifully.”
So he spoke and at the same time lifting her up in both hands
he went back into the house carrying the lovely plaything.
Then, after swinging her around, he pierced through the life-force
of the mountain-tortoise with a knife of grey iron.
……
But Hermes answered her with crafty words,
“My mother, why do you aim these threats at me as if I were a foolish young child, who knows very few evils in his heart
and cowers, fearful, at his mother’s threats?
But I shall enter into whatever skill is best
to feed myself and you forever. And the two of us
alone among the immortal gods will not continue to stay here
in this place without offerings and without prayers, as you bid.
Better to converse with the immortals all our days,
rich, wealthy, with much land for crops, than to sit
at home in a gloomy cave. And about honour,
I, too, will enter into the cult which Apollo has.
And if my father will not grant this, I will try,
(and I have the power), to be a leader of thieves.
And if the son of glorious Leto searches for me,
I think something else even greater will befall him.
For I will go to Pytho to break into his great house;
from there I will plunder splendid tripods in abundance and cauldrons
and gold, and gleaming iron in abundance
and much clothing. And you will see it is you want.”

(Trans. Susan Shelmerdine)


Selected Sources

Homeric Hymns. Trans. Susan Shelmerdine. Newburyport MA: Focus Publishing, 1995. Print.

Asthma, Aaron J. editor. The Theoi Project; Guide to Greek Mythology. “Olympian Gods of Greek Mythology.” 2007. (http://www.theoi.com/greek-mythology/olympian-gods.html)

Nasa.gov “Mercury” (http://solarsystem.nasa.gov/planets/mercury)

Nasa.gov “Your Weight in Space” (http://solarsystem.nasa.gov/kids/index.cfm?Filename=puzzles)

International Astronomical Union (IAU) Working Group for Planetary System Nomenclature (WGPSN). Gazetteer of Planetary Nomenclature. “Planetary Names: Categories for Naming Features on Planets and Satellites.” (http://planetarynames.wr.usgs.gov/Page/Categories)

 


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This week’s theme music: “Super Hero” by King Louie’s Missing Monuments from the album “Live at WFMU” (2011). Used under Creative Commons license. Music used under Creative Commons license and available from Free Music Archive.

mythtake episode 4 mythological tour of the solar system 1: helios

img_6482MythTake Episode 4
Mythological Tour of the Solar System 1: Helios (Sun)

Today we embark on a mythological tour of the solar system! Our first stop is the sun, a.k.a., Helios. We take a look at the Homeric Hymn to Helios and Odyssey 12.340-403 to find out more about this lesser-known Greek god.

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Passage One: Homeric Hymn to Helios

Begin to sing again, O Muse Kalliope, daughter of Zeus,
about Helios the radiant god, whom cow-eyed Euryphaëssa
bore to the son of Gaia and starry Ouranos.
For Hyperion married the famous Euryphaëessa,
how own sister, who bore him beautiful children,
Eos of the rosy arms and fair-haired Selene,
and tireless Helios like the immortals,
who shines on mortals and immortal gods
as he drives his horses. With his eyes he flashes a piercing look
from his golden helmet, and bright beams shine radiantly
from him, while from his head and over his temples
the bright cheekpieces cover his graceful face
shining from afar. On his skin a beautiful, finely-woven garment
shimmers in the blast of the winds, and his stallions
………………………….
He stays his golden-yoked chariot and horses there
until he sends them wondrously through the heavens to the ocean.
Farewell, lord, kindly grant delightful sustenance.
Having begun from you I will celebrate there ace of mortal men,
the demigods whose deeds the gods have shown to men.

Homeric Hymns. Trans. Susan Shelmerdine. Newburyport MA: Focus Publishing, 1995. Print.


Passage Two: Odyssey 12.374-388

Lampetia of the light robes ran swift with the message
to Hyperion the Sun God, that we had killed his cattle,
and angered at the heart he spoke forth among the immortals:
“Father Zeus, and you other everlasting and blessed
gods, punish the companions of Odysseus, son of Laertes;
for they outrageously killed my cattle, in whom I always
deleted, on my way up into the starry heaven,
or when I turned back again from heaven towards earth. Unless
these are made to give me just recompense of army cattle,
I will go down to Hades’ and give my light to the dead men.”
Then in turn Zeus who gathers the clouds answered him:
“Helios, shine on as you do, among the immortals
and mortal men, all over the grain-giving earth. For my part
I will strike theses men’s fast ship midway on the open
wine-blue sea with a shining bolt and dash it to pieces.”

Homer. Odyssey. Translated Richmond Lattimore. New York: Perennial Classics, 1967.


Sources

Archaic Greek:
Homeric Hymn 31 Helios
Homeric Hymn to Demeter 62-89
Homer Odyssey 1.8, 8.22, 10.191, 12.340-403
Homer Iliad 3.104, 277; 14.344; 18.240

Hellenistic:
Orphic Hymn 8
Proclus Hymn 1
Apollonius Argonautika 3.598

Roman:
Ovid Metamoprhoses 1.730-2.380; 4.170-284

Astronomical Facts:
Nasa.gov https://www.nasa.gov/sun


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This week’s theme music: “Super Hero” by King Louie’s Missing Monuments from the album “Live at WFMU” (2011). Used under Creative Commons license. Music used under Creative Commons license and available from Free Music Archive.

mythtake episode 3: hector

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Welcome to episode 3! In this episode, we meet the great Trojan hero from the Trojan War, Hector, in his moment of decision. Will he choose to fight the Greek hero Achilles? Or does he take the easy route out? We examine his soliloquy in Iliad 22.99-115. It’s not easy being a hero!

 

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This week’s passage is Iliad 22:99-115

What shall I do? If I go back through the gates in the wall
Polydamas will be the first to heap reproaches on me, 100
because he urged me at the start of this last deadly night,
when glorious Achilles rose up, to lead the Trojans into the city.
I would not listen to him—but it would have been much better.
But now, since I have ruined the people by my recklessness,
I feel shame before the Trojan men and the Trojan women with their 105
trailing robes, in case some man of low rank may say of me:
‘Hector trusted in his own might and so refined his people.’
That is what they will say; and then it would be far better
to go and meet Achilles face to face and either kill him and return
or die at his hands, full of glory, in front of the city. 110
And yet, suppose I lay down my bossed shield and
strong helmet and lean my spear against the wall, and
go out by myself to meet blameless Achilles, and
promise to give back Helen and her possessions with her,
every single thing that Alexander brought to Troy…

Homer. Iliad. Trans. Anthony Verity. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.


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This week’s theme music: “Super Hero” by King Louie’s Missing Monuments from the album “Live at WFMU” (2011). Used under Creative Commons license. Music used under Creative Commons license and available from Free Music Archive.

mythtake episode 2: odysseus & circe

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Welcome to episode 2! In this episode, we are joined by our feline co-host (Muggs) as we discuss Odysseus’ and Circe’s relationship in book 10 of the Odyssey.

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This week’s passage is Odyssey 10.467-486:

There for all our days until a year was completed
we sat there feasting on unlimited meat and sweet wine.
But when it was the end of a year, and the months wasted
away, and the seasons changed, and the long days were accomplished,
then my eager companions called me aside and said to me:
“What ails you now? It is time to think about our own country,
if truly it is ordained that you shall survive and come back
to your strong-sounded house and to the land of your fathers.”
So they spoke, and the proud heart in me was persuaded.
So for the whole length of the day until the sun’s setting
we sat there feasting on unlimited meat and sweet wine.
But when the sun went down and the sacred darkness came over,
they lay down to sleep all about the shadowy chambers,
but I, mounting the surpassingly beautiful bed of Circe,
clasped her by the knees and entreated her, and the goddess
listened to me, and I spoke to her and addressed her in winged words:
“O Circe, accomplish now the promise you gave, that you
would see me on my way home. The spirit within me is urgent
now, as also in the rest of my friends, who are wasting
my heart away, lamenting around me, when you are elsewhere.”

Homer. Odyssey. Trans. Richmond Lattimore. New York: HarperCollins, 1967. Print.

 


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This week’s theme music: “Super Hero” by King Louie’s Missing Monuments from the album “Live at WFMU” (2011). Used under Creative Commons license. Music used under Creative Commons license and available from Free Music Archive.

launching our myth podcast!

This is a test run of a new podcast!

My colleague @darrinsunstrum and I are starting a myth podcast! We’re both academics with close to 20 years experience teaching myth between the two of us (yikes!). We like to talk, so our podcast is the two of us discussing Greek and Roman myths for 40-45 minutes. Each episode we’ll choose a different literary passage from the ancient sources and discuss its mythological and historical contexts as well as explore some of the key themes. Our first run at this is Euripides’ Medea, lines 476-492 (text provided below so you can follow along).

Episode 1: Medea (Part 1) https://drive.google.com/open?id=0BytS8FtLYgBGbzVDWnVma0RjZjA

(I’m still sorting out the tech side a bit; for now it looks like you’ll have to download the file from GoogleDrive before playing it.)

We’re still working on coming up with a name (suggestions welcome!) and some artwork and even a schedule of sorts. We’ll sort these things out eventually, but for now we hope that you enjoy our ramblings! Leave a comment for us to let us know what you think and to make any special requests!


I rescued you, as the Greeks know who were
your shipmates long ago aboard the Argo,
when you were sent to master the monstrous bulls
with yokes and sow the furrow with seeds of death.
The serpent who never slept, his twisted coils                             480
protecting the golden fleece, I was the one
who killed it and held out to you a beacon of safety.
I betrayed both my father and my house
and went with you to Pelias’ land, Iolkos,
showing in that more eagerness than sense.
I murdered Pelias by the most painful of deaths,                        485
at the hands of his own daughters, and I destroyed
his whole house. And in return for this, you foulest of men,
you betrayed us and took a new wife,
even though you have children. Were you childless,                  490
one might forgive your passion for this marriage bed.
But now the trust of oaths is gone.
(Eur. Med. 476-492)

Euripides. Medea. Trans. A. J. Podlecki. Ed. Stephen Esposito. Newburyport, MA: Focus Publishing, 2004. Print.


You can also read Euripides’ Medea (Trans. Kovak) online for free at Perseus.tufts.edu.
Music “Super Hero” by King Louie’s Missing Monuments from the album “Live at WFMU” (2011). Used under Creative Commons license. Available online at Free Music Archive
http://freemusicarchive.org/music/King_Louies_Missing_Monuments/

Intro/exit music from “Holding out for a Hero” by Bonnie Tyler (1999 version). Go buy it on iTunes**Update (09/04)–Since it’s not 100% clear that using this song in our podcast isn’t in violation of any copyright, we’ll be changing up the theme to a work licensed under Creative Commons and reposting the episode. We want our listeners and supporters to know that we value and support artists’ creative work. As academics, we appreciate the importance of intellectual property rights and recognize that we need to set a good example for the responsible use of others’ works. (***It’s still an awesome song. Go listen to it in full if you haven’t already!)

religion & myth

I have heard a mythology professor bemoan students’ unfamiliarity with the Judeo-Christian religion, but never paid it much heed. It seems that in almost every first year Classics course, at some point a student will submit a paper that is a mash up of half-forgotten, half-misremembered Sunday School stories and a few facts from lecture. While in some way these are easy papers to mark, I don’t think any of us enjoy them because they are so far off the mark. Is this really something we want to encourage?

In the most recent mythology course I worked for, we endeavoured to teach students something about structuralism, which to be really successful requires knowledge of some sort of mythology aside from Graeco-Roman. Our teaching guidelines assumed that most students would have some familiarity with the Judeo-Christian mythology because of its enormous influence on western art and culture. But of the 40 students I had, not one was familiar with any of the Judeo-Christian myths referenced; I know from conversation that other classes were similar.

But the more I have thought about this professor’s comments, the more I am inclined to agree that students need exposure to religions– not for the purpose of moralizing or proselytizing (I would never support that) but so they can understand the cultural artefacts produced within these systems. Many, perhaps most, of the great works of art and literature in the western world stem from two strains of mythology: Graeco-Roman and Christian. An inability to understand a society’s mythology hampers one’s ability to understand its cultural products.

Now, I know referring to the Christian religion, or any religion, as mythology, will no doubt stir up some ire among adherents. But I use the term in its academic sense, rather than as a value judgment (I won’t touch that subject!)  Although we call these belief sets religions today, they fit the criteria of a mythology: that is, these belief systems seek to provide a comprehensive, total explanation of the cosmos. They attempt to answer questions such as where we come from, where we go when we die, why we can’t see the gods, how we should live, how we communicate with the gods, etc. Graeco-Roman mythology also addressed these questions and was once the religion of its day; While there was no set canon, it was equally diverse (if not more so) as any religion today in terms of individual beliefs.

So that leads me to think: What is the difference between religion and mythology? Is it simply a matter of time and distance– that is, if the culture is sufficiently distant from one’s one, does that make it myth? I think this is problematic as it creates a value hierarchy and considers some belief sets as more legitimate than others. Rather, I would suggest that mythology is the underlying system of understanding and that religion is the expression of this system through ritual and enforced norms; that is, the religious expression both stems from and reinforces the mythology. With time, elements of the religious expression outside of the original mythology are also incorporated into the mythology as the system is altered to maintain its currency and authority in a shifting society.

To follow this idea further, I would suggest that knowledge of mythologies is necessary to understand and appreciate art and literature produced within (or with reference to) these systems not simply for the basic story that is depicted by a painting or poem, but to understand things such as the artist’s intention, how the work relates to the artist’s contemporary society, and how the artist’s work is interpreted by different audiences. Exposure to these mythologies (religions) is necessary not only to understand what a particular work of art is about, but to understand its importance and significance in a society. 

some beginning thoughts on myth & fantasy; or, a classicist’s foray into tolkien

I am a latecomer to the genre of high fantasy. I come to it not as a fan of fictional worlds (although that is a consequence), but primarily as a classicist trained in studying mythological texts. It is only in the past few years that I have become increasingly interested in classical reception; that is, how successive audiences have received, reinterpreted and reused Graeco-Roman mythology. This has led to my growing interest in how classical mythology is adopted and adapted into popular modern art and literature.

My academic training has certainly equipped me with a theoretical framework for approaching mythological texts. As an MA candidate in Classics writing a thesis, I had to not only understand and use theory, but also defend my use of it. I became comfortable using Foucauldian discourse analysis, feminist theory, gender theories, and, of course, Lévi-Strausse’s structuralism to understand classical texts. This, I believe, is one of the enduring legacies of my MA degree: As I read any work of fiction, watch a movie (which, alas, I do all too infrequently) or even a TV show, a part of my brain is always churning away at some point asking questions. What genders are being constructed and how? What kinds of power dynamics are happening, and how does this relate to gender roles? How are women’s roles constructed? What type of thinking is happening here? What is the underlying invariant that this work explores? And, most importantly, WHY is this happening the way it is?

I began my venture into high fantasy accidentally, reading the first four books of Martin’s GoT series during the last spring of my MA. I binged on them between writing drafts of thesis chapters. They were an escape, but they also enthralled me as I began to apply my thinking skills–at first unwittingly, but then more consciously. As my ideas of how I could apply my theoretical toolkit to these texts increased, so did the questions I wanted to investigate, and thus my interest in epic fantasy grew. As a late comer to the epic fantasy party, I have a lot of catching up to do. Thus far I have only read the first five books of GoT (that’s all that’s out) and The Hobbit; I am currently a third of the way through Silmarillion with the rest of the Lord of the Rings (LOTR) trilogy lined up next. Forays into Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time, Pratchett’s Discworld and Riordon’s Percy Jackson series are also planned, as is a re-reading of Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia. I might even be convinced to finally dip a toe into Rowling’s Harry Potter. Plus, of course, reading some academic writing about these works. My goal in all this venture is not to become a know-it-all of fantasy literature; I am not interested in memorizing endless trivia as I have already burned up too many precious brain cells memorizing Greek conjugations, which I no longer use. Rather, I am interested in seeing how these works connect with Graeco-Roman mythology, whether it be openly, as in the Percy Jackson series, or through structuralist analysis.

The problem is, of course, the more I read the more ideas I get and the more questions I come up with to answer. That’s where my blog comes in. I want to use this space to sift out ideas, see what works, piece things together bit by bit. My goal isn’t to determine which work is best, or list characters or facts or argue about movie interpretations (although I plan to address that), but to look at how these works engage mythological ideas. The focus isn’t on facts, but ideas. (I’ve always been a big-picture thinker.) A warning that this will not be a series of neatly-written essays, but a rambling monologue!

Is it right to approach these texts as mythology and to relate them to classical mythology in particular? We are, after all, talking about multi-volume epics written by a single author and, in the case of Tolkien especially, influenced primarily by Norse mythology, not Graeco-Roman.  Graeco-Roman mythology, on the other hand, was a result of oral tradition. There is (and was) no one defined canon of Greek mythology; rather, there were as many variations to a story as there were tellers. The versions of myth with which you as an ancient Greek might be familiar depended on where you lived; when you lived; and whose version you heard, liked, and remembered. Myths were in constant creative reuse, and only a fraction of the art and literature which records them has survived to our day. I find students, when first approaching Greek mythology, want to pin down the “correct” version of a myth and to fit multiple myths into a single timeline (I was guilty of that desire myself, way back in the day), but myth simply doesn’t work this way. Multiple versions co-exist simultaneously and cannot be logically reconciled with one another. It’s a challenge to our linear, western way of thinking, but once we move past that we find a remarkable field of study.

To come back to the question, then, can works written by a single author be compared to works composed anonymously by many poets in many versions be compared? Yes. When we study Greek mythology we use a text that, at some point in time, has been set down by someone. The difference, I think, will be that a work by one author, such as Tolkien, will have a greater degree of internal consistency than a work created over many centuries by multiple authors, such as the Homeric epics. Homer, whoever and how ever many he was, set down the Iliad and Odyssey after centuries of oral composition and thus it contains an odd mixture of both Bronze Age and Dark Age society which leads to what could be considered inconsistencies in description (I am thinking here particularly of the difference between the Phaeacians’ Bronze-Age palace and Odysseus’ hovel with a manure pile out front– both these men are kings (basilei), but one’s palace is from the Bronze Age and the other’s is from the Dark Age.) Tolkien, on the other hand, went back to The Hobbit after writing LOTR to make slight adjustments to the story to ensure consistency. But my point is really this: at some point, we have written texts for Greek mythology and we also have written texts for epic fantasy. We have texts with which we can do a textual comparison.

And we can compare mythologies across culture and time. Structuralism allows for this; indeed, I would say structuralism demands this. A key aspect of structuralism is the search for the invariant; that is, the underlying ‘thing’ that a myth is about once you strip off the decoration. Lévi-Strauss describes it several ways in his English work Myth and Meaning; The image that works best for me is that of a landscape. Structuralism strips away the plants and trees and soils and looks at the underlying features of the landscape/myth and finds similarities here across mythologies. These are the invariants, and include explanations of good and evil, death and life, how to live, how to relate to the gods, and why we can’t see the gods. While mythological invariants are found across genres and forms of art, they are perhaps the most easily seen in myths proper and the fantasy genre.

Structuralism also includes the idea of pre-literate thought. It feels odd to discuss pre-literate thought when we are dealing with a work written by a very literate man in the 1950s, but that is the term we have so let’s use it. Pre-literate thought seeks to provide a total, global explanation for the world. Rather than addressing particular phenomenon and being content in not knowing the rest (which is what Lévi-Struass calls scientific thought), pre-literate thought seeks to provide a comprehensive explanation. I think this might be most easily seen in Tolkien’s The Silmarillion, which I am reading now, although it is certainly evident in The HobbitThe Silmarillion attempts to provide a global understanding of the world of Middle Earth (and includes all the invariants I listed above– but more on that in another post). Comparable mythological texts for easy comparison would be Hesiod’s Theogony or Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

Finally, Greek mythology gives us epic and we are talking about epic fantasy. Now the epic is not unique to Greek mythology (think of the Old English epic Beowulf, which is also on my reading list), but we have the Iliad and Odyssey where we see the idea of the hero developed and the hero on a quest. Heroes on a quest…. sounds a bit like Bilbo, doesn’t it?

To summarize, then: A work does not have to make direct reference to Graeco-Roman mythology to be compared to it. We can use structuralism to compare myths across time and culture by looking at the invariants. Graeco-Roman mythology provides us with texts for comparisons, as well as the heroic epic cycle. Building on this, my ideas for further inquiry include:

  • more consideration of fantasy as myth;
  • construction of gender in The Hobbit;
  • relation between Tolkien’s books and the movies;
  • searching for the invariant in Tolkien;
  • evidence of the heroic epic cycle in The Hobbit and LOTR;
  • depictions of women;
  • depictions of monsters;
  • discussion of the nature of epic; and
  • comparison of origin myths.

But I know this list will grow much longer the more I read. Clearly, you can take the girl out of academics, but you can’t take the academics out of the girl!

Herakles in Toronto

Just a quick post this week as I’m currently busy with another sort of architecture– Minoan peak sanctuaries on Crete– for a presentation later this week.

Head of Herakles
Head of Herakles, former Bank of North America, 49 Yonge St. Toronto

Herakles watched over the comings and goings of the Bank of North America’s patrons from his perch over the main entrance.  The building (now the Irish Embassy pub) is situated at 49 Yonge St, Toronto, at the northeast corner of Yonge and Wellington. The bank was built by Henry Langley in 1873-4 and designed in the Second Empire style by architect Thomas Lamb. Originally the main entrance to the bank was on the Wellington street facade,  but by 1903 Yonge Street had become the major thoroughfare and the segmented (arched) pediment doorway was moved to the Yonge street side.

As mentioned, the building is the Second Empire style, a French-derived style originally brought to Toronto in the 1866 Government House.

This head can easily be identified as Herakles by the Nemean lion skin he wears.  It’s hard to get a really good view of it from the ground, since Herakles is looking up and out rather than down, but you can see the lion’s jaws above Herakles’ forehead. No one has really determined why Herakles occurs here, although I would venture to suggest that he is playing an apotropaic (warding off danger) role. It is common on Classical buildings to see a god, goddess, or, especially, a gorgon, staring out from a temple’s pediment. Their purpose was to ward off evil. I would suggest that this is Herakles’ role here, although the question remains as to why Lamb chose the hero Herakles.

There is another, and quite different, Herakles above the Elgin and Winter Garden Theaters.

(Sources: McHugh 6-7,  Murray 75-77.)

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