Until he gets you to the other side…

So the iPod shuffle daemon was at it again.  Today it was this :

I’m not sure that I can think of a better example of popular music using mythological themes and images than Chris De Burgh’s single from his 1982 album The Getaway.  The archetypal figure of the guardian to the next world- or of a liminal space that can lead onwards to enlightenment- is found in myths from many different cultures, and retains its impact when used in a pop song that is, now,  over 30 (!) years old.

The song is all about journeying, which makes it a fantastic song for road trips.  Especially ones that involve traveling along dark, deserted roads.  The lyrics evoke a sense of anticipation and mystery, and the use of the character of the Ferryman lends a sense of foreboding to the song, but wow, it can still make me tap my toes and sing along whenever I happen to hear it.

In Greek mythology Charon is the boatman who ferries the newly dead across the River Styx (or the River Acheron- it depends on the source) and demands payment for the ride.  If the cash isn’t forked over,  the soul is left to wander on the far shore as a restless ghost.  Charon is featured as an important character in many Greek Hero tales.  Hercules, Orpheus and Aeneas all run into him over the course of their respective adventures.

He also appears in Dante’s Inferno, Canto 3, as a forbidding old man, unwilling to let Dante on board since he is tasked with ferrying the dead to the realm of the damned, and Dante remains among the living.  Virgil pulls rank, and the two travelers are permitted passage, though it is explained that in the regular course of things only sinners have to make this crossing.  This makes sense in the context of Dante’s mythology (they are at the Gate of Hell at this point in the Divine Comedy after all) but is in contrast to the Greek tradition which requires all souls to pay their way across the river in order to gain access to the afterlife.

In the Epic of Gilgamesh (which I also discussed here) the Ferryman is named Urshanabi and he acts as a companion to the King of Uruk as Gilgamesh continues his quest to rescue Enkidu from the realm of the dead.  Urshanabi teaches Gilgamesh respect of the river, Hubur- the Mesopotamian river of the dead- and of nature itself.  He is kind, and helps Gilgamesh- despite getting grief from Utnapistim for doing so.  This encounter provides part of the guidance that leads Gilgamesh to the understanding that the right order of the world, including the rules of the living and the dead, are not to be circumvented, even when the lost one is greatly beloved and mourned.

Likewise, Buddhist traditions feature the liminal character of the Ferryman who teaches respect for nature and the lessons that the river can impart to those who are willing to listen.  In some stories of the Life of the Buddha, the Ferryman refuses to let him cross since he lacks the fare.  The Buddha responds by making himself disappear and reappear on the other side of the river, much to the Ferryman’s consternation.  This story provides an etiology for the tradition in Buddhism that allows those on the path to Enlightenment to traverse ferry crossings without payment.

In his novel Siddhartha, written as an attempt to allay his own doubts regarding the purpose of life and the resulting existential malaise, and based in Buddhist teachings and mythology, Hermann Hesse presented the character of the Ferryman as a benevolent spiritual guide who aids Siddhartha in his journeying.  His name, Vasudeva, is one of the names of the god Krishna, suggesting divine intercession in the progress of Siddhartha’s adventure.

Whether a positive or negative figure, the Ferryman is always presented as the person guarding the threshold to an altered state of being: from life into death or from ignorance into wisdom.  Chris De Burgh’s Ferryman is in keeping with modern representations- a sinister figure, often pictured as a cowl-wearing skeleton, not dissimilar to the image of the Grim Reaper- which reflects our cultural fear of death and apprehension about the unknown, more in keeping with the Greek and Medieval personification of the liminal character.

Yet the hero of his song decisively and actively seeks the river and the Ferryman, despite the warnings that ‘too many men have failed before’, perhaps as part of his own Hero’s journey, and therefore more akin to the Mesopotamian and Buddhist (and 20th century interpretations of Buddhist mythology) perspectives about the paths all must take to progress through this life in an effort to gain wisdom and fulfill whatever purpose one seeks.

As such, the mythological theme as presented in the song seems to be an amalgam of the different ways of looking at the passage into a different state of being, highlighting the reality of human existence that demands change and movement from one state to another.  Stasis is not possible, and the process of change, as described in the ancient myths, can be greeted either with fear or with welcoming anticipation of lessons to be learned.

The story told in Don’t Pay the Ferryman seems to suggest that the middle path- of respect, some fearful hesitation but definite positive momentum- is the best way to navigate the trials of life.  Pretty hefty subject matter- and it’s still a great song to have on a mix tape for 21st century journeys- whether towards enlightenment or a weekend road trip up north.

*Geek Note: Listen for Anthony Head (Giles from Buffy the Vampire Slayer) at the bridge, reciting lines from The Tempest.  So cool.

Escape goats

Given my great love of myth and symbol as expressions of what it means to be human, it should hardly come as a surprise that I love language in general and the origins of words and phrases in particular.  We take words for granted- use and misuse them without too much thought about where they came from and, sometimes, what they really mean.  So many words and phrases that are part of our (relatively) common parlance have origins in the language of myth.

One such term has been hovering on the edge of my consciousness a lot lately- not because it is all that out of the ordinary, but because I heard it spectacularly misused in conversation not long ago- although, to be perfectly fair, both words have the same root and have been used interchangeable historically.  Still, the speaker calling herself an ‘escape goat’ very much summoned images of a cartoonish getaway goat stationed outside of a bank as quick post-robbery transportation.  Think Benny, the New York taxi from ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit’, as a goat, and you have a pretty good idea of the mental picture I got.

The concept of the scapegoat has its origin in the Ancient Near East, most notably in biblical mythology.  Although there are comparable examples from Ebla, in Mesopotamia, that predate the biblical usage of the concept, the role of the scapegoat in the ceremonies associated with the Day of Atonement is perhaps the most familiar to contemporary audiences.

Leviticus 16.1-34 describes an annual ritual that likely was originally a purification rite for the sanctuary where religious events and sacrifices took place.  It detailed the steps required to remove the impurity caused by the personal pollution of those who were present in the sanctuary, in particular, the bodies of Aaron’s priestly sons who ‘drew near before the Lord and died’ (Lev. 16.1) after offering up ‘unholy fire.’ (Lev. 10.1)

Aaron is told to sacrifice a bull as an offering against his own sins, and then ordered to take two goats and, by drawing lots, choose the ‘Lord’s goat’, which would be used as the blood sacrifice to atone for the collective sins of Yahweh’s Chosen people.  The second goat- the ‘Azazel’ goat- was sent into the wilderness, figuratively bearing the sins of the Israelites and taking them away from the sanctuary and the presence of the deity.  The two goats ‘paid’ for the sins of the nation in their stead.

Traditional English translations of the Hebrew bible render the Hebrew (transliterated) Azazel as ‘scapegoat’.  The original term is much more interesting and provides evidence, if more is needed, that the core beliefs of the ancient Israelites weren’t quite so monotheistic as all that.  ‘Azazel’ means ‘angry’ or ‘fierce’ god (El)– one who is seen as being in opposition to Yahweh.

Azazel appears as a character in 1 Enoch- as one of the leaders of the fallen angels or Watchers. In 1 Enoch, Azazel leads his fellows in providing humanity with such useful tools as the knowledge of warfare, metallurgy and the production of cosmetics (among other transgressions).  The corruption associated with evil comes from the teaching of inappropriate and sinful skills, as well as through the unholy congress of angels and humans.

This represented a new idea in the development of the mythology: sin came from something outside of human beings.  Evil originated in a sphere that was separate from the human realm, and therefore salvation must likewise come from an outside source.  At this point in the development of the mythology, humanity was seen as more the victim of supernatural forces than as a source of evil itself.  Augustine, much later, will strongly disagree with this perspective with his ideas about ‘original sin’ and comparable nonsense.

1 Enoch is one of the earliest texts in the development of biblical apocalypticism (even though it is a non-canonical, pseudepigraphal text) and one that heavily influenced later literary and legendary traditions.  Azazel, and the problems he caused in allowing humanity ‘access’ to sin, will certainly show up again in this blog.  Far from being an entirely negative figure, Azazel can be seen as a Hebrew Prometheus, providing humanity with the tools they required to enable the progress of civilization.  He is far too interesting to be merely a footnote in the discussion of the scapegoat.

In Christian mythology Jesus is the ultimate scapegoat.   Through his sacrifice all who profess faith in him are forgiven of the totality of their sins, and offered redemption in the afterlife.  He removed both the pollution and burden of sin, saving those who would follow him from the need for sacrifice- either in the form of the burnt offerings of the Jewish tradition from which Christianity stemmed, or in the self-sacrifice that Yahweh, and other contemporaneous gods, demanded.

In the current vernacular a scapegoat is someone who is vilified and punished for the sins of others- an often-blameless figure who is used to divert true justice, and often an agent of deception that hides the corruption of others.  I can think of one extremely timely scapegoat who has been thrown under the bus this past week (looking at you Mr. Former Chief of Staff to the PM) in the furtherance of an agenda/mandate that seems, increasingly, to require such actions in defence of suspect leadership.

Perhaps the image of the goat as a means of escape is actually the one that is indicative of the greater humanity.  The goat could be used as a means of transportation out of the environment of lies and prevarication that requires such sacrifice.  Misused or not, the idea of any kind of escape from such sordid necessity of displaced sacrifice in the name of preserving wrong behaviours seems the more humane and human option.

On second thought, I think I’ll hang onto that particular mental picture and hope that the cartoon goat carries those without real culpability far away from the systems that require such unethical acts of preservation.

Holding out for a Hero

It hasn’t been a great week (using understatement as a rhetorical device there).  Daily- sometime it feels like hourly- it seems that the news is full of stories about corruption and/or just plain BAAAAAAAAD judgement in the hallways of power and alleged public representation and service.

I could add my voice to the din surrounding our now-internationally-infamous mayor, but I prefer to hope that his chickens have finally come home to roost and he will no longer be able to escape the just desserts (my outrage is leading to terrible mixing of metaphors) his actions and attitudes warrant.  Gotta give props to the American comedians’ take on the situation though- however embarrassing it might be for this City that I love- and those of us who sure as hell didn’t vote for the guy.  And then there’s the wonderful home-grown commentary by brilliant writers like Jude Klassen/Tasha James.

I have already made my feelings fairly clear about the PM and his actions and ‘Action Plan’, so his non-response to the scandalous goings on with his senate appointees and high-ranking staffers is, sadly, no surprise at all.

Then there are the tragedies making international headlines.  The senseless killing of a young father (seemingly) over a truck.  A tornado that destroyed a town and  too many lives.  And, just today, a British soldier hacked to death by frustrated alleged adherents of one of those faulty ideologies I have written about here.

The media has once again resorted to ‘tragedy porn’, ‘reporting’ unimportant or unsubstantiated details and filling time with mindless chatter when there is nothing new to actually report (although how wonderful was the footage of the woman finding her dog, unharmed, under the rubble of her house while being interviewed?  THAT was worth the camera time).

The scrums surrounding the mayor, however deserved, are stomach turning as far as I’m concerned.  The impulse to harangue and harass and get ‘answers to nothing’ while beating out other ‘reporters’ for market share is morally and ethically repugnant (but is more important than actually providing the public with information or insight, apparently).

These events, and the way in which they are covered by media outlets, are feeding that anomie that I discussed before.  And although I have started a number of posts about the apocalypticism that is generated by this disconnect between societal expectations and reality, right now I don’t feel like adding to the negativity.

Joseph Campbell’s focus on the symbolic role of the Hero in myth and symbol was one of the starting points of his body of work.  He defined a Hero as someone who gives his/her life to something larger than oneself.  Someone who performs physical or spiritual deeds leading to the discovery- or rediscovery- of something otherwise lacking in society.

A Hero is often the founder of something- leaving the old ways behind on a quest for the new.  The Hero’s journey begins with something having been taken from the society or with a serious absence- of justice, rationale, compassion and etc.- in the Hero’s world.  Following the example of the Hero places all of us on an ancient trajectory- or the branch of an ancient tree- linking us all together as part of something that started long before any of us were around and that will still be here long after we are all gone.

I have created a new category for this blog- ‘Hero Worship’- and I will be rolling out examples of humans who are fighting the anomie through their actions, writings or general ways of being.  I need that positivity right now.  I have to climb out of the mire of the reality of injustice and greed in this world of ours.  Despite more prevalent news to the contrary, we DO have people who are doing things worth celebrating and leading by examples worth following.

I am going to give THEM my time and attention for the next little while.

dear god

Due to a particularly persistent earworm, I’ve been thinking about 80’s tunes a lot lately and switched the playlist on the iPod to better succumb to this feeling of nostalgia.  In one of the strange tricks of the ‘shuffle deity’ these two tracks came up back-to-back: 

Two songs, two years apart, one title.  Great tunes, both of them, and the epistolary form is in keeping with the concept of prayers/supplicant pleas to a deity and with the literary tradition of world mythologies, and therefore of academic as well as aural interest to me.

XTC’s song, from the 1986 album Skylarking, is pretty directly critical and suggests, despite its title, an atheistic worldview:

“Dear god, I don’t know if you’ve noticed but your name is on a lot of quotes in this book

us crazy humans wrote it, you should take a look…”

And:

“I won’t believe in heaven and hell, no saints, no sinners, no devil as well.  No pearly gates, no thorny crown, you’re always letting us humans down.

The wars you bring, the babes you drown, those lost at sea and never found

And it’s the same the whole world ’round

The hurt I see helps to compound that father, son and holy ghost is just somebody’s unholy hoax

And if you’re up there you’d perceive that my heart’s here upon my sleeve

If there’s one thing I don’t believe in it’s you, dear god.”

While there is a continual assertion throughout the song that Andy Partridge et al acknowledge that god is a human construct that is constantly failing humanity, there remains the underlying reality that SOOOOOOO many people still look to such a deity to guide and help them.  And despite the fact that the help is not in the offing, continue to believe the stories written in its name.  The anger and sense of moral outrage are striking- and heightened by the use of the child’s voice to begin and end the song.

Interestingly, XTC’s Dear God was a B-side, not originally included on the album.  American airplay of the song boosted its popularity to the extent that the album was reissued in the United States with the song replacing another.  There is a message in that- cultural mores (and the influence of the Bible Belt) are subject to change based on specificity of societal focus and concern.

For all its upbeat catchiness, XTC’s Dear God is a very angry song, directed at those whose complacent beliefs, or political machinations, perpetuate injustices while looking for quick fixes to unimportant things (“a big reduction in the price of beer”) that serve to keep the masses placated (although I would hardly disdain a small reduction in the price of beer, what with a long weekend coming up- not to mention an impending strike at the LCBO… but I digress).

Midge’s song, from his 1988 album Answers to Nothing (the title song may well turn up in another blog post someday- forewarning) is more questioning than accusatory, and leaves the possibility open that there may be some kind of ruling being up there, while wondering whether or not said deity might be listening.  The tempo and overall feel of the song suggests hope for change, with or without the intercession of a supernatural power.  His listing of the things he would like to see happen to make the world a better place can be summed up in the line “Give me peace in a restless world.” 

Answers to Nothing is his second solo offering, coming four years after he co-wrote a little ditty (Do They Know it’s Christmas) that initiated a social movement in music that is still reverberating through our collective cultural awareness and the ways in which we attempt to bring about social change.

Although he claims to be a “simple man with simple words to say”, Midge uses the imperative when listing his ‘requests’, suggesting an active concern rather than one which is simply plaintive and passive.  He also cautions humanity about making such requests of a deity in the lyric “asking for more only got us where we are today, which evokes various mythological and ideological concepts of ordained rights to things- whether land, power over other people or any other of dozens of perceived entitlements that are supposed to come along with adherence to a particular deity or belief.

During Much Music’s 80’s heyday (when it actually showed music rather than reality shows) Midge’s Dear God saw heavy rotation as part of the progamming on Christmas Day (along with that other tune of his) and, as a result, hearing it tends to evoke that time of year.  One line in particular always stood out to me: “Give me a worldwide religion”.  What with the directions that my pondering mind have always been wont to travel, I wondered about that particular phraseology and often rewrote it in my head to be ‘world without religion’ (which, admittedly, doesn’t scan as well in the metre of the song.  Not claiming to be a songwriter here).  Setting aside a discussion of the somewhat colonial idea that would have everyone in the world believe exactly the same thing (for perhaps another time),  ‘worldwide’ religion is not something that is possible.  Religions are contextual and answer the needs of people in specific times and places as a response to societal conditions and realities.  These specific realities are never going to be ‘worldwide’ and we are unlikely to ever all agree on our human interpretations of our varied environments.  The best we could, and should, be able to do, is to understand and accept those varieties, which isn’t something that will be easily achieved.  Not in the world that we currently have.

But we HAVE to try.

Both songs cry out to a mythological deity for help, but both are really just calls for us, as the ones who actually live on this planet, to DO something about our own freakin’ issues.  XTC and Midge are asking people to take responsibility for themselves rather than looking for supernatural aid to get us out of this “mess that we’ve made.”  We have to stop viewing tragedies and diseases and hardships as god-given punishments for nebulous sins and look to actual causes while using our learning and resources to find solutions.

Ultimately, our problems are our problems.  They need to be solved through working together and using the tools we have created- science, diplomacy, economics and etc.- since history has proven that issues affecting one part of this world eventually affect US ALL.  The only other option is to continue alternately railing against and then begging aid from an imaginary creature who has not been anything like helpful up until now.  Can any kind of intelligent rationale truly justify sitting on our collective asses in anticipation of divine intervention?  Really?!?!

dear god.

Standing on the Shoulders of the Master

Myth.  It is a word that has become ‘loaded’ in that it is used, in the common parlance, to indicate something that is inherently untrue.  On any given day one can find at least one example on interworld newsgroups discussing “10 myths about healthy foods” or the like.  There are television shows devoted to the supposition that a myth is, by definition, a lie, just waiting to be debunked by someone. The television show “Mythbusters” comes easily to mind.

Myths have become equated with lies, when what they really ARE are stories- tales that help to describe and explain the lot of humans and their interactions with their environments, both earthly and the postulated divine realms.  Myths help us to understand how people of other times and cultures understood and shaped the world.

In Religious Worlds, William Paden stated that myth “addresses and resolves conflicts and contradictions in human experience.”  Northrup Frye described myth as “charged with a special seriousness and importance” (The Great Code: The Bible and Literature).  And, in The Power of Myth, Joseph Campbell stated that myth is “humanity’s one great story… or, as it says in the Vedas of India, Truth is one, the sages speak of it by many names.”

Sure, there are examples in popular culture that give myths their due.  They can sometimes be seen as the means of communication that they were intended to be.  In an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation (‘Darmok’) the crew of the Enterprise encounters a culture whose language is constructed through the use of mythic imagery and events.  Jean-Luc recounts the story of Gilgamesh and Enkidu as a means of communication with his alien compatriot.

Generally speaking though, myths have become things to be discounted and dismissed.  In misusing the term this way the implication is that myths are the stories of those who are “other”- i.e. not Western, 21st century, rational, thinking individuals.  The perception is that they are totally fictitious and somehow ‘wrong’.  There is a negative value judgement inherent in designating something as a ‘myth’.

Myths are integral parts of religions and societies- both ancient and contemporary.  They are stories that were created, repeated, believed and beloved.  Yes, there are lots of stories about the gods, but myths also recount tales of historical events of significance to a particular tradition.  As one example, the ritual celebration of Passover reenacts an important mythological event in the religious tradition of Judaism- the release from bondage in Egypt, as described in the biblical book of Exodus.

Ritual, doctrinal and theological dimensions of religions are supported by the myths of the belief system.  Theology uses myths to create doctrines- coherent systems used to present a total picture of the realities of a particular worldview.  Without ‘myth’ there can be no ‘religion’.

But the myths behind various belief systems are not always particularly ordered or coherent.  As such, and given our human (and myth-based) propensity for the establishment of order, we are constantly seeking to make sense of the symbols and themes that recur across cultures and religious systems.  This involves human interpretation of human-created stories which can be both wonderful and dangerous, depending on the lens through which the interpretation is attempted.

Joseph Campbell, the prolific author and celebrated teacher of comparative mythology, brought myth, and its importance, to the masses.  He was the non-academic academic; he made the stories of humanity accessible and brought their study into our homes and consciousness through a body of work that included the series “The Power of Myth” with Bill Moyers in the late 1980’s.  His message, and conversational approach to the study of world mythology, is timeless and remains without peer.

Following Professor Campbell’s example, we have to stop blindly citing short passages of longer, larger, less-ordered myths, waaaaaay outside of their created contexts, as a means of ‘justifying’ current ideologies and culturally based prejudices, and realize, as Campbell emphasized throughout his worldwide teaching career, that our myths connect rather than separate us as humans.  Myths certainly have things to teach us and a determinedly human wisdom to impart that transcends the time and location in which the individual stories were composed, but they must be viewed through the specific lenses of time and place.  And they must be examined in this context in their totality with the irrelevancies and injustices of history removed to better reflect our human evolution.  We are learning, growing organisms, and our interpretation of the wisdom of the ages has to reflect this reality and our advances in science, philosophy and cultural discourse.

Discovering our collective and individual myths is an important way of connecting as humans- and of getting to know others who may, at first, seem incomprehensible to us, but the stories MUST be interpreted according to our contemporary ideals, values and consciences.  They should never be seen as static, but as living, developing representations of people being people who are trying to make sense of the realities of living and dying and everything in between.  As Professor Campbell so eloquently stated:

“People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life.  I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking.  I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances within our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive.  That’s what it’s all finally about, and that’s what these clues (myths) help us to find within ourselves.”  (The Power of Myth).

He was not suggesting that our stories should be unexamined prescriptions for living, but that they can inform our ways of interacting in THIS world and help animate and celebrate this ‘go round’ on the wheel of LIFE.  I realize that I’ve already said that his views are timeless but it bears repeating.  In this world of instant communication we have to strive ever harder to connect with the stories that define our humanity, while relegating those cultural mores that no longer reflect our continually progressing stages of development to the dust bin of positive change.  Doing so will help us to see that we are all looking for our own, personal and societal, ‘raptures’, and will demonstrate that most of our differences pale in comparison to the common drive of all humanity to live the best life possible in the time we are given, through the use of the tools we have created.

Such tools can form the basis of dialogues that will ultimately lead us to an understanding of one another, regardless of the surface differences that are highlighted daily in the media, and that contribute to an atmosphere of fear of the ‘other’.  If we need anything in today’s climate, a release from that fear certainly tops the list.  Joseph Campbell’s model for the appreciation of our myths- both ancient and modern- remains an excellent means of unpacking the symbols and meanings behind our attempts at making sense of our existence.  The wonders of our technological advancements allow us to access his teachings, and our stories, with the click of a mouse or the tap of a touch screen.  With such tools so readily to hand, can we honestly make excuses for not accessing the databanks and attempting to understand the perceived ‘other’?

Bullies

https://i2.wp.com/www.qacps.k12.md.us/mms/george/gilgameshpicture.jpg

Gilgamesh.  If there was ever a classic example of a  cautionary tale about leaders misusing their power to the detriment of the lives of the people, and the displeasure that this abuse caused the gods, the Epic of Gilgamesh is it.  A Number 1.  While there is a great deal going on in the myth, its warning against bullying tactics as a political ‘strategy’ is as important today as it was more than 4500 years ago.

The earliest extant version of the story dates to about 2100-2000 BCE, from the time of the Sumerian revival in Mesopotamia.  The Ancient Near East was a collection of City States, constantly battling for supremacy.  We have no precise dates for the historical King Gilgamesh (sometime between 2800 and 2500 BCE is likely), but he is mentioned in the Sumerian King List and tradition holds that he conquered the previous ruler to become king, and assumed that hereditary lineage in order to increase his legitimacy and authority.  According to the stories, Gilgamesh’s mother was the goddess Ninsun- Lady Wild Cow- making him 2/3 divine (not sure where they got that fraction, but that’s what the tablets say), and following his lifetime he was seen as a god in Mesopotamia.  Being a descendent of the divine wasn’t a requirement in Mesopotamian kingship, but it sure didn’t hurt.

Gilgamesh was the king of Uruk, the modern city of Warka in what is now central Iraq.  There remains a large complex of monumental architecture dating from the 4th millennium BCE that corresponds with the description found in the myth.  He appears as a character in many stories, but his Epic touches on fundamental points regarding the organization of Sumerian/Mesopotamian society and how the worldview defined such things as redemption, friendship, kinship, death, immortality and the afterlife.  But the myth begins with the importance of the responsibility of kingship, emphasizing the lengths to which the gods will go when the king is misbehaving and endangering the social order.

The foundational dichotomy upon which Mesopotamian society was built is that of the perpetual need to balance order and chaos.  The material world was created out of the body of the goddess of chaos, and her influence is constantly trying to reassert control.  The gods, and then the humans that they created to alleviate their burdens, have to maintain the order that is required to stave off these attacks of chaos.  All beings must follow these rules- and the human king is meant to be the exemplar for his followers.

From this perspective, Gilgamesh, for all his gifts and talents, was not, at first, a good king.  He was the King of not just Uruk, but of Hubris, and his womanizing, glory-seeking and bullying violated the proper order and left his people in despair- and also great danger.  Through the forced labour of his citizens, and taking them away from their regular daily tasks, Gilgamesh built the great walls around the city, not for the protection of his subjects, but for his own glory in posterity.  He acted as he desired, regardless of the complaints of his advisers and priests.  At his command ‘his weapons would rise up, his comrades have to rise up‘ and go to war for the furtherance of his glory.  He had no peer, all others were beneath him.

I don’t think it’s much of a stretch at all (sadly) to see direct correspondences with many world leaders today, right now and in the recent past.  I could list specific corresponding examples with one leader in particular, but I’ve already ranted about that guy enough this month.  Suffice to say the story of Gilgamesh recounts what ultimately happens when a leader, meant to be the example for the people, does not fulfill his ordered role.

The gods, of necessity, responded to the king’s breach of order and the complaints of the people.  The goddess Aruru, who first created humanity, took clay and created Enkidu, the warrior and wild man, to confront Gilgamesh.  After a mighty battle to standstill, respect and then great friendship grew between Enkidu and Gilgamesh.  They discovered that working together on the correct, properly ordered, path of justice was the only way to uphold societal stability AND keep the gods happy.  No more bi-partisan politics for Gil and The Wildman.

Gilgamesh was forced to look outside himself and his own immediate, short-sighted, selfish desires, and learned, through trials and heartbreak, that his role was not to be remembered for his personal greatness or to achieve immortality outside of the proper order of things, but that he had to assume the responsible rule of his people for as long as he was granted the time to do so.  And by fulfilling his role with responsibility and care- for ALL his people- he DID, ultimately, achieve lasting love and remembrance.  So much so that he remains a recognized figure thousands of years after his kingdom passed into history.

Contemporary world and local leaders should hearken to his tale.  There are no gods to intervene on our behalf, but as the citizens of the world WE have the power to take our politicians to task when they abuse their ‘ruling’ powers.   The leadership of societies remains a sacred (if I may use the term in the vernacular rather than religious sense) trust that MUST transcend personal (or religious or political ideology-driven) desires.  Bullying, whether through greed-based lobbying or defamatory attack ads, is NOT an acceptable means of guiding the progress of the people.  It is shocking to me that our leaders cannot seem to grasp this basic truth.  We need to become like Enkidu, challenging our leaders in ways that foster respect and help them understand the need to work together and for the betterment of all.  We might have to begin with a mighty battle, but, if the Epic of Gilgamesh tells us anything about humanity, we have the capacity to turn that fight into a better future for us all.  If Gilgamesh, the peerless, 2/3s divine king can learn that lesson, then surely our all-too-human leaders can be brought ’round to the sense of the moral of his tale.  One can hope, anyway.

…PEOPLE Kill People

Ah that old salt, dragged out by the likes of the NRA whenever there is a tragedy involving guns (please oh please don’t get me started on those people and the spineless idiocy that the US government demonstrated, once again, in refusing to strengthen anti-gun legislation.  That’s definitely another rant).  Tragedy happened again, in full view of the world- with no guns involved this time (at least in the initial event).  But there were children involved, as is the case all too often.

I have to admit that I’ve had some difficulty finishing the posts that I’ve started over the past couple of weeks, and although I very much felt the need to respond to the act of terror at the Boston Marathon and the media frenzy that followed, I couldn’t bring myself to do so right away.  The point of this blog is to celebrate humanity.  To tell our stories and present some of the ways in which the myths connect us all.  Ways that transcend racial, cultural, geographical or historical context, and accept and celebrate the differences that inform the manner in which we characterize and tell those stories.  Knowledge and familiarity should breed the opposite of contempt.  There is beauty to be found, if we take the time, and it shouldn’t be crushed under the radical actions of a group or individual seeking to further a nebulous agenda sourced in an extreme ideology.  Others (like Patton Oswalt) have responded with beautiful writing and a heart-felt cry to stand strong.

I’ve needed some time to get over this latest evidence of Man’s Inhumanity to Man.  I could write about how I was tempted to remain glued to the television, watching as everything unfolded and waiting, with the rest of the world, for some progess to be made in finding the people responsible.  Or how I suffered flashbacks of a sort, remembering sitting on my couch, wrapped in a blanket- despite the fact that it was a beautiful day- on September 11, 2001, paralysed, but hopeful that there would be answers to be found if I somehow just kept watching.  But there were no easy answers to be found that day, or in the years that have followed.  So on April 15, 2013 I deliberately turned off the television.  I couldn’t watch as ‘experts’ postulated on causes or culprits, as news stations jockeyed for positions in close proximity to the blockaded streets in downtown Boston, and posted more and more images of frightened, devastated people.

I understand the importance of the media in telling our stories, but ‘news’ these days is often so sensationalized and in obvious search of the bigger market share, that it has become physically and psychically hard for me to watch.  I knew the story wasn’t going to go away, and that there were ways to stay informed without being bombarded by every ‘lead’, ‘suspect’ or ‘theory’ that was entertained for more than two minutes.  The full story is still unfolding, weeks later, and will require a response from many levels of government and society.  That it is a story of tragedy is without doubt.  That there are complexities wrapped up in the event, remains to be explored (and, despite what some politicos might think, MUST be explored- but THAT’s another rant…).

The origin of the word and concept of the marathon has its beginnings in mythology, marking the legendary tradition recounting the run to Athens by a Greek messenger to proclaim victory over the Persians at the Battle of Marathon.  The myth doesn’t have a particularly happy ending since the runner collapsed and died immediately after his message was delivered, but the story has come to stand for the same things that the races represent.  The runner, Pheidippides, executed an amazing feat, covering an enormous distance in the committed pursuance of his job and the larger furtherance of the glory of Athens.  Marathon runners across the world enter the races as a means of continuing self-challenge and push for the next personal best.  I am not a runner, and those that are have shaped better responses as runners (or as former runners, like my friend Tracey here).  The completion of a marathon at all, and the long, proud history of the Boston Marathon specifically, must remain events to be celebrated without the taint of dark designs meant to mindlessly terrorize unsuspecting civilians.

As I wrote the title of this post, despite its intent and its loaded (no pun intended), propagandizing tautology, what popped into my mind and has stayed there as I write are the lyrics to ‘People are People’ by Depeche Mode.  A simple (if catchy as all get out) song about the truly simple fact that blind hatred and aggression are ridiculous and that common decency can still be found.  We just have to somehow ensure that decency takes less time to travel between our ‘collective heads and fists’, and that our reactions to horrible instances of terror and hatred, like the events in Boston last month, are tempered with rationale and humanity.  To do so, we have to firmly reject those ideologies- and their supporting myths- that, in any way, encourage acts of violence and terror against other human beings.  This includes stories that:

Say there is ONLY one true way.

Glorify sacrifice of life as a means to an end- ANY end.

Celebrate violence and sensationalize pain and suffering.

Suggest that anything other than complete equality for all is ‘the right thing’.

Support the continued suppression of the disenfranchised.

It’s time to realize that we can and must control our narratives- both individual and collective.  As thinking, rational, human beings we can actively choose to reject such stories as being dictated, unwavering, stagnant, static guidelines for life and actions, and likewise choose to reject the dogmas and doctrines that claim to be supported by these stories.  It is only through doing so that we will recognize that, rather than being ‘divine’ goads to action or reaction, myths are NOthing more than human creations with human motivations behind them.  And not all human motivations are positive.

We need to remove the gods, and devils, and boogeymen from our ways of seeing the world.  Sure, they make great characters (no one knows that better than me) but as exemplars for behaviour they often leave a great deal to be desired.  There ARE positive role models to found in our myths, but too often even those models are bastardized out of all recognition by later traditions ascribing beliefs or behaviours or words to such characters, out of fear of the different or ‘other’.  It’s time to stop.  Just stop.  Our myths absolutely have their purposes and they can be wonderful and informative about us as people and the ways in which we live and interact in this world and hope for worlds to come.  But it’s long past time to finally put away those childish things that speak of vengeance, hatred, xenophobia, supremacy etc. etc. etc. etc. and to shape our own narratives and interactions with our fellow humans.  “I can’t understand what makes a man hate another man.”  True true words from my friends in Depeche Mode.  Please.  Can’t we just grow up already?