Bullies

Last week on Cosmos… Oh, how that show continues to amaze me. And this last episode spoke about concepts of immortality- and how the development of writing has allowed us to see into the hearts and minds of those who lived millennia before our time.

The stories remain. Neil deGrasse Tyson spoke of the Hero’s Journey- as undertaken by Gilgamesh as he searched for immortality.

The episode cleverly pointed to the existence of a Flood myth- one that predates the inspiration for Russell Crowe’s latest film by 1000 years- while continuing to explore the reality that to understand our planet and the cosmos as a whole we have to open our minds to its seeming vastness and our relative insignificance in the scale of space and time.

I love that show.

Anyhoo.

It got me thinking about my guy Gil- and called to mind this post that I wrote way back when I first was finding my voice here at colemining.

I wrote about him in the context of his initial character- the bullying leader, out for his own agenda- rather than the wise ruler he became as a result of his travel and discoveries.

Since today was the day that those running to lead this province as the next government were allowed to begin broadcasting their campaign ads, I thought that the topic of bullying and bullies could do with a little revisiting.

I haven’t had the television on today so I am able to live in hope (until I do catch a news report or a commercial) that this crop of political leaders will transcend the growing- and repulsive- trend toward attack ads as the norm.

Let’s keep it clean and on point, folks. There’s too much at stake for lowest common denominator mud-slinging and schoolyard name-calling.

We go to the polls on June 12. Make your voice heard, Ontario.

colemining

http://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…

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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.

Bullies

https://i0.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.