Mythed Up

They echo down through history, faint glimpses of people who passed long ago. Many times it’s the only complete thing we have left of a culture that once shook the world. There’s a few ruined cities, a few temples made up of tumbled stones in the sand. And then there’s the myths.

Why is this so? Why is it that a people’s laws, history and great works of literature will be forgotten while these fantasy stories are remembered? What filtering process leaves tales of fantastic, impossible crap behind while the truly noble achievements are ground into dust?

I think that it’s because the myths are teaching aids. They pass along the core values of a culture, the things that are so important that they’re distilled down into fun and easily remembered stories. Stories that are then told to children at bedtime so they’ll remember and tell their children in turn. Moral tales suitable for all ages.

Gilgamesh was the first myth, or at least the oldest of which we have a near-complete record. The title character is mostly descended from the gods themselves, which means that he has (ahem) powers and abilities far beyond that of mortal men. But, even though his natural superiority over other mortals means that he’s their ruler, he’s also a harsh and cruel tyrant that cares for nothing but himself. It’s only after the death of someone close to him, and after he sets out on a series of quests to destroy threats to his people, that he realizes that true greatness lies in the continuation of his realm after he’s gone.

This isn’t some appeal to civic virtue, though. Read the story again and you’ll see that the author isn’t concerned about the people who serve and toil under Gilgamesh’s rule. Instead he’s only concerned with the enduring works that they build.

The last line is particularly telling. At the very foundation of the city walls is a “stone of lapis lazuli on which is carved Gilgamesh’s account of his exploits.”

So Gilgamesh wasn’t concerned with any aspect of civil rule except in passing. Instead he was concerned with ensuring that word of his exploits would be remembered. It’s so important to him that it’s even set into the very foundation of the city-state!

Gilgamesh the epic is, of course, juvenile in the extreme. Kid’s stuff. Whenever I read it I’m reminded of those old sword-and-sandals movies with that wonderful Ray Harryhausen special effects. Stop motion skeletons and giant statues coming to life. (Be warned that Gilgamesh has a good deal more sex in it.) Although rightly prized as being really freakin’ old, no one really thinks that this is an accurate portrayal of life in ancient Babylonia.

Not so Homer’s epic poem, The Iliad. Legion is the dissertations that use The Iliad as the primary factual source, many are the PhD professors who want to claim that there’s more fact than fiction in the work. Hardly the stuff of myth, wouldn’t you think?

But this only holds water if you squint real hard and ignore the evidence. I’ve sat through countless history lectures where the prof would claim that it said such-and-such in Homer’s epic so it must be true. Only to turn around and, in the next breath, admit that the archeological evidence flatly contradicts Homer’s account.

But it survived when many other works, either more factual or more worthwhile, faded away. The reason why is the same reason that Gilgamesh survived: many people thought so highly of the work that they copied it down. So many copies were made that not all of them were destroyed as the centuries ground on.

What made this so important? On the one hand it’s a rousing tale of warfare and revenge, invasion and violence. There’s the meddling gods above, taking part in the affairs of men. The combatants are all living close to the edge, cheerfully going to their death or happily slaughtering their enemies. Thrilling stuff.

But read the accounts of the battles and you’ll see the same motivating force that drove Gilgamesh. It’s not an account of sweeping battles with thousands of combatants, but tales of individual duels that play out during the course of the war. The name of the heroes, their lineage, and the exact grisly details of their death are carefully noted. It’s not duty, honor or civic virtue that’s celebrated but fame. Lasting fame that will guarantee that the hero’s names will never be forgotten. That’s what was most important, that’s what The Iliad celebrates. (And it’s what the film version, no matter how flawed, manages to get right in the character of Achilles.)

The Romans are the most influential of ancient peoples. A great deal of their culture and writing is preserved, simply because their civilization begat our own. Still, there’s plenty of material that we have only fragments of. Hints of great histories or works of literature that scholars would kill in order to discover a copy. But we can be sure that their myths are almost completely intact.

The myth of Hercules is probably the most familiar. Herc is, like Gilgamesh, born of the gods and above common humanity. This would mean that he would rightly rule over mere pitiful mortals, but a jealous and scheming goddess works to rob him of his rightful place. Instead of leading the life of an adventurer king, Herc is forced to perform 12 degrading and demeaning labors.

Why did Herc submit to these indignities? Because he was attempting to achieve immortality. Not the “live forever without aging” immortality, but the same undying fame that the heroes of The Iliad were willing to die in order to gain.

Having your name live on long after your own death isn’t the only unifying theme in all of these myths. The protagonists are uniformly childish, churlish and egotistical. They think nothing of killing on a whim, or indulging in the most terrible acts of vengeance if their emotions call for it. Sure they’d be willing to go to a terrible and painful death, but only if they could be remembered for it. Sacrifice for the common good would only happen if there was something in it for them personally.

How do these ancient myths compare to the modern versions? For that you’ll have to wait. This little essay is already too long for a blog post.

2 thoughts on “Mythed Up”

  1. You don’t get it, the myths are meant to show archetypes, which we all respond to, they’re never meant to be facts or histories. These archetypes reach us to our human core, and represent the best, and worst, but certainly most human about us.

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