Wednesday, November 28, 2007
Classical Mythology, Part 2: The Heroes
I had a teacher once who told us that the anti-hero is a relatively recent invention. I think I knew it at the time, but she was parroting a general concept that I've seen in other places. It's a neat and somewhat popular idea. Popularity doesn't change the fact that it's an incorrect idea. We in the modern age like to think we're more clever than anyone who came before us. We're suprised whenever we find out that the ancients had the ability to create indoor plumbing or come up with complicated machinery. Oftentimes the response to such revelations matches the tone of a parent who just found out a child just tied a shoe for the first time. In reality, when it came to creating heroes of all stripes, the ancients had us beat. The main difference between then and now is in how the heroes are identified. This, I think, is where the confusion on issues like the anti-hero's point of origin come from. See, in the ancient world the hero was often an individual identified by outside characteristics. Although they had qualities that we often identify as, well, heroic, the ultimate characteristic of the ancient hero was that special, ineffable issue: the touch of the gods. That touch worked on a few different levels. It was often quite direct. Herakles, for instance, was the son of Zeus himself. To hear ancient myths, in fact, you'd think that the ancient world was positively littered with half gods. From what I can tell, it wasn't possible to walk from one side of Attica to the other without tripping over a demigod or some sort of supernatural being working on creating one with the closest human. Seriously, look it up. Achilles, Perseus, Theseus, all products of a pairing between a human and a mythological being (Achilles could, technically, have been the son of a god, but ended up being the son of a nymph and a man). Next option was a birth heralded by the gods. This was actually a favorite of real historical figures who wanted that extra bit of oomph added to their claims for a crown. Alexander the Great's mother borrowed the technique, then he added to it a claim of sonship from a god. He waited until Philip the Great was dead before really pushing that one, however. The Bible used this technique when an angel showed up to tell Samson's parents they'd soon have a child. After that was the token or challenge of the gods. Arthur Pendragon’s ability to pull the sword out of the stone showed he was capable of kingship. The later gift of Excalibur from the Lady of the Lake came as confirmation. (Also, I understand that Merlin wasn’t technically a god and he implanted the sword in the stone, but Merlin the wizard shared many characteristics with any number of mythological gods.) Finally (I hope) came the hero who was simply favored by the gods. Odysseus, for instance, was favored by Athena. Bellerophon, too, was doomed to die in an impossible quest until Athena told him of a way to tame the Pegasus. The story of Beowulf, the great Norse hero, is chock full of references to how favored he was from on high. Many tales of ancient heroes borrowed from multiple types. This becomes especially apparent in stories of heroes that have multiple versions. It gets slightly more confusing in cases where there is some historical precedence to indicate the hero actually did live (or, like Alexander the Great, we know the myth and know exactly how and why it was built). Then, of course, there’s the fact that there was almost always some sort of token or challenge of the gods. That’s all part of the Hero’s Journey, after all. What of the anti-hero, however? If the anti-hero existed in ancient time, where can we find one? The answer to that is quite simple. We need to look to the Tragic Hero. The word anti-hero is, by and large, an artifact of the attitudes of our time. As a primer, the anti-hero is generally a protagonist who is the hero of a tale in spite of the notable lack of the characteristics of being heroic. There is actually one direct example of an anti-hero in Greek drama. One version of Jason depicts him as little more than a drunken lout. In many cases, however, the Tragic Hero can be seen as an analog of the anti-hero as the Tragic Hero lacks that defining characteristic of being touched by the gods. For this I will use examples that come from Greek theater, not mythology proper. There is a reason for this which will become clear eventually...I hope. First we need to take a look at the Oresteia (Watch out, spoilers abound), Aeschylus’s tale of the downfall and resurrection of the House of Atreus. In as few words as possible, it starts with Agamemnon’s return from the Trojan War. His wife, Clytemnestra, had long since taken a paramour. The pair killed Agamemnon. Agamemnon’s son, Orestes, and daughter, Electra, kill Clytemnestra and her new husband. Orestes then gets chased around by the Furies, demigods whose job it is to take revenge for those who cannot get it themselves. Eventually Apollo and Hermes attempted to help him and Athena ultimately stepped in and ruled in his favor at a jury trial. His house is restored and everyone lives happily ever after (well, unless you’re reading Euripides’ Iphigeneia cycle, in which poor Orestes is still haunted for some reason). Next we go to Oedipus Rex. The story of Oedipus has basically been ruined for modern times by Freud and the Oedipus Complex, so it’s a really good idea to revisit the actual plot of Sophocles’ play. Basically, the king of Thebes was told by an oracle that he would be killed by his own son. Fearing this, the king left his son to die. Said son was found by shepherds and raised as their son. Son received an oracle that he would kill his father and mate with his mother. Disturbed by this, the son left home. He ended up killing a man on the road who just so happened to be the king of Thebes. Later on he solved the Sphinx’s riddle and rescued Thebes, marrying the queen and taking over as king. For those keeping score at home, Oedipus has now killed his father and married his mother. Exactly as the oracle said. Long story short, Oedipus Rex begins with a plague that is besetting the kingdom of Thebes because Oedipus did all the stuff he did. He pulls an O.J. and tries to find his father’s real killer, in the process accusing basically anybody he can. Eventually it becomes pretty apparent that he was the murderer and it’s also revealed that he’s been married to his mother. The queen commits suicide, Oedipus blinds himself and attempts to go in to exile but is advised to consult with the oracle first. With that the play ends. It’s a beautiful bit of symmetry. Ladies and gentlemen, may I present you with Oedipus: the anti-hero. Actually, upon further reflection, the story of Oedipus Rex completely blows my above theory out of the water. Odysseus was a Tragic Hero. Hector, in a weird way, was a Tragic Hero. Orestes was somewhere between Tragic Hero and anti-hero. Oedipus was a genuine anti-hero. I don’t have to try to make fancy arguments equating A with B on this one at all. The only thing I really have to do here is explain how a drama by Sophocles is related to mythology in any way, shape or form. But that will have to wait for the next part: Modern Mythmaking, or Mythology in the Third Age. EDIT: Good freaking night. I need to remember to proofread.