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Archive for the ‘Mythology Madness’ Category

General Zod“Kneel before Zod!”

That’s General Zod’s timeless line from 1980’s Superman II, the one line that escaped the film and, like a criminal from the Phantom Zone, has invaded the pop-culture lexicon. What makes the line work (other than Terrence Stamp’s total ownership of the role) is this play on “Zod”/ “God.”  Superman, of course, will never kneel before Zod… because he answers to a Higher Power.

Now, we all know Supe doesn’t belong to any specific church or order.  He wears a big “S,”, not a crucifix or a Star of David. He’s a secular hero, not a sacred one.  On the other hand… well, consider the following:

In 1988, back when Superman was a spry fifty-year-old (as opposed to the just-as-spry seventy-five-year-old he is today), writer Gary Engle published a piece entitled, “What Makes Superman So Darned American?” Nifty title, for an equally nifty essay, chock full of intriguing insights– about the significance of flight, about Clark Kent’s “American heartland” values, about Superman’s status as an intergalactic immigrant.

But Engle’s most fascinating point (for me, anyway) is his observation that Superman, ultimately, is more than a bird, more than a plane, even more than America’s-greatest-hero-bordering-on-patron-saint.  Superman is, in fact, an angel.

 Engle uses a little etymology to make his case. As any Fan of Steel knows, Superman’s name on his home planet of Krypton is Kal-El.  What’s not as well known is that his name was originally Kal-L, but writer George Lowther modified the name in 1942, in his novel The Adventures of Superman, the first novelization of a comic book. (Lowther also changed the names of Superman’s birth parents, from Jor-L and Lora, to the now-canonized Jor-El and Lara.)

Why is this simple change, from “L” to “El,” significant?  As Gary Engle points out in his “So Darned American” essay, the suffix “-el” in Hebrew means “-of God.”  He mentions many Old Testament names that end with “-el,” including Ishmael, Daniel, Ezekiel, and Samuel.

Engle then points out that many angels also have names that end in “-el,” including Raphael, Uriel, Gabriel and Michael, (My obsession with Paradise Lost really came in handy when I read that, as Milton includes all of those angels and more: Abdiel, for example, is the angel who initially joined the rebel angels but then re-joined the good guys. What’s interesting to me is the name “Lucifer,” Satan’s name before he fell from grace; just the fact that Lucifer does not have a name ending in “el” suggests that, even when he was in heaven, he is somehow different from the rest of the angels.)

A quick Wikipedia search confirms Engle’s assertion about the many members of the heavenly host who have names ending in “-el,” from Ariel to Zadkiel. Even Azrael was the name of a wicked angel long before he was Gargamel’s cat in The Smurfs. (Noticing that the the word “angel” itself ends in “-el,” I did some sleuthing; it turns out the word derives from the Greek “angelos,” meaning “messenger, one who announces.”)

But it’s not just his Kryptonian name, sayeth Engle, that reinforces this idea that Superman is an angel; his uniform also contributes to the whole seraphic package, especially his cape.  Engle notes that Superman’s cape doesn’t have a clasp of any kind but is almost a part of him; the cape “hangs, when he stands at ease, in a line that doesn’t so much drape his shoulders as stand apart from them and echo their curve, like an angel’s wings.”

Initially, I didn’t necessarily buy this aspect of Engle’s argument.   The “Kal-El” thing was convincing, but the “cape as angel’s wings” thing? Less so.   But then I stumbled upon the following painting:

Archangel Michael 2
It’s Italian painter Guido Reni’s “Erzengel Michael” and it was painted in 1636, approximately 300 years before the birth of Superman. But check out what Michael is wearing: a skin-tight blue tunic with some sort of red capey-thing behind him.  Look familiar?  Here’s another painting
Archangel Michael pic
It’s Luca Giordano’s “Archangel Michael Overthrows the Rebel Angels,” painted in 1660.  Once again, Michael is wearing a red-and-blue costume reminiscent of the earlier picture and in anticipation of Superman’s costume.  (For what it’s worth: although Engle doesn’t say anything about these paintings in his “So Darned American” essay, he does call the archangel Michael “the one perhaps most like Superman.”)

Were the creators of Superman, Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel, fans of Italian art or otherwise influenced by these paintings when conjuring up their hero?  Probably not.  But the similarities in the costumes does make you wonder.

Superman can be compared to other religious icons. For example, some say Superman is like Moses. (Baby Supe’s escape from Krypton just before it explodes parallels the story of the infant Moses, whose mother placed him in a basket and sent floating in a river to escape the slaughter of the children.)  Others compare Superman to Jesus Himself. (Both come from the heavens by their fathers to help save the world.)  Me, I like the idea of Superman as a guardian angel, one who fights for justice, who looks out for the oppressed, and who never, ever kneels before Zod.

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You know how, whenever you order or sign up for something online, you have to scroll through that ridiculously long “Terms and Conditions” contract, full of (I presume) legal mumbo-jumbo?  And I say “I presume” because I’ve never actually read any it, neither the “terms” nor the “conditions”; I just click “I Agree” or “I Accept.”

Doesn’t everyone?  Honestly, has anyone actually read through any of these contracts?  Seems silly. I’ve often wondered, though:  what are we actually “accepting” when we click on “I Accept”?  How do we know they haven’t slipped something sinister in the middle of all that legalese?  How do we know, while innocently buying a pair of Christmas suspenders, we haven’t inadvertently sold our eternal souls away to some crafty minor demon?

Ancient mythmakers have actually warned us about the necessity of reading the fine print, in the story of Tithonus. A strapping mortal man, Tithonus catches the eye of Aurora, Roman goddess of the dawn (known as Eos in Greek tradition).  Only instead of asking him if he wanted to go out and grab a frozen yogurt or something subtle like that, Aurora kidnaps Tithonus and forces him to be her love-slave.  (I know: poor guy, having to be the love-slave of a beautiful goddess…)

The two actually fall in love, but there’s a problem: Aurora is immortal, and Tithonus is not.  So Aurora goes to Jupiter (Zeus, for Greeks) and asks him to do them a solid: grant Tithonus immortality.

Jupiter agrees, and there is much rejoicing… for a while. Unfortunately, Aurora forgot to read the fine print; she didn’t realize that, in addition to wishing for her husband’s immortality, she should have also asked for the gift of eternal youth.  After all, one without the other is no good.

You can see where this is going: after many years, Tithonus shows signs of age.  His hair becomes white, his face gets wrinkled, he wants to eat dinner at 4:00 so he can get the Early Bird Special at Pandora’s Bar and Grill.

Eventually, poor Tithonus gets so old that he can’t talk above a faint creaking sound; not only that, he begins to become so hunched over, he actually starts to shrink. Finally, Aurora can’t stand to see him suffer any longer and transforms him into the creature he started to resemble: the grasshopper.

How do those ancients do it?  Not only did they come up with a perfectly plausible explanation for the origin of the grasshopper, they also crafted a cautionary tale for our modern times.  First, the Tithonus story warns us about the dangers of not aging gracefully—something that members of the modern youth-obsessed culture should definitely keep in mind.

Next, the myth reminds us that, when it comes to romantic relationships, some differences may be too big to overcome. An immortal marrying a mortal?  Could that be that be the equivalent of a Red Sox fan marrying a Yankee fan?

And possibly the most important lesson of the Tithonus story:  read the terms and conditions.  You have no idea what you’re agreeing to.  And if you wake up one morning to realize you sprouted antennae overnight, think back: it may have something to do with that iTunes account you opened up back in 2005…

Incidentally, Alfred, Lord Tennyson wrote the poem about poor, pitiable Tithonus, victim of his own “cruel immortality.” You can find the Tennyson poem here: http://www.online-literature.com/donne/730/

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It seemed like a legitimate question:  “Did the punishment fit the crime?”

My A.P. Literature class had just finished reading Oedipus the King, and I wanted to know if my students thought it was fair that poor Oedipus, after he has just blinded himself, is not only kicked out of his kingdom but is condemned forevermore as the guy who inadvertently killed his father and married his mother.  (Cue Daniel Powter: “So you had a bad day…”)

That was my intention, at least; as is often the case, though, my students took the discussion into areas I hadn’t expected.

The issue, it seemed, involved these pesky terms “punishment” and “crime.”  I had thought the punishment for Oedipus was his one-two punch of exiled-then-reviled.  And his crime? Believing he could somehow defy the gods by outrunning his fate.  (The Greeks called it hubris—overweening pride—and it’s the ruin of several Greek characters.  And by “several,” I mean all of them!)

The students, though, had different ways of interpreting my “punishment fitting the crime” question.  Some thought Oedipus’s “crime” was the fact that he killed his father and married his mother.  But then others wondered if those actions could really be classified as “criminal” considering he didn’t have a choice; he was fated to do those unspeakable things.  He couldn’t do anything to avoid these acts—and, in fact, his very attempts to avoid his fate only caused him to fulfill it.

So maybe, these students reasoned, the whole “father-killing/ mother-marrying” thing was not the crime but the punishment.  But if so, still others asked, what was Oedipus being punished for?  After all, he was fated to commit those acts before he was even born.  What did he do to deserve such a punishment?

And who says being an English teacher isn’t cool?

Anyway… as part of this discussion, I shared with some other examples of “crimes” and “punishments” in Greek mythology, listed below.  Since these can be pretty scary stories—complete with spiders and wild dogs and folks getting flayed alive—they seemed appropriate for a Halloween post.  So read on, and then decide whether these criminals got what they deserved:

Characters Who Are Punished for Their Pride:

ARACHNEpublic domain image

  • Vital Stats: Young lady who is quite the talented weaver
  • Crime:  Hey, Arachne, did you just announce you’re a better weaver than even Athena herself?  Oh, no, you didn’t! Because now Athena is going to challenge you to a “weave-off”!  The thing is, Arachne could have won the contest, because she creates a beautiful tapestry; unfortunately, on this tapestry, she depicts all sorts of rotten things that gods and goddesses have done to mortals.   See, some people just can’t weave well enough alone. (Uh, I mean “leave.”)
  • Punishment:  Athena hits Arachne on the head repeatedly and then turns her into a spider.
  • Aftermath: Arachne lends her name to arachnophobia, the fear of spiders— as well as a pretty swell horror flick from 1990 (starring Jeff Daniels and John Goodman).

MARSYAS

  • Vital Stats: Satyr (half-man/ half-goat)
  • Crime:  One day, Marsyas happens upon a double-headed flute (known as an aulos) and starts playing it.  He creates such beautiful music that he eventually attracts the attention of the god of music himself, Apollo—whom he then challenges to a contest.  (Apparently, he didn’t get the memo about Arachne…)  Apollo agrees and gets his friends the Muses to act as judges; the Muses declare Apollo the winner. (Gee, didn’t see that coming!)
  • Punishment:  Apollo flays Marsyas alive and nails his sliced-off skin to a tree.  (Ewwwww…)
  • Aftermath: The blood that flowed from his skinless body formed the waterway that bears his name, the Marsyas River.

sunPHAETHON

  • Vital Stats:  Teenage son of Helios, the sun-god—although he never knew this while he was growing up. When his mother Clymene finally reveals his father’s identity to him, Phaethon seeks an audience with Helios, who confirms the story; moreover, Helios promises to give his son anything he asks for, as proof that he is indeed his father.  And that leads us to the…
  • Crime:  Phaethon asks to drive the chariot of the sun for a day.  Helios tries to talk him out of it, saying not even Zeus could control the fire-breathing horses, but Phaethon insists. Ultimately, Phaethon takes the reigns of the chariot, but can’t control it.  (Cut him some slack: this is the SUN, after all. It’s not like he asked if he could take out dad’s Honda Accord…)
  • Punishment:  As he watches the sun dip and soar wildly across the skies, Zeus shoots Phaethon down with a thunderbolt, killing him.
  • Aftermath:   According to the myth, the deserts of Africa resulted from Phaethon flying too close to the ground, thus scorching the earth.

Characters Who Are Punished for Someone Else’s Pride:

CHILDREN OF NIOBE

  • Vital Stats: fourteen children (seven boys, seven girls) of a really, REALLY proud mom
  • Crime:  The kingdom of Thebes has a ceremony to honor a woman named Leto.  A miffed Niobe says she didn’t understand the purpose of the ceremony and brags she’s superior to this Leto person; after all, Niobe reasons, she has fourteen children, and Leto only has two.   Niobe, however, seemingly forgets one small detail: that Leto’s two children are the god Apollo and and his twin sister Artemis.
  • Punishment: Artemis, armed with her trusty arrows, kills all of Niobe’s daughters; Apollo likewise kills all of her sons.  To top it all off, her grief-stricken husband Amphion then kills himself.  (“So you had a bad day…”)
  • Aftermath:  A devastated Niobe flees from Thebes to Mt. Sipylus.  She can’t stop crying, so Zeus turns her into a stone.  But even then, she won’t stop shedding tears—a convenient explanation for a rock formation in Turkey known as the “Weeping Rock,” due to the fact that rainwater seems to pour out of it.  (Man, those Greeks have a story for everything, don’t they?)

PIERIDES

  • Vital Stats: the nine daughters of King Pierus of Macedonia
  • Crime: King Pierus—who apparently was absent the day they taught Greek mythology in middle school—sees nothing wrong with boasting that his nine daughters are equal in beauty and talent to the nine Muses.   Naturally, dear ol’ dad challenges the Muses to a contest which would allow his daughters to show off their artistic abilities.
  • Punishment: Same old story: daughters lose and get turned into magpies.

Character Who Is Punished Because He Happens Upon a Goddess Taking a Bath in the Middle of the Woods:

ACTAEON

  • Vital Stats:  Mild-mannered hunter
  • Crime: One day, while out hunting with his dogs, Actaeon stumbles upon the goddess Artemis, bathing in a pool.  He pauses for a moment, but a moment too long.
  • Punishment:  Realizing this mortal saw her naked, Artemis turns Actaeon into a stag.  At once, Actaeon’s own hunting dogs, seeing this animal before them, attack.  The hounds tear their former master apart.

Looking at this motley assortment, I’d have to say Actaeon had it the worst.  Hands down.  First of all, his punishment is just vicious… and what did he really do wrong?  He was just moseying through the woods, and he just so happened to find a naked lady.  He wasn’t up in a tree with a pair of binoculars, spying on her; it was an accident.  Hey, Artemis, here’s a thought:  if you don’t want men to see you nude, don’t go bathing in public places!

Plus, poor Actaeon doesn’t even get a consolation prize.  You’d half-expect the story to end with something like, “But Hera, feeling pity on Actaeon, turned him into a patch low-growing moss.”  I mean, the guy got ripped to shreds by his own hounds; at least make him into a constellation or something.

How about the rest of you?  What are your favorite “crime and punishment” stories from mythology or other stories?  Post your comments below…

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