Friday, January 30, 2009

Tale of a Trickster

I am taking both Classical Foundations of Literature and Mythologies this semester, and have found that there are in fact a lot of similarities between many Greek and Roman stories and those of other cultures. Perhaps the most obvious similarities are found in the tales of tricksters. We read the tale of Hermes for this class, but I have read many other trickster tales from different cultures in Mythologies and even a couple in American Literature.

One of the stories that most reminded me of the tale of Hermes was called "The Mwindo Epic." It is an oral story told by the Nyanga people in the Congo. Like Hermes, the trickster of this story is a baby who was born the day before he starts playing his tricks. He is very full of himself and likes to boast and brag. Although he is not a god like Hermes, he did have an unusual birth. He uses his trickery in order to help himself, but it does help others in return. A brief summary/description of the "Mwindo Epic" can be found at

Another trickster story that we discussed in my Mythology class was the Raven myth. It is a native American myth that has a number of different versions. The raven has an unusual birth, is a baby throughout a large portion of the story (he has the ability to shape shift between the raven and a baby), and lives on the outskirts of society as well. He tricks people into giving him the moon, stars, and the sun/daylight. Although he did this for selfish reasons, all of these things did end up helping society.

Throughout the semester we have read a number of Native American, African, and African-American trickster stories and it has surprised me how much they all have in common. In a number of them the trickster is a baby. They all are selfish and do things in order to please themselves, even if their actions do in some way help society. Almost all of them have unusual births, and a number of them are either gods or in some way conceived with the help of the gods. They live on the fringe of society and do not adhere to their laws and social rules. Reading the tale about Hermes has helped me to see these stories in a different way. I think that that is one of the things that many of the pieces of literature that we have read thus far in this class has helped me to do. I am now more able to "read the eternities rather than the times" now than I was before because I have the background knowledge. It is something that I find immensely interesting, and knowing similar stories, in many cases the very stories that more modern ones are based off of, has made the experience much more interesting for me.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The Modern Hermes

The comparison between Hermes and Stewie (the baby from "Family Guy") came up in class, and I found it really interesting. For some reason or another, despite the fact that I watch family guy on a regular basis, I never made that connection. After discussing their similarity in class I thought for a little while and considered what kind of trickster characteristics Stewie embodies. Although his birth was not unusual to our knowledge, he does have the ability to speak with extremely advanced grammar at a very young age. There is, however, and episode in which Stewie enters Peter's body in order to stop his parents from having anther child and all of the sperm are actually little babies in ship-like things. In that sense, I suppose one could say that he did have an unusual birth if he entered his mother's egg in a ship and was born with knowledge and the ability to talk. Stewie most definitely plays tricks. There is an episode in which the dog can't help himself from peeing in the house, and he goes to therapy and tries all kinds of things to stop himself from doing it. He is finally able to, but Stewie pees in the house so that the family thinks that it is the dog, and even the dog blames himself. Stewie is selfish, plots out his tricks (such as killing his mother), comical, clever, mischievous, and a male. He fits many of the common trickster characteristics.

After thinking about Stewie as a trickster, I was curious to see what other modern characters embody the trickster qualities of Hermes. I came up with a list of a few that I thought were good examples:

1. The wolf in little red riding hood: he used tricks to get little red riding hood to disclose where she was going, and then disguised himself as her grandmother. Tricksters often change forms, as did the wolf, and use tricks to benefit themselves (although it didn't really work our well for him).

2. Bugs Bunny: he is always playing tricks on Elmer Fud or those who are trying to harm him. He is elusive, comical, and clever. He likes to disrupt conventional order as well.

3. The joker in batman: In the new batman movie he changes his appearances many times (dresses as a nurse in the hospital, poses as a cop, parades as another robber in the bank scene, etc). He tricks people into doing what he wants them to as well. He plots elaborate schemes, he is kind of a loner and lives on the fringe of society, and he breaks conventional rules and laws set up by society.

4. The mask: Jim Carrey openly mocks authority and convention in his role in "The Mask." He helps to get the bad guys while pursuing his own personal desires, such as that for money and a gorgeous woman. He is also able to change the way that he looks and conjure up random things while the mask is on.

5. Jack Sparrow: He is very self centered, tricky, and manipulative. For example, in the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie he manipulates the guards into arguing about whether or not the Black Pearl is real while he escapes with a ship. He defies laws and conventions of society, and as a pirate lives on the outskirts of society. Captain Jack Sparrow dupes others like Hermes as well.

These are just a few examples of more modern tricksters that we are all familiar with.

The Eleusinian Mysteries

Although we spoke briefly about the Eleusinian mysteries in class, we did not go into what all they entailed. Dr. Sexon mentioned that little is known about the religious practices that occurred in the city of Eleusis because everthing was kept very secretive. He did, however, say that he believed that three things were done during the ritual. Something was said, done, and seen. The thing that he belives was said was "rain, concieve." That which was done, according to Dr. Sexon, was a reinactmen of the abduction of Persephony. And lastly, that which was seen was an ear of corn or a stalk of wheat. Whether this is exactly what happened we will probably never know for sure. I was curious to see what else is known, or at least thought to be known about the mysteries.

To begin with, the Eleusinian Mysteries were held annualy in Eleusis, Greece. They were held in celebration of Demeter and her daughter Persephone. Although the followers were extremely widespread, their practices and beliefs were kept very secretive. Much of what we know about them today is based on what is said in literature of the time, portrayed in artwork and on pottery, and found in the ruins.

One thing that we do know for sure is that the celbration of the Eleusinian Mysteries took place over nine days in September and were very elaborate. There were specific rituals and sacrifices associated with each day as well. Before the celebratios began all initiates had to cleans and purify themselves in the ocean as well as scrifice a piglet. Things such as these that were done outside of the temple are those that are known. However, that which was done inside the temple has remained for the most part a sectret. Once Christianity became widespread it condemned the Eleusinian Mysteries and practices, and it is because of this that a religion and set of practices that lived for thousands of years died out.

Here are a couple of links that present futher and more in depth information that I found helpful/interesting:

Monday, January 26, 2009

American Gothic Parodies

I found Dr. Sexon's comparison of Persephony and Aidoneus' scene in the chariot (pg. 15) to the famous painting "American Gothic" interesting. It is not one that I would have made if he had not pointed it out. Another interesting thing is the number of people who have incorporated the image presented in "American Gothic" into other pictures with different themes. After seing Katie Potter's blog and the parodies that she put on it I thought I might add a few more to the list.
The Original Image

The Modernised Version

Watercolor Horse Version (Also Modernised)

Soldier Version (Censored)

George and Barbra Bush

Obama and Clinton

As is blatently obvious by the images above, many of the parodies of the "American Gothic" are very political. They are used to criticise our society and government. It is interesting how the message displayed in the original painting has been twisted to represtent something so different.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Demeter and Persephone

"All that day they spent in perfect concord.

Great was the joy that lent each other's spirit,

Closely embracing, free from all their sorrow"

After viewing a number of images depicting Demeter and Persephone together, I found this one to be the most intriguing. It shows Demeter (right) and Persephone (left) after Persephone has returned to her mother from the underworld. She has just told her mother the story of how she was taken to the underworld, and how she was tricked into eating the pomegranate seeds. To represent her fate as the Queen of the Underworld Persephone is holding a pomegranate as she and her mother embrace and kiss. I really like this painting because it is a very different way of showing the two and the contrast between their lives.

Moving on, I found the etiological aspects of the text really interesting. Each culture has different explanations for why things are as they are. Often such explanations are incorporated into their myths and stories, as one is in the story of Persephone's abduction.

"He promised this--among the deathless beings.

And he consented that, as the year circled,

The girl would spend a third in misty darkness,

And two thirds with her mother and the other

Immortals. The goddess did not disobey."

In this passage the phenomena of seasons is explained. While Persephone is in the underworld with Hades it is winter, and when she emerges above ground to be with her mother spring begins and summer follows. As goddess of Agriculture, it is Demeter that controls the seasons according to whether she is with her beloved daughter. I find different culture's ideas about the orgin of, and reason for, the way things are very interesting. It was nice to see one from a Greek point of view in one of their well know myths.

Friday, January 16, 2009

And So it Begins....Finally

I think it has become blatantly obvious, considering I am yet to make a blog entry, that I am one of the unfortunate people that have fallen into the bad habit of procrastination. Unlike little Hermes who began his work of thievery and trickery on the first day of his life, I have waited over half of the semester to begin mine. Unlike Antigone who made plans and carried them out with swift conviction, I have been lackadaisical and indecisive.

One may ask why I have declined to blog for this class. Is it because I do not enjoy the subject matter of the class? Or perhaps I am simply lazy and would rather place myself in front of the television and search for the meaning of life in reality shows. Although I hate to admit it, there is some degree of laziness involved. I do all of the readings, and have in fact found many to be most compelling, but for some reason or another I have a difficult time finding the motivation to write about them. I even write down ideas that I find compelling in class so that I am ready to go if the motivation hits, but for some reason it has not shown itself until now. Better late than never I suppose. So here begins my blog, starting from the first class and moving forward with blogs dated according to class discussions.


Importance of the Myth

The first day of class Dr. Sexon said a couple of things that really stood out as powerful to me. One thing that he said was, "It all goes back to myth." Although this might not seem overly powerful or significant at first, if one really thinks about it they will see that it is. If everything goes back to myth, and it is therefore all encompassing, one would be able to relate anything that they do or say today to something that was written or spoken hundreds of years ago. It would seem then, that the human race has not advanced as much as it is commonly thought. Yes, our technology has advanced considerably, but we are still privy to the same conflicts and situations today as the "savages" were before us. This can be tied into the five dramatic conflicts in life presented by George Steiner. The conflicts between men and women, age and youth, the individual and society, the living and dead and gods and men are still very much present today.

This leads to the next things that Dr. Sexon said, which is "Mythology is the truth, history is the facts." Although I would argue that history is not necessarily what I would call "fact," considering it is recorded and skewed by humans, mythology is surely the truth. Now there are plenty of people who would laugh at this notion because many mythological stories are fabrications of the imagination. For example, someone reading Ovid's Metamorphosis would scoff at the claim that the gods caused a woman named Salmacis and a man named Hermaphroditus actually melted into one body. It is absurd. However, it is not the actual details of a mythological story that are "true," but the themes and morals presented in them. They remind us of the human condition, and the problems that we face. An idea that ties into this, and that has also become the theme of the class, is that "the past posseses the present." Everything that is done, has been done before in one form or another.

I am not sure why exactly these ideas struck a chord within me. I suppose they just made me look at things in a different way. Before taking this class I read the Iliad and the Odyssey. After Dr. Sexton said these things I immediately thought back to these two classic epics and considered the many internal conflicts and emotions that the characters faced that can still be seen today. For example, love is still a very relevant emotion as is courage and loyalty. Achilles' thirst for fame and glory can be seen within American society as well. War, along with the death and sorrow that accompany it, is very much a part of American life with the conflict in Iraq. We share many of the same dilemmas and characteristics as those presented in the two epics despite the fact that they were written so long ago. On would find that the same concept holds true when applied to Shakespeare's writings as well as other old writers. The past does posses the present, and the concepts that are presented in mythology do hold true throughout all time.