Dojo Darelir, the School of Xenograg the Sorcerer

Posts Tagged ‘mythology’

Luck is a Possession

[In The Hobbit, Bilbo] has two other qualities besides [the Ring]. One is luck. The dwarves notice this more than once, with Thorin for instance saying, as he sends Bilbo down the tunnel to the dragon, that Bilbo is ‘full of courage and resource far beyond his size, and if I may say so possessed of good luck far exceeding the usual allowance’ (chapter 12). Earlier on, after Bilbo had rescued them from the spiders, ‘[the dwarves] saw that he had some wits, as well as luck and a magic ring – and all three were useful possessions’ (chapter 8). This belief that luck is a possession, which one can own, and perhaps even give away or pass on, may seem to be characteristically dwarvish, i.e. old-fashioned, pre-modern: it is a commonplace of Norse saga, for instance, where there are many lucky and unlucky cloaks, weapons, and people.

Tom Shippey, J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century, p. 27

Author’s emphasis.

Dragon as Amalgamated Uber-Predator

Let’s begin by looking at the most widespread and celebrated of all mythic monsters—the dragon. This creature, in one guise or another, appears in almost every mythology and has been the subject of many books and countless articles. Perhaps the most intriguing of these examinations is An Instinct for Dragons by anthropologist David E. Jones. Jones argues that the image of the dragon is composed of the salient body parts of three predator species that hunted and killed our tree-dwelling African primate ancestors for about sixty million years. The three predators are the leopard, the python, and the eagle.

Paul A. Trout, Deadly Powers, pp. 162-63

Monsters Eat Humans

Regardless of their different sizes, features, and forms, monsters have one trait in common—they eat humans. Whatever else they may do for us psychologically, monsters express—and ex-press—our dread of being torn apart, eviscerated, chewed, swallowed, and then shit out. This shameful fate of those who are eaten is confronted in an African myth in which a giant predatory bird swallows the hero whole day after day and then excretes him. Myth after myth confronts the stark facts of being consumed by a larger creature, obsessively depicting in graphic detail what both monsters and animal predators naturally do—turn humans into excrement. The stories express “the most basic anxiety of every living being”: “being swallowed and eaten.” One sees this anxiety throughout world myth.

Paul A. Trout, Deadly Powers, p. 158

Author’s emphasis.

The Mythological Realm We Carry Within

The unconscious sends all sorts of vapors, odd beings, terrors, and deluding images up into the mind—whether in dream, broad daylight, or insanity; for the human kingdom, beneath the floor of the comparatively neat little dwelling that we call our consciousness, goes down into unsuspected Aladdin caves. There not only jewels but also dangerous jinn abide: the inconvenient or resisted psychological powers that we have not thought or dared to integrate into our lives. And they may remain unsuspected, or, on the other hand, some chance word, the smell of a landscape, the taste of a cup of tea, or the glance of an eye may touch a magic spring, and then dangerous messengers begin to appear in the brain. These are dangerous because they threaten the fabric of the security into which we have built ourselves and our family. But they are fiendishly fascinating too, for they carry keys that open the whole realm of the desired and feared adventure of the discovery of the self. Destruction of the world that we have built and in which we live, and of ourselves within it; but then a wonderful reconstruction, of the bolder, cleaner, more spacious, and fully human life—that is the lure, the promise and terror, of these disturbing night visitants from the mythological realm that we carry within.

Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, p. 8

Too Dangerous To Depict in Art

In myth, the gods are more vulnerable. They are subject to passions and emotions, they quarrel, fight, and even die. This vulnerability was largely taboo in Egyptian art. The power of words and images was greatly increased when they were carved in stone to last for eternity. A terrible event, such as the murder of the good god Osiris, was too dangerous to show. Portraying even a temporary triumph for the forces of evil or chaos might empower them to act in the world.

Geraldine Pinch, Magic in Ancient Egypt, p. 18

The Perilous Journeys of the Shaman

Wherever it may lead, the perilous journey is always, of course, perilous. The hero, traditionally a young man, must defend himself against beast and foe. In Celtic folktales and faery tales he often risks physical danger, bodily harm, even death, as he quests for a marvelous object that he believes will bring luck, health, or a richer life: a magical sword, a cauldron of wisdom, a cup of knowledge, or a faery lover. On the shaman’s initiation journey the danger is psychic—the disintegration and reintegration of personality. The object of the quest is a “new soul,” a shamanic soul with its disorienting and upsetting vision of reality. On subsequent journeys, the shaman’s quest may still be for nothing less than the human soul of a patient who is sick, of someone severely depressed, or of a person recently deceased. As psychologists and symbologists note, the archetypal journey is always one of initiation and self-discovery. The physical objects sought on the quest are symbols of psychic wholeness, health, and the integrated soul, or in Jungian terms, the Self.

Tom Cowan, Fire in the Head, p. 161

The Gods Are Not Ends in Themselves

The gods as icons are not ends in themselves. Their entertaining myths transport the mind and spirit, not up to, but past them, into the yonder void; from which perspective the more heavily freighted theological dogmas then appear to have been only pedagogical lures: their function, to cart the unadroit intellect away from its concrete clutter of facts and events to a comparatively rarefied zone, where, as a final boon, all existence—whether heavenly, earthly, or infernal—may at last be seen transmuted into the semblance of a lightly passing, recurrent, mere childhood dream of bliss and fright. “From one point of view all those divinities exist,” a Tibetan lama recently replied to the question of an understanding Occidental visitor, “from another they are not real.” This is the orthodox teaching of the ancient Tantras: “All of these visualized deities are but symbols representing the various things that occur on the Path“; as well as a doctrine of the contemporary psychoanalytical schools. And the same metatheological insight seems to be what is suggested in Dante’s final verses, where the illuminated voyager at last is able to lift his courageous eyes beyond the beatific vision of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, to the one Eternal Light.

Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, pp. 180-81

Emphasis mine.

Akkadian Conception of the Supernatural

The ancient Akkadian texts clearly show these people’s conception of the supernatural. For them, good and evil are caused by good or evil spirits sent forth by good and evil gods. Their world is dualistic, the stage of undecided combat between the forces of light and dark. No moral distinction is made in this perennial struggle, in the belief that it is only through fatality that these forces are either good or bad. Good may well engender evil, as illustrated by Mulge, who, although not belonging essentially to the evil principle, yet begot Namtar, the most cruel of all demons. Good and evil are not even necessarily encamped in separate abodes; beneficent powers dwell in the dark abyss of Mulge, and spiteful forces live side by side with charitable ones. In these beliefs, man would have been the prey of chaos had he not employed magical arts to protect himself against evil influences.

Kurt Seligmann, The History of Magic and the Occult, p. 3

Magic Armor in the Iliad

In folklore and saga, gifts from fairies or higher powers to a mortal prince are usually magical. A magic spear would return to its master when hurled; magic horses would convey him safely out of battle; and magic armor would make the hero invulnerable. Typically, Homer has suppressed all such outlandish protection; no hero fighting at Troy has any charm or power to escape death. Nonetheless, as will shortly be revealed, remnants of the original attributes of each of Peleus’ divine gifts are discernible in the Iliad, although transformed and turned by Homer to tragic effect….

Of the many deaths the Iliad records, no other resembles that of Patroklos. Nowhere is the pitiful vulnerability of a mortal so exploited as it is by the savage malevolence of Apollo‘s blow and the hounding of the wounded man as he tries to shun death among his companions. The horror of this extraordinary scene is reinforced by the resonance of two disparate, submerged traditions. One of these concerns that magic armor, worn by the folktale predecessors of Achilles, whose fairy-tale function had undoubtedly been to render its wearer invulnerable. As has been said, Homer severely repressed any hint that the armor given by the gods to Peleus had supernatural properties, yet he allows one aspect of this ancient motif to surface here, turning it to electrifying effect—Patroklos must be stripped of the armor before he can be killed. Thus Apollo’s savage blow strikes off his helmet and breaks the corselet upon him. Patroklos is killed—slaughtered—naked.

Caroline Alexander, The War That Killed Achilles, pp. 132, 140-41

Emphasis mine.

Religious Rituals of War

What attitudes about warfare are suggested by the common features of primitive religion? The signals are mixed. The constant participation of the spirit world conveys a sense of “bellicism”—of warfare as part of the natural world. At the same time, warfare seems to be regarded, even by the most warlike, as a sort of interruption of normal life. Warriors must be dressed and painted so as to change their personalities. Special ceremonies signal their departure from normal life, and others, their return to it. Above all, warfare requires justification: The constant efforts to secure the favor of the spirit world imply that fighting and killing to avenge wrongs are required by the order of the world. …[T]he elaborate ritualization of primitive warfare both promotes war and limits it. It is possible to discern in primitive religion the germs of all later philosophical and theological interpretations of warfare, including both jus ad bellum (the right to make war) and jus in bello (rights in war).

Specific myths about the origins of war are difficult to find because the practice is so taken for granted. Most mythology seems to assume that conflict is simply part of the cosmos and has been so always, among spirits as well as men. Even if there was a primitive dreamtime inhabited by ancestors or gods, these beings fought with one another. Often the cosmos itself must be born in battle, as in the Babylonian creation myth, where the gods fight Tiamat the cosmic dragon and make the world out of her dismembered body.

In organized chiefdoms, the rituals of war take on a theocratic function: The chief is a deputy of the gods, sometimes divine himself, and all warfare has to be explained as an act of the gods, fought for their honor and glory and the honor and glory of their chiefly champion. All warfare must still be justified as an act of righteous vengeance. As shamans once brought down the spirits with magic to help the people avenge their wrongs, so priests petition the gods with sacrifice to avenge the wrongs of the chief.

In the early civilizations religion does not change much in the ideology of war. The rituals of war become more costly and ferocious, and the gods and their myths are more clearly defined by organized temple priesthoods. But all aspects of warfare are still interpreted in the terms of theocratic kingly militarism. The inscriptions of the Assyrian kings attribute all their victories and massacres to the power of Assur, a being far more reliable than the primitive spirits in that he had little use for chivalric conventions and none at all for purification rites.

Doyne Dawson, The Origins of Western Warfare, pp. 40-41

Emphasis mine.

Demons Fight in Vain Against the Order of Nature

Demons were powerful, capable of killing man and beast, but they could not altogether destroy life, nor could they permanently disrupt the order of nature. An eclipse of the sun might cause panic; but ultimately the sun emerged victorious from this struggle against evil, for did it not rise and set day after day, with the seasons following one another, bringing sowing and harvesting? Man stimulated the rhythm of nature by incantation, dance and gesture; and the stars moved in accordance with immutable laws as if to bear witness to the harmony of the world….

Kurt Seligmann, The History of Magic and the Occult, p. 4

On Man’s Side

The Greeks…are on man’s side, both in sympathy and in loyalty; the Hebrews, on the contrary, on God’s. Never would we have heard from a Greek such words as those of the sorely beaten “blameless and upright” Job, addressed to the god who had “destroyed him without cause” and who then came at him in the whirlwind, boasting of his power.

“Behold,” pleaded Job, “I am of small account…I know that thou canst do all things…. I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.”

Repent! Repent for what?

In contrast, the great contemporary Greek playwright Aeschylus, of about the same fifth-century [B.C.E.] date as the anonymous author of the Book of Job, puts into the mouth of his Prometheus—who was also being tormented by a god that could “draw Leviathan out with a fishhook, play with him as with a bird, and fill his skin with harpoons”—the following stunning words: “He is a monster…. I care less than nothing for Zeus. Let him do as he likes.”

Joseph Campbell, Myths To Live By, p. 81

Emphasis mine.

Vulnerability of Demigods

The few demigods, such as Aineias, who receive miraculous rescue [in the Iliad] are saved only by the direct intervention of a patron divinity, not by any special ingredient of their own semidivine nature. The flesh of the demigods is wholly vulnerable, the blood is the blood of mortals, the pain of injury that of ordinary mortal men, as is the inevitability of death. Nothing the men have inherited from their divine parents is itself protective; what saves them is the physical removal from the danger of the battlefield. The vividly evoked vulnerability of demigods such as Aineias will also have bearing upon the nature, and limitations, of the epic’s most outstanding demigod—Achilles.

Caroline Alexander, The War That Killed Achilles, p. 68

Greek Gods’ Relations With Man

The Olympians of the Iliad know everything about the mortals they look down upon; Zeus himself is eurúopa, “far-seeing,” a direct legacy of his origins as the all-seeing God of the Bright Sky, to whose celestial vantage the events on earth are laid bare. Rarely indolent, usually zestful and opinionated, the extended family of Zeus aggressively engages with the mortal world. In disguise, the Olympians move, speak, and act freely among men, partaking of the human experience. There is nothing about the men and women at Troy that the gods do not know, even to foreknowledge of their individual fates.

By contrast, despite the busy flow of divine activity that drums through their lives, the Homeric heroes and heroines know very little about their gods. Few could claim to know what a god looks like, as most encounters take place with the deity in disguise. There are exceptions: Helen famously recognizes Aphrodite, despite her masquerade as an old servant woman, by the “round, sweet throat of the goddess / and her desirable breasts and her eyes that were full of shining.” Likewise, Poseidon’s disguise as the seer Kalchas is betrayed by his footprints: “‘this is not Kalchas, the bird interpreter of the gods,'” Aias the son of Oïleus says to Telamonian Aias, “‘for I knew / easily as he went away the form of his feet, the legs’ form / from behind him. Gods, though gods, are conspicuous.'”

By and large, however, the men at Troy fight in a kind of fog of existential ignorance, never knowing where or who the gods are or what divine activities and plans already under way may affect their own actions. Nor do they know what they must do for their supplications and prayers to be received. A very few incidents appear to suggest that Zeus, at least, punishes the wicked, which, if true, would furnish some minimal guidance for gaining his favor and avoiding his wrath. Menelaos, for example, rants at the Trojans for taking Helen away: “‘wretched dogs, and your hearts knew no fear / at all of the hard anger of Zeus loud-thundering, / the guest’s god, who some day will utterly sack your steep city.'” On closer look, however, in this and other such cases, it is clear that punishment is to be meted out by Zeus only in his capacity as patron of a specific institution: he is Zeus Orkios, “Zeus who upholds oaths,” or Zeus Xenia, the god of guest friendship. Zeus’ loyalty, then, is in fact to himself in his particular cultic aspects, not to a principle of overarching justice.

Caroline Alexander, The War That Killed Achilles, pp. 116-17

Emphasis mine.

A Lucky Find Unsettles One’s World

Coming from who knows where, a lucky find is potentially unsettling to whatever world it enters. The moralists will be likely to complain, the gamblers will be pleased, while everyone else will wait to see if it really is amusing, this new thing. Whatever the case, before we can have a full sense of the disruptions and delights that come in the wake of a lucky find, we need fuller examples to work with. In 1965 [C.E.] George Foster, an anthropologist who had worked in Mexico and Italy, published an essay that is partly about how peasants respond when their neighbors’ fortunes suddenly change. In “Peasant Society and the Image of Limited Good,” Foster argues that many othervise perplexing details of peasant behavior can be understood by assuming that peasants believe there is a fixed quantity of wealth in the community and therefore that if someone in the group suddenly becomes richer it must be because someone else, or the group as a whole, has become poorer. The idea holds if we imagine, as Foster does, a closed community, or—to put it the other way—the idea finds its exceptions in cases in which wealth clearly comes from outside the nominal bounds of the group. Peasants do not feel ripped off if one of their number becomes richer as “a result of selling labor as a migrant worker, for it is clear that wages so earned come from across the border. More telling for my purposes are the other ways to get wealth without being subjected to group opprobrium. In peasant communities in southern Italy, for example, the neighbors won’t harass someone whose sudden success comes as a “gift of Fortune,” as, for example, when “a rich gentleman gave a poor boy a violin,” or when “a rich gentlewoman adopted an abandoned child,” when a man “hit upon a hidden treasure” buried in the woods, and when “another was lucky enough to win in the lottery.”

Lewis Hyde, Trickster Makes This World, pp. 131-32

Emphasis mine.

Find Trickster At The Boundaries

…In short, trickster is a boundary-crosser. Every group has its edge, its sense of in and out, and trickster is always there, at the gates of the city and the gates of life, making sure there is commerce. He also attends the internal boundaries by which groups articulate their social life. We constantly distinguish—right and wrong, sacred and profane, clean and dirty, male and female, young and old, living and dead—and in every case trickster will cross the line and confuse the distinction. Trickster is the creative idiot, therefore, the wise fool, the gray-haired baby, the cross-dresser, the speaker of sacred profanities. Where someone’s sense of honorable behavior has left him unable to act, trickster will appear to suggest an amoral action, something right/wrong that will get life going again. Trickster is the mythic embodiment of ambiguity and ambivalence, doubleness and duplicity, contradiction and paradox.

That trickster is a boundary-crosser is the standard line, but…there are also cases in which trickster creates a boundary, or brings to the surface a distinction previously hidden from sight. In several mythologies, for example, the gods lived on earth until something trickster did caused them to rise into heaven. Trickster is thus the author of the great distance between heaven and earth; when he becomes the messenger of the gods it’s as if he has been enlisted to solve a problem he himself created. In a case like that, boundary creation and boundary crossing are related to one another, and the best way to describe trickster is to say simply that the boundary is where he will be found—sometimes drawing the line, sometimes crossing it, sometimes erasing or moving it, but always there, the god of the threshold in all its forms.

Lewis Hyde, Trickster Makes This World, pp. 7-8

Emphasis mine.

Imagining the Centaur

The power of the steppe was based on the individual pastoral unit, the man on horseback. By all accounts, he was a unique creation, singular in his abilities and outlandish and terrifying in the eyes of victims, so much so he frequently defied description. Aesthetically, he left much to be desired. Clad shabbily in boots and trousers—both inventions of the steppe—kept supple through liberal portions of leftover butter and grease, he was likely a pungent warrior, especially since he himself never bathed. Upper garments were composed of crudely stitched pelts, valued only for warmth and protection. Strapped to his back was a quiver full of carefully crafted arrows and his formidable bow, both encased against the elements due to their extreme vulnerability to moisture. A well-cast bronze dagger would have completed his personal arsenal, since the steppe’s rich copper and tin deposits were exploited almost from the beginning of penetration.
It was horsemanship that set the pastoral trooper apart. Under ordinary circumstances control was exerted by reins attached to a bit—sometimes copper or bronze, but also bone or hemp. Saddles were blankets and hides. There were no stirrups, not before 500 [C.E.] at the earliest, so balance was based on experience and skill. Over time a horseman’s thighs and knees grew so sensitive to his mount’s movements that it became possible to maintain a firm seat at full speed using legs alone. The net effect was a union that left some wondering where the man left off and the horse began—the Greeks, for instance, imagined a race of centaurs, wild and unpredictable, humans and equines joined at the hip. Others were less fanciful, but nearly all who crossed his path were amazed by the steppe horseman’s ability to let go the reins and launch a rapid-fire barrage of arrows at full gallop through an arc of 270 degrees or more. He was as dangerous in retreat as moving forward—his fabled rearward Parthian shot brought an end to a legion of pursuers. No one was more lethal in the ancient world.

Robert L. O’Connell, Soul of the Sword, p. 50

Emphasis mine.

I never understood why centaurs were envisioned as forest creatures. Horses and ponies live on plains, steppes, and savannas.

I occasionally regret creating the Rellugai as turkic humans instead of centaurs. They would have been more difficult to write, but my writing can sometimes be too human-centric.