Given that this blog has a somewhat elusive name, it wouldn’t hurt to say a few words about its conception and meaning. The term Elysium refers to the Elysian Fields, the concept/realm/afterlife of the Ancient Greeks. Typically, it would denote the place where all the great (super)heroes of old would find lasting peace, prosperity, fame and all that good stuff. The name had to have been mythological in one way or another, because my research into the stories and traditions of old has opened my eyes in more ways than one … coincidently, it’s fitting that I also enjoy dabbling in things of visual nature, as the previous posts might have hinted at. I would have chosen Hyperborea, but it’s a bit less sexy and probably more obscure for most people, while terms like Valhalla are a bit too much on the nose. While these names/lands are hardly culturally interchangeable, for me Elysium embodies the positive approach to writing and a hopefully useful venue for discussion and sharing of information, knowledge and (hopefully inspiring) wisdom.
The logo of this blog depicts an owl with an “infinite” gaze and an unfolded scroll, all symbolic and mythic elements in one way or another. The general idea was to create something, chic and immediately recognizable, but with intricate meaning as well.
The sly if not ideological beauty of all of this is that I’m taking an ancient emblem like Elysium and transfiguring it, the same way as older myths were (and still are) used and reused by later generations. But before I go off on a tangent, which happens far too often, I’ll use this as a cheesy segue, so I can dwell into the complex world of myths.
For the etymology of myth, we obviously turn to the Greeks as one of the most dominant and influential mythic traditions of the western civilization as it exists (and persists) today. Their word μυθος (mythos/muthos) means a story, a tale. Myth is therefore a culture’s recollection of their legacy, origin and principles. We seem to have always told stories as a means to make the harsh reality of our lives easier. Myths are cultural stories about what the society tells itself in order to understand itself in the scope of the world or higher reality. On the other hand, mythology represents the “canon” of myths, a collection of stories in a particular society.
The question of the source of myth bears strong similarities to the question of the origin of humanity itself. We can consider theories like diffusion and parallel origin, the first reflecting the distribution of some central myths through contact among different cultures, while the second presupposes a common origin of myths, since human development and the stages of life have essentially remained the same. I mention these two processes merely because the principle of diffusion embodies the notion of syncretism or religious borrowing, which is the dominant aspect in the study of comparative mythology, since it influences a wider trans-cultural socio-political situation, whose effects can span centuries or even millennia in the case of Hinduism for example. Syncretism is best understood in the very conception of Greek myths … or rather Greco-Roman myths, since the Romans were notorious for engulfing the conquered nations and adapting their tradition for themselves (if it suited them). On the other hand, Greekdom and Hellenism are strongly contrasted by individual myths of various peoples in different poleis. The multitude of myths within a specific environment (which can in itself be culturally very diverse) is consequently contrasted with specific details that emerge as the most widespread motifs. Originality and borrowings seem to go hand in hand or at least their codependence demands cooperation of researchers from different fields pertinent to the subject matter.
Despite ongoing archeological and geological research, precise assessment is constrained by obvious lack of factual proof and even miscomprehensions of the traditions and times myths originated in. The answer to the question of whether diffusion or parallelism (in mythic terms monomyth or social environment … more on that in later posts) should be prominently accepted surely lies closer to aspects of both theories; while human existence is essentially bound to similar stages of life, each cultural narrative follows its own trajectory and is subject to its own space and time.
This brief discussion already alludes to the magnitude of some of these stories, which can be seen as either morality tales, traditional teachings or proto-scientific observations. Thus, definitions of myth may vary according to the position we take: a more philosophical one (myth as the inquiry of the world), phenomenological (myth as divine truth), psychological (myth as the internal struggle with the outside world), etc. From traditional tales of a society’s beliefs to sacred narratives and accounts of cultural gestation or greatness, myths have long inspired human imagination and aspired towards grandeur.
Nevertheless, what all of these positions have in common and what for the most part myths share with comics in general is that they are stories. Myths in their original sense refer to oral stories that were passed down from generation to generation and consequently written down as writing took hold of human development and progression of civilizations themselves.
The dichotomy of oral and written storytelling is quite profound and directly affects how myths are presented and perceived. Traditional societies such as the Australian Aborigines, Native Americans and many African and Mesoamerican tribes have been the basis for anthropologists to understand the enactment and legacy of myths. The bard tradition has a rich history and is not merely a remnant of old ways, but represents a personal, active enactment of stories in front of a live audience.
The distinction between oral accounts is twofold: on the one hand, oral stories represent a more intimate, personal account of the subject matter; especially in the case of stories referring to a particular familial legacy or a city state, such as the local myth of Theseus as the Athenian hero. On the other, oral stories were always in flux, reinterpreted and adapted in order to have a better effect on the crowd. While the latter issue represents the richness and range of myth as subject matter, it can be the source of frustration in study of mythology as well. Oral storytelling is consequently never fixed and nuances are constantly added or changed as generally every live performance of a story flows naturally, reflecting the natural mythic current, reminiscent of the Daoist symbolism of ever-changing, constant stream of water. Nevertheless, the overall meaning of the myth is mostly retained. The tradition of retelling the labors of Heracles for example features numerous variations: regardless if the Hydra he defeats has nine heads or fifty, his unmatched heroism is retained in all accounts, since Heracles is the quintessential Greek hero, who ushers in the Pan-Hellenic age, the age where Greek culture subdues the wild nature in its vicinity.
Once the story is written down, it becomes a permanent imprint, a “fossilized account” of the natural oral tale. This may nevertheless be invaluable for the modern scholars, who depend on actual accounts and records of past traditions. In ancient times, long before Herodotus wrote his Histories, record keeping was far from essential (especially considering the information craze of the current age), so any kind of clue we get into the lives of our ancestors is beyond precious; but those are nonetheless mere morsels of factuality that we base our consequent interpretations on. Like anthropologists discovering bones of dinosaurs, historians and linguists can deconstruct a story like Homer’s The Odyssey in numerous ways; yet, they can never truly decipher the essence of the myth, since it is invariably linked to the tradition of its time, plus its rituals and beliefs that may not be present in the story itself. In other words: while the bones may ultimately reconstruct the whole figure of the ancient creature, its essence can at best be speculated upon.
In the case where different written accounts of myths have survived, they can be easily taken out of context, downplayed or misunderstood, if the reader is not aware of the whole mythology of the culture in question. We have to understand that these stories were widely known and sometimes the author would make a strong point with a mere allusion to a particular myth (or not even mention something profound, because it was obvious to the listeners/readers); the message, however, not only fails to resonate on an equally high level with the modern reader, but the reference can actually be completely missed.
There is a reason, why the study of mythology is a life-long process …
Let’s take another look at Picture 2, but this time from a more nuanced mythological perspective. The connection between Spartans and Heracles goes far beyond the mere equation between this historic city state that embodied honor and prowess in battle and a mythic character that is synonymous with the whole Greek heroic age. The reference implies not just mere power and supernatural abilities, superhuman strength or fearlessness, but stresses the hero’s conflicting nature as well (as the spiteful goddess Hera caused his madness).
Psychologically, Heracles was tormented for his own killing of his family, while the Spartans were torn from normal upbringing and family life in favor of their overtly military culture. While this “inhuman” upbringing called agoge forced the children to fend for themselves in the wilderness to become better fighters, it also instilled unparalleled love for the Spartan polis; resulting in a quite natural comparison with Heracles, whose first act of valor was strangling two snakes in his infancy.
As the Spartans faced the historically unparalleled force of the Persian army, quite literally stopping the Eastern force from taking hold of all of Europe, Heracles took on tasks that were beyond human, scarifying himself like the Spartans did for the glory, freedom and future of Hellenism (which was undoubtedly the most influential concept in the evolution of the Western world as it still persist today).
Despite the fact that both the Spartans and Heracles were nowhere near chivalric or exemplifying moral goodness, they achieved immortality through their actions of bravery and remembrance through myth. Thus, the sentence: “The old ones claim we Spartans descend from Heracles himself” (Miller and Varley 2006: 73) carries with it a powerful message that requires understanding of myth, history, politics and Greek culture itself. From a strictly pictorial perspective, the cited sentence is almost subversively inserted into the battlefield in the panel. Amongst a barrage of arrows and the loud cry for death, the reference to Heracles can be easily lost, since the pictorial elements seem to indicate the ferocity of battle. Nevertheless, understanding the historical situation and close reading prove that the verbal elements carry their own interpretive weight beyond the obvious dominance of their pictorial counterparts.
To be continued …
For reasons of extreme prejudice, the author of this blog wishes to remain anonymous …