Life after the bedtime story

I’m not sure when I was first introduced to myths -Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With A Thousand Faces in university to be sure- but I think it was when I was much younger that I became fascinated with the idea of stories which, although often fanciful, tried to explain the meaning and significance of the world. I remember Miss Fisher, an English Literature teacher in high school who likened myths to narrative poems because of their extensive use of metaphors to disguise their real purpose. Therein lay their magic, she would say.

But, I think most of us were introduced to myths even earlier in our childhoods: fairy tales and their treatment of good and evil, duty and inconstancy -the danger of opposing values. The lessons they taught were sufficiently camouflaged that they didn’t seem like commands -more as examples of expected behaviour that engaged our imaginations. Well, mine at any rate.

The classical Greek and Roman myths were a little more difficult, though; they were often populated with unfamiliar dangers in even less familiar surroundings -Odysseus sailing between the two islands of Scylla and Charybdis each one containing terrifying monsters that threatened to destroy him. Or the Gorgon sisters whose hair was made of venomous snakes, the most famous of whom, I suppose, was Medusa who would turn anyone who looked at her into stone. She was the only one of the three sisters who was not immortal  and hence able to be killed (by Perseus -himself not a truly normal human either). Complicated stuff.

Still, there was something thrilling about these myths -hinting danger which, at least for me, far outstripped the malevolence of the witch in Grimm’s fairy tale who wanted to eat little Hansel and Gretel, or the risk of Goldilocks being surprised by the three bears in their own house. The messages, too, were often more complex, more nuanced, than what a parent might feel were appropriate for their child at bedtime. And anyway, apart from the reassurance that the forces of good would protect their children from the terrors of the night, most parents are unlikely to want to dive into the subterranean waters of the psyche that they themselves may not understand -let alone their children.

Some of the old myths, of course, are easier to pierce than others; I thought I understood that, say, Odysseus’ wandering 10 year journey home to Greece after the Trojan war merely highlighted the saga of Life. His adventures involved questions of loyalty and the trustworthiness of the people (or gods, or creatures) he encountered which are fairly universal themes, I suppose. I never delved into them much deeper than that, I’m afraid. And indeed, I would be hard-pressed even to name all of the characters (or even several) of the ones with whom he interacts. The only similarity they seemed to possess was a need to control, capture, or destroy him. After a while, most of the myths I read in my university days, faded into the more important issues of deciding what I, rather than Medusa or Odysseus, would do with my life. I left the myths to precipitate slowly like fine silt onto the floor of my memory -nice stories perhaps, but only distantly relevant in today’s world.

As sometimes happens, however, I may have misjudged their irrelevance. I happened upon a brief synopsis of essays that tweaked my curiosity.  The article, written by Nora McGreevy, wondered why so many mythological monsters were female.

I have to say that the sex of the monsters hadn’t really bothered me -if I even noticed. But there it was, although why it was like that seemed mysterious before I read McGreevy’s article. ‘As Homer’s Odysseus and his men attempt to sail back home to Ithaca, they must pass through a narrow, perilous channel fraught with danger on both sides. Scylla -a six-headed, twelve-legged creature with necks that extend to horrible lengths and wolf-like heads that snatch and eat unsuspecting sailors—resides in a clifftop cave. On the other side of the strait, the ocean monster Charybdis rages and threatens to drown the entire ship… they’re represented as things that Odysseus just has to get past… Both are described as unambiguously female.’

Medusa is an obvious example of a powerful female entity, but not so the Sphinx who seemed to appear in different incarnations. At any rate, the Sphinx with which I was acquainted from Sophocles’ tragedy Oedipus Rex, was ‘a female monster with the body of a cat, the wings of a bird, and a foreboding reservoir of wisdom and riddles. She travels to Thebes from foreign lands and devours anyone who cannot correctly answer her riddle.’ Remember that one? What has four legs in the morning, two in the afternoon, and three at night? The answer? Man. (Baby crawling, adult walking, senior with a cane). At any rate, ‘When Oedipus successfully completes her puzzle, the Sphinx is so distraught that she throws herself to her death… the logical conclusion for a culture that punished women for keeping knowledge to themselves. Knowledge is power.’

But why are so many of the mythological monsters female? Well, several reasons as it turns out. Take Medusa’s beauty, for example. ‘Beauty, like monstrosity, enthralls, and female beauty in particular was perceived—and, to a certain extent, is still perceived—to be both enchanting and dangerous, or even fatal… a villainous seductress.’

Or, how about Lamia, ‘one of the lesser-known demons of classical mythology… Lamia has the upper body of a woman but the lower half of a snake; her name in ancient Greek translates roughly to “rogue shark.” Other tales represent her as a woman with paws, scales and male genitalia, or even as a swarm of multiple vampiric monsters. Regardless of which account one reads, Lamia’s primary vice remains the same: She steals and eats children… Zimmerman [author of the book Women and other monsters ] posits that Lamia represents a deep-seated fear about the threats women pose to children in their societally prescribed roles as primary caregivers… That women could also sometimes produce children with physical abnormalities only added to the perception of women as potentially terrifying and destructive… To deviate in any way from the prescribed motherhood narrative is to be made a monster, a destroyer of children.’ Whoaa.

Perhaps, as an older white male, it might be supposed that I was never exposed to feminist thinking of this sort (although as an obstetrician/gynaecologist for 40 years I feel I was on the firing line for much of it), but whatever, I still find it compelling and intensely interesting. In years to come, I don’t really know how much of this view of myth will be seen as merely representative of the prevailing Zeitgeist, or whether, depending on the audience, will be considered largely agenda-driven; but I have to confess I am absolutely fascinated nevertheless. Myth, like poetry can have many meanings, many interpretations of its metaphors -and no one view is likely more accurate than any other, in the end. It’s part of the magic of myth…

Fabulam narro, ergo sum… At least I think that was how Miss Fisher put it so long ago.

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