by Fred Zackel
Once at twilight I was Zorro. My neighbors called my mom. She called me into the house and explained how a ten year old with a black mask and a Daisy air rifle prowling through backyards at twilight in our neighborhood might be seen as something different in an adult’s eyes.
The astonishing amount of mythological stuff just goes to show the ancients had a ton of time to ruminate on odd, perhaps deviant, human behavior. These peoples are curious and imaginative and undogmatic, even without the precise knowledge of what they were describing, and they dreamed up stories to tell adults when the kids were in the room and listening.
We always lie in front of the kids. To hear some children's animal shows, we tried giving the dodo bird mouth-to-mouth resuscitation … and it didn't work. No. We extincted them. Some for food. And most for fun. Because we like hearing the discharge from our guns as we slaughtered them. Because we felt powerful killing from a distance. But mostly for the fun.
I saw a lovely silly wise-ass joke earlier this week. “Vegetarian is an old Indian word for lousy hunter.”
Remember hearing Aesop’s tale about the Fox and the Grapes? The tale goes over our heads these days, but twenty-six centuries ago, folks who heard it understood the gnawing hunger, despair, and denial of imminent death by starvation. The ancients didn’t have the massive amounts of cheap food that we have now.
Think again of the desperation within Aesop’s Fables. Foxes do not eat grapes unless no other food is available. The hunger of the fox for the grapes is impervious to reason. How loudly is your stomach growling? Sour grapes? Naw, that’s not what it was. In fact, the fox was too weak to jump high enough to reach a cluster of grapes on a trellis. As the fox walks away, regardless of what it says, starvation rules its future.
The fox walks off to die.
Aesop is noir, baby. Noir.
Aesop’s Fables are a matter of Life and Death, and desperate foxes tell the best stories. The ancient Ethiopians knew this from millennia of village life. Aesop’s fables were really African animal tales transported (via slavery) to the children of Greece. The name “Aesop” (who actually was a real person and, yes, an African slave) is derived from the Greek “Ethiopia,” which translates best from the Hellenistic as “dark and dusky skin like a sun-baked river bed.”
I love the sagas about the blind poet Tieresias. Because he got into a no-win situation as a reluctant judge in a pissing contest between a god and a goddess, he was forced to live half his life as a man and half of his life as a woman. Thus Tieresias is the only person ever to live who knows both sides of the Battle of the Sexes. But that tale is just the start of the narrative fun that the ancient Greeks had with him. My personal favorite is told about him in Hades. Yes, he has died and now must spend eternity among the dead. Now, to hear the Greeks tell it, every dead person in Hades had been dipped in forgetfulness when he or she arrived. (The opposite of “lethe” by the way is “aletheia,” or “truth.”) But the gods and goddesses had one last trick (ah, reward) to pull on our luckless poet, and we can tell this in front of the children. See, Tieresias was the only one in Hades who knew and understood everything. He was never dipped. To ever-curious yet naïve children, oh, what a great reward: he gets it! To every adult who contemplates that, aw, geez … poor bastard. He was never dipped.
The practice of lying to our children is common, if not ubiquitous in our species. In front of children, the ancient Egyptians, when talking about having sex, called it “traveling through the marshes.”
Hey, sailor, wanna slog the murky bog with me?
In our own times,The Da Vinci Code says Jesus got married to Mary Magdalene and they had a kid and Mom and the kid moved to the South of France. According to the Koran, which counts Jesus as a prophet, that doctrine is blasphemous. Which is why the book and the Ron Howard movie are both banned in several Muslim countries. Me, I giggle over the reaction in the Philippines, where the book and the movie are “for adults only.” Sshh, the children might be listening. (Or reading?)
Ever see the Hollywood film Sodom and Gomorrah (1962) starring Stewart Granger and Pier Angeli? It was directed by Robert Aldrich. No? Well, it was marketed at “Not suitable for Children.” Too bad, the adults who attended were so disappointed. Boy, I know I was. I snuck into the theater to see that puppy. I was ‘way under-aged. Geez, under-aged and disappointed. I was robbed.
Some myths turn out to be horror stories when we get them in context. Most folks have heard the story of Orpheus and Eurydice. Most of us who have think that this story was about love, romance, and the foolish impetuosity of the impatient heart. But the story continues and becomes much darker.
Eurydice was dipped in forgetfulness. This was the Greek way of saying that the blessings of death are that the sorrows of our lives are forgotten. (Remember that from above?) That forgetfulness that Eurydice experienced includes the grief and sorrow engendered by Orpheus’ disgustingly inhumane and insensitive macho attitude. He cannot confront his own revulsion that she was raped. His bride was raped. So she was dead to him.
Yes, the bride Eurydice had been raped. To her lover in that ancient patriarchy, that meant she was (socially) dead. He returned to her. But in his eyes she was still dead to him. When he left, she did not follow.
Call it a happy ending: she gets dipped in forgetfulness as a sop.
The Ruler of Hades tells Orpheus, “Don’t look back.” Once raped, Eurydice might as well be dead. If she has forgotten it, well, all the better for the Patriarchy.
Now does Tieresias seem like he got the Divine Shaft?
Stories often get told in front of both children and adults, and thus the same story can be viewed in two very different versions. These stories help us pose problems in situations even our kids could ruminate over. At the same time, these stories help us bond together as a clan or tribe. These stories teach us all, Don’t be a chump! Or don’t be a Jerk! (Substitute “naïf” or your favorite word; it all works for me.)
The ancient Greeks spoke about Ariadne, for instance, the daughter of King Minos of Crete. Depending which myth we hear, and there are several, she may have been a high priestess or maybe even the Snake Goddess of Minos herself. (In myth, the snake is hidden desire. Is that a snake in your pocket, lady, or do you love me?)
In one version, Ariadne falls in love with the Athenian hero Theseus, giving him the thread that transverses the labyrinth, and thus she betrays her father, her nation, her religion, and her half-brother the Minotaur. Now she was supposed to sail off with Theseus, but he abandoned her and sails off without her. The story then says that the gods took pity on her and Dionysus married her. Much later she dies in childbirth and receives a noble burial.
Well, not a very happy ending, but we of the 21st century don’t feel that bad for her. True, she suffered with great sorrow for her crimes. But after all we don’t blame Theseus for abandoning her. Nor is she blamed for her betrayals in the name of love. After all, she did get married and thus it is implied that she lived, well, reasonably happily ever after. The many statues and vases which show her with Dionysus make her look like she’s having fun with her Divine lover.
But we are the children in the room. Adults in the ancient world heard a different story.
Dionysus was the god of theater and madness and wine. The god of coma, you know, unconsciousness. The amphorae of wine were sealed with lead solder, which can lead to lead poisoning. Poor Ariadne, abandoned and despairing, hit hard the juice of the amphora, and then lost her mind. Somehow she got preggers. (If we can’t name the father, it was Divine Penetration.) Insane, she died in childbirth. Covenient, of course, to the Patriarchy. And Theseus, ah Theseus, has long shadows. He broods over the girl he left behind. (Not that he goes back for her, of course. Or ever shows remorse.)
The adults got the message; it went right over the heads of the kids.
Being the most beautiful of all mortals, golden-haired Trojan prince Ganymedes was frequently represented as the god of homosexual love and as such appears as a playmate of the love-gods Eros (Love) and Hymenaios (Marital Love).
The god Eros, btw, was known as the greedy boy. Uh-huh.
The philosopher Plato in his Phaedrus 255, writes, “The fountain of that stream [homosexual desire], which Zeus when he was in love with Ganymede named Himeros (Desire).”
One almost familiar story says that Ganymedes was carried off to heaven by Zeus, or his eagle, to be the god's lover and cup-bearer of the gods. The boy's name was derived from the Greek words “ganumai” which might get translated bast as “gladdening” and “mêdon” or “medeôn,” which means either “prince” or “genitals.” The name may have been formed to contain a deliberate double-meaning.
But all Greek myths can be read in different ways. For instance, one side of the Ganymedes story says that he was not carried off by any god, but either by Tantalus or Minos, that he was killed during the chase, and buried on the Mysian Olympus.
Another sidebar says he was raped by the god. The god was an eagle “holding the terrified boy with claws that tore not.” (Which lets some mortal off the hook.)
A gay guy gets raped and killed and carried off by the gods. He died and went to heaven, eh? Oh sure. Twenty years in San Francisco and I know better.
Always a part of the story is that Zeus paid for the boy with a brace of horses. That the boy’s father would end his grieving. Uh-huh. Small price to pay for the death of your son killed by Divine Rape. Unless we can imagine a mortal and a Divine having consensual sex, which seems horribly one-sided to me.
No, this story was about not consenting adults in a consensual act. We can smell there were pay-offs and cover-ups. Somebody very powerful got away with rape and murder.
Cup-bearer to the gods, eh. Uh-huh. The eternal waiter. No promotion, no change in job title, living off the trickle downs from the gods. Uh-huh.
Apuleiu writes in The Golden Ass that, “With a Phrygian woven cap and saffron dress, looking like the shepherd-boy Catamitus [Ganymede] carrying a golden cup.”
Sometimes not even a shepherd, but a cowherd, a farm hand. A country clown, by one account. Not even a cowboy.
Oh yeah. The beloved and favorite of Zeus, eh? By the will of Zeus, Ganymedes had become immortal and exempt from old age. Well, that is bilious poop, a sop, and a happy ending.
The Roman poet Ovid wrote in his masterwork Metamorphoses,
But now I need a lighter strain, to sing of boys beloved of gods and girls bewitched by lawless fires who paid the price of lust. The Rex Superum (King of Heaven) once was fired with love of Ganymedes Phrygius, and something was devised that Juppiter [Zeus] would rather be than what he was. Yet no bird would he deign to be but one that had the power to bear his thunderbolts. At once his spurious pinions beat the breeze and off he swept Iliades [Ganymedes of Ilion]; who now, mixing the nectar, waits in heaven above, though Juno [Hera] frowns, and hands the cup to Jove.
Hera, the God’s wife, hated Ganymedes always. I wonder why.
Another side of the story says that King Minos of Crete, on a state visit to Troy, kidnapped the youth, the son of the King of Troy, and fled with him back to Minos, where the boy committed suicide over his fate. Minos buried the body in the temple, and from that came the notion that the boy was taken in by the god Zeus.
The bitterness, the brutality, and the violence got turned into myth.
We can’t tell the truth when the kids are listening.
So they all lived happily ever after. Uh-huh.