The Golden Bough

The Golden Bough [1890-1915] is an anthology of comparative mythology and religion, written by the Scottish anthropologist Sir James George Frazer.

The book is in fact 12 volumes which analyse the narratives and rituals of the ancient world. Its central thesis is that originally, religions were fertility cults concerned with cyclical seasons. These cults revolved around concerns of life and death and almost universally featured the worship of and periodic sacrifice of a sacred king. This king was most often the incarnation of a dying god, who perished at the harvest and was reincarnated in the spring.

GB

Frazer proposed that mankind has progressed from magic through religious belief to scientific thought, however this legend remained pervasive into the 20th century, Frazer’s own era. He cited the examples of Osiris, Tammuz, Adonis and Attis, Dionysus and drew parallels to Jesus Christ.

The book scandalized the British public when first published, as it equated the Christian story of Jesus and the Resurrection with the pagan religions. Nevertheless, it soon became a staple of anthropology and comparative religious curricula.

aeneas

The book’s title  The Golden Bough, refers to  the adventures of the Trojan hero Aeneas, [Virgil, The Aeneid, Book VI] who leaving Troy after its destruction travels to Italy and founds what will become Rome. He is aided by the 700 year old sibyl of Cumae, who agrees to escort him into the underworld to find his father. To achieve this, Aeneas must pluck a branch of the Golden Bough, a sacred tree that only the gods can access. Aeneas’ mother Aphrodite assists him to pluck a branch of the tree and with it and with the help of the sibyl, he descends to Hades unscathed. There he greets the ‘shade’ of his father who shows him the river Lethe, or forgetfulness and beyond it where all the spirits of the unborn await. There are Aeneas descendants, among them great men such as Romulus and the Caesars who would one day rule Rome. Aeneas’ father also points him to the Gates of Sleep through which he can return to the living.

Virgil’s narrative highlights a few interesting things about the motif of the dying king, or the hero who descends into Hades and returns.  First, it is a classic hero journey, as developed in Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces [1949]. The hero journey, also called the monomyth, is a narrative pattern favoured by storytellers, film-makers and script writers the world over. It describes the typical adventure of the archetype known as The Hero, the person who goes out and achieves great deeds on behalf of the group, tribe, or civilization.

Second, Virgil connects the hero journey to the World Tree, The Golden Bough or the divine Tree of Life. This common motif of ancient narratives connects the realm of the divine, the gods and their garden of Eden or paradise, to Earth. The branch or fruit of of the tree of life bestows immortality and so is restricted from mortal access. Access to life and thus to this tree becomes of obsessive interest to ancient heroes.

world tree

What does all this mean and what importance does this narrative resonance have at a time such as Easter?

Many point out that Easter coincides with the pagan festival of the first full moon of Spring. Thus, the celebration of the death of a supposed god-king,  who later was resurrected to restore life to earth and to humanity is easily explained away as simple anthropological pattern that people of  a more scientific age should be well beyond.

But this is where things begin to go a bit strange.

The Christian celebration of Easter coincides with the Jewish full moon celebration of the passover, a feast which celebrates the liberation of the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt. Far from celebrating the sacrificial death of a god-king, the Passover celebrates the merciful sparing of the people of Israel from a plague of death in Egypt by the sacrifice of a simple lamb.

Within the ancient near eastern context, rich with narratives of dying and rising god-kings, Zoroastrians and Jewish narratives resonated with a typological hero, a servant king, who would bring peace and end the cosmic cycle of death and mend the polarities of light and dark. This king, the anointed mashiach or messiah, would not only restore life, but end all wars, suffering, illness, death and sorrow. While it was acknowledged that this king was a servant and would suffer, this king would also be politically significant and liberate the Jewish people from their bondages.

The-Passion-of-the-Christ-4

When devout Jews of the first century AD declared the Jesus of Nazareth was this promised anointed one, the uproar and dissent caused within the Jewish communities of the Mediterranean caused even the Imperial Rulers to complain and seek to suppress it [Divus Claudius,  25].

Most significantly what this shows is that the Jewish people were the least likely people of the ancient world to equate a man to God, or to conflate pagan mythology of a dying and rising god with the advent of their mashiach.

Historians have posited that claims of Christ’s divinity or evidence of the resurrection were laid-over first century accounts of Jesus of Nazareth to satisfy mythical types. However, this too has been shown to be quite unsupportable. The earliest texts which report eye witness claims of Christ’s death date from the first century and the debates and unrest caused by the earliest followers of Christ are supported by secular historians such as Claudius [above] and Tacitus [Annals XV.44], Suetonius [Nero 16] and Pliny [Epistulae X.96].

TacitusSuetonius

 

 

 

 

 

 

The fact that hundreds of so called eye-witnesses of the resurrected Christ were persecuted and willingly died to maintain this claim, caused unrest across the whole Mediterranean region and resultant persecution by the authorities.

So what can we make of these seeming contradictions? The Christ narrative seems to comply with mythical archetypes which resonate throughout world literature and point to cosmic reconciliation of death and rebirth. However, within the Jewish context, the claim that Christ fulfilled messianic hopes of ending the struggle between dark and light, restoring peace, ceasing the cycle of death and bringing peace – was vehemently opposed by large portions of the Jewish community and yet defended to the death by others.

It is perhaps what CS Lewis refers to when he states:

The old myth of the Dying God, without ceasing to be myth, comes down from the heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history. It happens —at a particular date, in a particular place, followed by definable historical consequences. We pass from a Balder or an Osiris, dying nobody knows when or where, to a historical Person crucified (it is all in order) under Pontius Pilate. By becoming fact it does not cease to be myth: that is the miracle.  ~ C.S.Lewis [1970] God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics. 

Rather than simply assuming, Christianity, like any mythical belief, has roots in pre-scientific questions of death and rebirth, winter and spring, Lewis shows how in fact, the poetic resonance of myths and legends of all eras and cultures, created a prophetic typology, pointing forward to a solution to a cosmic and unsolvable problem.

mashiach

That solution came at Passover about 30AD, when a man died a criminals death. His blood not only averted the Plague of Death on humanity, but also initiated the release of humanity from slavery into glorious freedom.

His resurrection caused a radical revolution in the lives of his 500 odd followers and eye witnesses, who radicalised by the realisation of the fulfilment of all messianic hopes turned the world upside down in a quest to share the news, not only with the Jews, but with the whole world.

Because it has been the whole world who has been dreaming of this miraculous solution since the beginning of time.

 

 

Advertisements

Ulysses 31

This blog has often touched upon the point that the popularist genre, science fiction, has its roots in high myths and legends. What was once the domain of scholars, philosophers, theologians and literary experts –  is now the domain of geeks and nerds worldwide.

What better illustration of this relationship than the 1980s French-Japanese animation, “Ulysses 31″.

The 26 episodes of the series, describe the struggles of Ulysses and his crew against the divinities that rule the universe, the ancient gods from Greek Mythology.  The gods are angered when Ulysses, commander of the giant space vessel Odyssey, kills the giant Cyclops to save a group of enslaved children, including his son.

Zeus sentences Ulysses to travel the universe with his crew frozen until he finds the Kingdom of Hades, at which point his crew will be revived and he will be able to return to Earth. Along the way they encounter numerous other famous figures from Greek mythology, given a sci-fi twist.

Ulysses_31_by_Bintavivi

Any lover of science fiction and fantasy can recognise many of the themes explored throughout the episodes:
  • The ship passes a moon that brings Numinor back to life, since it’s from his home planet of Zotra. When they investigate, the children disappear and Numinor suspects they’ve been kidnapped by a legendary witch.
  • Ulysses meets an old scholar named Heratos and his assistant, a young Zotrian woman named Atina. Heratos gives Ulysses a map that he says is to the Kingdom of Hades, but is actually to the Graveyard of Wrecks and Hulks which no-one has ever left alive, because the gods threatened Atina’s life if he did not deceive Ulysses. While there, Telemachus finds the black sphere which contains a map of Olympus.
  • Aeolus, King of the winds, kidnaps Ulysses to provide entertainment for his daughter’s birthday party. Unable to watch her father’s cruel sport, she frees the captives and helps them escape.
ulyssess
  • Ulysses encounters Sisyphus a king condemned to fill a crater with boulders for all eternity for having dared to want the secret of immortality. Zeus has promised Sisyphus he can leave if he makes Ulysses take his place.
  • The Odyssey comes across a lifeless city world. On hearing that its people had the technology to bring the dead back to life, Yumi takes Numinor to the planet to revive him. However, she learns why there is no life in the city.
  • A space storm revives the companions as crazed automatons who take over the ship and try to crash it into space glaciers.
  • Passing through the domain of the great Sphinx, Ulysses must answer his riddle to leave safely. His treacherous daughter kidnaps the children and plots to make Ulysses her slave.
ulysses
  • Ulysses is saved from a Trident attack by Chronos, the god of time, who wants to use him as leverage to be allowed to reenter the home of the gods.
  • The Odyssey arrives on a tropical planet, where the ruling tyrant uses a magic prism to shrink them.
  • Ulysses follows a Trident carrier in hopes of learning more about the way out of Olympus, and finds himself trapped in bizarre worlds. To save the children, he will have to give up his memories.
  • Trying to help a stranded astronaut, Ulysses tries to find a hidden base on one of the deadly twin planets Scylla or Charydbis.
  • Coming across a piece of Zotra that could bring Numinor back to life, Ulysses and Yumi pursue it to a swamp planet where they are ambushed by monsters who can copy their forms.
  • Pirates kidnap the children to force Ulysses and No-No to brave the danger of the Sirens, said to guard a map of the Olympus universe.
  • Ulysses and the crew land on a planet similar to prehistoric earth. They encounter a winged female named Sauria, whose people are under attack from mutant vultures called Keconopters.
ulysses 1
  • The crew of the Odyssey are enslaved by the magic of the enchantress Circe and turned into pig-people to build a tower that will house all the knowledge of the universe.
  • Princess Ariadne comes upon the Odyssey, and asks for Ulysses’ help in saving her lover Theseus, who has been exiled to her father’s labyrinth to be killed by the fearsome Minotaur.
  • Mercurius, the bubble-dwelling “grandson of the gods,” enlists Ulysses’ help in taking a jewel from the brow of the giant Atlas under the promise that it will give him the power to send Ulysses home.
  • The shapechanger Nereus calls Ulysses for help when Shark Men, servants of the gods, take over his planet.
  • Ulysses is saved from an attack by the most powerful magician in the universe who breaks the gods’ curse on his crew; however, as payment for his services, demands to hunt Ulysses’s best men.
ulysses 2
  • Princess Hypsipile of the planet Lemnos is found by Ulysses; she tells them that the women of her planet are being forced by the Shark Men to build ships for the gods.
  • The Odyssey is dragged to a planet populated by machines, and governed by the tyrannical computer Cortex. One of its inhabitants, a “female” robot named Nanette, falls in love with No-No.
  • The Odyssey responds to a distress call from Queen Calypso, who tells him that if he saves her planet she will tell him the way back to earth. Calypso has been ordered by Zeus to betray Ulysses, but she falls in love with him and cannot carry out the gods’ orders.
  • Ulysses and the children are sent back in time and meet the original Ulysses, Telemachus and Penelope of Homer’s epic.
  • Needing raw materials to repair the Odyssey, Ulysses travels to a world where the inhabitants are addicted to eating seeds which induce amnesia.
ulysses 3
  • In the final episode, Ulysses and his companions reach the Kingdom of Hades. They meet Orpheus, who seeks Ulysses’ help to find his love, Euridyce, who has been taken to the Kingdom of Hades by Charon. Hades the god of death, tells Ulysses that he must leave his companions behind if he wishes to return to Earth. He rejects the offer, which was a final test, and they all return home.

Peaceful Combat

The Olympic Games, were held every four years [an Olympiad] in Ancient Greece, in honour of the gods. Attributing them mythical origin, the games were more than simply entertainment but festivals of peace giving. Atheletes travelling to the games we granted amnesty via, The Olympic Truce, to travel safely to the games through enemy territory. The games served to unite the city states of the Grecian peninsula into Panhellenic unity.

Interestingly, both sport and story telling featured as part of the festivities, and the gods were said to descend from Mt Olympus to enjoy the revelries. The peaceful games in their honour, presented combat, both in the playing arenas and in the amphi-theatres, and brought the combat to a peaceful resolution. Instead of war – wrestling, javelin throwing, horse racing, foot races and boxing were undertaken by trained athletes while citizens spectated and cheered. This “play combat” externalised inter-state conflict without making it bitter.

olympics_map

Likewise, stories externalise inner conflict, jealousies, rivalries, revenge, madness and hatred.  These dramas played out by trained actors while spectators cheered offered catharsis for human inter-personal and intra-personal struggles. Even more interesting is that modern pscyhology and mental health theory has taken elements of ancient stories and converted them into therapy.

In the ancient world

Gods and heroes of Greek myths have been of interest to psychoanalysts, who find them as symbols of human intrapsychic life, evolution, and conflicts. Many of these gods and heroes, like Oedipus, Electra, Eros, and Narcissus, have had their names given to psychological situations, conflicts, and diseases. Freud picked the myth of Narcissus as a symbol of a selfabsorbed person whose libido is invested in the ego itself, rather than in other people. The term narcissistic personality disorder, also taken from the myth, describes a self-loving character with grandiose feelings of uniqueness – Arash Javanbakht

Echo_and_Narcissus

The theatrical side of the Olympics has since been lost in favour of the sports. Maybe this can become a new form of international relations –  more poetry and story telling in foreign policy and play out global tensions harmoniously? Maybe we can approach story as medicine for our soul – to help us work through inner ills and understand ourselves better?