During last week’s mythology discussion, the idea of present day political protesters as heroic figures came up several times. There’s a lot for us to explore in terms of the mythological structures of protest.
To start this discussion, we can look at an anti-hero who has been compared both to Robocop and Darth Vader: Lieutenant John Pike, the policeman who was videotaped pepper spraying peaceful protesters sitting on a sidewalk at the UC Davis campus.
The mythologizing of this character started with the simple distribution of the video of the pepper spraying. From there, it’s gone into much wider media.
Pike’s image was spliced into fine art, pepper spraying people in famous paintings. Then, Pike was cut into scenes from popular movies, as in the Harry Potter movie seen below.
By yesterday, Pike’s distinctive pepper spraying stance could be seen on Thanksgiving turkeys:
Anthropologists have written about the way that people working in the mythic element mix and match cultural symbols in order to try to make meaning out of uncertain situations. That’s what seems to be going on with the now-iconic image of Lieutenant John Pike.
What meaning do you make of it?
Thanks to all the people who came to this morning’s first assembly of the mythological discussion group. I enjoyed hearing people explore many deep mythological concepts reacting to each other’s insights to build new understanding.
One of the most meaningful discussions for me came after the group had formally adjourned, however. One of the people in attendance approached me afterwards, and pointed to Joseph Campbell’s structure of the Hero’s Journey, saying, “I think some of that up there is sexist.”
You know, I agree with her. It’s clear to me that Joseph Campbell was earnest in attempting to understand the human experience from a universal perspective, but it’s equally clear to me that Campbell sometimes failed in that attempt. I’ve found several instances of sexist ideas from Campbell – his opposition to the integration of gender-segregated elitist social clubs, for example.
I chose Joseph Campbell’s Power of Myth as the structure around which to create a mythological discussion group at the First Unitarian Society of Ithaca because Campbell had skill in bringing together many powerful concepts about mythology in a way that was accessible to people from many different backgrounds, academic and non-academic. Campbell had skill, but that doesn’t mean he always came to reasonable conclusions.
This mythological discussion group is using Joseph Campbell as a starting point, not as a destination in himself. I’m excited by many of the ideas that Campbell represents, but I have no interest in revering him.
If you’re participating in the discussion group and hear something from Campbell that doesn’t seem right to you, please speak up about it. Probably, other people share that feeling, and we can use it to go forward with a mythological vision of our own that fits with our values.
How would the Baghavad Gita have been different if Arjuna and Krishna, instead of blowing on their conch shells, took a long drink of Coca-Cola? That’s the scenario that this mythological mashup imagines.
Is it appropriate, or not? Why do you think so?
UPDATE: A clarification and explanation of the use of this image is now available… along with a similar image of Jesus.
It’s just five days now from the beginning of the in-person mythology discussion group (see the sidebar for information). We’ll structure our discussion around the series The Power Of Myth, which centers around the ideas of Joseph Campbell.
Joseph Campbell related the art of today to the mythology most people ascribe to ages past. He had this advice for artists: Learn the rules. “If it is a proper, up-to-date local art, the rules will have something to do with the life of people here and now, not a big smoochy general thing about life, but how it is here and now, what our problems and mysteries are, here and now. You have to know your own day.”
How is this principle operating for the First Unitarian Society of Ithaca? Do the Unitarian Universalists of Ithaca have a mythology that they’ve based on how it is here and now, or are we a congregation with only a big smoochy general thing about life?
One of the fundamental questions that is suggested by The Power of Myth series with Joseph Campbell is this: How can we ethically interact with systems of mythology that come from other times and places?
A while ago, this question came up in a conversation I was having with a fellow Unitarian Universalist about a book series with the title Goddess Girls. The series, with titles like Athena the Brain, Persephone the Phony, and Aphrodite the Beauty, introduces the characters of classic Greek divinities, but in the form of adolescent gods who speak in a rather modern, casual way.
I got some copies of a couple of the Goddess Girls books because I wanted to provide my daughter with a more female-oriented entry into Greek mythology than is provided in the Percy Jackson series that my older son has enjoyed. I had trouble getting through even one of the Goddess Girls books, though, simply because the quality of writing isn’t that good.
I’m sympathetic to the idea of the Goddess Girls books, however, which is to update the ideas of the classic Greek divinities, and play around with them to make them relevant to the eternal themes of human life as experienced in our culture today.
The Unitarian Universalist I talked to about these books was more concerned about their impact. He was bothered that they took a subject that was sacred to some people, and treated it in a profane manner. He saw the books as disrespectful, reducing great gods and goddesses to little more than cartoons with the personality depth of Disney Channel sitcom characters.
I see his point. But, I also wonder if there isn’t some value in the ability to play with mythological themes from other cultures.
Should we restrain ourselves from reinterpreting mythological characters from other cultures? Is there something wrong with characterizing what’s sacred for some people as something more profane and superficial? What do we lose, if we place mythology in a special category as something that’s untouchable, unmockable, and unchangeable?
Postscript: For a similar modern culture Goddess chic source of material to consider, take a look at Go Goddess, a web site that encourages girls to ask themselves the question, “Which Goddess Are You?”
The mythology discussion group that will begin nine days from now (November 20 at 9:00 AM and Noon at the First Unitarian Society of Ithaca, at the corner of Buffalo and Aurora streets) will be structured around The Power of Myth, a DVD reflecting the ideas of Joseph Campbell.
As we prepare to discuss Campbell’s ideas, participants may want to consider a fundamental question: Who was Joseph Campbell anyway?
Read the following biographies of Campbell if you want to know more:
From the Center for Story and Symbol
From the Joseph Campbell Foundation
A personal note: Joseph Campbell frequently advised his students, “Follow your bliss!” I happen to be working today just a few hundred feet down the street from Bliss. It’s a spa, with the web site name BlissWorld.com, right next to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Might we find more modern art in Bliss than in the museum?
The very word museum comes out of ancient Greek mythology, a derivation of the word muse, the name for inspiration anthropomorphized into the semblance of a healthy young woman. As seen in the clipped graphic to the left, Bliss has muses of its own.
As I flew to San Francisco yesterday, I was musing on the process of travel, and the odd sensations it brings about. Perhaps the earliest mythology of travel comes from the ancient Greeks as well – the Odyssey.
Our area was established as an echo of the anchor of the Odyssey, the home that was being returned to by the hero of the great epic. Ithaca is named after the home island of Odysseus, and Trumansburg, where I live, is in the Town of Ulysses, another name for Odysseus.
So, in its origin, Ithaca and the surrounding communities were set up to be a recreation of a widely known mythic space. Yet, actually living in the Ithaca area, we see little of this epic in application. We have no annual theatrical production of the Odyssey. We have a street renamed after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., but no Telemachus Street. We have a Sagan planet walk, but no Penelope Plaza, no Circe Cinema.
The question I’m thinking about today is why this is so. Why, when the founders of our local communities clearly had classical Greek mythology in mind, have Ithaca and the adjoining Ulysses not adopted the ancient story of the travels of Odysseus as a living part of the local identity?