Lessons from Greek Myth
Arianna Huffington recently wrote about some lessons from Greek myth for the War on Terror. Specifically she cited the myth of Heracles’ second labor of slaying the nine-headed Lernaean Hydra. As you might recall, each time the son of Zeus and Alcmene lopped off one of the Hydra’s heads, two more sprouted up in its place. Eventually Heracles learned that he could not just stay the course, so he changed tactics and had his companion Iolaus cauterize each head-stump immediately after he had chopped off a head, thus preventing more from sprouting up. In this way he defeated the terrible monster. Moral of the story: Bush is fighting the War on Terror like Heracles was originally fighting the Hydra and by such bone-headed moves like invading Iraq he is creating more terrorists than he is decapitating.
While teaching Greek Lit this semester I was struck by other lessons for Bush from Greek myth, specifically from the succession myth of Zeus in Hesiod’s Theogony. The backbone of Hesiod’s story is the succession myth of Ouranos to Kronos to Zeus. Ouranos (Sky) is a terrible tyrant and father who is afraid that he will be supplanted by a son, so he stuffs all his offspring in the belly of his mate Gaia (Earth), including one son named Kronos. Eventually Gaia is feeling rather bloated, so she grows a sickle in her bosom and gives it to Kronos, who castrates his father and takes over as ruler of the cosmos (seen above in painting by Vasari). Kronos, however, is paranoid like his old man (captured masterfully in this painting by Goya),
so in an attempt to outwit his father’s fate, rather than entrust his offspring to Gaia, he decides to swallow all his children to prevent a son from overpowering him too. Obviously this family romance has definite Freudian overtones. That’s one thing that has always struck me about W – how he wears his Freud on his sleeve, in effect attempting to castrate his father’s “Read-my-lips” legacy by cutting taxes religiously, or swaying from his father’s diplomatic bona fides by heaping scorn upon the UN and failing to build international alliances, and most poignantly in correcting his father’s “mistake” of not going all the way to Baghdad to take out Saddam.
Well, as always happens in life and myth, what goes around comes around. Kronos impregnates Rheia, who is tired of watching her children eaten, so with the help of Gaia she gives Kronos a stone wrapt in swaddling clothes and the baby Zeus is secretly whisked off to Crete where he is raised in the Diktaian cave. Funny how motivated conspirators can always find a way around paranoid tyrants. There the young Zeus is suckled by the she-goat Amaltheia and grows to manhood. He then sets upon a different course. Rather than being a paranoid, loner tyrant, he begins to build alliances with some of the other 11 Titans (members of his father’s generation, who himself was a Titan). He also enlists the help of the 100-Handers and the 3 Cyclopes, who create for him two key weapons, the thunderbolt and lightening. With the help of allies, he then battles Kronos and the other Titans in the Titanomachy (Battle of the Titans) and defeats them. With the help of these alliances and weapons, later on he also fends off the Giants in the Giantomachy (Battle of the Giants) and the great snake Typhoeus. It should be pointed out that one of the problems with Bush’s handling of the War on Terror, on a purely tactical level (of course there are also moral problems with his policy of pre-emption), is that he wants to fight the Giants (Iran) and Typhoeus (Syria) before he’s finished off the Titans (Iraq).
Once king of the cosmos, rather than indiscriminately swallowing all his offspring, Zeus only swallows one consort – Metis, or Cunning. When she comes to term inside him, rather than suppress the birth, he has Hephaistos slit open his head, and out pops Athena in full panoply. She goes on to become her father’s most loyal ally and is even given his aegis, one of his most potent symbols of power. When Themis (Law/Custom) tells him that Thetis (a nymph) will give birth to a son greater than his father, he thinks creatively and rather than eating her or stuffing her in the earth, he sees to it that Thetis marries a mortal (in this case Peleus, father of Achilles). In addition, Zeus does not crave all power, but he splits up the cosmos, giving his brother Poseidon to rule over the sea and earth and to his other brother Hades he gives dominion over the underworld. In a sense you could say he shared his power with two other branches of government. He also allows all the other gods and goddesses have their own turf and spheres of power.
But just as important, Zeus is not just about military and political might, he also mates with Mnemosyne and fathers all the Arts (9 Muses) and Justice (Dike) as well as most of the other Olympians. Yes, he fathers Ares with Hera, but he blames the war god’s tempestuous nature on his mother. His favorite in war is actually not Ares (the violence and madness of war), but rather Athena (the cunning and strategy of war).
So, here in Greek myth we have lessons for the enlightened Warlord of the 8th century BC that are still relevant today: make alliances, don’t be paranoid, don’t open wars on multiple fronts at once, use cunning more than brute force, share power in three branches of government, encourage and engender the Arts, and father, and uphold, Justice.