Greek mythology

Narcissus

1024px-John_William_Waterhouse_-_Echo_and_Narcissus_-_Google_Art_Project

“Echo and Narcissus” by John William Waterhouse, oil on canvas, 1903. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

In these political days, much is said about Narcissists and Narcissus. It would be good to remember the myth in order to avoid our typical game of finding a foreign noun or story, applying it to describe a specifically North American (usually deplorable) phenomenon, and then projecting the flaws we have confined in that concept on alien others.

The story is found in Book III of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The water-nymph Liriope, mother of Narcissus, once asked the ancient seer Tiresias how long her child would live. “To old age,” he replied, “if he does not come to know himself.” At sixteen years old Narcissus’ beauty enchanted both boys and girls, but

that slender figure

of proud Narcissus had little feeling

For either boys or girls.[1]

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The Eyes of Argos

1014px-Abraham_Bloemaert_-_Mercury,_Argus_and_Io_-_Google_Art_Project

“Mercury, Argos and Io” by Abraham Bloemaert, circa 1592. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Argos Panoptes, the many-eyed giant of Greek mythology, is invoked by Josiah Ober to warn a slumbering citizenry of the danger of tyranny. “Vigilance and readiness to respond,” Ober warns, are the duties of a participating citizenry if they wish to preserve their democracy from the ever-present risk of elite capture. Argos “was bewitched into slumber and then killed in his sleep by the trickster-god Hermes at the behest of tyrannical Zeus.” A vigilant citizenry, Ober cautions, “must not be lulled into sleepy inattention by rhetorical incantations.”[i]

In times of crisis, paternalistic demagogues promise salvation in the name of the people. Mercury—Rome’s patron god of financial gain, commerce, eloquence, and trickery—stands in for Hermes in many depictions of Argos’ slumber and demise.

What happens when the delegated authority of elected representatives—delegation being a necessity of a large and complex modern state—is captured by elites to legislate in their own interests and against the common interests of the people? What happens when the sovereignty of the people is co-opted and democracy is corrupted? (more…)

Deciphering American Empire: #3

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Nemesis, statue dedicated by Ptollanubis. Marble, found in Egypt, 2nd century AD. (Credit: Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons)

“Nemesis, the goddess of retribution and vengeance, the punisher of pride and hubris, waits impatiently for her meeting with us.” So ends Chalmers Johnson’s prophetic appraisal of imperial America, The Sorrows of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy, and the End of the Republic (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2004), p. 312.

Rome is the archetype of America’s imperial hubris, a recycled mythos pursued at the cost of the republic and unending military engagements around the globe.

Language obfuscates America’s imperial project. As Johnson observes, the new Rome represents itself, if at all, as a good, liberal or informal empire instead of “a military juggernaut intent on world domination” (p. 4). The “euphemisms required to justify imperialism” include “lone superpower,” “indispensable nation,” “reluctant sheriff,” “humanitarian intervention,” and “globalization” (pp. 13, 284).

Of course, even a liberal empire is not necessarily a good one, if there is such a thing. (more…)

Fear

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Photo of the Sunday, August 22, 2010 Cordoba House protest. (Credit: David Shankbone / Wikimedia Commons)

Inspector Malcolm Fox—the protagonist of Ian Rankin’s Scottish crime novel, The Impossible Dead (NY: Little, Brown and Co., 2011)—reflects upon the ever-presence of fear, whether in news reports from 1985 or today:

When you’d stopped needing to fear a US-Soviet conflagration or an impending ice age, something else came along in its place. Fear of crime always seemed to outpace the actual statistics. Right now, people were fearing for their jobs and pensions, fearing global warming and dwindling resources. If these problems were ever resolved, new worries would fill the vacuum. (pp. 329-30)

Fear fills the vacuum of resolved problems. Fear engenders problems. Problems are a figment of fear, the chimera of exaggeration—or at least can be. Exaggeration, whether of crime levels or threats to national security, perpetuates the perception of crisis. The status quo remains on the verge of CRITICAL. (more…)

Cultural Contagion

The Triumph of Death, or The 3 Fates. Flemish tapestry (probably Brussels, ca. 1510-1520). (Credit:  Victoria and Albert Museum, London.)

The Triumph of Death, or The 3 Fates. Flemish tapestry (probably Brussels, ca. 1510-1520). (Credit: Victoria and Albert Museum, London.)

It is difficult to see beyond the reality of war. It is easy to believe that war is natural, destined, inescapable—a matter of fate. There is some question of whether in Greek mythology even Zeus could command the three Moirai, or fates, that spun the thread of life (Clotho), determined our lot in life (Lachesis), and chose the manner of our death (Atropos). The Moirai personified a harsh reality, an uncompromising truth, a grim inevitability.

That ancient cosmology is an example of what evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins (The Selfish Gene) called a “meme”—a self-perpetuating cultural belief, symbol, or practice that persists through ritual regardless of the harm it does. Another such meme “that can infect any society,” observes John Horgan, is “militarism—the culture of war” (The End of War, p. 102). (more…)

The Specter of Eris

Eris (from inscription). Tondo of an Attic black-figure kylix. (Credit:  Museum (I.Gesk) © Berlin Antikensammlung / Wikimedia Commons)

Eris (from inscription). Tondo of an Attic black-figure kylix. (Credit: Museum (I.Gesk) © Berlin Antikensammlung / Wikimedia Commons)

What comes after empire, corporate capitalism, and the war state—the world we presently know?

Chaos?

Chaos is the dark, primordial realm of Eris, Greek goddess of witchcraft, disease, death, and disorder. Eris personified strife and rivalry and was closely associated with war. Her Roman name was Discordia. Mortals invoked her for evil purposes.

Eris symbolized the mystifying realm of ghosts and nightmares, the terrifying menace of the unknown. Her very conception in Greek mythology might suggest our strong preference, even today, to live with the known problems of a badly flawed order rather than undertake the risk of change. (more…)

Combative Patriotism

Patriotic Christmas light display in Virginia Beach, Virginia, USA (photo by Pezow / Wikimedia Commons).

Patriotic Christmas light display in Virginia Beach, Virginia, USA (Pezow / Wikimedia Commons).

The rush of patriotism. We’ve all seen it, perhaps even gotten caught up in it. It is a ritual of nationalism that enacts the story of America and the mythic vision of its special calling.

For many (perhaps most) who are U.S. citizens, there is something vital and irresistible, even right, about this public celebration of national identity, especially in times of crisis. Expressing pride of country brings us together, suggests a common past and shared purpose, reassures us that we will overcome adversity, that we are not alone in the face of danger.

Yet, the price we pay for this prideful rite is high. It makes us combative in our assertion of national identity. We define who we are as a people in opposition to an enemy. The rush of patriotism becomes an act of righteous indignation and polarization. It’s US against THEM—the United States vs. the World. It constitutes an attitude of war.

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The Spectre of Chaos

Ground Zero, New York City, N.Y. (Sept. 16, 2001) -- A lone fire engine at the crime scene in Manhattan where the World Trade Center collapsed following the Sept. 11 terrorist attack. Surrounding buildings were heavily damaged by the debris and massive force of the falling twin towers. U.S. Navy photo by Chief Photographer's Mate Eric J. TIlford.

Ground Zero, New York City, N.Y. (Sept. 16, 2001) — A lone fire engine at the crime scene in Manhattan where the World Trade Center collapsed following the Sept. 11 terrorist attack. Surrounding buildings were heavily damaged by the debris and massive force of the falling twin towers. U.S. Navy photo by Chief Photographer’s Mate Eric J. TIlford.

Crises prompt politicians and pundits to draw deeply from the well of myth. The President turned to the biblical language of evildoers to make sense of the tragedy of 9/11. More recently, the Cold War language of falling dominoes and containment has resurfaced in the face of Russia’s sudden annexation of Crimea. It, too, is mythic at its core.

Indiana’s U.S. Senator Dan Coats, among others, speaks in Cold War terms (March 17, 2014). Hoosiers should care about what happens to Ukraine even though, he observes, it is 5,000 miles away, trade with it is miniscule, it has no energy resources or critical materials, it is a corrupt and unstable state, and only 30% of its population is religious.

Why should we care, then, asks the Senator? Because “conflicts grow from small beginnings,” as in the case of Hitler’s unchecked aggression and other incidents before and after World War II, when policymakers failed to draw the line. Disaster in Ukraine undermines European security and stability, which penetrates to the “permanent core” of U.S. strategic interests and threatens a chain reaction. (more…)

Migrant War

Mars, God of War (c. 1640) by Diego Velázquez.

Mars, God of War (c. 1640) by Diego Velázquez.

Mars, symbol of power and majesty, began as the guardian of the land but developed into the god of war as Rome pursued the ambition of empire.  Imperial Mars traveled with Roman Legions into battle at the far reaches of the world.  He protected the homeland from afar and made peace by means of war, unlike the Greek god Ares for whom destructive warfare was an end in itself.  The union of Mars and Venus (war and love) produced Harmonia (harmony and concord).

War travels to pacify, following the logic of the archetype.  It moves from one place to another, relocating periodically in search of enemies to engage.  Migration is the mythic dynamic, the self-sustaining act, of militancy.  And as the state embraces the wayfare of militarism, it drifts from republic to empire (Rachel Maddow, Drift, 2012).

Obama’s war on terrorism not only is timeless, but it also is migrant.  The traveling image of America at a crossroads frames the President’s speech on drone warfare (May 23, 2013). (more…)

Slayer Drones

Perseus with the Head of Medusa; bronze statue by Benvenuto Cellini.

Perseus with the Head of Medusa; bronze statue by Benvenuto Cellini.

Drones in the insect world are fast flying male bees with big eyes but no stinger.  Hatched from haploid eggs, they make sperm cells instead of honey.  They drift about to find a virgin queen and fertilize her with explosive force, which results in their own death.  The drones of ant and wasp colonies serve a similar purpose.

Mechanical drones are robots with stingers.  They are programmed and guided by humans instead of by instinct.  Unmanned aerial vehicles come in various sizes and configurations, although they are usually downsized fighting machines.  They have evolved over a century and a half from bomb-laden balloons, pilotless aerial torpedoes, and remotely controlled airplanes.

Armed drones are used today by the U.S. military overtly and the CIA covertly to smite terrorists.  They are named Predator and Reaper.  They carry Hellfire missiles and are equipped with the optics of a Gorgon Stare.  Unarmed Ravens are small enough to maneuver through city streets by night or day to spot and target terrorists lying in ambush.

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