Coping with Loss

Demeter learns of her daughter’s abduction to the Underworld through Helios, the Sun God. Homer tells us she is seized with “brutal grief” at the news. Her sorrow is compounded by the knowledge that she cannot access the Underworld to rescue her daughter. Persephone is trapped in the Underworld and cannot escape; Demeter, as the Goddess of the Grain, is restricted to the over world. So mother and daughter can never be reunited.

   
  
 
  
    
  
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    General View of Sanctuary of Demeter and Kore and the Telesterion (Initiation Hall), Center for the Eleusinian Mysteries, Eleusis;   Uploaded by Marcus Cyron; 6 February 2005, 13:10; Author: Carole Raddato from FRANKFURT, Germany [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

General View of Sanctuary of Demeter and Kore and the Telesterion (Initiation Hall), Center for the Eleusinian Mysteries, Eleusis; 

Uploaded by Marcus Cyron; 6 February 2005, 13:10; Author: Carole Raddato from FRANKFURT, Germany [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Demeter’s reaction to this devastating loss is understandable: she avoids dealing with the issue through withdrawal and denial. She disguises herself as an elderly mortal, leaving Olympus and the company of the gods. In other words, she does what many of us do when faced with gut-wrenching loss: she runs away from the problem and runs away from herself by denying her identity. Sometimes the pain of loss can be so overwhelming that we try to flee from it rather than face it.

Demeter manifests another very human trait in dealing with loss. Rather than coping with it, her desperation leads her to seek a substitute by appropriating another woman’s child for herself. Oftentimes when experiencing a loss or a break-up in a relationship, we scramble to find an alternative to ease our pain. We deny ourselves time to adjust to our loss. That Demeter takes a circuitous route before finally coming to terms with her loss suggests our own ability to heal from grief can be a matter of timing: we do so only when we are ready and we may not be ready until we have experienced some detours.

Loss must be acknowledged and accommodated. Each time Demeter joyfully embraces Persephone as she emerges from the Underworld, she is acknowledging there are some losses we can never reverse. She has learned to live with her loss by accepting Persephone for who she has become and not for what she once was. If we ever hope to move beyond our grief, we must do the same.

As the Hymn to Demeter shows us, dealing with grief can be avoided temporarily, but it cannot be avoided indefinitely. A hasty substitute is a short-term solution; denial delays the healing process. Sooner or later, we have to face reality, work through our loss, and embrace it. It is only by doing so will we be able to transcend it and move forward.

Demeter reacts to the injustice of her daughter’s abduction with understandable rage. However, she also manifests an all too frequent and not easily forgivable reaction some people exhibit when faced with oppression. This will be the subject of my next post.

Posted
AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar

The Story

One of my favorite myths in the body of Greek mythology is the story of Demeter and Persephone as told in Homer’s Hymn to Demeter.  My love of the myth inspired me to write two books about it. Demeter and Persephone: Lessons from a Myth (McFarland 2002) is a feminist interpretation of the myth. A Pomegranate and the Maiden (Anaphora Literary Press 2015), my novel based on the myth, is an imaginative retelling of the story which gives voice to each of the main characters through multiple, first-person points of view. The characters describe and interpret the events through a gendered lens. The narrative progresses with each character picking up the thread where the previous character left off.

The myth is complex, rich with meaning, full of choice bits of wisdom. But before we can begin to tease out its nuggets of wisdom, it’s helpful to have a brief summary of the myth.

Demeter, Goddess of the Grain, is responsible for the growth and cultivation of food. Her daughter, the Kore (‘maiden’) is picking flowers one day when Hades, God of the Underworld (the Land of the Dead), emerges from a wide chasm in the earth, grabs the young girl, and abducts her to his deathly realm to make her his bride.

 Demeter Mourning Persephone   by Evelyn De Morgan 1906 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Demeter Mourning Persephone

by Evelyn De Morgan 1906 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

 

Demeter learns of her daughter’s abduction after nine days of frantic searching. However, she cannot rescue her daughter since she has no access to the underworld. So she withdraws from the assembly of the gods, disguises herself as a mortal, and becomes a nursemaid to the infant prince Demophoon in the city of Eleusis.

While at the palace in Eleusis, Demeter decides to claim the infant prince by turning him into a god. So each night she places him in the fire to purge him of his mortality. The infant’s mother witnesses the event and is horrified. Demeter then reveals her true identity and orders the people of Eleusis to build her a temple to mollify her anger.

Demeter takes her place inside the temple and uses her power as the Goddess of the Grain to force the release of her daughter from the underworld. She withholds her bounty from the earth, refusing to let anything grow. This leads to famine, starvation, and death. Eventually, the gods are forced to agree to her demands and Zeus orders the release of Kore/Persephone from the underworld.

As she is exiting the underworld, Persephone swallows the pomegranate seeds Hades slips into her mouth. Because she has eaten food of the underworld, she is required to return there for four months of every year. Her return to the underworld triggers Demeter’s mourning, corresponding to the months of winter. Her emergence from the underworld triggers Demeter’s joy, corresponding to the months of spring and summer.

On a superficial level, the myth represents our ancient ancestors’ attempt to explain why the earth dies in winter and is re-born in spring. But that is the least significant interpretation of the myth. If we deconstruct the myth and interpret it with a different set of lenses, we will discover it continues to speak to us with relevant and valuable lessons on dealing with the challenges in life.

What those lessons are will be the subject of my subsequent posts, beginning with Demeter and how she copes with loss.

Posted
AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar

Only Connect

 Gilgamesh Statue, Sydney University;    
  
 
  
    
  
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     By Gwil5083 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Gilgamesh Statue, Sydney University; 

By Gwil5083 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

The Epic of Gilgamesh continues to speak to us although it was written over 3,500 years ago. It illustrates the personal, political, and social ramifications of the law of unintended consequences. Through the example of Gilgamesh, we see the danger of overweening arrogance; of engaging in an unprovoked attack against a so-called enemy; of a refusal to recognize winning does not always have to entail slaughtering one’s opponent; of an unwillingness to engage one’s former enemies in implementing a solution to a crisis; of the use of excessive force; and, finally, of the failure to exercise compassion.

We see some of these same sentiments expressed many centuries later in William Shakespeare’s Sonnet 94. Shakespeare argues those who have the power and influence to hurt others but who refrain from doing so are to be admired. But if they abuse their power by hurting others, they are to be severely castigated since “Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.” In other words, power in and of itself does not necessarily corrupt. It is how an individual uses the power that determines his/her worth.  And as we saw, the early Gilgamesh was far from blameless in how he wielded his power.

Another connection can be made between The Epic of Gilgamesh and a two thousand year old text, The Art of War by Sun Tzu. In this classic text, Sun Tzu argues a cornered army must be allowed an appropriate and workable exit strategy, a means to save face. The absence of such an exit strategy forces one’s opponents to resort to desperate measures. Here, again, Gilgamesh committed a fatal error by failing to provide Ishtar with a dignified way out of her defeat when he killed the Bull of Heaven. He humiliated her, depriving her of a dignified means to salvage her wounded pride, leaving her with no alternative but to lash out in desperation. She cries out in anger, convincing the rest of the gods on the need for revenge. Enkidu dies; Gilgamesh grieves. Once again, Gilgamesh has blundered.

The poet of The Epic of Gilgamesh communicated some valuable lessons to his audience thousands of years ago, lessons still very relevant today.  Unfortunately, we pay little heed to them, so like the early Gilgamesh, we act with arrogance, excessive force, thoughtlessness, and a lack of compassion. And so, like the early Gilgamesh, we become subject to the law of unintended consequences, unleashing one catastrophe after another, reeling from the shock while wondering what hit us and why.

Finally, for those of you like me who are fascinated by the words and sounds of ancient texts, you can click on the link and hear the words of this epic masterpiece in all their original glory. 

Posted
AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar

A Transformation

To learn what kind of ruler Gilgamesh becomes after returning home from his adventure, we have to turn to the beginning of the poem where the poet first introduces us to Gilgamesh.

The poet tells us upon his return to Uruk after his epic voyage to Utnapishtim, Gilgamesh dug wells, restored the temple, brought back the ancient rites, was loved by his soldiers, protected his people, sought their welfare, and sought the welfare of his city. This is no longer the same Gilgamesh we encountered earlier, a Gilgamesh consumed by his own self-image, a Gilgamesh terrorizing his people, a Gilgamesh exhibiting an overweening arrogance. He has changed for the better.

 Uruk Head;    
  
 
  
    
  
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     By Anonymous (own photoshop) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Uruk Head; 

By Anonymous (own photoshop) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

As we saw earlier, Gilgamesh is initially deaf to Siduri’s advice, dismissing it with impatience. But her advice bears repeating. She reminds Gilgamesh (and us) life is fleeting, so we need to appreciate it while we can by enjoying all it has to offer. Since a healthy body leads to a healthy mind, eating well and maintaining good hygiene makes us feel good about ourselves. However, Siduri is not advocating a life of self-absorbed pleasure seeking. Far from it. She reminds us in addition to seeking our own happiness, we have an obligation to ensure the happiness of those around us: our children, our spouses, our community. In the case of Gilgamesh, this would also include his subjects since he is their king and protector.

Although the poet does not tells us where or how it happened, it is evident Gilgamesh experiences a transformation on his journey back to Uruk, one allowing him to assimilate Siduri’s advice and make it part of his being. The Gilgamesh who returns to Uruk behaves as a caring, selfless, and compassionate king: he builds the infrastructure of the city, seeks the welfare of his people, and acts as their spiritual guide.

The Epic of Gilgamesh is a beautiful and poignant epic poem that continues to resonate with a contemporary audience on many levels. It addresses the universal themes of the quest for the meaning of life, the pride that comes before a fall, the love between soul mates, and the experience of grief at the loss of a beloved. Additionally, it demonstrates how the law of unintended consequences can initially lead to catastrophe but may eventually take us on a circuitous route that ultimately leads to a positive outcome. In the case of Gilgamesh, the law of unintended consequences initially led to devastating grief at the loss of his beloved Enkidu. But it ultimately also led to the humbling of a king—a humbling that served to benefit the king, as well as his whole community.

My next post will draw some thematic connections between The Epic of Gilgamesh and other texts.

 

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AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar

The Advice of Siduri

Gilgamesh sets out on his quest to find Utnapishtim.  He encounters the Scorpion couple who stand at the entrance to the tunnel between the mountains known as the Twin Peaks. In response to their questions of who are you and why are you here, Gilgamesh tells them of his despair at the death of Enkidu and of his mission to learn from Utnapishtim how he overcame death so he could follow in his footsteps. Heeding their instructions, Gilgamesh succeeds in running through the tunnel between the mountains for twelve continuous hours. He emerges in the nick of time before the sun enters the tunnel and burns him to a crisp.  He is now in the Garden of the Gods where he encounters Siduri, the Wine-Maker of the Gods.

Siduri sees Gilgamesh approaching her from a distance. His appearance frightens her so she rushes back into her tavern and locks the door. Gilgamesh threatens to smash her door down if she doesn’t let him enter.  Siduri asks him the same questions as the Scorpion couple: who are you and why are you here? Gilgamesh gives her the same response.

Siduri offers him some sage advice. She tells him to accept his mortality since only the gods live forever. She cautions him against setting himself up for disappointment by seeking something he can never hope to attain. She advises him to go back home and live life to the fullest: to make the most of each day by eating well, bathing regularly, wearing fine clothes, enjoying music and dance, loving his child, and pleasuring his wife. Needless to say, Gilgamesh dismisses her advice.  He is not yet ready to hear it. Siduri sends him on his way by directing him to Urshanabi, the ferryman.

   
  
 
  
    
  
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    Uruk Trough in British Museum By Jononmac46 (own work); 9 February, 2014: 17:27:38; [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Uruk Trough in British Museum By Jononmac46 (own work); 9 February, 2014: 17:27:38; [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

With Urshanabi’s help in crossing the Waters of Death, Gilgamesh finally comes face to face with Utnapishtim. Utnapishtim shares with him the story of how he survived the Great Flood and gives him a parting gift of a plant that can restore eternal youth. Gilgamesh heads back home, losing the plant along the way. In effect, Gilgamesh returns to Uruk with nothing tangible to show for his epic journey. In spite of appearances to the contrary, however, it is evident Gilgamesh has experienced a transformation since the Gilgamesh at the end of the poem is a far cry from the Gilgamesh we met earlier, as my next post will show.

Posted
AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar

The Foolish Victory Strut

Gilgamesh and Enkidu return to Uruk floating logs from the Cedar Forest and carrying the head of Humbaba. They are greeted like returning heroes.  Gilgamesh bathes and puts on his finest robes, attracting the attention of the goddess Ishtar.  She proposes marriage. Gilgamesh rejects her offer, doing so politely at first, but then heaping one insult after another at her, with each insult becoming progressively more hurtful. Ishtar is humiliated and seeks to assuage her wounded pride by turning loose the Bull of Heaven to wreak havoc on Gilgamesh and his city.

Working together, Gilgamesh and Enkidu kill the Bull of Heaven. It can be argued they acted in self-defense since the Bull had already killed hundreds of Uruk’s warriors before meeting his death. Further, even the god Anu suggests to Ishtar she may be partially to blame for the death of the Bull of Heaven because she provoked Gilgamesh. So killing the Bull of Heaven does not appear to be the issue. The problem arises with what happened after.

 Gilgamesh and the Bull of Heaven by U0045269 (Own work); Royal Museums of Art and History, Brussels; December 10, 2015; via Wikimedia Commons

Gilgamesh and the Bull of Heaven by U0045269 (Own work); Royal Museums of Art and History, Brussels; December 10, 2015; via Wikimedia Commons

Enkidu rips off one of the Bull’s thighs and flings it at Ishtar’s face, threatening to do the same to her body parts if he could. Meanwhile, Gilgamesh does his little victory swagger in the streets of Uruk, challenging the singing girls to praise his looks and bravery while flaunting Ishtar’s defeat in her face. There is no humility in victory here. There is no attempt to conciliate with a defeated enemy or to provide him/her with face-saving measures. There is only overweening arrogance for the victor and crushing humiliation for the loser.

Once again, the law of unintended consequences comes into play. Because of his unjustified killing of Humbaba, because he joins Enkidu in humiliating Ishtar by adding insult to injury, Gilgamesh unleashes a catastrophic event over which he has no control. His foolish behavior incurs the anger of the gods. To exact revenge, they fasten the eye of death on Enkidu.

Gilgamesh’s subsequent despair triggers another quest: to seek Utnapishtim and learn from him his secret of cheating death. It is while he is on this quest he meets Siduri, the winemaker of the gods, the subject of my next post.

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AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar

Abuse of Power

My previous post described the killing of Humbaba and Gilgamesh’s depiction of him as a scourge on humanity. However, far from being the evil monster Gilgamesh has made him out to be, Humbaba does not appear to have caused harm to anyone. Quite the contrary.  He lives quietly in the Cedar Forest, minding his own business. He may be fierce and threatening, but if he is to succeed in performing the job assigned to him by the god Enlil of preventing intruders from chopping down the much-coveted trees of the Cedar Forest, surely he has to be fierce and terrifying. Gilgamesh’s desire to kill him is unwarranted and entirely unprovoked; his designation of Humbaba as an evil monster who must be destroyed is inescapably suspect. Gilgamesh has gone looking for trouble. And when you go looking for trouble, sooner or later you will find it or it will find you.

 Gilgamesh by Samantha from Indonesia; Taken at Sidney University on 6 July, 2006; via Wikimedia Commons

Gilgamesh by Samantha from Indonesia; Taken at Sidney University on 6 July, 2006; via Wikimedia Commons

Gilgamesh’s action is nothing short of an abuse of power stemming from overweening arrogance. Just because he can kill Humbaba, it doesn’t mean he should kill Humbaba. Humbaba had been subdued, had pledged allegiance to Gilgamesh, and had even promised to help cut down the trees of the Cedar Forest. That should have been sufficient to satisfy Gilgamesh. It bears noting that although the god Shamash assisted in subduing Humbaba, he said nothing of killing of Humbaba. Furthermore, Gilgamesh wouldn’t have had to forfeit the chance to win fame since he could claim to have demonstrated compassion as well as obtained for Uruk the much-coveted logs from the Cedar Forest. But apparently none of this was enough for him, so he slaughters Humbaba. Such an unwarranted and unprovoked action shows a degree of arrogance convinced it can do what it wants with impunity. 

This is where the law of unintended consequences comes into play. It is one thing to kill an enemy in self-defense. It is quite another to kill an ostensible enemy who has done nothing to provoke you, who has been assigned the task of protecting natural resources, who gives you the opportunity to withdraw to avoid conflict, who pledges allegiance to you after you subdued him, and who begs for mercy and compassion. Might does not make right. Gilgamesh has yet to learn this and, as a consequence, he pays dearly for his mistake. 

Gilgamesh is not the last political figure to make this mistake. Nor is he the last to abuse his political power. History, including events in the more recent past, is replete with examples of human beings committing the same error in judgment with disastrous consequences. And as for Gilgamesh, the case against him is compounded. This isn’t the only instance of the law of unintended consequences coming into play in the poem, as we shall see in my next post. 

The Killing of Humbaba

After Gilgamesh and Enkidu have cemented their friendship, Gilgamesh suddenly announces he wants to go to the Cedar Forest to kill the evil monster, Humbaba.  At first it isn’t clear why he wants to do this, but later we learn his motives: self-promotion and self-aggrandizement. Gilgamesh wants fame. He wants his name to live forever.

Having encountered Humbaba in the past and knowing him to be a formidable adversary, Enkidu tries to dissuade Gilgamesh from embarking on such a dangerous mission. But Gilgamesh won’t be deterred. He shames Enkidu into joining him and the two of them set off for the Cedar Forest, arriving after several days.

 Gilgamesh and Enkidu; by Ziegler175 (own work); December 1987; National Museum in Aleppo; Tell Halaf Relief 14JH;  via Wikimedia Commons

Gilgamesh and Enkidu; by Ziegler175 (own work); December 1987; National Museum in Aleppo; Tell Halaf Relief 14JH;  via Wikimedia Commons

Our two intrepid friends make their way gingerly through the Cedar Forest until they stand in front of Humbaba’s den. Humbaba emerges, spewing venomous threats and insults. But he gives them the option to retreat with no harm done to either party. Gilgamesh is tempted to take him up on the offer; Enkidu is not. He incites Gilgamesh to go for the kill. The two charge at Humbaba who lets out a fierce roar. They are about to engage in mortal combat when the god Shamash intervenes.  He sends gale force winds to pin Humbaba down, paralyzing his movements. Gilgamesh leaps on to Humbaba’s body and holds a knife menacingly at his throat.  Just then, a strange thing happens: Humbaba begs for mercy.

It is quite a reversal. From the blustering monster capable of splitting mountains with the stomp of his feet, Humbaba disintegrates into a helpless figure, pleading for his life. He reminds Enkidu he had the ability to kill him during their previous encounter, but he chose to be merciful instead. He begs to be shown the same degree of mercy. He swears allegiance to Gilgamesh and offers to help him cut down the trees.

Gilgamesh is tempted to take him up on his offer. But once again, it is Enkidu who urges the kill. Humbaba warns them they will incur Enlil’s anger if they kill him since he was assigned by the god to be the forest’s guardian. But Enkidu convinces Gilgamesh to ignore his warning. Gilgamesh brings down his axe, severing Humbaba’s neck and causing his blood to gush out into the valleys. The reader is told a gentle rain fell from the sky as if to suggest the heavens mourned the death of this giant monster.

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AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar

The Story

The Epic of Gilgamesh, also known as the Izdubar Epic, recounts the adventures of the historical king Gilgamesh who ruled the ancient Mesopotamian city of Uruk (modern day Iraq) around 2750 BCE.  Written in cuneiform on baked clay tablets, its first fragments were discovered in the ruins of Nineveh (modern day Mosul) in 1853 although it wasn’t deciphered or translated until many years later.

Written over 3,500 years ago, the poem continues to resonate. It speaks to us about love, grief over the death of a beloved, despair, fear of death, and overweening arrogance. It raises questions about the nature of good and evil and illustrates the law of unintended consequences. 

 Epic of Gilgamesh, Tablet 11: Story of the Flood; Located in British Museum; Photographer: BabelStone; Wikimedia Commons

Epic of Gilgamesh, Tablet 11: Story of the Flood; Located in British Museum; Photographer: BabelStone; Wikimedia Commons

In brief, the story is as follows: 

The poem opens in the city of Uruk with a description of Gilgamesh who is part man, part god. He terrorizes his people with his boundless energy, selfishness, and voracious appetite for women. The people plead to the gods for help. The gods respond by fashioning a man from the earth, Enkidu.  Enkidu lives in the wild with animals. He is Adam before the Fall, innocent, uncivilized, natural, naked, and peaceful. 

Gilgamesh hears of the existence of Enkidu and sends the trapper with Shamhat, a priestess from the temple of Ishtar, to seduce Enkidu. Gilgamesh assumes Enkidu’s initiation through sex will cause him to be rejected by animals and force him to join the company of civilized humans.  All goes according to plan. Enkidu succumbs to Shamhat’s seductive wiles, is introduced to civilization, and eventually goes to Uruk where he encounters Gilgamesh.

After their initial contact, (which can best be described as a ferocious battle between two giants), Gilgamesh and Enkidu establish a bond that transcends friendship. They share adventures and exploits. Together they journey to the Cedar Forest and kill Humbaba, the guardian of the forest. They kill the Bull of Heaven sent by the goddess Ishtar to punish Gilgamesh for rejecting her offer of marriage. Angered by these actions, the gods decide someone must pay for the humiliation. They cast the eyes of death on Enkidu. So Enkidu dies, but not before he endures twelve days of excruciating agony.

Gilgamesh falls into deep despair at the death of his beloved and decides to embark on an epic journey to meet with his ancestor Utnapishtim to learn from him how he was able to conquer death. Overcoming many challenges on his journey, he arrives at the garden of the gods where he encounters Siduri, the wine-maker of the gods. She gives him some choice words of wisdom, which Gilgamesh promptly ignores.

Eventually, Gilgamesh comes face to face with Utnapishtim and asks him the burning question: How did you cheat death? Utnapishtim’s response includes a description of the Great Flood, a description that serves as the precursor for the Flood story in Genesis.  Gilgamesh returns to Uruk where he is embraced as a hero.  The poet concludes by praising Gilgamesh as a king who ruled his people with compassion and wisdom.

This very brief summary doesn’t begin to do the poem justice. The Epic of Gilgamesh is a great work of literature and must be read in its entirety to be fully appreciated. There are many translations available for those who wish to delve into it, but my absolute favorite by far is Stephen Mitchell’s Gilgamesh.

Rather than discussing the ins and outs of the whole poem, I aim to focus on three specific episodes: the killing of Humbaba, the victory strut after killing the Bull of Heaven, and the advice of Siduri.  My next post will address the killing of Humbaba.

 

Posted
AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar

Only Connect

The story of Icarus has captivated poets and artists throughout the ages. The idea of a young man struck down as a consequence of challenging his human limitations continues to hold a fascination. We are enthralled by Icarus, admiring his gumption while simultaneously chastising his foolishness. 

Poets and artists throughout the ages have found in the story of Icarus rich fodder for their creative imagination. Through paintings, sculpture, poetry, and fiction, they have rendered their interpretations of the story of this young boy who has the nerve to soar to heights that defy common sense. 

An example of this can be found in the work of the Dutch painter Pieter Bruegel (1525-1569). Bruegel provides an interesting approach to the story of Icarus. In an exquisite painting on exhibit in the Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts in Brussels, Bruegel depicts the Fall of Icarus. The painting shows people going about their business, sailing, farming, etc. while in the lower corner, almost as an afterthought, are the legs of Icarus as he plummets to the sea. 

 "Landscape with the Fall of Icarus" by Pieter Brueghel (1526/1530-1569) [Public Domain]; via Wikimedia Commons

"Landscape with the Fall of Icarus" by Pieter Brueghel (1526/1530-1569) [Public Domain]; via Wikimedia Commons

Perhaps Bruegel is suggesting while suffering and tragedy may have a profound impact on those who fall victim to it, the rest of the world seems to take another’s tragedy as a matter of course and go about its business relatively unaffected.  Bruegel may even be hinting at something more: questioning the value of Icarus’ challenge to human limitations.  After all, how significant could this challenge be if it fails to interrupt even the most mundane routines of everyday life?

The English poet, W.H. Auden (1907-1973) tackles the story of Icarus in his poem, “Musee des Beaux Arts” (1940). Auden describes human suffering as seemingly inconsequential to those not affected by it. Interestingly, he includes a description of Bruegel’s Fall of Icarus to illustrate his point, observing that the sight of a young boy falling out of the sky barely elicits mild surprise on the part of those who witnessed the spectacle.

Finally, in his novel, The Testament of Deadalus (1962) Michael Ayrton offers an interesting twist to the story of Icarus by shifting the focus of attention away from the boy. Instead of spotlighting Icarus, Ayrton turns his lens to Icarus’ father, Daedalus. Daedalus speaks in first person narrative to himself and to the reader as he struggles to come to terms with the death of his son. The work is a powerful and poignant testament of a father grappling to find understanding in the midst of overwhelming grief. Ayrton enhances the impact of his story by inserting his own dynamic drawings throughout the text.

There are numerous other artistic interpretations of the story of Icarus. These three happen to be among my favorites and are well worth an exploration.

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AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar

The Importance of Balance

Daedalus fashioned wings to escape incarceration and gain freedom. He warned Icarus to maintain an even balance between the sun and the sea, cautioning him against straying too far in either direction. But Icarus ignored his words. His pride got in the way and controlled his actions. He flew closer and closer to the sun, straying too far in the direction of logic and rational thinking while losing touch with emotions, intuition, and imagination. If, on the other hand, he had strayed too close to the sea, he would have been mired in the subconscious, wallowing in unbridled emotions and feelings to the exclusion of logic and reason. He would have met the same fate and paid the ultimate price for his action.

The story of Icarus warns us of the need to maintain a balance in our lives and the disastrous consequences that may ensue if we fail to maintain balance.  Our actions need to be grounded in rational thinking but not to the exclusion of emotions and feelings. Balancing the energies represented by the sun with those of the sea, the masculine principle with the feminine principle, reason with emotion, the needs of the individual with that of the community, the logos with eros, and the yang with the yin is what is required if we are to survive the journey and make it safely to shore. And this can only be done by keeping our pride or hubris in check. The myth tells us if we can sustain this balancing act by controlling our hubris, we won’t share the fate of Icarus. 

 Circe Offering the Cup to Odysseus by John William Waterhouse (1849-1917); [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons

Circe Offering the Cup to Odysseus by John William Waterhouse (1849-1917); [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons

Book X of Homer’s Odyssey presents us with another illustration of the importance of balance. On his way home to Ithaca after defeating the Trojans, Odysseus encounters many dangers and mishaps. One of these occurs on Circe’s island. Odysseus sends his men out to scout the island. They encounter Circe who welcomes them to her home and offers them her special brew. Oblivious to the danger awaiting them, the men drink the brew. Circe immediately swishes her wand, transforming the men into swine and sending them out to their hovel.  One man, Eurylochos, escapes and runs back to tell Odysseus what has happened.

Odysseus heads toward Circe’s home, determined to rescue his men. He is intercepted by Hermes, the messenger of the gods. Hermes plucks a moly flower and offers it to Odysseus as protection against Circe’s magic.

Odysseus enters Circe’s hall, drinks her special brew, but much to her dismay, he does not transform into an animal at the swish of her wand.  The moly flower does its trick: it protects Odysseus from experiencing the same fate as his comrades.

So, what does this have to do with balance? The answer is everything.

The moly is a white flower with black roots. Just as the two halves complete the flower, the white and black colors balance each other to represent wholeness. White is associated with light, sun, and sky. It is the yang of Taoism and represents the masculine principle within which is embedded a small black circle, the yin. Yin is associated with night, darkness, and earth. It is the yin of Taosim and represents the feminine principle within which is embedded a black circle, the yang. Together yin/yang represent the balance associated with wholeness.

Hermes’ gift of the moly flower to Odysseus is the gift of balance, the gift of wholeness, the gift of equilibrium between masculine and feminine principles. Unlike his comrades, Odysseus is able to withstand his descent into brutish animalism because he receives the gift of balance. In effect, his contact with wholeness enables him to do what Icarus was not—sustain the all-important balancing act, the source of his salvation.


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AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar

Hubris

  Icarus and Daedalus    Photograph: Kaldari; Sculpture: Rebecca Matte (1875-1929); Creative Commons.Wikimedia

Icarus and Daedalus

Photograph: Kaldari; Sculpture: Rebecca Matte (1875-1929); Creative Commons.Wikimedia

Seeing the mischievous glint in his son’s eye, Daedalus warned him, again.

“You’re to follow me,” he said.  “And stick with the plan.  Not too high.  Not too low.  Keep an even balance. Do you understand?”

“Yes, father,” said Icarus.  “I get it. Not too high.  Not too low.”

So off they went with Daedalus in the lead. Needless to say, once they were off the ground, Icarus completely ignored his father’s warning. Exhilarated by the flight and convinced he knew better than his old man, Icarus soared higher and higher and closer and closer to the sun. He could hear his father shouting for him to fly lower, but he paid no attention. He was Icarus, after all, confident and self-assured.

As he soared higher and higher, Icarus happened to glance at his wings. To his horror, he realized the sun was melting the wax on the wooden frame, causing his feathers to fall off in droves.  He tried to reverse course, flapping what was left of his wings in a desperate effort to stay in the sky. But it was too late. His wooden frame could not support him, and poor Icarus plunged to his death in the sea.

What are we to make of this story of Icarus?  Does it have any relevance to our lives today?  If so, how? 

To understand the story of Icarus, we have to begin by understanding the significance of the sun and the sea.  So stay tuned.

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AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
 Daedalus and Icarus by Anthony Van Dyck; Wikimedia Commons

Daedalus and Icarus by Anthony Van Dyck; Wikimedia Commons

The Plan to Escape

This is the story of Icarus, one of my favorites in Greek mythology.

King Minos of Crete commissioned Daedalus, a master craftsman who also happened to be Icarus’ father, to build a prison from which no one could escape. Minos’ goal was to incarcerate the Minotaur. Daedalus obliged and created an elaborate labyrinth with so many twists and turns that it was impossible to find your way out once you were inside.  But then the tables turned against Daedalus, and he and his son, Icarus, were thrown into the labyrinth as its prisoners.

Refusing to submit to captivity, the ever-enterprising Daedalus planned his escape.  He constructed a wooden frame and by using wax as the adhesive, he glued feathers to the frame to create two pairs of wings, one for himself and one for his son.  The plan was to escape the labyrinth by flight.

Before giving Icarus his wings, Daedalus warned his son to maintain an even balance between the sea and the sun. “If you fly too close to the sea,” he cautioned him, “the waves will drench your wings and you’ll drown. If you fly too close to the sun, the heat will melt the wax on your wings.  You’ll lose your feathers, and you’ll drown.”

Icarus was young and brash, and like most young and brash people, he paid little attention to his father’s words.  He was itching to try on his wings and escape from the labyrinth.

In Part 2 we'll see the impact of hubris.

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AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar

 Apollo and Daphne by Bernini - photo credit: Guilherme Jofili

Apollo and Daphne by Bernini - photo credit: Guilherme Jofili

I love mythology and spent many years of my professional life teaching world mythology to classes of initially skeptical students who took the course because it “met a humanities requirement.” As the class progressed and we breathed life into these mythological figures and their stories, the material began to energize my students.  By the end of the semester, many of them came to share my belief that these ancient stories still have much to say to us after all these years. 

My blog will focus on aspects related to mythology including but not limited to a retelling of some of the world’s ancient myths, my musings and interpretations of myths in ways that make them accessible to a modern audience, an exploration of how visual and literary artists articulated their visions through the use of myths, links to relevant books, and all manner of wonderful things pertaining to mythology.

Myths offered a wealth of meaning to their audiences.  They survived the centuries because they continue to speak to us after all these years.  I am passionate about the value and relevance of myths, and I hope that by sharing some of my thoughts on mythology, you can experience some of that same passion.

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AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
TagsMyth