We are the heroes of our own stories, which makes it easy to think that anyone who opposes us is a villain. To think, perhaps, that the libs are out to destroy the United States. Or, conversely, that right-wingers are undermining the social contracts of our country.
But to those people’s perspective, they’re the heroes. We might not be happy about their choices – I know I’m often not! – but other people are trying their best, too.
In a grocery store checkout lane in Chicago, I found myself talking to a cashier about their tattoos. They’d recently finished a tableau from Greek mythology across their back, a project that had taken years.
Because I’m both a mythology fan and an excessively earnest person, I asked this person about their favorite characters from Greek mythology.
“Well,” they said, “I’m really happy with the Medusa on my back.”
“Oh, cool!” I exclaimed. “Medusa is one of my favorites, too! Medusa and Arachne.”
“Well,” they said, momentarily abashed, “my tattoo has Perseus holding Medusa’s head.”
Medusa and Arachne are heroes who oppose the abuses of privilege & power. In a world of harmful traditions – deities who treat mortals as their playthings, who would never dream of asking for consent because human autonomy matters so little compared to the desires of a god – Medusa and Arachne fought back. Their cause appeared doomed from the beginning; nevertheless, they persisted.
Medusa was a beautiful young woman who worked in Athena’s temple, up until Athena’s uncle Poseidon broke into the temple and assaulted Medusa. Then Athena was angry that her temple had been defiled, and so she cursed Medusa to be so hideous that she’d turn onlookers to stone.
Because Arachne was proud of her achievements as an artist, Athena challenged her to a competition. Although Arachne had no hope of wining a subjective contest against a god, judged by gods, she used the contest as an opportunity to convey a heretical message: that the lives of a lesser species are as inherently meaningful to them as the lives of gods are to gods. Her artwork depicted transgressions and wanton cruelty committed against us human animals by the divine.
Athena was enraged. How dare a mere nothing creature question her kind’s treatment at the hands of her superiors? The offending artwork was promptly destroyed; Arachne was cursed to live on in an even more loathesome form.
In their interactions with Athena, both Medusa and Arachne are tragic heroes, victims who are punished further for having been victimized. As characters in their own right, they’re my favorites, clear champions of the powerless.
And yet, they exist within a whole universe of overlapping stories. As symbols, they can be interpreted in myriad ways.
In a subsequent myth, a wealthy aristocrat tried to rid himself of a nettlesome young man named Perseus by demanding that Perseus bring him a gift of Medusa’s severed head. But then Athena helped Perseus find & kill Medusa. And so Medusa as a symbol can represent almost any adversity. In her interaction with Perseus, she is simply an obstacle to be overcome. To Perseus, Medusa represents a troubled past, a looming calamity.
Symbols twist & shift as our perspective changes.
In Pulp Fiction (which I haven’t seen in almost two decades, worried that I’d now like it less), John Travolta spends much of the film as the hero. He charms viewers, saying “I gotta know what a five dollar shake tastes like” before taking a sip using Uma Thurman’s straw.
But in the scene when John Travolta dies, he’s irrelevant. Just a background prop. A villain. A symbol. At that moment, Bruce Willis is the hero, and we’re wrapped up in his perspective.
And then, because the episodes in Pulp Fiction are presented out of order, John Travolta is alive again. As soon as he returns to the screen, he’s the hero. His ignominious impending demise is irrelevant to our perception of his antics.
Medusa is not a monster; she is a victim.
Medusa is a monster; she has the power to stave off even gods.
Medusa is a monster; Perseus shows us that with faith and pluck, we too might triumph over adversity.
In stories, all can be true at once.
header image by Victoria Borodinova
photograph of marble statue of Perseus with Medusa’s head (carved by Antonio Canova) by Mary Harrsch
Medusa miniature sculpted collaboratively with my five-year-old on a day she had to stay home from school, following advice from Dinko Tilov in “Sculpting Mythical Creatures Out of Polymer Clay.”
Mythological heroes of yore – and comic book superheroes today – embody our deepest values. This is what a hero would do. Heracles, Arjuna, and Spiderman learn that great powers bestow equivalent responsibility. Prometheus, Odin, and Deadpool accept suffering as the cost of their attachment to the world. Theseus, Samson, and Punisher wreck violence upon their enemies.
These men are all heroes. They battle monsters. They fight and kill to enforce boundaries.
At times, they reveal themselves to be more monstrous than the monsters.
The Greek hero Theseus has a signature style: he follows the Golden Rule. Do unto others as they would do unto you.
Theseus encounters Club Bearer, a villain who murders people by using a big stick to smash them into the earth. Theseus murders Club Bearer by using a big stick to smash him into the earth.
Theseus encounters Pinebender, a villain who murders people by tying their limbs to the bowed trunks of pine trees. Theseus murders Pinebender by tying his limbs to the bowed trunks of pine trees.
Theseus encounters Sciron, a villain who murders people by kicking them off a cliff when they attempt to wash their feet. Theseus murders Sciron by kicking him off a cliff when he attempts to wash his feet.
And so on.
Theseus, the hero, rids the world of monsters by doing unto monsters precisely what they would do to him.
Then Theseus meets the Minotaur.
The Minotaur – a monster with a human body and bovine head – was born because his mother was unsatisfied with her husband and went to great efforts – constructing a wooden cow costume, etc. – to have sex with a bull instead.
Obviously, this myth was concocted by a man. Many men fear that they’re lousy in bed; many men assume that a larger penis would make them IRRESISTIBLE to women; many men tell stories about “wicked women” turning faithless in the face of someone better endowed.
And – also obviously – in a man’s story, the Minotaur’s monstrous genesis had to be a wicked woman’s fault.
The Minotaur is known to be a monster because he eats humans. The Minotaur’s father imprisoned him inside a giant labyrinth. In an annual ritual, the Minotaur’s father also locks defenseless young people inside the labyrinth. Then the Minotaur eats them.
But Theseus seduces the Minotaur’s fully-human sister, convinces her to give him a secret map to navigate the labyrinth, and then smuggles in a sword during the night. After skulking through the labyrinth, Theseus slays the sleeping Minotaur.
The Minotaur – we recognize him as a monster by his big bovine head. But all bovines only eat plants. It’s actually the monster’s human gullet, stomach, & intestines – the monster’s human appetite – that must be feared. The Minotaur has an herbivorous head but is a meat-eating monstrosity beneath the neck.
During his travels, Theseus has often feasted upon bovine flesh. He’s already mirrored the monstrosity of the Minotaur: eating the other’s people. But inside the labyrinth, Theseus does not devour the Minotaur. This is the only time when Theseus does not strictly mirror the behavior of an enemy.
Which might have revealed too much about the boundaries being policed: Only humans may eat the world.
The fundamental horror – what made all of Theseus’s enemies monstrous – was never about what they’d done, but rather who had done it.
In Jess Zimmerman’s essay collection Women and Other Monsters, she describes the ways that myths are used to define the boundaries of acceptable behavior. A human who eats other animals can be a hero; an animal (or animal-headed entity) who eats humans would be a monster.
Zimmerman offers advice: What should we do when we recognize the hypocrisies in our ancestors’ sacred stories?
For women, the boundaries of acceptability are strict, and they are many. We must be seductive but pure, quiet but not aloof, fragile but industrious, and always, always small. We must not be too successful, too ambitious, too independent, too self-centered – and when we can’t manage all the contradictory restrictions, we are turned into grotesques. Women have been monsters, and monsters have been women, in centuries’ worth of stories, because stories are a way to encode these expectations and pass them on.
We’ve built a culture on the backs of these monstrous women, letting them prop up tired morals about safety and normalcy and feminine propriety. But the traits they represent – aspiration, knowledge, strength, desire – are not hideous. In men’s hands, they have always been heroic.
The monsters of myth have been stationed at those borders in order to keep us out; they are intended as warnings about what happens when women aspire beyond what we’re allowed. … They mark areas on a map: Do not enter. Here be monsters.
But if stepping outside the boundaries makes you monstrous, that means monsters are no longer bound. What happens if we charge through the gates and find that living on the other side – in all our Too Muchness, oversized and overweening and overcomplicated as we are – means living fully for the first time? Then the monster story stops being a warning sign, and starts to be a guide.
Modern English is built on a foundation of The King James Bible and William Shakespeare – the former, plagiarized from a person we burned on the stake for his efforts; the latter, Lord Regent of Bad Penis Puns, as though his very name compelled him: Willy-I-Am Shake-Spear, Billy Wagcock, old I am a dick now brandishing said dick.
English: a hodgepodge tongue, its literature begun with a bloody tale of dragon baiting, vernacular eschewed until Chaucer made his fame from crude jokes and sex slang, the modern form a mongrel mix of guttural Germanic old and ornate Norman new.
And the modern modern era began in Year 1 p.s.U – the first year “post scriptum Ulysses,” which was, according to T.S. Eliott, “the most important expression which the present age has found,” and perched at the apex of the Harvard committee’s 92% male twentieth century centenary – a year otherwise known as 1922, since few aside from antisemitic fascist Ezra Pound felt that Joyce’s tome compelled a novel calendar.
Ulysses: supposedly in conversation with the past, but the conversation only flows one way. Knowing the Greco-Roman myth changes how a reader reads Joyce, but Joyce doesn’t alter our perception of the past, unless to cast undeserved disparagement upon Penelope, privileging post-agrarian men’s fear of wicked women’s wanton sexuality.
Quite the contrast with Barbara Hamby’s poem “Penelope’s Lament,” in conversation with the past as though conversation requires both speaking and listening:
– Barbara Hamby
No sex for twenty years except with my handmaidens
and myself, so when you turned up like a beggar man,
O I recognized you but needed time to trade in
my poor-widow persona for something more Charlie Chan,
you know, a razor hiding behind a cream puff mask,
irritated by my number-one-and-only son,
ranting about food and money, hiding sheep and casks
of wine in caves, so the suitors would be forced to run
away. As if they would. A more ratty shiftless bunch
of creatures would be hard to rustle up. My bad luck,
they wanted to be king. I’d thought of giving them a lunch
of strychnine. Then you showed up, a geriatric Huck
Finn. So be my guest, finish them off, then I mean
to poison you. O Ithaka is mine. I am queen.
Or there’s Emily Wilson’s recent translation of The Odyssey, also actually in conversation with the past, respectfully acknowledging words that were there already, gracefully responding with what they’re now seen to mean.
After Odysseus returned and the suitors were slain, his son resolved to murder the women whom the dead suitors had coerced into sex … or raped. In Wilson’s words,
Showing initiative, Telemachus
“I refuse to grant these girls
a clean death, since they poured down shame on me
and Mother, when they lay beside the suitors.”
At that, he wound a piece of sailor’s rope
round the rotunda and round the mighty pillar,
stretched up so high no foot could touch the ground.
As doves or thrushes spread their wings to fly
home to their nests, but somebody sets a trap –
they crash into a net, a bitter bedtime;
just so the girls, their heads all in a row,
were strung up with the noose around their necks
to make their death an agony. They gasped,
feet twitching for a while, but not for long.
Joyce’s Ulysses – the unidirectional address – is in conversation with the past the way a bloviating mansplainer is in conversation with his victim.
Mansplaining, better explained not by me (a man) but by Kate Manne, from Entitled(excerpted with a few additional paragraph breaks for internet readability):
On other occasions, manifestations of epistemic entitlement may result in a less privileged speaker deciding not to make her intended or fitting contribution to the conversation. This will then often constitute what the philosopher Kristie Dotson calls “testimonial smothering,” where a speaker self-silences.
A mansplainer may be nigh on uninterruptable.
The point is epitomized by an incident recounted by Rebecca Solnit, in her classic and galvanizing essay “Men Explain Things to Me.”
Solnit had attended a dinner party with a female friend, where she’d been prevailed upon by the older, “distinguished” male host to linger after dinner to talk about her writing.
“I hear you’ve written a couple of books,” he offered genially.
“Several, actually,” she ventured.
“And what are they about?” he inquired, in a patronizing tone – much “the way you encourage your friend’s seven-year-old to describe flute practice,” as Solnit puts it.
She nevertheless obliged and began to describe her most recent book at the time, which was about Eadweard Muybridge, an English American photographer and pioneer of motion pictures.
She didn’t get far, however.
Solnit recalls: “He cut me off soon after I mentioned Muybridge. ‘And have you heard about the very important Muybridge book that came out this year?’ So caught up was I in my assigned role as ingenue that I was perfectly willing to entertain the possibility that another book on the same subject had come out simultaneously and I’d somehow missed it. He was already telling me about the very important book – with that smug look I know so well in a man holding forth, eyes fixed on the fuzzy far horizon of his own authority.”
The very important book, Solnit’s female friend soon realized, was Solnit’s.
The friend tried to interject this point three or four times. But the mansplainer failed, somehow, to hear her.
When he finally registered this news, his face fell; he turned “ashen.”
Solnit writes: “That I was indeed the author of the very important book it turned out he hadn’t read, just read about in the The New York Times Book Review a few months earlier, so confused the neat categories into which his world was sorted that he was stunned speechless – for a moment, before he began holding forth again.”
Of the many insights that Solnit offers us here into the nature of mansplaining, one of the most striking is the way both speakers in this exchange are assigned roles, which are then difficult to break from.
Solnit’s host was the authority, of course; and she was cast as the naive one – “an empty vessel to be filled with [his] wisdom and knowledge” she writes, “in some sort of obscene impregnation metaphor.”
Because of the social dynamics in play here, it then became very difficult to change the course of the conversation.
But the skewed sense of epistemic entitlement that structured the exchange left her host’s face “ashen” when he finally registered his error. She was in danger of humiliating him.
Still, he was only momentarily deterred: he proceeded to explain other things when unceremoniously deprived of that fledgling site of epistemic domination.
Joyce is out to impress and overwhelm – “I’ve put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant, and that’s the only way of insuring one’s immortality.” As though only speaking, not listening – not the relationships that outlast us – could save someone from death.
Joyce’s Penelope: a woman, a wife, sexually voracious, not to be trusted. Joyce’s hero, Odysseus: masturbating in public at the sight of a schoolgirl’s underclothes.
As though the original myth were insufficiently misogynistic. As though the myth needed more than the misogyny made clear with Wilson’s words, more than the misogyny marked in Christopher Logue’s War Music, a modern epic in (two-way) conversation with the past, in which Odysseus’s ally Achilles pouts to his mermaid mother:
“The Greeks have let their King take my prize she.
And now they aim to privatise that wrong.
Make it Achilles’ brain-ache, fireside, thing.
So go to God.
Press him. Yourself against Him. Kiss his knees.
Then beg Him this:
Till they come running to your actual son,
Let the Greeks burn, let them taste pain,
Asphyxiate their hope, so as their blood soaks down into the sand,
Or as they sink like coins into the sea,
And yet, within Ulysses, there is an absolutely gorgeous scene, some thirty-four pages long in my edition, “Scylla & Charybdis,” in which Stephen Dedalus, Joyce’s Telemachus, lectures lyrically on William Shakespeare.
As expected for an English text, sex jokes abound.
Twenty years he lived in London and, during part of that time, he drew a salary equal to that of the lord chancellor of Ireland. His life was rich. His art, more than the art of feudalism, as Walt Whitman called it, is the art of surfeit. Hot herringpies, green mugs of sack, honeysauces, sugar of roses, marchpane, gooseberried pigeons, ringocandies.
Sir Walter Raleigh, when they arrested him, had half a million francs on his back including a pair of fancy stays. The gombeen woman Eliza Tudor had underlinen enough to vie with her of Sheba. Twenty years he dallied there between conjugal love and its chaste delights and scortatory love and its foul pleasures.
You know Manningham’s story of the burgher’s wife who bade Dick Burbage to her bed after she had seen him in Richard III and how Shakespeare, overhearing, without more ado about nothing, took the cow by the horns and, when Burbage came knocking at the gate, answered from the capon’s blankets: William the conqueror came before Richard III.
Sexuality, per his post-agrarian mind, described as dirty – “scortatory,” a word for sultry goings on that lacks the playful good-humor of “fescennine” or the simple celebration of “sensuous.” In the local university library’s Oxford English Dictionary, the only citation for the word “scortatory” came from this scene, although later editions of the OED include a precedent from 1794 and a nineteenth century denunciation of “scortatory religions.”
Past usage for “capon” is rather more lively, although Joyce’s particular employment is as childishly petty as the Reddit wasteland’s proto-incel overuse of the word “cuck” to describe any unwanted situation – in 1398, Trevisa writes that “the capon is a cocke made as it were female by keruynge away of his gendringe stones.”
Consensual sex as though castrating an uninvited party – not that the encounter between Shakespeare and the woman is described as clearly consensual, but the person supposedly castrated by Willy’s (which would have been Dick’s) dalliance was the burgher, apparently uninvolved in either pairing.
Sex as competition – which perhaps seemed sensible to Joyce since his very eloquence is intended to be competitive, a thunderous plaint demanding that we recognize his exclusive triumph, with this scene a fractal microcosm of the whole, Dedalus’s competitive banter seeking victory for his own (& thereby Joyce’s) prodigious intellect.
Loving or laying or writing to win. Within a world where, without behavior like this, neither sex nor intellect would be mistaken as finite goods.
In No Contest, Alfie Kohn characterizes competition as coming from situations where resources are scarce.
But education involves a resource that can never be scarce: one person having knowledge and wisdom does not prevent someone else from having it. It might be scarce in the sense that not many people have it, especially when it comes to very specialized knowledge, but the whole point of education should be to share knowledge and wisdom with the next generation and thus ensure that it keeps growing.
So the fact that we make education competitive is at worst contradictory and at best a choice that we should acknowledge and question.
It’s not a competition, but men’s attempts at female sex wit have at times been less than winning, travesties like the Bond-ean “Pussy Galore” or even our Latinate word for internal parts that means etymologically not “birthing channel” or “wayfare of life,” but rather “sheath.” A place to put your sword. With the whole shebang described by medical men too squeamish to undertake actual inspection – the second century Roman scientist Galen instructed his readers (men) to “Think first of the man’s turned in and extending inward.”
It seemed obvious to Galen – despite his likely inability to birth a child – that you could “Turn outward the woman’s” … or “turn inward … the man’s” and “you will find the same in both in every respect.”
“The same in every respect.” Except that men also believed that a uterus was a living creature, mischievous and untrustworthy inside a woman’s body – “hysterical,” from the Greek word for “womb,” a castigation that someone’s excess of feeling or rage against patriarchal oppression was due not to circumstance but to her wandering organ. The genitalia that crept up inside her and latched onto her brain.
English is for alliteration (which sounds better if you slur the initial vowel sounds into sameness); romance for rhyming. Neither English nor true romance languages have great words for sex, but our latinate word is better.
The term “fornicate” comes from heat and warmth. Although not in the good, true way, that love can both spiritually and corporeally warm us like fresh baked bread. Instead, we have the word because sex is what goes on in brothels, and a traditional set of brothels had vaulted chambers, and these rooms vaguely resembled the shape of baker’s brick ovens, and these hot warm ovens were where bread was made.
Etymologically, fornication leaves something to be desired. And yet, it’s the best we have.
“Fuck” comes from farming and violence – the possible root words mean “to plow” or “to punch”. As though sex is something that a person with a penis does to another.
Not something shared – as with the Maori word “hika,” which can mean either making fire or making love – but something taken. Predisposing English speakers to see men’s genitals as pushy, greedy things. The English language can betray us as we try to build a better world.
Although at times there’s truth. The violence and the greed – at times, tragically often times, men can be such dicks.
Our criminal justice system ensnares people from all walks of life. Occasionally we’ll hear about the arrest of a wealthy sociopath with a penchant for child abuse, like Jared Fogel or Jeffrey Epstein.
But, let’s face it. Justice in this country isn’t applied fairly. If you’re wealthy, your behavior has to be a lot more egregious for you to reap the same punishments as a poor person. If you look white, your behavior has to a lot more egregious for you to reap the same punishments as a black person.
There’s abundant statistical evidence to back up these claims. But the Supreme Court won’t allow any particular individual to petition for reduced punishment based on the statistical evidence. After all, prosecutors, judges, and juries ostensibly came to their decisions based on the unique details of each individual case. Just because people who resemble you are often treated unfairly doesn’t mean that you were treated unfairly, too.
Because we apply punishment so inequitably, our jails and prisons are full of people who’ve been treated poorly by the world. Compared to the average citizen, people in prison grew up with less money, received less education, experienced more trauma. And, no matter what people’s earlier lives were like, if they’re in prison, they’re not being treated well now.
So they have a lot of justifiable grievances against the dominant political, cultural, and religious beliefs of our country. Punished unfairly by their fellow Christians, people sour on Christianity. Inside walls where the demographics make it blatantly obvious that our laws are enforced in a malignantly racist way, racial tensions boil.
At Pages to Prisoners, an organization that sends free books to people inside, we get requests for stuff about Norse mythology, Odinism, and Asatru. Lots of folks ask for material to learn foreign languages – people want to feel like they’ve accomplished something during their time in prison – but I always feel skeptical when somebody wants help learning Icelandic.
Not that there’s anything wrong with Icelandic. And Norse mythology is cool! Unfortunately, a gaggle of violent white supremacists decided that Norse mythology should be the basis for their religion. Starting in the 1970s, a right-wing racist from Florida began sending “Odinist” publications into prisons.
During the thirteenth century, Christian scholars transcribed many of the old Norse myths so that they could better understand the literary allusions of old Icelandic poetry. But they didn’t record anything about ancient religious practice. We barely have any information about most ancient pagan beliefs. Anyone who wants to adopt a pre-Christian European religion now – whether it’s Wicca, Druidism, Odinism, or Celtic polytheism – is basically forced to make things up.
I have nothing against religious invention. All religions were made by human beings – there’s no a priori reason why a religion created long ago, by people who understood much less about the world than we do now, would be better than something you invent today. Sure, ancient religions have been tested by time, suggesting that they possess virtues that their practitioners found helpful over the years, but most ancient religions have their problems, too. Inaccurate cosmologies, scattered hateful passages in their texts, that sort of thing.
So I like the idea of neo-paganism. You want to find a clearing in the woods and
do some moonlit dancing? You’d rather
worship a feminine generative force than a norm-enforcing patriarchal deity? You want to exalt nature as a hearth to be
protected rather than a resource to be exploited? Go right ahead! All of that sounds pretty great to me.
neo-paganism as it’s currently practiced in prison tends to be pretty hateful.
That’s why I’ve been
working on a set of anti-racist pamphlets about Norse mythology. Currently, when people ask for The Poetic
Edda or whatever, we send a friendly letter saying that we don’t have it,
and also that we generally don’t stock that sort of thing because it runs afoul
of our anti-hate policy.
But the Norse myths are
certainly no more hateful than Biblical myths, and we send plenty of
those. The main difference is that
centuries of continued Christian practice have created a scaffolding of gentler
beliefs around the stories in the Bible.
The text of Psalm 137
states that “Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little
ones against the stones.” But the
text is a tool, not the entirety of the religion. The practice of Christianity frowns upon
the murder of any human infant. Whether
you like the kid’s parents or not.
We’d be better off if Pages to Prisoners could send warm-hearted material about Norse mythology to people. Sure, you can interpret the Norse myths as endorsing a war-mongering death cult. You can interpret the Old Testament that way, too. But you can also interpret the Norse myths as environmentalist. Feminist. Supporting the pursuit of knowledge. Judging strangers based upon their merits, not their appearance.
Odinism is so entangled with white supremacy, though, our pamphlet will have to
address skin color and genetic heritage directly. It’s a fraught topic. Lots of people in the U.S. don’t like any discussion
of evolution. Some people feel squigged
out when they learn that contemporary birds evolved from the same set of common
ancestors as the dinosaurs. And that’s far
less emotionally charged than a description of human evolution.
Plus, skin color still has huge implications for how people are treated in the United States. Consider, um, those prison demographics I cited above. And so discussions about the evolution of epidermal melanin concentrations are especially tense. Although the underlying biology is simple – some places have more sunlight than others! – because people think it matters, it does.
I’ve found that these conversations are actually a decent way to get people interested in the study of archeology and biology, though. After we’ve discussed this in jail, people have asked me to bring research papers and textbooks so that they could learn more.
Whenever two groups of an organism stop mating with each other, they’ll slowly drift apart. This rift might occur because the groups became physically separated from each other. Maybe one group migrated to an island. In contemporary times, maybe the groups were separated when humans built a new highway bisecting a habitat. Maybe two sets of similar-looking insects mate apart because they’re eating fruits that ripen at different times.
Or the groups might stop mating with each other because a chance mutation caused members of one group to want their sexual partners to smell a certain way. Various species of stickleback are able to interbreed – they identify other members of their kind based on smell. But water pollution has overwhelmed the fishes’s senses, leading the fish to mate indiscriminately.
If humans hadn’t
polluted their waters, though, these sticklebacks would have drifted farther
and farther apart until it became impossible for them to interbreed. No matter how many sense-suppressing
chemicals we dumped.
We don’t know what caused the initial rift between our ancestors and the ancestors of contemporary chimpanzees. About 4 million years ago, though, these groups stopped having children together. By 2 millions years ago (at least 100,000 generations later), these groups looked quite different from each other. Although it’s possible that these organisms could have still mated with each other and raised viable progeny, they rarely did.
One group of these
creatures, which included our ancestors, had a tucked pelvis and mostly upright
posture. This allowed for a good vantage
while scavenging and, eventually, hunting.
The other group, which includes chimpanzees’ ancestors, mostly moved on
all fours. This body plan results in
fewer mothers dying during childbirth.
As ever, there are trade-offs to be made.
Up until about 2 million
years ago, all our ancestors lived in Africa.
But then they began to migrate.
Over the next million years, they explored much of the globe. By about 500,000 years ago, half a dozen
different types of humans lived in Africa, Europe, and Asia. The difference between one population to the
next was not like the racial differences among contemporary humans, but more
like the difference between lions and tigers, or between polar bears and brown
bears. Scientists describe them as
distinct species. Although they were
similar enough that they could have sex and raise children together, they
rarely did – they lived in distinct parts of the world and had begun to evolve
adaptations to their specific environments.
Evolution isn’t easy. Nor is it quick. Just because a certain trait would be
advantageous doesn’t mean that creatures will acquire it. In the desert, it would help to have
adaptations for water retention like camels, or long ears like jackrabbits to
cool the blood. But a trait can only
spread after a random mutation creates it.
And, even if a trait is very helpful, if only one individual is born
with the adaptation, there’s no guarantee that it will have enough children for
the benefit to spread through the population.
Once a beneficial trait has a good toe-hold – present in perhaps 1% to 10% of the population – then we can expect it to flourish. But below that amount, even great adaptations might die off due to bad luck. That’s why it takes so many generations – tens of thousands, or hundreds of thousands – before you see organisms become drastically better suited for the environment. Even when scientists do directed evolution experiments in the lab, it takes about this many generations for a population of bacteria to evolve ways to consume a new food source, for instance.
By 500,000 years ago, the various species of humans were recognizably different. Denisovans lived in the mountains, and their hemoglobin genes allowed them to avoid altitude sickness. Their blood was less likely to clot and cause strokes, and they could extract more oxygen from the thin air. These are incredibly beneficial traits. Even though the Denisovans went extinct about 40,000 years ago, about 40% of people currently living in Tibet have copies of the Denisovan hemoglobin gene.
Our ancestors migrated east to the Denisovans’ homeland just before the Denisovans went extinct. To be perfectly honest, we probably killed them. But before or during this genocide, a few of our ancestors must have had sex with the locals. And then the bi-racial children of these Homo sapiens / Denisovan couplings must have been significantly better off for the gene to spread so widely.
The Neanderthal lived at
high latitude. Over many generations,
their average skin color became paler.
In part, this was probably due to the lack of selective pressure. Think about a dodo – there was no advantage
for these birds to lose their fear of humans.
But, because the dodos were living on an island that no humans traveled
to, there was also no harm in the birds becoming fearless.
Dodos lost a beneficial
trait – fear – because their fear wasn’t actively needed. It’s kind of like the airbags in an old
car. If your car’s engine goes bad,
you’ll notice right away. Turn the key,
hear it sputter. You use the engine
every time you drive. But your airbags
could get worse without you noticing … and then, in the moment when they’re
needed, they won’t deploy.
Humans living near the equator need epidermal melanin. If you don’t have enough melanin, you’ll get sunburns, which exacerbate the risk of infection and dehydration; you’ll suffer radiation-induced DNA damage, which leads to skin cancer; and you’ll lose folate, which means that pregnant women will have more birth defects.
The most recent ancestors
that humans and chimpanzees shared in common had pale skin. Contemporary chimpanzees are still pale. They can afford to be – their fur protects
them from the sun. But our ancestors
lost their fur, probably so that they didn’t overheat while running, and this
led to the evolution of dark skin.
High concentrations of
epidermal melanin distinguished humans from the other apes.
As humans migrated to
higher latitudes, though, they gradually lost this indicator of their
humanity. Because the sunlight was less
intense, there was less selective pressure.
Humans could lose their epidermal melanin in the same way that dodos
lost their fear – not because it was helpful to go without it, but because the
trait went untested in their day to day lives.
They had no way to “realize” how important it was.
Your airbags aren’t
helpful until you crash. And then
they’ll either deploy and save you, or they won’t.
Now, it’s possible that the Neanderthal also experienced some positive selective pressure on their skin color as they migrated north. Over thousands of generations, the Neanderthals may have benefited from paler skin because it increased their production of vitamin D. We don’t know for certain that the Neanderthal felt any evolutionary pressure to have more vitamin D – after all, contemporary Inuit people live at very high latitudes but still have a lot of epidermal melanin – but it’s true that vitamin D deficiency is a big risk among people with crummy diets.
In the past, hunter / gatherers typically ate much healthier, more varied diets than farmers. When humans began to farm, they would mostly eat the one type of plant that they cultivated, rather than the wide mix of plants that could be found growing wild. And when Homo sapiens farmers migrated to northern Europe, their diets were so poor that they even developed loss-of-function mutations in a cholesterol synthesis gene, probably so that they’d have higher concentrations of vitamin D precursors. Among these people, pale skin was probably a big advantage. They’d be ready for the cloudless days when their homeland’s feeble sunlight was enough to make some vitamin D.
Around 40,000 years ago,
our planet’s most recent ice age ended.
The world began to warm, and glaciers retreated from Europe. By then, a group of humans living in Africa
were recognizably Homo sapiens.
These were our ancestors. Every
human alive today – no matter what you look like or where your family is from –
is descended from this group of people from Africa. They lived in tribes of twenty to a hundred
people, had darkly pigmented skin, made art, and spoke complex languages.
As the world warmed, some
of these Homo sapiens began to migrate.
These journeys occurred over many generations. Some tribes stayed in Africa; some tribes
ventured north into Europe; others moved east toward Asia. As they traveled, they encountered the humans
who already lived in those places. As
I’ve mentioned, the newcomers occasionally had sex and raised children with the
natives. They probably also killed a lot
of them. Unfortunately, we Homo
sapiens don’t have the best reputation for treating strangers well.
rarely enough that most people living today have about 99% Homo sapiens DNA. Some people, especially if their families are
from Africa, have essentially 100% Homo sapiens DNA. At other extreme, even people whose families
are from Europe have 96% or more Homo sapiens DNA.
Among people living in
Tibet, the Denisovan hemoglobin gene is common, but most other Denisovan genes
Like the Neanderthal
before them, the Homo sapiens who ventured north into Europe began to
lose their epidermal melanin. People who
hunted and fished probably became paler simply because there was less risk of
sun damage. Remember, this didn’t happen
all at once. Average skin color would
change only over the course of hundreds or even thousands of generations, not
during the course of a single journeying Homo sapiens’s lifetime.
Our ancestors spent almost
all their time outdoors, which is why even dark-skinned people could probably
synthesize plenty of vitamin D. Among
contemporary humans, vitamin D deficiency is such a big problem because we
spend too much time inside. As I type
this, I’m sitting at a table in the YMCA snack room, lit up by flickering
fluorescent bulbs. This low-quality
light won’t help me make vitamin D.
Instead, I take a daily
supplement. But that doesn’t come near
matching the health and psychological benefits of time outdoors.
Perhaps it’s worth mentioning that people in jail – places not known for providing a rich, high-quality, varied diet – typically get to go outside no more often than once a week. At our local jail, their hour of “outdoor rec” occurs in a little courtyard at the top of the jail, a cement space covered with a chain-linked fence. Outdoor rec often happened at night – a friend who was recently released told me that “This was still nice. You could see some stars. And there’s that restaurant, Little Zagrib, down the street? Sometimes we’d smell foods from their kitchen.”
Treating people that way
is unlikely to help them get better.
But back to our migrants! Descendants of these pale-skinned Homo sapiens continued to explore new territories. Some reached North America about 12,000 years ago, and some of their descendants continued farther, all the way to South America.
As people traveled –
journeys that lasted many generations – they continued to evolve. Indeed, skin color was a trait that came
repeatedly under selective pressure. As
people migrated south into the Americas, they were living progressively closer
and closer to the equator. Compared to
their grandparents, they were bombarded by more intense sunlight. They needed more epidermal melanin.
This is a process that
takes a long time. A family might have
six kids; maybe the two palest kids get sunburned, which makes it more likely
that they’ll develop skin infections and die before they have children of their
own. If this happens again and again,
among many different families, then eventually the whole population will wind
up with slightly darker skin.
Because human skin color
has changed during each of the many prehistoric migrations, it isn’t correlated
with other traits. As we entered the
modern era, people’s skin color was lighter or darker based on how close to the
equator their recent ancestors lived.
But human populations migrated so often that there were many different
groups, each with unique cultural and genetic heritages, living at every
latitude. Because skin color is so
closely linked to latitude, this means many different groups shared similar
concentrations of epidermal melanin. And
there’s no evolutionary pressure linking a trait that protects skin to brain
size or intelligence.
As it happens, there are
major events known to have caused a decrease in human brain size (and probably
intelligence). After all, human brains
are costly. Even though there’s a
benefit to being clever, there’s also been constant evolutionary pressure against
Large brains kill
mothers. Because humans walk upright,
childbirth is riskier for human mothers than for other primates. Our posture constrains the width of our hips
– both male and female – but a baby’s whole head has to pass through that
Having children is so
risky that we evolved to give birth about 3 months prematurely. Human gestation takes about a year, but most
mothers give birth after only 9 months.
This allows a baby’s head to continue to grow outside the mother’s body,
but human babies are totally helpless at birth.
We have to be very devoted parents to keep them alive.
Also, our brains require a
lot of fuel. Human evolution occurred
over such a long, long time that our ancestors lived through many droughts and
calamities. During the hard years, our
ancestors would struggle to get enough to eat, and a large brain makes that
A person with a smaller
brain requires fewer calories, making that person less likely to starve in lean
times. And, again, it’s worth
remembering that evolution happens over so many generations, among so many
families, that even small changes can add up.
If mothers who have small-headed children can survive a dozen
pregnancies, but mothers with large-headed children die after only a few, then
the trend will be to have people with smaller brains. Intelligence has to be extremely
beneficial to overcome this sort of evolutionary pressure.
Similarly, if people with
small brains are more likely to survive and raise children during droughts,
then, after hundreds of generations of people who have survived dozens of
extended droughts, you’d expect to see more people with small brains.
Many of us have the bad
habit of reflexively thinking about evolution as the gradual development of
more and more complexity. But that’s not
what it is. Evolution is the process by
which things that are better suited for their environment become more
abundant. If the environment is a hard
place to live in, then evolution tends to push for more and more simplicity. When it’s hard to get enough calories, why
waste calories on anything that you don’t really need?
Starfish are descended
from organisms that had brains. But
starfish are brainless. The ancestral
starfish that weren’t wasting energy thinking were more likely to survive.
Which should make you feel
pretty good about your own brain, actually.
Your ability to think is so fabulous that your ancestors evolved larger
and larger brains … even though these brains were sometimes causing us to
starve to death, or kill our mothers.
That’s a valuable thing
you’ve got inside your skull. It cost
our ancestors so much for you to be able to have it.
But, right. Because the cost was so high, human brains did shrink sometimes. Like when we first domesticated dogs. Our ancestors began living with dogs about 30,000 years ago. Dogs were willing to do some thinking for us – they’d sniff out prey and listen for predators at night. Based on the behavior of my family’s dogs, I bet that they licked the faces of screaming children. Maybe that doesn’t seem essential for survival, but I certainly appreciate every time our dogs calm the kids down.
Because we could slough
off a few mental tasks – I don’t need to be so observant if the dog will
help me hunt – our brains could shrink, making childbirth less deadly and
reducing the caloric cost of maintaining our minds each day.
When humans switched from hunting and gathering to agriculture, our brains shrunk further. A hunter / gatherer has to know so much about every plant and animal living nearby; the work asks more of a person’s brain than farming. This evolutionary trend was exacerbated by the fact that people’s diets became way worse when they began to farm. Instead of getting nutrition from a wide variety of different plants and animals, a farmer might eat meals consisting mostly of a single type of grain.
There’s nothing we can do now about these evolutionary trends. Dogs and farming swayed our ancestors’ evolution toward smaller brains, but it’s not as though you can get those neurons back by deciding to take up hunting, or never living with a pet.
But, honestly, our brains are so plastic that our genetic heritage matters less than how we choose to spend our time. By nature, neither gorillas nor parrots will speak human language. But individuals from both these species have been able to learn to communicate with us after we taught them.
Nobody is born with an
innate understanding of mythology, religion, science, or mathematics. None of that can be encoded in your
genes. If you want to understand this
stuff, you’ll have to make an effort to learn it.
Neuron count only suggests
a brain’s potential. You could do
incredible things with a low number – consider, by ways of analogy, the feats
that 1960s NASA accomplished using computers much smaller than a contemporary
telephone. And, conversely, sensory
deprivation will make it much harder to get things done, no matter what your
That’s why I volunteer with Pages to Prisoners. Our brains are capable of wonders. At any age, we can learn and grow. And yet, we lock people into prisons that seem designed to make them worse.
Most ancient stories, including several considered sacred by contemporary societies, are riddled with sex, violence, and gore. In the Old Testament, Samson goes berserk and murders a thousand men with the jawbone of a donkey. In the Iliad, Achilles goes berserk and drags a corpse across the battlefield, hoping to defile the body of his foe. In the Edda, Thor goes berserk and starts smashing skulls with his hammer.
In the Ramayana, an army of monkeys and an army of demons meet murderously on the battlefield. From Robert Goldman, Sally Sutherland Goldman, and Barend van Nooten’s translation of the Ramayana:
In that terrible darkness
they slaughtered one another in battle: the monkeys crying, “Are you a demon?”
and the demons crying, “Are you a monkey?”
“Rend!” “Come on!” “What, running away?” Such were the tumultuous cries that were
heard in that darkness.
A tremendous din could be
heard as they roared and raced about in that tumultuous battle, though nothing
at all could be seen.
In their towering fury,
monkeys killed monkeys, while demons slaughtered demons in the darkness.
And as the monkeys and
demons killed friend and foe alike, they drenched the earth with blood, making
it slick with mud.
But, even to a generation raised on Mortal Kombat and action flicks, mythological battle scenes are pretty intense. Especially in the Ramayana, what with those magical weapons, flying monkeys, and angry demons. Luckily for us, Vijayendra Mohanty and Vivek Goel have collaborated to produce The Ravanayan, a gorgeous series of comic books depicting this story.
Divine arrows that explode
on impact? Yup.
The Ramayana is an intricate, expansive myth. Whenever I attempt to summarize it to someone, I begin tentatively – the story includes deep meditations on fate, and its chains of causality often seem involuted and intertwined. One action causes another, but the second action also caused the first.
For instance, Rama kills Ravana because Ravana kidnapped Rama’s spouse. But also, Rama was born for the express purpose of killing Ravana. Their collision was pre-ordained.
In some tellings, Ravana is a demon. A monstrous figure who, like Lucifer, initiates an assault on the gods and must be stopped. Because Ravana is immune to harm from deities, though, Vishnu must be incarnated as a human to slay him. During Vishnu’s tenure as a human, other characters intentionally waste his time because they are waiting for Rama / Vishnu’s divinity to fade sufficiently for him to be able to fight Ravana.
In other tellings, Ravana
is an enlightened figure. Ravana is
vegetarian, whereas Rama’s vice-like passion for hunting is so strong that he abandons
his spouse in order to pursue (and kill) a particularly beautiful deer. By way of contrast, Ravana exemplifies
asceticism, forebearance, and learning … but is doomed by love. In the essay “Three Hundred Ramayanas,” A.K.
Ramanujan writes that:
In the Jain texts … Ravana
is a noble hero fated by his karma to fall for Sita and bring death upon
And, in some Shaivite
interpretations of the Ramayana, the supposed villain has orchestrated
the entire affair for the good of the world.
In these tellings, Ravana is like Jesus, intentionally sacrificing
himself to potentiate salvation for others.
Mohanty and Goel’s Ravanayan
follows this tradition. In addition to
stunning illustrations (seriously, check out Goel’s pictures of Brahma, a
creator who contains galaxies), their books offer deep psychological insight,
especially in their explanations for Ravana’s seemingly irrational
behavior. In their telling, Ravana is
perfectly aware of the pain that he is causing, but he believes that the only
way to save the world is by sacrificing himself and those he loves.
Goel often depicts Ravana
alone, repulsed by the suffering that he himself must cause in pursuit of
Precisely because Mohanty and Goel do such an excellent job depicting other portions of the Ramayana, I was disappointed that their series skips the Shoorpanakha episode. In this scene, an adventurous woman is traveling alone when she meets Rama and his brother. The two are so gorgeous and charming that she feels smitten and begins to flirt. The brothers tease her briefly … then mutilate her face by hacking off her nose and ears, a standard punishment for sexual impropriety.
As it happens, the woman
whom Rama and his brother have abused is Ravana’s sister. Shoorpanakha returns to her brother’s kingdom
to show Ravana what was done to her. Only
then does Ravana decide to kidnap Rama’s spouse, hoping to punish the brothers
for assaulting his sister.
In ancient India, it was unacceptable for a woman to travel alone. Much worse, Shoorpanakha felt infatuated and attempted to act upon her desires. Female desire was seen as inherently dangerous; Rama and his brother could been seen as exemplary men despite this assault because Shoorpanakha deserved to have her face sliced open.
Although Mohanty and Goel don’t show Rama and his brother disfiguring Shoorpanakha, her depiction in the first volume of their series is decidedly unsympathetic. She is described as “wildness itself, chasing after anything that moved.” When she and her siblings find an injured jungle cat, her younger brother says they should nurse it back to health; she wants to eat it.
And then, as part of his plan to sacrifice himself for the sake of the story, Ravana murders Shoorpanakha’s husband in order to send her mad with grief. Because no sane woman would be so bold, possessed of such unnatural appetites, as to want to seduce the beautiful, charming, divine men she meets while traveling.
The Ramayana is thousands of years old. It’s unreasonable to expect ancient stories to mirror contemporary sensibilities. We know now, obviously, that many people whose cells contain two x chromosomes enjoy travel, adventure, and sex. They shouldn’t be judged for their desire. And certainly not assaulted in retribution for it, as Shoorpanakha was.
Except that … they are. The New York Times recently ran an article on some of the women who have been attacked while (and quite possibly for) traveling alone.
Women are still punished
for their appetites. For perfectly
acceptable behavior, things that would seem strange for men to fear.
If the world were
different, I probably wouldn’t fault Mohanty and Goel for their depiction of
Shoorpanakha. After all, they’re working
with ancient source material. The
original audience for the Ramayana would have shared a prejudice against
But, until our world gets better, I feel wary of art that promotes those same prejudices.
A beautiful comic book could change the way kids think about the world. In The Ravanayan, Mohanty and Goel push readers to feel empathy even for a story’s traditional villain. I just wish they’d done more. Our world still isn’t safe for women. Shoorpanakha, too, has a story that deserves to be heard.
In fantasy novels, trees walk upon their roots and battle with their limbs. That makes sense to me. If I think about two trees interacting, I consider the branches; the taller tree shades the other, limiting its competitor’s growth.
But my perspective is upside down. Trees are standing on the sky, reaching for one another through the earth. They listen underground. They communicate down there, passing messages to one another, or even meals.
their branches grope for sunlight in the unconscious way that my kids’s feet
seek warmth like homing missiles while they sleep. I try to roll over only to find somebody’s
toes wedged under my back.
year, trees inch their feet toward the sun.
And their engaging social lives are hidden from me, buried
underground. My reflexive perspective gives
me an inverted image of a tree’s world.
not alone in this misunderstanding.
hold our heads high as we walk across the ground. A major source of tension in human evolution
was arranging our skeletons in such a way that we could walk upright without
too many women dying in childbirth – our posture constrains the shape of the
Although some species do exhibit dramatically different body morphs between males and females, it’s more common for evolutionary changes in one sex to diffusely alter the other. Club-winged manakins have bones that are more dense than other birds, which makes them worse at flying. All club-winged manakins fly poorly, male and female, even though only the males use their dense bones to produce mate-luring music. Or consider the orgasms and nipples of Homo sapiens, which fulfill important biological purposes in one sex, and serve as a vestigial source of fun for the other.
prehistoric times, men and women probably hunted together. The evidence is especially compelling for
human populations like the Neanderthal in southern Europe, who lived in such
small groups that they would be unable to kill large prey without help from everyone
in the group. But even if prehistoric
men had hunted alone, their upright stance and endurance running would have
introduced an evolutionary pressure constricting the width of a human pelvis.
ancestors first descended from the trees to scavenge meat from lions’
kills. Eventually, they began to
hunt. Their strategy was to exhaust and
bewilder their prey, hoping to use the local geography to assist in each
kill. Mammoths were more likely to fall
to their deaths than be slain by hurled spears; mounds of butchered bones
accumulated at the base of particularly useful cliffs.
caloric density of cooked meat allowed our brains to expand … but the embrace
of hunting also caused more women to die in childbirth.
tragically, our upright posture distorts our understanding of the trees that
once harbored our communities. After
all, we live in our heads. It seemed
sensible to us that the most interesting life of a tree would transpire in its
biology doesn’t force us to view the world a certain way, but it
dictates which perspectives are easiest to take.
Because our brains are story-generating organs, human cultures invariably see time as flowing uniformly in a single direction. But for subatomic particles, time appears to be symmetrical; the Feynman diagram of an interaction would appear perfectly plausible progressing either forward or backward.
universe’s progression toward greater entropy, i.e. randomness, seems to
introduce a directionality for time’s arrow.
But there’s no a priori reason to expect a world to progress
toward higher entropy. This
directionality seems to exist only because our particular universe happened to
be in an unstable, low entropy state shortly after the Big Bang.
say most physicists. From my
perspective, I’m content assuming that the past is fixed but the future is
mutable. If I didn’t believe in that
asymmetry – whether it’s real or not – I’d probably lapse into despair.
again, even if we accept that time is flowing, our perspective alters how we
feel about that change.
flow of time progress or decline?
tree’s branches its hands or its feet?
Indian mythology, time is cyclical, but within each cycle it flows toward
corruption. Time passes and the world
grows worse. Currently we are trapped
within a Kali Age, the worst possible world, knowing that all the great heroes
have passed. We are just biding our time
before the world can be destroyed and made good again.
the sunder, time will once again cause that new world’s gleam to fade. Nothing can stave off the encroach of rot.
Judaism, the ancient sages lived longer than we do, and knew more, too. At one point in time, a pair of humans were good:
before long, we disobeyed the whims of God and were exiled from paradise.
Book of Shem, David Kishik writes that
original means to linger by the origin and insist on it. The task is to avoid the progression toward a
future or an end, and to stop the narrative before it develops any
further. In this sense, and in this
sense only, the origin is a worthwhile goal.
Hence in Hebrew forward (kadima) is related to what is ancient (kadum),
just as backward (achora) is linked to what is last (acharon).
humans want to reclaim the imagined glories of the past.
America great again, perhaps.
personally think that many recent technological developments in our world are
bad. We’ve designed distracting,
addicting telephones, and we’re putting them into the hands of children. Our brains evolved to be extremely plastic,
which let our species adapt to a wide variety of circumstances … but this
neural plasticity allows exposure to fabulous, drug-like devices to
dramatically alter our brains, probably for the worse.
we’ve designed distracting, addicting advertising platforms – these siphon huge
amounts of money away from productive industries, and the perverse economic
incentives we’ve constructed allow these companies, alongside equally-unhelpful
investment banks, to lure many of the most clever college graduates to their
But I’m certainly no Luddite, pining for a purer past. The world was a terrible place for so many people. Although I appreciate the thesis that Yuval Noah Harari presents in Sapiens– that the invention of agriculture made people’s lives worse than when all humans were hunters and gatherers – I see those grim millennia as akin to the hump in a chemical reaction, a transition that must be traversed in order to reach the desired products.
generations, most people scraped out a miserable existence by subsistence
farming. Their lives were worse than
their ancestors’. But we, now,
can feed so many people so easily that we could make our world into a paradise.
not doing it, but we could.
At least we’re making baby steps toward a society in which people aren’t punished for their genetic background, or gender, or religious beliefs. I mean, even in the United States we still treat women shabbily; across the country, racist police departments beleaguer Black citizens; atheists and Muslims are eyed with distrust.
used to be worse.
And, sure, even if we were the best of stewards, our planet would eventually be doomed. Even if we don’t exhaust the resources here on Earth, the sun will run out of energy and bloat to engulf our world in a ball of fire. Maybe that’s fine. Death is a part of my life; perhaps I should look upon extinction as a natural part of humanity’s journey through time.
so cool to image people someday spreading amongst the stars. I dream about the future. And hope against hope – despite overpopulation,
climate change, and all – that my children will find a better world than the
one I’ve been living in.
perspective, time will let us make the world better.
it surely won’t happen on its own. We
will have to work to make it better. The
work might not be that hard. Just live
the way you would if the world were already the place it ought to be.
Achilles briefly reaped fame and glory, then died in battle. But people continued to speak of his feats with reverence. In the underworld, he was as a god.
Yet Achilles would have
traded everything – lived in squalor as a peasant farmer instead of fighting
alongside kings – if it meant he could still be alive.
“No winning words about
death to me, shining Odysseus!
By god, I’d rather slave
on earth for another man –
some dirt-poor tenant
farmer who scrapes to keep alive –
then rule down here over
all the breathless dead.”
(translated by Robert
The mythologies of ancient
Greece offered no opportunity for resurrection.
As best I can recall, only one person almost managed to live again, and
only because she’d charmed the world’s greatest musician.
Most other religions
postulate that the dead could return.
This seems to be a widespread belief because it gives people hope. It’s easier to face death – our own or the
passing of loved ones – if we think that we could be reborn.
Even contemporary physicists speculate on the possibility of rebirth. Our minds are patterns. If the number of possible patterns is bounded, perhaps because physical space is granular … and if the universe is infinitely large, with an infinite quantity of matter to arrange and rearrange … and if time itself is boundless … then something very much like you will come back. Eventually.
The most probable form of resurrection is as a “Boltzmann brain,” a hypothetical structure in which the random fluctuations of a gaseous cloud temporarily recreates the connectivity as your current mind, including every memory and every perception that you seem to possess right now. Sure, you think you’ve lived here on Earth for years, which would seem to indicate that you’re not just a gaseous floating brain … but there’s no reason why the brain couldn’t blink into existence full of false memories. Your entire past might be a momentarily delusion. Even your present perceptions – everything that you’re experiencing right now, the sights and sounds and feeling of existence – exist within your mind and so could be recreated within a floating cloud.
Indeed, the physicists who
believe our universe to be infinite and eternal think that there would be many
times more “Boltzman brains” than living humans, and so you now are more
likely to be a floating mind than an extant creature. Again and again, they believe, you’ll exist
between the stars.
This speculation seems no
different from any other form of religious belief. Rebirth is rebirth, whether you think that
the pattern that makes you will arise again as an animal, an angel, or a
disembodied spirit in the sky …
But we, as individuals,
are unlikely to return.
More often, it’s religions themselves that are resurrected. They slip away; we strive to bring them back. Like Daoism, Wicca, or Odinism. From Ian Johnson’s recent essay, “In Search of the True Dao,”
Louis Komjathy, a scholar
who diligently seeks authentic Daoism, searches for masters who can initiate
him into a lineage, even though Daoist lineages have been largely destroyed by
the upheavals of the twentieth century.
There is no direct transmission of the ancient wisdom; instead it is a
recreation of a lost past.
At one time, the predominant religion in England was that of the druids and witches. Roman soldiers, who were hoping to conquer the world, reported that these druids were rotten people, bloodthirsty and fond of human sacrifice. Of course, similar slanders have been levied against outsiders throughout human history – Protestant Christians accused Catholics of human sacrifice, Muslims accused Christians of polytheism, Europeans accused Jews of all manner of imaginary ills, and even today many Americans believe Islam to be an inherently violent religion. I don’t think the Roman reports about those evil druids are very credible.
Pagans managed to repel
the Roman invaders. But then, years
later, Christianity spread throughout Europe, displacing the old faiths.
Similarly, the Norse myths we know today were recorded several generations after the populace had converted to Christianity. Poets were worried that no one would be able to read the ancient literature that had inspired them, because Icelandic poets described everything obliquely. For instance, you weren’t supposed to write the word “beer” in a poem; instead, you’d say something like “Odin’s gift,” since there was a myth in which Odin brought a special beer to share with the other gods, or you’d say “the eagle’s gift,” since Odin had changed shape to become an eagle in that story, or “Thor’s challenge,” since there was another myth in which Thor thought he was drinking beer but was actually slurping up the ocean.
And, yes, “Thor’s
challenge” could also mean “ocean.” The
old poems strike me as standoffish – instead of inviting listeners to share an experience,
the poets were challenging people to understand. Poetry not as a gift, but an obtuse riddle
intended to demonstrate how clever the poet is.
(Actually, some contemporary American poetry is like that too, and I
think it’s silly.)
When I read the Norse myths, I can’t help but think that the Christian scribes’ prejudices seeped into the stories. These scribes’ version of Christianity denigrated women – and most of the Norse myths about female heroes were coincidentally lost.
Her prowess had never been
questioned until we learned that she had two X chromosomes.
And so, although we still
have a story explaining that Thor’s greatest battle occurred while he was
wearing a dress, other tales of feminine triumph (which are referenced throughout
the cannon) were left out.
But, even if we still had
the full set of stories, we wouldn’t really understand the viking
religion. With a copy of the Bible, you
wouldn’t really understand Christianity; a copy of the Torah wouldn’t let you
suddenly understand Judaism. In practice,
these religions seek kindness and community, but the underlying texts are
violent and petty. Yahweh felt slighted
and decided to murder millions in a flood.
You’d have a pretty skewed vision of Christianity if that’s how you
thought believers were supposed to behave.
As Anthony Appiah explains in The Lies that Bind, the traditions and practices of a religion are often more important than the foundational documents describing the creed. In practice, the Jewish people of my home town don’t believe that sinners should be drowned in a flood, but rather welcome the lost into interfaith shelters, sharing warm clothes and a meal.
But when violent white supremacists decided to resurrect Odinism based off the preserved Norse myths, they created a strikingly unpleasant religion. They do not know any of the traditions. Instead, they base their beliefs on a handful of stories about the gods’ violent battles against giants, others about a human’s cursed wedding and betrayal.
It reveals more about a person’s character to see how they handle defeat. In the Christian bible, Jesus is a more compelling character than Yahweh. Jesus faces adversity, which sometimes he accepts calmly – he willingly submits to crucifixion despite knowing in advance that he has been betrayed – and sometimes heatedly – braiding a whip when he’s angered by commerce in the temple.
So, sure, Jesus loses his temper. Don’t we all? It’s understandable to lash out when unconscionable behavior seems to be taking over the world.
Which is why, when Jesus rages, he still seems like a sympathetic character. But when Yahweh does it, He seems small and petty. After all, Yahweh is omniscient. Omnipotent. He always wins, and yet he’s still jealous and wrathful.
In Norse mythology, every champion is shown both at moments of glory and in defeat. The latter episodes let us see the true depth of their strength.
In Laughing Shall I Die, Tom Shippey writes that:
Losing is a vital part of the Norse belief structure.Ragnarok is like Armageddon, the battle at the end of the world. In it the gods and their human allies will march out to fight against the frost giants and the fire giants, the trolls and the monsters. And in that battle – and this is not at all like Armageddon – our side, the good guys, will lose. Thor will kill the Midgard Serpent, the great snake that coils round the world, and then drop dead from its poison. Odin will be swallowed by the wolf Fenrir. Heimdal and the traitor god Loki, Tyr and the great hound Garm: both pairs will kill each other. Frey, left swordless, will fall before the fire giant Surt, who will then set the world ablaze.
The gods know this is going to happen. That is why Odin habitually betrays his own chosen heroes to death, and this is where the myth of Valhalla comes in. Odin wants his best heroes dead so he can collect them in his own Halls of the Slain (Valhalla), where they will fight each other every day, for practice, and come back to life-in-death at the end of every day, to feast.
The myths had a built-in answer for, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” The Norse imagined that gods betrayed their champions in life because they needed allies in death.
Odin knows Ragnarok is coming, but since he does not know when, he wants his team to be at all times as strong as possible, even though the result is foreordained. Even the gods will die, and their side will lose as well, and they know they will. But this does not make them want to negotiate, still less change sides. Refusal to give in is what’s important. It’s only in ultimate defeat that you can show what you’re really made of.
All this shows an attitude to winning and losing markedly different from ours. To us, calling someone ‘a loser’ is seriously insulting. This must be the result of 150 years of competitive sport. All modern games start off by imposing fair conditions. Same numbers on each side, level pitch, no ground advantage, toss a coin at the start for choice of ends in case there is some advantage, change ends halfway through to cancel any such advantage, umpires and referees to see fair play – all the rules are there to see that the better team wins. So if you lose, you must have been inferior in some way, strength or speed or skill, and if you lose consistently, then there’s something wrong with you: no excuses.
Worse, our culture is so permeated with the ethos of sport that we mistakenly believe every victory reveals moral worth. Ayn Rand argued that financial wealth revealed a person’s merit; many contemporary politicians have been suckered into the same beliefs.
Vikings were wiser. They knew that in the real world, conditions aren’t fair. Heroes may be outnumbered, betrayed, trapped, caught off guard or just plain run out of luck. That doesn’t make you what we call ‘a loser.’ To their way of thinking, the only thing that would make you a loser would be giving up. And there’s another factor, perhaps the most distinctive thing about the Viking mindset.
The heroes of the Viking Age, both gods and men, fixated as they seemed to be on death and defeat, just did not seem able to take death and defeat seriously. Unlike the ponderous heroes of the classical world, they kept on making jokes, coming out with wisecracks. To them, the throwaway line was another artform. They had no sense of their own dignity. Or maybe, they had such a strong sense of their own dignity that they felt no need to stand on it.
Finally, and combining the attitude to losing with the attitude to joking, what was especially relished in story after story was the stroke that showed that the hero hadn’t given up, even in an impossible situation. What was best was showing you could turn the tables, spoil your enemy’s victory, make a joke out of death, die laughing.
People who think like that, one may well conclude, can be beaten by superior force, but though they can be killed like anyone else, they are impossible to daunt. If they’re alive they’ll come back at you, they’re not done until they’re stone dead; even if they’re dying or helpless they will try to think of some trick, and if you fall for it, then the joke’s on you.
Viking humor. Their secret weapon. Part of their mindset. Take warning, though! There’s a mean streak running through it.
The Midwest Pages to Prisoners Project receives many requests for material about Norse mythology, but unfortunately we rarely send any. White supremacists decided that the Norse myths should underpin their religion, and so current publications of these materials are often laced through with racism and hate. I’ve (slowly) been preparing my own anti-racist pamphlet about the Norse myths, though, because many are lovely stories. And the above passage seems like it could be quite helpful for many of the people who get caught in our nation’s criminal justice system.
In jail, we often read Julien Poirier’s poem “Independently Blue,” which opens with the lines:
It’s easy to fly a flag when you live in a nice house
in a beautiful city.
Things have worked out nicely for you,
and you think everyone can agree
this is the greatest country on earth.
The people who are “winning” in our country – the wealthy, the comfortable – rarely began on an even playing field with everyone else. Their patriotism costs little. Why wouldn’t you love your country if it provided you with everything?
There’s a chance that Deadpool’s current popularity is due to the fact that so many people feel like they are not winning at life right now. After all, Deadpool’s superpower is the ability to suffer with a smile. He’s a hero who embodies the ethos of Norse mythology, willing to joke about his own failures.
A hero is defined not by victory but by defeat. Only in defeat can you show what you’re really made of. Only in final defeat can you show that you will never give in. That’s why the gods have to die as well. If they did not die, how could they show true courage? If they were really immortal and invulnerable, who would respect them?
At a time when so many people feel as though the world is stacked against them, seeing Superman score yet another preordained victory isn’t so compelling. Better to root for a loser, to see Deadpool grin through a mouthful of cracked teeth and make one more bad joke before he passes out.
I hope the people we’ve incarcerated manage to carve out some form of success. We should want that for everyone. People can grow and change; why not do what we can to help others change for the better?
But maybe these people will not win. Maybe they’ll submit dozens of job applications but receive no interviews. Maybe nobody will want to give them a second chance.
That is, unfortunately, the way it often happens.
Would defeat hurt less if we celebrated myths in which our heroes suffer, too? And not just the way Jesus suffered, undergoing a torturous death as a trial before his ultimate ascension. What would our world be like if we venerated gods who died with no hope of rebirth or redemption?
George Patton said, quite accurately,
“Americans love a winner and will not tolerate a loser.”
But people at the bottom are strong, too – often stronger than those whom fate allowed to start at the top and stay there. Our world will be a better place once we learn to show kindness to those who actually need it.
You’ll feel better about your life if you sit down and list the good things that happened to you each day. There’s only one reality, but countless ways to describe it.
Like most scientists, I love stories of discovery. These stories also reflect our values – many years passed before Rosalind Franklin’s role in the determining the structure of DNA was acknowledged. Frontal lobe lobotomy was considered so beneficial that it won the Nobel Prize – sane people didn’t have to tolerate as much wild behavior from others. Of course, those others were being erased when we ablated their brains.
Even equations convey an ideological slant. When a chemist writes about the combustion of gasoline, the energy change is negative. The chemicals are losing energy. When an engineer writes about the same reaction, the energy change is described as positive. Who cares about the chemicals? We humans are gaining energy. When octane reacts with oxygen, our cars go vrrrooom!
I’ve been reading a lot of mythology, which contains our oldest stories of discovery. The ways we tell stories haven’t changed much – recent events slide quickly into myth. Plenty of people think of either George W. Bush or Barrack Obama as Darth-Vader-esque villains, but they’re just regular people. They have myriad motivations, some good, some bad. Only in our stories can they be simplified into monsters.
In Ai’s poem, “The Testimony of J. Robert Oppenheimer,” she writes that
I could say anything, couldn’t I?
Like a bed we make and unmake at whim,
the truth is always changing,
always shaped by the latest
collective urge to destroy.
Oppenheimer was a regular person, too. He was good with numbers, and his team of engineers accomplished what they set out to do.
My essay about the ways we mythologize discovery was recently published here, alongside surrealistically mythological art by Jury S. Judge.
One day at nap time, my two-year-old daughter riveted awake and said: “I’m worried about ghosts.”
I know, I know. The fact that she wouldn’t sleep is normal. Hundreds of children books have been written about children refusing their naps or failing to settle down at night and go the ____ to sleep. But I felt that this worry was fixable.
The day before, I’d read a book to her that had a ghost. I thought she was old enough! And I made silly noises! She laughed and seemed unperturbed!
But then she worried. That dark, dark chest had a ghost inside? Where else might ghosts be lurking?
“There was a ghost in that story,” I said, “but it was only a story. Ghosts are only ever in stories. They’re not real.”
She eyed me warily, but, still, she lay down and slept.
Two hours later, she lurched awake and announced that she’d made a song.
“Do you want to hear it, Father?”
“Of course I want to hear it!”
“Ghosts are pretend,” she intoned, over and over to no discernable tune. I smiled, and she hopped off the mattress and began to march around the house, still singing. I heard that song many times over the next few months.
Because she seemed to understand ghosts so well, I used that same language the next year when she asked me about Christmas.
“Some people tell stories about big sky ghosts above the clouds, watching us. There’s a story about one of the sky ghosts, a sky ghost named Yahweh, who had a human kid. So Christmas is a festival when people celebrate the sky ghost kid. Like your birthday, kind of.”
“Ohhh,” she said, nodding. She likes birthdays.
In my first explanation of Christmas, I didn’t include anything about penance. She was only three years old, after all. That’s a little young for the canonical version – Jesus, the sky ghost kid, has to suffer as a human in order for the rest of us humans to be forgiven.
And it’s certainly too young for John-Michael Bloomquist’s beautiful (and far more logical) re-imagining, in which Jesus, a human incarnation of God, has to suffer in this form in order for us humans to forgive God. In “The Prodigal’s Lament” Bloomquist writes that:
I think Christ died for us
to forgive his father, who until he became a man
and dwelt among us had no way of knowing
what it was like to be Job …
Now my daughter is four. And she’s still interested in religion. One day after dinner recently, she asked, “Can you tell me more sky ghost stories?”
“Sure … which one do you want?”
“All of them!”
“Naw, dude, I can’t tell you all of them. There are so many that … even though I don’t know them all … even though I only know a small, small bit of all the stories … I’d be talking for days!”
“Then tell me the sky ghost story about the snake again.”
I’d previously told her about Siddhartha meditating beneath the bodhi tree, sheltered by Mucalinda. She heard that story just before bedtime, and promptly wrapped herself with a blanket like a cobra hood and scampered around the house chanting, “I’m Buddha! I’m Buddha!”
“How about this, I’ll tell you four short sky ghost stories about snakes. Does that sound fair?”
“So, this first one is from Sumeria. It’s hot there, a desert now. And in their sky ghost story, a prince named Gilgamesh … “
Yes, I know, Gilgamesh would be more accurately described as a king. But countless Disney films have trained American children to think that princes and princesses are the ones who romp off for adventure. Even though our daughter has only seen Moana, she knows all the other characters from talking to her friends.
“… had a best friend named Enkidu. But then Enkidu died. They couldn’t play together anymore, so Gilgamesh felt sad. He wanted to find a way for people to never die, so he went on a long journey and found a potion, a special drink that would make people live forever. But then he took a nap, and a snake drank the potion.”
“A snake did??”
“It’s just a story potion, it’s not real, but people told that story because they saw snakes shed their skins and thought that meant they lived forever. But really it’s because snakes, when they’re growing, shed their skins all at once. Humans shed our skin bit by bit all the time.”
She glanced down at her arm. It didn’t look like it was shedding.
“And the next story you know, about Buddha. Because there was a prince named Siddhartha Gotama living in a fancy palace, and things were pretty nice inside the palace. But one day Siddhartha took a walk outside and saw that other people weren’t happy, they were sick or hungry or sad. So instead of going back inside the palace, Siddhartha wanted to think about ways for people to be less sad. He sat for a long time under a tree, just thinking. He sat so long that a real person would need to stop to eat, or sleep, or drink water, or use the bathroom …”
She is learning that even when you’re doing something really important, you still have to take breaks to use the bathroom. Otherwise you wind up needing new pants. Every week we have so many loads of laundry to put away.
“… and some other sky ghosts saw him sitting there, thinking. And they realized that he was going to learn their special sky ghost secrets. These sky ghosts weren’t very friendly. They thought that if they shared their things with other people, they’d have less.”
“The sky ghosts decided to make a big storm so that Siddhartha would have to stop thinking. He’d get all wet, or need an umbrella, or have to go inside. But a snake, a naga sky ghost, Mucalinda, saw the storm coming and decided to help. The snake wrapped his big, big hood around Siddhartha to make a bubble, like a tent, so that he could still sit and think as though the storm wasn’t even there.”
“And in the next story, from the Hebrews, a sky ghost named Yahweh made a human out of dirt, and then …”
I stopped for a moment. No, I decided, it’s not worth telling my daughter a story in which boys get made from mud and girls get made from boys.
“ … or, no, better the version from the Quran, where Yahweh made two people out of dirt, a mother and a father, and let them live in a garden where there were so many fruit trees, fruits with such a perfect mix of amino acids that humans wouldn’t need to eat anything else. And there were two super special trees, one that would let anybody who ate it have knowledge and one that would make people live forever. Yahweh thought that those two were the best trees, but he was a jealous ghost, he didn’t want to share. So he told the humans not to eat any fruits from those special trees.”
We have plenty of rules in our house, but I’ve promised my daughter that if she asks why there’s a certain rule, I have to explain it to her as soon as there’s a safe chance to do so. And I’d be remiss in my parenting duties if I told her that in the day that thou eatest Oreos before dinner thou shalt surely die.
“Then a snake came and explained to the humans that Yahweh was being mean and making up a story, that if they ate the fruit from those special trees they wouldn’t actually get sick. So the humans ate fruit from the knowledge tree, but then Yahweh saw them and locked them out of his special garden before they could share his live forever tree.”
She frowned. Two of her grandparents have died; even though we tried to make passing seem normal, she probably understands why so many of the sky ghost stories are about wanting to live forever.
“And then your last sky ghost story for tonight … this one is from a place that’s often really cold, up north where nights are long in wintertime. In that story there’s a sky ghost named Loki, a trickster ghost like Maui from Moana, and he was always making mean jokes.”
“But why was Loki mean?”
“Well, sometimes people told stories to show what not to do. Loki made mean jokes and in the end bad things happened to him, to help teach kids not to make mean jokes anymore.”
“But one time, early in the story, before he’d done too many mean things, Loki had some kids. But the Loki kids weren’t humans, one was a skeleton and one was a big wolf and one was a big, big, big snake. And, well, you know that our planet is like a ball, right, but back then they didn’t know for sure, and they thought it might look more like a swimming pool. So they thought something had to be around the edges, and they figured it was a big, big snake who circled around the world and held in all the water.”
“And then what did the snake do?”
Um … I didn’t want to answer that one. The Midgard Serpent doesn’t actually do much. Thor mistakenly tries to pick him up during a bet in a giant’s castle once, and then tries to pick him up again when he’s out fishing, and then finally bops him on the head during Ragnarok … and that time gets poisoned and dies.
“We’ll borrow some more sky ghost books from the library and find out,” I told her. “But now it’s bath time!”