Saturday, July 15, 2006

Modern Mythology

In 1833 Peter Gaskell (no need to google his name) called the developing manufacturing population a "Hercules in the cradle." In 1843 Cooke Taylor (ditto) said the power loom sprang into existence like "Minerva from the brain of Jupiter."

I'm not going to discuss the industrial revolution in this post, but I want to draw attention to the use of mythology that each individual used to make sense of their world. The knowledge of Greek/Roman mythological figures was part of the common currency of their day. It was assumed that every educated person would understand allusions to these figures.

Today, knowledge of this mythology is limited to a subculture of literary geeks. I suppose Hercules is a household name but the reference to Hercules in the cradle wouldn't mean anything to most people. Most people don't know how Minerva was. University of Louisville students may recognize the name "Minerva" as the electronic catalogue system of the library, as academia is the gods and goddesses' last bastion. Jupiter, of course, evokes images of a planet moreso than a thunder god.

Just as the Greek and Roman gods died a first death when they ceased to be worshipped, they are dying a second death as they become irrelevant to rhetoric. Personally, I don't think this is a bad thing. These mythological figures served their purpose, but aren't as relevant to today's discourse as a new group of icons.

To illustrate my point, allow me to invoke the 2004 controversy about Desperate Housewife Nicollette Sheridan's skit with Terrell Owens on Monday Night Football. (In case you forget about this earth-shaking event, here is the summary.) Indianapolis Colts coach Tony Dungy criticized the skit for recapitulating a stereotype that white women are black men's "kryptonite."
Krypton is an element on the periodic table, but no one who heard Dungy's quote was confused into thinking he was referencing the actual element. Nor did Dungy feel that the use of the word "lotus" would better illustrate his point to a wider audience.

More in line with the 19th Century commentators cited above, in 2005 the Washington Post's David Ignatius said President Bush's new security advisor "seems to be studying for the role of Clark Kent, not Superman." He could have made roughly the same point by saying that he seemed to be more of a Patroclus than an Achilles, but nobody would have known what he was talking about (even though the article was written about a year after the movie Troy came out).

Superman Returns didn't break any box office records this summer, but Superman and not "Jack Sparrow" is the one who has more cultural capital. We will always need a common mythology to discuss ideas, and Superman and company fill the void left by the fall of Olympus.


Blogger Tim said...

I totally agree with you on the point that Superman is the modern-day equivalent of Greek mythology. Especially now that he's becoming relevant again to a new generation though vehicles like Superman Returns and Smallville.

(By the way, I met the mother of one of the Smallville writers at the Ambassador. Her daughter wrote the Cyborg (Metallo?) episode or something like that.)

But at the same time Supes is getting up there in years in real time.

So my question to you is will we have any more Greek gods and goddess? Or is our culture too transient, fragmented and personal to create anymore modern mythologies?

5:27 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mrs. what's-her-face from BDHS said Star Wars is the new mythology. It's hard to define mythology, but I don't think Superman counts. Sure, people might allude to some stuff related to Superman fully expecting the audience to understand. But, that doesn't equal a myth. A lot of people know what I'm referring to if I talk about the White Bronco and the glove from the O.J. Simpson trial, but that doesn't make The Juice a myth, does it? Furthermore, everyone knows Clark Kent and kryptonite, but those are the ONLY things anyone knows about Superman. I used to read comics, and the only storyline I know is when he died and all the imposters showed up. I think for something to be a mythology, everyone would have to be able to recognize stories. That's why I think religious texts are the most mythical (in a non-pejorative, non-judgemental sense). Everyone knows tons of stuff about them. Plus, The Pinchy Chode (a.k.a. da Vinci Code) outsold Superman.


9:46 PM  
Blogger t nies said...

Maybe it just depends on our state of mind. For example, I deem myself to be in a first-rate, dead-end job. In this sense, I view myself as Sisyphus, constantly lugging my rock around but never getting anywhere. Negative thought, ancient Greek mythology. But I want a new, more exciting job. I wanna be on the go, travel the world, live extraordinarily, like Superman. Positive thought, modern comparison. Or maybe it's just that nobody gives a shit about Greek mythology anymore, that's always a possibility too. I mean, with names like Sisyphus and Daedalus and Icarus and whatever-us, it's pretty confusing to say the least. But I'm just rambling now. I'm out like Tim in dodgeball.

3:08 PM  
Blogger kevin said...

i think greek mythology could still be very relevant. there is just a poor social knowledge of it. for example, myself, i know very little about greek mythology, but love to hear about it and would use it if i knew it. it is just one of those scholarly things that are dying as technology takes over. we are becoming less universal and more personal as tim said which makes us less likely to use universal tools like greek mythology and your dreaded celcius scal and my antithisus the metric system.

8:41 AM  
Blogger kevin said...

i may/ may not have used the word "antithisus" in the correct context. either way, its a good word. :)

8:42 AM  
Blogger Azor said...

Mit- Metallo hasn't appeared on Smallville, so it must have been Cyborg. Which is ironic because I wrote a pretentious post about the portrayal of race in that particular episode and posted it to a comic book message board

I think that no matter how fragmented our culture becomes we will always draw from common archetypes and there will be a demand for common myths.


It's too early to say whether O.J. will become a myth, but I doubt it. It's been 12 years since the murders and he is rarely invoked as a metaphor to describe cultural phenomena unrelated to his own case. That's the benchmark, not familarity, that leads to being mythologized.

I'm highly skeptical of your claim that the Superman myth is restricted to Clark and Kryptonite. How about Lois Lane, Jimmy Olsen, Lex Luthor, the significance of phone booths, the phrase "Truth, Justice, and the American Way", the phrase "Look up in the sky...", the Daily Planet, the phrase "faster than a speeding bullet...", the idea of wearing a cape to sympolize heroism, etc...?

Your point about individual stories is well taken, though I think the basic origin of Superman qualifies as a universally known story (baby sent on a rocket from a doomed Krypton and rasied by a humble Midwestern family in "Smallville" before seeking fortune in "Metropolis" as a reporter/crimefighter).

Your comment about religious texts is very well taken.

Tom-- the only reason you know who Sisyphus is because you have a BDHS education

Kevin-- you are right in pointing out that I oversimplified the irrelevance of the Greek stories. Perhaps Tom's theory about the inaccessibility of the names is the real reason the myths are dying.

4:10 PM  
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