We have been reading a lot of mythological stories from Ancient Greece lately. I have always found them to be great adventure stories, and have read countless translations and retellings over the years.
In all the magic, nobility and high ideals of these tales, it is easy to forget just how packed they are with bronze age savagery. After several centuries of oral tradition, they were finally written down to entertain and celebrate the leading citizens of a warrior society, and there is no mistaking that.
In a few short stories, we have read about opportunistic acts of piracy, family members betraying each other, battles, sackings of towns, entire families being killed off in brutal political coups, people being locked in a box and thrown into the sea, warriors arguing over the possession of a sex slave, babies being abandoned on the hillsides to die, or being thrown from city walls, people being dismembered, and enemy corpses being publicly humiliated.
So it was that while looking at a picture of a Gorgon, when my oldest boy asked me ‘Are monsters real?,’ the first answer that leaped to mind was ‘Only the human ones.’ I only just caught myself in time. Not an appropriate answer for a six year old.
It is a question with interesting ramifications, though, and it led to a discussion about what monsters really are. All our cultural fears and anxieties need to take a form of some kind. Monsters define a group of people by what they are not. We can all safely say ‘No matter what I do, at least I am not like that.’
It is the existence of monsters which make our heroes what they are. All the heroes in these stories achieve their heroic status by slaying monsters. Even where they fail, they are still heroic for having dared take on these otherworldly creatures.
The story of Odysseus and the Laestrygonians could easily be based on a raid gone wrong. After entering the enemy harbour and making a terrible strategic error, our hero loses eleven out of twelve ships and all their crews.
But really, it’s not his fault. The Greeks were not just fighting anyone. They were fighting against giants. Actually, they were cannibalistic giants. And they threw huge boulders at the ships. And entire trees. And there were thousands of them. In fact, they attacked us. What really happened is that our happy go lucky friends never stood a chance because they innocently stumbled into a nest of monsters.
Similarly, the tale of when the Argonauts meet the Sirens could be a rationalisation of one or a number of men leaving their ship mates to start a new life with a foreign woman in a distant land.
When the remaining crew of the Argo return home as heroes, they have to account for the missing Butes, who abandoned his quest and has no intention of returning to his family waiting at home. Admittedly, the woman he met was completely charming, and everyone was tempted at some stage to make a similar choice, but his decision to jump ship like that was just inconceivable. It could only be magic. Evil magic obviously. In fact, we know she was evil because she had claws. And wings. And was surrounded by the corpses of other sailors who had met a similar fate. Truth be told, entire ships had run aground here caught under the same spell. Butes was completely innocent and a great man. It is just a tragedy that he was lured to his death by a monster.
Of course monsters are real. They are all around us. It seems that people need monsters in their lives. Every culture has them. If there are no actual monsters nearby, we will look around us and make them up. It is an intriguing aspect of humanity that we should do this. An objective look at the news will rapidly identify which monsters you need to be afraid of in your part of the world.
If monsters were not real, then we would all believe that the people around us live lives just as complex and challenging as our own. We would have to acknowledge that although having different skill sets and resources available to use, people everywhere struggle with similarly themed problems and anxieties in life, and are trying to cope with it all the best way they know how. We would be able to approach people with an open minded sense of kindness and compassion, safe in the knowledge that they too, would recognise their own traits in us. Each person would treat others with the same gentle respect with which we could treat ourselves.
It’s just that it is easier to believe in a scaly, flesh eating woman with a head covered in writhing snakes whose gaze will turn you to stone.