In Which the Deceased Complains to Atum, the World-Creator

Deceased:

Love is not made here. There is no air, nor bread, nor beer.
It is doubly dark, which is to say that it has no colour.
It is doubly deep, having no need of a beginning.
It is doubly quiet, because I can hear myself.

You have brought me to a place that does not exist.
This land is dark and unsearchable. There is no water.
The air is not transparent, or else everything is.
What purpose is there in bringing me to a desert
so dry, where nothing can be found?

Atum:

Live in it content!

 


Adapted from Egyptian mythology.

Myths, legends, and lost tales

If you like ancient tales, I highly recommend the Myths and Legends podcast. It’s a funny and occasionally irreverent journey through world mythology taken thirty minutes at a time. Jason Weiser, the host, perfectly captures how absurd these stories can sound to well-adjusted modern ears like yours and mine. On the other hand, I think he understands that they have survived for so long because they resonate deeply with human experience. I’m not one of those who thinks these stories are just a load of crazy stuff that never happened; they have symbolic and psychological value. But then, it sure can be fun to grin through the batshit crazy parts. I laughed my leg off when a warrior bard version of Merlin randomly rode a stag to his ex-wife’s wedding, pelted the new groom with pieces of snapped-off antler, killing him, and thus conceding he was not quite ready to accept the situation.

That’s your aural mythological fix sorted but what about eye-candy? Well, if you pick up a copy of Adam Murphy’s comic, Lost Tales, you’re in for a rare treat. These are beautiful stories, beautifully drawn. Like Weiser, Murphy has a talent for retelling folklore from anywhere and any time in a modern medium. His anachronistic dialogue really suits the comic form.

 

The Hero’s Inner Journey

This morning I belatedly saw a connection between two ideas I’m interested in: the hero’s journey and attachment theory.

The hero’s journey is a fundamental narrative that’s claimed to be at the root of all stories. It was proposed by the mythologist Joseph Campbell in books such as The Hero With a Thousand Faces. The theory goes that in every quest the hero progresses, or fails to progress, through a series of common stages: the call to adventure, initiation, mentoring, journeying beyond the bounds of their world, trials and tests, ordeals, defeats and victories, and a final return to the world with a boon. Campbell and others have proposed various heroic archetypes who undertake this journey. Campbell noted that these heroes are frequently orphans or those whose parents are conspicuously absent. For modern reference points, think of Luke Skywalker, Harry Potter, Frodo Baggins.

Attachment theory is a widely accepted psychological model of human development. Developed by John Bowlby and others, it emphasises the importance of parental, particularly maternal, love and connection for the healthy development of identity. This connection should be neither abandoning or engulfing: ‘good enough’ is best. Bowlby was sent to boarding school aged seven during the bombing raids of the Second World War. It was a terrible time for him and he would later investigate the psychological effects of separation on infants and young children. Bowlby found that children with unmet emotional needs carried them into adulthood. As adults we then try to satisfy these needs through certain behaviours and strategies – some healthier than others.

Could it be that the hero’s journey is fundamentally a quest to resolve a deeply rooted childhood fear of abandonment? Do our mythical heroes respond to the call to adventure because of the desire to resolve an unmet need for connection? Notice that nearly always, the hero undertakes a project for the good of society and returns to society – if he or she can – at least briefly to bestow boons. Similarly, the quest nearly always involves mentoring, a kind of reparenting, in which the hero participates in a special bond with a teacher who initiates (or births) them more fully into previously hidden ways of the world. I was encouraged to make this connection by hearing therapist Mark Epstein talk about his book, The Trauma of Everyday Life, in which he reinterprets the Buddha’s journey in light of his mother’s death one week after his birth – Epstein describes this as almost a passing detail in the canon, but perhaps a crucial one.

Perhaps these stories resonate with us so deeply because – regardless of how well we were parented, and how fully our emotional need for secure connection has been met – we all carry unresolved needs. Life, then, is the enactment of the hero’s journey as we find a mode of living, connecting, being in the world that enables us and those around us to identify and meet those needs in mutually constructive ways. This is indeed a heroic quest requiring much courage and fortitude.

Perseus’ Flight

Gustave_Moreau_-_Perseus_and_Andromeda_1870
Gustave Moreau – Perseus and Andromeda. 1870.

Perseus’ Flight

Medusa’s murdered head drips blood into the sea.
Curls twitch. Her filthy mane, dead but possessed by hate,
disgorges poison through my grip. Even the white
waves thundering below, Neptune’s loose cavalry,

no longer gallop beneath winged shoes. They’re petrified
by curdled Gorgon’s blood, gold calderas where
volcanoes rise out of the sea. Their liquid fire
cascades above the scab-like rocks. Here blood has dried,

becoming land; steam rises from the ground,
spitting like snakes. I’m drained by this unnatural flight,
adrenaline still quivers in my legs. Red light
collides with clouds and grass, the sky is crowned

with an embarrassed glow. I find beauty. Further West,
bright particles of fire imbue the soil with strange
properties. Golden fruit hangs in the giant’s grange.
Clouds stretch like gauze across a lover’s crimson chest.

 

 

 

Narcissus Looks Again

The pond was deeper than expected,
a giant footprint stamped into the earth.
It was home to a fifty-pound ghost koi
called Persephone. Music became silence,
became music again. Moonlight shone on the tiles.
Persephone broke the water with her tail.
Now gaunt and middle-aged, I saw the moon glint
on water like a ten pence coin, miles down,
and the carp circling the moon.