The Tragic Hero: Decision & the ‘Collective Effect’


When a man cannot choose, he ceases to be a man.” Stanley Kubrick

A central tenet of Greek Tragedy is the controversial idea that there are no innocent bystanders. That the community is simultaneously a strength but also a weakness. There are foundations of law, justice and tradition, but the actions of men can at times jeopardize not only themselves but those around them. 

Though we witness the actions and hear the words of individuals, the ancient Greeks understood that these ‘actors’ are in part stand-ins (proxies) for the community at large. Their decisions – for right or wrong – will effect us all. The moment of decision, that leads to a course of action is the moment when the protagonist (or another) moves into jeopardy. A moment when uncertain consequences begin to spin outward, problematizing and pulling individual choices outside the traditional recognized norms (nomos) of the polis (for us here the ‘community’). 

The heroes efforts to alter, twist, bend and or control fate/destiny or override the ‘unwritten laws’ of the gods is one that is not often well received by either the Chorus of a tragedy – or it’s audience. For in the day-to-day world of the traditional polis there is a harmony or ‘interweaving’ between state and ritual to the point that they are recognized by classical historians as one in the same. Any alterations in this unity would immediately be recognized by all in attendance.  

The tension and force that is created by the singular hero of a play can warp the very fabric of the polis and move us all into this shared ‘danger-zone’. A dissonant landscape that is activated when human illusion and divine decree come into conflict.  

No man (or hero) can step beyond, into or outside this space and hope to remain unchanged. Nor can those around them who now find their community jeopardized (or at least under divine scrutiny) seek the same assurance. It is this this movement of the individual, this ‘heresy’ (choice) that ultimately generates the often referenced Aristotelean end product of ‘catharsis’ evidenced in the collective.

The ‘heroic decision’ is not one to be taken lightly – they are not without import and even though they may be underwritten by a sacred Oath, there is no guarantee that they will bring harmony or peace to human affairs. In every case as the thoughts form the words of these characters and publicize their decisions, we are made to witness the ‘hamartia’ (error) that so often plagues our tragic heroes. They present to us the uncurbed pride of human will and the folly of a hubris that lies in wait to destroy a man – or a community – who opposes a divine decree. 

All is not lost however, the hero may endure as might the community should the proper steps be taken. But rest assured things will not be the same. Death, destruction, and madness are often the end products of this disturbed world-order struggling to regain its equilibrium in an environment of fear and pity. 

Troy: The Odyssey (2017) A #MythTakeMovie review for those of us that can’t look away.


I have always been drawn to movies that tackle Classical Mythology, or try. For many in the audience there has been considerable outrage over whether or not ‘this was accurate’ or ‘that didn’t happen’ and on, and on, and on. So goes the sad critical tale.  

We like our myths and our history and our ‘swords and sandals’ to be accurate, we are defensive of the things we love. Having worked hard to achieve some expertise in such things we naturally feel threatened by what seems to us as the less than professional and slip-shod representations of what we perceive as our intellectual property. What bunk – that couldn’t be farther from the truth of it.  

The heroic narratives of Classical Myth are not our exclusive domain, they are for everyone to use and exploit. That’s right exploit. The culture that created these myths would recognize their capacity for adaptation, adulteration, evolution and yes – exploitation. These narratives serve as interlocutors between poet and audience, each invested in the generative process and willing to listen and speak when needed.  

Now, it has been our pleasure to put ourself into this space. The critical space between cinema and audience and let me tell you it was a lot of fun. At the time of our live-tweet of Troy: The Odyssey (2017) we had stated that we did it “so that you don’t have to” but I think that after reading this I suggest that you give it a try.  

In this critical space we did not concern ourselves with such things as accuracy and fidelity. No, not at all, we celebrated the chaotic mash-up that was being presented before us in the guise of familiar heroes, troupes and themes. What became immediately apparent was how easily these literary pieces, these myths worked together.  

I thought as I watched, that low-budget productions could be enjoyed on a completely different level by someone who had a working knowledge of these myths, but that really and perhaps fundamentally was not required at all. The frenetic pace of the story, the locations and even the absurdity of it did not get in the way of it’s entertainment quality.  

Now, was it gripping and filled with tension? Were the performances of the actors transcendent? – not in the slightest, but it didn’t matter. All the while serving to support my enjoyment were the myths themselves. They did not waver, nor crumble. They did not become diminished by my enjoyment of this Epic Cycle on a budget. They only became enriched. As a supporting lath, my knowledge of Classical Mythology, Epic and Athenian Tragic drama served to support this thin heroic plaster. 

I will say there were more enough ‘scratch your head moments’. It’s title hints at part of it’s many issues – that being, it’s not sure what it is on about. It is called Troy: The Odyssey and in a rather interesting way begins in the final moments of Troy itself. We are quickly introduced to a rather motley crew of our expected heroes – then things go south straightaway. Achilles is slain by Circe, who in this narrative is a bow wielding Trojan and is quite close to Priam. Helen and Paris, only seen briefly are shuffled off as not important. Agamemnon is quite ‘interesting’. His ambition to take Troy is recognizable but the choice of actor and his ‘adapted’ dialogue really made me guffaw whenever he spoke. He was more Biker than a Basileus.  

In the moments before the fall of Troy the enraged Priam decides to curse the Greeks by “unleashing the Kraken”. It was at this point both myself and my co-host looked at each other quizzically. To add to the ‘high-drama’ of it all, in order to summon the Kraken a blood sacrifice must be offered. So, looking about and sensing the end is near, Priam having drawn the Sword of Troy (?) conveniently cuts his own throat over a golden bowl. Oh, did I neglected to mention that Circe had just previously used the Sword of Troy to blast an unfortunate Greek soldier with magical lighting? Inspiring. 

If that is not changing things up a bit, I’m not sure what is. Out the window is the entire “Greeks behaving badly” motif and in it’s place a tale of fatalistic revenge and wrath. Take that Odysseus! Here Poseidon does not curse you – Priam, the Kraken and all of Troy will chase you down!  

We do finally see the poor CGI Kraken at the very end of the film on the beach at Ithaca. This adapted mythological beastie is handily dispatched by Odysseus and Circe working in concert. This victory leads to the final reconciliation of these figures, as Circe and Odysseus acknowledge their friendship and go about their separate ways. But let’s rewind to the part of the film that tries to be more Odyssey and less Iliad. 

Things accelerate quickly at this point as we witness Odysseus` escape from Troy in a boat that is the size of a bathtub.He has mentioned that he wishes to return home but I think he’s going to have some trouble with this considering the Kraken and all. At this point I said to myself, okay so THIS is the Odyssey now. The drama flips to Ithaca, complete with a lovesick Penelope and the rapacious suitors – strangely all in armour and quite bellicose. Led by Antinous whose shouting is only strangely contrasted by the silence of the other ‘suitors’. Is this the halls of Ithaca, or another version of the court of Tyndareus? Not sure, it doesn’t matter. Here Penelope considers suicide if her beloved Odysseus does not return. We are quickly introduced to Telemachus a curly, pimply redhead who is quite committed to his mother and the ‘idea’ of this father, so again – familiar territory.  

Back to the crew of the bathtub somewhere out on the sea. Odysseus and 4 companions, that now include the captured Trojan mystic Circe sail about aimlessly. They are lured to an island, though warned by Circe that this is the abode of the Sirens. Now things do get a bit weird because the Sirens, the Lotus Eaters, traditional Circe and Calypso have all been compressed into one dangerously seductive beauty who wishes to keep our intrepid hero all to herself. After drugging him and tempting him with immortality she grows weary of his desire to return to his wife and after trying to entertain him with a rather bloody gladiatorial contest, strikes out and releases him onto the island.  

It’s here were the ‘budget’ of the film begins to shape the myth. I say this because now, instead of “to the sea! to Ithaca!” The remainder of the Odyssey component becomes terrestrial. Yes, Odysseus is a land-lubber. He and what is left of his crew travel overland in a series of adventures that do not really imitate anything seen in the Odyssey. There is one section that has them enter the ‘land of the dead’ – but it looks more like an abandoned Thai prison, whose dark and labyrinthine corridors even include an adapted Minotaur! I was really shocked by that one, because it was literally a guy in bear suit. You have to see that one to believe it – gripping!  

They do navigate the trials and tribulations of this land bound Odyssey to finally have Odysseus partake in a quick boat trip directly to Ithaca. Here as a beggar the story moves ahead. Odysseus encounters his son and they hatch the plan of revenge. Penelope hears of the beggar and recognizes (?) her wayward husband at last. But not before the legendary test of the bow. This goes over rather anti-climatically because after Odysseus strings and fires the arrow successfully, he puts it down and begins to speak! Where’s the slaughter you may say? Where’s the justice? She left long ago – instead in this moment Antinous has had enough talking and we get a short one on one sword fight! Just what we always wanted – well not entirely. As I said earlier – fidelity is not this films strong point.  

I could tell you how the rest of it unfolds but I’m going to leave that part up to you to enjoy!  

Troy: An Odyssey (2017): 3 out of 12 axeheads from us here at MythTake! 

Hydna and Scyllis

This poem was inspired by Pausanias’ report of (Description of Greece 10.19.1) Hydna and her father, Scyllis, who volunteered to assist Greek forces by vandalizing the nearby Persian naval fleet (480 BCE).

by Darrin Sunstrum

As dreams unfold and manifest
Their glittering visions before us
I awoke anew into a time before this day
I awoke in the midst of a fateful night whose heroes
were daughter and father

A fearful moonlight danced above the Scione port
now swollen with the vessels of the enemy.
Hydna drew the veil from her head in the darkness
as a cool rain began to dampen her bared skin.
Scyllis crouched, through sheets of rain and wind
he surveyed the anchored jostling fleet below.

The empty beach was a vast trembling expanse
that flared in the fitful moonlight and pallid stars.
Arching across his vision, a sandy bulwark between safety
and danger, his worlds only fortification.

The winds offshore began to quicken and rise,
and before long Hydna and Scyllis
flowed from the headland to the waters dangerous edge.
Called by the noble and heroic spirit of
their own storm swept ancestors

Poseidon raised his briny trident and heaved the waters,
Tritons blast whipped the enemy decks
and the midnight sea began to rise and roll.
As Olympian powers stirred to defend
the lofty realm of Zeus.

A father and daughter slipped into the black waters.
They plumbed the familiar depths this night
not for shell or sponge, but in this time of challenge
their diving required a bitter harvest
from this sea of night.

With knives in their hands they sought
the connecting hawsers and lines.
They would sever these umbilicuses,
they would let the enemy ships be birthed unto the sea.
Deadly midwives of storm and rock

The clouds obscured  Selene’s bright face
as they swam amongst the Xerxian host,
they dove below and as ships began to pull
on anchor lines that were no longer taught
they pitched toward the rocks and disaster at sea.

The knives of Hydna and Scyllis cut loose
the lines of many vessels that trying night.
Cut free to a clashing disaster amid the rocks
of Hellas.

They drew themselves from fateful waters,
as the winds died and the rain ceased.
Their evenings work accomplished,
for now to be taken up again another day,
by the bright sons of Themistocles,
and the wooden walls of Athens.


Parallel Worlds: Superheroes, Cosmogony and the Homeric ‘ethos’.

When thinking further on the hero and the worlds they inhabit, I was struck by the fact that for much of our experience of narrative, not only are we naturally expected to integrate with characters and their characterization, but much of what we do as the audience and/or readers of narrative is dependant upon our capacity to understand and recognize setting. Where the story takes place.

Places create stories? What an absurd concept.

Not really – if characters are given this privilege, why not the worlds that they inhabit? For many this may be included in their descriptions of genre but this lies outside of the scope of this exploration of heroes and their parallel lives. We are expected to handle narrative worlds as easily as our own.

MCU / DCEU (Marvel Comics Universe / DC Comics Extended Universe)

As Classicists and Historians we are trained, almost by default, with the capacity to inhabit the ‘mind-scapes’ and environments of the ancient world (Diskin, 2008). The heroes, gods and monsters of the ancient mythological mind-scape become for us a familiar or accustomed place, an ‘ethos’. It is the ‘homeworld’ of the heroic or from the narratological perspective the protagonist’s setting.

Whether we are reading the Archaic and Classical poems of Hesiod, Homer, Pindar or Plutarch we have accepted a construct of mediated reality, a framework that allows us to negotiate meaning. Like any good cosmogony (the birth of a universe), this one being mythical, fantastic and ancient, we populate it with figures; characters. Characters that are archetypal, universal or ideal is some way and name them heroes.

This process is no different from what is occurring in todays ‘heroic narrative’. The medium of popular heroic narrative has changed, but there is much that is familiar. The realm of the MCU (Marvel Comics Universe) and the DCEU (D.C. Extended Universe) are examples that have exploded across our television sets, our movies screens and streaming services. (Netflix / Amazon Prime / ShowMe / Sony Pictures / Hulu…) *Detect a trend here?*

It seems that wherever there exists a medium for communication and entertainment our ‘heroes’ are the pioneers. The pathfinders that are willing, ready and able to rush forth and make their world and our own familiar.

If we were continuing with Classical themes and what is called ‘Divine Myth’ we would almost certainly move into populating our world with the heroes, gods and monsters mentioned earlier. This ‘theogony’ (the birth of gods) places our ‘heroes’ (narrative functions) in a larger universe (cosmos). Like in the epic poems of Archaic Greece, today’s heroes (Superheroes) themselves materialize and coalesce inside a created world.

The modern pop-hero narratives–comic book hero, Superhero, call it what you will– manifest themselves in a created cosmos. Their worlds are like our own but enhanced in certain ways. Their worlds resonate with qualities that connect them with their principle players – the very heroes that live there.

Common examples of these uncanny yet ‘accustomed places’ (ethos) include the ‘gothic’ Gotham city, home to the vigilante hero Batman; the hidden Themiskyra of Wonder Woman; the Metropolis of Superman; the fictive and mythological undersea realm of Atlantis for Aquaman; and The African kingdom of Wakanda, home of the Black Panther. The Asgard & Midgard of Thor and even the oscillation that occurs between eras of time and place as evidenced in the popular hero Captain America are also examples.

It’s not enough to simply categorized heroes as Vladimir Propp has done as merely ‘dramatis personae’, as plot elements no more or less important than the magic ring, the dark forest, the guardian, the ruined castle and the dozens of other functions outlined in his groundbreaking “Morphology of a Folktale”.

This dispassionate and dismissive analysis of the hero overlooks his/her narratological function. Heroes are epistemological figures, they are ’thinking points’ – they are ’thinking portals’ that allow us access into their worlds.

As audiences (both poetic and literary) engage with them they/we are locked into a deepening cycle of exchange and self-definition. These epistemological figures and the worlds they inhabit allow us to negotiate new layers of meaning in our own world. They provide models for emulation, revulsion, elation, expectation – the list is endless.


They have moved beyond the sacred gate and struck out,
for us and themselves into the world beyond the plough,
beyond the hound’s bodies and broken spears.

The Evenstar rises and sets in a mythic world of their own design,
for us they have moved beyond the days of our feeble hopes
and into the twilight, to leave behind fame, glory, wrath and ruin.

What say you?

What golden notions have stirred you heroes heart?
For sword and sandals have been placed in your safe keeping,
A father’s gift that pulls you forward,
To a destiny now hidden from all our eyes.

From where did you come and into what bright future will you travel?
Like flowers we turn our eyes to whatever bright sun is offered.
We raise our hands into the Olympian mists with prayer.

What cool distant evening will find you awash and beached
amongst the Isles of the Fair?

What then, will you return to us?

The heroes journey reaches out and weaves
a Thassian fabric as old as storied time,
to shape the very world beyond words and lips,
into ears beyond hearing.

As they strike out, we strike out with them,
for us they have ranged out beyond the guarded gate
and our grasp, to wander and wonder forever
into the dreams of mere men.

Sleepless pathfinders whose trackless course will never be forgotten,
by the sons of Adam and the daughters of Eve.
The hero beyond the silver fire,
the hero beyond ourselves.

The Heroic Complex: the ‘telling world’ of the Hero. Part III.

war-roomI have been working through a specific vision of the hero. A 3-part structuralist model of heroic narrative that seeks to establish a unified framework. A global system that will help unify the far-flung depictions of the hero and facilitate their comparison for study.

Narratives, both modern and ancient are filled with heroes, in fact if you were to accept an entirely reductionist approach to the hero, you may define them as the protagonist of any story. I am not comfortable with this notion, it is entirely to simple even for myself.

As someone who studies heroic narrative I see that the hero is both a character and an idea. They are manifest in narratives, but their source is informed by deeply embedded cultural codes. This universal heroic narrative structure I have come to define as the “Heroic Complex”.

The Heroic Complex is akin to a form of narrative consciousness. It is not as Nicholson states a perfect place but an ethos that is “an uneasy thing” (2). A ‘telling world’ where heroics are at play. I would suggest that within the Heroic Complex the ideas of heroes and their stories are to be rationalized as Claude Levis Strauss suggests “[as] patterns showing affinity, instead of being considered in succession, [they are] to be treated as one complex pattern and read globally” (6).

As a result of this the hero is transformed into an epistemological figure, that allow its audience and yet even further, its culture to shape, display and validate our moral truths (Rollins 433). We are never finished with this process. The Heroic Complex is a churning gyre of new material and association. It is an ever-evolving metanarrative structure of connected parts that dialogue with one another. This ongoing discourse is subject to fluctuations and is never cemented in place.

Our heroes allow us to move beyond ourselves and engage with narrative on a vicarious level that is transfixed by the heroic ethos. This is the Heroic Complex. This metanarrative realm existing independently of genre – yet simultaneously permitting all genres to intermingle and inform each other. Nothing is excluded here; the Heroic Decision (discussed early) has identified the hero and the Heroic Enterprise has transitioned the hero across this liminal boundary, placing them within the Heroic Complex.


Works Cited

Levis-Strauss, Claude. The Structuralism of Myth. The Journal of American Folklore. Vol. 68. No. 270. Nov. 1955. pp. 428-44.

Nicholson, Adam. Why Homer Matters. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2014.

Rollin, Roger B. Beowulf to Batman: The Epic Hero and Pop Culture. College English. Vol. 31. No. 5. Feb. 1970. pp. 431-449.




The Heroic Enterprise. Part II.

Theseus and Aethra

A hero is someone who has given his or her life to something bigger than oneself. – Joseph Campbell

In my previous post, I discussed the concept of the Heroic Decision. I wished to identify that moment in heroic narrative when a mundane choice becomes transformed by the thoughts of a hero. The moment of decision that moves them forward into danger and defines their heroic status. This however is not enough. Heroics are not thought experiments, they are deeds and for that we need to consider the Heroic Enterprise.

Let’s take the classical myth of Theseus as an example. When Theseus’ mother Aethra was impregnated by Aegeus of Athens (& Poseidon), he told her that if she was to give birth to a son he was to lift a large boulder, take the items that he had placed beneath it and come to Athens. As myth would have it she did indeed give birth to a son, who after growing into an impressive young man was presented with the challenge of the stone. Now this is quite recognizable as the first of many ‘Heroic Decisions’ on the part of young Theseus, but this first test of strength will demonstrate the transformation of this young man into a hero, it will serve as a template for the Heroic Enterprise. A heroic narrative structure that moves beyond plot.

Once Theseus lifts the great stone and sees the sword and sandals of his father under the rock he understands. He has crossed over the liminal space defined by ‘decision’ and moved into the Heroic Enterprise. In this world between mythology and the spirit of drama strong characters can transform their worlds (Ker 37). The Heroic Enterprise grapples with the chaotic forces of a previous world and seeks to establish order. A pattern evidenced in the Heroic Decision, the difference being that here decision becomes action, thought becomes deed.

The Heroic Enterprise moves beyond plot, it is a narrative structure that places the hero in jeopardy while simultaneously signaling to its audience the heroes unique ability to confront this challenge. This challenge can manifest in many ways, yet for now it is sufficient to say that all is not right in the world. Threats from the monstrous ‘other’ or even those from within the more familiar human community are everywhere. The word ‘enterprise’ comes from the latin prendere, prehendere meaning ‘to take’ and today we define enterprise as an ‘undertaking, or something taken up’ – this works great for Theseus as he lifts the great stone, he ‘takes up’ the sword and sandals, and begins a heroic career of action.

Now there is much more that can be said about the Heroic Enterprise but I wanted to simply provide a brief introduction for this foundational element of heroic narrative. Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a 1000 Faces is too specific and has several elements that call out the Monomyth’s limitation as a unified theory of heroic narrative. It is my hope that by simplifying and modernizing aspects of the Monomyth I can begin to define a heroic narrative framework that includes the feminine, the power of choice, creation, intention, action, sacrifice, life and death. But that’s for next time.

Works Cited

Ker, William Paton. Epic and Romance: Essays on Medieval Literature, MacMillan and Company Press, 1908.