The Tragic Hero: Decision & the ‘Collective Effect’

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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. 

A Note to our Faithful Listeners

Saturnalia

Hi there, listeners!

It’s been far too long since we last talked, so we thought we would drop you a line to let you know what’s up.

It’s been far too long since we have been in your ears. And we miss you very much.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t available to podcast in November due to an unplanned life event. But I am back now, and Darrin and I are both looking forward to resuming our monthly podcast schedule, such as it is!

Our special November episode was to be a crossover episode with one of our favourite podcasts The Endless Knot. We didn’t get it released, but they did! If you would like to hear our conversation with Aven and Mark of the Endless Knot, we hope you will hop over to their show and check it out.

For some seasonal listening, you may want to re-visit our Saturn episode. The Romans celebrated Saturnalia December 17 to 23rd with feasting, gift giving, gambling, and role reversals. In fact, many elements of the celebration were re-cast as the Christian holiday Christmas in the 3rd and 4th centuries.

In the meantime, Darrin and I wish you and the best of the holiday season and we very much look forward to being in your ears again in the new year with new episodes!

Happy holidays!

–Alison

Saturnai
Read about the Roman festival of Saturnalia on Ancient History Etc.

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This week’s theme music: “Super Hero” by King Louie’s Missing Monuments from the album “Live at WFMU” (2011). Used under Creative Commons license. Music used under Creative Commons license and available from Free Music Archive.

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.

Pathfinder

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.

 

 

 

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