We often hear that something being dismissed as “just a myth”, which means that it is not true. In fact, myth and truth are often seen as opposites. If it is not analysed, written down in reports and be seen or heard, then it is a myth. For many, mythology is the study of old, meaningless and untrue stories. Some people, repelled by the myths’ more preposterous elements and contradictions, see them as mere fabrications to be discarded in our “enlightened” age. But mythology’s enduring worth is never in its possible historical or scientific accuracy. Some things can be dealt with adequately only in poetry or mythology when recitals of data and observable facts miss the point completely. Love, hate, empathy, aversion, hunger, greed, altruism and all the other positive and negative aspects of being human are also facts. To ignore them by putting everything into numbers is to treat people as insensate objects and their lives as mechanical conditioned responses. This is the statistical perspective and it is as much a distortion of reality as any other limited point of view.
The word “family” is in itself a complicated word containing many combinations of facts, memories, meanings and feelings – it is impossible to describe the concept of “family” by series of facts alone. Every culture’s pantheon of mythical characters was the family in to which every person of that culture was born, as these creatures were as familiar as their parents and grandparents, siblings and cousins. Therefore, a myth is also not a simple proposition that can be judged as true or false propositions. Rather, it attempts to make sense of our perceptions and feelings within our experience of the world in a narrative format. Myths have been there long before art, language or the written word.
Of course, there are certainly many aspects of myths are not literally true. However, we understand the stories about the Greek gods because they share some of our emotions and ambitions – two things we cannot measure even if we tried. The stories of Icarus, for example, resonates with us because we have all experienced within ourselves tendencies to try to fly too high or to force things that has no business happening to begin with, only to crash and burn. Although, as human experience is so multidimensional and varied, no myth can completely represent all of human experience, a myth still captures some important aspects of the domain of human experience it is meant to represent. It is like a map which captures only important features of the terrain but not every detail of the terrain it represents. And just like looking at maps, we learn through imagination, as we feel and visualize the colorful adventures of the deities or heroes. Although mythology is not a literal description of a culture’s history, we can still use myths to explore the culture itself – its viewpoints, activities, and beliefs, and address some of our fundamental and difficult questions that human beings ask: who and what am I, where did I come from, why am I here, how did it all begin?
Truthfully, we are still fascinated by the truths of these mythical stories and we still cry out for magic in our so-called rational world. As human beings are never meant to be totally rational, we crave a bit of mystery to counter our apparent understanding and mastery of the world. To lend this comfort of mystery, humanity have had deities for many aspects of life. The Egyptians had more than 2000 deities while the Hindus have 333 million. The Irish honored both the goddess of rivers (Boann) and the goddess of the Lagan River (Logia). There have been deities for individual cities (Athena for Athens), mountains (Gauri-Sankar for Mount Everest), lakes, tribes, plant species, temples, constellations, and so on. Deities governed not only major phenomena such as agriculture or love or the sun, but also such common matters as leisure, the kitchen stove, guitars, politics, prostitution, singing, doors, virginity, willpower, firecrackers, gambling, drunkenness and the toilet. Deities have governed virtually every possible activity, object, and emotion, lending a bit of their magic into what would have been rather mundane and tedious interactions.
As myths are necessary, our modern society develops its own myths. A lack of myths can cause a sense of meaninglessness, estrangement, rootlessness, and the cold brittleness of a life devoid of reverence and awe. Now our “modern” myths seem to rest on certain concepts (such as “progress”) and in our larger-than-life celebrities. We revered Mother Teresa for her compassion and Albert Einstein for his intellect. Marilyn Monroe was a “screen goddess” possessed by the alluring qualities of Aphrodite while Muhammad Ali called on the aggressive instinct of Ares every time he stepped into the boxing ring. Through all these reverence we somewhat conveniently leave out the fact that Albert Einstein failed every exams he had in his school days, Marilyn Monroe was ultimately a tragic and lonely figure and Muhammad Ali was a gentle man off the ring – in short, they were all human, vulnerable and fragile. The media enlarges certain people to mythical proportions. We often project the “hero” archetype onto other people. Corporations myth lies in their “corporate culture.” There is a myth in every group and our mythology changes as our culture changes.
We each have our own mythology which we create. We have things and people which are important and valued to us personally. We are heroes in our “mythic journeys” by which we romanticize our various passages through life. The truly satisfying and exciting myths are those which arise from our own passions and our own visions. It just so happens that some of those myths have existed since the ancient times.
“Hero has no feminine gender in the age of heroes.”
– Sir Moses I. Finley (1912 – 1986)
At the start of the destructive, long-running war between Athens and Sparta in 430 BC, Pericles, a prominent and influential orator and general of Athens, made a moving speech of ancient valour in honour of those who died in the war.
“… for the Athens that I have celebrated is only what the heroism of these and their like have made her … none of these men allowed either wealth with its prospect of future enjoyment to unnerve his spirit, or poverty with its hope of a day of freedom and riches to tempt him to shrink from danger. No, holding that vengeance upon their enemies was more to be desired than any personal blessings, and reckoning this to be the most glorious of hazards, they joyfully determined to accept the risk… Thus, choosing to die resisting, rather than to live submitting, they fled only from dishonour…”
After speaking at length on this rather splendid theme, Pericles finally remembered to mention the women of Athens who had just lost their husbands, lovers and fathers of their children.
“The greatest glory of a woman is to be least talked about by men, whether they are praising you or criticising you.”
And yet, there was more to classical womanhood than Pericles’s silent matrons. Aspasia, for example, Pericles’ own long-term girlfriend was famously clever and sophisticated. She was certainly talked about and said to have influenced him a great deal. Still, although it was concluded for a long time that there is no female counterpart to the hero, archaeological evidence shows that heroines are included in some of the earliest manifestations of hero cult. The shrines of Pelops and Hippodameia at Olympia may be of great antiquity, early hero-reliefs show hero and heroine pairs, and a dedication to Helen is perhaps the earliest known Laconian inscription, dating from the second quarter of the seventh century.
The classical world has given us many strong women such as Antigone, the heroine of Sophocles’s play of the same name, who only wanted to give her brother, Polydeuces, a proper burial despite her uncle king Creon’s orders. Her sister Ismene struggled to persuade her to obey the king’s edict. “We’re girls,” she cried. “Girls cannot force their way against men.” Antigone would not listen to her and proceeded to commit a crime punishable by death, defying the explicit command of her uncle and gave her dead brother, who died a traitor, his proper funeral rites.
Odysseus has received a lot of attention for his journey. However, he was protected by a woman. The goddess of wisdom, Athena, played the role of Odysseus’s protector and was always on hand to provide magical disguises or advice. Draupadi, from Indian Mythology, was an astute strategist who never failed to take revenge against her enemies. Anath, the ancient Canaanite goddess of love and war, was also someone you want on your side as she was famed for her ferocity in battle. An ancient Ugaritic text describes Anat’s revenge against a man who slighted her in no uncertain terms:
Anat seized Mot,
the divine son,
with a sickle she cut him,
with a winnow she winnows him,
with fire she scorches him, with a mill she crushes him,
she scatters his flesh in the field to be eaten by birds.
In Virgil’s Aeneid, Dido, the queen of Carthage, was doing very well for herself and founded a new city in what is now Tunisia before Aeneas, an exile from defeated Troy, turned up. He was an unemployed loser, but he was pretty. The pair fell in love before Aeneas left for Italy and committed one of the most brutal dumpings in literature which led Dido to commit suicide by stabbing herself with his sword. Dido’s handling of her breakup is admittedly rather weak compared to others. In Buddhist mythology, the beautiful, rich and resourceful Kundalakesa of Therigatha saved a young thief from execution one day and then married him, because she thought she loved him. As the thief then tried to kill her and steal all her jewels, Kundalakesa pushed him off a hill and casually moved on with her life. Hidimbi from Indian Mythology is the modern day version of a single mother who raises a son with all the right values and qualities, with no help from anyone. Hidimbi was a rakshasi (demon) who fell in love and married Bhima, one of the famed Pandava brothers. They lived together only for a very short time, enough for Hidimbi to get pregnant, before Bhima left. Hidimbi later gave birth to Ghatotkacha, Bhima’s son, and raised him alone.
These are all important accomplishments. However, according to Pericles and Finley, these ladies were no heroes. Medea is referred to as a goddess in a forgotten Mycenaean slate. She was worshiped in Corinth until the Historic Ages. Ancient craters depict her as a priestess in Eleusis. The Greeks of South Italy honored her with hymns. Even Apollonius of Rhodes praised her as a “treasure” that saved the Argonauts, equal to Jason. But she is forever known as the sorceress who killed her children.
To understand how or why these female accomplishments were dismissed, it is useful for us to understand the ancient concept of heroism. Some historians came to the obvious conclusion that heroines don’t often go on quests or engage in combat with monsters or gods. But there is a lot more to heroism than punching monsters. There’s independence, fortitude, humility and sacrifice. The female heroic figure is often free from male assistance in her quest to achieve status. Despite the various under-telling of heroines, the majority of them are independent. It is usually female characters who help male heroes. Ariadne helped Theseus slay the Minotaur, Medea helped Jason in his quest for the Golden Fleece, and Nausicaa was the advisor of Odysseus. While male heroes require female assistance at times, female heroes do not require male assistance, making them independent from their counterparts and highlighting the concept of female heroism in ancient literature.
Euripides’ play Erechtheusis about Erechtheus and Eumolpos who found themselves continuing the rivalries of their divine patrons Athena and Poseidon. After consulting the oracle at Delphi to learn how he might protect Athens from the impending siege, Erechtheus was told that he must sacrifice one of his daughters to save the city. Erechtheus shared the news with his wife, Praxithea, who says:
“If there were a harvest of sons in our house rather than daughters and a hostile flame were engulfing the city, would I not have sent my sons into battle, fearing for their death? … I hate women who in preference to the common good choose for their own children to live.”
From modern eyes, this may not make much sense. Sacrifice seems to just mean certain death for women while when men go off to war there is always a small chance of them coming home. However, women were often the last line of defense in times of war. An example of this happened in 1467, in the warring states period of Japan. It was a desperate time where everyone was swept up into war and almost all healthy men were drafted into armies or slaughtered in battle. This period gave accounts of bands of women led by the wives of warlords dressed in armors. Appalled by the mass suicide of the surviving women and children in her husband’s besieged castle, the wife of Mimura Kotoku armed herself and led eighty-three soldiers against the enemy. She challenged a mounted general Ura Hyobu, who edged backwards muttering, “She is a demon!”. Heroines, therefore, had to defeat the enemies who were evidently strong enough to kill their husbands and many other strong men – it is no surprise then that, as Rudyard Kipling says, “the female of the species is more deadly than the male” and that the heroines had to be more skilled than their male counterparts for not even half of the glory he would have received had he managed to survive. This endures to a common lament modern women are familiar with today by Charlotte Whitton, “Whatever women do, they must do twice as well as men to be thought half as good.” Odysseus’ last line of defense was his wife, Penelope. If Penelope had married one of her suitors, that man would have had claim over her (Odysseus’ wife), Telemachus (Odysseus’ son) as well as Odysseus’ house and fortune. A simple “yes” from Penelope would have costed Odysseus everything. – the point is that, in desperate times, good men and women will always step up and do their parts according to their abilities. If it wasn’t for the ancient Greeks’ silly insistence for women to be docile and less educated, Iphigeneia might have picked up a spear.
The practice of burning or burying women alive with their deceased husbands was first mentioned in 510 CE, when a stele commemorating such an incident was erected at Eran, an ancient city in the modern state of Madhya Pradesh, India. There are also accounts of widow sacrifice among Scandinavians, Slavs, Greeks, Egyptians and Chinese. This practice usually began among warriors or warrior clans because, as the warriors’ duty was to protect the bodies and honor of their people on the war field, their wives’ duty was to protect their family’s body and honor at home. Therefore, the death of a husband, even while he was away at war, would be seen as the wife’s responsibility. She was the one person entrusted to protect her warrior husband from harm and dishonor – as futile as this may be. The death of her husband would have been seen as her fault.
The advantage of female heroism in ancient literature is that it really takes an extreme situation for these ladies to die and it is mostly due to the fact that the men failed at their own heroic attempts. Agamemnon was a powerful king and warlord who should be fully capable of defending his own city, but it was his daughter Iphigeneia who had to die to enable the Greek fleet to set sail from Aulis to Troy. The reason all those Japanese women had to step up and fight was because their men were somewhere else or otherwise overwhelmed by the enemy and it was up to them to defend their family. Not making a big fuss, these women were there when they were needed and, if they somehow survived, quietly went about their business when it was over. However, it was this advantage that became the heroines’ downfall in retellings of their heroics. As Anne Elliot in Persuasion says, “Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story . . . the pen has been in their hands.” Ancient Greece was a male dominated society and literature was written for males by males in order to inspire males, hence the concept of male heroism was by far much more established. Women are only witches and harlots or submissive and modest because their stories are written by men who, despite their best intentions, did not understand and never experienced power as women.
In Lycurgus against Leocrates, Euripides says
“if women bring themselves to act like this, men should show towards their country a devotion which cannot be surpassed, not forsake it and flee, as Leocrates did, nor disgrace it before the whole of Greece.”
In other words,if women were willing to sacrifice themselves for their people and countries, so should the men, otherwise they would be shamed as cowards. If heroes were there to inspire, influence the people and infuse them with their qualities as a reflection of heroic attributes, heroines were there to inspire the heroes. Through heroines in Euripides, Homer and Apollodorus, the authors are expressing the heroine’s lack of pride and ego which men are often governed by, and trying to bestow these self sacrificing qualities on their readers, the heroes and the society.
Aristotle defined man as a rational and political animal. But there are also passages in his work that indicate another less remarked upon definition. In Parts of Animals, he writes, “When people are tickled, they quickly burst into laughter, and this is because the motion quickly penetrates to this part, and even though it is only gently warmed, still it produces an independent movement in the intelligence which is recognizable.” He continues to argue that touch is the most primary sense and human beings are uniquely privileged in possessing the sharpest sense of touch because of the delicate nature of their skin. He says that, although other animals have more advanced smell or hearing, a man’s sense of touch is the most fine-tuned. This leads to some of us to think that tickling is a side effect of the hyper-sensitivity of human touch. Thanks to our sophisticated and discriminating access to the world around us, we are particularly vulnerable to tickling.
However, this “privilege” did not last long as many scientific researches have refuted Aristotle’s claim about how tickling could only effect human beings. It has been found that monkeys are ticklish too, and a recorded laughter-like ultrasonic chirping in tickled rats also exists. But, the most famous ticklish animal is the trout as it would fall into a trance-like state when its underbelly is lightly rubbed. In Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, Maria says, while planning to trick Malvolio, “Lie thou there; for here comes the trout that must be caught with tickling.”
Neuroscientist Robert Provine posed a rather elaborate speculation which links tickling with both humorous laughter and the prehistoric birth of comedy. He writes, “I forge recklessly into the paleohumorology fray, proposing my candidate for the most ancient joke—the feigned tickle (Real tickling is disqualified because of its reflexive nature). The ‘I’m going to get you’ game of the threatened tickle is practiced by human beings worldwide and is the only joke that can be told equally well to a baby human and a chimpanzee. Both babies and chimps ‘get’ this joke and laugh exuberantly.” His argument is that proper ticklish laughter is not actually funny because it is too much of an automatic or neurological reaction. To make tickling funny, it needs to be distanced from reflex. It is the suspended gesture that gets a laugh – the real gesture might get one slapped. Therefore, a child will wriggle and squirmed when tickled, but they will actually laugh only if they perceive the tickling as a mock attack, a caress in a mildly aggressive and irritating disguise.
The ambivalence of tickling, a delight that can quickly become excruciating, would seem particularly well suited to describe the concept of pleasure-in-pain that so fascinated thinkers from Plato, Nietzsche, Freud etc. They agree that tickling serves as an alternate way of thinking about pleasure, as titillation and excitation. Nietzsche put it, “What is the best life? To be tickled to death.” – I hope someone would do a research on whether this man was ever tickled in his life. However, he is not wrong about this. Foot tickling for sexual arousal was used in the Muscovite palaces and courts for centuries. Many of the Czarinas (Catherine the Great, Anna Ivanovna, Elizabeth and others) were participants of this activity. The practice was so popular that eunuchs and women were employed as full time foot ticklers. They developed this skill so well that their occupations brought prestige and good pay. Anna Leopoldovna had at least six ticklers at her feet. While the ticklers performed their task, they also told bawdy stories and sang obscene ballads. This was done to work the ladies up to an erotic pitch so that they could meet their husbands or lovers in a sex impassioned mood.
But can one actually die from tickling? Yes. When children enthusiastically tickle one another, it serves the double purpose of inspiring peer bonding and honing reflexes and self-defense skills. In 1984, psychiatrist Donald Black noted that many ticklish parts of the body, such as the neck and the ribs, are also the most vulnerable in combat. He inferred that children learn to protect those parts during tickle fights, a relatively safe activity. However, the tickling itself can be torture enough. Tickle torture can be an extended act of tickling where the recipient of the tickling would view it as a long time or tickling of an intense nature. This can be due to the length of time they are tickled, the intensity of the tickling or the areas that are being tickled. This can simply be a 30-second tickle applied to the victim’s bare feet, which can seem like a much longer time if the feet are very ticklish.
Mythology is littered with spirits who uses tickling as a torture device. In Inuit mythology, Mahaha is a maniacal demon that terrorized parts of the arctic. This creature is described as a thin sinewy being, ice blue in colour and cold to the touch. His eyes are white and they peer through the long stringy hair that hangs in his face. This demon is always smiling and giggling – taking pleasure in tickling its victims to death with sharp vicious nails attached to its long bony fingers. All of its victim have a similar expression on their dead faces – a twisted frozen smile.
A Leshy is a spirit of the Slavic forests. They serve as the protectors of the various forests and its animals, having a close bond with gray wolves and often being accompanied by bears. They naturally are the form of a large human-looking being, but can shape-shift into any plant or animal. They have long hair and beards made of living grass and vines. In the center of a forest, they are a tree-like giant, who camouflage nicely with their long limbs, grassy eyebrows, and no detectable shadows. A leshy has the ability to imitate voices of people familiar to wanderers.They will cry out and get their victims to wander deeper into forests or caves. Being tickled to death by a Leshy has been known to happen. This is most likely because they don’t know when “fun” is enough and wind up accidentally killing their victims.
Of course, if something exists in mythology, it would also exist, up to a point, in history. Chinese tickle torture is an ancient form of torture practiced by the Chinese, in particular the courts of the Han Dynasty. Chinese tickle torture was a punishment for nobility since it left no marks and a victim could recover relatively easily and quickly. In ancient Japan, those in positions of authority could administer punishments to those convicted of crimes that were beyond the criminal code. This was called shikei, which translates as ‘private punishment.’ One such torture was kusuguri-zeme: “merciless tickling.” Dutch physiologist Joost Meerloo recounts an especially cruel tickle torture employed by the ancient Romans. On the scaffold, the soles of a victim’s feet were covered with a salt solution so that a goat, attracted by the salt, would lick it off with his rough tongue and continually tickle the skin. By so doing, the salty skin was gradually rasped away. Then, the wounded skin would again be covered with the biting salt solution—ad infinitum, till the victim died from the torture.
In Laurent Joubert’s Renaissance treatise on laughter, he reports hearing “of a young man whom two girls were tickling importunately to the point that he no longer uttered a word. They thought he had fainted until, thunderstruck, they realized he was dead, asphyxiated.” A news item in Illustrated Police News, 11 December 1869, recounts the story of a young wife whose husband, his name was Michael Puckridge, claimed that he had a cure for her varicose veins. After he persuaded her to allow herself to be tied to a plank, she found that her husband had instead devised a plan to tickle her into insanity. The plan worked as she was institutionalized as a result of her husband’s diabolical featherwork.
I am very happy to be able to contribute a chapter for Ancient Origins‘ 4 Year Anniversary Ebook, “Unravelling Ancient Myths & Legends” on the lives and symbolism of the kitchen gods in Asian mythology.
“To mark the occasion of our 4 Year Anniversary, Ancient Origins has released our biggest ebook yet – titled “Unravelling Ancient Myths & Legends”. The ebook is a compilation of fascinating articles written exclusively for Ancient Origins which explores the unique history of myths and the familiar legends you THOUGHT you knew. Contributors include guest authors: Carl Johan Calleman, Petros Koutoupis, Armando Mei, Martini Fisher, Brien Foerster, Leonide Martin, Ken Jeremiah, Vincent Ongkowidjojo, Gary A. David, Dustin Naef, Adrienne Mayor, Chris ‘Mogg’ Morgan, Charles Christian and Hugh Newman.”
Myths and folklore are very interesting parts of every culture. We can see their reflection on so many things: books, paintings, sculptures, music – basically all kinds of art! In some countries they dominate more than in others, but still their presence, even in daily life, cannot be ignored.
One of the strongest human emotions is fear. Our fears are numerous, and they change through the life. However, the fear of nature in many cases doesn’t go away – it transforms, but never completely goes away. This is why nature related myths are so popular even though they are centuries and thousands years old.
From the childhood years we all remember the fear of being lost in the woods, and fear of wild animals. Children talk to the trees and believe that those respond. The good thing of this all is that from the early ages we learn to respect nature and take good care of it, so that those little creatures around the world get some help!
We seldom look at mythology as something that has practical lessons to make our life easier. Yet, it is closer to real life than we imagine. The Five Pandava Brothers of the ancient Hindu Epic Mahabharata represents many facets of ancient and modern lives from imperfections to ideal business leaders.
Martini Fisher introduces a different way to look at the Ancient Epic Indian Literature that is Mahabharata and presents its practical lessons for the modern audience.