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tn-500_1_hercules0495rr.jpgI’m sorry this post is late (and that I have temporarily veered away from writing about planned cities as I, uh, planned). I unexpectedly got handed a ticket to the much-lauded Public Works production of “Hercules” in Central Park, and attending the performance messed up my writing schedule. But it was worth it: the joyous musical extravaganza was exactly what you would expect if the best public acting and choral troupes in New York City teamed up with Walt Disney to stage the world’s most lavish and big-hearted high school musical beneath the summer stars.

The original stories of Hercules are dark and troubling tragic stories of what it takes to exist in a world of corrupt kings, fickle morality, madness, and endless death (Ferrebeekeeper touched on this in a post about Hercules’ relationship to the monster-mother Echidna). I faintly remember the ridiculously bowdlerized Disney cartoon which recast the great hero’s tale of apotheosis as a tale of buffoonery, horseplay, and romance. This version was based on the same libretto, and after the introductory number, I settled in for an evening of passable light opera. But a wonderful thing happened—each act had exponentially greater energy and charm than the preceding act. Also, some Broadway master-director had delicately retweaked/rewritten the original, so that the script told a powerful tale of community values in this age of populism and popularity run amuck.

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This “Hercules” was about the nature of the community will and how it manifests in the problematic attention-based economy (an eminently fitting subject for a Public Works production of a Disney musical). There is a scene wherein Hercules, anointed with the laurel of public adulation, confronts Zeus and demands godhood—proffering the cultlike worship from his admirers as proof of worth. From on high, Zeus proclaims: “You are a celebrity. That’s not the same thing as being a hero”

If only we could all keep that distinction in our heads when we assess the real worth of cultural and political luminaries!

Like I said, the play became exponentially better, so the end was amazing! The narcissistic villain (a master of capturing people in con-man style bad deals) strips Hercules of godhood and strength before unleashing monsters—greed, anger, and fear—which tower over the landscape threatening to annihilate everything. But then, in this moment of absolute peril, the good people realize that they themselves have all the power. The energized base flows out in a vast torrent and tears apart the monsters which the villain has summoned (which turn out, in the end, to be puppets and shadows).

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After the citizens have conquered Fear itself, they hurl the Trump–er, “the villain”—into the underworld and reject the siren song of hierarchical status. Hercules sees that fame and immortality are also illusions and embraces the meaning, love, and belonging inherent in common humanity.

It was a pleasure to see the jaded New York critics surreptitiously wiping away tears while watching happy high school kids and gospel singers present this simple shining fable. But the play is a reminder that 2020 is coming up soon and we need to explain again and again how political puppet masters have used fear to manipulate us into terrible choices in the real world. It was also a reminder that I need to write about the original stories of Hercules some more! The tale of his apotheosis as conceived by Greek storytellers of the 5th century BC has powerful lessons about where humankind can go in an age of godlike technology and planet-sized problems.

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Back during the glorious infancy of my blog I wrote a great deal about the demi-god Heracles (a.k.a. Hercules)–the greatest classical hero, who slew so many of the children of Echidna (and even grappled with Echidna herself).  For some reason, when I was growing up, I always had a mental picture of Heracles as a meat-head who solved every problem by means of brute strength; however, as an adult my perspective on the hero has changed greatly.  The craftiness with which Heracles faced problems like the Hydra and the journey to the underworld reveals that his cunning and his political guile became greater and greater as he ground on through his quests and labors towards godhood.  A big part of absolute power involves mastering craftiness…and manners. In fact the story of Heracles is really an epic quest to please a picky mother-in-law (but more about this later). At any rate, when his plans went awry, Heracles always had brute strength, but it often rebounded on him and was the source of his greatest problems as well as his greatest victories.

HeraklesSnakes

Which brings us all the way back around to Hercules’ first great exploit—which was purely of the brute strength variety.  Heracles was the son of Zeus and the beautiful shrewd mortal woman Alcmene (who had a magical pet weasel—but more about that another day).  Naturally Hera hated this rival and she chafed at the glorious prophecies of what the child of Alcmene would one day accomplish.  Hera tried to prevent the birth of Heracles by means of her subaltern, the goddess of childbirth.  When this failed, she resorted to brute force on her own right and she sent two mighty serpents to kill the baby in his crib.  Heracles grabbed one of the poisonous serpents in his right hand and the other in his left and throttled them to death with super strength. The first glimpse we get of Heracles is a majestic picture: an infant throttling two great snakes in his bare hands.  This image was sculpted and painted again and again throughout the history of western art.  It foreshadows Heracles’ difficult life, and his triumph, and his methodology.  Here is a little gallery of baby Heracles/Hercules throttling snakes:

baby Hercules

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embroidered_celtic_knot_tote_bag_irish_green_circular_motif_b4c3af34The most popular post in Ferrebeekeeper’s history was about leprechauns.  Thanks to popular folklore (and marketing shenanigans), leprechauns are currently imagined as small drunk men in Kelly green frockcoats who sell sweetened cereal. Yet the silly little men come from a deep dark well of legends which reaches far into the pre-Christian era.  The really ancient stories of Irish myth are ineffable and haunting: they stab into the heart like cold bronze knives.

Wicklow Countryside Powerscourt Castle, IrelandOnce there was a hero-bard, Oisín, who performed numerous deeds of valor and fought in many savage battles.  Oisín was mortal and he lived in Ireland long before Christianity came with its doctrine of a blissful fantasy afterlife.  To Oisín’s mind, to die was to cease being forever–except perhaps in songs and ambiguous stories. Yet some things are more important than death, and Oisín was always brave and loyal (although since he was also a poet he did tend to play moving laments upon his harp).

green-harp-irish-flagOne day, as he hunted in the greenwood, Oisín was spied by Niamh.  Some say she was the daughter of the queen of the ocean and others claim she was a fairy princess.  Whatever the case, she was one of the Aes Sidhe, an immortal being who was merely passing through Ireland.   When she saw Oisín, she recognized the endless sadness of mortalkind and the doom all men bear, but she also saw his noble heart, his loyalty, and his courage.  Unlike the deathless men of fairykind his bravery was real. After all, what meaning does bravery have when there are no stakes?

oisin_niamhNiamh revealed herself to Oisín: she was the most beautiful woman he had ever laid eyes on.  She had hair like dancing fire and eyes like emeralds and the stain of age was nowhere upon her since she was from a land beyond the shadow of decay. Niamh offered Oisín an apple and then she offered him more. The two fell in love.

Niamh had a white stallion who could gallop upon the waves of the Western Sea. Together the two mounted the horse and they rode upon the whitecaps into the sunset until they came to her homeland, Tír na nÓg, the land of the forever young.  There among the perfumed gardens and unearthly music, the lovers lived forever afterwards in perfect happiness…

vivid-blaskett-sunset_mg_6881-resizedExcept that Oisín was not perfectly happy.  His heart was loyal and even among the wonders of fairyland he began to pine for his family.  For three years he stayed in Niamh’s lovely arms, but more and more he begged her to be allowed one last trip home.  In the thrall of love’s enchantment he had left his family and his knights behind.  He needed to say his farewells so that he could stay forever with Niamh without regrets.

Reluctantly Niamh lent her stallion to Oisín.  As she bathed her lover in kisses, she made him promise that no matter what, he would not step off the horse.  One day only would he tarry ahorse in Ireland to say his valedictions and explain himself, then he would ride the tireless steed back across the sea to Otherland and Niamh.  Oisín rode east, but when he reached Eire, everything was strange: new villages had grown on the coast and peculiar priests passed among the people waving crosses.  His town was alien and he knew no one.  Among a field of hoary lichstones he remembered an ancient myth and realized the terrible truth—for every year he spent Tír na nÓg, a hundred had passed in the mortal realm.  Everyone he knew was dead and gone.  In a fit of horror and grief he tumbled from the white horse.  As he hit the ground he immediately began to wither from the long years.  The village folk were amazed at the howling old man who stumbled crying among them.  As they watched,  Oisín aged before their eyes into a wizened corpse and then into dust which blew away to the sea.

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The USS Shaw explodes during the Japanese air raid on Pearl Harbor

On December 7th, 1941, the Imperial Japanese Navy attacked the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor.  One of the teenage medical volunteers who assisted the many wounded American servicemen that day (and on days after) was Daniel Inouye, the son of Japanese immigrants who had moved to Hawaii looking for a better life. As soon as Japanese-Americans were allowed to enlist, Inouye suspended his pre-medical studies and joined the U.S. Army where he was assigned to the Nisei 442nd Regimental Combat Team.

U.S. Army painting of the Nisei 442nd Regimental Combat Team rescuing elements of the 1st Battalion, 141st Regiment, 36th (Texas) Division, trapped by German forces in the Vosges Mountains

In 1944, Inouye fought in the Rome-Arno Campaign and then in the Vosges Mountains of France, where the 442ndwas given what amounted to a suicide mission: rescuing the Lost Battalion (a battalion of the 141st Infantry Regiment which was ambushed and surrounded by vastly superior force of German veterans).   During that fight, Inouye was shot directly in the chest, but the bullet was stopped by two silver dollars which he had in his shirt pocket.  The Nisei 442nd suffered over 800 casualties on that day (and, in fact, went on to become the most decorated unit in Army history).  Inouye was given a bronze star and promoted to second lieutenant–which was most meaningful to him because the commission meant he got to carry a Thompson submachine gun into battle.

On April 21, 1945, Lieutenant Inouye was back in Italy storming a German fortification on the Gothic Line (the last line of German defenses in Italy).  During a flanking maneuver, at a heavily armed ridge named Colle Musatello, his platoon was pinned down between 3 machine gun nests.  As Inouye attacked the first nest, he was shot in the stomach.  His wound did not prevent him from throwing grenades into the first gun placement and then rushing in to finish off the German soldiers with his machine gun.   Refusing treatment, Inouye attacked the second machine gun nest in the same fashion and successfully destroyed it.

As the other men of his squadron attacked the third machine-gun placement, Inouye silently crawled within ten yards of the position and primed a grenade to throw into the bunker.  Unfortunately he was spotted by a German soldier who shot a rifle grenade through Inouye’s right elbow.  This meant that Inouye was clutching the live explosive in a hand over which he had no control as the German reloaded to finish him off.  Inouye’s astonished soldiers report that the lieutenant ordered them back, then pried the grenade from his own dead arm, and cast it off-hand into the final bunker.   After the bunker exploded, Inouye then mopped up with his Tommy gun and charged the main line.  Shot in the leg he tumbled to the bottom of the ridge and blacked out.   When he came to, the concerned men of his platoon were all around him, but he ordered them back to position with the exhortation that “nobody called off the war!”

During the action at Colle Musatello, Inouye reputedly killed 25 Germans (and wounded 8 more) while being shot in the abdomen & the leg and despite having his right arm mostly shot off (the shattered remains were amputated at a field hospital without proper anesthesia ).  While he was convalescing from these wounds, Daniel Inouye met other many other badly wounded men including future Senators Philip Hart and Bob Dole (who became a lifelong friend).

Inouye remained in the army until 1947 and he was honorably discharged with the rank of captain.  For his actions he was awarded many different awards including the Distinguished Service Cross, which was later upgraded to the Congressional Medal of Honor.  Although his ruined arm meant that his ambitions of becoming a surgeon were ended, he studied political science at Honolulu and then earned a law degree with honors from George Washington University Law School in Washington.  Daniel Inouye was the first Hawaiian congressman when the state joined the Union in 1959 and he was elected to the US Senate in 1962.  He is now the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee.  A long-standing tradition is that the most senior member of the majority party serves as president pro tempore of the US Senate, so Inouye, a democrat, is third in line for the US Presidency (after Biden and Boehner).   If some appalling disaster brought him to the office, he would no doubt hunt down the malefactors and destroy them utterly (possibly with his own bare hand).

Joe Biden, Bob Dole, Dan Inouye, and Pat Roberts at a WWII Plaque Dedication

In this era, the political parties of the United States of America are bitterly divided.  Whatever happens in today’s election is unlikely to change the long stalemate or foster friendship across the aisle.  Things have sometimes been like this in the past—as when Democratic-Republicans locked horns with Federalists or when Whigs fought acrimoniously with the Jacksonian Democratic Party—yet I feel that is dangerous and shameful to have our leaders so deeply divided.  There have been happier and more productive times too. Today Daniel Inouye is a bizarre and ancient political dinosaur, but he rhapsodizes about warm friendships with colleagues of all political stripes.

Politicians, don’t forget core lessons about unity.

I would like to congratulate the victors in today’s election and wish them every success in their honored positions of leadership.  The United States is in need of their finest effort and hardest work. However, I would also like to draw their attention to Daniel Inouye in order to remind them of America’s shared tradition of sacrifice, compromise, and friendship (& badass heroism).

The most fell of undead warriors was the mighty draugr from Scandinavian epics (the singular is “draugr” and the plural is “draugar”).   Draugar were the reanimated corpses of warriors, chieftains, and other people of great strength.  Unlike many other undead beings, draugar remained in possession of human intelligence, emotions, and memory–albeit horribly distorted and corrupted by the grave.  Simultaneously fascinated and enraged by the living world, draugar lusted for treasure and hungered for flesh–but they did so in perverse and alien ways.  The draugr will seem familiar to anyone who has read fantasy literature:  Tolkien based wholesale swaths of his universe on Scandinavian and Germanic (and Anglo Saxon) epics.  Subsequent books, films, and games are filled with lichs, deathknights, wights, and wraiths which ultimately descend from the original medieval sources.

Burial Mound

In Scandinavian epic literature, the various undead beings manifest in slightly different ways but they share common powers such as the ability to shapeshift into monstrous animals, to turn into smoke, to see dark parts of the future, and to greatly increase in size, heaviness, and strength.  Draugar seem to delight in causing suffering to the world of the living.  They are able to curse lesser animals to death and they cause fear, despair, and madness to larger creatures (and, indeed, to humans).   Sometimes they would eat or otherwise ravage living things. They are connected with winter darkness. Most tales concerning the monsters take place at Yuletide, Christmas, or the winter solstice when Scandinavian nights lasted almost an entire 24 hours. Disturbingly, some draugar were said to be able to enter the dreams of their victims.

Grettir’s Saga, which recounts the tragic life of Iceland’s greatest outlaw, contains two draugar, Kar the Old and Glam. The saga gives us limited background concerning Kar, a dead Norwegian nobleman who came back to life to guard his lands and his barrow filled with treasure.  A minor character describes the situation thus, “On the headland stands a grave mound.  In it was laid Kar the old…after Kar died he returned from the dead and started walking, so much so that in the end he drove away all those farmers who owned lands here.”  When Grettir breaks into the mound he finds a huge cold warrior sitting dead upon a throne with treasure at his feet and horse skeletons scattered around him.  As Grettir begins to remove the treasure, a cold & inhumanly powerful hand grabs his foot and the fight begins in earnest.  When Grettir finally triumphs, he despoils Kar’s hoard (which includes the fiersome sax that Grettir always wore thereafter).

Viking Hoard

We learn even more about the second draugr in the epic. While working as a shepherd, Glam, a giant surly Swedish slave was killed in a battle with an unknown monster on Christmas Eve.  Glam’s body is described as “Black as Hel and swollen as fat as a bull.” Ominously the corpse had become so heavy as to be immoveable–so the locals built a cairn over it without moving the body.  After this mysterious death, Glam returned every winter to haunt the farm.  The draugr is described riding the roof of the longhouse as though it was a steed, damaging the walls by driving his feet into them.  More ominously, Glam killed the sheep, the workmen, and eventually molested the farmer’s daughter to death (she seems to have been his favorite target).  After dispatching several lesser heroes, Glam inevitably fights with Grettir.  In the moral and emotional climax of the epic, Grettir outwrestles the horrible corpse but is transfixed by Glam’s otherworldly dead eyes.  In this moment of truth, the draugr lays a curse of doom upon Grettir saying,

 “I will not take from you the strength you have already acquired.  But it is in my power to decide you will never become stronger than you are now—yet you are strong enough as many will find out.  You have become famous because of your accomplishments, but from now on you will fall into outlawry and killings.  Most of what you do will now turn against you, bringing bad luck and no joy.  You will be made an outlaw, forced always to live in the wilds and to live alone.  And further I lay this curse upon you: these eyes will always be within your sight, and you will find it difficult to be alone.  This will drag you to your death.”

Today in Iceland there is still a word for this curse “Glẚmsskyggn”—Glam’s sight –which is to walk always alone and unhappy with dead eyes staring at you.

There were different ways that heroes or ordinary folk could deal with draugar.  Although not explicitly stated, the draugar always avoid Christian churches and sanctified things.  Observing the proper burial practices was also helpful.  When circumstances permitted, dead bodies were carried out of houses and into tombs through doors which were then built over or bricked in (since the walking dead had to return through the same doors they originally used).

The real way to cope with this problem however was Grettir’s way—by means of physical violence.   To defeat a draugr, a hero had to wrestle it into submission through sheer physical strength and then cut off its head (which was then placed on top of the corpse’s backside).   The corpse could then be burned into ash and thrown into the sea.

As the heroic age passed from Scandinavia, draugar changed somewhat and became more associated with drowned sailors than with barrow dwelling Vikings.  Then even these undead sailors began to fade away.  Occasionally in modern Iceland, Norway, and Denmark there are wild reports of strange walking dead (which come from wholly unreliable sources) but the monsters have largely faded from legend.   Even in the movies, draugar are scarce. The undead Nazis of the Norwegian horror film “Dead Snow” behave like draugar–which is a problem for the human protagonists who have been raised on American zombie films and don’t know how to fight traditional Norse undead.  However it is in computer games and fantasy books where the draugar from epic tradition have the greatest following today.  The internet and online games are filled with accursed giants in dark armor with corpse-blue skin and glowing eyes.   These guys are always mumbling runic curses, piling up digital treasure, or harassing virtual villagers.   More than any other undead, draugar have seamlessly made the jump to the digital world:  in fact they have done a better job transitioning to the web than many living people and contemporary industries. Glam’s eyes still shine brightly through the halls of countless internet dungeons and software modules of damned cities.

The Restless Draugr from “Skyrim” (Bethesda Softworks)

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