An old logic joke goes like this:
I. Nothing is better than eternal happiness.
II. A ham sandwich is better than nothing.
III. Therefore, a ham sandwich is better than eternal happiness!
It turns out that there are a lot of ham sandwich myths trying to reassure us that our life is tasty just as it is. They don’t usually argue against eternal happiness, of course, but they try to reassure us that getting much less than we want is not so bad, after all.
The Midas Gift Card
You may find that having is not so pleasing a thing after all as wanting. It is not logical, but it is often true. ~ Mr. Spock
One common variant of the myth is for a god to grant a mortal a wish which turns out to be a curse rather than a gift. The most famous of these tales is that of King Midas, who proves such a good host to Silenus the satyr-god that he earns a boon of his guest. Midas asks for the golden touch, only to discover that he cannot touch, eat or drink anything, since all turns to gold. (In early variants of this myth, Midas captures Silenus, suggesting the nature-spirit originally cursed or tricked the king).
Another variant more plainly shows divine retribution in disguise: Hera, disguising herself as a gossipy nurse, goads one of her husband’s mortal paramours to ask him to reveal himself in the same guise that he wears before Hera. Zeus, ignorant of his wife’s manipulations, rashly vows to grant Semele any one wish. Bound by his oath, he cannot refuse Semele’s request, and is forced to manifest as a thunderbolt which incinerates her.
A more complex interpretation of “be careful what you ask for” archetype appears in The Neverending Story, an excellent children’s book by Michael Ende. Commanded to “Do what you wish,” the young protagonist Bastian fastens upon “wishing” and neglects “doing.” His wishes are shallow, satisfying various cravings (often at the prompting of others whom he tries to impress), and he eventually loses almost everything through self-destructive behavior. It takes a long journey of self-deception and self-discovery before Bastian learns that do what you wish means he must figure out what it is he most wishes — especially, what he truly wishes to be — and do it, achieve it, make it come true.
I’ve had it with the hero biz, frustration has got me down.
Why should I bother with saving the city when I’d rather be painting the town?
I’m faster than a speeding bullet, I’m tougher than a moving train,
But I’d throw it all away in a minute if I
Could just once get the jump on Lane.
~ “Superman Sex Life Boogie” by Tom Smith
Another modern myth which plays out again and again in comics, books and films is the idea that powers or gifts beyond the lot of ordinary mortals are a curse, not only because they usually obligate the possessor to be heroic, but also because they make it hard to live an ordinary life. This is not merely the lament of postmodern superheroes, however. Even ancient mythological heroes have their regrets:
“Achilles,” [said Odysseus], “no one was ever yet so fortunate as you have been, nor ever will be, for you were adored by all us Argives as long as you were alive, and now that you are here you are a great prince among the dead. Do not, therefore, take it so much to heart even if you are dead.”
“Say not a word,” he answered, “In death’s favour; I would rather be a paid servant in a poor man’s house and be above ground than king of kings among the dead.”
~ Homer Od. Book XI, Samuel Butler translation
Immortality Is Also a Drag
Who wants to live forever? ~ Queen, “Highlander“
Gods and immortals grow bored. In many myths and stories, they seem to need interactions with mortals in order to have something to do (or someone to worship them). However, there is often great sorrow when immortals mingle with mortals.
Eos, goddess of the dawn, begs Zeus to grant immortality to her lover Tithoneus, but forgets to request eternal youth. Zeus peevishly lets the mortal grow old, feeble and babbling, until finally he becomes a cicada. The twins Castor and Pollux suffer a fraternal twist on the usual myth: Pollux is born of Zeus, his brother of a mortal father, so that Pollux must mourn his twin’s death. Their constellation myth explains that Pollux prevailed upon Zeus to place both of them together in the heavens.
Another variant of the “immortality trap” is the Rip Van Winkle motif: a mortal may sojourn in Faerie or some immortal country for a time, but on returning, all friends and family will be dead and gone. Sometimes the years catch up with the mortal upon exiting the immortal realm, so that he dies of old age.
Tolkien (yes, I’m bringing in Tolkien again) poignantly explores the theme of immortality’s curse in his tragic romances between Elves and Men. In his mythology , the fall of humankind comes not by acquiring knowledge of good and evil, but rather by seeking for immortality. Númenor, the Atlantis-like kingdom of Men, is swallowed by the sea when its king dares to lead a fleet to the Undying Lands. His descendants flee to Middle-earth, but even there they yearn ever for eternal life. The Elves cannot understand this longing: to them, watching the world change and decay from its unmarred beginnings is a burden and sorrow. They envy the “Gift of Men.”
These stories are just a few variants of the mythic pattern. Some seem to argue that our mortal lot is not so bad, after all. Others are merely speculative fiction of a sort: assuming one had godlike powers, wishes fulfilled, or immortality… what would it be like? It is curious to see how often the answer is, “more trouble than it’s worth.”
Keep your ears open and consider your own favorite flavor of mythology — are there any ham sandwich myths? Or consider some of your favorite fictional books or films. The more you look, the more you’ll find this archetype cropping up in new guises.