What’s in a name: Irene, Greek goddess of…you’re kidding!

Well, here’s an irony for you. Irene, the hurricane which is currently pounding the east coast with wind, rain, storm surge, tornadoes, etc is named after the Greek goddess of peace, Εἰρήνη (Eirene, pronounced eye-RAY-nay). The Romans called her by the more familiar name of Pax.

Eirene/Irene was one of the three horai, goddesses of the seasons, mentioned all the way back in Hesiod’s Theogony, c. 700 BCE: Eunomia (law & order), Dike (justice), and Eirene (peace). Originally, they were agricultural, seasonal goddesses who each presided over a time of year. I’m not quite sure when Eunomia and Dike were supposed to reign supreme, but Eirene was clearly a springtime-goddess, often described as wreathed with flowers or described as “blooming.”

The goddess Eirene (Irene)

Greek Goddess Eirene, Photo by Bibi Saint-Paul, Wikimedia Commons

At right, a peaceful portrait of the goddess, a Roman copy of a Greek bronze.

Hurricane names are chosen from a list each year, with the list rotating every few years. Names of hurricanes that caused significant damage are retired. In recent years, the National Weather Service has tried to alternate male and female names so that it’s not just women getting blamed for all the damage. So Floyd, Charlie, Andrew,  and the harmless-sounding “Bob” have joined Camille, Opal, and Katrina.

Here’s the current list of hurricane names for all parts of the world.

Update: Volcano Mythology Has Moved

I maintain a microsite on volcanoes, and of course, I’ve got a page there devoted to volcano mythology.

Thanks to my publisher restructuring how its platform works, I’ve had to rearrange everything. The URL of my volcano mythology article has changed. You will now find it here:

Volcano Mythology

Take a look if you haven’t seen it!

Recommended Article on Carl Jung

Today, the 50th anniversary of C.G. Jung’s death, an excellent introduction to his ideas appears on the BBC website, reflecting on what Jung would make of 2011.

Among many other concepts that have entered our culture, he coined the terms extravert (nowadays called extrovert) and introvert. I suspect he would have been fascinated and appalled by the modern web’s capacity to allow us to be both at once, walling ourselves off from our environment completely while sharing our inmost thoughts with billions of strangers.

But I digress: this blog is not about theories of personality. Rather, it is about mythology and its intersection with the modern world. On this, too, Jung has much to say. For Jung, although he never quite put it this way, mythology represents the dreams and personality of a culture rather than of an individual. That is, just as individuals have dreams that express feelings, desires,  memories, fears, and other currents bubbling up from our unconscious, myths are the dreams and stories which bubble up from the collective unconscious (our group imagination). Stories that “ring true” for many people over generations get told and retold and preserved. They are shaped by and shape what most people in that group think, feel, and value most over several generations.

In America, for example, we’ve got George Washington and his cherry tree, the Statue of Liberty and her “huddled masses yearning to breathe free“, Rosa Parks sitting in the front of the bus, or the myth of Manifest Destiny (not quite as dead as one might hope) . These are American myths. Their cultural importance does not depend on whether they are factually true, but on how each “rings true” for many Americans, how we perceive these stories, use them as inspiration or guidelines, pass them on and apply them to our world.

Mythology and psychology are strongly related; each influences the other.

That is the most important thing I learned from Carl Gustav Jung, along with its corollary, that most people need guiding myths to inspire us, so that the lack of common stories contributes to social factioning and miscommunication, and a sense of loss of meaning and purpose on the personal level. Without mythology, we look up in the sky and see just points of light. With mythology, we see constellations: not only as useful units of organization, but as pictures; we see Star Trek and Star Wars; we see our descendants living Out There; or we may imagine doomsday asteroids, omens, UFOs. Again, it doesn’t matter whether they are true; what matters is their psychological impact and meaning for us.

This blog is dedicated to the premise that as geographical and cultural borders collapse and reshape themselves,  mythology becomes cross-cultural even as it fails its old function (elaborated more fully by Joseph Campbell) of establishing and maintaining cultural identity. We no longer have a shared body of myths: instead, different groups and people adapt and are drawn to myths that suit their own needs or personalities, creating virtual tribes just as social media has allowed us to establish virtual circles of friends. These myths are more fluid, and most people take them as metaphors (a la Joseph Campbell) more than literally true — with the exception of fundamentalists.  Myths seldom function as the guiding principle of any one culture quite the way they used to be, yet we can recognize stories and myths from around the world that ring true regarding events and cultural changes happening around the world.

I think Jung would recognize some of the divisions going on in the world today as the struggles of many competing mythic systems, different landscapes of the imagination, struggling to maintain their borders ever more fiercely now that borders are so easy to cross.

My Favorite Carl Jung Book:

Memories, Dreams, Reflections by C.G. Jung

Not strictly theoretical, this is Jung’s self-mythology, stories about his life which “ring true” and help to illuminate and explain his psychological theories.

Rapture vs. Ragnarök: A Pagan Apocalypse

While the earthquakes of Harold Camping’s apocalypse failed to roll around the globe at precisely 6PM (God has apparently modernized enough to observe human time zones), I spent the day reading The Road to Middle-Earth: How J.R.R. Tolkien Created a New Mythology. I suppose I find modern mythology more appealing when presented as such.

Of course, the myth of the “Rapture at [time] [date] [year]” is not really modern, although it has grown steadily more punctual along with our systems for telling time. The human yearning for an exclusive and meaningful exit is not new. I’ve always felt a mixture of admiration and (I’m ashamed to say) a touch of schadenfreude for Jesus’ first disciples, disappointed in their expectation of His return during their own generation, yet somehow hanging onto their beliefs and building a religion that has long outlasted its original expiration date. Their resilience in the face of dashed expectations set a precedent which has been followed by apocalyptic societies ever since. Which begs the question: what to do after the apocalypse fails to materialize?

Quite unexpectedly, I stumbled across a possible answer in Tolkien’s discussion of Ragnarök, the apocalypse of Norse mythology, which has some interesting points of departure (of course) from the Christian concept of Judgment Day. The answer is both obvious and startling, considering its source.

Ragnarök is the mythical last battle between good and evil, recounted in the 13th century Poetic Edda (“Völuspá” verse 43 onward) and in Snorri’s Prose Edda, Ch. 51). Both eddas paint familiar visions of an apocalypse and the chaotic last years leading up to it: a time of human wars and sinful crime precede natural disasters (both fire and winter), eclipses, and finally a battle with gods and heroes on one side, giants and monsters on the other. This battle results in mutual annihilation and almost total destruction of the world. The stories of Ragnarök do hint at a new world arising from the ashes of the old, but it is hard to be certain whether this glimmer of hope predates Norse pagan contact with Christianity. Regardless, Tolkien’s comments (or rather, Shippey’s summary of them) deal with Ragnarök itself, not with any hope of surviving it.

Shippey summarizes Tolkien’s commentary on Ragnarök as follows:

A major goal of The Lord of The Rings was to dramatise that ‘theory of courage’ which Tolkien had said in his British Academy lecture was the ‘great contribution’ to humanity of the old literature of the North. The central pillar of that theory was Ragnarök—the day when gods and men would fight evil and the giants, and inevitably be defeated. The right side remains right even if it has no ultimate hope at all. In a sense this Northern mythology asks more of men, even makes more of them, than does Christianity, for it offers them no heaven, no salvation, no reward for virtue except the sombre satisfaction of having done what is right. (The Road to Middle-Earth, p. 156)

I often run into the assertion that Christianity contains a set of moral guidelines without which non-Christians (and atheists) can have no ethics. Yet Tolkien, a good Catholic, devoted his life to studying pre-Christian literature and mythology, and arguably wrote a new pre-Christian mythology in The Lord of the Rings. He was grasping at certain older truths which (he said) were actually easier to convey in this fashion (Lettersp. 147). It appears that one of these truths was the startling idea that humanity could live ethically, even without knowledge of the Christian God. As a Catholic, he would never argue that one could be saved by works alone, but simply that salvation was not the sole reason to do the right thing.

The concept of Ragnarök—or at least Tolkien’s interpretation of it—is nevertheless a grim one: good souls battle for the sake of doing good, even when there is no hope of victory. One who had fought in the Battle of the Somme could certainly relate to this sort of pagan courage, “the very brink, where hope and despair are akin.” (“The Last Debate”, Return of the King) This is a code of ethics grounded on the principle of no Rapture: or at least, no guarantee that any one person will live to see it.

I am struck by the contrast between Tolkien’s “theory of courage” and the guiding principle of many Christian apocalyptic cults. For them, believers will be saved by the right beliefs, not by courage; courage is irrelevant when one is guaranteed victory. “Us versus them” is not a struggle between good and evil, fought to the last breath. Instead, “us” means believers,  while “them” is everyone else: including friends, relatives, or people who simply have not heard the message. Ragnarök will only happen to those “left behind”, who are regarded with pity (at best) or disdain. (The feeling is often mutual.)

Belief in the next world often leads to disregard for this one. Some of Harold Camping’s followers maxed out credit cards, quit jobs and abandoned worldly responsibilities in the weeks or months leading up to their expected Rapture. Others, more charitable, donated much of their savings to the billboard campaign and/or endured public ridicule to spread the word to as many people as possible. Critics harped on how much charity work could have been done with all that money and manpower, but for these believers, such work is futile: the next world is the only one that matters.

That being so, what does an apocalyptic do on the day after an apocalypse fails to materialize?  Probably revise one’s appointment calendar and stick doggedly to the “belief not works” and “heaven not earth” side of the equation. But if there are any lessons to be learned from a Rapture postponed, it might be the ones Tolkien found in the myth of Ragnarök: the challenge of doing “good [merely] for goodness’ sake,” and the possibility that this world, too, is worth fighting for.


Recommended (Online) Reading:

Apocalypse Now: Why Believers Will Grow Stronger If the World Doesn’t End” by Maia Szalavitz

“The Millennium Is Here Again: Is It Panic Time?” by Jon Paulien

Books Referenced in This Post:


Grave Goods: An Affirmation of Life

Anubis and Mummy, Roman Period Funerary Portrait

Roman-Period Egyptian Tomb Portrait: Gods Escort Deceased to Afterlife

A fascinating article in the LA Times this week tells of a modern expression of a practice that goes right back to the dawn of human prehistory: the sacrifice or disposal of offerings for the dead. In this case, Chinese are burning paper facsimiles of iPads, iPhones, and other modern luxuries to “give” to their deceased family members.

In this modern expression of the ancient tradition, we can see clearly that the grave goods which fill many of our museums are not so much a preoccupation with death and morbidity, as with life.

I first became aware of this distinction when studying ancient Egypt as a child. Popular culture and Hollywood dwell much on mummies, skeletons, and curses of the dead when talking about Egyptian burial customs. Isn’t it macabre how they wrapped and preserved dead bodies? Yet for the Egyptians, who believed in an afterlife for those who were “true of heart,” you could take it with you. So those who could afford it were buried with jewelry, cosmetics, game boards, furniture, beds and pillows, foodstuffs, wine, cloth, all manner of toys and tools, shoes, deceased pets, even small magical statues that they could order to do work for them should they need it or someone else require it of them. These artifacts were believed to live, so to speak, in the afterlife, just as the soul lived on in the afterlife.

When I see statues, mummy portraits (above, late period), tomb paintings, and grave goods from ancient Egypt, I am always struck by how much of a celebration of life these things represent and are. In fact, they show us the life the Egyptians loved or wished to live, so, after a manner of speaking, they did achieve immortality.

Other culture’s funerary traditions have a similar purpose.

Some can be playful: you will see coins, cigarettes, spirits left on graves in some graveyards to this day. Latin American Dies de los Muertos is one of these, in which family members picnic at the family plot and leave offerings of flowers, candy, skulls, and other items not so much as gifts to be used in heaven (although some are clearly sent as consumables), but just as a way to remember the deceased.

Others are more grandiose. In powerful, imperial, martial cultures, you have staggering expenditures of wealth for burials like China’s famous terracotta army, a full-scale corps of warriors built to protect the spirit of China’s first emperor. In cases like these, a celebration of life has taken on the patina of the person’s life: a powerful person must be accompanied by powerful displays.

In ancient times, rarely, this tradition took on a more similar cast: animal or even human sacrifices were sent to the afterworld alongside royalty. So the Royal Tombs of Ur in ancient Mesopotamia included entire households of retainers, all dressed in their finest, who evidently took poison to accompany their monarch. In that case, celebration of life has gone painfully awry: the belief in the afterlife was too literal, and the life of the monarch valued over those of followers.

Thankfully, in most cultures, the burial of grave goods reflects a more compassionate outlook: it is a last chance to say goodbye to a loved one, and we send them off with their best. Even Christians may include favorite clothes or personal effects. So when next you go to a museum — where, naturally, artifacts preserved in tombs make up many a collection, since they are most likely to be preserved — consider what the grave goods say about people’s love of life, of family ties, and of their hopes for a blessed afterlife. Don’t assume grave goods reflect a culture’s preoccupation with death.