Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Making peace with our chimeras: the incredible resilience of myths

This is a text that I posted in 2012 on the "Cassandra Legacy" blog and that I am reposting here with some minimal modifications

The Etruscan statue known as the "Chimera of Arezzo". It is an ancient representation of the creature called "Chimera" which was killed by Bellerophon, the hero. This post derives from the talk I gave at a conference on the Chimera myth in Florence in 2010. The gist of my talk was that the myth is still very relevant today for us and that we can survive the challenges we face only if we can make peace with our Chimeras. Here is a written version of the talk, where I have added headings for clarity.


Ladies and gentlemen, it is a great pleasure to be here today and, first of all, I would like to introduce myself. I am not here as an archaeologist or an art historian, as the distinguished colleagues who spoke before me. My research is on very different matters; so I am speaking to you just as a friend of the Chimera. And if I tell you that I am a friend of the Chimera, it is because I feel something for it or, put simply, I like it. I like the story so much that I wrote an entire book on the subject. You can see it here, it is titled "The book of the Chimera."  I wrote it mainly because I couldn't find a book like it. You always write the book you would like to read.

So, after so much work, today I could tell you a lot of things about the myth of the Chimera but, as you may know, the art of boredom consists in telling everything. So, I would just like to tell you how this myth may still be relevant for us after thousands of years from its origin. Actually, it could be a lot more relevant for us than you may think. This relevance has to do with the way we communicate with our fellow human beings, how we deal with what we call the "environment," how we relate with everything which is not human on this planet. In this respect, we have been doing everything wrong: we have been destroying our environment as if we were killing one chimera after the other. That has not been a good idea - the environment is what makes us live. We need to make peace with our chimeras. But let me try to explain what I mean.

Origins of the myth of the Chimera

You surely know the story of the Chimera: there was this monster; a mix of lion, goat, and snake. It also sprouted fire from one of its mouths, or perhaps from all three of them. It seems to have been a rather nasty creature and so a hero, Bellerophon, was dispatched to get rid of it. Bellerophon did his job with the help of his flying horse, Pegasus. It can't have been such a difficult task, since the Chimera couldn't fly.

This is the myth; as you see, it can be expressed in just one paragraph and that's is the way it is described in the Iliad: just a few lines. In these terms, it doesn't look like anything special: you could, actually, condense it into a single sentence. Something like, "shiny hero kills ugly monster". But there is much more than this in the myth and let me try to explain why.

The story of the Chimera is very ancient; it is one of the most ancient myths of our civilization. With that name, "Chimera" or "Kimaira," it goes back all the way to, probably, the ninth century BC, about three thousand years ago. It is from that time that we start finding images and descriptions of this weird creature. But the core of the story is much older. With different names, the myth of the fire-breathing lion goes back to the Babylonian and Sumerian civilizations, all the way to the third millennium BC. That is, it goes back to around five thousand years ago and it is probably even older than that. It may very well go back to our Paleolithic ancestors although, of course, we'll never know what stories they were telling to each other in the evening, while sitting around the fire.

The curious thing is that such an old story is still with us, not very much changed. Over these five thousand years, empires and civilizations have appeared and disappeared, languages and writing systems were created and, also, disappeared. But we still know what a Chimera looks like and it is possible that our descendants will still know that in a far away future. Think about that: do you think that in 5000 years from now someone will care who was president of the United States today or who won the national soccer championship?

So, the myth of the Chimera, just as many other myths, has this characteristic of being highly "resilient;" impossible to destroy. It changes in name and in the details, but it persists in its basic form for long, long times. Why is that? If some concepts survive for such long times, there has to be something that makes them survive - something important. Let me try to discuss this point a little.

The Iron Goat

Now, let me tell you something that I learned from my friend and colleague, Alessandro Fornari who, unfortunately, is not any more with us. He was a "field anthropologist", someone who wouldn't just sit at a desk and write books. He would spend most of his time collecting and preserving folk tales. He had a special talent in convincing old peasant ladies to tell him stories and sing for him old songs.

One of the stories that I heard from Fornari is that of the "Capra Ferrata," the "Iron Goat," that comes from the Appennino mountains, in Tuscany. It is a simple story of a rather nasty monster, but the way Fornari would tell it, well, it became something special. You know, he had learned from his old peasant ladies plenty of trick on how to tell these stories. So, when describing how the Iron Goat appears at the door of the house, Fornari would speak in hoarse voice, as any good monster is supposed to speak. Let me try to do that as Fornari did; something like, "I am the Iron Goat, I have burning eyes and a sharp tongue" (in Italian, it rhymes, "Sono la capra ferrata, dagli occhi di fuoco e la lingua arrotata!"). Well, Fornari was much better than me at telling this story, but I did my best!

This Iron Goat, clearly, has something to do with the myth of the Chimera. I discussed this point with Fornari himself and he agreed with me. One detail is that, of course, both stories mention a goat as part of the monster. But believe me if I tell you that there is much more in terms of similarities than just the goat: the structure of the story, the settings, the role of the characters, but we'll go back to that in a moment. Right now, let me just note a point: how is it that in the 1950s, in the mountains of Tuscany, old peasants would tell a story that is at least 3000 years old? Is it possible that the story has been passed to us from Etruscan times hopping from father to son? (or, more likely, from grand-mother to grand-daughter?)

Of course, we'll never know, but it might even be: anthropologists have discovered that stories told by word of mouth tend to survive for long times, centuries or more. That doesn't mean that the story of the Iron Goat is five thousand years old, of course, but it does show that some stories tend to be told over and over, in different versions, maintaining some core features. So, in the 1950s the story of the Chimera, or at least a story that was very similar to the one of the Chimera, was being told in Tuscany in an oral version that probably didn't derive from the literary or graphic versions recorded in books. It is a manifestation of the incredible resilience of the main features of the myth; something that we must try to explain.

Myths as viral transmission

Written stories, just as some wines, don't age well. When the story of the Chimera was written down in an age when people had become literate, in Classic Times, the myth was literally torn to pieces. So, Plato tells us of the Chimera only as a useless absurdity. For Virgil, it is a decorative accessory for his poems. There was a Roman writer named Servius Onoratus who said that the Chimera was really the description of a volcano; because it emits flames. About this, I think that if I were to meet Servius someday, in the Elysian Fields, I would tell him something like, "Come on, Servius, don't you think that your ancestors should have been able to tell a lion from a volcano?" But this is how it goes. Once written down, a myth loses much of its consistency, its logic, and also its resilience. It becomes a dead myth; maybe still full of force and fury, but without meaning.

Why is that? It has to do, I believe, with the limits of the human mind. I read not long ago that the memory available in our brain is not larger than a few hundred megabytes. I am not sure about what exactly that means, but it does make some sense: our mental capabilities are extremely limited. Look at my book on the Chimera; it is about 80,000 words. I wrote it, but I couldn't recite it to you without reading it. Think instead of Homer's Iliad. In its English translation it is about 150,000 words. But I am sure that Homer could recite the whole Iliad to you, and not just the Iliad - also the Odyssey and probably more epic poems. And Homer, most likely, couldn't read or write.

So, there is a basic point here. We all have plenty of books in our shelves at home, but most likely we don't know even a single one by heart. It was the opposite for Homer and the people of his time. Now, surely you wouldn't say that people at the time of Homer were smarter than we are. Simply, they had a different way of organizing information in their brains. Not having the kind of external support that we have in the form of books, and now as the Internet, the information that they had needed to be in forms that could be memorized.

Poems such as the Odyssey and the Iliad were made from the beginning with that idea in mind: easy to memorize. Rhyming, of course, was a device used for this purpose, but not just that. The very structure of these poems is made in such a way to be easy to assimilate. If you have had the time to read the Iliad, you'll see what I mean: the story is compact; extremely dense, it has no space for details. Compare the Iliad or the Odyssey with a modern novel and you'll see the difference. Think of Ulysses by James Joyce. Theoretically, Joyce wanted to write something like a modern version of the Odyssey but, gosh, the result is completely different, even though there are connections - maybe. And that's not just a question of Joyce - it is the structure of the modern novel in general that has changed. You could make several modern novels with a single page of the Iliad.

Now, think of the Chimera myth. It was conceived much before the existence of writing. So, it was told in a form easy to memorize and, as such, extremely compact. ; in the Iliad it is described in just a few lines. It was left to the story teller to enliven these few lines by the tone, the expression, the acting, and - possibly - adding extra details. It was just what Alessandro Fornari would do when he told the story of the Iron Goat in his unique way of doing it. He had acquired, I think, some of the capabilities of ancient storytellers!

In modern terms, we could say that a myth is a form of viral communication. It is a fashionable concept, nowadays, but it is a correct interpretation of a common phenomenon, also very ancient. It is simply that, when you transmit a message, it has to be de-codified by the receiver. So, you can send a very compact message that the receiver will "unpack" or "unzip." So, my 80,000 words book is a way to unpack the few lines of description of the Chimera given by Homer and by others. You could say that everything that I wrote in my book was already contained, albeit virtually, in the few lines that Homer wrote.

Being so compact, a real communication virus, the myth is easy transmitted; it does not require a support other than the mind of a peasant grandmother. And when it has taken root in a mind, it stays there because it is memorized as a whole. Just because of this, it is very difficult - almost impossible - to destroy it. It is transmitted generation after generation, always the same, because it is so simple and compact.  I think we could say that the myth is the "atomic unit" of communication. In a sense, we could say that a myth is a "mind sized" piece of information, to use a term invented by Seymour Papert.

The myth's struggle for survival  

Being compact, although important for a myth, can't be sufficient to ensure its survival. Like a biological virus, in order to replicate a myth needs to have the capability of adapting to its host; it needs to be able to utilize the host's reproductive system. In the case of a myth, it needs to convince the host - typically the mind of a peasant grandmother - to retell it. Not all myths succeed in the same way. Perhaps in ancient Greece there were many more myths and stories than those we know nowadays, but those who didn't have this survival ability, didn't survive. There must have been a harsh selection process over thousands of years. So, what is that makes the story of the Chimera so resilient?

You know what makes a good story: there has to be meaning. Typically, that means it is a moral or an ethical issue to be solved. There has to be some kind of conflict, a problem to be solved. That's what makes a good story live.

There are many examples of myths that embody conflicts of considerable complexity. There comes to my mind the story of Antigone, you may remember it. She was killed because she had refused to obey the law that forbade her to bury the body of her dead brother. It is the conflict of human laws and natural laws; an extremely modern myth that would be very interesting to discuss, but let's go on.

On the opposite side, some myths look rather silly. Do you remember the story of Pyramus and Thisbe? The play within the play in Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream?" It is the story of a young couple who end up killing themselves by mistake. Doesn't seem to be a very deep conflict - just an invitation to be a bit more careful! But if the myth survived, there has to be a reason. Maybe it is just because it is so silly; and indeed Shakespeare seems to think of it just in these terms in his play. But, then, you may remember also that another of Shakespeare's plays, "Romeo and Juliet" is based exactly on the story of Pyramus and Thisbe! So it may not be such a silly myth, after all.

Ancient myths are often like that. They may look silly on the surface, but there is always a layer of complexity below. There must be a deep meaning in these ancient stories because they survived a process of natural selection lasting thousands of year. It is Darwin's survival of the fittest translated to mythology.

It is the same for the myth of the Chimera. At first sight, it doesn't look so complex. As I said before, we could compress it into one sentence: "shiny hero kills ugly beast". What kind of ethical conflict is involved with that? It looks like the mission statement of a pest extermination company. But things are not so simple and if that was all what was in the myth, it wouldn't have survived all these millennia. There is much, much more.

The meaning of the Chimera myth

To explain the meaning of the myth of the Chimera, we may go back to the story of the "Iron Goat." The beast, the strange creature, is an emanation of the wilderness that, in the story, knocks at the door and comes inside the house. This is the basic point of the story: the conflict of civilization and wilderness, the problem to be solved. This is what gives meaning to the story.

The problem of the relation of human spaces and wilderness is very ancient and we haven't solved it, even today. We live mostly in an urban environment and we don't expect monsters to be knocking at our door. But the idea is still there and it keeps reappearing: think of a movie such as "Avatar". It is so dense of ancient myths that you would think it was turned in Sumerian times. You see how the roles are cast: there is exactly this contrast: wilderness and civilization. In Avatar, the humans are civilization and the Pandorians are the wilderness. That is what makes the film fascinating; not the battles or the various monsters. The story has a meaning, there is a tension, a conflict to be solved.

So, you see how modern is the myth of the Chimera. At its root, there is this conflict: civilization versus wilderness. The Chimera is the trees we cut to pave the land to build a shopping center. It is the mountains we destroy to get at the coal seams below. It is the people we bomb because we think they are dangerous to us. It is everything we don't want to see, and we want to destroy, while we think we are safe inside our homes. But, in reality, we are not and we know that very well.  The environment is not really something "outside", the environment is all those things that make us live. If we destroy the environment, we destroy ourselves.

These considerations are all there, inside the myth of the Chimera, once you unpack it and you take care of some details that seem to be marginal and, instead, are fundamental. So, in the Iliad that the Chimera is explicitly referred to as "Theon", which means "divine". The Chimera is no mere monster, it is a God. And no mortal can kill a God because Gods are immortal. At most, it is possible to kill the "avatar" of a God. And killing a God - even if just its avatar -  is not something that common mortals can do lightly. It brings misfortune; not rewards. Indeed, Bellerophon ends his life blind and accursed as a punishment for what he has done. So, you see? The story of the Chimera is by no means simple; it is not black and white, not good versus evil. The story is subtle and dense and it carries a lot of meaning that we can still understand if we just spend a little time in exploring it.

Today, we don't listen any more to old stories told by grandmothers. But our minds have not changed from that age and the messages we exchange must still be "mind sized," even though we tend to think that we have somehow progressed beyond that. It may well be that, with the Internet, we are going back to a rapid and "viral" kind of communication which was typical of old story telling. Of course, the Internet, right now, is full of silly and useless stories but we saw how there exists also a natural selection for stories. Silly stories don't survive for long; important ones do. The story of the Chimera is something that may take a new life today if we learn how to tell it. Movies such as "Avatar" may be just such a way. So, there may be hope to convey today the meaning that the ancient myth has been carrying for millennia: if we destroy what we think are monsters, we destroy ourselves. Our only hope for the future is to make peace with our chimeras.

This image by Ferdnand Knhopff doesn't show Bellerophon and the Chimera but rather Oedipus and the Sphinx. But it does not matter, it is the same ancient myth and the idea that the protagonists must make peace with each other (h/t Lino Polegato)

1 comment:

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