What is Loki?

Loki the Lego

Loki the Lego

Is Loki evil?  Is he a villain?  Is he a sociopath?  Is he like a misbehaving 3-year-old?  Is he a trickster or a prankster?  Is he a traitor?  An oathbreaker? Is he even a he?  Does he represent a necessary aspect of life, or is he a criminal who should be purged from society?

The Aesir finally decide to imprison and torture him for the death of Baldr.  Was that justice?

 

Summaries and Details from the Elder Edda

Reading the stories in the Elder Edda takes a bit more work and a bit more knowledge than reading Snorri Sturleson.  Ponder this image of Thor discovering that one of his goats is lame, with Tyr looking on.

Tanngrisnir_and_Tanngnjóstr_by_FrølichThen post the summaries and details from your group discussions.

Norse Myths and Popular Culture

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             Thor and Loki in the Movies

Characters and stories from Norse myths appear in comics, movies, TV shows, fantasy novels, video games and other pop culture artifacts.  On the one hand, the Norse myths are full of stories of wisdom, poetry, courage, and heroism.  On the other, they are also full of grotesque images, betrayal, and violence, and end in the final battle of Ragnarok, in which the forces of good lose, a rather depressing outcome.  How deeply have Norse myths been woven into American culture?  And what has been the effect?  Are we inspired, puzzled, or depressed by them?  What do they add to our culture?

Exploring Book XI

Book XI of the Metamorphoses contains the death of Orpheus at the hands of the Bacchantes, the story of King Midas, the building of Troy, the birth of Achilles, the rape of Chione, the attack of the wolf on the flocks of Peleus, the story of Ceyx and Alcyone, and the story of Aesacus.  Here is a scene from the tale of Orpheus:

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This book sets up Ovid’s version of the Trojan War, which will be told in book XII.  At this point in the Metamorphoses, we are beginning to be familiar with the themes, devices, and techniques of the poem.  As you explore the events, the motives of the characters, and the themes of the work, paying special attention to transitions, transformations, significant details, shifts in points of view, and echoes of other stories, what have you learned about the work as a whole and how those larger themes and patterns are reflected in the presentation of the stories in this particular section?

What Does Ovid Have Against Heroes?

Of the heroes depicted in the Metamorphoses, Perseus is the one who gets perhaps the most favorable treatment.  However, even Perseus throws javelins that miss their intended targets, gets into unnecessary fights, and behaves in a generally loutish way.  When things get tough or he gets tired, Perseus takes out the Medusa head and turns his adversaries, as well as some innocent bystanders, to stone. Theseus on the other hand, doesn’t get to fight much on stage.  He keeps getting sidelined in favor of minor players.  At the end of book VIII, he is just hanging out with Achelous, a river god.  In book IX, we finally get to Hercules, who defeats Achelous, for whom we have begun to have some sympathy, and breaks off one of his horns in a fight over the lovely Deianira.   Hercules gets outwitted by Nessus, a centaur who tries to run off with his new wife, but he gets an arrow off that hits Nessus, who before he dies manages to bleed poison blood all over a tunic and give it to Deianira as a gift that will renew Hercules’s love for her, should it ever wane.  After this episode, Ovid deals with the rest of the exploits of the great hero with two lines:

Much time had passed; the mighty Hercules

had filled the world with word of his great deeds

HERCULES

Deianira gets a little suspicious and sends Hercules the tunic Nessus had given her.  Hercules is poisoned by the blood of Nessus, and the mortal half of him gets burned away on his funeral pyre, leaving only his divine parts, so he becomes a god, but not in a very heroic way.

Why is Ovid so hard on heroes?  Or, perhaps a better question, who are the real heroes in Ovid?

Ovid’s Art

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In the Metamorphoses, Ovid gathers and shapes the mythological material.  The stories come from a long oral and written tradition.  Ovid does not invent the characters or the plots.  As we have seen, however, Ovid does much more than simply retell what he has heard and read.  First, there is the poetry.  In the introduction to Approaches to Teaching the Works of Ovid and the Ovidian Tradition, Ralph Hexter notes that “Ovid’s facility with Latin verse lent his elegiac couplets and hexameters extraordinary suppleness and speed, making them models of elegant ease for generations of Roman poets” (9).

For the reader who lacks Latin, however, there are some other matters of which to take note:

  • Transitions–How does one story flow into another?  How do different stories in different places connect to one another?
  • Transformations–How and why do people become creatures, objects, and natural phenomena?
  • Significant details–Why are some tales mere sketches, while others are fleshed out with almost cinematic or novelistic detail?
  • Shifts in perspective–Ovid shifts viewpoints almost like a modern experimental novelist.  How do shifting perspectives influence the reader’s experience?

Attending to one or more of these factors will almost always lead to new insights about the myths and how Ovid is handling them.  In responding to this post, describe something interesting you have found in the poem by using one of these factors to focus your attention.

Humans Transformed

In the Metamorphoses, humans are often transformed into animals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, insects, flowers, and trees.  In book VI alone, the weaver Arachne is turned into a spider, Niobe into a weeping rock, some Lycian peasants into frogs, Philomela, Procne and Tereus into birds.  Here is a painting of Arachne as a spider:

 

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Arachne becomes a spider

Usually, the nature of the transformation has something to do with the character or deeds of the person transformed.  As Ovid presents these myths, it is possible that he had particular people among his contemporaries in mind.

Are there people in our own time–celebrities, politicians, entertainers, intellectuals, pundits, or business leaders–who deserve to be transformed into a creature, a tree, or an object?   Think of such a person, giving him or her a name that is not their real name but a mythical one that we can figure out, and describe their deeds and character, the god or goddess they might anger, and what kind of creature or thing would be appropriate for their fate.  Describe the transformation in such detail that we will remember it.

The Big Fight at the Wedding of Perseus and Andromeda

After saving Andromeda from being eaten by a sea monster, Perseus is ready to marry his new bride.  However, Phineus, brother of the king, protests rather unjustly that Perseus has stolen his bride, who was promised to him.  King Cepheus reasonably points out that it was actually the sea god Neptune and his Nereids that took Andromeda and that Phineus didn’t do anything to save her.  Nevertheless, a big fight breaks out, and Perseus, being a hero and all, ends up killing a lot of people, some by accident.  Dr. Baker puts the body count at 222.  Here is a painting of the wedding party/battle by Flemish artist Frans II Francken:

Phineus-And-His-Followers-At-The-Wedding-Feast-Of-Perseus-And-Andromeda

A big fight at the wedding feast.

The description of the fight is almost cinematic.  It reminds me of a series of Japanese movies about Zatoichi, a blind masseur, who is also a swordsman.  Because he is not of the samurai class (he is actually a Yakuza gambler) he cannot carry a sword openly, so his blade is hidden in his walking stick.  The plot of almost every movie goes something like this: Zatoichi is traveling on the road and meets some strangers who are nice to him.  When he gets to the next town, he finds that the local bad guys are persecuting his new friends.  He tries to intervene in various non-violent ways, but to no avail.  Eventually, there is a climatic scene in which there is a sword fight between Zatoichi and all the bad guys at once.  They don’t take him too seriously because they think that a blind swordsman can’t be very good, but Zatoichi is formidable because of his skill and his acute hearing.  He kills all the henchmen in ones and twos until he finally gets to the head bad guy and kills him too.  Usually, there is a local woman who wants to marry him, but Zatoichi is a wanted man, so off he goes.  He hates violence, but he is always forced to use violence.

Here is Zatoichi reluctantly preparing to fight the bad guys in “Zatoichi and the Doomed Man.”

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The description of the battle scene at the wedding party of Perseus and Andromeda is full of details about individual fights, raging emotions, and badly aimed weapons.  It all seems like too much detail and too many stage directions for a retelling of a myth.  Why do you think Ovid wrote it this way?  What are some of the significant details and what effect do they have?  And finally, can you think of some fight scenes in movies that have similar qualities?

What Are Myths?

In a web posting called “The Origin of Philosophy: The Attributes of Mythic/Mythopoeic Thought,” Kelley L. Ross makes the following points about myths:

  1. Myths are stories about persons, where persons may be gods, heroes, or ordinary people.
  2. Myth allows for a multiplicity of explanations, where the explanations are not logically exclusive (can contradict each other) and are often humorous.
  3. Mythic traditions are conservative. Innovation is slow, and radical departures from tradition rarely tolerated.
  4. Myths are self-justifying. The inspiration of the gods was enough to ensure their validity, and there was no other explanation for the creativity of poets, seers, and prophets than inspiration by the gods. Thus, myths are not argumentative. Indeed, they often seem most unserious, humorous, or flippant.
  5. Myths are morally ambivalent. The gods and heroes do not always do what is right or admirable, and mythic stories do not often have edifying moral lessons to teach.

Ross illustrates each of these points with examples from Egyptian mythology.  The original post is certainly worth a look.  The chart of the nine muses is especially useful.  One should probably know the name of one’s muse.

Conventional wisdom holds that “mythos” and “logos” represent two distinct ways of reasoning, the former based on belief, traditional stories, and supernatural beings while the latter is based on logic, causality, argument and evidence.  It is easy to see myths as pre-scientific explanations for natural phenomena and a pre-literate repository for history and cultural memory that has been supplanted, beginning with ancient Greek philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle, by literacy, science and rationality.   However, as individuals and as a society, do we still engage in mythical thinking?  Perhaps only the myths have changed.

In commenting on this post, think about today’s political and economic discourse, especially advertising.   What sorts of myths or myth-like stories are invoked?  How do they work?