The Fight for Love and Glory
in Myth and Literature

by Tala Bar


I

“Every man needs an enemy” — this saying, which I heard from two different American men who did not know about each other — sounded quite astonishing to me each time. Naturally being used to generalized language, I assumed the word “man” meant “person”; and as I have never had the need of an enemy, I felt quite baffled until I recalled Robert Graves’ theory about ancient mythology.

In his book The White Goddess, he explains the essence of the ancient theme of poetry, which is the story of the birth, life, death and resurrection of the God of the Year; this god, representing the seasons of the year, is sometimes divided into two: the God of the Waxing Year, and his twin and rival, the God of the Waning Year.

The first is the protagonist of the story, the second is the antagonist, and for the completeness of the tale, one cannot exist without the other. In the two stations of the year when they meet, one always kills the other and takes his place by the side of the great Nature goddess, who is the twins’ mother, lover and killer. Thus, each of the two mythological characters needs his enemy to be a whole person.

It must be remembered that in ancient pagan mythology, none of the twins is either good or evil, both are necessary to make one whole, as summer needs winter, day needs night, light needs darkness. It is a natural dichotomy existing in nature, which human beings have tried to understand and interpret throughout their existence as Homo sapiens.

The idea of this rivalry for love and power is best represented by the ancient Canaanite myth of Baal (meaning ‘Master’) and Mot (meaning ‘Death’). The goddess Anat is the sister and lover of these twin brothers (the role of mother is filled by the Mother goddess Athrat/Astarte, while Anat’s role as a killer is subtly masked, this written myth being later than its original tale of the single all-powerful Nature goddess).

The story goes thus: at the season of spring, when all rains cease and the vegetation begins to dry up in that area of the eastern coast of the Mediterranean sea, Mot kills Baal — who represents both the rains and the green vegetation — and buries him in a hidden place up north, from which the sun never shines.

At the height of summer (in the month of Tamuz, the Babylonian counterpart of Baal), Anat with the help of the Sun goddess, finds Baal’s grave, takes his body out and mourns him. She then catches Mot in the shape of the dry wheat, cuts him down — i.e. reaps him — thrashes him and scatters his body to the wind as the dust-like chaff.

In the autumn, Baal comes back to life, bring rains which cause the earth to soften and the green grass to grow again; the grains of wheat (also called corn), which represent Mot’s dead body, are buried in the belly of the earth — i.e. sown — from which the corn grows green in the body of Baal, and the cycle begins all over again. It is quite clear here that both seasons of the year, and both aspects of the corn, are necessary for life to exist and continue.

This pagan belief in the yearly dichotomy was so strong that in some places the myth and the connection between the Goddess’ love and the political power were used not only as a basis for ritual but also for actual reality. In his book The Greek Myths, Graves presents historical evidence for such a religious-political situation: in some city-states of ancient Greece, in the pre-classical period, there existed seasonal alterations between pairs of rulers. One of these pairs was the twin brothers Castor and Pollux, called the Dioscuri (“twins”), who seasonally interchanged the Spartan throne; after their death the brothers became gods and were fixed in the sky as the stars representing the Zodiac’s Gemini (“twins”) sign.

The myth is symbolic, both for reality and for the ritual, and it is not always possible to differentiate between the two. In the European year, the Sacred King symbolizing the increasing year marries the Goddess’ young priestess of Spring and Summer; his rival brother, symbolizing the decreasing year, marries the old priestess of Autumn and Winter, who is also the Goddess of Death. Ritualistically, when the Sacred King marries the Death goddess, he dies and becomes King of the Underworld.

In my opinion, the whole idea that a good literary story needs a conflict between a protagonist and an antagonist stems from the theory of rivalry between the God of the Waxing Year and the God of the Waning Year. This literary idea is particularly prominent in the 19th century in what is called Romantic literature (which must be distinguished from the more recent “romantic novel”). Two such prominent books are those written by the Brontë sisters, Emily and Charlotte.

In Emily Brontë’s book Wuthering Heights, the heroine Kathy is in love with Heathcliff, who represents in his appearance and character the God of Death or King of the Underworld: he is black, wild, surly, and belongs to the lowest possible class. The myth makes his match with the young girl Kathy impossible because he represents the gloomy god of Autumn, and she marries the pleasant and handsome Linton, who clearly represents the God of Spring and Light.

Heathcliff, penniless, wanders to faraway lands and acquires great wealth, thus identifies even more with the Roman Pluto, the Underworld’s god of Riches. When Heathcliff returns, Kathy dies, as if he brought her death with him. But a dead woman usually becomes herself the Goddess of Death, and she takes him also to his grave. Thus they unite, in the way they had always been meant for each other as dwellers of the Underworld, when Kathy is no longer young and pretty. She is, however, all along the story, the one who holds in her hands the rule and motivation of love and power.

Strangely enough, in the same year that Emily’s book Wuthering Heights was published (1847), Charlotte had her Jane Eire published as well — a book that is clearly based on the same theme. In it, Rochester is the parallel of Heathcliff, the dark and wild man in whom the heroine falls in love, although Rochester is highborn and much more cultured than Heathcliff.

His rival in pursuing Jane’s hand is the vicar Rivers, who parallels Linton both in appearance and in his cool and logical nature. Jane Eire, though, differs from Kathy in her much more decisive character. She does not hesitate to choose Rochester, particularly because of his warm heart; she even disregards his later disfigurement, having rejected the highly moralistic Rivers. She is much more the figure of the Great Goddess than the poorly muddled Kathy, though less pretty in her appearance. In both books there is a very strong sense of the woman’s right to choose her lover with no prejudice.

* * *

A variation of that myth appears in ancient Egyptian mythology. Osiris, who was a counterpart of Baal’s as the God of Vegetation and Corn, was brother and lover to the great Nature goddess Isis. He is killed by Seth, who came from the desert and thus representing, like the Canaanite Mot, dry and barren weather; Seth was also supposed to want Isis for himself.

But the situation here is more complicated. Having been killed, Osiris becomes God of the Underworld, which Baal never did; but his son Horus replaces him as the protagonist, being a Sun god who kills Seth in revenge for his father. A relatively late interpretation of the myth ascribes to Seth an evil nature, which he did not initially have. The connection between Osiris and his son Horus was expressed by the Egyptians’ custom of identifying the living king, Pharaoh, with Horus, while after his death he would become “Osiris.” It is interesting to note that Osiris, though a god of the Underworld and thus in charge of Death, was never considered evil.

This classical situation is found in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, where the evil brother has murdered the rightful king and married his traitorous wife. Parallel to the Egyptian myth, Hamlet is required to avenge his father’s betrayal and death on the evildoers. Unlike Osiris’s son Horus, Hamlet is unable to do that, preferring to kill himself instead.

II

The idea of the goddess’ being free to give her love to whomever she thinks deserves it — even if it really depends on the change of seasons — gave her in time a bad name as a treacherous person. This idea is well presented in the Mesopotamian myth of Gilgamesh.

In a culture where a king attains his rule through a ritualistic marriage to the Goddess, Gimgamesh King of Erekh refuses this marriage to the Great Goddess Ishtar on the ground that she kills her lovers, and he fears for his life with her. The enraged goddess, then, causes the king’s bosom friend Enkidu to sleep with her priestess and then kills him, as is his due according to the myth.

The poem definitely expresses a man’s revolt against the existing system in which there is so much power given to the Goddess over his life. Here again there is no identification of Gilgamesh and Enkidu as good and evil; the difference between them is that one is a civilized king and the other as wild as an animal — his character plainly stems from earlier human life, which is much more involved with Nature and the Nature goddess than Gilgamesh is.

There is a new situation here, in which the female of the trio is considered treacherous, without any consideration for the old symbolism, and for the necessities of nature and life connected with nature. It seems that the idea of woman’s treacherous nature has been advanced in mythology with the advance of male power over the female, as is told by the Babylonian myth of the young (upstart) god Mardukh killing the Great Goddess Tiamat, Mother of all beings. This upheaval is expressed in a well-known Welsh myth where the struggle for domination between male and female is still going on.

The myth tells the life story of Llew Llaw Gyffes, whose name is translated by Robert Graves “the Lion with the Steady Hand” and by others as “Lugh (the Sun god) with the Long Arm.” Llew’s mother is Arianrhod, whom Graves identifies with the Greek Nature goddess Ariadne; but in the changing scene in Wales, she has limited power over humans and nature, being under the rule of her uncle, Math the Magician.

Arianrhod gives birth to Llew with no husband to her name, thus proves her independence of male rule and raises the wrath of her male relatives. She puts obstacles on her son’s way to have a name, bear arms or take an earthly wife, but is tricked by her uncle and her cousin Gwydion into doing it. The wife, Blodeuwedd, is made of flowers and thus a suitable bride for the young hero, whose leonine name signifies him as the representative of the Sun of Spring; but she betrays him at Midsummer, giving her love to his guest Gronw Pebyr, who is not only after her love but also after Llew’s property.

Gronw kills his host who turns into an Eagle, whose flesh is eaten by an old sow — another figure of the Goddess, in charge of Death and Inspiration. Blodeuwedd, whose name means “owl” and thus identified also with the Goddess of Wisdom, flies away in the shape of this bird.

In the end, Gwydion finds Llew, rescues him and returns him to his property, where he kills Gronw in turn. This story is a mixture of ancient female mythological elements and later male rule over them. Here, although Gronw who kills his host is nowhere called “evil,” the woman is certainly considered a traitor to her husband and to society.

III

The idea of assigning to the two representatives of the year the characters of good and evil seems to have originated in the Zoroastrian religion of Persia. There, the ancient dichotomy was represented by the rivalry between Ahura Mazda, god of Light and everything good, and Ahrimon, god of Darkness and everything evil.

The idea was taken up by the budding Christianity, probably in Rome, where Persian ideas were rife, and deepened to become the basis on which that new religion was built. The ruling entity in the world was divided between God in Heaven and Satan in the Underworld (or Hell), with the traitorous Woman taking her part mainly with evil, unless she abstains from using the power of her sex appeal.

This idea became well established in medieval times, appearing in many fairy tales, which were the popular literature of the period. One of its classical representatives is the book of Thousand and One Nights, and one of its best-known stories is that of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. In this story, as in many other tales, which appear, for instance, in the Grimm brothers’ collection, one of the brothers is rich and evil, the other is poor but good (rich and evil, as has been mentioned, fit the character of the Underworld Roman god Pluto). The poor and good brother is, naturally, the hero of the story, and is the one who finds the thieves’ treasure, which causes his rich but still greedy brother’s death.

An interesting character plays the role of the Goddess in this story, in the figure of the adopted slave girl Marjanah (who, in translations, is called either Morganna or Marianna — both names of the Great Goddess). With her beauty and wisdom she helps Ali Baba to win his fight against the cruel thieves; in the end she is given to Ali Baba’s son as a wife and wins an important place in society. This strong woman definitely takes the side of “good” in this story.

Two of the 19th century Romantic novels mentioned above have used the idea that when a woman has two potential lovers, one must be good and the other evil; the woman’s choice between them defines her as innocent or as a traitor.

One of these books is The Count of Monte Christo where, in order to get Mercedes, the woman he loves, Ferdinand turns his rival, the pure-hearted Edmond Dantes who is supposed to be his friend, over to the French authorities as a traitor and supporter of the exiled ruler Napoleon Bonaparte.

Dantes escapes his tomb-like prison, and in the figure of Monte Christo gets his revenge on Ferdinand. Mercedes, who had married Ferdinand in Dantes’ absence, is considered by him a traitor, until he finds out she had been told he was dead.

Her own doubts of her actions lead her in the end to the neutral place of a nunnery. The now rich Dantes, together with his actions of revenge, must be identified as evil. This oscillating story between good and evil and their changing place forms a very tortuous presentation of the struggle for love and power.

Jane Austen’s book Persuasion is much simpler than that, and the parts of good and evil are well defined in it. The evil doer is Anne’s cousin Elliot, who is discovered as a dishonest man who had acquired his wealth in crooked ways. Her other suitor is the righteous Captain Wentworth, who has earned his money honestly.

Anne, the heroine, indeed holds in her hand the power of happiness for either of these men, and in the end she makes the good choice, which will be the best for her. In this book, a craving for riches which is the symbol of the Underworld and evil, is indeed the power behind the scenes which really determines who is good and who is evil.

IV

There is, then, a development, which can be clearly seen from the various stages of ancient myth, to medieval fairy tales and modern literature, especially in regard to the position of Woman between the two rivals and the various ideas about good and evil who vie for her love and the power it grants.

When the Goddess of Nature ruled alone, there was no good or evil but the necessities of existence; with the advance of the moralistic monotheistic religions, and the deterioration of woman’s position in society, there was also a change in such ideas, which have been well expressed in the literatures of all periods, and which — if I may be so bold as to say — plague us to this day.


Copyright © 2005 by Tala Bar

Home Page