Posts Tagged ‘mythology’

Ubiquitous

September 26, 2009

One of my two favorite professors in my college days was a wiry little old Texan named Professor Charles Froehlich. With him I studied three years of Koine Greek (the language of the New Testament), a year of Latin, a history course called “The Classical World,” and Greek & Roman mythology. His influence on me would be difficult to overestimate. I’ve never known a more diligent, dedicated, skillful, and knowledgeable teacher. He remains one of the most awesome human beings I’ve ever brushed shoulders with, and yet he is certainly one of the most humble. Let me tell you some quick Froehlich stories. University teachers are, in a way, public figures, so I feel I have the right.

At graduation ceremonies, professors typically deck themselves out in the fine robes and splendid colors that they’ve earned through rigorous study. Different academic disciplines are represented by different colors, and professors can add ribbons and medals on top of that to reflect their august distinctions. Those ceremonies were always something to see, and I don’t fault the profs who dressed in their hard-earned finery. I learned somewhere along the line that Froehlich had a whole armload of master’s degrees, but I never learned that from him. At graduations, Froehlich would wear a simple, drab, brownish-black robe without ornamentation. In it, among all the peacocks, he looked like a crow. But I couldn’t help thinking of martial arts masters. The ones who are true masters never wear anything flashy, do they? That’s the sort of man he is. (He’s long retired, but still in very good health by recent accounts.)

In yearbook faculty pictures, in which the theology department would be sitting in a group, Froehlich would typically be way in the back, just inside the door, looking windblown, as if he’d ducked in for the photo and in another five seconds would be out the door again, off to more important things.

He would pass you like a speeding train on campus. Usually his necktie would be over his shoulder, blown back by the speed of his gait. But he’d raise a hand as he zoomed past you and call out a cheery “HEL-lo!” But lest you get the wrong impression from that: he was the most available prof on campus. He lived alone in a tiny college-owned house across the street from the campus. But nearly any given evening you could call his extension or knock on his office door, and he’d be there, and he’d always be glad to see you. In his book-filled office, he kept a little folding cot. I suspect there were many nights he didn’t make it back to his house at all. It was always comforting to me to be able to walk across campus at night and see the light glowing in his office window — the one lighted window in the building.

And if any prof should have kept plenty of office hours, it was he: Greek wasn’t easy. Many were the times we pre-seminary students would find ourselves baffled at some late hour, and not to have our homework done for the next day was unthinkable. So we were always popping in on him, and he’d guide us through the tangles with a quick, efficient explanation.

I remember one evening when it took him all of about ten seconds to clear up the mystery I’d been struggling over. With his half-smile, he said, “Fred, if you’d just picked up the phone, you could have saved yourself the walk over here.” But the point was, I never wanted to save myself that walk. When you’re holed up in your room studying declension charts for hours on end, you need to get out. You need the night air, the walk, and the sight of a welcoming light burning ahead of you.

When he was angry at us for being too lazy or slack, I’ve seen him break chalk against the ceiling; but far worse was simply his Look. To know you had displeased and disappointed him was in itself the worst punishment. You just couldn’t be lazy or unprepared in his presence: it wasn’t allowed. I still shudder to recall the guy who showed up on one of the first days of class wearing a hat, chewing gum, and who put his feet up onto the chair in front of him. [Shivery moment of silence.]

Professor Froehlich had a unique way of passing back papers. First, he’d staple the stack together to carry it to and from his office. When he’d hand them back, he’d pry out the staple with a little tool carried, and he’d fling the staple in the direction of the distant wastebasket. Then he’d call out our last names one by one and throw each paper sort-of-toward its owner. We’d be diving and scrambling to retrieve the gliding sheets. It’s probably hard for you to understand this if you weren’t there. Oddly, the way he did it never seemed rude. It was simply Froehlich handing back papers.

He was a great recycler. Koine Greek doesn’t change from year to year, so once he developed good quizzes and tests, he could use them perennially. We’d receive photocopied tests with things like this written at the top (in his handwriting): October 5, 1982  October 3, 1983  October 6, 1984  October 5, 1985  October 4, 1986  October 3, 1987.

And he encouraged us to re-use papers until every bit of both sides was filled up.

It amazed us how he knew exactly where everything was in the Bible and exactly where everything was in our textbook. In answer to someone’s question, he’d say (off the top of his head): “I think if you’ll look at page 142, in the lower left-hand corner of the page, you’ll find the answer to that.” (And he’d also explain the answer.) He always said “I think,” but we all knew perfectly well he knew precisely what he was talking about. Moreover, he had every lesson for the entire course firmly fixed in his head. He’d very frequently say things like, “I know we are glossing over the details of that right now, but if you’ll be patient, on November the twenty-first, in about the last fifteen minutes of class, we’ll be taking that up again in a little more detail, when I’ll tell you about. . . .”

One of my favorite quotes from him is, “One of the best things about getting old is that you can blame your ineptitude on your age.” Heh, heh! As if he ever had an ounce of ineptitude in him! But it’s a comforting quote for the rest of us.

In print, it’s hard to capture the Texas-ness of his speech. We tend to stereotype Texans as cowboys, airline pilots, or oil tycoons. Imagine a Texas voice talking about Hadrian’s Wall or Pontius Pilate or deponent future (“dep fut”) verbs. Who can forget his rant about how the Huns weren’t Germans? It went something like: “Everybody thinks the Huns were Germans. They weren’t Germans! The Huns were not Germans. They weren’t Germans. The Huns were NOT GERMANS.” (That’s just the beginning, but you get the idea.)

Harper Lee tells us it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird. Watching Froehlich, we learned that it’s a sin to waste even a second of our God-given time. He treated seconds as precious things. If he kept us forty seconds past the end of class one day, he’d make it up four days later, when he had gotten through enough material to let us go forty seconds early.

When we had a three-day weekend, he’d say, “That should allow you to have several parties between now and Tuesday. When you come back well-rested, we will talk about. . . .”

I still remember one late night before exams, when my friend John D. and I were burning the midnight oil in the snack bar area of the community center, studying our Greek. Like clockwork, Froehlich would dash through there at a certain time of an evening, his tie streaming back over his shoulder, to buy a cup of coffee. As he passed us and we called our greetings, he grinned back at us and said, “Don’t worry; just work.”

I hope you’re getting the picture that he was a truly inspirational mentor. He insisted that you do your very best, and as you strove for that, you realized your best was far better than you’d thought it could be.

Here’s the countdown of the three highest praises I remember getting from him (the kind that you remember and treasure forever after):

#3: “Durbin’s not a genius. He gets these high scores because he pays attention to the textbook.” (Egad, for sure, I’m no more a genius than the Huns were Germans!)

#2: One time I set an “all-time high score” on one of his Latin tests — and he would know, because he archived everything and loved statistics.

#1: The best ever was his compliment on my “Herculean Labor” (what he called our Class Projects) in Greek & Roman mythology. He said something like, “In Greek, there’s a degree of adjectives beyond the superlative. Your classmates feel your Labor should be described with such. I concur.” Flow moment! Soli Deo gloria!

Anyway, to the business at hand! At the beginning of every single class day during the mythology course, he would make us say the following all together:

“Mythology is alive. Mythology is ubiquitous.”

The point was that names and characters and events from the classical myths are all around us in our daily lives, even all these thousands of years later. They run through our literature, our movies, our popular culture. Today I set out to prove that this is true, even in Niigata, Japan in the fall of 2009. I expanded my quest just slightly to include ancient Japanese folklore as well — but the myths of the Greeks and Romans are well represented. And mind you, this was all done on a bicycle ride that took me about half an hour. If I’d searched intensely all day, I think I could have added considerably to this list. But anyway, take a look:

I agree, this one is tenuous, because the spelling is different. (I'm just warming up here.) Dido was the sister of Pygmalion; she founded Carthage and was its queen, and fell in love with Aeneas. She cursed the Trojans.

I agree, this one is tenuous, because the spelling is different. (I'm just warming up here.) Dido was the sister of Pygmalion; she founded Carthage and was its queen, and fell in love with Aeneas. She cursed the Trojans.

In Chinese/Japanese mythology, a Kirin is a fantastic creature somewhat like a horse, somewhat like a dragon. If you can find a can of imported Kirin beer, you can see a good picture of one. (A D&D Monster Manual will work, too!) Interestingly, the Japanese word for "giraffe" is kirin. Is this an acknowledgement that anything looking like a giraffe must have at least two hooves squarely in the world of myth?

In Chinese/Japanese mythology, a Kirin is a fantastic creature somewhat like a horse, somewhat like a dragon. If you can find a can of imported Kirin beer, you can see a good picture of one. (A D&D Monster Manual will work, too!) Interestingly, the Japanese word for "giraffe" is kirin. Is this an acknowledgement that anything looking like a giraffe must have at least two hooves squarely in the world of myth?

This is Kinshaitei, the second-closest ramen (Chinese noodle) restaurant to my apartment. Is that a picture of a Kirin I see? There seems to be a connection between this particular style of noodes (Kyushu ramen) and that image. . . .

This is Kinshaitei, the second-closest ramen (Chinese noodle) restaurant to my apartment. Is that a picture of a Kirin I see? There seems to be a connection between this particular style of noodes (Kyushu ramen) and that image. . . .

Remember these? They are Kappas, or river-goblins, still a very popular motif in figurines, dolls, toys, and advertising. These are saying "Keep our river clean!"

Remember these? They are Kappas, or river-goblins, still a very popular motif in figurines, dolls, toys, and advertising. These are saying "Keep our river clean!"

This restaurant is called "Tengu." Japanese Tengu are god-like beings that live on mountaintops. They are humanoid in form but can fly; they have bright red faces and very long noses. If you look carefully, you can see the outline of a Tengu face behind the lower set of characters.

This restaurant is called "Tengu." Japanese Tengu are god-like beings that live on mountaintops. They are humanoid in form but can fly; they have bright red faces and very long noses. If you look carefully, you can see the outline of a Tengu face behind the lower set of characters.

Going back West, look at this! This Isuzu truck is called an "Elf"! Don't ask me in what capacity a truck can be an Elf!

Going back West, look at this! This Isuzu truck is called an "Elf"! Don't ask me in what capacity a truck can be an Elf!

Look at the top, the first word under the wiper! Clio was one of the nine Muses. She was the Muse of history.

Look at the top, the first word under the wiper! Clio was one of the nine Muses. She was the Muse of history.

Cupid is the supermarket where I shop nearly every day. Son of Mercury and Venus, the Roman god of love. Notice the big heart!

Cupid is the supermarket where I shop nearly every day. Son of Mercury and Venus, the Roman god of love. Notice the big heart!

Aaaand here's the prize of today's hunt. Athena is a home furnishings store. This one is indisputable. Look at the logo: she's got the helmet, the spear, and the owl on her shoulder. This is the Greek goddess Athena, the warrior, the skillful, the wise one. You'd better believe mythology is alive and ubiquitous!

Aaaand here's the prize of today's hunt. Athena is a home furnishings store. This one is indisputable. Look at the logo: she's got the helmet, the spear, and the owl on her shoulder. This is the Greek goddess Athena, the warrior, the skillful, the wise one. You'd better believe mythology is alive and ubiquitous!

So here’s your assignment for this week: notice the references to mythology and folklore around you as you go through each day. When you open your eyes, you’ll see they’re everywhere. I won’t limit you to Greek and Roman myth. You can find elves and unicorns, too — any name, any creature from the myths or folklore of any culture is fair game. Places are good, too, such as if you pass through Troy, Illinois. The deadline? Let’s say midnight on October 1st, U.S. time. If anyone cares to keep a list and submit it by the end of next Thursday, you’re in the contest. The rule is that these have to be references you actually see — you have to spot them on signs, on TV, in newspapers, etc. – or hear them. The person who puts together the longest list is the winner.

The prize. . . . Hmm. The prize is that (aside from the prestigious honor) you get to assign the topic of the next blog post. Be as creative as you know how! [I reserve the right to refuse or modify your idea; but I will do my absolute best to accommodate your request.] Sound like a deal?

Okay. One more thing: today I discovered what might be of interest to some readers. We’ve been searching for the way a reader can become a “follower” of this blog — a way that an ordinary citizen can receive an e-mail message when the blog is updated. Here’s one way. There’s a free service called “Feed My Inbox.” http://www.feedmyinbox.com This is extremely easy to use: you enter the address of my blog <fredericsdurbin.wordpress.com> and your e-mail address. Supposedly, the service will send you notices of any updates (though I’m not clear on just what constitutes an “update” — it may or may not include comments, but I’m pretty positive it would include new posts). It only sends an update once a day (IF there’s anything new that day), so as not to fill up your inbox with bunches of announcements. If you use the service, you can enter any number of sites/blogs/addresses that you want updates on. If it actually works [I discovered it on the World Fantasy Convention's site -- they were endorsing it, so it should be legitimate], it seems like the solution for us Internetally-challenged people who are overwhelmed by the whole deal about RSS feeds. This is just a simple message that comes to your e-mail’s in-box.

All right, I’ll stop there. Look around yourself! Mythology is alive!

Parallels

May 24, 2008

When C. S. Lewis was beginning to make the transition from unbelief to belief in Christianity, reportedly one of the primary avenues for him was the mythological connection. Lewis found Biblical stories irritating in what they asked listeners to accept and believe, but very similar stories in other ancient myth cycles didn’t bother him in the least, though they were also accepted and believed by other groups of people in other times — rather, these other cycles appealed to him. Noticing this, Lewis’s friend J. R. R. Tolkien said something to the effect of, “Well, Christianity is just another mythology — only it’s one that happens to be true.” And (again, so I’ve read) a light began to glow for Lewis.

During the past year, I’ve started reading the Bible in a new way. Always before in life, I’ve read the Bible in bits and pieces — “lessons” — usually determined by the church’s lectionary calendar or the appointings of this or that devotional booklet. But it dawned on me that, as one who places such value on Story, I ought to explore the aspect of Scripture as Story. That is, I ought to see what might be seen from reading entire books in order, watching the events unfold naturally and cumulatively. One of my favorite college profs liked to point out that “history = His Story.” The Bible we have today looks like a book. It’s bound like a book. It fits into our bookcases. Maybe we keep it there. But oddly, we don’t usually read it like a book, starting at the beginning of a story and seeing where it leads us, appreciating the characters, what they do, and what happens to them.

I can see you all shaking your heads and slapping your foreheads, thinking, “Duh! It’s taken you more than four decades to get around to this approach?” Well, well, whatever. We’re never too old to learn. So anyway, I started with the four Gospels. I read John, then Luke, then Matthew, then Mark. Then I went back to square one and read through Genesis. (A pace that works for me is reading a chapter almost every night. If I’m too busy some nights to read a chapter, I don’t get down on myself. The book has been around for a long time — I know it will still be there the next night.) Then I went on into Exodus, and that’s where I am now, in the midst of the plagues upon Egypt. (It’s really making me want to rent The Ten Commandments, which I used to watch every year on TV when I was a kid. One network would put it on at Eastertime to compete with Jesus of Nazareth on the other network. I wanted to watch The Ten Commandments for the seventh or eighth time, and my parents wanted to watch Jesus, so we’d do a lot of switching back and forth whenever a commercial came on on one network. [Yes, in those days, homes usually did have just one TV set. . . .] How many of you used this line with your parents on a school night? — “Just let me stay up until the parting of the Red Sea!” — Bring back any memories? I won’t ask how many of you played The Ten Commandments on school recess. My friends and I did . . . probably convincing the playground teachers that we were insane. Of course, we’d conditioned them: in the years before The Ten Commandments, we played Planet of the Apes.)

Boy, do I digress! Here’s the point I set out to make: I’ve been noticing a fascinating parallel between Genesis/Exodus and Homer’s Odyssey. Let’s compare the Biblical Jacob with Odysseus. Jacob’s name means “He Grabs the Heel,” because he came out of the womb grasping the heel of his brother Esau. We’re told that Esau was a great hunter, a man of the open country, but Jacob was a quiet man who stayed among the tents. The Trickster is a common figure in world mythology, and I’d venture to say that Jacob is the closest figure the Old Testament gives us to The Trickster. He uses his head. He’s shrewd. He’s not above doing things that are, frankly, out-and-out dishonest. He skillfully gets his brother’s birthright. He deviously (in cahoots with his mother) gets his aging father’s blessing that was meant for Esau. He does something so tricky with the livestock that even I’m not sure I understand what he did, but he greatly increases his herds at the expense of his uncle and father-in-law Laban.

Odysseus is wily, too. That tricky hollow Horse was his idea. And how about how he gets his captured men out of the cave of Polyphemus, the Cyclops? After he’s blinded the Cyclops, he has his men cling to the bellies of the sheep as they leave the cave. Polyphemus touches each passing body and feels only the fleeces of sheeps’ backs. Isn’t that eerily close to that stunt Jacob and Rebekah pull in Genesis 27, when they put goatskin on Jacob’s smooth arms so that his father Isaac, nearly blind in his old age, thinks he’s feeling the hairy arms of his firstborn Esau? Odysseus is always coming up with clever ways to have his cake and eat it, too. He wants to hear the Sirens’ song, but he knows hearing it can be maddening and fatal, so he has his men lash him securely to the mast so that he can’t jump into the waves, no matter how enchanted he becomes. The men all plug their ears, and their captain alone gets to hear the alluring song. And when he comes home, he doesn’t do so with a fanfare; he comes home in disguise at first to see how things are going in Ithaca. It’s only when he can “scour the Shire” in one fell swoop that he reveals himself.

Then there are the gists of the stories themselves. Odysseus is proud of himself for that Horse innovation, and his hybris offends the gods. Poseidon decides to teach him a lesson; and thus, the Odyssey: it takes Odysseus ten years to get home — ten years, in which he’s tried and tested and subjected to all sorts of things before he comes again, at last, to Ithaca and his beloved Penelope. [He does some slaughtering of rivals who have moved in and are attempting to take over.]

Genesis/Exodus is also a coming-home story. It seems so easy for the sons of Israel to run down to Egypt again and again when they need to buy grain during those years of famine. Then they take up residence down there, and then they become slaves, and then God sends Moses to deliver them. But on the way home, they grumble and lose faith . . . and so Exodus becomes an Odyssey. The children of Israel have to wander for forty years in a wilderness that was so easily crossed before. But when they’ve learned their lesson, when they know that God is God, the promised land awaits. [Like Odysseus, they shed quite a bit of blood to reclaim the land.]

What’s all this doing in a discussion of the writing life? The point is, it pays to notice connections. There are truths, elements, and patterns that resound throughout history, throughout cultures, throughout diverse media. Look for the patterns. You’ll be a better writer for it.

I’ll go one final step and suggest that we pull back with our “Google Earth” buttons — zoom way back outward from Genesis/Exodus to look at the Bible as a whole. The entire Bible is a coming-home story: human beings wander away from God on a long, dark path, and God brings them home. Homecoming, reconciliation, redemption . . . all themes to keep in mind when we write our magnum opuseseses. They make great stories because they reflect the greatest story.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.