Showing posts from 2016

The Great Flood in Literature: Wrestling with Proteus

Walter Crane illustration of Hercules wrestling Proteus There is a figure in Greek mythology called Proteus (sometimes called the Old Man of the Sea), a minor sea god with two remarkable powers: shape-shifting and oracular utterance. To get the truth out of him, however, one must first catch him. When anyone attempts to grasp him, he rapidly changes from one form into another in an attempt to evade his captor’s clutches. But if a person is tenacious enough to hold on until Proteus tires and resolves into his true form, the god will render up the truth his captor seeks. Orally transmitted stories share with this mythical sea god a “protean” character. Handed on by word of mouth, each time a story is told the teller gives it a slightly different form and a different shade of meaning, so that over time many different versions of the same story emerge. The literary author who works from an oral tradition is like the hero who captures Proteus: first he must wrestle with the many v

Put on the Armor of Light, on St. Patrick's Day and every day

Illustration from As this article from Slate acknowledges, very few concrete facts about Ireland's patron saint have survived. Much that we think we know is merely legend. Keeping that in mind, did you ever wonder why Saint Patrick is credited with expelling snakes (not wolves, not badgers, not even demons) from the Emerald Isle? I'm not going to dispute whether holy Padraic literally chased serpentine creatures from Ireland, but you have to admit that on a symbolic level the story is apt. Serpents have a long history in Christian iconography, representing the deceptions of the devil. As an early missionary to the island, the fifth-century monk we know as St Patrick was successful in converting many from their pagan superstitions, and for more than a millennium Ireland was known as one of the most thoroughly Catholic lands upon Earth. Since pagan gods have long been regarded as being inspired by fallen angels, who presented themselves as deities, there could b

Ovid's Metamorphoses: Change is the only constant

Third installment on the Great Flood in Ovid's Metamorphoses I left the discussion of Ovid’s Metamorphoses by saying (as I often do) that, in literature, context is everything. We can’t really grasp the significance of Ovid’s version of the Great Flood unless we consider it in the context of the poem as a whole. So what is this poem really about? How does the early episode that recounts the Great Flood contribute to the overall meaning, and how does the overall meaning color the significance of the Flood account? The constancy of change The title hints at the poem’s meaning. Metamorphoses covers all of history (and prehistory), starting with the creation of the world and ending in Ovid's present day. What might seem, upon a first reading, a rather aimless stitching together of innumerable ancient myths is actually a very careful selection which is tied together by a single commonality: the metamorphoses themselves, one thing being changed into another. Most of these m