Gods Behaving Badly: Ancient Mythology & Cultural Narrative (Part 1)

Because I spend too much time (i.e., any time) lurking on classical-centric social media, and in this case, especially Twitter, I’ve been thinking a lot about mythology, third-wave feminism, and contemporary scholarship. Mostly, I love the direction of modern academia in the classical world and history in general, where it’s moving towards being more inclusive about its narratives and focus. I think that’s great, especially as I’m slogging through a short history of the religious military orders in the medieval period and I’m surrounded by a bunch of homicidal Pope-bots killing everything in sight because their jihad is totally cool, but Muslims are barbarians who had it coming.

[The medieval period is just full of people dealing with their emotions in constructive ways…]

But I found myself, even as someone who identifies as a feminist, being depressed the other day as I felt like I was scrolling through reams of people tripping over each other to constantly remind everyone that Zeus is a serial rapist, Theseus is a bad dude, etc. And let me be very clear— those are not erroneous statements. They are almost disturbingly accurate. But I think what’s been getting me down is that they’re the equivalent of fun sound-bites in what I think is a much larger (and more interesting) picture of what these (often just awful) stories tell us about the people who told them. So I thought this week I’d noodle a bit on mythology, and literary and cultural criticism to see if we can dig a little deeper.

But as I was writing this up, the discussion turned into a length that is waaay too long for a single entry. So, I’m going to break things up by spending this week setting up some of the ways ancient people themselves looked at their mythologies, and specifically linking that to Egyptian mythology as we understand it. Next week we’ll address the larger classical social media brouhaha and try to figure out what any of this means for Greek mythology. Despite said length of discussion, I don’t expect to come to what I imagine are astoundingly novel conclusions, nor to negate the valid points being made by those engaging in classical cultural critique or historical reevaluation. It’s important to reassess why we gravitate towards certain things in the past and to be aware when we perhaps cross the line between interest and uncritical veneration.

[Plato’s Symposium, by Anselm Feuerbach (1873)]

In part because the ancients were doing this constantly. It’s not some kind of new wokeness that is attacking mythology for being horrible and violent. Plato was famous for stating that any mythological story were the gods were subject to passions or suffering were categorically false narratives because reason would dictate that the gods were perfect (otherwise they wouldn’t be gods), and we should stop telling these stories to impressionable idiots (i.e., probably anyone who wasn’t a professional philosopher). This was one of the three types of Platonic mythological allegory, the other two being: stories based on reason (which therefore had to be true), and stories that had non-verifiable elements beyond human reason that might be partially true. Plato held that all of mythology’s purpose was didactic, that is, to teach certain truths to people. This particular vehicle is chosen because people like stories, and will listen to a tale more closely than a straightforward treatise or sermon. Jesus knew this, which is why so much of his ministry is based in parables.

[Even though the Gospels seem to indicate the people of Palestine were entirely unfamiliar with the concept of allegory, based on their slack-jawed reception of said parables.]

Plato and many philosophers that followed him hated the trashy myths that make up both Greek mythology and the mythos of other neighboring cultures because they made the gods look bad and taught uneducated people about horrible acts. But I feel like he (and us) are selling ancient people short if we assume everyone was just swallowing all of this in such an uncritical fashion. It’s like the hand-wringing we all did in the ‘90s about violent video games. It’s probably impossible to determine that no one was ever negatively influenced by exposure to them, but to claim that all children were now going to grow up to be amoral killing machines is perhaps a bit alarmist.

[See my earlier mention of the monastic military orders— all of whom were clerics who probably didn’t play a single hour of Doom or Call of Duty.]

One way to look at mythological storytelling is through what we’ve come to call euhemerism, for the 4th century BC mythographer Euhemerus, who argued that mythology of all kinds, not just of the ancient heroes but of the gods themselves were the stories of historical events that were exaggerated and distorted over time. The American Latinist Thomas Bulfinch (1796-1867 AD) referred to this as the “historical theory of mythology.” A Greek example of this is the idea that the “god of the winds”, Aeolus, was an ancient king who taught early Greeks how to sail and harness wind power, hence his becoming a deity associated with that part of the natural world. This sort of falls into that third Platonic category, where a myth as elements of truth that may or may not be verifiable.

Though Euhemerus was far from the only mythographer who attempted to rationalize these stories in this way. The Greek historian Herodotus (c. 484-425 BC) does this often, as does the philosopher Xenophanes (c. 570-478 BC) and the Phoenician linguist Sanchuniathon, who might have been a contemporary of Hesiod in the 8th century BC, but may have been writing as early as the Trojan War period of 1200 BC. Socrates (via Plato) in Phaedrus agrees that this is viable way to interpret mythology, but cautions against trying to pigeonhole all mythological stories into this model. Some things simply have no rational meaning and some things are made up. Fiction is not a foreign concept to ancient peoples.

Because historians generally find their particular mythos rather inscrutable, euhemerism is a popular way for them and literary theorists to interpret the fragmentary pieces Egyptian mythology we have access to. The gods who at one time or another have held the title of king of the gods (Ra, Osiris, Horus) are depicted as having once ruled on earth as the first pharaohs, so there is some legitimacy to viewing Egyptian myth through this prism. Much of the Osiris myth focuses on his rule as an ancient good king. Osiris and Isis are the ones who supposedly taught the Egyptians agriculture and weaving, hence the god’s association with vegetation and his queen’s association with magic, for everything the pair showed their subjects probably appeared supernatural to them.

This is also a way to view the later parts of this myth cycle, the ones that focus on Set’s usurpation and his dynastic struggles against his nephew Horus— as a deeply embedded cultural memory of an ancient prince who murdered his brother the king, and the king’s infant heir who grows up to avenge his father. This part of the myth is interesting because of its drawn-out nature. Many abridged telling focus on the dramatic elements, like Set’s gouging of Horus’ eye or Horus’ retaliatory castration of Set, making it seem like a quick clash of the titans.

But the so-called Contendings of Horus and Set supposedly represent an eighty-year struggle between the gods that mostly focus on divine arbitration meetings, which if this is based on some hazy historical memory, speaks to an Egyptian kingdom ruled by a king and a council of powerful advisors attempting to negotiate a peace between two court factions which plays out much as it would in a non-mythological setting at nearly any point in history. It is a common-to-the-point-of-cliché story where a king dies suddenly (and the suddenness leads to suspicions of foul play), leaving two possible heirs: a son too young to rule on his own and an older male relative of the blood. Adding in other familiar elements like a powerful queen dowager who serves as regent and advisor to her son and the lords of the realm divided on who the best ruler of the kingdom would be under the circumstances, and you’ve probably got more than half of the monarchical power transitions in all of human history.

Because something that sometimes gets lost in the shuffle caused by the later ascendency of the Abydos Triad (Osiris-Isis-Horus) and their more factional version of this story is that Set had genuine support among the gods for his rule. The Contendings suggests that part of the reason the issue gets dragged out for so long is that the creator god (Khnum, Ptah, Geb, or Ra, depending on translation) favored Set over Horus, which could represent a serious contingent of older lords who preferred a strong adult pharaoh who could protect Egypt in a time where might usually made right in foreign diplomacy. No matter how beloved a dead ruler might have been, and no matter how impeccable a son’s hereditary right to a throne might be in a culture, crowning an infant or very young heir carried pronounced risks for a kingdom and the arguments of the Contendings reflect this. Set has a lot of enemies in Egyptian mythology, but you know what, so does Isis, and not all of the gods thought the influence of the clever, increasingly powerful Isis any less predictable than Set’s admittedly volatile personality.

But myth and folklore are two sides of the same coin and many of Contendings also have familiar folklore tropes, the most obvious example to me is the trope of the Duped King. This stock folklore type usually involves a member of the lower classes successfully defeating a king or other powerful individual through cunning or ingenuity. As we said earlier, in a world where it was often impossible to speak truth to power, these types of stories were a way to make the less powerful “king for a day” and allowed them to exert control over those who controlled them, if only in a story.

In the Contendings, though he is a prince, Horus usually takes on the role of the trickster peasant to Set’s duped king in this modification of the trope. In one of the myriad contests between the two, Horus and Set are to race stone boats, but Horus secretly paints a wooden boat to look like stone and wins when Set’s boat inevitably sinks. But the most infamous of these tales, because of its serious weirdness, is what is sometimes depicted as the final contending between the gods: the one where Horus and Set try to inseminate each other to establish dominance.

[This is the Egyptian version of Catullus dishing out a shady epigram at Julius, not for engaging in homosexual behavior, but for supposedly being the power bottom in the situation. They call it classical history because our ancestors were so classy.]

As you might have guessed, the god of chaos is the one who kicked this one off. Set supposedly tried to have sex with Horus to assert his dominance over his nephew, but Horus avoids his advances and catches Set’s semen and throws it into the Nile. To retaliate, Horus produces his own semen and puts it on a delicious plate of lettuce, Set’s favorite food. Set eats this adulterated salad and then drags Horus in front of the gods’ council to (once again) claim the kingship of Egypt. To demonstrate his dominance of Horus, Set calls forth his semen, but it answers from the river and doesn’t support his claim. Horus then calls forth his semen and it answers from inside Set, winning him the argument. In some versions of the story, it’s Isis who takes Horus’ semen to make the lettuce plate, as if having one’s mom do this instead is somehow less weird.

Presumably after this particular contending, the other gods decided they’d rather burn Egypt to the ground than continue to have to judge stealth semen-eating contests between Horus and Set. Or, some tellings imply the supposedly personality-free gods of Egypt couldn’t stop laughing at how stupid this whole thing had become. So, this is where the gods agree that Horus will be king and rule the Black Land (Lower Egypt), while Set would maintain his lordship over the deserts and oases of the Red Land (Upper Egypt).

[And Set presumably went on a Paleo diet…]

The peaceful unity of Egypt was finally achieved and the myth might explain how the feuding factions of a prehistoric Egyptian royal house came back together to protect the kingdom. Why the whole thing seems to be the result of what amounts to a bad frat house prank is less clear, but as I tell my readers in The God’s Wife, the Egyptians were masters of not letting the truth get in the way of a good story. And it certainly wouldn’t be because mythology is always serious and the political past was more dignified than it is today. For sure.

[Umm… I hate to be that guy, but you both have washed your hands recently, right?]
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