Monday, January 14, 2013

Disability and disability advocacy in Greek mythology


Engravements show Thetis anointing little Achilles with ambrosia and then preparing to put him into the fire. Do not try this at home! Copied from the blog Finitor, the author is unknown to me.
(Bulgarian readers can read the post in Bulgarian here.)

I am now re-reading Greek mythology and I thought about how disability is represented in it. The most obvious example is the god of fire Hephaestos. When his mother Hera saw him after birth, she disliked him because he was weak and bad-looking. She reacted knee-jerk (but apparently with Zeus's consent) by grabbing the infant and throwing him down from Olympus into the sea.

If Hephaestos were mortal, he would share the fate of many weak Spartan babies and his story would have ended here. However, he could not die, no matter how much his parents wished to get rid of him. The fall resulted only in additional disability, making him lame. The sea goddess Thetis (more about her below) found him and took care of him. Hephaestos became a talented artisan, which allowed him to fit the stereotype of the “able disabled” and eventually to return to Olympus. As far as we know, none of his parents ever said "Sorry!".

More interesting is to look at humans in comparison to the anthropomorphic gods. The two population have similar appearance and behaviour and mate freely, hence belong to one species. There is, however, a minor difference: humans are mortal, while gods are not. It is small wonder that gods regard mortality as a disability and wish to cure of it the humans they love, mainly their children. (The child of a mortal and immortal is generally mortal; sometimes, for unspecified reasons, both parents are immortal but have a mortal child - the typical situation with disability in a family.) Zeus can confer immortality to mortals but uses this privilege exclusively for his own children, which motivates other gods to seek "alternative" methods to cure mortality.

One such method is to anoint the mortal child with ambrosia and to put him into a fire so that "to burn away his mortal spirit". If repeated again and again, the procedure allegedly confers immortality. In fact, two application of this treatment have been described - by Thetis and Demeter, and neither was successful. The goddesses claimed that the lack of success was due to interruption of the treatment by surprise intervention of a stupid mortal parent. If you wish, you may believe them :-). We know, however, how real-life alternative medicine practitioners just love to treat incurable conditions and when fail to cure the patient, attribute the non-success to other people's malice and to the hole in the ozone layer.

Thetis, the saviour and foster mother of Hephaestos, later married the mortal Peleus for reasons varying in different versions of the myth but certainly not based on love. The couple had a son - Achilles, the future hero of the Troyan War. The mother who had before shown so much selfless understanding and common sense to her disabled foster child, coped much worse when disability came home. She could not accept her child's mortality, dooming herself to spectacular parenting failure. To begin with, she began the fire-and-ambrosia procedure without telling the father. However, one night Peleus saw little Achilles in the fire and drew his sword against Thetis. Offended, she left the family home forever.

So far, the story seems to develop generally OK. Unfortunately, Thetis didn't sever ties with her son altogether but paid him regular visits that frustrated the formation of his personality. The boy imbibed from his mother the impression of being defective and ill-fated and grew up deeply unhappy (his very name means  “greef of the tribe“). When recruitment for the Troyan War began, Thetis tried to save her son by dressing him in female clothes and hiding him among young women (a situation bringing to mind the movie Tea with Mussolini). Finally, Achilles was found out and sent to the front but there again failed to cut his umbilical cord. Even the briefest summaries of the Iliad describe him as an infantile, egocentric, cruel and unrestrained mama's boy who thinks only of himself and reacts to every problem by going to Mommy, crying in her lap and asking for help. This is in apparent contrast with the noble personality of his antagonist Hector who was spared the poor luck to have a god in the family.

Long before these events, the goddess of harvest Demeter, while wandering incognito in search of her missing daughter, settled in the home of a mortal family and got attached to them. Wishing to do them some good, she secretly started to immortalize by ambrosia and fire the family's baby son Demophon. One night, the boy's mother saw her and reacted fiercely. Demeter stopped the treatment and the child remained mortal. In a more sinister version of the myth, the surprised goddess failed to take the little boy out of the fire in time and he burned to death.

In these two cases, we can see a pattern of traits known to us from the approach of present-day alternative medicine to disability: the treatment is applied exclusively to young children; it is considered efficient by those applying it, although there is not a single documented case of success; the treated condition is perceived by those having it as their trait, rather than a defect; it seems incurable and, moreover, if a cure was possible at all, it would mean replacement of the treated personality by another one (what exactly will remain of a mortal if you burn away "his mortal spirit"?); the treatment horrifies and shocks every unbiased observer; and not only doesn't it bring the desired result but also harms the patient and can even endanger his life.

Finally, Demeter found another way to help the hospitable family and the whole mankind. She gave wheat grains to Demophon's brother Triptolemus and sent him to teach people agriculture. The plant in question is usually translated as "wheat" or "corn" but most likely was barley - the main wheat culture in ancient Greece. The fact that Triptolemus rather than Demophon was chosen for the mission makes us think that the alternative treatment must really have been lethal. However, some good finally came out of Demeter's too-late wisdom.

By giving barley to mankind, Demeter didn't get in trouble because by this time Zeus and other gods had already recognized the right of humans to adequate nutrition and new technologies. However, when Prometheus gave fire to humans, the dominant ideology was very different. The Greek myth of Prometheus was assembled from three parts: the first sacrifice (most likely original Greek contribution), the theft of fire (borrowed from Caucasian mythology) and the flood (borrowed later from Sumerian-Akkadian epic). Reading the most popular second part, we can ask why Prometheus took fire either from the Sun's chariot or from the hearth of Zeus of Hephaestos, rather than using his own hearth (which he presumably had) or, even better, teaching humans on the spot how to light a fire. The answer is that his Caucasian prototype stole fire from gods for his own community and, hence, controlled fire as poorly as those to whom he was bringing it. In this version, the myth has psychological plausibility - self-sacrifice for one's own community is not rare and is encouraged in all cultures, especially early ones.

The Greek myth changes the culture hero's affiliation: he is a god, although second-class, and "steals" the fire from his community to give it to another one - the humans. Self-sacrifice for another community is much less common than for one's own and is not encouraged; in fact, many cultures, especially early ones, appreciate their members by the damage they inflict on other communities. Prometheus, however, had a personal reason to help humans, though this is never pointed out: while he and his wife were immortal, their son Deucalion was mortal. There are no data that the child was ever subjected to alternative-medical experiments. Instead, Prometheus addressed the real problem: that the community to which his son belonged was in a miserable plight and authorities insisted to keep things that way.

Humans, however, managed to start some animal husbandry. Zeus reacted to this by calling a "conference" to regulate the relations between mortals and gods. His idea was to force humans to make sacrifices (which had never before been done). This way, the meat would be offered to the gods, while humans would remain on vegetarian diet, plus the horns and hooves. However, when somebody had to show how to do the sacrifice, Zeus made a very poor decision, entrusting the task to Prometheus. The latter divided the sacrificed animal into two parts and offered Zeus to choose the better one for the gods. The first part included the nutritional stuff (meat and organs) covered by the unpleasant-looking stomach, while the second one was bones masked by fat. Zeus failed to see the trick in time and grabbed the bones, setting a precedent for future sacrifices. Angry, he declared that humans would never have fire. Prometheus, however, gave them fire and (in most versions of the myth) also other technologies. This time, he didn't get away with a suspended sentence.

The story has a sequel in next generation. Decades later, Zeus decided to make a flood with the usual excuse that humans were sinners. This was, by conservative estimates, his third genocide against mankind. Warned by Prometheus, Deucalion and his wife prepared a wooden chest and survived. After that, Zeus offered to fulfil a wish of them. His intention apparently was that they would wish immortality and this way he would get rid of the last couple potential founders of human population without staining his hands with their blood. From the viewpoint of a divine non-disabled individual, what else could be the dream of disabled people if not being cured from their disabilities and becoming like him? Zeus, however, should have learned his lesson from other similar cases that it is risky to promise someone to grant his wish because he may not wish what you wish him to wish. This was exactly what happened with Deucalion: he wished the Earth to be populated by humans again. Strangely, this act of self-advocacy made Zeus acquiesce and concede. While he continued to treat individual humans nastily, he never again tried to exterminate mankind or hinder its progress.


Unknown said...

I think you could argue that it was Mother Earth who granted Deucalion's request. She was always supportive of any sort of life.

Maya M said...

True, but there was apparent "division of labour" between her and Zeus: she creates, he kills off or, if this is impossible, locks away.

Unknown said...

This is a very interesting analysis! I think the cerebral palsy community (as well as the disability community at large) would be very interested in reading it - check out the CP Family Network facebook page to link up with the community. Thanks for sharing!

Unknown said...


I working on a new article. You are my muse for it. Can I use this quote from you (with all the proper citations)? “I start to suspect that Zeus was a damn racist. He seems to have never liked a true human woman!"
Maya M. in Maya’s Corner

Maya M said...

Yes, of course! Thank you!
I am considering a sci-fi version of a part of Greek mythology. As I was working on a lecture on human evolution, it came to me that the Bronze Age humans must have been Neanderthals, while gods were like us (Homo sapiens sapiens), except that the first generations of them were immortal. After extensive interbreeding, the Heroic Age humans became modern (i.e. god-like), except for their mortality.
At that point, I realized that Zeus is unlikely to have made sex to Neanderthal women, and I started research which generally confirmed the hypothesis. (In my book of Greek myths, by Russian scholar N. Kun, Antiope is daughter of river-god Asopus.)

Maya M said...

As I imagine the scene of release of Prometheus, he is surprised by the appearance of Heracles and says, "I expected you to be a human." Heracles replies, "But I AM a human." Prometheus says, "You look like a god... but of course, you are Zeus' son, it is natural for you to look like your father."

A little later, Heracles not only kills the eagle but intends to release Prometheus altogether. Hermes, who is hiding nearby, fears that things are going too far and comes out. He tells Heracles, "You need not feel so much sympathy to this fellow. His deeds were motivated, at worst, by aspiration to your father's position and, at best, by self-hate. The humans he created and then led to their doom were unfortunate ape-like creatures but he liked them this way because he hates his own people. Did you mention that he was disappointed by your appearance? It will be an even nastier surprise for him to hear that after numerous god-human unions today, in the Heroic Age, ALL humans resemble gods. He seems to have fancied that some of his old friends who lost their lives due to his recklessness would rise up from their watery grave and come to his rescue."