Saturday, May 8, 2010


Among the many (many,many) deficiencies of my education is an almost complete lack of familiarity with Jungian psychoanalysis..  And I'm not likely to repair it anytime soon; I have a phobia about subjective assertions lacking a systematic empirical basis.  But the idea of archetypal images, being conveyed from generation to generation...

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it's breath-taking.  My brother recently started reading H.P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu stuff.  I'll be interested to see what he thinks of it; Lovecraft's prose isn't simply archaic, it's downright bad.  Worse than Poe.  But like Poe, Lovecraft's imagery positively grabs you by the throat...

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The Epic of Gilgamesh is the oldest piece of literature I know of (I'm looking up the Death of Tammuz after I'm done here), and I'm very struck by the archetypal imagery of the tale.  (Tales, really.  The "story" is a synthesis of many versions of many different stories involving Gilgamesh, in Sumerian or Babylonian or Assyrian, across 3000 years.)  And while some of the images and themes made their way into the myths and epics of later civilizations (particularly the Greeks), they also seem to recur spontaneously, in cultures completely severed from the Sumerian in time and space.

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This is an image of Humbaba, the monstrous herdsman Gilgamesh had to subdue to bring timber back to Uruk.  We see the image again in Greek myths of Argus, the hundred eyed.

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One wonders if there might be some deep-seated socioeconomic tension between pastoralists and the urban agriculturalists (who write stories down) at the heart of this archetype.  Perhaps the echoes of the struggle between two incompatible methods of social organization persist to the range wars of the American West, and the evil cattle baron murdering sod-busters.  But that would be a subjective assertion made with no empirical basis.

(image from David Crutchfield)

I know, he wasn't a cattle baron...

There are other archetypal images in Gilgamesh that I find really interesting...  "The Land of the Living" is Eden, and Canaan, and maybe Avalon, and Westernesse.  There's the original tale of the Deluge.  One can see how that image might continue to stick in humanity's collective memory.

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There are other images that have persisted with no discernible (to me, anyway) cause.  Here's a quote by Ishtar...

"I will break in the doors of Hell, and smash the bolts; there will be confusion of people, those above with those from the lower depths.  I shall bring up the dead to eat food like the living, and the hosts of dead will outnumber the living.

(image from Copeland Communications)

It's a good thing you can't copyright folklore.  I don't mind if Bram Stoker's estate gets fat off "Twilight", but I'd feel badly for J.K. Rowling.