Thursday, April 26, 2012

Ancient Lifecycle Myths

Eos and Tithonus

Is the Human Condition Fixed or Mutable?

The Human Lifecycle:  Ancient Lifecycle Myths 

To every thing there is a season,
and a time to every purpose under the heaven:
a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;
a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
a time to weep, and a time to laugh;

Ecclesiastes, 3rd Century B.C.

For every thing, turn, turn, turn
There is a season, turn, turn, turn
And a tine for every purpose under heaven

A time to be born, a time to die
A time to plant, a time to reap
A time to kill, a time to heal
A time to laugh, a time to weep

Turn! Turn! Turn!  The Byrds, 1965 
(Song adapted by Pete Seeger)

The human lifecycle, with its seasons of birth, growth, maturity, and decline, has long been compared to the seasons of the agrarian calendar, and is still widely believed to be as natural and unchanging as the seasons. Social transitions such as regime changes, or changes in leadership within a nation or clan (succession), have traditionally been viewed as inevitable and cyclical. Because there is “a time to die”, humans have hoped for orderly transitions in positions of authority from one generation to the next, probably even before the Agrarian Revolution (8,000-5,000 B.C.)

My father, my father, the chariot of Israel

And it came to pass, as they still went on, and talked, that, behold, there appeared a chariot of fire, and horses of fire, and parted them both asunder; and Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven.
And Elisha saw it, and he cried, My father, my father, the chariot of Israel, and the horsemen thereof. And he saw him no more: and he took hold of his own clothes, and rent them in two pieces.
He took up also the mantle of Elijah that fell from him, and went back, and stood by the bank of Jordan;

2 Kings 2: 11-14, 560-540 B.C.

Perhaps those who are best suited to power are those who have never sought it. Those who ... have leadership thrust upon them, and take up the mantle because they must, and find to their own surprise that they wear it well.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, J.K. Rowling, 2007

Social transitions of power and authority have been popularly understood as analogous to transitions in the individual lifecycle. The account in the Hebrew Bible of Elijah’s successor Elisha taking up the prophet’s mantle describes the passing on of spiritual and temporal authority from the father to the son. In this poetic account of a peaceful transition of authority, the father dies and in the next moment the son, taking on the father’s identity, comes of age spiritually. The phrases ‘taking up the mantle’ and ‘passing the mantle’ have thus become bywords for the peaceful and timely passing of authority from generation to generation.

You too, my son?

The King is dead. Long live the King.

Traditional proclamation.

In the essay “The return of Totemism in Childhood,” Sigmund Freud describes violent transitions of power among prehistoric tribes resulting from the overthrow of the generation of the fathers by that of the sons. (Freud, Sigmund, Totem and Taboo, 1912-13) In Freud’s hypothetical schema, the Oedipal complex activates the drama of succession. This pattern is explicitly repeated in one historian’s version of the assassination of Julius Caesar. Caesar, attacked in the forum, reproaches Brutus, not with “Et tu, Brute?” but with: "Kai su, teknon?” [“You too, my son?”] (Suetonius, The Lives of Twelve Caesars, 121 A.D.) Throughout human history, the drama that has been re-enacted, in an orderly or a disorderly way, in every family as children become biological and social replacements for their parents has been played out on wider stages by clan leaders, kings and presidents.

The Times they are a Changin’

Come mothers and fathers
Throughout the land

And don't criticize
What you can't understand
Your sons and your daughters
Are beyond your command
Your old road is
Rapidly agin'
Please get out of the new one
If you can't lend your hand
For the times they are a-changin'

The Times they are a Changin’, Bob Dylan, 1964

If it’s arguable that the times have been a-changin’ throughout history, it’s also arguable that since the IT revolution, the pace of change has accelerated exponentially. (Kurzweil, Ray,, 2001) 

Very recently in human history, the belief that the human condition is unchanging and unchangeable has been called into question, as has cyclical pattern of human life. Human condition and lifecycle – once lodestars of human identity – have provided our species with reliable orientation for millennia. Today, they appear as potentially mutable entities within a limitless universe. The rapid rate of technological and scientific development beginning in the late 20th century and escalating in the early 21st has already transformed modern society. But people outside of universities and professional circles have little idea of the potential of these transformations, and may be poorly equipped to think about them.

Numerous publications, TED Talks and other media events have addressed changes in society past, present and future attributed to advances in science and information technology. Among the most rigorous and comprehensive publications on the future are three papers written in the last decade by philosopher Nick Bostrom of Oxford University and the Future of Humanity Institute:  Transhumanist Values (2003), A History of Transhumanist Thought (2005) and The Future of Humanity (2009). These papers are notable for their author's ability to identify the key issues concerning technology's impact upon the future. Bostrom's papers are also remarkable for their projection of humanity, in its evolved, or enhanced, form, into the far future, a future that is envisioned within a plausible and realistic context. Bostrom defines Transhumanism as a movement devoted to understanding and evaluating the potential for enhancing the human condition through the advancement of technology. Enhancement opportunities include lifespan extension, enhancement of bodily capabilities, and enhancement of the intellect. Methods of enhancement may include genetic engineering, nanotechnology, and AGI (artificial general intelligence).

Will the human condition be radically altered in the coming decades? Or will changes due to human enhancement take place gradually, over centuries or millennia? In either case, it is time to become better acquainted with these transformative prospects. It is wise to be vigilant, and to anticipate the time when innovations such as brain emulation, life-extension technologies, and AGI, which only yesterday seemed like far-fetched fantasies, go from being the stuff of science fiction to becoming reality.

Pride of Wisdom

Man," I cried, "how ignorant art thou in thy pride of wisdom!"

Frankenstein, Mary Shelley, 1823

He felt a tingling along the length of his spine: “I wonder what it thinks is going to happen next?”
“It does not think anything,” said Rajamani impatiently. “It is an algorithm, Hugo – a tool. It is no more alive than a wrench or a car-jack. And our problem is that it has become too unreliable to depend on.”

The Fear Index, Robert Harris, 2012

Robert Harris’s thriller The Fear Index is a contemporary version of the Frankenstein tale, except that in the updated version Frankenstein’s monster is a self-improving machine learning system. Harris’s VIXAL, not unlike HAL 9000 in Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, has its own ideas about how to do things, confounding humankind’s best laid plans.

Indeed, science fiction seems to have taken over where mythology left off in propagating the concept of hubris: “that some ambitions are off-limits and will backfire if pursued.” (Bostrom, A History of Transhumanist Thought, p. 1) Bostrom cites the story of Prometheus and the stories of Daedalus and Icarus as examples of hubris myths conveying ambivalence towards our desire to overcome human limitations. In each of these stories human overreaching occurs when man challenges the gods: when Prometheus steals fire, when Icarus flies too close to the sun.

Who are the gods? The gods are imaginary beings who posses capacities and qualities beyond the reach of the human condition. The gods represent humanity’s projected ego-ideals: strength, intellect, leadership, nurturance, beauty, and expertise in the human arts and crafts. Above all what differentiates god from man is the possession of immortality.

The hubris myths of ancient Egypt and ancient Greece were born of societies in which the female lifespan barely outlasted the reproductive cycle, the male lifespan was drastically foreshortened, and depopulation, rather than overpopulation, was a recurring menace. The human wish for immortality, symbolically an override of the prevailing social contract according to which each generation provides its biological replacement, thus threatened the foundation of the social order.

Let us Live Forever

Let us die young or let us live forever.

Forever Young, Jay-Z

In one type of hubris myth, of which the Prometheus and Icarus stories are examples, a human tries to claim what belongs to the gods and is punished severely. These tales about the limits of human aspiration and enterprise pose the human dilemma as, primarily, a problem of individual existence. Such are the tales of mortals foolish enough to boast of beauty surpassing a god’s, or to challenge a god’s supremacy in musicianship or weaving. The case of Prometheus is different since Prometheus steals fire to benefit humanity. Daedalus is a scientist whose inventions promise potential opportunity for mankind; Icarus, his son, in effect dies while running a product test on his father’s wings.

Immortal Cricket

The hubris myth that touches most closely, and ironically, on theme of the gods’ most precious possession – immortality – is the tale of Eos and Tithonus. This bittersweet tale, told and re-told throughout antiquity, makes its earliest written appearance in the Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite.

Eos, the Dawn goddess, falls in love with a human, golden-haired Tithonus, and persuades Zeus to make the boy immortal. Alas (and predictably) this is a ‘be careful what you wish for’ tale, and Eos forgets to add the request for eternal youth to her wish for Tithonus’ immortality. The golden-haired boy devolves: “Tithonus became daily older, greyer, and more shrunken, his voice grew shrill and, when Eos tired of nursing him, she locked him in her bedroom, where he turned into a cicada.” (Graves, Robert, The Greek Myths,1955) Instead of surpassing the human condition and becoming like a god, Tithonus turns into a lower life form, an insect.

The Sun King

The king is a child of pride
Who drinks from his sickening cup
Recklessness and vanity,
Until from his high crest headlong
He plummets to the dust of hope

Oedipus the King, Sophocles, 429 B.C.

A second type of hubris myth illustrates the impossibility remaining forever in a position of supreme authority, and shows the consequences of violating the lifecycle by blocking the next generation from being born and eventually succeeding to power.

In the Egyptian tale of the Sun god Ra, the goddess Isis schemes to put her brother Osiris on the throne. Though Ra is the immortal father of the gods, first ruler of heaven and first Pharaoh of Egypt, the narrator hints that he may be past his prime: “his head shook with the palsy of extreme old age, and he dribbled at the mouth.” (Tales of Ancient Egypt, Roger Lancelyn Green, 1967) Knowing that only a substance derived from Ra’s body can harm him, Isis uses the god’s dribble to fashion a serpent. When the serpent bites Ra, the god sickens. Isis agrees to heal him, but only if Ra will tell her his secret Name. When Ra discloses his hidden Name, he ceases to rule Egypt and returns to heaven. Osiris becomes the second Pharaoh of Egypt.

The story of Ra’s deposition portrays Ra in both his godly and human aspects. He is the all-powerful creator, the first ruler of heaven and earth, yet he bears a curious likeness to an old man. The narrator sees no contradiction in Ra’s double aspect. Indeed, Ra’s debility in spite of the grandeur with which he, as Pharaoh, is invested, makes it clear that even the greatest of Pharaohs must yield up the throne when the time comes. The story indicates that from Ra’s human vulnerability (from the dribble that signifies his old age) comes the end of his reign. Even for kings, human nature imposes a limit.

In another Egyptian tale, Ra tries to protect his throne by preventing children of the future generation from being born. Thoth, god of wisdom, had prophesied that Nut would give birth to a child who would rule Egypt. Ra therefore decreed: "Nut shall not give birth on any day of the year." At that time, the year was only 360 days long. When Nut appealed to Thoth, Thoth entered into a gambling contest with Khonshu, the Moon god. Every time Khonshu lost, he had to give Thoth some of his light. Khonshu lost so many times that Thoth had enough light to make five extra days. On these five days, Nut bore her children.

Eating of the Gods

These great Kronos gulped down – as each one
came to his knees from their holy mother’s belly –
With this in mind: that no other of the proud descendants of Ouranos
Should hold the position of king amongst the immortals.

Hesiod. Theogony (lines 458-62)

Oh baby baby
Well you lookin’ good enough to eat
Oh baby baby
I don’t believe I've tasted this before
Oh baby baby
I want it now
And every mouthful more of you

Candy Store Rock, Led Zeppelin, 1976

The Greek god Ouranos (Sky), first ruler of Olympus, feared being deposed by his children; as soon as they were born, he stuffed them back into their mother Gaia (Earth). With the assistance of Gaia, Kronos overthrew his father Ouranos by castrating him. To guard against the day when his children would overthrow him in turn, Kronos swallowed the first five children that Rhea bore him: Hestia, Demeter, Hera, Hades, and Poseidon.

But Kronos had to yield up his throne in due course. When Rhea gave birth to Zeus, she presented Kronos with a stone wrapped in swaddling clothes. Kronos swallowed the stone, believing it to be a baby; later he regurgitated the stone along with the five children he had swallowed. Zeus, whom Rhea had taken care to hide away in a cave, grew up to become the next ruler of Olympus.

Man’s Fate

Like Ra in the tale of Nut’s children, Kronos tries to hold onto supreme power by keeping children of the next generation from coming into being. And just as Nut is able to circumvent Ra’s decree, Kronos’ wife Rhea finds a way to trick him into letting the next generation be born.

These hubris myths, in telling how a king tries and fails to suppress the rising of the next generation, share something of the pattern of the Oedipus myth. The backstory to Sophocles’ Oedipus the King tells how Oedipus’ father Laius ordered baby Oedipus exposed, left on Mount Cithaeron with his feet bound. Laius, as the ancient Greeks well knew, exposed his infant son in response to a prophecy that the son would one day kill his father and marry his mother. According to the relentless logic of Greek tragedy, in the very attempt to avoid a violent overthrow, Laius set the wheels of fate in motion.

The hubris myths relating the failed attempts of Ra and Kronos to thwart the orderly sequencing of the generations are warning tales with happy endings. These myths reassure their hearers with the message that, in despite of pride of power, nature should not, and will not, be stopped from bringing about the replacement of one generation by the next. Too complex to provide simple reassurance, Greek tragedies nevertheless unfolded tales of hubris in ways that gave their audiences heightened awareness of communal values.

While the audience of a Greek tragedy shared the suffering of characters like Laius and Oedipus, it could sustain a certain detachment. Dramatic irony – the poetic device that endows the audience with knowledge hidden from the play’s characters ­– invited viewers to identify with a privileged point of view beyond the scope of the characters. Another entity, the tragic chorus, embodied collective wisdom. Dramatic irony and the chorus together allowed the audience to distance itself from the action, to distil conventional sentiments from art. Like the reassurance of the hubris myths, tragedy’s conventional wisdom argued for the unchanging nature of the lifecycle and the inescapability of human limitations.

       End of Part One: copy and paste link to Part Two:
                              "The Human Lifecycle"

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