It were better, indeed, to accept the legends of the gods than to bow beneath that yoke of destiny which the natural philosophers have imposed.-- Epicurus, Letter to Menoeceus.
Now that I've launched my current project to suss out "1001 myths" from the millions of comics I've read, I may as well talk a little about the value I place upon such a project.
In THE MIGHTY MARVEL COLLECTIVE SUBCONSCIOUS, I wrote:
One of Northrop Frye's most trenchant observations on popular literature was that it provided a "window" through which one could view Jung's archetypes in pure form, as opposed to seeing those archetypes reflected covertly in the scenarios of fine literature. In this "pure" archetypal sense (one might also say "primitive"), Marvel comics of this period were no better or worse than the contemporary works of DC, Dell or Charlton. But Marvel found a way to persuade older readers that there was some dramatic heft to be derived from stories of spider-men, thunder gods, and giant green-skinned monsters.
From the standpoint of the mythopoeic imagination, Fox and Sekowsky's JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA might actually reflect just as many "archetypes in pure form" as Lee and Kirby's FANTASTIC FOUR. However, FANTASTIC FOUR was easily the superior of JLA in regard to the dramatic potentiality, and so older readers could enjoy Marvel Comics' "gods" far more than DC's, by virtue of the slightly greater sophistication Marvel brought to its myth-figures.
One reading of this historical situation might be that, for many if not the majority of readers, the archetypes alone are not enough: that they must be presented in a way that the audience-members find pleasing. With that in mind, one might ask what value there is in the project of trying to suss out the symbolic discourses of individual comics-stories, and trying to separate the elements of the mythopoeic out from the elements that I would file under "other potentialities." I believe that these symbolic discourses are crucial in understanding why anyone finds entertainment in stories of bizarre metaphenomenal entities like monsters and thunder gods. At the same time, I have no illusions that the average hardcore fan of any metaphenomenal collections of works-- be they in a particular genre, like horror, or in discrete media, like films or comic books-- is a myth-hound like myself. If I were a populist-- that is, someone who validates only that which is popular-- then I would have to concede that myth-criticism cannot be important, because it has not been, and may never be, generally popular. Fortunately, I'm a pluralist, which means that I can value all elements of a given work, regardless of whether one element may be more popular than the other.
And that's where Epicurus comes in.
I read the extant works of Epicurus a few years ago. Although "Epicurean," the word derived from the philosopher's name, has been unfairly linked with the idea of hedonism, Epicurus and his followers stressed not heedless pleasure for its own sake, but the cultivation of a philosophical equanimity that would make one capable of enjoying life without becoming enmeshed in the desperate pursuit of pleasure for its own sake. More recently, the Greek philosopher was brought back to my mind when I finally read ON THE NATURE OF THINGS, the definitive work of Epicurus' foremost Roman disciple, the poet Lucretius. Lucretius, like his master, was heavily influenced by the materalistic atomism of Democritus. However, neither Epicurus nor Lucretius can be considered as thoroughgoing materialists. Both abjured the idea that the gods controlled mankind, or that human spirits survived death to face either reward or punishment. Yet as the beginning quote shows, Epicurus believed that "the legends of the gods," for all their absurdities, were preferable to the "yoke of destiny," the doleful determinism, represented by the advocates of pure materialism.
In Book V of ON THE NATURE OF THINGS, Lucretius asks how it has come to pass that mankind has become so invested in the "legends of the gods." Rather than taking the standard dismissal of the materialists, Lucretius says:
Because, in sooth, Even in those days would the race of man Be seeing excelling visages of gods With mind awake; and in his sleeps, yet more— Bodies of wondrous growth. And, thus, to these Would men attribute sense, because they seemed To move their limbs and speak pronouncements high, Befitting glorious visage and vast powers. And men would give them an eternal life, Because their visages forevermore Were there before them, and their shapes remained, And chiefly, however, because men would not think Beings augmented with such mighty powers Could well by any force o'ermastered be. And men would think them in their happiness Excelling far, because the fear of death Vexed no one of them at all, and since At same time in men's sleeps men saw them do So many wonders, and yet feel therefrom Themselves no weariness.
So Lucretius is saying that the gods, even though they were above humanity and did nothing to overtly affect humanity, did appear to human beings in their dreams-- and from humankind's misunderstanding of the gods' nature, superstition arose.
The obvious question arises: why did Lucretius want to keep the gods as part of his philosophical system, while he dismissed superstitions about the afterlife-- particularly the punishing domain of "Avernus"--as nonsense created by priests to manipulate mankind? In modern Jungian terms, one might venture that Lucretius wants to keep the positive image of the gods as dispassionate beings, because their image of serenity mirrors the goal of the Epicurean philosopher. Lucretius does not suggest that mortals can imitate the powers of the gods, for the gods enjoy a state of perfection beyond the mortal realm-- but he believes that the gods' equanimity is a quality mortals should emulate. And though the Roman poet does not examine the beliefs of the materialists in detail, it seems likely that he would share Epicurus' opinion that those beliefs-- which would define all human action as being determined by contingency-- are inimical to the Epicurean project, to promote pleasurable equanimity. The materialists, being invested in pure contingency, can offer mankind no particular model of behavior to follow. The images of the gods, however much they've been polluted by superstitions, do offer such a model.
In modern Jungian terms, the gods represent for both Epicurus and Lucretius archetypes of a desired form of behavior. A Jungian, of course, would reject these philosophers' attempts to dismiss images of darkness or ugliness as unimportant, and so do I: the "shadows" of darkness and evil informs what we are and what we do as much as the dispassionate potency of deities.
Both philosophers practice a very simple form of myth-analysis, usually seeking to reduce myths of satyrs and "scyllas" into morbid imagination. But by their adulation of the gods, they recognize that humans gravitate toward models of behavior, even when there may be no actual interaction between themselves and those ephemeral models.
It should be plain that for me, the Epicurean gods hold much the same place as the archetypal figures of fiction. No matter what forms of drama appear in our lives, our lives will never be dramatic in the same *structured* manner as are the lives of fictional characters-- and this is true whether one is speaking of Raskolnikov or Superman. But the dramatic potentiality can only give a sense of verisimilitude to those characters. For a sense of the characters' essential meaning-- one must turn to the potentiality I call *mythopoeic.*
And that, if it clarifies nothing else, may at least describe why I have devoted myself to the project of sniffing out myths wherever I can find them-- even despite all the critics who would like to think nothing matters except their ability to "model behavior" of a narrow and ideological nature.