Thoughts on human nature after Japan

They form orderly lines. They throw no tantrums. They do not loot or take advantage of their fellow sufferers. They bear what fate has presented them, even after watching loved ones swept away in brown sludge, even as radioactive clouds snow on them. They do so because of who they are, as individuals and as Japanese, and because they understand that however bad it gets, they must avoid making it even worse through their own actions.

Some 50 of them even stayed in the reactors until commanded to return, like modern samurai, fighting the splitting atoms so that less death may issue forth, knowing that they will suffer and die because of it. Radiation, too, is a divine wind, a kamikaze. In form less Homeric, more insidious, it yet demands the same of the samurai.

They are individuals, yes. But they are also members of a culture, and there is a shape to their response. Isn’t there always? People behaved differently in Port-au-Prince. And again in New Orleans. And in Christchurch.

I once happened to find myself living in Hong Kong during the SARS outbreak. It was a fascinating time. (This was one of the articles I wrote.) The virus largely hit the different “regions” of China — Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore and the mainland. And each place revealed itself to be not only “Chinese” but unique, in ways that surprised even those living there.

I recall (what not everybody there may perhaps now choose to remember) that in some of the Taiwanese hospitals, some (not all) of the nurses and staff fled the virus, yielding to their fear, abandoning those who had come there in need. For them, the individual and the family was all there was. There was no community, no neighborliness, no society. Yes, they were aware that they were thus making the situation worse, by spreading the virus. But worse-for-others did not count.

The Singaporeans responded as expected: with ruthless and relentless efficiency, cordoning off and quarantining with no regard for those being separated from loved ones, whether they were confirmed infected or not. The rules were draconian, but nobody broke them, nobody pleaded special treatment. The individual was entirely subordinated to the group, and Singapore suffered least as a result.

The mainlanders also showed their ruthless side. Uniformed cadres barricaded entire towns, cutting them off from the world as in an Albert Camus novel. But the un-uniformed mainlanders did not respect these rules as the Singaporeans accepted those of their government. Individually, many (though not all) tried to escape, evade, be the exception. Whereas the Singaporean authorities chose merciless truth to gain and keep credibility, by reporting every case, the mainland Chinese defaulted to their customary secrecy, and nobody believed anything at all. Singapore was harsh but trustworthy, the mainland simply harsh. And the mainland suffered the most as a result.

And then there were the Chinese of Hong Kong. How surprised we, the expats, were by their response. How surprised even the Hong Kong Chinese were. Each nurse and doctor and customs official and neighbor, it seemed, did his duty. And they, too, chose unforgiving truth, reporting every turn for the worse so that we believed them when they finally announced the turn for the better.

And yet the Hong Kong Chinese were not like the Singaporeans. In Hong Kong, they did make exceptions in their quarantines, they did wait before cordoning off housing blocks, because they balanced the suffering of the individuals inside against the interests of the society outside. Was it civic values picked up, unwittingly, from the former colonial master? Was it something else? Something made them different. Hong Kong suffered more than Singapore, but less than Taiwan and the mainland. And when it was over, everyone in Hong Kong was proud.

Last year, we debated the topic of heroism here on The Hannibal Blog. As usual when intellectuals debate anything, the subject recedes until everybody wishes it had never been forced into hiding. And yet we all intuited all along that you know heroism when you see it.

Searching for heroines (II): Psyche


In the previous post, I gave you one model of how heroines might be similar to, but also different from, heroes. Here is another model for the archetypes of femininity and heroism. It is the story of Psyche.

Right away, the heroine’s very name might get our attention. Psyche is of course what we call mind or (as in the Greek meaning) soul. Clearly, the story of Psyche promises to be about more than intrigue, sex, love, fear and overcoming (although it certainly has all those in plenty). There is something universal and large hiding in the story. Your task is to find it.

Before I tell the story in brief and analyze it, here is the context for newcomers to this blog: This post is part of a series exploring heroes and heroism. The premise is the monomyth theory, according to which all of humanity shares certain archetypes of storytelling that appear again and again in every culture and age. After I featured several male heroes, the question arose: What is female heroism?

This post, like the previous one, is based on a lecture course by Grant Voth, who in turn borrows from research by Meredith Powers and others.

To make the heroic pattern more explicit, I’ll break the story into “chapters” with “titles” taken from some of the archetypes as Joseph Campbell described them. (Here is the list.)

The call to adventure

Psyche is the youngest of three daughters of a king, and the most beautiful woman of her time, so beautiful that she rivals even the goddess Aphrodite.

Aphrodite naturally becomes jealous and wants to punish Psyche. So she tells her son, Eros (known to the Romans as either Cupid, desire, or Amor, love), to shoot one of his little arrows into Psyche so that she might, perversely, fall in love with the nastiest and ugliest creature alive.

When Psyche’s father, the king, asks the Oracle of Apollo about Psyche’s future, he receives a dreadful reply (which I took from here):

On some high crag, O king, set forth the maid,

In all the pomp of funeral robes arrayed.

Hope for no bridegroom born of mortal seed,

But fierce and wild and of the dragon breed.

He swoops all-conquering, born on airy wing,

With fire and sword he makes his harvesting;

Trembles before him Jove, whom the gods do dread,

And quakes the darksome river of the dead.

Psyche’s marriage, in other words, is to be a funeral; love is to be death; and the groom makes even hell tremble!

The threshold

Psyche and her parents submit to the oracle’s command in sorrow, and Psyche is brought in a funeral procession to the mountain top. But instead of plunging to her death, she is wafted by gentle winds to a valley where she falls asleep.

When she wakes up, she finds herself in a beautiful palace, where voices invite her to dine and bathe. This looks more like paradise than hell.

At night, in total darkness, her groom comes to Psyche’s bed to consummate the marriage. Psyche cannot see him and he leaves before dawn.

This happens night after night. Psyche quite enjoys the love-making, but she has no idea with whom she is making love.

After a while, her two sisters come looking for her. Psyche’s husband, whoever he is, does not want Psyche to see them. When he finally relents, he makes Psyche promise never to let her sisters talk her into trying to find out who he is.

The sisters (also archetypes: picture the step sisters in Cindarella, for instance) arrive and are impressed by the splendor of Psyche’s palace. They themselves are in bad marriages with husbands who are much older and no fun. They envy Psyche.

Psyche makes up a story that her husband is away all day hunting.

The sisters leave. The next time they visit — Psyche is pregnant by now — they try harder to find out who Psyche’s husband might be. Psyche, who has forgotten her previous story, tells them that he is a rich merchant, away on business.

The sisters realize that Psyche is lying. Still envious, they want to spoil her fun. They remind her of the oracle and tell of alleged rumors that her husband is really a terrible serpent who will eat both Psyche and whatever child creature she will bear.

They persuade Psyche, who is suddenly full of doubt and fear, to bring a knife to bed for self-protection and also an oil lamp so that, when her husband falls asleep after love-making, she might shine a light on him and see who he is.

Entering the “belly of the whale” (ie, the danger zone)

The next night, after Psyche and her husband make love and he falls asleep, Psyche lights the oil lamp. This is the first heroic moment: It is an act of choosing knowledge and self-awareness, a daring shedding of light into the dark places of the unconscious, whether the heroine is ready or not.

To Psyche’s great surprise, she beholds not a monster but the most handsome man she can imagine, the god Eros. She immediately falls in love. Wanting to make her love eternal, she deliberately pricks herself on one of his arrows.

But as she does so, a drop of oil falls from her lamp and wakes Eros. Eros must now tell his story.

He tells Psyche how his mother, Aphrodite, issued her cruel order, how he came to execute the command, and how he, upon seeing her, fell in love with Psyche, deciding to take her as his own wife.

But he thereby subverted his mother’s wishes, which is very, very dangerous. And now the truth is known. Devastated, Eros abandons Psyche.

Eros returns to his mother and confesses all to her. (Archetypes are a Jungian thing, but the Freudians among you might have fun analyzing the relationship between Eros and Aphrodite.)

Aphrodite is livid. She wants revenge. She wants to punish “that whore”, Psyche.

Initiation and trials

Psyche at first tries to kill herself, then decides, like the hero(ine) she is now becoming, to rise to the challenge and seek out her enemy, Aphrodite, in order either to placate her or to die in the attempt.

What Psyche wants, of course, is her husband. (As the soul forever wants to be reunited with love?) Psyche is thus on a love quest.

Aphrodite, however, wants to humiliate Psyche, to make her fail by giving her seemingly impossible tasks. (These seem to be very close analogs to the labors of Hercules, so if there ever was any doubt, we are definitely in a hero story.)

Psyche must, for instance:

  • sort a pile of mixed seeds (= the Augean stables? Certainly reminds me of Cindarella again!), which she does with the help of ants;
  • fetch wool from a lethal sheep (Hercules’ Nemean lion?), which she does with the help of a reed growing by the river;
  • fill a vial of water from a spring that is guarded by dragons and runs into Styx (Hercules’ Hydra?), which she does with the help of Zeus’ eagle; and
  • go to the underworld, Hades, to bring back in a box a bit of Persephone’s immortal beauty, which she does with the help of a tower that tells her how to get to Hades and back.

She is now in exalted company indeed. Hercules, Theseus, Odysseus, Aeneas, Orpheus — only the greatest heroes get to go to Hades and back, to die and be reborn in a more aware state, to cross the ultimate boundary in both directions.

She’s been warned not to open Persephone’s box. But (compare Orpheus) curiosity overcomes her, and she does open it. She falls into a deep coma and seems dead (≈Sleeping Beauty?).

Her lover and husband, Eros, finds her and pricks her with an arrow. This wakes Psyche. Eros now pleads with Zeus to let them be reunited.

Zeus sympathizes. He gives Psyche ambrosia, thus making her immortal (as he also made Hercules immortal).

The return and the boon

Psyche has now become one of the family, as it were. She has been accepted. Aphrodite, too, must embrace her as part of the family. And thus, there is finally the proper wedding and a feast.

Psyche soon gives birth. The baby is Voluptas, either joy or pleasure.

The harmony of the new, or newly reunited, family and the gift of joy and pleasure is Psyche’s boon, her gift to mankind. She has thus completed her heroic quest, quite as a male hero might have done.

The feminine twist

But we might observe two subtle differences between Psyche’s apotheosis and those of the male heroes we have been comparing her to:

1) Psyche has not killed anybody! It was not expected of her, not a prerequisite of her heroism.

The only two people in the story who die are her sisters (and they kill themselves, after coming to the mountain top again, greedy to revisit their sister’s palace, then plunging down, only to discover that this time no gentle wind wants to catch them).

2) The goal of Psyche’s quest was not individual triumph but family reunion and group harmony.


A Freudian might see this entire tale as a “family romance”, as the story of a young woman coming of age and overcoming her repression about sex and intimacy until her mate is no longer bestial and loathsome but lovable and desirable.

But the monomyth theory, which dates back to Jung and regards archetypes as “collective dreams”, sees in Psyche’s story universals:

  • the human journey toward self-awareness,
  • our yearning to unify sex and love, body and soul, individual and family,
  • our striving for harmony.

Viewed this way, Psyche plays the same heroic role that Arjuna plays in the Bhagavad Gita (recall that Arjuna really stands for the noble part of our own soul, in battle with our sordid instincts).

Finally, Psyche is clearly a very powerful archetype. Variants of her seem to appear in countless stories through the ages. I leave you with the familiar image of just one: Beauty and the Beast.

Searching for heroines (I): Hester Prynne

What exactly is a female hero — ie, a heroine? In this post and the next, I’ll put forward two possible models.

Today: The model of Hester Prynne (above, with her baby Pearl) and Demeter (below).

Even though one is a character in 19th-century American fiction and the other a Greek goddess, you may, by the end of this post, agree that they tap into the same archetype of female heroism.


So far in this series exploring heroism, we breezed through all sorts of mythical and timeless heroes, both Western (Greek) and Eastern (Indian). The presumption has been that they are all different and yet all the same, because they tap into archetypes of human storytelling (this is called the Monomyth theory).

But along the way we repeatedly slammed into the “problem” of women. Is there a female version of heroism?

(We’re not, by the way, just talking about an individual being brave, or admirable, or good. You can be all of those things and yet not be a hero.)

I engaged the topic with an opening salvo on Joan of Arc, but the prodigious debate that ensued in the comments taught me, and I think all of us, that we were in an intellectual cul-de-sac. We need an entirely different way of approaching the topic of feminine heroism. We cannot just graft male archetypes onto female protagonists to declare them heroines.

Female as opposed to male heroism

Implicitly, the monomyth relies on male archetypes of heroism:

  1. A young man proves himself to be unusual in some way, usually by passing a test by, or for, or against, his father. (For example, Theseus moves the boulder to find the sword left there by his father, King Aegeus.)
  2. The lad then receives a call to adventure, and follows it.
  3. He leaves society in an act of autonomy and individualism, crossing thresholds (for Theseus, the dangers along the road to Athens) to emphasize this separation.
  4. He meets women along the way, but they are probably temptresses, femme fatales or helpmates (Ariadne, for Theseus).
  5. He finally succeeds in his quest (in Theseus’ case, killing the Minotaur, liberating Athens), and
  6. returns to society, bringing it a boon (Athenian democracy).

(Now you might be able to see why I looked into the story of Joan of Arc, even though she was a historical rather than mythical character: her journey hewed closely to these male archetypes.)

A female version would look quite different. Meredith Powers apparently explored this in her book, The Heroine in Western Literature. I haven’t read it, but I listened to some lectures on mythology by Grant Voth, which he bases on Powers’ book.

Here, according to Powers and Voth, are the differences:

  1. Instead of some tense situation between father and son which marks the son as hero, it is now the deep connection between mother and child, and probably mother and daughter, which marks the mother, not the daughter, as the heroine.
  2. The ‘call to adventure‘ takes a totally different form than for men. It is probably some oppressive inflexibility in patriarchal society that threatens the mother/daughter dyad.
  3. In answering the call, the heroine does not leave society in an act of (male) individualism, but stays within it. As Powers puts it: “alone, apart, she accepts herself as a living critic” of her society.
  4. The heroine then form new bonds of solidarity with other women and
  5. also gives a boon to society in the process, a civilizing gift of a communitarian nature that is good for the group.

Example 1: Demeter and Persephone

Demeter was not, of course, a heroine but a goddess, but for Powers she establishes the archetype. Demeter (the Romans called her Ceres, whence our word cereal), was the goddess of grain and agriculture. She was the sister of Zeus, Hades and Poseidon, and the mother of Persephone.


The love between mother and daughter is our archetypal starting point. So what is the call to adventure?

It comes in the form of a deal between her brothers, Hades and Zeus, whereby Hades is allowed to abduct Persephone and take her as his wife in the underworld. This is classic patriarchy: Zeus is the mightiest of the gods as well as Persephone’s father; Hades is Persephone’s uncle.

Demeter is beside herself with maternal grief and for one year becomes barren — meaning that the crops fail. Her brother Zeus realizes that he has destabilized Olympian society and tries to placate her.

But Demeter does not accept the abduction. Nor, however, does she confront or attack Zeus or Hades in a test of power. Nor does she exile herself from the Olympian family. She stays within it.

As she does so, she wins the solidarity of other women, including her (and Zeus’ and Hades’) grandmother, Gaia, and mother, Rhea. Together they sway the men to soften their stance.

Finally, they reach a compromise. Persephone is to spend half of each year with her mother and half with her husband. The first half becomes spring and summer, the second becomes autumn and winter.

Thus Demeter gives her boon to the world: It is called agriculture, and introduces the rhythms of fertility, where every death (Persephone’s departure) leads to a rebirth. Everybody is better off.

Example 2: Hester Prynne

Those of you who are American and have read Nathaniel Hawthorne’s classic The Scarlet Letter, probably already see how its heroine (for that is what she is!), Hester Prynne, is really a Puritan Demeter.

Hester bears a child, named Pearl, out of wedlock in 17th-century Boston. This makes her an adulteress, so she must wear a prominent and scarlet letter A to bear the public shame.

Here, too, the archetypal love between mother and daughter is our starting point. And again, the call to adventure arrives from an inflexibility of patriarchal society: the community demands to know who Pearl’s father is. Hester goes to prison, then stands for hours on a scaffold in Boston. But she accepts the call to adventure: she does not divulge the father.

Again, Hester is, in Powers’s phrase, “alone, apart, a living critic of society.” She embroiders the Scarlet A as though to emphasize it. She does not leave Bostonian society (although she will later go to Europe before coming back). Nor does she attack it.

Instead, she reaffirms the act that created her daughter and the relationships around it.

And she changes society in the process. Years later, she returns to Boston with her boon. She does charitable work. Society now respects and admires her. Everybody is better off.

There are no heroes

Elie Wiesel (courtesy David Shankbone)

Heroism. What a simple and innocent concept.

My idea — how simple and innocent of me — was to explore the concept of heroism by re-telling the great and timeless stories of heroes from the past. (So it was really just an excuse to do some good storytelling.)

Well, it turns out that nothing about the idea is simple or innocent.

With a self-deprecating smirk, I therefore postulate the Kluth Uncertainty Principle from the well-known realm of Quantum Intellectualism. The law says this:

The more thoroughly you examine an idea — any idea — the more quickly it seems to disappear, leaving behind only a vague sense that you are crazy.

This, moreover, we call learning.

I) The problem of context

In this thread, the idea of heroism probably started fading — ie, we started learning — when Chris intervened in our fantastic debate about Joan of Arc.

Before we knew it, we were re-examining our notions about gender (or should that be sex?), then our notions about heroism, and then our notions about Jungian archetypes.

Chris has now (heroically?) taken up the thread on his own blog, and this promises to get interesting.

As Socrates might do, Chris begins by … complicating matters. He

  • questions whether we can known anything at all about stories from the past,
  • reminds us that all stories (and heroes) were born in a specific context, and
  • suggests that we cannot willy-nilly import stories into our own context without damaging them.

I can’t wait to see where this goes. That said …


… this does remind me of my college days, when everybody was suddenly studying Foucault one year — or was it Derrida?

A few beers into our keg parties, we usually agreed that words (“signifiers”) really only had meaning (“signifieds”) within a context, and out of context we could not know what those meanings were. The underlying logic never sounded quite as good the next morning.


Most of us, over the years, grew out of all that (Foucault, Derrida, keg parties…). But it was a good time.

So let us proceed, but with caution.

II) Elie Wiesel

Which brings us to Elie Wiesel, a hero of sorts just for surviving the Holocaust with dignity (rather like Viktor Frankl).

Jim M., in that same great debate about Joan of Arc, pointed us to a site that takes a very different approach toward heroism. Here, heroes are to be understood simply as role models.

As in: Do something admirable → Become a hero

And on this site, we find an essay by Elie Wiesel in which he dismantles the very concept of heroism:

I am deeply skeptical about the very concept of the hero for many reasons and I am uncomfortable with what happens in societies where heroes are worshipped. As Goethe said, “blessed is the nation that doesn’t need them.” To call someone a hero is to give them tremendous power. Certainly that power may be used for good, but it may also be used to destroy individuals. Which societies have proven to be the most fertile fields for the creation of heroes, and have devised the most compelling reasons for hero worship? Dictatorships.

This is a fascinating point of view. It would never have occurred to the ancient Greeks, for example.

The Greeks did not live in dictatorships and yet viewed their heroes as ideals toward which to aspire. But to Wiesel, heroes do not inspire but rather intimidate us ordinary people.

Then there is the devastating problem that heroes are often unheroic. What do we do about that? As Wiesel asks,

Is a hero a hero twenty-four hours a day, no matter what? Is he a hero when he orders his breakfast from a waiter? Is he a hero when he eats it? What about a person who is not a hero, but who has a heroic moment?

Between the lines, you can probably read Wiesel demanding what Chris is demanding: context.

III) More definitions

Wiesel then attempts various definitions of heroism, as we have been doing in this thread.


Here is his first:

In my tradition, a hero is someone who understands his or her own condition and limitations and, despite them, says, “I am not alone in the world. There is somebody else out there, and I want that person to benefit from my sacrifice and self-control.” This is why one of the most heroic things you can do is to surmount anger, and why my definition of heroism is certainly not the Greek one, which has more to do with excelling in battle and besting one’s enemies.

Aha! Now Wiesel is sounding a lot like the yogi who met Alexander the Great: Heroism as self-control, as inner peace, as conquest over anger and fear.

The Indians, however, went one step further than Wiesel and used the “Greek” battle image of heroism as a metaphor for the internal heroism Wiesel describes, and that gave us the hero Arjuna.


Clearly unsatisfied, he tries again:

If I had to offer a personal definition of the word, it would be someone who dares to speak the truth to power. I think of the solitary man in Tiananmen Square, who stood in front of a column of tanks as they rolled in to quash a peaceful protest, and stopped them with his bare hands. …

Speak truth to power: Isn’t that what Theseus did (the Minotaur representing power) or even Jeanne d’Arc (the English)?

Wiesel seems to be backtracking from his opening thesis, that he is “sceptical about the very concept of the hero.” It appears that he cannot help himself — ie, that the hero is, after all, … an archetype;)


Wiesel tries a third definition. This time he “gets modern” on us, which is to say he brings it home, makes it small, makes it un-Greek:

Maybe heroes can simply be those people who inspire us to become better than we are. In that case, I find my heroes among my friends, family, and teachers. …

Sure. We’re all heroes. Sort of.

Do you see where I’m going with this? Wiesel follows the same exact arc of reasoning that we have been following in our debate here. And he always ends up, as we do, in the same cul-de-sac. He opens his essay by saying he does not believe in the concept of the hero, but then cannot let it go. If it’s not there, what’s not to let go? Something is there, and he’s not satisified until he finds it.


So Wiesel tries a fourth definition (by my count):

When I was a child, my heroes were always anonymous wanderers. They experienced the wonder of the wider world and brought it to me in my small village. These men were masters. A master must give himself over to total anonymity, dependent on the goodness of strangers, never sleeping or eating in the same place twice. Someone who wanders this way is a citizen of the world. The universe is his neighborhood. It is a concept that resonates with me to this day.

Did you spot it? It’s the yogi again. Or perhaps the Zen master, or Lao Tzu. Wiesel, in other words, is trying another variant of the Arjuna definition.


My biggest suprise was to learn from Wiesel that Hebrew does not have a word for hero.

But there is a concept that Wiesel thinks comes close, so this may be his fifth and final definition. This is the Hebrew tzaddik:

A tzaddik is a “righteous man,” someone who overcomes his instincts. In the ancient texts, this would mean sexual instinct, the life force, but of course it can be extended to all the emotions connected to that force: jealousy, envy, ambition, the desire to hurt someone else–anything, essentially, that you want to do very much. There is a story about a tzaddik that says a great deal to me about the character of the true hero. This man came to Sodom to preach against lies, thievery, violence, and indifference. No one listened, but he would not stop preaching. Finally someone asked him, “Why do you continue when you see that it is of no use?” He said, “I must keep speaking out. In the beginning, I thought I had to shout to change them. Now I know I must shout so that they cannot change me.”

Now, I don’t know about you, but for a man who is “sceptical about the very notion of the hero,” for a man who insists on seeing the hero in his proper context, Wiesel, in his meandering musings, has traced a remarkably similar path to ours in this thread.

Sounds like an archetype to me.

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The wrong heroine: Joan of Arc

What does Joan of Arc — Jeanne d’Arc in French — say about our notions of heroism?

I’ve been pondering this for a while. So far in this thread on heroism, all the heroes have been male (and mythological). So the question of feminine heroism, raised but not satisfactorily addressed, has become more urgent.

So I read Larissa Juliet Taylor’s biography of Joan: The Virgin Warrior: The Life and Death of Joan of Arc.

Taylor takes the dry — quite dry! — historian’s approach to Joan, and that was the approach I wanted for my purpose. Who was the actual woman, rather than the “saint” and statue that we have made of her. (Yes, in 1920 she officially became a saint.)

So here is I) the background, II) her story, and then III) my interpretation:

I) Historical background

Click for attribution

Joan lived her short life — she was executed at 19 — in the 15th century, during what we retroactively call the Hundred Years’ War between England and France.

The most important thing to understand about this time is that nations or countries as we understand them did not yet exist. Instead, there were kingdoms and dynasties, shifting constantly depending on which royal married and procreated with which other royal.

“England” was ruled by French-speaking Norman royalty which, to complicate matters, frequently married royals from “France”, which were in turn more or less descended from Frankish (Germanic) royalty. (I venture to say that the common people neither understood nor cared who ruled them.)

As Joan was growing up, the English king claimed also to be King of France and held most of northern France, including Paris. He was allied with Burgundy, another originally Germanic kingdom that we today consider “French”.

Another contender to the throne, Charles Valois, considered himself dauphin but was considered wimpy and weak. The map above shows the lands under his control as “France”. This portrait of him, I believe, says it all:

Charles VII

II) Joan

Joan was born into a family neither poor nor rich — we would say “middle class” — in the Anglo-Burgundian part.

She was different from the other girls. She didn’t go dancing with them, and seems to have been a bit of a killjoy. She was constantly praying, and obsessed with the Virgin.

Starting at the age of 13, as she later claimed, she began hearing “voices.” The voices told her to go “to France.” She decided that the voices belonged to angels or saints.

Also around this age, she vowed to remain a virgin for the rest of her life. No reason given. She just did. This later became part of her mystique: She became La Pucelle (The Maid), which implied not only virginity but nobility and purity and innocence.

She became what we could call deranged. If she were alive today, she might be a suicide bomber. Guided by her voices, she wrote a famous “letter to the English”. In it, this teenage girl informed them that she would have mercy on them (!) if they did exactly as told, but that

you will not hold the realm of France from God, the King of Heaven, son of Holy Mary, for it will be held by King Charles, the true heir, because God, the King of Heaven wants it to be so, and this has been revealed by the Maid.

So there.

In 1429, aged 17, she set out to meet the dauphin Charles — ie, she left the “English” part of France and traveled to the “French” part, specifically a chateau on the Loire where Charles was staying. Already, she had short hair and wore only male clothing, as she would from then on.

When she arrived at the chateau, Charles’ advisers reacted as we might: They thought she was loony. They questioned her for a while. Joan told them that she was on a mission

  1. to lift the English siege of Orléans, an important town at the time, and
  2. to lead Charles to Reims (in English-controlled territory) to be crowned king of all France.

So the counsellors admitted her to see Charles. Charles also thought she was mad, or at least suspicious. But she was offering to make him king, and he had no other plan.

So Charles sent Joan to another town for a month for a thorough “theological validation.” This was their equivalent of psychoanalysis — the churchmen being the shrinks. Joan conducted herself well. Even her claims to virginity survived, ahem, examination.

So Charles saw her off to Orléans and put her in charge of some troops. Joan put on shining armor and set off. In the picture above, she is entering Orléans.

She sent another letter to the English:

… King of England, … if [the English forces] do not obey, I will have them all killed. If they obey, I will show mercy. I am sent here by God, the King of Heaven, to kick you out of all of France….

She perplexed but also fascinated every man there, both “French” and “English”.

She had one mode only: Charge!

She did not know doubt.

So she told the defenders to charge, and charge they did. In confused fighting, with Joan even getting wounded by an arrow, the tide turned and the English retreated from Orléans.

Suddenly, everybody either feared (if “English”) or adored (if “French”) the Maid.

Joan now led a laddish camp life. She was one of the guys. She got most angry whenever female “camp followers” came near her boys. She personally attacked the ladies with her sword to keep her soldiers pure.

Apparently feeling invincible, Joan led Charles’ forces to several more victories. Then it was time to bring Charles to Reims for his coronation. And thus the dauphin became Charles XII, King of France.

Charles, however, distrusted Joan more than ever. She seemed just plain deranged to him. Furthermore, Charles now had to begin the adult and mature business of negotiating with Burgundy and England to settle this mess in a civilized way. Joan, however, was constantly going on about her voices from the angels. She appeared not to understand the geopolitical context she was in. Which would be understandable: she was a teenager.

Joan, knowing only her one mode (Charge!), kept charging until she fell off her horse and was captured. In 1430 she was brought to Rouen, English-held Normandy, and put on “trial”.

The English did not prosecute or judge Joan. Instead, it was the French and Burgundian churchmen. Yes, they were aware that the power of the land, England, considered Joan a political problem. But their main bugbear seems to have been more Freudian-patriarchal. Joan threatened … something.

The obvious problem was to find something to accuse her of. What had she actually done?

The trial notes show the church, if not all religion, as silly, petty, ridiculous, irrational, vindictive and dumb. The inquisitors asked questions that were stupid, and Joan made fools of them.

The charges, when read, compensated for vagueness with length. Joan was to be tried

as a witch, enchantress, false prophet, a caller-up of evil spirits, as superstitious, implicated in and given to magic arts … [She was] scandalous, seditious, perturbing and obstructing the peace … [and she] indecently put on the ill-fitting dress and state of men-at-arms…

Sounds like everything I like to do in my spare time. 😉

Up on the scaffold she went, and onto the stake. They burned her. She died of smoke inhalation before she burned, but it was a cruel spectacle nonetheless, and nobody enjoyed it.

Her legend was born in the decades and centuries after her death.

She became, to different people at different times:

  • a martyr
  • a saint
  • a patriot and symbol of France.

Indeed, her retroactive importance is largely that she helped to bring about this concept of “France”.

So, was she a heroine?

III) Interpretation

Hua Mulan

Joan seems to belong to a small category of heroines who choose to remain virgins, dress up as boys and then fight with the boys.

China’s Joan, for example, might be Hua Mulan (pictured). Greece’s Joan might be Atalanta; Rome’s might be Camilla (who fought and died in the Italian wars against Aeneas).

But there is an obvious problem with such hermaphroditic or asexual heroines: Their heroism seems in large part to require denial of their femininity. That would suggest that heroism really is a male thing and the girls can play with the boys only if they pretend to be boys. I don’t like that at all.

Contrast that with a variation on her theme: the hyper-sexual warrior woman.

Here, for instance, is Brunhilde of Norse myth, with considerable Va Va Voom:

Then, of course, there are the Amazons, who not only fought but slept with male heroes, including Theseus and Hercules.

These women are seductive and fertile as well as brave and strong, and thus the direct primal equivalent of their male counterparts. As heroines they celebrate their sex rather than hide it. In fact, the Amazon queen, Hippolyta, seems to have been the model for Wonder Woman:

So Joan does not do it. She was a clueless teenager fired by inappropriate certitude (which describes pretty much every teenager) who never had the chance to grow into a whole person and become a genuine heroine.

But there are plenty of those out there, and The Hannibal Blog intends to find them

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Arjuna, our inner hero

Here I am playing with Arjuna, the greatest hero of the East, in the form of a wayang puppet I bought in Solo, Java.

Wayang is an ancient Indonesian theater tradition in which the shadows of puppets are cast onto a screen. Solo is its historical center, so a few years ago I went there to watch. Here is what a play looks like from the audience side:

And what story do the Javanese, nominally Muslim today, most like to perform?

The story of Arjuna and his brothers, the five Pandavas, pictured above. It doesn’t matter that this epic, the Mahabharata, is what we would consider a “Hindu” story. It is for Asia what the Iliad and Odyssey and other Greek myths are for us in the West.

This makes Arjuna the Achilles, the Hercules, the Odysseus, the Theseus, the Jason and the Aeneas of the East.

And what does that say about the East’s view of heroism, which I have been exploring in this thread?

1) Arjuna as warrior

At first blush (and deceptively, as you will see), Arjuna’s heroism looks familiar to us in the West.

He was a great fighter, an ambidextrous and precise archer, indeed an Indian Apollo with arrows. He practiced in the dark, the better to hit his victims during the day time. He won the hand of his wife, Draupadi, in an archery contest remarkably similar to the one Odysseus won against the suitors at Ithaca to regain his wife Penelope.

Arjuna was also the biggest hero in the biggest war of mythological India. What Achilles was to the Greeks at Troy, Arjuna was to the Pandavas at Kurukshetra (Kuru’s Field) in northern India.

The Pandavas were leading a huge army in a righteous cause against their own cousins, the Kauravas, also with a huge army. The Kauravas had stolen a kingdom from the Pandavas in a rigged game of dice, humiliating Draupadi in the process. The Pandavas went into exile, but then came back, seeing their duty as fighting to reclaim their kingdom and honor.

For eighteen days, battle raged. Millions died and fewer than a dozen men survived. Blood turned the field of Kuru into red mud. Arjuna and his brothers shot so many arrows into one of their enemies that the man fell from his chariot and landed not on the ground but on the arrows sticking out from his body like the quills on a porcupine.

But Arjuna also lost his own loved ones. His sons and nephews died in the battle, just as the Greek and Trojan heroes lost their friends and family.

2) Arjuna’s fear and duty

But the part of the story that is most famous — rather as the brief episode of Achilles’ wrath in Homer’s Iliad is the best known part of the story of the Trojan War — is a poem embedded into the Mahabharata just before the fighting began. And that is the Bhagavad Gita, or song of God. (Try one of these translations.)

On the eve of the battle, with the two armies already lined up against each other, Arjuna and his charioteer steered their war chariot into the space between the two armies to contemplate what was about to happen. The charioteer was Arjuna’s friend and adviser, Krishna.

As Arjuna gazed from his chariot at the two armies, he suddenly lost his will to fight. He was afraid. Afraid not only of losing his own life, but also for the lives of his “fathers, grandfathers, teachers, uncles, brothers, sons, grandsons, fathers-in-law, and friends.” Because this was a war within a family. He had loved ones in both armies.

Compare Arjuna’s fear to Aeneas’ despair in Virgil’s Aeneid:

As I see my own kinsmen, gathered here, eager to fight, my legs weaken, my mouth dries, my body trembles, my hair stands on end, my skin burns.

Arjuna dropped his bow and arrows and collapsed on the floor of his chariot, sobbing.


And now Krishna began to talk to Arjuna. Gently but firmly, he reminded Arjuna of his duty. The Sanskrit term here is dharma, and it seems (in this context) pretty close to Aeneas’ Roman virtue of pietas (“piety” derives from it but has come to mean something different).

3) Arjuna’s mind

What follows in the Gita is history’s most fascinating dialogue about how to yoke (as in yoga) the human mind into harmony with its situation.

Arjuna tells Krishna (as we all might say every day about our own minds) that his mind is

restless, unsteady, turbulent, wild, stubborn; truly, it seems to me as hard to master as the wind.

Krishna in turn teaches Arjuna how to make his mind calm, as a coach might try to get an athlete into “the zone”. (As it happens, Krishna’s advice is the same as Patanjali’s, which is why those two texts together are considered the foundation of Yoga.)

What, in a nutshell, does Krishna tell Arjuna?

To “let go”. To let go his fears of what might happen the next day, to let go the worries, the anxiety, and also the hopes and anger, and all the rest of it. In fact, Krishna wants Arjuna to

let go of all results, whether good or bad, and [to be] focused on the action alone… [to] act without any thought of results, open to success or failure. This equanimity is yoga.

4) Arjuna in your mind, my mind

And this is the essence of Arjuna’s heroism: He shows us, with the help of his divine “inner voice” of Krishna, how to make our minds calm so that we can go on with life whenever it seems to overwhelm us.

Arjuna’s heroism is, like Aeneas’ but more so, an inner victory.

In fact, this applies at an even higher level. Here is how Mohandas Gandhi explained why he, a proponent of non-violence, saw truth in this story of war:

Under the guise of physical warfare it described the duel that perpetually went on in the hearts of mankind, and that physical warfare was brought in merely to make the description of the internal duel more alluring.

Arjuna, it turns out, is meant to be a part of my mind and your mind and everybody’s mind. It is the clearest and best state of mind, called buddhi (as in: Buddha).

His brothers correspond to other positive states of mind (the ancient Indians were very precise on the subject), And all five were married to Draupadi, whom yogis understand to be Kundalini, the coiled feminine energy at the base of the spine. Freud called it libido, the Greeks called it Eros.

The Kauravas, the evil cousins, are the negative states of mind — anger, hatred, greed, vanity, envy, arrogance, fear and so forth.

So there it is:

  • Kurukshetra is the battlefield of our own minds, every day.
  • Arjuna’s struggle is our daily struggle to let the noble in us prevail over the base, the serene over the angry, the courageous over the fearful.
  • Arjuna is the hero in us.
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Alexander meets a yogi: Who’s the hero?

Alexander the Great was busy conquering the known world once, when he saw, on the banks of the Indus river in today’s Pakistan, a naked guy sitting in the Lotus position and contemplating the dirt.

“Gymnosophists” (gumnos = naked, sophistes = philosopher) the Greeks called these men. We would call them yogis — as in: Patanjali, say.

“What are you doing?”, asked Alexander.

“Experiencing nothingness,” answered the yogi. “What are you doing?”

“Conquering the world,” said Alexander.

Then both men laughed, each thinking that the other must be a fool.

“Why is he conquering the world?”, thought the yogi. “It’s pointless.”

“Why is he sitting around doing nothing?”, thought Alexander. “What a waste of a life.”

Devdutt Pattanaik

Thus Devdutt Pattanaik tells the story in the TED talk at the end of this post. (Thank you to Thomas for the link. Was it Thomas?)

Devdutt used to be successful and bored (the two can go together) in the pharma industry until he decided instead to make a living out of his passion, which is comparative mythology, by applying myths and storytelling to business. Wow. That’s exactly what The Hannibal Blog (at least in part) tries to do.

But let’s get back to this specific little anecdote (which echoes another such encounter Alexander was said to have had). It makes a perfect transition in my thread on heroes and heroism from the Greek and Roman heroes of antiquity to the Eastern heroes of antiquity.

As Devdutt says, Alexander grew up with the stories of Hercules, Theseus and Jason, which told him:

  • you live only once, so make it count, and
  • make it count by being spectacular!

The yogi grew up on up on different stories — the Mahabharata (which I love) and Ramayana and so forth. His heroes, such as Krishna and Rama, were not distinct individuals who lived once and made it count, but different lifetimes of the same hero.

The yogi’s stories told him that:

  • you get to live — nay, must live — infinite lives, until you get the point, so
  • stop wasting your time by conquering things that have been and will be conquered countless times, and try to see the point.

To approach this in a slightly different way:

In my last post on Aeneas, I argued that he was “the first western hero whose internal journey is as important as his external journey.” Well, I put the word western in there for a reason: Because I was already thinking of Arjuna, to whom I must turn in a separate post.

Now watch Devdutt:

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The first “almost modern” hero: Aeneas


It’s time to tie together three of my threads:

So what role did Aeneas play in the history of hero stories? What sort of hero was he?

A revolutionary one, it seems to me. He was a classical Homeric hero (literally mentioned in Homer’s Iliad) whom Virgil made into a recognizable modern hero, but with one interesting twist that still alienates him from us today.

I) The “weak” hero

In the Aeneid, we first meet Aeneas (and first meetings are important) in the middle of a storm that Juno has orchestrated in the hope of killing him and his Trojans. As the wind and waves tear his ships apart (sinking 7 of the 20),

Aeneas on the instant felt his knees go numb and slack, and stretched both hands to heaven, groaning out: ‘Triply lucky, all you men to whom death came before your fathers’ eyes below the wall at Troy! Bravest Danaan [ie, Greek], Diomedes, why could I not go down when you had wounded me, and lose my life on Ilium’s [Troy’s] battlefield? (I, 131-139)

This is an astonishing departure, a brave literary innovation, in ancient storytelling. We could not imagine, say, a Hercules or Theseus, or even a Jason, in despair — frightened to death in the sense of wishing to die.

Right from the start, therefore, we understand that Aeneas’ heroism will not consist only of strength — expressed as the overcoming of enemies or monsters — but, more importantly, of an inner struggle with himself.

So Aeneas is the first western hero whose internal journey is as important as his external journey. Virgil thus invites us, his readers, to empathize with Aeneas more than we would ever empathize with Hercules, Theseus or Jason.

II) The tender hero

Virgil also wants us to empathize in another way: Aeneas is the first hero (aside from Orpheus, arguably) who is presented to us as a whole man, a man who not only has a public duty but also private loyalties to:

  • father,
  • son,
  • wife,
  • and even lover.

Hercules, Theseus and Jason also had parents, wives and offspring, of course. But their stories never dwelt on these relationships.

Aeneas carries his father and son out of Troy

By contrast, Aeneas’ proto-Roman deference and respect for his father, Anchises, and his tender nurturing of his young boy, Ascanius, are deliberately touching. Here is Aeneas as Troy burns and its inhabitants are being slaughtered by the Greeks:

‘Then come, dear father. Arms around my neck: I’ll take you on my shoulders; no great weight. Whatever happens, both will face one danger, find one safety’…. Over my breadth of shoulder and bent neck, I spread out a lion skin for tawny cloak and stooped to take his weight. Then little Iulus [another name for Ascanius] put his hand in mine and came with shorter steps beside his father… (II, 921-924)

Aeneas loses his first wife, Creusa, in the genocide of Troy, but he makes clear how painful this is for him. Having rescued his father and son, he goes back into the burning city to look for her:

I filled the streets with calling; in my grief time after time I groaned and called Creusa, frantic, in endless quest from door to door. (II, 999-1000)

Aeneas also feels tenderness for his lover Dido, even after their “break-up” and her eternal hatred. We see this as Aeneas descends to Hades to seek advice from his dead father. In passing, he sees the shade of Dido (who has committed suicide, as Aeneas has guessed but does not know). Aeneas

wept and spoke tenderly to her: ‘Dido, so forlorn, the story then that came to me was true, that you were out of life, had met your end by your own hand. Was I, was I the cause? I swear by heaven’s stars, by the high gods, by any certainty below the earth, I left your land against my will … And I could not believe that I would hurt you so terribly by going… (VI, 611-625)

This is an unusual classical hero — a man who is aware of the ramifications his actions have on others, and man who has compassion.

III) The hero without free will

But there is also a clue to the aspect of Aeneas that alienates him from us today. “I left your land against my will,” he tells Dido’s shade. This is true. The gods ordered him to leave Dido, because they had sketched out a larger mission for him, which was to found the Roman nation.

This was his duty, and Aeneas is still, above all, pius Aeneas, as he himself says. (Dutiful is a better translation than pious here.)

In fact, as Susanna Braund points out in her fantastic (and free) Stanford lectures on the Aeneid, Aeneas uses a more telling phrase:

I sail for Italy not of my own free will. (IV, 499)

There you have it: no free will.

Braund thinks that this is the reason why the Aeneid has not yet been made into a Hollywood film, even though we’ve long had to suffer Brad-Pitt-Achilleses and their like.

It seems that we like heroes to be strong and weak, tough and tender, but that we need to believe that they are free. Subtle but interesting. To be continued.

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Heroines and “literary Darwinism”


Helen and Paris


Ask people to name a woman in the Iliad, the story of the Trojan War, and they will name Helen, the cause of that war, who was known for her beauty.

Ask people to name a man, and they will not name Paris, also known for his beauty but otherwise considered a pansy even though Helen eloped with him. Instead, they will name Achilles (or Hector, Odysseus etc), who were heroes.

So: beauty for women; strength for men (see Hercules). Right?

I began contemplating this when Solid Gold commented under a recent post in my thread on heroes and heroism that

the real question is whether a woman can be a hero.

I think that question deserves books. But I thought I’d share a tidbit from an article about storytelling (another big thread on The Hannibal Blog) that attempts an answer. (Thanks to Jag Bhalla for the link.)

It cites research by a professor of English at Washington & Jefferson College named Jonathan Gottschall, who is apparently one of the scholars known informally as “literary Darwinists.” (The ideas of that great thinker seem to be infinitely extensible.)




As far as I can tell, these literary Darwinists have corroborated the thesis of Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell that all humans in all cultures and ages tend to re-tell fundamentally the same archetypal stories. But whereas Jung and Campbell used psychological logic, the literary Darwinists are using the (Darwinian) logic of relative reproductive success.

And so Gottschall analyzed “90 folktale collections, each consisting of 50 to 100 stories,” ranging from industrial nations to hunter-gatherer tribes, and found overwhelmingly similar gender depictions:

  • strong male protagonists (aka “heroes”) and
  • beautiful female protagonists.

We couldn’t even find one culture that had more emphasis on male beauty,

Gottschall is quoted.

In all, the stories had had three times more male than female main characters and six times more references to female beauty than to male beauty.


That difference in gender stereotypes, [Gottschall] suggests, may reflect the classic Darwinian emphasis on reproductive health in women, signified by youth and beauty, and on the desirable male ability to provide for a family, signaled by physical power and success.

Let me try to make this Darwinian logic more explicit:

  1. Let’s say you have two hypothetical tribes, each reflecting its values through the stories it tells.
  2. Tribe A values male beauty and female strength whereas Tribe B values male strength and female beauty.
  3. We might assume that, over time, Tribe B not only reproduces more than Tribe A, but even that it does so at the expense of Tribe A (resources, conflict, etc).
  4. Ergo, we, who are by necessity descendants of Tribe B, live to retell its stories, the B stories.


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Orpheus: First romantic hero

Today, a story about trust — the need for it, and the horrible consequences of losing it. The lesson comes wrapped in the myth of Orpheus.

So far in this evolving thread on heroes and heroism, I’ve looked at the brute archetype of a hero (Hercules), the more refined classical archetype (Theseus), and a more complex and ambiguous hero (Jason). They were all not only Greeks but also Argonauts — ie, they boarded the ship Argo to accompany Jason on his quest to get the Golden Fleece. The main purpose of that ship, besides conveying Jason on his quest, seems to have been precisely that: to establish who did and did not count as a hero.

Therefore it is clear that the Greeks considered Orpheus, also on board, a hero as well. And thereby the pattern of increasing complexity in the idea of heroism continues. Orpheus, I would say, was the first “romantic hero” in the history of storytelling.

Not strong but gifted

Who was Orpheus? A Wunderkind. He had the best singing voice in the world, the best musical ear, the most sublime talent for moving humans (and even animals and trees and rocks) with sound. He may have been the son of Apollo, the god of (among other things) music, and Apollo personally taught Orpheus to play the lyre. Whenever Orpheus filled the air with sound, nature relented and sighed and swooned.

That’s the first sign that he was a romantic hero — he was not known for his strength, as Hercules was, but for a talent.

Nonetheless, he was also brave, or at least bold. But his heroism had a different motivation. Orpheus did something heroic not because he could (Hercules) or because he had a public duty (Theseus) or because he wanted to reclaim a throne and power (Jason) but because he … loved.

He loved a woman named Eurydice and they married and lived in bliss. But one day (her wedding day, in some versions), Eurydice was walking through a meadow when a venomous snake bit her. She died and went to Hades, the underworld of shadows.

Orpheus was inconsolable. He decided that he could not live without Eurydice, so he set out to do something very bold: He went down to Hades, as a living human visiting the dead, to plead with Hades to give Eurydice back.

To get down there, he used his talent. When Cerberus, the huge three-headed dog who guarded the underworld, blocked his path, Orpheus sang so sweetly that Cerberus wagged his tail and let him pass. When Orpheus reached the dark and stinking river Styx, he sang again and Charon, the ferryman, was moved to bring him across.

And so he arrived among the ghosts and shadows of the dead, keeping fear at bay by thinking only of his beloved. He appeared before King Hades and his queen, Persephone, and there sang and played his lyre more beautifully than he ever had before (pictured above).

Persephone in particular was moved that a man could love a woman so much, and Hades, also touched, relented. He would give Eurydice back to Orpheus — ie, make her alive again — on one condition.

The difficulty of trusting

That condition was simple: Eurydice would follow behind Orpheus up to the world of the living, but Orpheus was not to turn around to look at her.

So she was called and Orpheus began the long way upwards toward the surface of the earth. He could not hear footsteps behind him, but of course he knew that Eurydice was still a shadow and had no weight yet.

Orpheus kept climbing and looking forward with determination and focus. At last, he saw the first rays of light at the top.

But doubt seized him. What if Eurydice was no longer there? What if she had never been behind him to begin with?

Orpheus forgot himself and … turned.

And as he turned, he got one last glimpse of his beloved. Eurydice had indeed been behind him all this time, just as Hades had promised. But now, because Orpheus had turned, she dissolved back into the darkness. With a look of unbearable sadness in her eyes, she returned to Hades — this time forever.

So Orpheus returned to the world of the living alone. But who calls this living? He was a broken man. His songs and music were henceforth desperate and made animals and plants cry.

Eventually, a group of women (or nymphs or beasts) who could not bear it anymore tore him to pieces and threw his lyre and body parts into a river.

Nymphs (above) saw Orpheus’ head floating downstream, still singing its mournful song of love bereft and trust betrayed. Perhaps his shadow, when it arrived in Hades, found Eurydice’s at last.

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