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Mythology in a contemporary age

Myths – the stories of origins, Gods, and heroes – are more than just tales of human societies. They showcase the histories and traditions specific to a culture or a group of people. In the current climate, a right balance is needed between preserving one’s own cultural myths whilst being open to exploring others. So, let’s take a further look at how mythology influenced our present. 

In the last 100 years, references to mythology can be seen in CS Lewis’ ‘The Chronicles of Narnia’ and JK Rowling’s ‘Harry Potter’ series. If we focus on Harry Potter as an example; Ron Weasley’s ruse to lull the ‘Three Headed Dog’ to sleep by playing the flute was arguably borrowed from Greek mythology in the form of Cerberus, the three headed dog who guarded the gates to the underworld and succumbed to slumber with the aid of music. The protagonist responsible was the famed musician – Orpheus – who, according to Greek mythology, managed to sneak into the Underworld by subduing the normally alert and aggressive Cerberus to sleep with his lyre. Interestingly, in the Harry Potter novels Hagrid originally purchased Fluffy from a ‘Greek chappie’ at The Leaky Cauldron. This is a prime example of how authors utilise myths of old and adapt it in a literary setting.

A symbolic interpretation of the story involving Cerberus is that the success of some of the mortals such as Heracles in taming the creature also points towards the fact that nothing is impossible in the world, no matter how Herculean the task seems. This includes taming three headed dogs!

 The film ‘Triangle’ and Sisyphus 

There is another tale in Greek mythology that can also resonate with a contemporary audience: the story of Sisyphus which is heavily referenced in my favourite film – ‘Triangle.’ So, let’s explore the film, dive into the Greek mythological story of Sisyphus and finally discuss how it influences our present. 

The film ‘Triangle’

Triangle does initially just seem to be about a boat trip gone awry, but it’s also about a voyage into a stormy sea of guilt and punishment. It’s worth highlighting at this point to think about why things happen the way they do and how to view hardship and difficulties. 

Jess (Melissa George), the protagonist, is a mother to an autistic son. However, at the beginning of the film’s events, all we see is Jess becoming increasingly tired of looking after her child herself. She then decides to hire a taxi to the marina to join her friends on a boat trip. Upon arriving at the marina, the taxi driver strangely says that he will keep the meter running. Jess makes nothing of this statement and joins her friends. Jess’s friends notice that she is flustered and annoyed for no obvious reasons.  During the trip, a storm capsized the boat drowning one of the characters and leaving the rest bobbing about in the middle of the ocean. They eventually find refuge in an ocean liner called Aeolus which is deserted. Once on board they are confronted with a masked killer who stabs all the characters to death apart from Jess. Jess eventually falls overboard into the ocean and wakes up on a beach. She then miraculously makes her way back home.

Time loop

As Jess arrives back to her home thinking the whole ordeal is over, she realises there’s a version of herself already present with her son. Moreover, Jess is now witnessing a repeat of the scene in the morning, depicting a weary doppelganger looking after her son. It’s at this stage that it becomes evident that the day’s events are to repeat themselves.  We now also see this doppelganger manifesting an aggressive side to her character; it appears that at the beginning of the film Jess accidentally kills her son in a burst of rage, which explains her abnormal behaviour whilst on the boat. Jess is fated to experience the same emotions of guilt and desperation over and over again in a loop as the same day continues to repeat itself.  Jess on the ocean liner is desperate to get back to her house as she’s convinced that if she can return in time, she can prevent the death of her son at the hands of an earlier version of herself.

References to Greek Mythology

Note that reading Greek mythology can entail consuming exaggerated conclusions especially in respect to the relationship between the mere mortals and the higher power. But this is why Shakespeare says: “As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods; they kill us for their sport.”

So the references to Greek mythology in this film are as follows: 

Aeolus (Odyssey) 

Firstly, Aeolus is god of the winds in Greek mythology and in the film, it is the name of the ocean liner that Jess and her friends seek refuge in. But of course, as seen above, it is a ship that only leads to more trouble.

Charon 

Charon, who carries the souls of the dead across the river Styx is comparable to the taxi driver who told Jess he will keep the meter running. This is because the taxi driver is continuously driving Jess to the marine, where her voyage on the yacht begins afresh.  

Sisyphus

Now we arrive at the most interesting aspect of all the references to Greek mythology. This well-known story involves Sisyphus being punished by Zeus for tricking the Gods twice. The punishment was having to eternally push a boulder up a hill; every time however that he got near the top, it would roll back down, forcing him to start over again. In the film, Jess finding herself stuck in a time loop is comparable to Sisyphus. Both are being cursed to repeat the same cycle for eternity. 

Further interpretation of the story of Sisyphus

People throughout the ages have understood the tale of Sisyphus differently. Some examples are as follows: 

A Roman poet interprets the myth of Sisyphus as personifying politicians aspiring for political office who are constantly defeated. The quest for power, viewed in itself as an “empty thing” is comparable thus to the rolling of the boulder up the hill; a meaningless and vain pursuit.

Friedrich Welcker symbolises pushing the boulder up the hill to the vain struggle of man in the pursuit of knowledge. 

It is, however, Albert Campus’ philosophical essay, ‘The Myth of Sisyphus’, that flips the side of the coin. Campus argues that the myth of Sisyphus is an allegory to the human condition. Sisyphys is defiantly meeting his fate by demonstrating positivity in his mundane task of pushing the boulder up the hill. Likewise, humans, though engaged in the same (and at many times mundane) tasks day in and day out, must still give it significance and value for the meaning is found in the task itself.  For example, a person on a trip to a destination should not think about the end place but, rather, enjoy the actual ride. Similarly, when one is working towards a goal, one’s attention shouldn’t be just the end result but the actual process and effort along the way. A deeper exploration of Campus would open the doors to nihilism and existentialism and so some would disagree with this theory. 

Nevertheless, in a world where society is constantly questioning the purpose of it all, it is fascinating to see how mythology can be used as metaphors. We’re living in an age where life can consist of living the same repetitive routine and lifestyle in order for us to serve what often appears to be our mere sociological function. Thus, in order to find these long-awaited answers, we can look into our mythological stories which explore these issues in great detail. It is in the exploration of our own rich cultures and also the meeting of new cultures which can mould new stories for a contemporary age. 

References and for further reading: Lucretius: Poet and Epicurean and Kings of Greek Mythology

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