Category Archives: Story-telling

Includes all matters writing, mythology and fairy-tales. Some process.

Sisyphus and the case of the shape-shifting cattle

Although Sisyphus is best known for pushing that boulder up the mountain in the underworld, there was an ongoing rumor that he was father of Odysseus. Sisyphus was a master con-man, fooling death not once but twice. And Odysseus, well, we all know of his penchant for lying and trickery.

Sophocles refers to Odysseus as son of Sisyphus in the play Philoctetes. In this story, several years into the battle at Troy, Odysseus is tasked with bringing Philoctetes to fight when a Trojan seer reveals that Philoctetes is needed to win.

Odysseus recommended abandoning Philoctetes in Lemnos during their sail to Troy ten years earlier

Philoctetes was suffering from a snake bite that refused to heal. At the time of the play, his wound is still festering and he, naturally, hates Odysseus. He only agrees to go with him to Troy after a divine promise that he will be healed- and a great hero to boot.

But the explanation of how Sisyphus could be father to Odysseus isn’t found in any extant Greek source, but rather in the Latin fables of Hyginus. Hyginus was an early first century author, perhaps from Spain, perhaps from Alexandria, whose writing was neither beautiful nor original. The writings of Hyginus have value because they represent what educated Romans knew of Greek myth.

According to fable #201, Sisyphis was neighbor to Autolycus, son of Hermes and Chione, and father of Anticleia, mother in turn of Odysseus.

Autolycus, whose name means “the wolf itself,” was responsible for naming his grandson Odysseus. But that’s a story for another day.

Hermes gave various gifts to his son Autolycus

Like a helmet that made him invisible and the ability to change the color of livestock and to switch horned animals into hornless ones, and to give horns to those without.

Yes, these are useful skills for a thief, which Autolycus was. And he was neighbor to Sisyphus in Corinth.

Sisyphus owned a handsome herd of cattle

One day he realized that his herd seemed to be decreasing in size. When he walked around the neighborhood, he found others with the same problem, except for Autolycus, who was instead doing suspiciously well.

Autolycus encouraged Sisyphus to examine his cattle to see if he recognized any. But Sisyphus found no familiar animals.

Nevertheless, over time, the number of Sisyphus’s cattle dwindled while Autolycus’s herd increased.

Sisyphus came up with a plan

He marked his animals with a sign.

The stories differ: some say it was a double “S,” others that it was the words “Autolycus stole me.” Some say that he scratched it onto their hooves, others that he branded their flanks.

When he finished marking his herd, he told his other neighbors to come over to Autolycus’s house the next day.

The next morning, as usual, he was short several animals, so he marched over to his neighbor’s. After a little looking around he recovered four cows with his mark. They weren’t the same color as the night before and one had a new set of horns.

By then the neighborhood had gathered around Autolycus. Sisyphus showed them the evidence, but just when the crowd started to heat up, he snuck around the house to a side door.

Sysiphus found his neighbor’s daughter, Anticleia

And slept with her.

(It isn’t clear whether she was interested or whether she was already married to Laertes.)

But the bottom line is that Laertes was not the father of Odysseus.

The nifty ability to change the color of livestock appears elsewhere

In the story of Jacob and Laban (Genesis 30: 31-43), Jacob outsmarts Laban’s attempts to trick him from his rightful wages for tending the flocks by manipulating the color of the sheep.

Although the passage is confusing from many points of view, there is no question that Laban had deceived Jacob before and intended to continue doing so. It was fair turnaround.

(Like Sisyphus and Autolycus.)

And like Sisyphus, other stories about Jacob reveal a certain skill at deception and trickery.

(You know, like Odysseus. )

Could Sisyphus be the father of Odysseus?

Considering that the great-grandsons of Sisyphus, Sarpedon and Glaucus, fought at Troy beside Odysseus, it isn’t likely.

But it’s always interesting to see how myths grow to explain and elaborate on patterns and likeness.

Good stories never end, they’re never fixed. They live on in our imagination.

The boulder of Sisyphus and starting over, again

I’ve been thinking a lot about Sisyphus and his boulder: how it gets away from him just when he’s reaching the summit, it rolls down, and he has to start all over again.

I’ve been told that this is hell

A true punishment.

That there is no other reading, unless the task has a clear benefit, like the rock is actually the solar disk, or the kinetic energy released as it tumbles downhill is providing electricity to a small village.

But I think that every task, every activity has meaning.

Starting with those of daily maintenance such as washing dishes and brushing  teeth to the most grandiose ones of healing and governing and discovery, and passing through policing and farming and teaching and driving people or things places.

Many of these activities strive for goals that never completely come to fruition, or the successes are so small as to feel negligible. Other times success is so piecemeal as to appear hopeless: one reaches one student, heals one sick person, but loses another.

And no matter how successful one may be, at the end of the day: everything ends, everything dies.

So all we have is what we do and what we’ve done.

The first sutra of Patanjali says:

Atha yoga anushasanam.

It can be translated as:

Now the practice of yoga begins.

Atha, now, is both here and now. It is the only thing you can be sure of, as the past is gone and the future might not come. Atha implies preparedness, willingness, an openness to that which will be taken on.

Anushasanam is the teaching, the discipline, the exposition. I translated it as the practice. Practice requires repetition. It includes discipline, learning.

Yoga is translated as the union, the yoking: of mind and body, of yourself and the world around you, of your soul and something larger. Yoga is connecting.

This sutra speaks directly to fact that nothing is ever “done.” Every day we have to face our yoga mat, our desk, our classrooms, our families, our datasets, our clients, our blank canvas or page.

It’s a practice. A practice to connect, to become whole.

Sisyphus tells us that every day is new and every day we start over

In meditation, we are instructed to focus on a specific object, our breath, a mantra. When the mind wanders (which it will), there are no judgments, we simply note that we have lost touch and return our focus.

We’ve dropped the boulder and it rolled downhill, bouncing on every bump along the slope. But when we notice, we get into position and start pushing the rock back uphill.

We start over.

Starting over isn’t a punishment

It’s an opportunity. The heroism is in continuing, in not giving up. Not sitting down in the plain and crying because the boulder fell.

Not walking away from what we decided to do.

As Gabriel García Márquez said

When I finished one book, I wouldn’t write for a while. Then I had to learn how to do it all over again.

The hero, like Sisyphus, keeps trying, keeps pushing the boulder up the mountain, keeps starting over.

Atha means that here and now is anytime. Anytime is a good time to engage, to be willing to try again.

 

Sisyphus 101

Sisyphus, 1548-1549. Titian. This painting was one of a series of four (including Tityus, https://www.museodelprado.es/en/the-collection/online-gallery/on-line-gallery/obra/ticius/, Ixion, and Tantalus) commissioned by the sister of emperor Charles V to serve as warning to those who dared oppose him. The four mythological characters are suffering eternal punishment for opposing the gods. Ixion and Tantalus were destroyed in the 1734 fire at Madrid’s Alcazar Palace. Museo Nacional del Prado Museum. Via Wikimedia Commons.
Sisyphus, 1548-1549. Titian. This painting was one of a series (including Tityus, Ixion, and Tantalus) commissioned by the sister of emperor Charles V to serve as warning to those who dared oppose him. Museo Nacional del Prado Museum. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Sisyphus now pursues, now pushes the stone that always comes rolling back. – Ovid, Metamorphosis

Like many, I was introduced to the myth of Sisyphus through the essay of Albert Camus, Nobel prize-winning author/philosopher and Resistance fighter. For Camus, heroism is defined by Sisyphus, fated to spend eternity pushing a huge boulder up a mountain only for it roll back down so he must start all over again.

A tragic hero of course, because Sisyphus is not ignorant that his effort is futile. But that perseverance in the face of futility is true heroism, even joy.

How did Sisyphus find himself in his predicament?

As Camus notes, it was because he dared to oppose the gods. And we all know how that works out.

Sisyphus didn’t just oppose the gods, he fooled death, and not once but twice.

So who is Sisyphus anyway?

Sisyphus was a busy guy. Stories about him can be found in works by Homer, Virgil, and Ovid, among others.

His short bio would mention that he was king (and maybe founder) of Corinth and owner of a resplendent herd of cattle. (More about the cattle another day.) He was married to Merope, one of the Pleiades.

He’s also known, of course, for carrying a massive boulder up a mountain, day after day, in the underworld.

When boulders aren’t just boulders

Robert Graves tells us that the name Sisyphus may to be linked to Tesup (or Teshub) a Hittite sun-god. So that boulder is a sun-disk; the mountain slope, the vault of heaven.

There had been a cult of the sun in Corinth. According to some, the city was founded by a descendant of the sun god Helios.

What made the gods angry?

Zeus abducted the daughter of the river god Asopus. The usual. When Asopus mentioned it to Sisyphus, he responded that he maybe knew something, which he would share if Asopus provided Corinth with a perennial spring. Once the river god complied, Sisyphus explained that he had seen a great eagle carrying the young woman to an island.

Asopus stormed over, but Zeus saw him and threw a thunderbolt, leaving him lame.

Zeus was not pleased with the meddling of Sisyphus, so he sent his brother Hades to carry him off to the underworld.

Sisyphus cheats death, take one

Hades shows up in Corinth with handcuffs. Sisyphus innocently asks how they work. The god of the underworld slips them on and before Hades can say, “check them out, nifty, right?” Sisyphus has locked them.

Hades is trapped and nobody can die. Anywhere. By any means.

Head cut off? No problem. Still alive.

Before long, this causes a bit of a mess. Ares, the god of war, is particularly inconvenienced. He sets Hades free.

Sisyphus cheats death, take two

Persephone supervising Sisyphus pushing his rock in the underworld. Side A of an Attic black-figure amphora from Vulci, ~ 530 BCE. From Vulci. Staatliche Antikensammlungen via Wikimedia Commons.
Persephone supervising Sisyphus in the underworld. Side A of an Attic black-figure amphora from Vulci, ~ 530 BCE. Staatliche Antikensammlungen via Wikimedia Commons.

This time, Sisyphus planned ahead. He had asked his wife not to perform the proper burial rites, but instead to leave his body in the village square. She does as requested.

When Sisyphus arrives to the underworld, he tells Persephone about his wife’s shameful behavior and pleads to return to the land of living to chastise her. He promises he’ll be right back.

Persephone lets him go

But then he stays in the world of “water and sun, warm stones and the sea.” Years go by, the gods grow impatient.

Enter Hermes

The go-to messenger is sent to return him to the underworld. The gods have found an appropriate punishment.

According to Camus, the greatest sin of Sisyphus was his passion for living. His penalty was to do work which serves for nothing.

Camus recognizes that despair is inevitable 

The world is full of injustice. Tragedy. Accidents happen. All too often our best efforts are for naught.

Nihilism is attractive. Easy.

Camus insists that heroism is to be found in action, in the doing. In the not giving up.

Though he doesn’t mention the link between Sisyphus and the solar god, I find it adds an element of hope. If pushing the rock up the hill is akin to carrying the sun through the sky, doing it day after day has meaning in itself.

Can we ever know the impact of our apparently futile efforts?

The Phoenix Project of Xu Bing brings a reminder and a message of hope

If you live near NYC or will be visiting in the next year, and haven’t already gone, you might want to visit the cathedral of St John the Divine on Amsterdam in Morningside, near the Columbia campus. For approximately the next twelve months, the always beautiful church will be home to the Phoenix Project by Xu Bing.

As promising as the title The Phoenix Project is, given the heady symbolism of the phoenix in world mythology, the reality will not let you down.

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The 100-foot male, Feng, leads.

The wonderful film by Daniel Traub Xu Bing: Phoenix  (17 min) for the exhibit in MASS MoCA explains the creation of the piece. 

The artist was asked to build a sculpture for the atrium of a new building during the construction boom prior to the Beijing Olympics.

When he visited the site, he was appalled at the harsh working and living conditions of the migrant workers. He was inspired to construct a Chinese phoenix, a fenghuang, from the discards of construction sites.

Every piece of refuse has been touched by these migrant workers. It is as if each piece has been touched by the heavens, after which it has a kind of spirit. So its beauty comes about from the history of these materials. –Xu Bing in Xu Bing: Phoenix

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The female, Huang, follows behind, closer to the altar. Mr. Xu says: closer to God.

However, with the onset of the financial crisis, the developers found the piece too rough and unpolished. When the artist refused to cover the birds with crystal, they withdrew their support.

Though Xu Bing continued to work on the Phoenix Project, he would not have been able to complete the pieces without the funding from Taiwanese art collector Barry Lam.

The phoenix of Western mythology is not the same as the Chinese fenghuang

Images of the phoenix in Chinese culture date back at least 4000 years. Unlike the phoenix of Western mythology, of which there is only one in existence at one time, there are usually two Chinese phoenixes: one male and one female. Over time, the fenghuang has come to represent the female principle, yin, and to be associated with the empress, while the dragon is associated with yang and the emperor.

The fenghuang is one of the four sacred animals, along with the dragon, the tortoise and the unicorn.  It is described as being a chimera made up of many animals, but it is usually represented as a mix of birds. It is very large, nine feet, and its long tail feathers have the five sacred colors: red, blue, yellow, white and black

The fenghuang is said to only appear during the reign of a just ruler.

Charles Gould, in his Dragons, unicorns, and sea serpents: a classic study of the evidence for their existence, points out that a bird of such majesty would naturally be seen as auspicious. His enthusiasm notwithstanding, it is unlikely that the fenghuang is based on an extinct bird.

The phoenix in Western mythology is associated with the sun

The phoenix of classical antiquity likely originated in Egypt. Never living less than 500 years, near the end of its life it would build a nest of aromatic woods and set it on fire. A young phoenix would then rise from the ashes.

This death and resurrection make it a potent symbol which was used, among others, by the early Christian church.

 

systematicownder_xubing_components2Majesty and humility

Close inspection shows the very humble components: plastic tubing, hard hats, shovels, fans – all sprinkled with LEDs like so much fairy dust. But the birds soar grandly, bigger than the sum of their components. 

As Mr. Xu explains in the video, Chinese folk art uses basic materials to represent hope for the future. He wanted his birds to do the same.

 

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The piece outdoors in Beijing in a still of film Xu Bing: Phoenix being shown at St John the Divine. The two Phoenixes have been exhibited outdoors in Beijing and Shanghai .

The story we hear from Xu Bing’s phoenixes

Is slightly different wherever they fly, as befits any great myth.

In front of the Beijing Today Art Museum, they appear at night as illuminated angels soaring thanks to the effort of the nameless workers building the new China.

In MASS MoCA, they spoke to the precariousness of a global market.

In the cathedral, they remind us of the sacred responsibility to our fellow man, to fair wages and humane work conditions.

If you stand very still, you can feel the birds moving.

systematicwonder_xubing_tail

Traditionally, the fenghuang is associated with the cardinal direction south

The two birds at St John the Divine are facing west, but they definitely come from the east.

May their flight bring us closer and remind us of true fairness.

Not quite ten things about apples

I bite into a ripe Gala apple and sweetness floods my mouth. Apples have been around a long time and they’re not just tasty, they’re deeply embedded in story-telling , myth, and culture.

systematicwonder_apples

Here are almost ten things about apples:

  1. The apple is the fruit of a small deciduous tree in the rose family. There are 7500 varieties of apples in shades of red, green and yellow.
  2. An apple a day keeps the doctor away. This expression, of likely Welsh origin and first recorded probably in the mid 19th century, is consistent with known health benefits. High vitamin C and fiber, zero fat or sodium and low calorie content make apples a healthy snack.
  3. Because of their health benefits or their appearance, apples have long been symbols of immortality and fertility. Apple orchards grew in mythical western lands under care of goddesses including the Norse Idun, Greek Hera and her garden of the Hesperides, and Morgana in Avalon.
  4. Apples are thought to have originated in Central Asia and have been domesticated since 6500BCE. European colonists took them to North America.
  5. According to the Romans, apples brought completion to a meal. Horace refers to Roman meals as ab ovo usque ad mala, that is starting with eggs and ending with apples. The phrase refers to a complete thing.
  6. Johnny Appleseed went throughout Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and Pennsylvania planting apple trees in the 19th century. Though apples from trees planted from seed are sour, they were used for making hard cider. Planting trees helped settlers make a claim on their land.
  7. Most domesticated apple trees are propagated through grafting.
  8. One of the most famous apples in western civilization, the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden, wasn’t necessarily an apple since the word was generically used for fruit.
  9. An often-mentioned source for the logo of Apple is that it is a tribute to Alan Turing, the brilliant computer scientist and codebreaker who committed suicide by biting a cyanide-coated apple in 1954 when facing persecution for his homosexuality. This past  December Turing received a royal pardon for his 1952 conviction. However Turing, Snow White, or Isaac Newton, did not inspire the logo designer Rob Janoff, who included the bite for scale, so it wouldn’t look like a cherry.

 

How Penelope manipulated time and the fairy-tale installation of Tatiana Blass

Interior of Morumbi Chapel in the 2011 installation Penelope by Tatiana Blass. Photo by Everton Ballardin. Source: Tatiana Blass, Works, Penelope.
Interior of Morumbi Chapel in the 2011 installation Penelope by Tatiana Blass. Photo by Everton Ballardin. Source: Tatiana Blass: Penelope.

They urge me to wed, and I weave a web of deceit. For a god first inspired me to set up a great loom in the hall, and begin weaving with long fine thread.

Thus Penelope explains to Odysseus, who’s appeared in the guise of an aged and impoverished stranger, how she deals with the princes from the neighboring islands that are courting her.

Hospitality 

Convention compels her to host them lavishly. But they’ve abused her generosity, as they camp out in her palace eating, drinking, and seducing her maids.

Penelope tells the suitors that she must complete a shroud for Odysseus’s elderly father, Laertes. She’ll choose among them when the shroud is complete.

Penelope’s deceit

She tells Odysseus:

Then day after day I wove the great web, but at night, by torchlight, I unmade it. So for three years I cunningly kept the Achaeans from knowing, and so tricked them.

Sitting at the loom advances the moment of reckoning. Unraveling pushes it back. In this way Penelope manipulates the fabric of time itself, as measured by the growth of the shroud, a garment of death.

The women of The Odyssey are all weavers, from Helen to Circe to Calypso.  This is no coincidence: the time-consuming making of fabric was necessarily constant and ongoing. It was women’s work, invented by Athena herself.

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The other side of the loom within Morumbi Chapel. Photo by Everton Ballardin. Source: Tatiana Blass: Penelope.

Penelope takes control of her story through the act of weaving and undoing

Weaving is of course an ongoing metaphor for language and story-telling. Even the word text come from texere, to weave.

Though Odysseus is always acknowledged for his guile, Penelope’s ruse enables her to navigate the pressure from her family to remarry and her own desire to remain faithful to Odysseus.

This pressure to remarry is to be expected.  Her son sees his resources dwindling. And there is no proof that Odysseus lives.

But Penelope wants to wait. She makes it possible by manipulating time.

An installation that embodies this subversion of time 

Penelope by Tatiana Blass (Chapel of Morumbi, São Paulo, Brazil, 2011) fully acknowledges the original story and then transports the viewer further beyond.

There is the loom with woven material. The result of the weaving not only advances time, but introduces order. It is conventional. It pays obeisance to the trappings of power.

But on the other side of the loom, the unraveling threads tangle and cross. They create their own time, an inexorable “progress” of their own.

Interior/exterior dichotomy

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Exterior of Morumbi Chapel. Photo by Everton Ballardin. Source: Tatiana Blass: Penelope.

There is the inside. A sedate and orderly chamber is bisected by a red carpet that takes the viewer to the loom itself, in the place of the altar. Behind the loom, the threads go haywire and actually seep out of the building through the daub-and-wattle portholes.

That’s what happens when one plays with time.

Outside, the otherworldly landscape is wrapped in red, the yarn criss-crossing the ground and draping the plants to the point of strangling them.

Like an overgrown garden, the woven material  becomes a cocoon or a spider web of neglect, reminding us of the fairy tale where the castle sleeps for a hundred years, waiting for the prince to arrive and waken Beauty with a kiss.

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All the castle inhabitants sleep in the illustration by Gustave Doré of Perrault’s La Belle au Bois Dormant. (Les Contes de Perrault. J. Hetzel, 1867) Source: SurLaLune Fairytales.

Is this Penelope’s wish? To sleep until she is rescued?

Penelope is besieged by suitors who wish to claim all that is hers. They’ve even conspired to murder her son. She isn’t given the chance to passively wait.

Penelope herself must somehow create time.

She does this by unraveling. Turning back the clock. Subverting the rules.

The shroud of Laertes and parasitic plants

Steven Lowenstam fascinatingly presents the different meanings of the shroud in each of three tellings of Penelope’s ruse within The Odyssey.

It is Penelope’s final obligation to the family of Odysseus before remarrying and consequently the end of her life to that point. The waxing and waning shroud also mirrors the travels of Odysseus as he gets closer to Ithaca and then is swept away. Finally, the completed shroud becomes essentially the trigger for the death of the suitors on his return.

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Exterior of Morumbi Chapel. Photo by Everton Ballardin. Source: Tatiana Blass: Penelope.

There’s no obvious shroud in the installation by Tatiana Blass.

There’s a red carpet, straight and true on one side of the loom, followed by a chaotic jumble of fiber that leaves the building and drowns the outer walls and yard.

Is this exterior a period of stasis like the hundred-year-nap in Sleeping Beauty or is it the terrible consequence of slowing time down?

The color reminds us of the death of the suitors. The bloodbath.

Cipó-chumbo and parasites that go too far 

Douglas de Freitas notes the artist’s inspiration in cipó-chumbo, a parasitic plant that spreads over its host and eventually strangles it. The suitors are parasites that overstay their welcome. Penelope’s identity in Ithaca is at risk, like the life of cipó-chumbo‘s host plant.

But their plot to murder her son is foiled and Penelope manages to postpone her choice.

Odysseus returns and, with his son, slaughters the men occupying the Ithaca palace. Blood fills the great banquet hall.

The exterior of Blass’s fabulous installation is both enchanted and obscured by unchecked growth and aftermath of a massacre.

Time subverted.

But Blass doesn’t stop there

Six months later natural greenery starts to prevail over the snarled curtain of fibers (photos in portfolio on page 9).

Like in The Odyssey, the terrible violent act marking Odysseus’s return is eventually eased by time. Only a few remnants of the suitors’ shroud persist.

The web of yarn illustrates Penelope’s complicity in the massacre: not by taking up the sword but by sitting at her loom. Weaving to build a garment of death, then unraveling to forestall its use.