mythology and the body

views updated

mythology and the body The human body is essential to human myth and storytelling, as it is the first reference point, the original source of sensation and apprehension that gives rise to all questions and all attempts to answer them. Certain popular and deep-seated metaphors and symbols — images used for understanding and expressing human beliefs and situations, such as Achilles' heel and Adam's rib — are taken from myths associated with the body. Other myths are concerned with the categories of the natural and the supernatural, and employ a bodily vocabulary of missing, or extra, body parts, and creatures whose identity hovers between human and beast, mortal and immortal, physical and spiritual. The winged angel, the centaur, the griffin, the sphinx, and the various demons and divinities with animal attributes, from ibis-headed Thoth to goat-headed Satan, are such hybrids, whose physical forms embody paradox and impossibility.

Mythic opponents are often represented with unusual numbers of body parts; the Irish Fomoire had only one leg and one arm, the Greek Cyclops one eye. Gods and other ‘good’ characters in myth may also have a less than perfect physical form; the Greek Hephaistos was born lame and is known as ‘the limping god’, while the Irish hero Nûadu lost his arm in battle but was given a silver prosthetic arm to replace it. In ancient Egyptian myth, the body of Osiris was torn into fourteen pieces by his wife's brother Seth, and scattered across Egypt; his wife Isis reassembled the parts, but was unable to find Osiris' penis, which had been eaten by fish. However, she made him a new one by magic, and restored him to life.

The normal human experiences of the life cycle were dramatized in, and experienced through, myth. For example, in ancient Greece the goddess Artemis had a special concern for the young, and presided over the transition to adulthood. Girls dedicated their childhood toys to her as they entered puberty, and women made offerings to her at marriage and after childbirth. However, the gods of many different cultures were themselves fixed at a particular age, missing out certain stages of the life cycle completely.

The story of Achilles' fatal weak spot, in his otherwise invincible body, describes how his mother, Thetis, the sea goddess, bestowed bodily immunity upon him by dipping him in the sea as an infant: the only part of his body not to touch the strengthening waters was his heel, by which she held him. The position of this flaw, in the lowliest and most disregarded portion of the body, synonymous with ignominy and debasement, reflects the earthbound nature of human weakness, as it is perceived in classical and Western thought. The heel, which touches the soil, and the head, which looks toward the sky, form a paradigm for the most basic of hierarchies, the one that values the vertical above the horizontal, and values that which is further away from the earth above that which is close to the earth. The logical extension of this pattern is found in the separation and elevation, in Western philosophy, of the mind over the body.

One of the most frequently found notions in mythology concerning the body is the association between earth and the female. The Mesopotamian myth of a cosmos whose lower portions formed the female earth deity called Ki; the Greek earth goddess Gaia; and the Mayan female Earth Monster, are a few examples of this phenomenon. Mythology reveals a widespread, though not universal, identification of the earthly processes of growth and fruition, necessary for human nourishment and survival, with female bodily properties of fertility and barrenness, and the processes of gestation and childbirth. A Zuni myth from the present-day south-western US describes the beginnings of the world as a series of four wombs, in which the created beings developed before emerging, through a birth canal in the earth, into the light of day. The Japanese creation myth, on the other hand, held that the eight islands of Japan were themselves born from a female heavenly spirit, who not only produced the earth, sea, seasons, winds, trees, fields, and mountains, but from her vomit created metal; from her faeces, clay; and from her urine, hot springs.

While myths like these explain natural phenomena, or the existence of the world, by reference to human reproduction, there are also myths that account for the phenomenon of procreation itself. Sometimes the discovery of sexuality is presented as a fortuitous occurrence, an account that stresses the teleology of nature, and of genitalia. In the Japanese myth referred to, the original procreating pair observe of their own bodies that, while on one of their bodies the flesh in a certain part protrudes, in the corresponding part of the other the flesh is split in half. The pair then decide to put the excessive and defective parts of their bodies together — thus procreation is initiated, cued by the design features of male and female bodies.

Plato's Symposium posits a different source for human sexual drives as well as sexual differentiation. It states that such desire stems from the fact that, in the beginning, humans beings were each as large as two are now, as round as tree trunks, with two heads and two sets of everything else: some with two sets of male members, some with two sets of female parts, others with one of each. The gods Zeus and Apollo, fearful of these beings' strength, divided each in half, and since then, people have felt a longing to be united with their other half, to which end they strive and strive, some yearning after members of their own sex, others after those of the opposite sex.

The biblical story of the Fall makes a long-enduring and highly influential link between sexuality, knowledge, and sin, in which the bodily act of eating, and the bodily state of nakedness, are employed as emblems of human disobedience and shame. When Eve, tempted by the serpent, tastes of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, and tempts Adam to do likewise, the first knowledge they experience is of their own nakedness, and their loss of innocence — or of ignorance of good and evil — is demonstrated in their new feeling of shame at the sight of their own bodies. As the body was the vehicle for their transgression, so it becomes the vehicle for their castigation. Fallen from the state of grace of blissful ignorance, and cast out of the timeless bounty of Eden, the first humans are condemned to knowledge of hunger, desire, pain, and loss; to process and change, growth and decay. They work out their sentence in producing food, and bringing forth children, by bodily toil and suffering.

The Christian solution to the problem of human fallibility demonstrates the peculiarly body-centred nature of this religion. Every nuance and aspect of the Christian moral universe is articulated through the body. As the fall of humankind, the exchange of innocence for experience, was brought about by Eve, and her wilful ingestion of divine knowledge, so the redemption of humanity was accomplished by the submission of the Virgin Mary to the will of God, and the impregnation of her body by the Holy Spirit. Adam's violation of the Tree of Knowledge is redeemed by the crucifixion of Mary's son, Jesus, upon a second ‘tree’; the taste of the Edenic fruit on Adam's lips is transmuted into the bitter cup drained by Christ in another garden. The natural cycle of life, death, birth, and sexuality initiated by Eve is interrupted by Mary's miraculous virgin birth, and humankind is released from temporal death and decay, first visited upon Adam, by the miraculous resurrection of Christ.

The position of Christ on the ladder of existence as a being part human, part divine, or the divine embodied in the human, finds rough parallels in other mythologies. The Aztec god Quetzalcoatl, lord of life and death, is a composite figure, an intermediary between creatures. Like humans, he stands midway between the gods and the beings below, with the attendant dilemmas and possibilities of that position. He is the soul taking wings to heaven, and he is matter descending to earth as the crawling snake; he is the ‘plumed serpent’, emblematic of the human condition.

Thus mythology uses the body as the vehicle for demonstrating or expressing the underlying tensions, contradictions, problems, and dilemmas we face as conscious living beings inhabiting an alternately bountiful and hostile physical world.

Helen King, and Natsu Hattori


Burland, C.,, Nicholson, I.,, and and Oxborne, H. (1970). Mythology of the Americans. Hamyln, London.
Buxton, R. (1994). Imaginary Greece. Cambridge University Press.
Campbell, J. (1960–5). The masks of God, (Vols 1–3). Secker and Warburg, London.
Davidson, H. R. E. (1982). Scandinavian mythology. Hamlyn, London.
Jordan, M. (1993). Myths of the world: a thematic encyclopaedia. Kyle Cathie Ltd, London.
Willis, R. (ed.) (1993). World mythology: the illustrated guide. Simon and Schuster, London.

See also anthropomorphism; creation myths; Greeks; metamorphosis; mythic thought; reproduction myths.