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Homo: The Story-Telling Animal


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“We were not new. They were. Sapiens are just the improved model of Homo. Erectus was the first to journey. They were the original imagination-motivated travellers.”


---Daniel Everett (How Language Began: The History of Humanity’s Greatest Invention, p. 48)


As we all know from Greek Mythology, Prometheus was the Titan and Creator God who stole Fire from the Olympian Gods and gave it to the benefit of humankind. What is often not recognized, however, is that the treasured Promethean Fire that made us human first came from the Goddess Athene, who “taught [Prometheus] architecture, astronomy, mathematics, navigation, medicine, metallurgy, and other useful arts, which he passed on to mankind” (Robert Graves, Greek Myths: Vol. I, p. 141). Athena was the source of the technological and scientific knowledge of the day, already mediated through the collective activity of Zeus as the principle of established social order among homo sapiens.


The relationship between Prometheus and Athene has given rise to an abundance of mythic speculation. There is even a suggestion that the Titan and the Goddess had, at one point, a love affair. What we can say with more certainty is that Prometheus was there in attendance to the birth of Athene. He assisted Hephaestus, another Fire God, in the procedure of splitting open the head of Zeus “from which Athene sprang, fully armed, with a mighty shout” (Greek Myths, 51). As we recall the myth, Zeus fell into this state of pregnancy after swallowing the Goddess Metis, who was herself made pregnant by Zeus. The old fear that haunted Olympian lineage, punctuated by the image of a castrated Chronos, came back to Zeus. For it was prophesied that Metis would give birth to a son that could depose Zeus, just as he had done with Chronos, and Chronos Uranus. 


The great fear of castration at the heart of a patriarchal lineage is indicated here in the powerful connection between Athena and Metis. Although Athene thenceforth became branded as her “Father’s daughter,” she was fully functioning as herself within the new patriarchal order established by Zeus.

The Titaness Metis, daughter of Okeanos and Tethys, was the original figure of archetypal wisdom. She was one of the Okeanides, a colossal sea-nymph, “Titan-goddess of good counsel, planning, cunning and wisdom” who “hatched the plan through which Kronos (Cronus) was forced to regurgitate his devoured children” (theoi.com). Metis thus played a crucial role during the great war of the Titanomachy, when the Olympians fought against the primeval order of the Titans. This tactical wisdom in war passed over to Athene, who thus carries her mother’s legacy into the patriarchal era.


Even the ploy to steal the Fire back from the Olympians was possible only because of Athene. It was she who helped Prometheus gain access to the halls of Olympus through the back door. Only then could he steal a glowing piece of the Sun’s Chariot, wrap it in the pith of a fennel-stalk, and bring it back to humanity, thereby achieving general acclaim.


Although Prometheus is the poster boy for human knowledge and inventiveness, a closer reading of the mythology can show a slightly different meaning. From the angle of the Goddesses, we can see the chthonic and tactical wisdom of the Goddesses irrepressibly pass through Zeus, from Thetys to Metis and finally Athene, before landing into the thieving hands of Prometheus as the vaunted “archetype of human existence” (Kerényi). 


Prometheus was not the Apollonic Hero that so enthralled the romantic period. He was a wily trickster figure and not the figure of an ideal humanity raised to the Divine. It was Prometheus’s treachery that provoked Zeus into punishing humans “by withholding fire from mankind. ‘Let them eat their flesh raw!’ he cried.” (The Greek Myths Vol. I, p. 141). Before Prometheus had to steal it back, humans already had fire at their disposal. 


Prometheus was not the Apollonic Hero that so enthralled the romantic period. He was a wily trickster figure and not the figure of an ideal humanity raised to the Divine.

Although some will say it was originally Zeus, others insist it was Prometheus, who first gave fire to humanity, the fact remains that “humans” (hominins) have been using fire for well over a million years. Humanity had fire even before we became “human” (sapiens). 


If there was ever any fire theft, it did not come from some Olympian height but from the savage earthly origins of homo erectus and its kin, the first creatures on earth to use and control fire. These fellow humans, you might say, were entirely enveloped by the wisdom of the Goddess Gaia. They would fit “the mood […] of Mother Goddess thinking” where there is a perfect sense that “we are one with the deity” as Campbell says in Goddesses (228). 


These distinguished hominins not only possessed fire in the literal sense, they also possessed the Fire of the human mind, or as Daniel Everett argues, “Humanity’s Greatest Invention”: the symbolic power of Language (logos).


Prometheus appears more like a propagandistic figure for sapienkind, appropriating the goods and discoveries of others as our own. For we did not invent fire or hunting and cooking technologies. These fundamental homo skills, which point to the use of language and its higher functions, are already present with homo erectus and its kin, who are the true Promethean figures of humanity as we know it today. 

We were not the first storytellers, they were. Theirs were the first conversations on earth. With them, the faculty of human language first emerged as a multi-dimensional symbolic order independent of sense perception. And Fire, both literal and symbolic, was their supreme invention.



MythBlast authored by:


Norland Tellez is an Artist and Teacher with over 25 years of experience in the animation industry. He graduated from CalArts in 1999 with a degree in film animation, while training and working at Walt Disney Studios, Turner Feature Animation, and Warner Brothers Feature Animation. 

As a Writer and Director, Norland has produced award-winning educational properties in Once Upon a Sign mini-series which features deaf actors using American Sign Language. As a teacher of Life Drawing and the animated arts, Norland has taught at CalArts and Santa Monica Academy of Entertainment and Technology, as well as AIC-LA.

Norland completed a Masters and Doctorate degrees in the study of mythology at Pacifica Graduate Institute in 2009 with a dissertation on the Popol-Vuh, a classic of Mayan mythology.





A collage on a brown background with cave drawings and stone, that says the First Storytellers

This MythBlast was inspired by The Power of Myth Episode 3, and Goddesses.

 

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In this episode, Trudy Goodman speaks with Tyler Lapkin of the Joseph Campbell Foundation.


One of the earliest teachers of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), Trudy taught with its creator, Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn at the MBSR clinic at University of Massachusetts Medical School in 1983. In 1995 she co-founded, and is still the Guiding Teacher at the Institute for Meditation and Psychotherapy, the first center in the world dedicated to exploring the synergy of these two disciplines. She was an early adopter and now smiles seeing mindfulness everywhere.


In the conversation today, Tyler and Trudy discuss her life, meditation, mindfulness, and her perspective on the famous Campbell quote, "Participate Joyfully in the sorrows of the world".


To learn more about Trudy visit: https://www.trudygoodman.com/



 

This Week's Highlights



A casual picture of Joseph Campbell

"There is one bit of evidence earlier [of mythological thinking], and that comes from the period of Homo erectus (before Homo sapiens, before Neanderthal man) about 500,000 B.C. from the River Thames. A hand axe that’s very long, too big to use, but is symmetrically beautiful. This is what Robinson Jeffers called “divinely superfluous beauty,” and is the first signal we have of a tool that’s not simply a practical tool, but something that is a beautiful, beautiful piece of stone. No animal would do a thing like that. The only thing you can guess from it is for a ritual of some kind . . ."


-Joseph Campbell -The Hero's Journey, 87






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