April A-to-Z and Sources

Published May 6, 2016 by Iphis of Scyros

So, if you read all my April A-to-Z posts — or even just most of them — you may have noticed that from time to time I complained about having had to pick a new topic at the last minute, and other such complaints.  Well, there was a good reason for that, and I’d like to share it with you…in the form of a lengthy section of text originally intended to be part of the A-to-Z Reflections post, but I decided that since it didn’t actually have much to do with the experience of A-to-Z itself, I should probably put it elsewhere, so I made it into its own post.  Which would be this.  And now I’m stalling by writing nonsense because I don’t want to go back to reading the letters exchanged between Princess Elisabeth and Descartes, because argh.

*ahem*

Yes, I’ll just get on with the actual post now…

The comparative world mythology theme did drive something home for me:  the world needs a really good mythology reference resource.  My plan, when I decided to do this theme, was to look through a few “mythology encyclopedias” I had, jot down information about the candidates that sounded good, and then research them properly.  Well, the one that had the gall to call itself the “ultimate world mythology” encyclopedia only covered Eurasia, and some of what I found in the one on the Americas failed to come up in any other source I found, and almost everything in the book on African mythology failed to come up anywhere else.  I got several books from my university’s library to cover Oceanic myths, and another book on African myths, but then I discovered that the university library gave me access to two online encyclopedias, and I made the mistake of relying on them more heavily than I should have.  (It didn’t help that it turned out I didn’t have as much time as I would have liked to dedicate to this project, because on top of class work, my volunteer work turned into employed work, starting with a time-intensive project.)

The first clue I got that there might be something seriously wrong with one of my online sources (the one with far more myths listed, naturally) was when I couldn’t help clicking on the entry for “Patroclus” because the thumbnail text (as it were) made the odd and untenable claim that his father had been king of “Opus” which makes it highly illogical that his father would join him when he was exiled from Opoeis for homicide.  (And yet his shade in the Iliad very clearly states that his family joined him in his exile…)  Anyway, like I said, I clicked on it because I’m such a Patroclos fangirl, and then to my surprise it soon said this:

Achilles, like all children of sea-creatures (his mother was the sea-nymph Thetis), was bisexual, and at Troy took Briseis as his mistress, sleeping with her and with Patroclus on alternate nights.

That was the point I stopped reading, because “um, what?” is the only way to respond to that.  In what text, exactly, did it make the bizarre claim that Achilles’ bisexuality had anything to do with his mother’s aquatic nature?  That was normal in ancient Greece!  There would have been more need to explain it if he had expressly refused ever to enter into relationships with one sex or the other!  (Furthermore, what other child of a “sea-creature” do they have in mind as being expressly bisexual?  Most of the other individuals I can think of who have myths about them pursuing romances with both men and women are decidedly not descended from “sea-creatures”:  Patroclos, Apollo, Heracles, Zeus, possibly Poseidon (who is himself a “sea-creature” of sorts, but isn’t the son of one) and Orpheus, for a handful of easily summoned up examples.  Zephyros is the only one I can think of who is descended from a “sea-creature,” but Pontos was his great-grandfather, not father.)

And what text ever made such precise claims about Achilles’ sexual habits?  The ancient Greeks didn’t actually like to get that specific.  We know that Aischylos portrayed them as lovers, and that Phaedrus in Plato’s Symposium was enthusiastically in favor of that opinion (though he reversed Aischylos’ opinion of which one was “in love” and which was was “loved”), but all surviving texts tended to be pretty vague about such things, and the fact that Phaedrus had to specifically single out Aischylos (several decades out of date by the time of the Symposium‘s events, and even older by the time Plato actually wrote it) indicates that there weren’t that many other texts that talked about the relationship that openly.  (And keep in mind that the Symposium was set in the home of Agathon, the fourth most popular tragic playwright of ancient Athens, who was famous for being in a life-long same sex relationship.  If he never portrayed Achilles and Patroclos as being lovers, then surely it was pretty rare to talk about it!)  Not because no one thought of them that way, but because no one wanted to write about it.  Like religious matters, you just didn’t go there.  It wasn’t done.  And it particularly wouldn’t be done about someone who was both one of the greatest heroes of the ancient world (despite his desperately flawed personality) and was actively being worshiped in several places.

The point where I realized I had a serious problem was actually when I was working on the “U” post, though.  I made the mistake of basing my post on the entry from that same e-book, the Bloomsbury Dictionary of Myth, which said this about Uaica:

Uaica, in the myths of the Juruña people of the Xingu river, was given healing powers by Sinaa the creator, and used them to help his people. He brewed potions, made poultices from herbs and insects, set bones and sang spells to keep mortality at bay. But his powers depended on sexual abstinence, and they waned, first when his people gave him a wife and then when the wife took a lover. Finally the lover tried to kill Uaica, and Uaica disappeared into the ground forever, taking his healing powers with him. Before he went, he offered his people one last chance, if they followed him to the shadow-world; but they refused, and from that day on, human beings have been plagued by disease and death.

Then, late in the post, I realized I’d forgotten to check if it was listed in the other book, the Oxford Dictionary of World Mythology, which had so many fewer entries.  Well, it was listed, and this is what that book had to say about Uaica:

The Asclepius of the Juruna, an Indian tribe living along the Xingu River in Brazil. One day Uaica, out hunting in the forest, noticed a lot of dead animals under a large tree. When he approached the heap of beasts, he felt dizzy, fell down, and went to sleep. In his deep dream he saw Sinaa, the jaguar ancestor of the Juruna, who talked to him. This happened on several occasions till the deity told him to keep away.

Uaica obeyed. He also made a drink from the bark of the tree: from this potent brew he acquired many powers. Uaica became a great medicineman who could take away disease with the touch of his hand. Sinaa would come into his dreams again, and through their conversation all the needs of the people were supplied. Pressed by the Juruna, Uaica consented to marry, but his wife was unfaithful to him. Through this shortcoming and the attempt of her lover on Uaica’s life the Juruna lost the medicine-man. It happened that Uaica, who had eyes in the back of his head, saw the swinging club, and instantly he disappeared into the hole it made on striking the ground. Uaica said: ‘I shall not return. Arrows and clubs will be your lot. I tried to teach what Sinaa wished, but now I go.’ Later the medicine-man is said to have beckoned the Juruna to follow him underground, but they were too baffled and frightened to do so.

Just from that short summary, I can tell the latter version is more accurate, because of the natural, folkloric structure of the story.  More importantly — for my A-to-Z post — it was totally different in the key areas, especially in that in the accurate version, he was never commanded to abstain from sexual relations, so my post was completely screwed up, but it was late enough that I didn’t want to fix it, so I had to post it with the disclaimer that it was wrong.

hated having to do that.

But if I’d fixed it, I’d have lost the comparisons I’d prepared, and would have had to spend time I didn’t have searching out new ones.

Anyway, the frustration made me realize that I really want to see a proper, accurate, and comprehensive encyclopedia out there.  Maybe there already is one, but if there’s one online, I don’t know about it, and if it’s a book, it’s not in my university’s library system.  More importantly, even those online encyclopedias I was consulting — flawed as they were — were only accessible within an academic server (I seriously had to put in my password every single time I wanted to look at the texts) and thus only to a limited few, but a resource like the one I’m describing should be open and available to everyone, because there’s a lot of misinformation floating around out there.  (Especially on movie screens…)

So I plan on working on one myself.

I’m going to go through every primary text available in English (and in other languages once I learn other languages), and I’m going to write entries summarizing each text, and summing up who each character is, and I’m going to do theme-based entries, too.  The characters and themes will start out as just notes, getting fleshed out as I go along, obviously.  All entries — the fleshed out ones, I mean — will have notes explaining where each point comes from, so people can check them out for themselves.  I’m going to do it on LeanPub, so that once there’s enough to be worth others’ time, I can make it available (for free, obviously!) but can keep updating it as I go.  (Then if it’s ever actually completed, it can be moved to more popular places like Amazon.  But still for free, or it would negate the purpose of the project.)  This is one of the projects I’m going to work on over the summer break, as I talked about earlier.  (If anyone would like to help with this, btw, please let me know!  It’s going to be a crazy-slow process, so if anyone wants to tackle primary texts other than the ones I’m starting with (the Iliad, of course, and the Argonautica of Apollonius of Rhodes) then that would be heavenly.)

I know this sounds like a crazy amount of work — and it’s going to be — and it may look like a waste of time, “because there’s Wikipedia.”  But the thing about Wikipedia is that anyone can go in and change things.  (Though admittedly most of the less well-known mythological figures probably don’t get the types who would maliciously/ignorantly enter false data even visiting them, much less bothering to change them.)  And information can go up without being checked, and without any citations.  And there’s just plain a lot of stuff not present there.  (Though I’m ashamed to admit that I consulted it as well during April…)

More importantly, I want to make a resource that could actually be cited academically if need be.  No college would ever accept a paper that cited Wikipedia (I hope!), but I’d like to make a resource that could be cited in a paper without the student losing credit.

It may be crazy, and maybe I’ll never even get it one tenth done, but…I really want to do this project, and I want to do it right.

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