Nike stands vigil on the Cordova Street median at Thurlow in downtown Vancouver. Daughter of the Titan Pallas and the goddess Styx, she comes from a distant past. Sister to Kratos (Strength), Bia (Force), and Zelus (Zeal), she represents Victory. Endowed with speed and agility, she took her place as the divine charioteer, rewarding the victors of battle with glory and fame. Her name has endured over the centuries, along with her companions Zeus and Athena.
Nike came to Vancouver, a gift from the Greek city of Olympia in honor of the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games hosted by our fair city. Designed by Pavlos Angelos Kougioumtzis, who lives and works in Athens and Delphi, there is a remarkable strength embodied in Nike’s abstract beauty and elegant lines. Bronze, four-metre-tall and placed atop a 2.5-metre base, Nike presides over a busy city intersection, a profound reminder that ancient ways are embedded in our modern societies.
We are defined by our mythologies. In turn, our mythologies keep us focused on universal themes that have been embraced and handed down through the generations of human history.
“A hero is someone who has given his or her life to something bigger than oneself.”
Hercules, Perseus, Theseus – these were the myths for which I searched the libraries as a 10-year-old. Magnificent heroes, blessed with superhuman strength and unfaltering courage, forged their destinies through journeys fraught with danger and treachery. As time passed, I chose new stories to take their place. Ones that were more in line with what I considered credible and more suitable for my reality. While I still enjoyed the hero myths, I lost that singular childhood enthusiasm. When I grew older, I became less sure of their relevance in my life. Indeed, the word “mythology” has the implication that what has been written is so fantastic that it simply cannot be true. That being the case, what significance can be given to these narratives? The real question is, do we still need heroes?
The heroic story is not only limited to Greek mythology; rather there are common elements through all mythologies that speak to the need for a hero, a model, someone who can be emulated, someone who makes us proud to be human. Their journeys are more about overcoming an internal conflict than achieving an external victory. The quest pattern begins with a journey over land or sea into the unknown. The hero confronts danger to bring back a person, object or knowledge. Gilgamesh overcame despair and grief in his pursuit of the meaning of life. Jason led the Argonauts on an expedition in search of the Golden Fleece to secure his kingship. Hercules performed twelve labours and achieved immortality.
Our modern world still holds these same qualities is high regard. We pursue a “Golden Fleece”, the symbol of authority, to establish our position within society. We identify with Gilgamesh in our search for the meaning of life. We live in a finite existence, yet we recognize the possibility of the infinite, of immortality.
We need hero myths to remind us we are on a personal quest that celebrates the life that has been granted. Joseph Campbell once said, “We’re not on our journey to save the world but to save ourselves. But in doing that you save the world. The influence of a vital person vitalizes.”
We travel the path of heroes.
“Nights through dreams tell the myths forgotten by the day.”
C.G. Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections
Mythology is a story of the sacred that has come down through the ages of humankind. The breadth and depth of this discussion is immeasurable for it encompasses all cultures throughout time. Even definitions and categorizations are complex and the subject of ongoing debate. But there is one certainty: myths seek to answer those questions that give substance and meaning to our existence. How did life begin? What happens in death? Why is there good and evil? Why am I here? What is my purpose? We want to be masters of our universe, which can only be realized when we understand our place within that universe.
Joseph Campbell, a mythologist who wrote and lectured on comparative mythology and comparative religion, suggested that “Mythology is composed by poets out of their insights and realizations. Mythologies are not invented; they are found. You can no more tell us what your dream is going to be tonight than we can invent a myth. Myths come from the mystical region of essential experience.” This is indeed a topic for deep discussion. Even so, there is a genuine simplicity imbedded in these spell-binding mythological tales, each of which offers a wealth of imagery to amuse and stir our senses. They reveal the power of love, courage, loyalty; and address the darker emotions of jealousy, cruelty and violence. They help us understand loss and the finality of death in our reality.
As a ten-year-old, these thoughts were far from my mind when I searched the library shelves for books that would take me back to ancient Greece and the heroics of Hercules, the beauty of Aphrodite and wisdom of Athena. I felt a connection with their stories that continue to this very day. Perhaps being the master of our universe is merely being a voice within a universal conversation.
Civilizations pass; myths endure.
Today marks the birthday of Alexander III of Macedon (AKA Alexander the Great)
At 30, Alexander’s Curriculum Vitae would read:
Marital Status: Three Wives (Roxane, Statiera and Parysatis)
Education: Studied under Aristotle, who studied under Plato
Address: Numerous domiciles ranging between the Mediterranean to Himalaya
Current Occupation: King, Conqueror, Empire Builder
- Commander – Undefeated in Battle
- Horse tamer of wild horses – i.e. Bucephalus
The Parthenon, Athens, Greece
”There is nothing impossible to him who will try.”
Alexander the Great