The Hero and the Sea
Patterns of Chaos in Ancient Myth
By Donald H. Mills
Ancient myths about watery chaos uniquely transcend time and culture to speak to the universal human condition as expression to the hopes, aspirations and fears that have defined—for ancient thinkers as well as modern scientists—what it means to be human in a chaotic world.
The Hero and the Sea examines the mythological pattern of heroic battles with watery chaos in the Gilgamesh Epic, the Iliad, the Odyssey, and the Old Testament, in the light of anthropology, comparative religion, literature, mythology, psychology, and modern chaos theory; how mythic patterns of heroic battle with chaotic adversaries respond to the cultural needs, religious concerns, and worldview of their audience. The last chapter explores points of contact between the ancient mythic patterns and the discoveries of modern scholars engaged in the theoretical study of chaos and chaotics.
- Six Chapters:
- Chapter I - Mythic Patterns
- Chapter II - Gilgamesh and the Heroic Confrontation with Death
- Chapter III - Achilles and the Scamander
- Chapter IV - Odysseus and Poseidon
- Chapter V - Old Testament Patterns: Creation, Flood, Exodus
- Chapter VI - Chaos and Cosmology: the Modern View
Donald H. Mills has taught Classical Languages at Syracuse University since 1970. A graduate of Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, he earned his PhD in Classics at the University of Iowa. He has served as Vice President, President, and Treasurer of the Classical Association of the Empire State, and has published articles and reviews on Homer, Plato, Catullus, Tibullus, and Vergil.
Comments and Reviews
The Hero And The Sea: Patterns Of Chaos In Ancient Myth by classical languages expert and educator Donald H. Mills is a literate, scholarly, and illuminatingly insightful analysis of great battles against watery chaos in such enduring mythological tales as "Gilgamesh", "Iliad", "Odyssey", and parts of the Old Testament. Addressing common patterns and themes, as well as the modern view of chaos and cosmology, The Hero And The Sea is an informed and informative comparative analysis that brings together chaos theory and literary interpretation into a uniquely insightful quest for deeper meaning. A very highly recommended addition to both personal reading lists and academic library collections, The Hero And The Sea is enhanced with extensive Notes, a Bibliography, and an Index.
— Midwest Book Review
Volume 13, Number 9
This refreshing interdisciplinary book has as its focus an ancient mythic pattern, or "mythologem," that involves heroic struggles with watery forms of chaos. For Mills such a pattern can be found in the Epic of Gilgamesh, Achilles' battle with the River Schamander (Iliad), Odysseus's battle with Poseidon (Odyssey), and four pericopes from the Hebrew Bible-the Creation, Deluge, Jacob's wrestling match at the Jabbok River, and the Exodus.
Since Mills is interested foremost by what is universal about the mythic pattern, questions of literary or historical influence are not considered. Instead, Mills's methodology is markedly functionalist and grounded in the comparative study of religion and the field of ritual theory. Thus the observations and influence of Mircea Eliade, Arnold van Gennep, and Victor Turner figure prominently. Eliade informs Mills's understanding of myth as essentially cosmic in import and his conception of time and space as divided into the sacred and profane, a dichotomy that Mills finds at the heart of the "watery chaos" mythologem. Van Gennep and Turner inform his application of the concept of liminality as an expression of the chaotic, and his understanding of rituals as marking transformations in social status, both of which he applies judiciously and with much insight to the characters Gilgamesh, Achilles, Odysseus, and Jacob. Thus, each of these characters represents the liminal; each is situated between the mortal and divine worlds, or in the case of Odysseus and Jacob, are separated from their homelands. Their struggles with watery adversaries represent humanity's struggle with all that is chaotic in the world. In Gilgamesh's case, this watery struggle is experienced vicariously through Utnapishtim's account of the deluge. Their eventual victories over chaos thus serve to (re)define for these characters, and by extension the societies to which they belong, the limits of their own humanity and their roles in their respective societies. Their return and reintegration into their societies mark the end of separation and liminality, of social crisis and grieving, and, consequently, their transitions back to normative society bear ritual dimensions as rites of passage. As such, the mythologem may be read through the lens of ritual theory and understood as a ". . . symbolic expression of the desire to negate mythically and ritually the perils of social transition and cosmic change" (p. 9). Therefore, these myths not only register the social and cosmic insecurities of the societies represented by these heroes, they function to impose and reify systems of social and cosmic order.
. . . these mythic narratives give vivid expression to the terrifying experience of the chaotic while providing the conceptual framework by which ancient poets could ritualize, in ways meaningful to their respective communities, the hero's movement from chaos to victory. Because myth and ritual each serve to make intelligible social organization and to clarify a multitude of problematic human relationships, the riddle of the chaotic lies behind every ancient mythmaker's struggle to express a sense of order in a world where chaos often seems to reign (p. vii).
For Mills, the struggle to achieve a sense of order in a chaotic world is not limited to antiquity but is a timeless universal, paralleling the most recent advances in the field of chaos theory—a subject to which he turns in depth in the final chapter. Here Mills argues that recent scientific discoveries of well-defined and often predictable patterns and processes in chaotic occurrences represent the modern equivalent of ancient mythmakers' attempts to make sense of the coexistence of order and chaos in the world around them.
This dynamic model of a universe as a chaotic system, neither random nor deterministic, has much in common with the mythic worldview of the ancient storytellers, who similarly saw the cosmos infused with chaotic elements yet also working in a predictable and orderly fashion (p. 177).
We are thus inextricably linked to the ancients by our desire to establish systems of order in a seemingly chaotic universe. This work is clearly the result of a long period of contemplation, both on the meaning of the respective myths and on ritual theory. It is erudite but easy to read, and it makes accessible and useful much theory on the nature of myth and ritual that too often escapes the attention of scholars working on these ancient texts. To be sure, not every scholar will find everything in the book convincing. The chapter on the Epic of Gilgamesh is particularly in need of greater dialogue with current scholarship,1 and, at any rate, like the chapter on the biblical myths, does not offer the kind of linguistic depth found in the chapters on the Greek myths (Mills is a Classicist by training). In addition, Mills appears unaware of previous applications of van Gennep's theories to Assyriological texts.2 The book also does not integrate the historical contexts of these myths, despite that in some cases the historical contexts might support the author's understanding of the narrative as serving to ameliorate or mediate a period of social crisis. These criticisms notwithstanding, Mills offers scholarly and lay readers alike a number of provocative insights into the meaning and function of these myths and in so doing also makes a subtle, but powerful, argument for the value of studying ancient texts in the modern world.
— Scott B. Noegel
University of Washington
1 For example, Mills's discussion of Ishtar's advances to Gilgamesh (pp. 32-40) should be read in consultation with Tzvi Abusch, "Ishtar's Proposal and Gilgamesh's Refusal: An Interpretation of The Gilgamesh Epic. Tablet 6, Lines 1-79," History of Religions 26 (1986): 143-87, which in turn would provide even closer parallels to the myth of Odysseus and Calypso as Mills understands it (pp. 107-8, 124). I also note that Enuma Elish might have provided Mills with a clearer example of the "watery chaos" mythologem, since while Gilgamesh indeed struggles with thoughts of his own mortality, a struggle defined in part by Utnapishtim's account of the chaotic deluge, he nowhere struggles directly with a watery adversary.
2 See, for example, the treatment of the Adapa myth by Piotr Michalowski, "Adapa and the Ritual Process," Rocznik Orientalistyczny 41 (1980): 77-82, and by Shlomo Izre'el, "The Initiation of Adapa in Heaven," in Jiri Prosecky, ed., Intellectual Life in the Ancient Near East: Papers Presented at the 43rd Rencontre assyriologique internationale. Prague. July 1-5. 1996 (Prague, 1998), pp. 183-87, and of Gilgamesh by William L. Moran, "The Gilgamesh Epic: A Masterpiece from Ancient Mesopotamia," in Jack M. Sasson, ed., Civilizations of the Ancient Near East (New York, 1995), pp. 2327-36.