Category Archives: Myths

How an executed war criminal became a mythic national hero

Breaker Morant

Years ago I walked out of a movie theatre enraged. Thousands throughout Australia at that time did the same. People talked about it for months afterwards, asking “How could they do it!” The “they” were the British colonial masters led by Lord Kitchener; the “it” was the execution of two Australian soldiers as scapegoats to protect the international image of Great Britain. The film was Breaker Morant, based on historical persons and events in the Boer War at the turn of the last century. Morant, nicknamed the Breaker, was a national hero few of us at the time had even heard about. The film revived memories from the early twentieth century that the Breaker was very much a national hero and a sacrificial victim to the British overlords.

Morant has gone not so much into history as into legend. He followed the admired track of other Australian folk-heroes — Ned Kelly, Moondyne Joe, Captain Starlight. They were all men against authority; good bad men or bad good men, always with enough human appeal to disguise the fact that they were outside the law, that they robbed and killed and were brought to book. Behind them all are the near-mythic figures of Hereward the Wake and Robin Hood, of William Tell and the outlaws of the Old West. People prefer to think of them all as bold and brave individuals, self-reliant and strong, defiant against great odds. Morant, in the popular mind, has joined their company.

(Denton in Closed File, cited by Walker, pp. 18f )

Here are the facts about Morant according to Shirley Walker’s article ‘A Man Never Knows His Luck in South Africa’: Some Australian Literary Myths from the Boer War. I list them first so you can begin to wonder how such a figure was able to acquire the status of an Australian mythic hero.

  • His name was Edwin Henry Murrant, son of the Master and Matron of the Union Workhouse, Bridgewater, Somerset.
  • He lied about his age to marry Daisy O’Dwyer, soon afterwards deserting her and eventually remarrying as a bigamist
  • “A young English scapegrace consigned to the colonies for some youthful escapade”
  • He had a reputation for defaulting on debts
  • A “womanizer”. His nickname Breaker referred to both his breaking in of horses and his breaking of women’s hearts
  • A horse thief
  • A regular drunkard
  • In the Boer War he shot prisoners, including a number who entered his camp under the white flag.
  • He also had witnesses to these crimes, including a missionary, murdered.
  • On being caught he was tried and executed by firing squad.

There was a positive side:

  • He was “well known throughout Australia (i.e. the colonies) as a rough rider, a polo and steeplechase rider”
  • a bush poet published in the leading magazine, The Bulletin, under the pen-name “The Breaker”

How does one make a Hereward the Wake or Robin Hood type hero out of raw material like that?

First, one needs the right soil for any seed to germinate. Or, to change the metaphor, one needs a mold by means of which to cast the person to become the hero.

In other words, the ideas of the myth are “out there”, in the minds of an audience who are prepared to love the idea of finding exemplars to fit those ideals. read more »

Myths of Salvation Among Greek Gods and Heroes

Chiron sacrifices himself for Prometheus

If you are open to sceptical questions about Christianity and are not very familiar with ancient Greek literature and mythology you may find the few notes below of interest.

When I first read the following passages (quite some time ago now) I was struck by the way motifs that later became central to Christianity are woven throughout the mythical tales.

After Prometheus had saved mankind from Zeus’s plan to destroy him, Zeus bound him to a rock and ordained an eagle to eat from his liver every day, with the wound healing overnight ready for a fresh dinner the next day — forever.

But a son of Zeus, Heracles, was eventually destined to release Prometheus from his torment.

The poet Hesiod from the 8th or 7th century BCE wrote:

And ready-witted Prometheus he bound with inextricable bonds, cruel chains, and drove a shaft through his middle, and set on him a long-winged eagle, which used to eat his immortal liver; but by night the liver grew as much again everyway as the long-winged bird devoured in the whole day.

That bird Heracles, the valiant son of shapely-ankled Alcmene, slew; and delivered the son of Iapetus from the cruel plague, and released him from his affliction — not without the will of Olympian Zeus who reigns on high, that the glory of Heracles the Theban-born might be yet greater than it was before over the plenteous earth. . . .

The fifth century BCE playwright Aeschylus explained in more detail why Prometheus had to suffer:

PROMETHEUS:

However, you ask why he torments me, and this I will now make clear. As soon as he had seated himself upon his father’s throne, he immediately assigned to the deities their several privileges and apportioned to them their proper powers. But of wretched mortals he took no notice, desiring to bring the whole race to an end and create a new one in its place.

Against this purpose none dared make stand except me—I only had the courage; I saved mortals so that they did not descend, blasted utterly, to the house of Hades. This is why I am bent by such grievous tortures, painful to suffer, piteous to behold. I who gave mortals first place in my pity, I am deemed unworthy to win this pity for myself, but am in this way mercilessly disciplined, a spectacle that shames the glory of Zeus.

But Prometheus knew a secret. He knew that Zeus himself was destined one day to be overthrown from his position as chief of the gods. (That particular hero, we elsewhere learn, was destined to be the semi-divine Achilles. But that’s another story.) The mortal Io (who was later to become the mother of the line that produced Heracles) is talking with Prometheus in his misery: read more »

Five Foundation Myths of Cyrene

The “historical” founder of the colony of Cyrene was a Greek named Battus (an unlikely founder since he spoke with a stutter) who is said to have ruled in the years leading up to 600 BCE.

Contemporary archaeologists agree: Cyrene, the Greek colony in Libya, had its beginnings in the second half of the seventh century B.C. The presence of some objects dated to the Late Helladic III A and B periods on the site clearly points to more ancient contacts between Greece and the Mediterranean coast of Africa; nothing, however, before the middle of the Archaic period indicates the development of a city in the Greek sense of the term. Such is the interpretation of the archaeologists . . . (Calame, Claude. Myth and History in Ancient Greece: The Symbolic Creation of a Colony, Princeton, N.J., Princeton University Press, 2003. p. 35)


The ancient myth of the founding of the Cyrenian kingdom comes to us from a number of sources, including several of Pindar‘s poems (in particular the Pythian Odes 4, 5, 9), the history by Herodotus, (book 4), the epic poet Apollonius of Rhodes who wrote about Jason and the Argonauts, and the Cyrenian poet Callimachus.

Herodotus, writing as a “historian” presents us with a rationalised version of how Cyrene was founded as a Greek colony. He eschews in this context tales of gods and demigods and myths. But the other sources mentioned above are more willing to leave us the popular legends of how this great ancient Greek colony of Libya came to be.

Pindar gives us two stories: one begins seventeen generations before our stuttering founder Battus; but another begins even earlier, back in mythic time when only gods “made history”.

Pindar’s accounts of the foundation stories

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