Monday, December 9, 2013

Beasts of the Southern Wild

No criteria for this post. Free for all!

The class watched the 2012 film Beasts of the Southern Wild by Benh Zeitlin this past Saturday. The plot focuses on a young girl named Hushpuppy (played by a very young Quvenzhané Wallis) and how her life in the Louisiana bayou is upset by Hurricane Katrina, her father's declining health, and an absentee mother. Since we were not actually assigned anything with this film, I just wanted to go over some of the Greek mythology embedded in the story...'cause I love history, and mythology is one of my specialties. I would delve into Biblical references as well, but the semester's technically over and I'm not too enthusiastic when it comes to Ye Olde Good Book. Anyway, I thought that the film's connections to magical realism and the idea of Universalism would be interesting things to discuss.

Rated PG-13 for thematic material including child imperilment,
some disturbing images, language, and brief sensuality.

Let's start with the storm itself. In mythos, Charybdis and Scylla are sea monsters, acting kind of as the personification of two whirlpools. I realize that a hurricane is an atmospheric storm whilst a whirlpool is a vortex in a body of water, but that's just semantics. Both are devastating and tend to involve a lot of flooding (grant it, hurricanes are much larger). Anyway, Charybdis and Scylla rested opposite one another in the narrow channel known as the Strait of Messina. Both 'creatures' acted together so that, if a vessel were to sail away from one, it was sure to be taken by the other. The origins of each whirlpool alter depending on the myth, but in every story they are dangerous. Charybdis was featured in Homer's The Odyssey, the story of Jason and the Argonauts, and Aristotle's Meteorologica. Scylla makes her own appearance in Ovid's Metamorphoses as well as Keats' Endymion. The two are so prevalent in Greek history that the phrase "to choose between Scylla and Charybdis" means being forced to choose between two extreme dangers (like a rock and a hard place, capiche?). In Beasts of the Southern Wild, Hushpuppy does not choose to go head to head with Hurricane Katrina...quite unlike the sailors in the old epics who had to risk drowning in order to continue on their journey. It is noteworthy that Hushpuppy only survives the onslaught of the storm because of Wink's fishing boat, though. The Bathtub disappears beneath the waters and soon everything starts to die because of the sea's salt.

Hushpuppy, adrift.

We move swiftly along  to the Elysium Fields. To the Ancient Greeks, this was a concept of the afterlife maintained in certain philosophical and religious sects. Keep in mind that the main mode of thought was that the underground realm of Hades was the end game. The Fields were one of the more heavenly sections of Erebus, granting entrance initially only to those related to the gods but later to the gods' favourites, such as the righteous or the heroic. After death, these mortals would enjoy a continued life surrounded by indulgences (much like Valhalla in Norse mythology). There were also the Asphodel Meadows for normal folk and Tartarus for the wicked. In the film, Hushpuppy and her young friends leave the Bathtub and are granted passage by the captain of the 'Grumpy' to the floating brothel named 'Elysian' Fields—derived from the Greek, this is simply another name for the same afterlife. In literature, Charon is the ferryman: one could draw a connection between the fast-food wrappers "reminding [Grumpy's captain] where [he's] been" to the coin (an obolus or possibly a danake) paid to Charon for passage across the rivers Styx & Acheron. In a different light, Hushpuppy and the other children are parallels of Odysseus and his crew travelling to one of the many fabled islands mentioned in The Odyssey.

The children are greeted by maternal figures and offered sanctuary, as if resting within the eye of the storm. There is some conjecture as to whether the brothel is real or just a figment of Hushpuppy's imagination, possibly brought on by the natural desire for her own mother. Either way, it was a welcome form of relief after the initial hit to/uprooting from/eventual dismal return to the Bathtub. Know that the Greek 'Elysium Fields' was an evolving theory. It was not around at all during Homer's time, meaning that people did not much like the idea of being confined to just Hades and decided to change the surrounding myth to something a little...cushier. The idea that one could earn a happier afterlife lends some realism to the film, too. In a story about a devastating natural disaster, hope is a much-needed, reinforced belief.

The 'brothel' at the end of the world (The Isles of the Blessed in Elysium).

The most obvious bit of myth that appear in the film are the aurochs. Introduced by Hushpuppy's teacher as fearsome beasts that devoured humankind right up until the ice age, these creatures actually did exist...although they did not exactly have a taste for human blood. Aurochs died out in the 17th century, which makes me think that the teacher combined their tale with that of the prehistoric mammoths. They are a domesticated ancestor of modern-day cattle, making them a bit less fierce than Hushpuppy might imagine, though their horns were massive.

I bring up these guys because of the Minotaur, directly translated as 'Bull of Minos'. The Minotaur, whose actual name was Asterius (meaning 'Of the Stars'—see the constellation Taurus in astrology), was a gift to Minos from Poseidon to mark the King's divine right to rule. The God of the Sea sent up a bull from the depths of the ocean (*cough* the aurochs in the glaciers), but he wanted Minos to immediately sacrifice the bull as thanks. Minos decided not to, of course, so Poseidon punished the king's wife, Pasiphaë, by having her fall in love with the bull. Bestiality occurred, and soon after she gave birth to their son: Asterius. The half-bull/half-man was mental as a box of badgers because of his mixed lineage, so Minos had the inventor Daedalus design a labyrinth in which to hide/imprison the beast. Eventually, he is killed by Theseus with the help of Minos' daughter, Ariadne.

The aurochs in the film, while portrayed by costumed pigs, more closely resemble Asterius' father, the bull. However, there are not a lot of direct connections between that fable and Beasts of the Southern Wild apart from the importance and symbolism of the bull in Greek society. Bulls often represent rage and stubbornness as well as typical manliness/macho behaviour. Notice the similarity between those demeanours and Hushpuppy & Wink's personality traits? When Wink 'sees' his daughter stare down the auroch, he knows that she has become King of the Bathtub which signifies that he can safely move on and know that she will be safe.

Pig disguised (and re-sized) as an auroch. D'aaaw.

Most of what I used in this post concerning specific Greek myths came from National Geographic's Essential Visual History of World Mythology and Parragon's Encyclopedia of World Mythology, among other texts. These are good guides if you are just getting started with global mythology and symbolism, so I recommend them for interested amateurs (comme moi).

A classic hero's journey if ever I've seen one.

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