Modern cinema and Greek tragedy illustrate that few things elicit a fear more profound than parents killing children. Horror movies have often grappled with figures of “monstrous” mothers in particular, from the obsessive, hypochondriac Sonia Kaspbrack in Stephen King's IT (1986), to the lonely, murderous Olivia Crain in Netflix's The Haunting of Hill House (2018). In Greek tragedy, too, mothers are often monsters: women like Medea, Agave or Althaea are all tragic examples of women who have killed their children. In both genres, these gestures of extreme violence are meant to shock and unsettle the audience by pushing back against “normal” familial bonds, bringing into question relationships of gender, the body and motherhood.
Of the slew of Disney’s new live-action remakes, perhaps the most anticipated release was this summer’s The Lion King, directed by Jon Favreau. After all, the original 1994 version was arguably the crown jewel of the ‘Disney Renaissance’, enjoying massive commercial and critical success (followed by a highly successful Broadway production). More importantly - at least for those like me who grew up in the 90’s - it was a cultural touchstone, a perennial source of references, parodies, and praise.
On Thursday evening at the annual meeting of the SCS, together with about 150 others, I witnessed, experienced, and participated in something beautiful. With the enthusiastic support of the SCS, Classics and Social Justice, and the organization I work for, the Onassis Foundation USA, playwright and activist Luis Alfaro shared with a captivated audience his heart, his brilliance, and his creativity, a shining example of the good that can be done with and to Classics, and the reach our discipline can have to new, perhaps unexpected audiences. I resist here the urge to discuss some of the painful ugliness we saw at our meeting, leaving only a hint of it in the title I originally thought of for this piece, because I do not want to take away from the light Luis brought to us.
by Patrice Rankine
One of the precepts of Joseph Campbell’s Hero of a Thousand Faces, in fact of his life work of studying myth, generally, is that myth is truer than the truth itself. The metaphoric power of storytelling is such that the story precedes reality. When one deploys the metaphor “my love is a red rose,” the statement suggests the profound truth of the beauty of love, its exquisiteness, its sensual power.
In last month’s column, I offered an overview of the Greek myth of the Titanomachy, the war between the Olympian gods (Zeus, Hera, and all the rest) and the earlier generation, the Titans; and I discussed some recent media telling of the escape of the Titans from their underworld prison and a second Titanomachy: in Disney’s 1997 Hercules, in the 1998 straight-to-video Hercules and Xena animated movie, in the 2012 movie Wrath of the Titans (sequel to the remake of Clash of the Titans), in the 2013 movie Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters, in the 2011 movie Immortals, and in the video game series God of War.
Today I finish the journey by exploring the ramifications of these stories and their thematic material.
There’s a pattern to these stories. In all of them, the Titans are reawakened and they are opposed by a half-god protagonist: Perseus, Hercules, Percy, Theseus, Kratos (sort of). In each, the protagonist has a history of family loss. Perseus in Wrath of the Titans is a widower. The Disney Hercules is estranged from his birth parents, while the Kevin Sorbo version lost his wife and children to a fireball sent by Hera. Percy Jackson feels abandoned by his father Poseidon. Theseus in Immortals endures the death of his mother during the film. Kratos accidentally killed his family and is killed by his own father. Most of the protagonists are soldiers — Percy Jackson, for instance, is a teenager at a “camp” filled with what are essentially child/teen demigod soldiers. The Titans themselves are generally either monstrous or demonic in appearance, in contrast to the ancient Greek depictions of them as essentially anthropomorphic (as in the vase painting to the right).
So what’s the meaning behind all these modern Titanomachies? The surface explanation — that gods fighting gods makes for cool action scenes — isn’t all there is to it.
Why has the Titanomachy been so fascinating a subject for movies, TV, and video games in recent years?
In Greek myth, the Titans were the gods who ruled the cosmos in the generation before the ascent of the Olympians (Zeus, Hera, Poseidon, Hades, and the like). The king of the Titans, Kronos, came to power by castrating his father Ouranos and held onto that power — in view of a prophecy that his son would overthrow him — by swallowing each of his children at birth. But his wife, Rhea, replaced baby Zeus with a rock and hid him on the island of Crete until he grew strong enough to force Kronos to regurgitate his siblings, whom he then led in battle against Kronos and kin. This battle, the war of the Olympians against the Titans, is called the Titanomachy, and can be considered the first war of Greek myth. It takes up a full fifth of (what survives of) Hesiod’s Theogony, a poem about the birth of the gods (old-timey translation here), with a vivid description of the effects of Zeus’ prodigious use of the thunderbolt:
The land boiled, and every stream of Ocean, and the uncultivated sea. The hot blast surrounded the earthborn Titans, unspeakable fire approached the bright sky, and the gleaming bright light of the thunderbolt and lightning blinded their eyes, though they were strong. [Theogony lines 695–699, translation mine]
The Titanomachy ends with a victory for Zeus and the Olympians, thanks to the strongarm help of the hundred-handed monster-children of Mother Earth, who imprison the Titans in Tartarus, the deepest part of the underworld.
So much for the myth. There are a number of treatments of the Titans in modern popular media. And in almost every single one, the story is not the Titanomachy itself, but rather the reawakening or escape of the Titans from their prison, and the commencement or threat of a second war between Titans and Olympians. It seems to me that this basic storyline, and the set of other plot elements that seem intrinsically associated with it, touch on a number of social/political anxieties in America today, as I’ll talk about in next month's column. [Mega spoilers starting in the next paragraph!]
“At last my love has come along.” — At Last, written by Mack Gordon and Harry Warren
tandem uenit amor (at last my love has come along) — Sulpicia poem 1, line 1