Gods and Humans: Reading Hesiod’s Theogony with Freudian lens

In taking Peter Struck’s Mythology class at UPenn (via Coursera), I learned that Sigmund Freud made many contributions not just to psycho-analysis, but also to literature. He tells us that myth s dramatize events in every individual’s mental or psychological development.


Freud thinks that hidden messages inside a myth are always going to be about just you and me as individuals, developing, working our way through the developing of our psychological state. In his book, The Interpretation of Dreams (~c 1900), Freud explains the psyche: a repression barrier that blocks the expression of our unconscious desires from our conscious desires.


Freud says that myths are the dreams of an entire culture. So what we get when we take a look at myths is we get this kind of displaced and condensed expression of primal desires in a culture that are displaced onto now more acceptable targets for those desires.

Sigmund Freud would have had an absolute field day with Theogony.

I mean, I don’t think you could call Hesiod’s Zeus in any way repressed. Here’s a King-god dead set on taking the throne to the cosmos and not being challenged. Why would a culture want to tell itself a story like this? Overthrows the father-figure, carries out his mother’s crazy wishes, makes siblings (Cyclops and Hecantosheires) his soldiers and weapon makers, overthrows all his aunts and uncles and chains them for all eternity in a pit, divides the universe between him and his brothers but gives the short end of the stick to the other two, mates with all of his aunts and sisters!

Perhaps because a culture wants to go back to the drawing board and completely consolidate order and power in one single entity and produce an empire unchallenged. Or, perhaps a culture wants to tell itself, look, we’re going to be this great empire, because look at the Gods we worship – Zeus was a powerful god who ruled supreme and because we worship him, we’re going to inherit the Mediterranean.

We don’t care if it’s forbidden or how we get there (through cruel means/ gross misconducts), creating an empire is going to be ugly and we’re going to get there. Maybe that’s the repressed cultural dream or goal coming out in a historical context. Maybe it’s all peacocking.

The Prometheus myth, read with a Freudian lens, transposes this expression of angst against the unjust politicians/parents on Greek Gods as mythological deities.

(Going back to Freud’s statement that myth is an expression of dreams of a culture (in this case dreams of justice) or “myths dramatize events in every individual’s psychological development”, so “I’m trying to, as a citizen of the polis, try and figure out why my political leaders are doing such and such”. I prefer to think of parents, though, simply because of the genealogical theme in Hesiod… like ‘why didn’t dad give me fire today’, or ‘why did dad give me all the good meat to eat and save only thigh bones for himself’. And maybe, with a Freudian lens, it’s then possible to see it as, human beings are these younger, less important, stepchildren of Gods on Mount Olympus, and the overbearing parents/father figure in Zeus makes these judgment calls about fire and sacrifice, and more important siblings (such as Prometheus) totally influenced how things developed before we got a chance to grow up and get a say in it, so… that’s life! It’s not fair, you know, but my brother ruined stuff for me and my dad — this is his way of just being a controlling parent — and since Prometheus is busy getting his liver pecked out, let’s just lay low and try to go with it.

Zeus’ battle with the Titans is really interesting from Freudian ‘repressed subconscious / desire to mate with forbidden parents’ point-of-view.

Because, unless I read it wrong, it looks as if Zeus gets rid / puts in chains in Tartarus all the male Titans from the alpha generation. But puts all the females in Mount Olympus and marries/mates with all of them, creating a new generation of gods. He wants to usurp in this case, Kronos’ role not just as ruler of the universe, but also as chief mate of all the first generation goddesses and himself swallows Methis for wisdom. It’s an expression of reproductive supremacy and hereditary legacy. Maybe he swallows Methis to prove he’s better than Kronos, ‘I’m smarter than you, dumbass, let me swallow her before you do…’. I mean, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, but I don’t think you can say that in Zeus’ case. He really got busy!


Structuralism and Homer’s Odyssey

How useful is structuralism for analyzing myths?

Structuralism is a very interesting, if too accounting t-ledger type POV, personally, for looking at The Odyssey. It’s useful in that it gives us a really quick and dirty way to find major themes or rules of the game within the narrative. It also establishes the rules of the game, perhaps even a hierarchy – white, food, good; black, not food, bad. Something is higher vs lower on the food chain, something is better than another thing. It definitely gets us curious about oppositions, and perhaps gets us asking even more relevant questions as to why those oppositions are emphasized so much, and why they are even the focus at all. To me, anything with structure also helps me remember key pieces of the story. Did cannibalism happen here? Yes. Were they eaten, or did they eat something? No….


What are its limitations?

Sure.. biological needs are important when you’re stuck on a storm-tossed ship and washing up on strange lands with limited resources to live on. But, taking the structuralist point of view all the time means we think that when Odysseus and crew are pushed to breaking point at end of leash on life, on this massive home-ward journey, all they think about is food or not food? Surely not. What about other themes that may matter? What about broken promises to family, their spiritual lives if they die, etc?

How useful is it for thinking specifically about the Odyssey?

In terms of the Odyssey, here are all the limitations I’ve found to only using structuralism: For one, it ignores the True Hero’s Journey (and our understanding of the hero). For two, really, plot, character, settings, all go out the window when you only care about binaries in biologically driven themes. Well, then what’s the point of appreciating this epic poem? For three, where’s the fire plus algebra equals art? The Passion? The creativity, in reading The Odyseey through a kaleidoscope of other possible interpretations? Structuralism seems too inflexible about putting something in one box or the opposite, and not allowing for grey areas or possible reversals of things.

Can there not be, for instance, an anti-food, or a food-multiplier? Also, structuralism doesn’t explain the rules very well to me here. At least not vis food-not food. So a god says it is, and it is food? But most of all, structuralism assumes that was is biologically binary is of paramount importance over say, historical context or spiritual ones. Ignoring context is a pretty dangerous way to look at the world, from experience. I’d much rather know context about why Homer had so much emphasis on food – not food in this particular story rather than care whether cattle is forbidden!

Cast of Characters

Cast of Characters

Cast of Characters

Does character drive story, or does story leave place for characters?

In other words, how do you go about figuring out plot? What comes first? Character, or story? I took notes recently on a conversation between screenwriting experts on the matter:

Dwayne Alexander Smith, Screenwriter, Damn Good Ideas Productions
Steve Faber, Screenwriter
Pamela Jaye Smith, Consultant, Teacher, MYTHWORKS
Anthony Grieco, Screenwriter, Story Specialist at The Writers Store and a mentor for the Industry Insider Screenwriting Contest
Michael Hauge, Story Consultant/Author/Lecturer
Lee Jessup, Career Coach for Screenwriters

Pamela: “Character-driven story” vs “Action adventure” – both are valid instances of screenplays that start with character

Anthony: Various inspirations lead to story. The big question, “what if”… and start to play with a ball…How would the ending sentence go and what is the moral of the story? I will create a character with a flaw in opposition to the moral…If you’re not interested in figuring this flaw out, the reader won’t be. I would find the story and then find the character that helps me find that story.

Michael: Don’t think stories are plot or character-driven. They are DESIRE driven, but character in pursuit of goal drives the plot. What is the big desire?

Steve: Obsessed with story. Best when focused on, outline story like crazy. It’s about an outline. Tell the story in a few sentences. No more high-concept stories. They are anomalies. Done. When budgets were high. A good story can be described to someone in a few words.

Dwayne: It starts with story. Outline like crazy: Always be writing for a star. Then create a protagonist or lead that a star wants to play.

What are the must-have ingredients for a great lead character for a star?

Dwayne: Changes by genre/movie. Likeable. Focus on Point-of-view. A strong character is in almost every scene in the movie. Rocky, Raiders, Indiana Jones. And looking over their shoulder and follows the movie (pulls you in).

Michael: Elevating character from OK to great: What terrifies this character emotionally? What is the deep, hidden emotion, fear they don’t want to face? Where does it come from? What armor do they wear? Unite this with plot: find the fear they must face. In Wedding Crashers, it’s the fear of commitment.

Steve: Level of ambiguity. This is one important aspect that propels them along the journey. It makes them stop to question, are they doing this for the right reasons? They must have some level of uncertainty and ambiguity.

Pamela: Aligned with one of the archetypes. This works. Because it’s about who we are. The closer they are aligned, the easier it is for us to sympathize (subconscious patterns that live in the psyche of humanity). Get recognition. A great character’s job: is to use Point-of-View as a lens to view humanity.

Anthony: Make sure your character has an attitude towards the world (what Michael calls “armor”). Whether they’re introverted or extroverted, how they approach the world matters. Throw people who don’t have that attitude with them. A curmudgeon with a Sunshiny. Other characters must be affected by or impacted by the lead character. Don’t buy into your character must be likeable.  Dude in Big Lebowski – identify with strong, laissez faire. We like watching people get tortured.


How much does the development of character dictate their ultimate fate?

Anthony: With one of my heroes, the outline falls apart at the midpoint because character becomes…uncontrollable? Interesting. By the time I get to that part of the script, I let them take control… it’s very organic. You should outline and structure, but once you get good at it, throw it all away… Most sell-able screenplays have happy endings. Cautionary tales and heroic tales.

Pamela: Inner drives – putting a different backstory to characters to same lines of dialogue is a good way to flesh out characters’ inner drives…

Michael: Don’t use biographies. I often get bombarded with questions about stories and characters. Oftentimes, writers don’t know their character… yet they more likely to say, they know the answer to these questions. The end goal is to know the character as well as your siblings, or spouse.

Steve: The Graduates. Did they stay together at the end? You need to know every aspect of character. Question: do your scenes compromise the character? Be stubborn. Throwing a cake away, in the script, that you don’t necessarily need. Always give them a cut if the budget doesn’t work out. If you really know your character well, they not to compromise (on throwaway scenes).

Dwayne: Rarely gets a note about character. More about changing the story.


How would you pitch a character-driven story?

Steve: Would spec Napoleon Dynamite. Not pitch it. Very difficult to pitch them. Well done, but not easy to pitch. e.g. Juno is never going to come out to people even if it looks good in your head. “Pitching to an oil painting” – you get nothing.


If you had 10 aspects to a character, how many would you bring in as subplot?

Anthony: Never approach a story that way. The big question is what bomb went off in their lives before this movie started? How do we break this spell? The other stuff fills in with re-writes. “I don’t need to know what my character had for breakfast.”


In an age of Transformers, is film the place for character development, or more TV?

Pamela: New fertile ground: short-mini series. Storylines over six to twenty episodes produced by people like you. Not done with majors. Freedom of expression without the restrictions of studio executives, development people, and investors. Check out the Web Series (Marseilles Webfest/ LA Webfest). A lot of creative projects ** All into TRANSMEDIA. Transformers is about toys. The movie platforms put a story that is more attractive to investors.


What do you never want to see in a character?

Steve: Pedophelia. Unnecessary side journeys to go make sandwiches. Romcom’s bother me. Because I know what’s going to happen.

Michael: Static, inaction, indecisive characters. Whether it’s a right or wrong decision, force them to take action.

Anthony: If a character can just stop what they’re doing and say “I don’t need to be here” then you have a problem. Because there are NO STAKES. It must be about life and death.

Michael: Whatever they pursue, if they fail, what are the consequences? Don’t have a millionaire who falls in love. It has got to be life and death.

Dwayne: I don’t like protagonists who don’t believe in their course. They must be totally gung-ho about their goal.