Conflict in myth

There seems to be a tendency, perhaps from baggage we have from previous religious experience, to view conflicts in myth as a polarity of good versus evil. Therefore that there has to be one in the conflict who is “good”, and one who in the conflict who is if not utterly “evil”, is undesirable, corrupt, or in opposition to the principles of the good.

Falling into this attitude, whether intentionally and unintentionally, is naturally easier when it comes to battles between gods and non-gods (or divine beings that are contrary to the order of the gods such as the Titans). In the construct of myth we are already having an literary exchange going on that there is something favorable with the victory of the god over the non-god. For those who don’t investigate further into the myths this can encourage a view of polar assignment. However, when we find these conflicts, or beings to which was assigned as “evil” or “oppositional” reappearing in other forms in myth it can illuminate the intricate relationship between these beings. I have gone into an example of this last month in my post Apollon and the Serpent, which deals with the contrast of Apollon’s victory over the serpent of Delphi and the reappearance of said serpent as a local daimon with Apollon. With the exception of the battle with Typhon, I don’t think that there is a single instance where there is any being represented as wholly evil and necessary to be utterly destroyed. Even in the case of the Minotaur we have it from Pausanias that on the throne of Apollon at Amyclae that the Minotaur is not slain in this representation but rather bound up and led by Theseus.

Similarly in the case of Titans, those which sound perfectly fearsome, and quite possibly dreadful, we find that in the war between the gods and the titans that they were actually on the side of the gods. Therefore there cannot even be a dividing line between Gods and Titans in any kind of good/evil dichotomy. And even then we find Cronus, who had lead the Titans in the war, was eventually unbound by Zeus and established as the ruler of the blessed. Therefore even Cronus cannot even be said to be a dreadful or terrible divine being (despite devouring his own children and being forced to regurgitate them by Zeus and Ge’s efforts, and despite the war) because as the ruler of the blessed he is the king of a most happy place of the afterlife which souls desire to attain. Between the Titanomachy and the Gigantomachy alone it can get pretty convoluted! And this is not counting hundreds of myths in which you have monster battles that have the hand of the gods setting monsters in place and supporting them. The sphinx, for instance, who is portrayed in myth as a terrible creature was actually given the puzzling rhyme by Athena from the Muses to test men with (and was eventually overcome by the hero Oedipus).

The thing that seems to slow people down though, while they are quick to jump into good/evil dichotomy in the above cases, is when you have violent contest between the gods themselves.  Surely if a violent contest meant that there was a battle against evil, then it should be applied here. However, the gods are not evil. Nor do I feel that it is accurate to just generally say that god x and god z are enemies because that get into a tiff (over territory, over conflicts of their children, choosing sides in a conflict, or even working in conflict that is supposed to encourage human development). Especially if we take into consideration other instances where while the gods may have been in opposition in such and such myth, that they are allied together and seem to be on good terms in other myths. An excellent case would be all the rebellions against Zeus’ early reign in myths by even his most devout children.

Instead conflict in myth is part of the spiritual growing pains, in the cosmos, in civilization, and even in influence on our souls. The conflict between Zeus and Hera (or rather Hera and the offspring of Zeus, so including Zeus more indirectly by his actions in fathering said children) is perhaps one of the most well known sources of conflict that people like to label as abusive, and yet when you look at this children you can see that the conflict introduced by Hera, and the conflict of her relationship, brings growth. And so you have such a hero as Herakles, who is too all appearances utterly tortured in myth, whose name means the glory of Hera and who was received in good will by Hera in the end and married to her daughter Hebe. The conflict serves a purpose in polytheism. It is not always about good and evil (not that it cannot be about that too in many cases such as in the case of Typhon) and therefore it is best to approach is to set aside such dichotomy as the absolute last consideration to be applied to a mythic event, and consider instead what else is going on in myths. With the rarity of any kind of *absolute* evil in polytheism, this also means that rejection of gods or divine beings because of mythic conflicts is unwise, and even unkinder to reject their followers.


2 thoughts on “Conflict in myth

  1. “With the rarity of any kind of *absolute* evil in polytheism, this also means that rejection of gods or divine beings because of mythic conflicts is unwise, and even unkinder to reject their followers.”


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