Plagues, disasters and heroes

Topics BOOK REVIEW | Coronavirus

As the world keels over to a virus that seems to be as indefatigable as the monsters of the past, a universal hunt for the heroic spirit has begun. Be it among those at the frontlines of the battle — doctors, sanitation workers and caregivers — or within our everyday routines and encounters. The hero is being called upon today, much like he was in the ancient world, to see humanity through a crisis of Biblical proportions.

Why turn to a hero, not a god? Joseph Campbell has said a hero scores over a god when it comes to resolving the problems of the here and now because “a hero’s sphere of action is not the transcendent”. Gods are secure in the realm of the divine, where everything is good and right and just. But the hero participates in life and saves his people, through personal courage, often at the cost of his own life.

Hence when the flood destroyed everything, Noah led all creatures to safety. Or when Prithvi or Mother Earth had to be rescued from a monster or flood, Vishnu had to take an earthly form — his 10 avataras as a fish, tortoise, boar and several human forms make up the myth of the Dashavatara that strings together stories of how the universe was pulled back from the brink through his intervention.

According to Joseph Campbell, a hero is someone who has given his life to something bigger than oneself. "Our true reality is our identity and unity with all life," he said in The Power of Myth.
Cosmic disasters bring out the best among men or women (and animals and hybrid creatures) and even if a hero is backed by a god, the task of saving the world and its people rests with humankind. This is also because a global catastrophe is seen as an act of god, as punishment for human folly and wickedness.

The great flood story that is a part of almost every ancient culture, for instance, has the universe being threatened by an angry or wilful god. A version of the myth among the Chinese says that the Thunder God is responsible for repeatedly throwing the world under water, until he is trapped by a man (from the Yao tribe of South China). But the god appeals to the man’s children, a boy and a girl, and grants them a magic tooth in return for his release. The tooth turns into a large gourd and the children climb inside it while the Thunder God unleashes yet another flood upon the earth. The father builds a boat and rows his way to the heavens but upon reaching there, crashes down with a large bang and dies but the children survive the flood and help rebuild the universe.

Heroes step in, not only in the time of cosmic disasters but also to deliver people from unjust kings, monstrous demons and such other calamities. Oedipus, for instance, better known for the prophecy that guides his tragic fate whereby he marries his own mother, is also the hero who releases the city of Thebes from the Sphinx. A monster with the body of a lion, the head and breast of a woman, eagle's wings and, according to some, a serpent's tail, the Sphinx is sent by the gods as a curse upon the people of Thebes for some ancient crime. She stood at its gates, devouring all who failed to solve her riddle.

None could answer the riddle: “What being has four legs, then two, and then three?” Eventually, Oedipus solved the puzzle. He said, “Man, who crawls on all fours as a baby, then walks on two legs, and finally needs a cane in old age.” The Sphinx, upon hearing this, jumped off a cliff and killed herself. Thebes was released from its fate even as Oedipus was driven closer to his fated end.

This is the contradiction that marks the life of all heroes. Their actions help people, save the world, create new towns and civilisations and achieve such other superhuman feats. At the same time, their personal lives are riddled with loss — be it Gilgamesh who loses his friend and confidante Enkidu in his quest for immortality, or Oedipus, or Prometheus who stole fire for the humans.

The hero myths reveal among other things an inherent desire to rise above one’s calamitous circumstances, even at risk to oneself. According to Campbell, a hero is someone who has given his life to something bigger than oneself. “Our true reality is our identity and unity with all life,” he said in a book of conversations with Bill Moyers (The Power of Myth). It is this metaphysical truth that reveals itself in moments of crisis bringing out the heroic within the ordinary. Perhaps as we look for a hero to deliver us from the virus, it may be wiser to look within rather than outside.



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