29 September 2003

Have you killed your father today?

Regardless of the amount of siblings one has, the first and more primordial conflict within the family is always with the Father. One rebels against authority in the maturing process. It is inevitable, as one attempts to establish an independent personality in their teenage years, away from the Self that had been coccooned and nurtured previously within the confines of the family. And who better to rebel, to kill, than the father figure?

Mythology is a kind of truth-telling; it is timeless and ahistorical, precisely because it expresses a general or eternal truth about human society and behaviour.

The Greeks had several myths to express the dynamics within the family. We've all heard of Oedipus Rex and how he (unwittingly) killed his father and usurped the king's authority. More fundamental than the Oedipus mythos, is the entire mythology of the creation of the universe...

Zeus (in Roman, Jupiter), the self-proclaimed father of gods", ascended to his current supremacy when he rebelled against his father, Cronos. Cronos (or Saturn), was an elder God who, out of fear of losing his power and authority, ate his own offspring. Fortunately for Zeus, his mother and grandmother tricked Cronos into eating a large stone, while allowing the child to survive and slay the father later.

Cronos himself had come to power as an elder god through slaying his father, Uranus, who had similarly sought to prevent rebellion by eating his children.

Inherent to this pattern of father-killing, is the idea that change and progress can only come about by questioning authority, even to the extent of disagreeing with our greatest authority figures. Time - meaningful time - comes about because there is change and revolution. Creativity and Creation can only come about when we stop eating our children, and allow them to flourish, and question us.

Otherwise, the world stagnates in a timeless limbo, an "End of History", where the age of oratory, spectacle, and challenge, is declared over, and there only remains the task of preserving the legacy of the Senior Minister, and occasionally Remaking Singapore (there, you didn't think I'd write a purely academic piece, did you?).

Coming back to Greek mythology, Zeus the father of the Olympian gods, sucessfully repels all challenges to his authority. Why is he sucessful? Well... he doesn't eat his children, unlike Cronus and Uranus. He allows them to grow, to rebel, and question his authority without punishment, or pre-emptive action. In a strange coda to Greek mythology, their bards and poets write about the grave of Zeus in Crete, and about the death of the Olympian gods, who become mortal after the passing of Zeus. Even the current rulers must make way for the next generation... Only to ensure that the world doesn't stagnate.

Consider this: have you ever heard of any Chinese myth or folklore about sons killing off or rebelling against their fathers?

There's an old story, set during the Warring Nations era, of a man who went off to fight for his country, leaving behind his wife and young son. A decade later, the warrior returns to his village, and behold: outside his hut are the sandals of his wife, and those of a grown man. The sounds of laughter wafts out of the hut. Enraged at his wife's betrayal, the warrior steps in, chops off the head of the stranger. Who is, of course, his now adult son.

Or take the various legends of Nezha or Nataku, who didn't exactly have a great relationship with his father either. The Ming dynasty account of "The Creation of the Gods" sets the family feud in the mythical Shang dynasty of China. The magical son Nezha tests his growing powers by killing off or offending some powerful dieties like the Dragon Kings... who bear upon his father to punish him. By death. Since magical sons always have the power of resurrection (see Osiris, the Fisher King, Odin, Jesus), Nezha returns to life and pursues his father in revenge. Of course the son is suitably punished and imprisoned, and all is well when he repents, and joins forces with the father in the war against the Shang dynasty.

The moral?

From the first myth: No matter how grown up you are, it is guaranteed that your father will come right up and smack your head if you do something wrong. You can't see him now, perhaps... but like the Senior Minister, your father can rise up from the grave or come back from a faraway place to set things right.

From the second myth? Do not rebel against authority. You always lose.

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