by Hal Duncan
The All–Great God is Dead
Plutarch tells a story that, in the reign of Emperor Tiberius, passengers on a ship sailing for Italy from Greece, heard a voice coming from the distant Isle of Paxos, calling on the pilot of the vessel, Thamus, Thamus, Thamus. This voice went on to tell the pilot that, when they sailed by Palodes, he was to lean out over the side and call three times:
"Pan is dead, Great Pan is dead."
When he did, the story says, the sailor heard a loud lament rise up, the sound not of one voice but many.
To the Christians this story was a symbol of the death of the old pagan gods with the birth of a young Jewish pacifist anarchist who was himself to die eventually on a wooden cross, with nails in his hands and thorns around his head. But the story itself is like the voice from Paxos, faint and distant and perhaps misheard, if the name of the pilot is, as it may be, of more significancethan the theologians of the church assumed.
"Tammuz, Tammuz, Tammuz, the all–great god is dead," cried the initiates of a dead and resurrected god of grain and vine, bread and wine, who predates Christ by a few thousand years.
Tammuz is simply the Akkadian name for the Sumerian Dumuzi. In "Dumuzi’s Dream," as mentioned, we see this shepherd desperately trying to escape his fate. Like Dionysus trying to escape the Titans, Dumuzi tries shape–shifting, becoming a gazelle at one point, later a snake, but like Dionysus he is eventually captured. As with the stories of Inanna and Persephone muchis made of the lament for his loss, the weeping and wailing of his mother and sister in his absence.
Much should be made of these laments; the laments for Tammuz are, like the laments for all such gods, the appeals for his return, appeals which, so the tales say, might just work. Sometimes they do; sometimes they don’t. In Norse myth, Baldr, fairest of the gods, loved by all, is protected from all harmful things except the mistletoe. Loki finds out about this weakness and tricks the well–meaning but simple–minded Hothrinto killing his own brother with a spear made of the stuff. Hel, goddess of the underworld, promises to free Baldr if all objects alive or dead will weep for him, but the refusal of a giantess sours the deal; even so Baldr will be reborn after Ragnarok, so we are told (just as Finn will wake, Arthur will return, and Christ will have his Second Coming). Tammuz, like Baldr, was so well loved that even in the Old Testament we see the women of Jerusalem wailing for him.Like Christ and Baldr (and unlike Finn and Arthur), Tammuz is an innocent, a god who harms no–one, who brings only joy. In one version of the tale, the demons that chase him are soldiers, Tammuz a draft–dodger, as much a pacifist as any early Christian.
It’s even possible — if speculative — that this same Tammuz is recorded in the New Testament in the form of the apostle, Judas Didymos Thomas, who gets two of his names, it seems, from words for twin – the Aramaic te’oma and the Greek didymos. In Gnostic tales this Thomas is described as the double of the dead and resurrected Christ. Given that Tammuz entered Greek myth as Adonis, son of Myrrha, by way of Phoenicia where he was known simply as Adon,or Adonai, which is to say "Lord," one has to wonder. Is it possible that Tammuz is in fact, to some extent, recorded in the Gospels in their central character, in Christ himself? The family resemblance is remarkable, if we squint our eyes and cock our heads, between the humble shepherd Tammuz, who died at the hands of soldiers, and another Adonai, son of Mary, born on Mithra’s birthday, reborn from death in the spring, just like some ancient deity of fertility.One of the favourite subjects of Renaissance painting, so favoured that it earns its own name, the pietá, is the image of the Virgin Mary holding the dead body of Christ. Fleeing across the Mesopotamian steppe, Dumuzi sobs of how his mother will weep for him.
As has been pointed out by many comparative mythologists, the figure of Mary, Mother of God, owes more than a little of her character, in terms of attributes and epithets, to Isis and the other mother–goddesses of the ancient world: "Seat of Wisdom . . .Vessel of Honor . . . Mystical Rose . . .House of Gold . . .Gate of Heaven . . .Morning Star . . .Refuge of Sinners . . . Queen of Angels . . . Queen of Peace."This is the same Isis, moreover, whose husband, the great god Osiris, is murdered by the evil Set and cast adrift in a coffin, searched for and brought back by Isis only for his body to be hacked into fourteen pieces and scattered. A number of incidents in the story of Isis’s search for her husband correspond exactly with the story of Demeter’s attempt to find out what has happened to her daughter, Persephone. Intriguingly then, when Osiris was born, according to Lewis Spence, "a loud voice was heard throughout all the world saying, ‘The lord of all the earth is born’."Was that the same voice that announced Pan’s death, one wonders?
The women of Jerusalem wailing for Tammuz, the people of Paxos mourning Pan, Isis sobbing for Osiris, Mary cradling the corpse of Christ — in all of these we see grief and the heartbroken hope of moving Death himself to let a lost loved one return. Orpheus pulled it off, after all, descending into Hell and pleading for the return of his Eurydike, with a song that moved the stony heart of Hades, played on the sympathies of Persephone; Eurydike lost the freedom Orpheus won for her on a technicality, but the nature of that technicality is illuminating:Eurydike looked back. In the confused and confusing psychodrama, in this swirling imagery of death and hell, of descent into dreams and delusions, it seems significant that what traps a soul in the underworld is such a simple action clearly redolent of regret.
Is there a secret in these tales of death and rebirth then? That they are not about the dead at all, but about the living, grieving survivors, about their descent into a hell of rage and sorrow, about the cold and hollow shock, the desperate dreams and delusions that the dead might return, oh please, that they might just return from that maze of death?
A House of Sorrow
Mark Z. Danielewski, in his House of Leaves (Doubleday, 2001) gives us a modern myth of this maze of death, in a text as layered and labyrinthine structurally as it is symbolically. Introduced by an LA waster called Johnny Truant, and footnoted throughout with his own psychological descent, the book purports to be an editing–together of scraps found in a trunk which, together, form a book about a non–existent documentary film telling the story of the exploration of the house of the title.This house, we quickly discover, is larger on the inside than it is on the outside. A door in an exterior wall opens into a long corridor which sits where a flowerbed should be and — in fact, if one looks out of the window beside this door — actually is. The corridor leads down into impossible depths, cavernous spaces.
What makes Danielewski’s book a truly resonant work is that his house is not simply a magical realm to be adventured through, with a monstrous tyrant to be slain, a true love to be rescued, a prize to be won. He makes a point of saying there is no minotaur in this maze; this is not a retelling of Theseus’s heroic adventure. Instead it is a more somber place. In the end, it is an appendix of letters written to Johnny Truant by his mother from a mental institution which indicate the real character of this house.Disconnected from the narrative, they nevertheless point us to the meaning of that emptiness in the hollow sorrow of the survivor.
The description Danielewski gives of this labyrinth — walls of featureless clay, grey as ash, entirely unlit — bear more than a passing resemblance to descriptions of the netherworld in ancient myths — the house of Ereshkigal, for example, being a dark place whose denizens have only dust and ash for their food. In Danielewski’s hands the house becomes a symbol of a vast existential void devouring the relationship of the family who own it, an emptiness of meaning. There is no literal link to the grave, no god of the dead, no ghosts, nothing so simple, but the sense of absence, of loss is palpable, the loss of a marriage, the loss of a mother to madness; it is a house of sorrow.
The house of the dead, Ereshkigal’s Kur, the grave, is a place of no return, so the myth of Orpheus tells us. We cannot bring the dead back; Eurydike is lost forever. Surely these tales of death and rebirth — Inanna, Persephone, Dumuzi, Christ — surely these are lies, then? Surely they are refusals of the gut–wrenching reality of death? In a way they may be, but one might also see in them a truer story, a story of sorrow — of the demons of despair, the harrowing of hell, the stripping of the flesh, the loss of affect, the tears and lamentations. And if one sees, in these tales, not the loss and return of a loved one, but rather that of the survivor’s soul,then all those resurrections and rebirths may well be offering a more deliverable promise: a restoration at the end of this dark journey of grief . . .
A return from the maze of death we follow our loved ones into when they die.