Research Proposal: Villains Throughout Myth

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Myth Villains

The Common Characteristics of Villainy: An Examination of Dastardly Traits from Early Mythology

There are many wildly different sets of mythologies and individual myths in existence today; every human culture has some set of fundamental beliefs that is largely dependent on a common mythology. The differences in these mythologies, just like the differences in the cultures that produce them, can often seem so large as to erase any sense of similarity in the myths. But, also like different cultures, different myths and mythologies also have large areas of similarity and common ground with each other. One of these areas is in the character of the villain, which is a common element in many tales. Though the villains take different shapes, there are some common traits that they typically share. Chief amongst these is selfishness, and combining this with ingenuity and a denial of responsibility equals a villain.

The Navajo Creation Myth

One aspect of the Navajo creation myth, the story of the creation of man, shows the aspects of villainy quite clearly. The villains in this tale are actually the ancestors of mankind, and are not really villains in the traditional sense -- they do not have evil intentions, and their actions do not ultimately end in destruction, but rather creation. Still, hey are definitely viewed negatively within the context of the myth, and it is their villainous actions that leads them through the chain of events that allows them to be the progenitors of the human race. Though not fully villains, the Air Spirits definitely embody the spirit of villainy.

The Air Spirits show their primary quality of villainy, that is their selfishness, in the first piece of background information given in the myth: they were all adulterous, and fought constantly because of it. It wasn't only that both the men and the women were prone to sleeping with each other's partners; "they tried to stop, but they could not help themselves." It is this lack of self-control that demonstrates truly profound and pervasive selfishness, in that it even takes over their planning abilities. The Air Spirits are not happy with the situation the way it is, but they are unable to bring themselves to stop their adulterous behavior in order to have a more peaceful existence with each other. This marks them right form the outset of the story as at least villainous, if not outright villains, and other qualities later on in the continuing myth make this determination more concrete.

One of the most ingenious moments of the myth is when, having been barred from entrance to the kingdoms of the north, south, east, and west, and with a wall of closing in on them from all sides, the Air Spirits go up simply because they have nowhere else to go. The mention of flight isn't made until this point in the myth; it is as though it develops as an inspired innovation in response to the dire situation the Air Spirits find themselves in. This shows a high degree of ingenuity among the Air Spirits, and though it is brought out only by an extreme set of circumstances and after their own obnoxious and villainous behavior, it is only more typical of villain-hood because of this. Most villains become more crafty as they become more desperate, and thus it makes sense that these villains shows their greatest amount of ingenuity when their very lives are being threatened.

The last aspect of villainy, a lack of a sense of personal responsibility, can also be observed in this tale. As the Air Spirits move from one world to the next, constantly being pushed upwards by the inhabitants of each world due to their annoying squabbling, they must be led to the holes in the sky by various helpers. These characters are completely selfish, with pressing and urgent immediate needs, but despite their ingenuity it is ultimately up to someone else to rescue them each time. These are all of the essential ingredients of a villain -- selfishness, ingenuity, and lack of personal responsibility. They are all intertwined as well, of course: it is the Air Spirit's selfishness that destroys their sense of responsibility, or vice versa, and their ingenuity is never enough to provide them either with satisfaction or with the means to establish a peaceful and happy existence amongst themselves.

The Story of Kintu

Another very different myth, from Africa, tells one version of how death came to be on the earth, and of how humanity came to be created in the same timeframe. Warumbe, who is essentially the bringer of death, is of course one villain in this story, but Mugulu, who rules heaven, is actually a more intriguing villainous figure in this tale. He practices his villainy from afar, and never really seems to get his hands dirty, but his is perhaps what makes him the most villainous of all. Through a series of attempted tricks, each of which ultimately fails, Mugulu tries to kill Kintu, the first man. Eventually, however, Mugulu succeeds in bringing death to the world, whether or not he meant to.

Again, the problem all starts with Mugulu's selfishness. His daughters visited Earth from heaven and saw Kintu and his cow; returning to heaven, they told their father about the strange creature called man whose only means of survival was his cow. They had invited the man to come back to heaven with them, but he refused when they would not permit his cow to accompany him. Mugulu and his sons are next to go down to Earth, and at Mugulu's instructions they take the cow and leave the man helpless. Mugulu has no need for the cow; the later details of the story show heaven (as expected) to be a very bountiful place. It is pure selfishness, with perhaps a dash of maliciousness, that drives Mulugu to take Kintu's cow, and it is this single act of selfishness that sets off the rest of the myth.

After Kintu arrives in heaven, but before he is able to confront Mugulu about his stolen cow, he is placed in a house without any doors (the villagers of heaven lift one side to let him in and out) and told to eat an enormous amount of food. After hiding it in a hidden cave and pretending to have eaten it, Mugulu has him split rocks with a copper axe and gather dew in a bucket, two impossible tasks that Kintu manages to pull off (with the help of talking objects). All of this is a supposed attempt on Mugulu's part to prove, to himself and to the people of heaven, that Kintu is indeed a man. In reality, however, the subtext of the myth seems to imply that Mugulu wants Kintu to fail so that he can be killed -- why is not made exactly clear, but this is the definite thrust of the myth. Kintu is subjected to the ingenious tests of Mugulu, and only passes them out of sheer luck (and a lot of help). Still, the devising of these dastardly trials is a definite example of mythological villainy.

Finally, Kintu passes all of the tasks, and is able to confront Nugulu about the theft of his cow. Mugulu commends Kintu for having passed the tests, and innocently commands that whoever stole Kintu's cow return it to him. Kintu has to "remind" him that Mugulu's sons were actually the ones who took his cow, though of course Mugulu knows this as he was both watching his sons in this endeavor and even gave them the order to carry it out. This demonstrates his utter lack of willingness to take responsibility for the situation; even when he is effectively caught red-handed, Mugulu has no problem simply denying that he had any involvement in the act, and makes it appears as though he is being supremely magnanimous in his treatment of Kintu. This is completely villainous behavior if ever there was any, where a complete lack of concern for others dictates the way one lives.

Prometheus and Pandora

Though occupying a relatively short bit of verse in Hesiod's Woks and Days, the stories of Prometheus and Pandora are essential parts of the Greek mythological view of the world. The first is a sort of trickster-hero, who brought fire from the god to the humans, changing life radically on Earth. As a punishment, Pandora was created sent, and she opened the box that contained all of the earthly troubles, releasing them into the mortal world forever and leaving only hope trapped in the box. But though these two figures might be central in some readings of the myth, Hesiod's telling makes Zeus the clear pro- and antagonist in this story, and as such he can also be seen as one of the biggest mythological villains.

Like most other myths of villainy, this story begins with a bit of selfishness on the part of the villain. Zeus and the other gods, the verse… [END OF PREVIEW]

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