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Dysfunctional Families

by Pamela Jaye Smith

“To lose one parent may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.” Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest [1895]

You may have noticed that most heroes are missing at least one parent: King Arthur and Luke Skywalker, Hercules and Helen of Troy, Moses and Rose of TITANIC, the little boy in THE SIXTH SENSE and Neo of MATRIX, plus scores of other ‘poor little orphans and half-breeds’.

There’s a really good mythic reason for this: they are not encumbered with a role model of the traditional sort and are forced to look within, outward, and upward for the archetype of female or male-ness. Orphans are natural seekers, outside the norm. Plus, they make really great stories and examples of aspiration and heroism for the rest of us.

Though heroes most often work alone, they serve the Group whether that Group is a family, tribe, city-state, nation, religion, planet and perhaps some day the solar system, dimension, galaxy, etc. if current science fiction proves as prophetic as some mythologies have done.

These heroes are not part of the Group in the ordinary sense. Though usually of “royal” or “immortal” blood they are often hidden away at birth because omens have foretold they will have an unsettling impact on the status quo. Kings who hear from a soothsayer that their new-born child will de-throne or kill them are not wont to be fond of that child.

These noble cast-offs are often brought up incognito by a single parent, simple foster parents, by royalty in another land, or sometimes even by animals (dysfunctional family takes on a new dimension here). This archetype of the poor little orphan or half-breed often plays out the Mythic Theme of the Wake-up Call where at some point, usually at puberty or as they are about to become adults, they re-discover their true heritage. Most then take on the mantle of duty and honour and save the day.

Other than being born posthumously [a Latin word meaning born after the death of the parent, usually the father, for all the obvious reasons], another reason the hero might be missing a mortal parent is because they’re the offspring of immortals. Lots of our favourite gods and heroes are half-breeds, from Jesus to Gilgamesh [who was two-thirds god, an odd genetic combination that’s never been adequately explained], the Irish hero Cu Chulainn to Pallas Athena and many more. The unique parentage often includes gods, angels, dead heroes, animals, acts of magic, acts of weather, or otherwise seemingly simple acts like stepping over a stream or a fire.

Birds are a favourite disguise of gods when they come to visit mortal women. One wonders why? I mean, did girls in very very ancient times hang around with birds, is it a distorted memory of earth-girls mating with aliens from the skies, or is it simply because birds represent the spiritual aspect in so many cultures and are often seen as the embodiment of the Breath of Life?

At any rate, you have the Greek king god Zeus turning himself into a swan to seduce the elegant Leda. There’s a lot of art depicting this event and its results: dangerously beautiful Helen of Troy, her sister the vengeful Clytemnestra and her loyal brothers Castor and Pullox. In a lot of the art depicting the Christian version of Jesus’ conception the Virgin Mary was visited by the Holy Ghost as a white dove which impregnated her.

Bulls are often parenting children, as in the case of Cretan Queen Pasiphae mating with a white bull to produce the Minotaur, a miserable half-breed who ended up causing no end of grief. Legend has it a Mongolian princess also mated with a bull. The resulting baby was locked in an iron cradle and cast into Lake Baikal, then luckily was found by a shaman who raised the child to become founder of the Bulagat clan. Sometimes this child is said to be Genghis Khan.

Psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud had a field day with sons and fathers and death-wishes. We don’t take it all so seriously now, but back then, these ideas were endemic in his circle. The Classically educated minds of his day, having all been reared with the Greco-Roman myths (including Freud’s favourite Oedipus), would have been very familiar with some of the following dysfunctional family stories.

Greek King Acrisius imprisoned his daughter Danae to avoid the prophecy of her future son killing the old man. But Zeus (this time cleverly disguised as a shower of golden rain) fell into Danae’s prison courtyard and fathered Perseus, who with his mother Danae was then cast adrift in a wooden chest. Found and raised by fishermen, the boy was mentored into the warrior way by the immortals Hermes and Athena and he went on to slay the terrible Medusa. He also performed the requisite “save the maiden from the dragon” feat and acquired his wife Andromeda. By the way, he did eventually kill his grandfather, but it was in a sporting accident.

The Athenian hero Theseus grew up apparently fatherless in his mother’s home village but when he lifted a huge stone and retrieved his father/king’s sword from under the stone his royal heritage was recognized. Besides righting a lot of local wrongs, the brave youth slew the Cretan Minotaur (which see above) with his bare hands and stopped the grisly tribute of seven youths and seven virgins every nine years. Upon his return to Athens, Theseus was declared king but resigned and formed a commonwealth of citizens. He continued to be a noble warrior-leader of liberty and democracy through many more adventures.

In a shift of the usual paradigm, Jewish legend tells that Moses was an ordinarily-born Israelite baby with two mortal parents. He was set adrift in a basket, found by the Pharoah’s daughter, reared in the royal palace, and trained in the Egyptian priesthood until he reluctantly answered the Israelite god Jahweh’s call to step into the Hero shoes and get his fellows out of town and out of slavery.

Romulus and Remus were twin sons of the war god Mars and Rhea Silvia, mortal daughter of a dethroned king. The babies were cast out on the Tiber River, found and raised by wolves and a woodpecker. They grew up and founded Rome after a lot of revenge, internecine strife, and acquisition of the neighboring Sabine women by forceful persuasion.

The legendary Briton King Arthur was of a magical conception involving his father King Uther Pendragon appearing to the beautiful Igrainne in the guise of her (recently) dead husband, whisked away at birth by the Merlin and raised as foster son of kindly Sir Ector. The young Arthur humbly performed squirely duties until stumbling upon his rightful heritage to the sword Excalibur and through it, the role of War-Duke and the throne of Briton. Note the similarity of the sword and the stone with the Greek Hero Theseus.

Greek hero Hercules’s heritage sprang from the king god Zeus, who like Uther visiting Igraine in the guise of Duke Gorlois to beget King Arthur, disguised himself as the mortal Alcmene’s husband, renown general Amphytryon. Terribly strong, Hercules was not terribly smart and relied on his physical prowess to accomplish his great deeds. [The contemporary TV series portrays him more kindly than do most of the myths and legends.]

Mesopotamian ruler Gilgamesh followed the typical trail of a prophecy-wary grandfather enraged by his “secluded” daughter’s giving birth to a son by an unknown man. The infant was tossed over the city walls but saved by an eagle to go on to great deeds. Another version has him one-third human and two-thirds divine from a goddess, a rather odd proportional mix of DNA.

Irish hero Cu Chulain was the son of the sun-god Lug and was astonishingly devoted to the Warrior Path. In battle the “hero’s light” shone from his forehead and a black-red column of blood spouted from the top of his head. To assure death on his feet, Cu Chulain lashed his dying self to a standing stone.

The Egyptian god Horus was a posthumous child, conceived when his mother the queen-goddess Isis had reassembled his father the king-god Osiris’s hacked-up body and given him a special kiss that revived him just long enough to get her pregnant. Horus eventually gained justice over his wicked uncle Set who had slain Osiris.

Greek Warrior-Goddess Pallas Athena was the daughter of king-god Zeus alone, born from his splitting headache. No wonder his head hurt, she was born fully grown and fully armed. She’s a rare thing — only one parent and that one a god.

Greek hero of the Trojan war Achilles’ parents were mortal King Peleus and the sea nymph Thetis.

Alexander the Great’s mother Olympias claimed that his father was not the mortal King Philip of Macedon but actually the god Ammon-Zeus. We aren’t told much of what King Philip thought about all that.

So what do all these tales of half-breeds and orphans tell us, and why do we tell ourselves these stories?

One explanation of the bull-as-parent story is that it explained the astronomical shift in the equinoxes from the zodiacal sign of Taurus the bull to the sign of Aries the warrior.

For those searching for evidence of visiting aliens and the star-seed theory of human evolution, there’s plenty of room for interpreting some of the stories that way. Particularly curious in that vein is a passage from the Judeo-Christian Bible, “And it came to pass, when men began to multiply on the face of the earth, and daughters were born unto them, that the sons of God looked upon the daughters of men and saw that they were fair; and they took them wives of all which they chose,” Genesis 6:1-2. This theme is echoed in many sci-fi stories and we’ve seen any number of ‘Star Trek’ episodes where Captain Kirk goes about inseminating half the galaxy in a gods-from-above style.

The esoteric interpretation of these stories is that humanity is part animal/part immortal. We are the kingdom where matter, soul, and spirit come together. According to most mythologies, humanity is in exile from its true heritage, cast adrift in the natural world. We learn well from our foster-parent Nature or the human side, but our mixed makeup as both animal-man and spiritual-man is both our blessing and our bane. The poignant nostalgia for something half-forgotten that sometimes pains our soul is born of a higher loneliness than this life alone affords. It is the higher home and higher parent we seek and serve.

In Freemasonry reference is often made to the “widows & orphans”. Traditionally the Widow is Isis, Egyptian goddess queen and mother of the mysteries. Orphans are disciples on the spiritual path.

The sense of being in exile, of not belonging, is an inherent aspect of the heroic makeup. By very definition the hero rises above the masses and does great deeds which will benefit others, often at great sacrifice to self. Heroes upset the established order (those terrified dads and granddads), which knowing it is doomed, nonetheless resists and tries in vain to maintain its entrenched power. But because they embody higher Purpose, Power, & Will, heroes often presage shifts in cultures and civilizations.

What does this mean to us today in real life? We’ve seen that our True Heroes seldom come from traditional families, far from it. Yet modern fundamentalists are touting a return to “family values” as though that would solve all the ills of modern life. It is unfortunately a very short-sighted view of family life since the nuclear family of two parents [of opposite sex] and their progeny alone in a single dwelling is a very recent phenomenon prevalent in the western world, particularly America. There is really nothing “traditional” to return to. To blame all our ills on the disintegration of the nuclear family distracts us from the real societal problems and their multiple causes.

Perhaps the breakdown of the nuclear family is the first painful step to bringing all humans to a higher familial awareness. To bringing them to a surer individuality. To heightening their sense that the role of parent can be played by anyone, but the true parent is greater and higher and is called God, the Christ, the higher self, the great spirits, etc…..

An interesting way to view this breakdown is that the natural state of life and families is for them to be expanded, extended, extensive, interconnected. By isolating small units of humans into regulated systems of working father, stay-at-home mom and the 2.2 kids you are trying to force a large entity into a small container. People need larger groups with which to interact in order to be healthy. So perhaps this “breakdown” is simply the way that nature is sneaking around a restrictive human imposition and creating step-families, community-raised children, children raised by grandparents, multiple caretaker situations, child care facilities, etc. By default we still have extended families, they just aren’t all blood relations.

So where have we seen this paradigm in more modern stories? The Mythic Theme of “The Wakeup Call” gives us examples of these ‘poor little orphans and half-breeds’ coming alive to their true nature and then struggling to become who they really are.

One of my favourite versions is from Oscar Wilde’s collection of fairy tales: “The Star Child”. Some of the following were mentioned above, but the many stories about their lives and exploits all reflect this same theme.

Examples of the Orphans, Half-Breeds, and Wake-Up Call heroes are: Moses, Theseus, Perseus, Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, King Arthur, Parsifal, Buddha, Ghandi, and Luke Skywalker. What more can you think of? What are ones from your own life, your own writings or portrayals?

Though I certainly advocate retelling the ancient myths to suit modern times, there are certain aspects of a myth that if changed, alters its deepest meaning. An objection to the recent Disney animated film HERCULES is that it twists Hercules’ parentage away from the myth and removes one of the most potent reasons for the popularity and longevity of that myth. According to Disney, Hercules was the natural son of Zeus and Hera, the king and queen of the gods. Nothing could be further from the truth, or rather, the myth. He was the son of mortal Alcmene and immortal Zeus, as anyone knows these days from watching Universal’s live action TV series HERCULES. Half-god and half-mortal, Hercules represents the heritage we humans are said to have: half animal – half spiritual. His estrangement from his father and that whole realm of Olympus reflects our own estrangement from our higher spiritual selves and the higher realms or heaven. That sense of estrangement, of having lost something precious, is what drives us on to greater achievements for self and others. We need to be careful in changing the myths that we don’t alter their very reason for being.

How can we work this archetype of the orphan or half-breed into our lives and stories? By recognizing that our true natures are dual, we can enrich ourselves and the characters we create. By putting those two natures into conflict in our stories, we create drama. By exploring the many ways to resolve the conflict, we can create change and growth. And by using and reworking the marvelous stories from myth and legend, we can inspire and entertain ourselves and our audiences.

So the next time you come across a ‘poor little orphan or half-breed’ don’t pity them but rather see them as a hero in the making. And if they’re a character in your stories, help them to become heroes.


Pamela is the founder of MYTHWORKS
and she teaches at the Alpha Babe Academy