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The Hero's Quest and the Cycles of Nature: An Ecological Interpretation of World Mythology.


AS RACHEL MCCOPPIN EXPLAINED IN AN ONLINE INTERVIEW following the release of her previous book, The Hero's Quest and the Cycles of Nature: An Ecological Interpretation of World Mythology,

Many nature-dependent cultures conceived of humans as inseparable from the natural world, as equal to other living beings, and believed that time was cyclical, not linear, because death in nature was something that appeared temporary.

Therefore, many myths from nature-dependent cultures focus on the message that death for all living beings is only one moment in an endless, natural cycle--in spring and summer botanical elements thrive, but in fall and winter they wither and die [...]. When myths present humans as also adhering to this natural cycle, the message of the meaning of life and death is arguably a very different message than the ones our contemporary culture offers. (Paul)

Here McCoppin rather clearly articulates what she sees as the central message of this second offering. Unfortunately, the volume itself (like its predecessor) often muddies the water as McCoppin unfolds her argument, and as this review will explain, still caused the reviewer frustration in several respects. On the positive side, the current volume is more focused and tightly argued than the first, with fewer rough spots in the prose and a more inclusive (yet still incomplete) index. For example, it is missing entries such as "Crete/Minoan culture and myth" as well as important terms such as "botanical hero-definition," and "nature-dependent culture," perhaps because she does not clearly define either in a succinct way within the text.

There are many thematic parallels between her first work and this one. As in her previous volume, she draws examples from a wide variety of cultures, here including the Rig Veda and Indo-European myth, Greek traditions such as Homer's Iliad and Odyssey and the myth of Jason and the Argonauts, Arthurian legend, the Norse Volsunga Saga, Beowulf, the Epic of Gilgamesh, and African, Native American, Inuit, and Slav myth (among others). She also continues her methodology of attempting to trace the evolution of mythology from Paleolithic and Neolithic times, especially as it relates to the Mother Earth Goddess. Indeed, in many ways, this volume appears to be an expansion of an important thread in her previous work, namely the use of seasonal cycles in mythology. This can be seen in the subtitle of the book, touting it as an "ecological interpretation of world mythology," (the term "ecological" usually referring to the relations between life and the environment). But it must be noted that the author is particularly focusing on one very narrow part of the ecological message of world mythology, inventing the term "botanical hero" (i.e. relating to plants and their growth cycle) to describe her theoretical construct of the hero "in terms of a personification of nature" (McCoppin 1).

From the beginning of her Preface McCoppin clearly sets her botanical hero as superior to the modern American superhero. She chastises this modern mythic construction (what has been termed the American Monomyth by Jewitt and Lawrence) as a misrepresentation of mythic heroes, claiming it poses a "disservice [...] to the integrity of mythology. Myths of the hero are for the education of the audience. The audience of heroic myth must relate to the hero, so that the wisdom the hero gains is embraced by the audience" (2). Such superheroes are not relatable, and hence the mythic message is lost. McCoppin also sets up a strong underlying ecological undertone for the book, proclaiming that "the wisdom audiences can receive from botanical heroes educates them on the necessity of embracing one's role within nature. Given the current state of environmental destruction found in our times, it is imperative that humanity remembers their tie to the earth" (2).

A Professor of Literature and Humanities in the Department of Liberal Arts and Education at the University of Minnesota-Crookston (where she has received a number of teaching awards), McCoppin demonstrates as clear a passion for both world mythology and ecological issues in this volume as she did in its predecessor. She also similarly brings to this volume both her previous scholarly work on the intersections between mythology and popular culture (e.g. the works of Tim Burton) and her decades of not only teaching mythology, but experiencing it in a personal way. A case in point is the way that she begins her Introduction, by recounting a personal journey to the Neolithic site Newgrange in Ireland. She makes connections between the womb-like nature of this subterranean structure (in which on the winter solstice a single shaft of light illuminates the back wall) to the seasonal rebirth of agriculture, and suggests that the message of the ceremonial site is that humans, like plants, would be "naturally reborn" (4). Without naming the "Emerging from the Belly of the Whale" archetype in the work of Joseph Campbell, she argues that the numerous examples of heroes descending into underworlds and cave-like structures reflect a central theme of the myths of "nature-dependent cultures," namely that "mythic archetypes that continually ask heroes to face death in order to be symbolically reborn" derive from "the process of botanical agents within the environment" (4).

It was rather frustrating to the reviewer that nowhere does McCoppin define what she means by "nature-dependent cultures," only that it is the opposite of "technologically dependent" ones (7). The closest she comes is the statement that many nature-dependent cultures throughout human history "revered the land as sacred because nature affected all aspects of life for human beings," a rather sweeping generalization (4-5). Examples included range from those that revered a Paleolithic Great Mother or Neolithic Earth Goddess to more modern examples including Native Americans (what she terms "American Indians" [5]) and Aboriginal Australians. In other sweeping generalizations, she offers that "[m]any nature-dependent cultures believed that humans were only one part of the greater natural order, not at all superior to any other natural element" (5), had myths where "divine beings were also called upon to sacrifice themselves for the preservation of the eco-system" (5) and "did not conceive of time in linear terms" (5). She therefore suggests that "many myths coming from nature-dependent cultures teach audiences that there is no ultimate death for humans, as there appears to be no lasting death in nature" (6). McCoppin then posits that in the evolution of a culture from a nature-dependent status (here seemingly synonymous with an agricultural culture) to whatever comes next, a culture's mythology changes - the "messages of the regenerative value of nature become altered or omitted from their mythology" (7). This, in turn, leads to both a shift in the concept of time from cyclical to linear, and of the hero from being connected to nature to the role of isolated individual. However, she argues that later myths still contain a kernel of this earlier "botanical" worldview, and it is presumably this kernel that she seeks to illuminate in this volume.

Her argument (representing the main chapters of the text) is laid out in four parts. First, she intends to demonstrate how heroes often spend their youth away from their birth home, finding life-changing adventures within nature. Second to her argument is the mythic underworld (taken to be either a literal or psychological descent), which she confusingly tackles in two parts. First, she considers this archetype when it occurs in the hero's youth, and secondly when it occurs later, after some adventure in the wilderness/nature. In the mythic underworld the botanical hero learns that "the loss of his or her identity and impending demise are necessary parts of nature" (10). This symbolic death (either literally or figuratively) leads to the third part of her hypothesis; she argues that in the willing self-sacrifice of the hero, the audience is forced to accept both the inevitability of death, and the botanical lesson that death is just a part of the grand cycle of life. This leads to a "symbolic resurrection" of the hero, which she connects to the apotheosis of the hero in Campbell's formulation of the hero's journey (10-11). Over the course of the text, McCoppin applies her methodology to heroes from a wide variety of cultures and finds that many potential botanical heroes fall short of her definition. This is interesting, because the failure of the majority of the famous heroes she analyzes to fall within her schema might be seen as negating (if not seriously undermining) the main argument of her book. If nothing else, it would seem that this issue needs to be addressed in the conclusion of the text (as we shall see).

The first chapter, "From Seeds and Sprouts to Branching Out," begins to explain through example what she means by a botanical hero, using characters with some obvious connection with nature/earth (although not necessarily botany). She begins with the Native American tale of Manabozho, son of the North Wind. She tells the myth in detail, including a rather confusing side myth from Alaska. After many pages, she declares Manabozho to be a fully formed botanical hero, having realized that "death in nature is only one small part of an eternal process" and "acknowledged that nature is supreme" (21). However, she herself admits that the most common versions of this tale (those found in the poetry of Henry R. Schoolcraft and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow) are replete with "artistic license" (15), detracting from the strength of the example. Her next case, the Slavic tale of Svyatogar, is even more confusing, and she makes the vague generalization that the source culture was "dependent on nature for survival" (21). She hedges her bets here, noting that "perhaps in his final moments" Svyatogar became a botanical hero, in that we do not know if he truly accepted his death in the desolation of the steppes (23). Thus begins a rather frustrating pattern in the book, whereby McCoppin carefully describes a myth and then after a number of pages comes to the conclusion that the hero she has set up as an example of a botanical hero is actually not a very good example after all.

In one of the more interesting sections of the book (despite its sometimes confusing writing), McCoppin carefully describes the complex relationship between Jason and Medea in Greek mythology, including a rather convincing discussion of Jason as the male consort to Medea's Neolithic Earth Goddess. After leading the reader down a path of arguing that Jason is a botanical hero, in the end, she admits that he is not, but rather that role is fulfilled by Medea. Her discussion of Beowulf is uneven as well, with parts initially promising to be insightful, for example noting that since Beowulf represents an amalgam of both Christian and pagan influences, he will vacillate between acts that represent a botanical hero and those that oppose such a worldview. However, after a lengthy analysis she comes to no deeper conclusion. Likewise, her analysis of the character of Sigurd in the Icelandic Volsunga Saga is frustrating, with both excellent points and needless repetition. Again, after all this work by the author (and reader), she admits that Sigurd is not a botanical hero. The same can be said of her analysis of various characters in the Arthurian legends, where she finds that Arthur himself is not a botanical hero, nor are his knights, although some come closer than he.

In her second chapter, "Caves and the Underworld," McCoppin again teases the reader by carefully detailing the heroic exploits of a number of mythic characters, only to conclude in the end that they are not true botanical heroes. Examples in this section include Perseus, Theseus, and Odysseus from Greek mythology (although she offers that Ariadne may achieve this distinction) and, most frustrating of all, Achilles. McCoppin's analysis of Achilles is insightful and original, but she hesitates in parts, as if she is not confident of her own analysis. Where she does shine in this section is in her argument that, as in the case of Medea, it is often in goddesses and wise women that we come closest to botanical heroism. Perhaps as a vestige of their ties to the earlier Neolithic Earth Goddess, they continuously attempt to educate the male hero as to the ways of nature, but in the end the men turn out to be inattentive students. Refreshingly McCoppin does include some bona fide botanical heroes in this chapter, including the Sumerian hero Gilgamesh and myths from the Zuni Native Americans and the Maya Popul Vuh.

Although the role of "Death and Sacrifice" in defining a true botanical hero has been central to all of the examples discussed thus far in the text, this third chapter is meant to highlight that central aspect of these myths. But since this aspect has already been discussed in prior examples, this chapter is awkwardly short in comparison and the examples given are no less ambiguous than a number of those previously given. For example, the Inuit goddess Sedna is a central example in the discussion of the sacrificed divinity, but it is never decided whether or not she is also a true botanical hero. The same is true of Purusha and Prajapati in the Rig Veda. Perhaps the most interesting part of this chapter is her argument that Christ is a botanical hero (tying his Easter resurrection to seasonal cycles of vegetation). A similar (albeit much shorter) argument is made for the Cherokee Corn Mother and other Native American myths.

In her final chapter, "Natural Apotheosis and the Resurrection of the Botanical Hero," McCoppin explains how the willing sacrifice of the botanical hero leads to a natural (metaphorically botanical) rebirth. Here she makes the important point that the botanical hero not only accepts death, but embraces life in all its stages. Her first example of a fully formed botanical hero in this chapter is the Buddha, while her second is the Chinese goddess Guan Yin (who is generally accepted by scholars as a Chinese version of the Buddhist bodhisattva of compassion). Her lengthy discussion of the Irish hero Cuchulainn and the Greek Herakles are uneven, with some keen insights as well as some confusion and, as in the previous example of Achilles, illuminating a seeming lack of confidence in her own argument. I take slight issue with her analysis of Orpheus, not the least reason being that there are multiple versions of the myth that are barely acknowledged by the author. In addition, I feel that she is overreaching when she states that "Both the Buddha and Orpheus are signaled as enlightened because they sit in the center of the natural cycle of life, seeing time as illusory" (192). As in previous chapters, she ends with a flurry of shorter discussions of definite botanical heroes, in this case representing Siberian, Native American, and Celtic myths. My take away from this section in particular (and the book as a whole) is that most famous Western heroes are not botanical heroes, while copious examples can be found among nonwestern (and less famous Western) examples. However, McCoppin herself comes to no such conclusion, a weakness of the text in my mind, as such a conclusion reveals a great deal about Western cultures and their connections (or lack thereof) to nature.

McCoppin begins her conclusion by summarizing her argument, including what she sees as itscentral message: botanical heroes "bravely face the process of accepting both physical death and the annihilation of selfhood" (208). The rest of her conclusion is largely in the form of an impassioned environmental lecture, where she returns to her initial condemnation of modern American culture's adulation of superheroes set apart from the everyman. In her words, the "environmental jeopardy" of our age is due in part to our worship of such superheroes in that it is a symptom of our sin of setting "the individual as superior to the natural world" (210). While it might have posed a tangent the author was not willing to explore, it might have been interesting for her to at least discuss the American Monomyth by name and note that she is certainly not the first person to question its relevance in the 21st century (e.g. Lawrence and Jewitt).

In the end, I came to a similar evaluation of this volume as I had her last. It frustrates in parts, illuminates in others, and will make the reader think deeply about both myths that are familiar to them and those that are not. I recommend it as an interesting review of old stories in a fresh way that points out their relevance (or lack thereof) to our current ecological state. But I look forward to some other author picking up where McCoppin left off, and analyzing the relative dearth of botanical heroes among our most famous Western myths and reflecting on the important lessons that important (and condemning) realization has for our society.

--Kristine Larsen


Jewitt, Robert, and Lawrence, John Shelton. The American Monomyth. Anchor Press, 1977. Lawrence, John Shelton, and Jewitt, Robert. The Myth of the American Superhero Eerdmans, 2002.

McCoppin, Rachel S. The Hero's Quest and the Cycles of Nature: An Ecological Interpretation of World Mythology McFarland and Company, 2016.

Paul, Willi. "Sacred Trees and Refuges"--Interview with Rachel S. McCoppin, Author of The Lessons of Nature in Mythology." Planet Shifter Magazine. 10 November 2015.
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Author:Larsen, Kristine
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2017
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