The Hero and the Sea: Patterns of Chaos in Ancient Myth

The Hero and the Sea: Patterns of Chaos in Ancient Myth

The Hero and the Sea: Patterns of Chaos in Ancient Myth

The Hero and the Sea: Patterns of Chaos in Ancient Myth


Ancient myths about watery chaos uniquely transcend time and culture to speak to the universal human condition as expression to the hopes, aspirations and fears that have defined--for ancient thinkers as well as modern scientists--what it means to be human in a chaotic world. "The Hero and the Sea examines the mythological pattern of heroic battles with watery chaos in the "Gilgamesh Epic, the "Iliad, the "Odyssey, and the Old Testament, in the light of anthropology, comparative religion, literature, mythology, psychology, and modern chaos theory; how mythic patterns of heroic battle with chaotic adversaries respond to the cultural needs, religious concerns, and worldview of their audience. The last chapter explores points of contact between the ancient mythic patterns and the discoveries of modern scholars engaged in the theoretical study of chaos and chaotics.


Professor Mills here presents a work about a major mythic archetype, or mythologem, the struggle of the hero against the forces of chaos, especially watery ones, as incarnate in the stories of Gilgamesh, Achilles, Odysseus, and Jacob. But he extends the theme of watery chaos to examine heroic confrontations with chaos of many kinds. Detailed considerations of the four paradigmatic hero stories lie at the heart of the book.

Mills’s study, virtually an extended essay, is initially framed by Eliade’s well-known conception of myth as cosmic in its concerns and by the division of space (and time) into sacred and profane. the approach is grounded in an intelligent application of ritual theory, dominated by van Gennep’s notion of liminality, later adopted and modified by Victor Turner. the study is marked by structural oppositions, principally between chaos and order. Since the author’s approach is also functional (no surprise given the above), myth becomes a high stakes game: at issue are nothing less than the quest for a coherent view of the cosmos, and the viability and survival of myth-based communities.

In an unusual and moving Epilogue, Mills argues strongly for a correspondence between attempts to understand the universe through the modern science of chaotics and those that occupied the ancient mythmakers in the patterns they sought to discern and express in their concrete stories. the ancient patterns, therefore, are not really ancient, they are timeless and universal. Modern students of chaos sometimes use the same metaphor (water as chaos) as the ancient mythmakers, and they have, almost religiously, the very same aim: to seek and establish patterns of order within the seemingly random and chaotic.

At the outset, Mills clearly defines his essential working terms. the argument is always carefully expressed, easy to follow; the writing is seamless and unfailingly elegant. This seems a work produced by Mills’s having taught the selected texts for many years, and from his having thought deeply about them with a thesis in mind. the learning is profound, but lightly worn: annotations and bibliography are fresh, but not overwhelming. This notwithstanding, experts can learn from this book, but so also under this design can undergraduates and the general public.

James G. keenan Loyola University Chicago . . .

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