In Poetics (335 BC), a treatise of dramatic theory, Aristotle explains hamartia or the protagonist’s error and tragic flaw. This flaw leads to a chain of actions culminating in disaster and can include an error of ignorance, as well as of judgement or character, or a wrongdoing.
For Aristotle, hamartia is largely a morally neutral term, meaning in Greek ‘to miss the mark‘, or ‘to fall short of an objective‘. Interestingly, the same word hamartia or ἁμαρτία, is also used in Christian new testament theology to denote ‘sin’.
Audiences today would not understand the word sin to carry morally neutral weight, quite the opposite. However, a nuanced reading of Aristotle’s Poetics, can help us understand better the nature of hamartia.
The purpose of tragedy for Aristotle was to lead the audience to emotional ‘catharsis’ or purging, a purification, or cleansing of excessive passions. Aristotle writes, for a story to be “of adequate magnitude”, it must involve characters of high rank, prestige, or good fortune. Here hamartia is the quality of a tragic hero is relatable:
…the character between these two extremes – that of a man who is not eminently good and just, yet whose misfortune is brought about not by vice or depravity, but by some error or frailty (hamartia)
Tragedy thus presents us with a protagonist full of foibles, flaws, human faults, and vices. The audience is invited to both empathise with the protagonist, but also to judge with the objectivity of a third party observer. If our protagonist is not caught by conventional justice or punished for their crimes, they often suffer through pain, guilt, trauma or an ever increasing slide into self compromise.
By creating empathy with the protagonist, the story-teller can lead the audience through the experience of cleansing punishment experienced by the protagonist or the key players. As the plot arrives at a tragic reversal or change or fortune for this hero, the ‘recognition’ of the tragic flaw evokes in the audience both a pity and a fear which culminates in ‘catharsis‘ or purging of emotion.
Tragedy is in many cases, salvation, for it is another who suffers for our sins. We observe the evils, the justified motives, the small steps which lead to a crime, and while we can empathise with their journey, and we suffer with them, we are reborn to live anew. Waking as from a dream, we return to life, granted a second chance, the chance to live a better, wiser, more integrated life.
Hamartia, and Aristotle’s exploration of tragic narrative help us understand the inevitability of our own suffering through mistakes of judgement or character for we too are good people, yet frail. The fabric of story operates within a just universe, and our actions lead to a chain of cascading consequences leading to disaster. The gospels go on to outline how into this just universe, arrives a truly innocent ‘other’ who suffers in our place, and who doing so purges or cleanses us as we empathise and suffer with him and are reborn anew, granted a second chance to live a more integrated life.
At Spring time every year, posts are circulated online which point out the pagan roots of the Christian holiday of Easter. Indeed, the Christian festival which does occur each Spring has adopted symbols of fertility such as rabbits and eggs, and its story, the death and resurrection of Christ, is mirrored in many myths and legends of a dying and resurrected god or goddess.
One popular meme paralleling Easter with the Babylonian goddess Ishtar has been broadly panned as unscholarly and inaccurate.
However, according to the venerable Bede in the early 8th century, the Old English ‘Month of Ēostre’, or month of April is named after “a goddess of theirs [Old Germans] named Ēostre, in whose honour feasts were celebrated in that month”.
Christians remembered the passion of the Christ on the dates corresponding with the Jewish festival of the Passover, and while the dates move according to the lunar calendar, always falls in Spring. How then are we to integrate the ancient stories, myths and legends which prefigure and correspond to the Easter story and understand them in light of the New Testament gospels which claim historical veracity and eyewitnesses?
Following C.S.Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, I believe that ancient literature has MUCH to say in prefiguring history, pre-framing and pre-telling what occurred on Calvary, that Passover 2000 years ago.
The very myth of Ishtar mentioned above is a good starting point. It is a myth that celebrates spring and new life.
The Jewish festival Purim falls a few weeks prior to Passover and close to Persian New Year, a festival linked to the Spring Equinox. The festival of Purim celebrates the saving of the Jewish people from a decree to destroy them by the royal vizier, an Achaemenid Persian Official Haman, by the quick thinking actions of the Queen Esther during the reign of King Xerxes.
The ancient story of the goddess Ishtar might illuminate how the story of Esther tells of spring festivals and in turn informs our understanding of death and new birth.
Ishtar was the Lady of the Gods, the Goddess of fertility. Her husband Tammuz, the great love of her youth, had died when he was still very young.
In Babylon, the dead were sent to the Underworld, a place of darkness ruled over by the Goddess Irkalla. It was said that in this place they lived on dust and mud. Ishtar became depressed and decided she would descend into the Underworld to be with Tammuz. So dressed in her finest garments, brilliant jewellery and her high crown, Ishtar entered the cave that leads into the Underworld. Irkalla’s realm was surrounded by seven walls, each with its own gate that had to be passed to get to the dark place where the dead resided.
Irkalla, the Queen of the Underworld had the head of a lioness and the body of a woman and behind her the dead gathered. There was no light in their eyes; they were dressed not in cloth but feathers, and instead of arms and hands they had the wings of birds. They lived in darkness.
Ishtar became frightfully anxious seeing them, and she wished she had never ventured in this dark place. She had expected to find Tammuz here, but now she realised that this was a hopeless quest. Desperate, she begged Irkalla to allow her to return to the land of the living. Irkalla uttered a cold and contemptuous laugh. All memory of Ishtar’s past existence, of her great love Tammuz, disappeared with the light.
On earth a great change came when Ishtar descended into the Underworld. Love and desire became strangers to man and animal alike. Birds no longer sang. Bulls no longer searched out the cows. Stallions were no longer attracted to mares. Rams no longer cared for ewes. Wives no longer caressed their husbands when they returned from business or war.
Shamash, the sun god, was deeply perturbed when he saw the changes that had befallen earth. So Shamash went to see Ea, the great god, and told him that earth’s creatures were not renewing themselves. “How is this possible?” asked Ea. Shamash then related that Ishtar had descended to the Underworld, in search of Tammuz, and had not returned.
Ea then created a being he called Udushunamir, which he made devoid of all emotion or fear. With the power of all the gods, Ea sent him as an emissary to the Underworld court of Irkalla, where he would demand the water of life from the dark queen. Because Udushunamir had been created by Ea, the great god, Irkalla had no power over this creature, and could not stop it entering her realm.
So Udushunamir entered the Underworld, and stood before Irkalla, where he demanded in the name of the great gods that Irkalla provide him with the water of life, and that Ishtar be brought from the darkness. Of course Irkalla was furious at this demand. Irkalla could do nothing but submit, and she ordered the water of life be given to this creature, and so it was.
Udushunamir guided Ishtar through the darkness to the seven gates of the Underworld, and when she emerged from the cave, the rams reared high. Soldiers and merchants alike made excuses to rush home to their wives’ fond embraces. All of creation rejoiced in the return of Ishtar. And all the gods rejoiced too, knowing that their creations would renew themselves and would survive to honour and serve them.
When we read the story of Esther, remembered each spring at Purim, we can understand better the ancient myths of death and rebirth. It was Esther, who descended into death, willing to face execution at the hand of the king in order to request her people be spared. Helpless to deliver her people alone however, she needed deliverance from a divine emissary. The King had to send someone immune to the laws of death, into death to retrieve his Queen. In this case, it is the king himself who vows to depose the wicked vizier and to create a new law which will spare the Jewish people from extermination.
So too at Easter we see a similar drama played out on the cross. Christ descended into death to demand the lives of people held in death be returned to life. God, the Father, sending his Spirit into the underworld with Christ, returns him to life and restores with him, life to earth again, renewal and rebirth. Each of the earlier stories pre-figured, pre-told and pre-framed the story of Christ which in turn, fulfilled’ mythological typology in history.
C.S. Lewis, in his ‘Essays on Theology and Ethics‘, addresses the fact that the story of Christ, brought myth into history:
The heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact. The old myth of the Dying God, without ceasing to be myth, comes down from the heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history. It happens — at a particular date, in a particular place, followed by definable historical consequences. We pass from a Balder or an Osiris, dying nobody knows when or where, to a historical Person crucified (it is all in order) under Pontius Pilate. By becoming fact it does not cease to be myth: that is the miracle.
Myth became fact, essay published in God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics, C. S. Lewis, Walter Hooper (Editor), Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company; Reprint edition (October 1994; original copyright 1970 by the Trustees of the Estate of C. S. Lewis).
Tolkien similarly wrote, in a letter to Christopher his son, clarifying his view that the gospels mirror fairy-tales:
Of course I do not mean that the Gospels tell what is only a fairy-story; but I do mean very strongly that they do tell a fairy-story: the greatest. Man the story-teller would have to be redeemed in a manner consonant with his nature: by a moving story. But since the author of it is the supreme Artist and the Author of Reality, this one was also made . . . to be true on the Primary Plane.
The glory of the gospel story therefore is that it is the ‘true’ myth, myth-become-fact, fairy-story incarnate in primary reality. As Tolkien concluded in his essay,
this story is supreme; and it is true. Art has been verified. God is the Lord, of angels, and of men—and of elves. Legend and History have met and fused
‘On Fairy-stories’, 63.
This Easter, lets take and read again the fairy-tales and myths and legends of the world, and consider, how legend and history met and fused in Christ.