The Story and School Massacres
“For, that which is instilled into young minds will set deep roots, and will not easily be removed by any force afterward.”
Nam quod teneris mentibus insitum est, alte radices mittit, nec facile postea divelli ulla vi potest
Vergerio, de ingenuis moribus et liberalibus adulescentiae studiis, XLIX
A few years ago, Amy Pistone emailed me during the aftermath of yet another mass shooting to ask if I knew of anything in ancient Greek literature to respond to this all-too-frequent terror. I threw together a collection of passages which didn’t really get to the heart of the issue: the absolute horror of people suddenly killing scores of others, compounded by the practically criminal failure of our public officials to respond with anything more than stock phrases and empty gestures.
I have spent a lot of my life jousting with depression, death anxiety, and the ups and downs of facing up to (and sometimes failing to meet) the challenges of everyday life. For most of my adult life—and a good portion of my formative years—I found refuge and comfort in books, poetry, music and other forms of narrative art. For the past few decades, Homeric poetry and Greek literature in general have helped me guide my life, if not save it. But no matter how much I comb through the remnants of the past looking for that perfect quotation which will unlock the secrets of the universe, nothing seems to match up to the stupidity, the craven profiteering, and the visceral wrongness of children being gunned down in their schools, families executed in their place of worship, or communities torn apart by sudden and public demonstrations of raw, unforgiving violence.
And then, a few weeks ago, Aislinn Melchior sent me a message asking if I could remember a story of “the last hero…the wrestler who pulls down the building on top of his hometown’s school children.” To be honest, I didn’t know the tale, so I did what one does and I asked #ClassicsTwitter. Within a few hours, someone sent me the first passage I posted yesterday from Pausanias. After some simple searches, I found the others. Here’s the main translation again:
“In the Olympiad before that one they say that Kleomêdês the Astupalaian killed the Epidaurian Hippos while boxing him. When he was charged by the referees with cheating and was deprived of the victory, he went out of his mind with grief and returned to Astupalaia.
There, he attacked a school there which held as many as sixty children and knocked down the pillar which supported the roof. After the roof fell on the children, the citizens threw stones at Kleomêdês and he fled into the Temple of Athena. Inside, he climbed into a chest and closed the lid over him.
The Astupalaians wore themselves out trying to open or break the chest. When they finally broke open the chest and did not find Kleomêdês there dead or alive, they send representatives to Delphi to ask what kind of thing had happened with Kleomêdês. The Pythia is said to have given the oracle that:
Kleomêdês the Astupalaian was the last of the heroes—
Honor him with sacrifices since he is no longer mortal.”
For this reason the Astupalaians have honored Kleomêdês as a hero since that time.
The story is short, simple, and strange. Yet in this brevity and strangeness it engages not just with the central problems of Greek heroism, but it also forces us to think about how narrative functions and to revisit our assumptions about this word hero. The more I have thought about these connections, the more I have come to believe that the story of Kleomêdês has something to say about what forces make a mind capable and compelled to slaughter children. To be honest, I have also been thinking about parts of this for years, in particular about the damage perpetuated by our simplistic idea of the heroic narrative. So, this might take me a few words to get through. But I’m going to try.
The Problem with Heroes: To Suffer and Cause Suffering
“I am called Odysseus for evil deeds correctly: / For many who have been my enemy hate me.”
ὀρθῶς δ’ ᾿Οδυσσεύς εἰμ’ ἐπώνυμος κακῶν / πολλοὶ γὰρ ὠδύσαντο δυσμενεῖς ἐμοί
Sophocles, fr. 965
A starting point is that the story of Kleomêdês the Astupalaian is not an exceptional heroic narrative. He flies into a fit of rage when he does not receive the portion of honor he believes his community owes him and then separates himself from that community. Subsequently, he commits an act of violence against an exposed portion of his community in order to gain vengeance for his perceived suffering. Although the community mobilizes against him, he is ultimately recompensed for his lost position through fame. Kleomêdês receives eternal rites as a hero. But—and this is important—the people of Astupalaia record that he is the final one.
While Kleomêdês appears exceptional for that last assertion, the rest of his tale resonates clearly with that of other better known heroes. Both Achilles and Odysseus separate from their communities and commit (or have committed) acts of violence in order to return and gain greater renown than before. Achilles prays for his people to die in the first book of the Iliad; Odysseus slaughters 108 of the suitors upon his return home. Both of them ultimately receive immortal kleos, despite (or perhaps because of) their complex and harmful nature.
It is the simplistic way we talk about heroism rather than anything true about ancient myth and literature that might make us surprised to realize that these two most famous of Homeric heroes could be seen as monsters who murder their own people. But the capacity to suffer or cause suffering is central to the identity of Greek heroes, as Erwin Cook argues well, and central perhaps even to the ambiguity of their names: “Achilles” has been analyzed as “woe for the people” and Odysseus’ named has been folk-etymologized since antiquity as the “hateful one” (who delivers or receives hate). The most heroic hero, Herakles, is also essentially anti-social: he murders his own wife and children and, among his labors, commits many horrors absent any kind of virtue.
When Kleomêdês is called a hero, then, it is not ironic nor is it transgressive. His murdering of children is a regular entry in the heroic CV. The overwhelming force of heroic power is matched by an overweening sense of entitlement and rage at the denial of an expected reward.
The Problem with Stories 1: The Heroic pattern and Metonymic Algorithms
“The first point is that it is not only poets who used myths, but cities and lawmakers did too for the sake of their usefulness, once they noted the native disposition of the story-oriented animal. For humans love to learn; loving stories is a prelude to this. This is why children start by listening and making a common ground in stories.”
καὶ πρῶτον ὅτι τοὺς μύθους ἀπεδέξαντο οὐχ οἱ ποιηταὶ μόνον, ἀλλὰ καὶ αἱ πόλεις πολὺ πρότερον καὶ οἱ νομοθέται τοῦ χρησίμου χάριν, βλέψαντες εἰς τὸ φυσικὸν πάθος τοῦ λογικοῦ ζῴου: φιλειδήμων γὰρ ἅνθρωπος, προοίμιον δὲ τούτου τὸ φιλόμυθον. ἐντεῦθεν οὖν ἄρχεται τὰ παιδία ἀκροᾶσθαι καὶ κοινωνεῖν λόγων ἐπὶ πλεῖον.
Part of what people miss by just reading collections of myth or skimming the Iliad is that early Greek poetry is not just ambivalent about ‘heroes’, it is highly engaged with criticizing conventional heroic qualities. We labor in part with the misunderstanding of what the word hero means. And there is dangerous beneath that cornerstone of every college myth class, “the heroic pattern”, perhaps most well-known popularly in the form of Joseph Campbell’s monomyth, the heroic journey. The “heroic pattern” is a crass oversimplification of narrative myth and a naive perpetuation of its limitations
Now, this is probably not the right place—or time—to unpack the problems of the heroic pattern completely, but understanding the impact of two of its features influences the way I think about the modern function of myth and storytelling. First, though, the basic definition: the “heroic pattern” is a narrative plot sequence shared by many stories, from Gilgamesh and Herakles, through the Gospel’s Jesus and to more recent characters like Luke Skywalker and Harry Potter. Authors like Joseph Campbell argue that, in a sense, the monomyth is the one true story at the base of all others while more sensitive readers like Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung (who certainly influenced Campbell) saw the repeated narrative pattern as evidence of human psychology from experience (Freud’s “family drama”) reflected in turn in social patterns and expectations (Jung’s “archetypes”).
A general issue worth noting is that there is slippage here between descriptive and prescriptive treatments of the pattern. What I mean by this is that folklorists who work with similar concepts record the pattern as an observable phenomenon in the world and use the observation as part of a framework of thinking about how the stories work in the world. While psychoanalysts like Freud and Jung may start from the descriptive perspective, their treatment of human beings and communities becomes reductive and prescriptive when the pattern is used to interpret complex situations too narrowly.
The mythic pattern is already implicitly prescriptive as part of the shared narrative material that shapes our lives (or, from a post-modern perspective, discourse); but it is then made doubly prescriptive when culture salesmen like Campbell (and more recent televangelists like J. Peterson) offer it as a panacea. It becomes supercharged as a commodity: there are businesses that specialize in making sure that your movie script follows the monomyth. There is also no shortage of books to help you write the next film version of the Hero’s Journey.
Two fundamental problems that emerge from this are the monomyth’s content and form. Because the heroic pattern is reflective of latent and immanent social relationships and structures, it enforces damaging stereotypes. Women, for example, have little space to act as independent agents in its plot and heteronormative male sexuality is almost always a dominant structuring force even if it is not explicit (of course, there are multiple angles to a feminist critique of the hero’s journey.) So, the heroic pattern is simply harmful to audiences who are incapable of conforming to the external identity of the ‘hero’—it constrains who they think they can be and implicitly communicates that the best option is to work in service of someone else’s narrative.
But even for audiences who can see themselves as subjects of the hero’s journey, nearly all modern versions of it are deficient because the pattern generally says little about what happens after the hero’s return to his community. When I teach ancient myth, I emphasize that post-heroic narratives like those after the Odyssey or the stories of heroes who fail (e.g. Oedipus and Bellerophon) are critical moments in the continuation of the heroic pattern: they illustrate to their audiences that the heroic life ends and transforms. This, rather than the entertainment of an adventure tale, should be the true therapeutic goal of an exploration of the hero’s journey because it shows that there is value in putting up your sword, in joining a community, in having a family, and figuring out how to live a life of meaning once your youthful strength has gone.
Narratives that fail to explore this greater percentage of human life do us a terrible disservice. Ancient Greek myth, by focusing on what Gregory Nagy has called “the unseasonal nature of the hero,” reconciles the exceptional figure to the life cycle and the community through death and its attendant rituals. This is one reason kleos (“fame, glory”) can function as recompense for actual life lost, but the promise of fame itself distorts again the relationship between individuals and the process of life.
So far, these criticisms are about the content of the conventional heroic pattern. One might profitably suggest that by adjusting aspects of the content (say the gender or race of the participants, the emphasis on what happens after heroic deeds), one can preserve the value of the form. But I worry too that the way we talk about the form is damaging. When we talk about the heroic pattern we use, I think, a linguistic metaphor that seems to imply something discrete, concrete, and predictable. Now, while there is a difference between metaphor and reality, when we use metaphors to talk about something as ineffable and mysterious as the functioning of human minds, the metaphor can shape the development of our concepts about the things they are meant to describe.
As a metaphor, a “pattern” connotes something preset and knowable. The discrete steps and stages of the Campbellian popular version simplifies and “dilutes” the complexity of heroic narrative. But the manner of speaking and the way we treat the “pattern” has the added impact of curtailing how we think narrative and myth work. As a metaphor, the “pattern” or staged journey almost too easily slips into the language of programming. But this simplistic metaphor leads to many people thinking that storytelling and human actions are simply an issue of inputting a code and pressing “execute”.
If coding is the right metaphor for narrative—a thing which I highly doubt—it is much better to conceive of a generative and learning algorithm, one with potential codes which emerge depending on the environment and context. Here, I actually find it better to think about narrative in terms of viral DNA. Stories and narrative function much more like a living organism, with vestigial characteristics, combining and recombining and showing different traits under different epigenetic traditions. Similar narrative responses are triggered by similar contexts and environments.
But even this metaphor occludes the most important part of the way narrative and discourse work: these descriptions miss out on the fact that the audience shapes the tale and that the elements of the patterns in the complex engagement between story and audience necessarily contain their opposite. Each story and element of the story is a compact metonym which can be expanded or reduced and which will shift and evolve in response to audiences.
So, while approaches to heroic patterns from folklore through psychoanalysis to the pop-cultural hit-making of the hero’s journey understand that the pattern is attractive to audiences, they fail to acknowledge that the pattern is shaped in response to an audience whose expectations and beliefs have been shaped by the pattern. There is a perilous circuity to this process as the repetition of the pattern accentuates its extremities even while attenuating the possibility that there are other narrative moves to make.
The Problem with Stories 2: The Heroic Pattern and Toxic Masculinity
“For as long as he lives, a man has no greater glory / than that which he wins with his own hands and feet”
οὐ μὲν γὰρ μεῖζον κλέος ἀνέρος, ὄφρα κεν ᾖσιν, / ἢ ὅ τι ποσσίν τε ῥέξῃ καὶ χερσὶν ἑῇσιν.
Homer, Odyssey 8.147-148
What does this have to do with the tale of Kleomêdês and the end of heroism? When I read his story now, I see both Pausanias’ and Plutarch’s accounts as showing an individual trapped into a series of actions by the stories he has heard and a community struggling to deal with the consequences of its narrative traditions. If we imagine Kleomêdês as a real person, he imitates and performs the roles he has absorbed; if we see him as fictional or a ritualized narrative, he helps the people who tell his stories to explore the the limits of the story he embodies.
Among these options is the very real possibility that ancient Greek communities understood the power of their myths to shape their lives, While this process is not as simple as a choose-your-own-adventure story, it does constrain us to certain modes of action in certain contexts. We all play social roles; our lives and senses of self are shaped by patterned assumptions about what these roles can and should do; when there is a mismatch between our expectations and our experiences, we feel a deep kind of grief, a crisis of belonging, even existential angst.
When the cultural messages we have received have not taught us humility, compromise, or to accept complexity—indeed, when they have formed us instead to expect reward, a clear place in society, and an expression of value through access to sex, adulation, and freedom to do as we wish—we are ill-fit to respond to different contexts and new information. Some people adapt and thrive; the vast majority struggle emotionally. Many fantasize about different possibilities, about breaking the system that disappointed them. A small few turn brutally, unforgivably, and irrevocably nihilistic. And this turn is embedded in heroic narrative itself: if you cannot be the avenging hero or the savior, you can still be the suffering rogue or the tragic king. One city’s savior is another’s slaughtering demon. And when there is no city to save, what remains?
I don’t mean to say anything as simple as mass murder is caused by the stories we tell, whether they appear in movies, books, video games, music etc. But there is a formative and cyclical relationship between the immanent narrative forces in our culture and the extreme actions some members of our culture take. When we flatten out narratives and don’t explore them in their entirety, we refuse to acknowledge the complexity and range of messages conveyed in even the simplest tale. Heroes are about excess: ancient Greek heroes eat excessively, reproduce excessively, suffer excessively, and, when left without recourse, kill to excess.
A few years ago, Malcolm Gladwell explored the influence of popular narrative on school shootings in the New Yorker (“Thresholds of Violence,” Oct. 19, 2015). In it, he uses the social economist Mark Granovetter’s work on “behavior thresholds” to explore the basic proposal that school shootings over time are akin to behavior in mob violence, that one’s limit or “threshold” for behaving extremely is lowered when surrounded by examples of extreme behavior.
I have found this idea attractive for some time insofar as it avoids pathologizing individuals and instead examines how aggregate individual choices over time can in part be understood as a function of collective identity and the common repository of possible avenues for behavior. In essence, the argument is a statistical one about marginal behavior: marginalized individuals may be more likely to engage in socially destructive behavior; if they can regain some of their lost ‘rightful’ honor or glory through it and they have observed others glorified for it, then their threshold for engaging in such behavior can drop low enough to initiate action. This, in part, helps to explain the tendency in the US for mass killers to be white and male in a certain age group. This violence is an expression of assumed privilege denied.
But I hesitate when thinking through this explanation because it seems just a little too reductive, a modern form of Plato’s insistence that poetry is dangerous because most people are just too dumb to understand that it is allegory and they extract the wrong lesson from it. This is not to say that there is no truth to the proposal that the stories we experience in the world have a paradigmatic effect on what we think is possible—indeed, if we did not grant fame to mass murderers, there would likely be fewer mass murders.
(And Gladwell’s interpretation of Granovetter’s work seems to be something of a leap from the context and intention of the original work. I have read the latter’s articles and find some of the former’s inferences a bit maddening. This is not to say the conclusions are not powerful, but that they might be better supported with discourse analysis from Durkheim on up through post-modern theory.)
The threshold explanation, however, by focusing on some of the problem ignores the complex causes that put people in a situation in which they feel compelled to choose what the commentariat can only explain as the action of the “mentally ill”. There is, I think, an essential connection between the severe individualism that desires fame so desperately and the essential ‘maleness’ of heroes and ‘the heroic pattern’. The term toxic masculinity has emerged over the past few years to describe part of this. But like the term white fragility, its ability to indicate a basically true set of phenomena is countered by the nearly violent emotive response it elicits from the very people who best exhibit its traits.
Both of these terms describe the range of irritations to paroxysms of fear and violence that ensue when the assumed place of honor granted to an individual or group is ‘threatened’ by new social realities. Now, this might seem like a bit of a digression from where I started, but I think that part of this sense of dislocation and an additional piece to the puzzle of the problem of mass killings comes from our cultural discourse about who we are combined with the stories we tell.
We have a general cultural belief in intrinsic, individual identities which remain largely unchanged through life. Even if this belief falls apart when tested, we can see how it is reflected—and projected—in our political/economic focus on individual responsibility and our political/judicial focus on punishment and incarceration over rehabilitation. The late therapist Michael White, following the cognitive psychologist Jerome Bruner, argues that such a view of a person limits our sense of agency in the world: he calls it “internal state psychology” because it assumes that we have a specific and mostly unchanging set of characteristics which lock us into certain courses of action.
Even if this is in some sense ‘true’—or, perhaps, more true than not—the belief in such a model of personhood has deleterious effects because it makes us believe that we—and others—cannot change. This framework is a type of psychological determinism, and it limits our sense of agency in the world and insists that some paths are closed off to us. The assumption of the internal state traps us in a deterministic world view. A hero must have honor and must gain it through extreme behavior; when the promised reward is not provided, a different narrative step slides into place. A paradigmatic act of violence both performs this determinism and gives the actor the illusion of breaking with the system.
While I have written elsewhere about Michael White’s emphasis on developing an “intentional state” psychology through therapy to facilitate positive change and break destructive patterns, the concept of “internal state” psychology also demonstrates how a concrete concept of identity, dependent on external markers of esteem and ‘patterns’ of behavior, is ‘strong’ up until the moment it crumbles completely. It is a house of concrete cards: when it falls, its pieces crush everything around them.
The Last of the Heroes and the end of Toxic Myth
“It is hard for a man to be truly good, built evenly with hands, feet and mind without blame.”
ἄνδρ’ ἀγαθὸν μὲν ἀλαθέως γενέσθαι / χαλεπὸν χερσίν τε καὶ ποσὶ καὶ νόωι / τετράγωνον ἄνευ ψόγου τετυγμένον·
Simonides, fr. 37.1-3
Is it too much to see in the collapsing school at Astyupalaia a metaphor for the elaborate interdependence and ultimately fragility of a community built together through narrative? Perhaps, but the tale of Kleomêdês the Astupalaian is one of many set at the join between history and myth to emphasize not just the end of the heroic age but to reiterate its justification. The “hero” is opposed to the community structurally (he fights them) and symbolically (he kills the future). The nameless citizens band together only after realizing the damage he has done—they are not free of blame themselves because he was part of their community. The oracle’s instruction to honor Kleomêdês with sacrifices is a type of expiation and the preservation of the memory of what happened. Where later Christian authors like Origin and Eusebius criticize the account for showing how “pagans” would make anyone into a god, I think that the rites afforded to Kleomêdês are really about preserving the social memory of the damage that heroes can do while also marking out that he was the last one.
So the narrative of Kleomêdês in part functions to put the heroic narrative to bed, to consign it to the past, and to offer its final interpretation. In the two variants we have for the oracular line “the last of the heroes”, we find both the temporal and the spatial aspects of this finality marked out. Pausanias’ temporal hustatos (ὕστατος ἡρώων) plots this experience as coming most recently; Plutarch’s spatial eskhatos (Ἔσχατος ἡρώων) puts the hero at the end of a sequence but far away. And I don’t think there is any accident in the fact that eskhatos can also describe extreme actions and the world of the dead. The oracle marks the heroic age as definitively over and leaves this last of heroes as an unambiguous cautionary tale.
Such a narrative, I suspect, is evidence of the complexity of critical thought endemic to the living performance and reception of myth in the ancient Greek world. As I stated earlier, this implicit critical treatment of what a hero is or may be is part of the point of the Iliad and the Odyssey and no less central to the tragic stage in Athens. Indeed, I think that one would be hard-pressed to find an uncritical examination of heroic figures in most of what we have received from antiquity. (Or even in the better heroic tales we consume today.)
Simplistic lessons, constrained senses of self, lost opportunities for belonging—these are all important aspects of why the heroic pattern is insufficient for the complex lives we live and why someone like Kleomêdês turns to violence against his own people. Even to this day, members of our population are raised with expectations based on incomplete or childish narrative patterns which are sharpened and weaponized by a cultural message that our value is intrinsic, individualistic, and based on what we do alone. When the paradigms we are offered let us be saviors or destroyers, how can we be anything else?
Kleomêdês’ individual response represents the internalization of cultural narratives and beliefs; cultural narratives are the structural and institutional forces that act upon individuals and emerge from them in the aggregate. When the experience of the individual clashes with the structural, it creates crisis. We can engage with narrative patterns and alter them over time. But sequestering the tools of mass violence is the most effective way to preserve lives.
And I want to emphasize here again that this is not about pathologizing individuals. This is not about anyone’s personal mental health. This is a cultural problem of dysfunction and social organization that has neither simple explanation nor simple solution. We need to change the stories we tell about ourselves and each other; we need to educate our community from birth about how our minds work and how narratives can condition us; we need to break the restriction of narrative identities and lives lived imposed by biological gender, sex identity, and physical ability; we need to think about whether or not our social organization allows people to live with meaning and a sense of belonging. But, in the meantime, let’s not build schools on single pillars; let’s not give hopeful heroes weapons of mass murder.
As I explore when I teach myth and have over time come to understand as central to the importance of epic, the ancient Greek narrative and performative context was deeply sensitive to a need for storytelling complexity and richness of thought. The long-term engagement with sophisticated ideas provided by myth and poetry invited audiences into a dialogue of generations and ideas at the center of which was their own creation of narratives about themselves and their world, that blend between the stories they heard and the ones they experienced. I deeply believe that this process was in part therapeutic and that one of the reasons Greek epic is so shifty and challenging is that it comes at the end point of generations wrangling over difficult ideas like how a person is valued in their community, how communities govern themselves, and what makes a life worth living.
(But, it is far from perfect: even if it deeply criticizes and effectively unmasks the corrosive nature of mythical patterns for men, it perpetuates oppressive structures for women.)
Literature in its context—and even outside of it—resists simplistic patterning and reduction and provides deep and ambiguous opportunities for engagement with audiences. It does not offer a simple map of directions or a simplistic path to completion because life itself is not a linear game. While we do have milestone moments which socially mark our moves from one “level” or “stage” of life to another, these are social constructions that give us context as we move through the most dangerous stages of adolescence and transition from one family group into another.
Any narrative that does not help us conceive of what happens next, however, is potentially disastrous. The heroic pattern leaves us no paradigm for how to live life when there are no great challenges, how to navigate the world when we are not the strongest or fastest, how to age, bear children, face weakness, and live with imperfect others without killing them.
The story of Kleomêdês takes the heroic tale to what is actually a logical end: it unmasks its toxic core and may even hint at the damaging nature of kleos (epic “fame”) itself. Kleomêdês’ murder of the children is the destruction of his community and a symbolic attempt to outlive it. The fame he gains through heroic rites are forbidden to others by the Oracle at Delphi, but this doesn’t stop people from trying.