Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Hercules, the Animus, and Gay Desire

A great big animus is coming to a movie theater near you!

I just want to start off by talking about Carl Jung. Jung popularized the idea of archetypes, which he claimed were bundles of instinctual emotional energy. One of these archetypes, the animus, represents masculine traits.

Jung claimed that the animus appeared in different forms in women's dreams, the most primal form being the muscleman. It's obvious why a large, strong, bulging man would represent masculine energies in the psyche. Jung focused mostly on heterosexuals, but a quick look around the internet will make it apparent that the animus also appears to a lot of gay men in a musclebound form.

The word psyche comes from Greek and means soul. Unlike a lot of psychologists who take a medicalized approach to their work Jung thought he was healing the souls of his patients, not just their minds. Jung was a shaman with a leather couch and a framed degree. The soul is the focus not only of psychologists but also priests and occultists, and the primitive animus also likes to flex its muscles in the realms of religion and magic.

Musclemen appear in some of the oldest ancient myths and religious art. The Sumerians had Gilgamesh, the Israelites had Samson, the Norse had Thor, and the Irish had Cuchulain. The Greeks had Heracles, and the Romans adopted him and named him Hercules. He's been with Western culture under that name ever since, and this summer he's coming to a movie theater near you.

Hercules opens this week, and stars Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson as the muscular hero. From the trailers it looks like he performs classic cinematic Herculean feats, like fighting lions, wrestling dragons, battling armies, and flexing well-oiled biceps.

Most Americans probably just think of Hercules as that "strong guy," pure primitive male animus. The ancient Greeks and Romans did think of him that way, but also thought of him as an androgynous primordial snake god, a shamanic traveler between the realms, and a culture hero who founded dynasties and shaped the geography of the Mediterranean.

Fittingly for an archetypal male deity, they also thought of him as a sexual superhero with an unflagging libido. One myth tells how he bedded the forty-nine virginal daughters of King Thespis in one night. The fiftieth daughter who refused his sexual advances saw her sisters were having a religious experience and became his priestess instead.

Hercules was too much man to limit his affections to one gender - the Greek historian Plutarch wrote that Hercules's male lovers were beyond counting. His most prominent boyfriend was Iolaus, his cousin and companion on multiple adventures. Iolaus helped Hercules in one of his most prominent labors, slaying the multi-headed Hydra. The Greeks recognized Iolaus as an exemplar of what a male lover should be, and male couples would visit Iolaus's tomb to pledge their love to each other.

In the most popular version of the Hercules myth, Hera forces Hercules to complete twelve labors for nasty King Eurystheus as a punishment. But one variation on the myth tells another story, claiming that Hercules actually completed the twelve labors to win the love of King Eurystheus. (Like Iolaus, Eurystheus was a cousin to Hercules.) I like this version myself. After all, attraction is the guiding force of the cosmos, so it makes sense that a cosmic hero would guided by a cosmic force.

The writer Ptolemy Khennos named other men that Hercules loved, including Adonis, Jason (of the Argonauts fame), Nestor, and Corythus. Hylas was another of his lovers, a  young prince that Hercules abducted after killing his father. Hylas apparently suffered from Stockholm Syndrome and quickly fell in love with his brawny captor, even sailing with him on the Argonauts' quest. But Hylas was abducted again, this time by water nymphs on the island of Chios.

Hercules frantically searched for Hylas and refused to leave Chios until he was found. The other Argonauts eventually left Hercules behind in his grief. Hylas was never found and remained forever with the water nymphs. In historic times the people on Chios revered Hylas as a demi-god and annually performed a ritual where they searched for him.

Abderus, another of Hercules' boyfriends, also met a bad end. For his eighth labor Hercules had to steal the flesh-eating horses that were kept by King Diomedes, and Abderus volunteered to help. Hercules successfully stole the horses but asked Abderus to guard them while he fought off some pursuing soldiers. After defeating the soldiers Hercules returned to Abderus, only to find that the young man had been eaten by the horses. In a fury Hercules fed King Diomdedes to the carnivorous equines as well, who must have been very hungry that day. Hercules founded the city of Abderus in his dead lover's honor, and each year its citizens celebrated the life of Abderus with wrestling and boxing matches.

These days you don't see a lot of people celebrating Hercules or his lovers through rituals. He's not particularly popular even among modern Wiccans and pagans, but I'm not sure why. Maybe a naked, musclebound demi-god with a giant club just too blunt for modern religious sensibilities. Aleister Crowley wisely included Hercules among his list of Gnostic saints, and some New Age groups include him on their lists of ascended masters, but he doesn't get the widespread neo-pagan veneration that gods like Thor, Pan, or Lugh do. Of course, bodybuilding and gym culture is now a global activity, so he's being unofficially venerated in other ways.

Hercules has been much more successful in modern pop culture, manifesting in countless movies, TV shows, and comic books. This week's movie is the second Hercules film this year - one starring Kellan Lutz appeared in January. In general these productions ingore his man-loving ways in favor of action and adventure, but still consistently portray the demi-god as musclebound, half-naked and glistening. That's what I expect from the Rock's film. I'll be completely surprised if there's any overt queer content!

Regardless of the medium or particular production, Hercules's body is consistently presented as an object of admiration, if not worship. Whether he's an archetype, a god or an action hero Hercules' inherent nature as an erotically charged male force remains obvious to those who look.

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