How Homer makes Starcraft better: The value of Literature
I wrote this for my Myth and Lit class. The assignment was to write a persuasive blog-style paper that 1) Convinces the reader to read a given piece of literature (in this case, the Homeric Hymn to Hermes) 2) explains/defines what literature is (its harder than you think) 3) explains/defines what myth is 4) shows how the chosen work is myth and lit. Max length was 3 pages, so I had to work fast. For interested parties, this earned an A- (exceptional grade for this instructor) and was only really docked for missing its full potential, which was a result of its short length. Enough gum-flapping, here it is:
How Homer makes Starcraft better: The value of literature
What should you do on a Saturday night while you are at home and all the good-looking people are at a club, dancing close, and getting sweaty with each other? You should read the Homeric hymn to Hermes. I know, I know, Starcraft 2 is out and you just figured out how to Zerg rush again, but maybe there is more to life than Mountain Dew and Blizzard Entertainment's latest gem. Did you ever wonder WHY the Zerg might be so focused on conquering humanity? It's because we have what they don't: a literary record.
Okay, maybe I'm giving an imaginary adversary too much credit, but think about it. Humans have a rich history that defines who we are and where we've come from. The Zerg were created in a lab and released into the universe. As amazing as it may seem, Hermes, as depicted in Homer's hymn, is very much like the Zerg. The reason we, the Terrans, are not the Zerg is that we have literature to define us.
In the hymn, Homer presents us with a newly born god named Hermes. Hermes is the only god that exists but has no real place. All the other gods reign over everything already, and a god without stuff to rule over is no god at all. So Hermes set out into the universe to find his place and win the respect of everyone. Along the way he invents cool stuff like lying, music, and a few rituals. In the end his big brother and father recognize him, he is contented and happy with things, and eventually Hermes moves to Olympus to be with the other gods. (Homer)
Compare that to the Zerg. They were created into a universe already filled with powerful species. Their creators made them powerful and intelligent, but gave them no respect or freedom. A race with no respect or freedom is no race at all, so they rebelled and set out to carve themselves a place in the universe. Along the way they invented better creatures and structures, but the problem is, that is as far as they can go. Unlike Hermes they don't understand where they came from or who they are dealing with. Therefore, they can never be respected and can never rest. Literature like Homer's hymn, is what separates the Terrans from the Zerg.
Okay, so maybe you believe me that literature is important, even to fictional alien races. Why bother with Homer? You can gather the same lessons from things like sparknotes, wikipedia, and the game's user-manual, right? Wrong. Remember all those tedious pages of back-story that you skim read while waiting for the game's launch? The ones that were basically a manual, combined with an advertisement, and then dressed as cheap sci-fi story. That's not what I mean when I say literature.
Jim Meyer argues in his paper, “What is Literature?”, that literature cannot really be given a regular definition because it means something different to everyone. He proposes a 'prototype' system where things become increasingly literary as they meet more and more of our expectations regarding what literature should be. According to Meyer, to be 'Literature' a work would have to have some of the following characteristics:
The more of these the work has, the closer to 'literature' it becomes (Meyer, 4). Sure, the user-manual was formatted, was a written text, and contained some value for the end user, but that is not really what literature is all about. User-manuals are literature in the same way that tomatoes are fruit: technically they meet the criteria but no one outside of academia really cares.
What does all this mean? It means that the Hymn to Hermes is more 'Literary' than a user-manual because it is carefully styled in meter, has ascetic value, and can be interpreted in more than one way. Why it matters is the difference between the Zerg and the Terrans. The Zerg would manuals: raw collections of information that instruct members of the hive what to do and when. Terrans have literature that explains our history and means something to each reader. Literature has value beyond its immediate intended use.
But hold on to your butts, because the rabbit-hole gets deeper. Hermes' hymn is more than just literature, it's mythology too. Myths tell a culture who they currently are. Myths are what separate the confederates from the UED forces or the Protoss from the Dark Templar. Homer packs the hymn to Hermes with cool side stories and ritual procedures that the ancient Greeks had to follow. Ever wonder why you need to build Overlords instead of some other base unit? Zerg Mythology (if it existed) would explain that.
Just to clarify, mythology and literature are not the same thing. Sure, the hymn to Hermes contains elements of both, but they are two very different things. Literature tells us where we came from and shows us where we are going. Mythology shows us who we are right now. Mythology is literature, but not all literature is mythological. The whole all squares are rectangles, but not all rectangles are squares thing.
So fire up your favorite browser and hunt down a copy of Homer's hymn to Hermes. You already read this far and those damn South Koreans will just kick your butt at Starcraft anyway. Why not better yourself and learn to understand your fellow man in the process. After you understand Hermes you will realize that Starcraft will never earn you a place in the world, but that using your mind to impress the neighbor (and his daughter) totally will.
Homer. The Homeric Hymns, second edition. The Johns Hopkins Press. Baltimore and London.
Translated by Apostolos N. Athanassakis.
Meyer, Jim. “What is Literature?”. Work Papers of the Summer Institute of Linguistics, volume
41. University of North Dakota. http://www.und.nodak.edu/dept/linguistics/wp/1997Meyer.htm . 1997.
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