Sunday, October 26, 2014

Killers on the Road to Athens

A few weeks ago, I wrote about Demon Barbers and the first psychopath in literature. I proposed Sweeney Todd as the first, but I was and am open to other suggestions. An anonymous reader proposed another first. His or her comments from September 9, 2014, begin with a quote from my original posting as a reference:
"Sweeney Todd . . . is the earliest psychopath that I have found in literature."
The earliest psychopath as the central character, perhaps. Quite a few of the "bad knights" in mediaeval Arthurian stories show psychopathic features. One very early candidate as a psychopath is Procrustes in Greek mythology.
I had heard of Procrustes and the term Procrustean bed, but didn't know the significance of either. So I consulted my books on mythology. First, in Bergen Evans' Dictionary of Mythology (Dell Laurel Edition, 1975), I read that Procrustes, also called Damastes and Polypemon, was a "giant robber [and] son of Poseidon."
He is known chiefly for a famous, or infamous, bed which he offered, in the guise of hospitality, to his victims. If they were too short for the bed, he stretched their limbs until they fit. If they were too long for the bed, he lopped off whatever was necessary to make them fit. Theseus killed him by shortening him to fit his own bed. (p. 244)
Here's the kicker for those interested in the connection between the ordinary psychopath and the totalitarian dictator, a further quote from Evan's dictionary:
[Hence our adjective procrustean: = "tending to produce conformity by violent means."] (The brackets are in the original.) (1)
In her Mythology (1942), Edith Hamilton elaborates on some other killers:
His [Theseus'] idea of dealing with justice was simple, but effective: what each had done to others, Theseus did to him. Sciron, for instance, who had made those he captured kneel to wash his feet and then kicked them down into the sea, Theseus hurled over  a precipice. Sinis, who killed people by fastening them to two pine trees bent down to the ground and letting the trees go, died in that way himself. Procrustes was placed upon the iron bed which he used for his victims . . . . (p. 210).
In my old and very badly damaged copy of Gods & Heroes (Fawcett, 1966, pp. 200-202), the author, Gustav Schwab, described how Theseus slew, in turn, Periphetes the Club-Bearer, Sinnis [sic] the Pine-Bender, the aforementioned Sciron, the wrestler Cercyon, and finally Damastes, nicknamed Procrustes, the Stretcher. Every one of them was a robber, a rogue, and a murderer. Their cruelty and their particular pleasure in killing might mark them as psychopaths. (2)

Just as the totalitarian impulse has existed in every time, so has the person who takes pleasure in killing others. It's worth noting that the killers encountered by Theseus inhabited the countryside and had not yet made their way to the city. They did however make their way into the popular culture of their time, that is, into ancient myth.

Thanks to the anonymous reader who drew Procrustes to my attention.

(1) The Wikipedia-zation of research continues: In reading about Procrustes, I find that Jacques Derrida applied the metaphor of the Procrustean bed to a certain reading of "The Purloined Letter" by Edgar Allan Poe. This was the same Derrida who birthed deconstructionism, which, somewhere or other, has Marxism in its family tree. Bergen Evans' definition of procrustean--"tending to produce conformity by violent means"--comes to mind, for it's also a pretty good definition of Marxism. Further evidence that people of certain political persuasions are incapable of irony or self-awareness.
(2) Bullfinch's Mythology (Modern Library, no date, p. 124) tells a much more abbreviated version of Theseus' crime-fighting.

Copyright 2014 Terence E. Hanley

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