Mythological analogies

David Adams Leeming  ( Mythology: The Voyage of the Hero)  suggests the following stages for the hero monomyth:

1. Miraculous conception and birth
2. Initiation of the hero-child
3. Withdrawal from family or community for meditation and preparation
4. Trial and Quest
5. Death
6. Descent into the underworld
7. Resurrection and rebirth
8. Ascension, apotheosis, and atonement.

All of these stages can be seen as having parallels with the life of Christ,  but it is the first that is relevant here. The number of mythical heroes whose life begins with a miraculous or virgin birth is startling: Krishna in Hinduism, the Buddha, King Arthur, Gilgamesh, and Horus in Egyptian mythology are probably the most familiar. Another element of the monomyth is the part human, part divine nature of the hero. Heracles and Theseus are examples from Greek mythology; perhaps the earliest example is Gilgamesh.

     The parallels between the story of Mary and the traditions of goddesses such as Isis and Aphrodite have already been referred to. The story of the Annunciation has elements in common with the story of Leda and the Swan. 
   This analogy may seem shocking, even blasphemous. After all, an important element in the Annunciation story is the consent of Mary. Leda was given no choice in the matter. But the image of a god impregnating a woman in the form of a bird does resonate with the Bible narrative. This idea is by no means original to me; others, such as Yeats,  have made this connection.  His sonnet Leda and the Swan was originally entitled Annunciation

Leda and the Swan

A sudden blow: the great wings beating still
Above the staggering girl, her thighs caressed
By the dark webs, her nape caught in his bill,
He holds her helpless breast upon his breast.
How can those terrified vague fingers push
The feathered glory from her loosening thighs?
And how can body, laid in that white rush,
But feel the strange heart beating where it lies?
A shudder in the loins engenders there
The broken wall, the burning roof and tower
And Agamemnon dead.
Being so caught up,
So mastered by the brute blood of the air,
Did she put on his knowledge with his power
Before the indifferent beak could let her drop?

    Salvador Dali's Leda Atomica is a complex image, and many art critics have scratched their heads and then pronounced wisely on it. Many see it as, if not a version of the Annunciation, then as an artist's response to it. The Swan, rather than ravishing Leda, seems to be whispering into her ear. 

Dalí Theatre and Museum, Figueres

   Another story of the miraculous impregnation of a virgin is that of Danae; in this case the deed was performed by Zeus in the form of a golden shower. This was one of Titian's favourite themes.

Danae: Titian
Museo Nazionale di Capodimonte, Naples

 Gabriel brings with him echoes of Hermes/Mercury, as shown in these paintings by Tiepolo. They are both winged messengers of Gods, and both carry their staff of office, though Gabriel has left it behind in this version.

Hermitage, St Petersburg

Mercury Appearing to Aeneas
Villa Valmarana, Vicenza

Annunciation page 1

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