The Goddess Stands Astride the World: Robert Graves' Mythology in Tokyo-3 and Fódlan
Neon Genesis Evangelion, Gainax and Tatsunoko Production, Netflix, 1995-1996
by Jesse Miksic
The boy walks slowly across the wasteland, a lone figure—eyes in shadow, looking vaguely at his feet, but knowing, somehow, where he is going.
This is an old vision. According to Joseph Campbell, it’s as old as culture itself… but in its familiar form, it runs back at least to the beginnings of mass media, visual storytelling, etc etc. It’s the story of the boy hero, the reluctant savior of his [kingdom / country / planet]. It’s the kings of legend: Arthur, Buddha, Christ, Beowulf, Cuchulain, Hercules.
Superman emerging from his capsule into the emptiness of the Great Plains. Luke Skywalker crossing Tattoine, brought to you by Mark Hamill, George Lucas, and Joseph Campbell. Campbell did not invent the boy hero — he would never claim that. But he made it as we know it, framing it as an archetype, and giving it the sheen of the universal. He convinced us all, by subtle persuasion, that the Hero With a Thousand Faces is the most fundamental story, a Tale at the heart of all Tales.
As it goes with all grand narratives, so with the Hero Story: it has its baggage, its qualifications. Contra its “universality,” it resembles more contingent technologies, like perspective in painting (it places an elevated subject at the center, creates a point of view with a limited directionality, and orients the whole world around this point of view). It is heavy with passive chauvinism, the archetype’s assumption of masculinity, of a male journey to adulthood through violence. It has its necessary context: stories that are upheld by the written word, and must therefore be stronger, more rigid, in the age of the printed book.
But the patriarchy is cracking like never before, especially in Western media… and ever since cubism and the late modern, the single subject has been dissolving. So also the printed word: in hypertext, transmediation, and remix culture, we see the author dying a thousand deaths, replaced by the algorithm, the ludic landscape, the collaborative vision. The fixed scaffolding that held up the Boy Hero is starting to buckle.
The boy hero is finding himself in a new world, and here, he is no longer the center.
This is the world of the Goddess.
The Goddess is not the enemy of the boy hero… indeed, this would play right into his narrative. He’s always been the warrior of resistance, the underdog standing up to Sauron or Ganondorf. The Goddess isn’t a traditional Big Bad, because she doesn’t want to play the same game. Rather, she does what no other character in the Boy Hero’s story has ever done, and it’s the one thing that can unravel him… she glorifies him, but only provisionally, on her terms.
In other words, she finds a use for him.
The Monomyth and the White Goddess
Since I started reading the work of Robert Graves, I’ve come to think of him as a sort of shadow persona of Joseph Campbell.
Graves was an English poet, novelist, and classicist, and late in his life, he took his good name upon his shoulder and waded deep into the mire of comparative mythology. Working largely from intuition, he drew up a unifying theory of ancient myths, and he linked this meta-narrative with his beliefs about the true nature of poetry.
To fans of Joseph Campbell, this probably sounds familiar.
There are numerous points of comparison between Graves and Campbell. Their primary books, wherein they established their core mythologies, were released only a year apart, in the late forties. Both were heavily influenced by creative collaborators and intimate entanglements. And both are regarded with skepticism by their scholarly field.
All the literature is emphatic on this last point, from deep scholarly research, right up to Campbell and Graves’ Wikipedia articles. Graves’ critics, in particular, treat his work as so flawed and specious that they resent its claim to be “historical” in any way at all. His defenders make their case by moving the goalposts, dismissing his factual claims but asserting the value in his ambition and the fecundity of his imagination.
Truly, Graves’ book of comparative mythology, The White Goddess: a Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth, is a work of sprawling imagination. In it, Graves ties together several theses. First, Bronze Age migrant peoples of Eurasia primarily worshiped a primal goddess of birth, death, and poetic inspiration (the “White Goddess” of the title). The masculine element was reduced to a divine child of the goddess, a harvest king called the King of the Waxing Year. This king (described by Graves as an infant archetype, a “divine child”) was sacrificed every year at midsummer, replaced by his twin (or “tanist,” his second-in-command), the King of the Waning Year. This second king was then replaced again at year’s end.
This picture of the ancients, gradually sketched through The White Goddess, becomes especially vivid in the final chapters. Graves’ tone starts to flirt with the apocalyptic:
The Triple Muse, or the Three Muses, or the Ninefold Muse, or Cerridwen, or whatever else one may care to call her, is originally the Great Goddess in her poetic or incantatory character. She has a son who is also her lover and her victim, the Star-Son, or Demon of the Waxing Year. He alternates in her favor with his tanist Python, the Serpent of Wisdom, the Demon of the Waning Year, his darker self. (Graves 383-384)
And describing the sacrifice of the King (or Demon) of the waxing year:
Cerridwen abides. Poetry began in the matriarchal age, and derives its magic from the moon, not from the sun. No poet can hope to understand the nature of poetry unless he has had a vision of the Naked King crucified to the lopped oak, and watched the dancers, red-eyed from the acrid smoke of the sacrificial fires, stamping out the measure of the dance, their bodies bent uncouthly forward, with a monotonous chant of: ‘Kill! kill! kill!’ and ‘Blood! blood! Blood!’ (Graves 439)
So where did this divine madness go? To scholars of culture, this is boilerplate: the old ways and their erasure, the eradication of ancient wisdom by modernity.
For Graves, it was clear that the White Goddess’s religion was supplanted by the Abrahamic faiths with their single male God. He describes this as a timeless war, fought in ancient texts and proclamations and evolving rituals, a protean process of cultural appropriation and reinterpretation. In particular, he found this war between the White Goddess and the One True God transcribed in ancient Welsh poetry, encoded as veiled references and obscure signifiers that would be known only to other poets and practitioners. His book spends a great deal of exposition on these symbols: a language of trees, seasons, and calendar days, all tied into the traditional Druidic alphabet (Ogham).
According to Graves, this ancient structure (or “grammar”) of the White Goddess is a common source behind every subsequent Western mythical tradition, from Christianity to the Kabbalah to the Greek, Egyptian, and African spiritual pantheons.
This is Graves’ alternative to Campbell’s “monomyth.” One became famous, and the other became obscure… Campbell’s theories were absorbed by Hollywood and popular criticism, whereas Graves’ were adopted by the western occult community. Where the hero found the light, the White Goddess and her divine child remained in the shadows.
But they aren’t silent… they have their echoes at the margins of contemporary storytelling.
Have you heard of Neon Genesis Evangelion?
White Goddess, Mother Robot, Crucified Child
Neon Genesis Evangelion (henceforth NGE). An expansive anime franchise with a single thread at its heart: a 26-episode series released in Japan from October 1995 to March 1996, followed by a movie, End of Evangelion, cauterizing the gushing narrative arteries that the series left untended.
NGE is infamous for its density, its labyrinthine hyperknot of themes and motifs and conflicting implications. It’s explicit in its religious overtones, referencing apocryphal Christian and Kabbalistic concepts, and at its climaxes, it drifts into trippy montages to rival any art-house cinema experiment. It also revels in its anime trappings: science fiction and horror riffs that are by turns sublime and grotesque, low comedy and eroticism, and intense pathos, a narrative thick with depression, trauma, betrayal, and vulnerability suited to its moody adolescent audience.
At the glowing core of the series, we find Shinji Ikari, a protagonist to undercut all protagonists. You have to bring up Shinji early, because there’s no other starting point for summarizing NGE: kaiju robot warriors, angsty teen romance and alienation, nesting dolls of institutional conspiracy theories, the slow-motion mental breakdown at the end of the world. All the threads are tangled, all the visible surfaces intersect.
But Shinji is the stable instability, the point at the center where every gaze can fixate, a mopey lovelorn teenager in the eye of the hurricane.
Shinji’s role is not defined by struggle and triumph, so much as self-sacrifice and complicity. He spends the series carrying out his job of defending Tokyo-3 against the Angels, an unfathomable supernatural threat from beyond time and space. And yet, his greatest adversary is not an alien mastermind or a giant robot, but rather a cruel and obstinate part of himself — his resentment, his alienation, his impulse to run from pain and take refuge in dejection. This specter of self-denial is invoked by his family, and by the institutions that empower him – a landscape of psychological hazards – so that the line between “external factors” and “inner conflict” is incurably blurred.
This, of course, completely undermines any heroic subtext, which maintains the public/private boundary as sacred, and always tests the hero against an outside nemesis, threatening to destroy him and the world.
Shinji’s clearest character beats, his dramatic leaps into self-actualization, are actually moments of acceptance, when he realizes, once again, that he’s willing to be sacrificed, to be used on behalf of others, because he doesn’t have any grand purpose to hold onto as sacred — so he may as well become the indispensable key, fit to somebody else’s lock.
Outside Shinji, the structures of the show are dizzyingly multivalent, but they tend to organize themselves into triads. Most notably: Shinji is the pilot of an Evangelion, a giant mecha tasked with defending Tokyo-3 from the aforementioned Angels. His Eva is Unit-01, one of three such units. The other two pilots are Rei Ayanami, an isolated and duty-bound young girl who pilots “Unit-00” (the prototype of the Evas)… and Asuka Langley Soryu, a fiery and competitive half-German warrior prodigy who pilots “Unit-02,” the first production-model Eva. Shinji, Rei, and Asuka make the first of many jagged triads.
Shinji’s caretaker is another vibrant figure in the series, the first character to be introduced after Shinji himself. This is Misato, a commander within NERV, the organization that deploys the Evangelion units. Misato is a quintessential flawed mentor, a self-made woman in a position of authority who has survived a lifetime of hardship… who overcomes her own self-destructive impulses to bring out the best in those who follow her. Like Shinji, her teenage charge, the 29-year old Misato is part of a three-character triad: her best friend Ritsuko is a technical director at NERV, and her fraught love interest, Kaji, is an intelligence agent embedded deep within the global military bureaucracy. Misato, Ritsuko, and Kaji are the second triad.
The third triad is an older generation, the parents of the other characters, who founded NERV and defined its ongoing mission. These are Gendo, Shinji’s father, who remains the director of the organization… Yui, his deceased wife and Shinji’s mother… and Naoko, Ritsuko’s mother, a technical genius whose unrequited desire for Gendo was used to manipulate her, leading to her suicide.
Three generations, three triads: a sort of central column of characters, structured as an ennead (a 9-fold figure). Each of these generations is defined by a stark male/female differential, with one male and two females. Each triad has a trapped quantity of libidinal energy, but it shifts from generation to generation… Gendo is essentially a slave to his love for Yui, and Naoko, in turn, is obsessed with Gendo, to her own detriment. In the next generation, there is a burning affection and rivalry between Misato and Kaji, allowing their respective sexual energies (both potent!) to find a balance.
Shinji, in turn, is entirely at the mercy of his adolescent fascination with the women in his life: the mysterious Rei, the intimidating Asuka, and the charismatic Misato. By Graves’ model, Shinji is the consummate Poet, in thrall to his desires and obsessions, driven to distraction by his muses.
Of course, the White Goddess looms over Shinji – one of his cohort, Rei Ayanami, even achieves a literal goddess form in the film’s climactic moments. But the importance of the feminine isn’t simply in this wild image of a planet-sized ghost child… it’s all throughout the story, manifesting in the property’s entire approach to gender and power.
Very little about Evangelion is clear and consistent, but here’s one thing:
Evangelion is structured by a clear, consistent power dynamic — institutional and decision-making power has been co-opted by the older male cohort. Productive power, including physical, emotional, and technical capacity, remains with the female aspect, whether it’s intellectual (Ritsuko), affective (Asuka), military and caregiving authority (Misato), or simply for their bodies as vessels (Rei).
The story is founded upon a deep well of feminine energy, apparently boundless, stifled and exploited by a manipulative patriarchal superstructure.
Graves makes something like this point regarding the Poet (“true poetry,” as he’s fond of referencing): that his creative energy is not intrinsic, but rather drawn from his fascination with this outside source, the Muse, the Goddess incarnate in his own experience. Of course, this has broader implications: the Poet is also the historian, and the political and religious figurehead, the Divine Child, is dependent upon the Goddess in the same way. NGE takes this model and extends it: Shinji the Achilles figure, Gendo the petty god-head, and all the other masculine energies in the story are dependent upon feminine counterparts (i.e. love interests and surrogate mothers).
NGE expands upon Graves’ work by filling in one of his major gaps. Graves, still the product of his time, left the female presence itself as an empty signifier, a passive object of obsession without its own nature or motive. She is vast and terrifying, but all her effects seem to happen without any willpower on her part. NGE implies, to the contrary, that this is one of the stark differences in the gender binary: whereas the men are motivated extrinsically, by their libidinal desires and devotions, the female characters are all acting upon something more stable. They are intrinsically productive, believing in principle, working for the benefit of the city and the world, avenging old debts, and trying to build legacies for their children.
This is the deeper rhythm of the Goddess story: it is the feminine, the Goddess nature, that acts as the prime mover. The rest of creation is structured by her, held together in her gravitational field.
Poetic and Prosaic Grammars
So when we shift from the domain of the Boy Hero to the realm of the Mother Goddess, what kind of world do we find? What is on the other side of the threshold?
There are so many differences between Graves’ and Campbells’ frameworks, it seems unproductive to start running a differential analysis. The million observations waiting to be made are in danger of becoming inert in the telling, unless the observation is structured by some organizing principle, and no principle will be useful unless it is formed, in turn, from the accretion of observations.
But one place to start is to think of the literary upshots of each of these symbolic orders. There is no doubt that Campbell’s system is defined by a narrative sensibility – by the word of the storyteller. Indeed, this is one of Campbell’s core claims: that cultures write their backstories in a sequential pattern, repeated in countless civilizations, and that these stories resonate with our own natural narrativity. First the homeland, then the call, then the journey, and finally the return, the essential landmarks that come with growth.
This one-dimensional quality is why Campbell’s framework has become so widespread in narrative theory. It provides a conspicuous model for fictional genres like adventure and fantasy, and infamously, it’s been publicly embraced by Hollywood and elevated as a model for popular art.
Graves’ systems, by contrast, can be described as cyclic and simultaneous. He is deeply committed to the symbolism of seasons, of death and renewal through inheritance and sacrifice, and to the infinite layers of myths on top of one another, each one becoming instrumental in redefining the fundamental symbols.
Where Campbell has sequence, Graves has simultaneity… and where Campbell is a creature of Prose and the dramatic arc, Graves is resolutely, unabashedly a Poet. A world guided by Graves’ sensibility is a poet’s world – like the world of NGE.
The final note in End of Evangelion is a brilliant piece of poetic filmmaking, in exactly the sense that I’m using the term.
After a bewildering arc of episodes and a feature-length climax, something in NGE seems to resolve: Shinji Ikari chooses humanity over transcendental unity, and he returns from his nebulous psycho-scape to the physical world. At last, we come to a scene that apparently takes place back on Earth. It shows every sign of being a post-apocalyptic coda to the events of End of Evangelion: there is a sea of LCL, the mutilated remains of a Goddess in the background, and, apparently, two survivors of the preceding events: Shinji Ikari and Asuka Soryu.
And the final fuck-you to fans, the last possible spoiler of Evangelion: Shinji does his best to strangle Asuka, but apparently fails, and Asuka makes it clear that he disgusts her. And they lived happily ever after! The End!
The meaning of this scene — the reasons behind Shinji and Asuka’s lonely presence, the need for a violent, misogynistic, discordant end note on such a baroque symphony — has frustrated and eluded critical readings for decades. Something about it betrays the whole construct that it completes, because after we’ve waited so long for resolution, it returns us to a place of chaos and uncertainty.
And yet, that scene is abundant with narrative significance. The form of Shinji’s assault — the choking — mirrors his encounter with Asuka in his LCL dream a few scenes earlier. Stepping further back, Shinji’s assault and Asuka’s disgusted reaction are a call-back to the first scene of the film, when Shinji masturbates over Asuka’s comatose body. Conflating sexual compulsion and unfulfilled desire with resentment and violent urges… this is a commentary on these characters, and also on the whole Otaku culture that made Hideaki Anno, the director of NGE, an icon (deeply skeptical as he was).
The scene also extends the conceptual apparatus that underpins the whole franchise’s conflict: the pain of being an individual, the struggle of accepting a world that is outside yourself, and out of your control. The characters we’re seeing — Shinji in particular — have just come from a place of complete oneness, and Shinji is reestablishing his boundaries. The fact that he wakes up alone with Asuka… his object of unfulfilled desire, the force of personality who’s always been the first to challenge him, and to call out his bullshit… a fit of insane violence is a brutal way of reminding Shinji (and us, the audience) about the worst aspects of his character. This toxic eroticism, this murderous resentment… this is an integral part of what was “saved” from Human Instrumentality.
The frustrating thing about this scene is that it denies the sense of a simple resolution. It annihilates the comfort of this being some sort of hero story, whether a story of redemption and acceptance, or a triumphant tale of a boy hero saving the world and realizing a final reward. If the viewer has entertained any sense of a prosaic, or Campbellian, final closure, Anno has used this scene to stomp on that illusion.
Indeed, viewed as a solution to the problem of the series, this final scene is a land-mine left at the end of the yellow brick road. To really appreciate it, you need an appreciation for the beauty and strangeness that comes from multivalent, absolutely unresolved poetic energy.
You need, in other words, what Keats called Negative Capability.
Here is how Keats defines Negative Capability, in a letter to his brothers George and Tom:
“at once it struck me, what quality went to form a Man of Achievement especially in Literature & which Shakespeare possessed so enormously—I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason—Coleridge, for instance, would let go by a fine isolated verisimilitude caught from the Penetralium of mystery, from being incapable of remaining content with half knowledge.”
This is an unmistakable feature of the Goddess’s inspiration: it comes from the unfulfilled desire, the trauma of yearning, the gap that can’t be closed. It’s an engine of paradox, a place where love becomes so intense and distorted that it overheats into violence. And for Anno, accepting the human means accepting the Goddess’s influence. It means always being the monster as well as the hero, the killer as well as the lover, and the perpetrator as well as the victim.
NGE is one place where this uncertainty can be explored… in this case, it’s through thematic density, through a multivalence of character and aesthetic. But how might these themes present themselves in a ludic context, where the user’s own choice could affect the experience? How might they be untangled by the added complexities of choice and play? In 2019, we have the beginning of an answer to this question, bestowed in the form of a tactical RPG with a serious Goddess obsession.
The Goddess and the Three Faces
Fire Emblem: Three Houses is a 2019 game published exclusively on the Nintendo Switch. It’s also a dizzying narrative configuration, surpassing anything that could be achieved in older media. Following its grand arc requires a consciousness of dozens of characters, all occupying several alternate sequences of events. Said and done, it resembles something like a fractal blossom of chivalric storytelling, woven with veins of romance, layered with heroism and villainy.
The basic mechanisms span two dimensions: first, the Officers’ Academy, a resource-management game in the guise of a war college simulation, where you have limited time (approximately a year of in-game time) to balance economic, military, and interpersonal responsibilities. Ostensibly, your objective is to build the strongest military force, but this dovetails with an unofficial goal: to open up the story in ways that are as satisfying as possible to you, the player.
The second dimension of play is the actual tactical combat simulation, where the characters in your story — those whose relationships have been developing in the Officer’s Academy — become game pieces, fighting to dominate battlefields and complete missions, as dictated by the narrative.
Ah, yes, the narrative:
Fire Emblem: Three Houses takes place on a single fantasy continent called Fódlan, which is divided into several factions. The landmass is nationalized into three kingdoms: the Adrestian Empire, the Holy Kingdom of Faerghus, and the Leicester Alliance. The Officers’ Academy (see previous paragraph) is a neutral institution where these pseudo-nations have formed factions (the “three Houses”). Your player character, a mysterious professor at this academy, is required to lead one of them. Your choice will ultimately dictate the flow and trajectory of the game’s plot, especially in the second half, after a major narrative development that locks you into one of three timelines.
These parallel timelines are coiling serpents, writhing around the same milestones but not quite connected… but there is a central axis that unifies them. This is the fourth “faction,” the dominant religion of Fódlan: the Church of Seiros, an ancient institution (predating all three of the kingdoms) ruled by a single female presence — a progenitor god(dess), both divine and incarnate.
The goddess is named Sothis, and the leader of her church is the archbishop Rhea. Rhea is such a transcendent presence in the game that she becomes conflated with the divine… indeed, the church doesn’t seem to treat its object of worship as fully separate from her human avatars. Sothis appears to be incarnated in a succession of earthly representatives, including the original Seiros, Lady Rhea, and finally the player character.
Even at a glance, Fire Emblem: Three Houses reflects the Goddess mythology in obvious ways: a succession of earthly monarchs whose historical conflicts are overseen by a grand feminine force, a beautific and terrifying presence that instills itself in the hearts of warriors and kings and disciples. Rhea is the White Goddess for many reasons, not least of all that she is at the nexus of love, war, politics, and history, driving the world violently into its future.
Granting her favor to the main character, in the form of a Crest, is just one example here. Another: her tendency to inspire a fascination in her most devoted followers — the characters Catherine and Cyril being the obvious examples — that borders on erotic obsession.
But there are deeper, more structural factors at work in the White Goddess complex — its poetic orientation, as opposed to the traditional prosaic tendencies (patriarchal monotheism, inherited by secular culture). This tendency is reflected in the formal elements of Fire Emblem, just as Goddess symbols are embedded in its narrative.
Again, Campbell’s Hero Myth, the dominant structure in RPG’s and fantasy narratives, inevitably resolves into single-threaded first-person arcs of overcoming adversity. They are arranged to lead toward a resolution, placing obstacles and suspense between the introduction of the hero and the inevitable downfall of the nemesis and salvation of the world.
The alternative offered by Fire Emblem: Three Houses is compelling. Its narrative elements exist, and it contains several hero stories of struggle and redemption, but these are woven into a larger formal structure — a narrative strategy — that’s much more Graves than Campbell, much more Poetry than Prose. This structure sees mythology as a grand woven tapestry, full of repetition and simultaneity, where nothing reaches its full meaning without a view of the whole construct. This kind of complexity has been possible in other art forms for some time, generally framed as “modern” and/or “experimental,” but FE:3H sets a new standard for this approach in a mass-market media product… especially a video game.
Take, for instance, the references used in naming the people and places throughout Fódlan. The Adrestian Empire’s names are a cultural hodgepodge, taken from Greek, Irish, and Norse sources, but the other Kingdoms of Fódlan have clearer references: the Holy Kingdom of Farghus takes many of its names from Welsh sources and the original mythologies behind Uther (King Arthur), and the Leicester Alliance’s proper names tend to reference King Lear, Shakespeare’s infamous tragedy, which was itself built on an older heritage of myths… most notably Leir of Britain, a storied king from the age of the Roman Empire.
Dwelling too long on this detail — the naming of people and places, which is at best cosmetic — would derail the larger argument. It’s simply worth noting the resonances here: Arthur and Lear, legendary doomed kings whose stories are potent with heroism and betrayal.
The figures never quite align. The metaphors never quite resolve. The ancient tales aren’t the solution, even with multiple playthroughs and a flexible understanding of characters’ motives. In trying to assemble all the fragments and valences, the player is left adrift in this shifting territory of motifs, lost without a map.
But in The White Goddess, we do find something like a map… or a guide, at least, a historian’s account of the way these mythic elements reflect and refract into a shared spectrum of thematic fundamentals. Graves has seen this landscape, and he’s done his best to survey it.
What are the Empire and the Kingdom, to Lady Rhea and her goddess, except a succession of doomed kings in cyclical balance, eternally pledged to serve her purposes?
Who is Edelgard if not the King of the Waxing Year, keeper of order, sole survivor from a brood of siblings, all destroyed in pursuit of an ideal monarchy?
And who does Dmitri become if not the successor, Edelgard’s redeemer in blood, arriving at the central ritual to unbind her from her power?
And Byleth, the protagonist at the maelstrom’s axis, is the chosen disciple of the Goddess herself: the Divine Child, Celestial Hercules, mentor to the successor-kings and vessel for another incarnation of Sothis. Byleth’s failed sacrifice at the Sealed Forest is a premonition of the necessary final blood payment: Edelgard’s, which will keep the succession of kings forever turning, or else the death of Sothis herself, making way for a new age of unforgiving Peace.
Goddess Time, Goddess Love, Goddess War
Mythology rises from the ruins of the popular. Even as mass media draws on our mythological heritage, so it also builds upon it.
I had a lot to say about Neon Genesis Evangelion and Fire Emblem: Three Houses, because I hold these close to my heart. But I don’t think these are the only examples of the Goddess myth in popular media. Off the top of my head, you also might consider Midsommar, The Babadook, Twin Peaks, Venus in Furs, and even Frozen 2.
And as the web of examples expands, so do their implications. With our examples established, and our foil (the Hero myth) identified, we are in a position to understand the Goddess myth beyond the parameters set by Graves.
Of course, to do this, we have to traverse the same murky waters of speculation as Graves. So take the following hypotheses in that spirit: these are conjectures and inferences, but I’m no scholar of deep mythology, so they are tentative at best… and specious fictions at worst.
We will start with Time.
It strikes me that time works differently in Goddess myth stories, as opposed to Hero stories.
In hero stories, time is structured by the hero’s experience. Hero stories tend to start with an instigating factor entering the hero’s life — the death of a parent (Luke Skywalker), an ominous warning about an enchanted ring (Frodo Baggins). From there, the narrative time is structured around the hero’s journey and his milestones. He accepts challenges as presented to him, or he takes the initiative, setting forth and pressing from plot beat to plot beat. Time is a function of the hero engaging the world, and the world resisting and absorbing his effects. That’s Hero Time.
Goddess Time, on the other hand, is structured by something off-screen, something elusive, found in the dark part of the gestalt. It is cyclical and constrained, building to something that’s bigger than the hero, or the conflict, or even the Goddess herself. In Fire Emblem: Three Houses, it’s a monthly and seasonal cycle, always reaching toward a thwarted finality: the “graduation” marking the game’s halfway point, and the battle for the kingdom at its conclusion.
A similar inevitability drives the chronology in NGE: time is structured by the fore-ordained arrival of the angels, and it builds toward the Human Instrumentality Project — a cryptic bureaucratic operation whose nature remains a bizarre mystery.
So for time, we have: motivated and linear (Hero time) versus cyclic and unaccountable (Goddess time). A similar comparison holds for Desire (variously articulated as Love and Sex), which is the second of the three dimensions where Hero structures can be compared with Goddess structures.
Desire in Hero stories is a sad thing. All too often, it’s treated as a reward (your Princess is in another castle!) or as a dangerous temptation (the face that launched a thousand ships). Luke Skywalker’s first symbolic gesture after his coming-of-age pivot in Empire Strikes Back is having to rescue Leia, who has been transformed into a sexual symbol by Jabba the Hut. The Searchers is a classic Hero story, the tale of a cowboy who spends years tracking a frontier girl in order to rescue her from a native tribe that’s kidnapped her. The implication – that her sexual purity is a sort of stolen treasure needing to be recovered – is a common echo of the heroic tradition.
Whatever the treatment, hero stories nearly always use Desire to reinforce the masculine and feminine roles. Through their romantic and sexual inclinations, the heroic protagonists show their masculinity, and they enforce their dominance. The feminine aspect always becomes an object, both elusive and submissive, often dangerous, always derivative and dependent, rarely powerful.
Goddess Desire is a much more complex beast, fluid and volatile and resistant to essentialism. In NGE, Shinji’s adolescent desire is both suppressed and abundant, and the story makes it clear that his desire is a site of fear and vulnerability, not dominance. The women that surround Shinji – Misato and Asuka especially – are far more in control of their sexual personas. Indeed, whole bodies of criticism could be (have been?) written about how Shinji relates to Misato, Asuka, and ultimately Kaworu, who shows him a form of healthy affection that he’s drawn to, even as he shrinks from it.
Desire in Fire Emblem is fluid enough that it’s treated as a game mechanic. You, the player character, are free to form relationships with various side-characters, and these relationships can escalate into lifelong oaths of fealty. The non-player characters can also build support with each other, and for those pairs with strong-enough relationships, there may be a shared epilogue. In many cases, these translate into marriage or life partnership (both heterosexual and homosexual pairings are possible).
More interesting, perhaps, is the fact that these final pairings take so many forms. Some end up as friendships, or unrequited romances. Some are platonic pledges of loyalty, even culminating in the deaths of one or the other of the characters. There is a staggering variety to the final forms that relationships can take, and these represent desire upon countless possible axes.
This is Desire: in the hero story, it is a vector for reinforcing dominance, an extra scaffolding for the hero’s masculinity. In the Goddess story, it is fluid, intersecting with power relationships, providing leverage for some and pain and vulnerability for others. In the hero story, desire supports gender difference; in the Goddess story, it challenges it, undermines it, sets fire to it.
And as with sexuality, so with Violence: the rigid symbolic violence of the Boy Hero is dramatically contrasted with the Goddess, whose violence is indiscriminate, bloody, and apocalyptic.
Violence in Hero stories is always symbolic – almost crassly so, in many cases – and it always reinforces relationships, or brings legibility. Fights tend to be rituals, often one-on-one, and they inevitably lead to meaningful victories and defeats. Each of Luke’s duels with Vader (first in episode 5, and then in episode 6) are built around proving something about the characters: that Luke’s worthiness is proven in single combat, and that this must ultimately give way to moral and spiritual superiority.
There’s something almost comical about the history of Hero stories and the use of bloodless violence. In fifty years of Star Wars stories, with millions of deaths, there’s barely been a drop of blood spilled on-screen. Cartoons and video games and PG-13 movies are hallmarks of the hero story, and these avoid the spectacle of bodily destruction in any way they can. The losing party, dying a deserved death, is often surprisingly presentable as they deliver their last words.
In the stories of boy heroes, even war tends to be abstracted and turned into something symbolic. Again, consider the Star Wars canon, which is one of the most hero-driven story cycles in cultural history. It has its share of atrocities: first the destruction of Alderaan, and then the annihilation of the Death Star itself… and eventually, in episode 7, the destruction of a whole planetary system. These massive genocidal (cosmocidal?) acts are essentially reduced to marks on the intergalactic scoreboard: one point for the Empire, one point for the Rebel Alliance, one point for the First Order, etc.
Essentially, in Hero stories, violence is not real. It is part of the apparatus that moves the gears forward, leading to the moral triumph of the protagonist and the ordering of the universe around his heroic development.
Now consider the violence in Goddess stories.
In Neon Genesis Evangelion, the violence is bloody, brutal, and unreconciled. It rarely provides any finality or clarity whatsoever… indeed, it reduces landscapes to wastelands, whether these landscapes are geographical, or moral, or emotional. In End of Evangelion, the spectacle of Unit-02’s mutilated body – Asuka’s punishment for, of all things, heroically triumphing over the production evas – is the only possible outcome of the cruel reality that underwrites this fiction.
This use of violence is consistent with the Human Instrumentality Project itself, the cryptic final goal of the patriarchal institutions in NGE… a project designed to eliminate all differentiation between people, to merge all of humanity into a single perfect organism. This project is, in a sense, the follow-through on our whole history of disasters and cataclysms. In the desolate landscapes of the show (such as the Arctic Circle and Terminal Dogma), violence has obliterated all differentiation, leaving everything indistinguishable, burning, dissolved into LCL, and reduced to salt water and ash.
This is not so stark in Fire Emblem: Three Houses, but even here, violence is rarely glorified or treated as a status ritual. There is, in fact, a “permadeath” mode where your secondary characters are removed from the game when they die. And though the game’s combat mechanics are represented as one-on-one fights, these are always short, resolving in one or two hits… a simple way of denoting the sudden, brutal nature of real-world violence.
Beyond these game mechanics, there are several symbols of war and its unaccountability in Fire Emblem: Three Houses. There’s Dmitri, the avatar of violent impulses, whose plot beats tend to backfire into strategic chaos for the other factions. There’s the Tragedy of Duscur, an event in the game’s backstory that was so traumatic, its effects ripple up into several secondary characters’ psychological makeup. There’s Grondor Field, where the three factions meet for combat, always resulting in tragedy for the losing faction and, at best, hollow victories for the winners. There are the “javelins of light,” weapons of mass destruction that are shown obliterating whole fortresses and cities. Finally, there are the crests and relics crafted from ancestral bones, and the tendency of characters to transform into dangerous beasts when they misuse their power.
Hero violence is Star Wars, single combat, and World War II. Goddess violence is Neon Genesis Evangelion, the fog of war, and the bloody trenches. And the emerging pop-culture mind is realizing that the hero’s journey is a fiction, whereas the Goddess’s cycles are a higher form of truth.
Now, some of our new worlds are coming into focus: a world of ludic entertainment, a world of video games and anime. A world where gender politics are entering new phases and shepherds are as lost as their flocks.
Perhaps this is a new world of the word: a place where meaning is fragmented and fluid, where the script is discarded and the incantation takes its place. Maybe the prosaic world will be dissolved into something like poetry.
If the old world was ruled by the king and saved by the chosen hero, perhaps the new world will run on a different engine: the fire of the Goddess, the propulsive turning of the seasons.
Anno, Hikeaki, creator. Neon Genesis Evangelion. Gainax, 1995-1996.
Anno, Hideaki and Kazuya Tsurumaki, directors. Neon Genesis Evangelion: The End of Evangelion. Gainax, 1997
Aster, Ari, director. Midsommar. B-Reel Films, 2019.
Buck, Chris and Jennifer Lee, directors. Frozen 2. Walt Disney Animation Studios, 2019
Campbell, Joseph. Hero With a Thousand Faces. Pantheon Books, 1949.
Fire Emblem: Three Houses. Nintendo Switch, Nintendo, 2019.
Franco, Jesús, director. Venus in Furs. Cinematografica Associati (CI.AS.), 1969.
Frost, Mark and David Lynch, creators. Twin Peaks. Lynch/Frost Productions, 1990.
Graves, Robert. The White Goddess: A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth. Grevel Lindop, ed. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1997.
Keats, John. Letter to George and Tom. 21 December 1817. http://mason.gmu.edu/~rnanian/Keats-NegativeCapability.html. Accessed 12 November 2019.
Kent, Jennifer, director. The Babadook. Screen Australia, 2014.
Legend of Zelda. Nintendo, 1986-2019.
Lucas, George, director. Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope. Twentieth Century Fox, 1977.
Shakespeare, William. King Lear. 1605.
About the Author:
Jesse Miksic is a graphic designer and writer living in Peekskill, New York. He spends his life writing poetry and essays, nursing unfinished projects, and having adventures with his wonderful wife and daughter. Recent pieces can be found on Leveler Poetry, Queen Mob’s Teahouse, Juke Joint and others. You can find more of his work at miksimum.com and @miksimum (Twitter/Instagram).