All Beliefs are Welcome Here!
Gary Hershorn / Reuters-Corbis
Nothing seems more modern than society’s relentless obsession with reality-show stars, Hollywood tweets, and tabloid scandals. But a wildly entertaining new book by former Daily Telegraph literary editor Tom Payne suggests that our celebrity culture has rather old roots. In Fame, Payne draws provocative parallels between 21st-century stardom and the ancient Greeks, Romans, and Aztecs to explore how the fame game has evolved over the millennia.
Celebrity worship reflects a primal need that’s been present since the Babylonians: to elevate people to the status of mythic heroes, only to destroy them. “It suits us when … fame comes at a price,” Payne writes. Or as the Greeks put it, the only place to go from the top of Fortune’s Wheel is down. Achilles, hero of the Trojan War, had to choose between a long, anonymous life or a short, glorious one. There’s no middle ground: a hero must either “go out in a blaze of glory or else disappoint us.”
Of course, we prefer that our famous go out while they’re on top—in fact, dying young (and publicly) may be the best way to ensure mythical status. Think James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, JFK, Kurt Cobain. Heath Ledger’s overdose clinched him a posthumous Oscar. Naturally, Payne sees a classical parallel: early Christian martyrs, knowing they’d draw huge crowds to their executions, embraced death to gain acclaim and spread their religious message.
There’s another, more gruesome precedent for the fame cycle: ritual sacrifice. Payne cleverly juxtaposes Britney Spears’s head-shaving meltdown with the myth of Iphigenia, who was purportedly killed so that the Greek ships could sail to Troy (and who became very famous because of it). Both the ancient maiden and the modern pop star show that we’ve always wanted our celebrities to be complicit in their own destruction, he says. Audiences need to believe that the celebrity has willingly chosen such a life and accepts the inevitable tradeoffs—loss of privacy, potential public humiliation, even untimely death—that go along with it. As Spears herself once said, “You do have to sacrifice your freedom when you’re in this business, but it’s a small price to pay.”
So what is the allure of fame? The lifestyle, for one thing. In the Faust legend, the doctor agrees to sell his soul to the Devil, but in return gets all his wishes granted for 24 years. In both ancient Albania and Mesoamerica, slaves and youth selected as human sacrifices were often first entertained in massive splendor. Nowadays, MTV allows the Jersey Shore kids to party themselves sick—with the explicit understanding that they’ll pay back the network by self-destructing for the cameras.
The promise of immortality is another incentive, says Payne. As she’s about to die, Iphigenia tells her mother, “You will be famous through me.” It’s that old dilemma of Achilles all over again. Of course, in The Odyssey, Achilles’ ghost reappears and says he made the wrong choice—he should have gone for long-lived anonymity. But once fame is granted, there’s no going back.
Sounds like a great book, also for me to understand how to properly 'use' a celebrity.
Spears is nuts, only the money is partly a compensation for the freedom you lose. But she does not know better - she was a baby pageant queen.
I am not content with the Faust analogy because his trash was not raided on a regular basis and he could move freely: he was not under the threat of being the center of attention if he had dared to go outside in a shitty outfit.
I would have to read the book to get away from my 'Iphigenie as an example for this? I am not seeing it.'
The part about the immortality is perhaps something I could connect with in terms of partly being a celeb hater. 'Goethe' immortality should not be granted to that person I can think of but will not name because otherwise I would sabotage myself. I have further thoughts on this topic but I need more time to translate the 'celebrity cult' to connect with the OP.
Yes I was actually entering a whole hateful rant on how and what people try to become immortal and then I realised that I was being counter productive, and wondering how I remember all this crap all the time.
To compensate, I copy and paste the story of Iphigenie, for a start. I took this source.
In Greek mythology, Iphigenia appears in legends about the Trojan War*. She was killed by her father, Agamemnon, leader of the Greek forces, in exchange for favorable wind from the gods. Euripides* and Aeschylus also include the story of Iphigenia in their dramas.
In the myth, Greek ships on their way to attack Troy* were stuck in the port of Aulis because of unfavorable winds. There are a number of different explanations for the difficulty. Most suggest that Agamemnon was being punished for somehow offending the goddess Artemis*. Agamemnon was told that the gods would send winds for his ships if he would sacrifice Iphigenia to Artemis. Knowing that his wife, Clytemnestra, would never agree to the sacrifice, Agamemnon dispatched a message asking her to send Iphigenia to him so she could be married to the Greek hero Achilles*.
At this point in the myth, the story varies. According to some versions, Agamemnon actually did sacrifice Iphigenia. Clytemnestra never forgave him and arranged to kill him when he returned from the war. In other versions, Artemis spared Iphigenia by replacing her on the sacrificial altar with a female deer. Artemis then sent Iphigenia to the land of Tauris, where the girl acted as priestess of Artemis's temple there. A later myth says that Iphigenia's brother Orestes traveled to Tauris to search for a statue of Artemis. He was captured and about to be sacrificed, when Iphigenia recognized him. They both escaped with the help of the goddess Athena* and the god Poseidon*.
I would not mind hearing your elaboration on how exactly, where and why. I know one or two stories which revolve around a set up, only one example being Gunther winning Brunhild or the not avoidable almost sacrificed Isaac.
But the set up, as mean as it is, is a little part of a greater collection of unpleasantries, I am currently only most impressed by that one.
Artemis was worshiped in the wider region of Troy with considerable Enthusiasm. It is not sure whether she took the Greek or the Trojan side.
We would have to speculate here if that has anything to do with how the whole situation came into being.
In my "Legends of Hellenic Greece", by Gustav Schwab, it is said that Agamemnon had been a show off and killed a deer in a grove sacred to Artemis, that made her demand compensation.
Therefore it to me appears like the - very typical for Greece - usual story arc.
But what irked me about this is that Iphigenie as a person matters suspiciously little even to Greek standards, therefore I was irritated about the celebrity analogy in the article, unless you pick someone who had trained to be a star from childhood on because she has two of the perhaps strongest* characters of (mortals in) Greek myths, and it is all about them, and not at all about her, and least about what she wants.
That makes it - to me - different from Psyche. Psyche did matter, and if you consider she was used to even being *worshipped*, I would think she would develop some form of self esteem. Otherwise Amor would not have been into her, or, at least, I can not imagine it otherwise.
A synopsis of Iphigenie auf Tauris would surely to be found within seconds, but I think that really does not matter right now, as much as pointing out that the events after her escape from sacrifice inspired a lot of writers, from Euripides to Goethe, and not to mention the Opera.
And the Euripides version does remind me of the Snow Queen, who reminds me of the Psyche myth, but I had to take all this way.
*Perhaps not a perfect term, but they were in such a way far from perfect that the strength is made up of eerieness IMO.