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Thursday 14 December 2017
Commentary

Myths, fables and stories of power

Jean Antoine-Dunne writes a weekly column for the Newsday. 

There is a reason why every culture has myths that contain monsters with bottomless appetites. After all, that is the true image of power. It can never be satisfied. The more it is fed, the greater its appetite.

In Greek mythology we have the many-headed hydra who, when one head was cut off, two grew in its place. In Caribbean mythology we have the gens gajé, who is a shape shifter and necromancer and sucks the blood of its victims and constantly returns for more.

This part of the story is very important. The idea of an insatiable appetite and constant return means that the dragon’s head must be permanently removed to prevent it from growing back. The problem with those who are addicted to power is that they are insatiable. Not only will they return as with the universal story of the zombie or the undead, but the slightest sign of weakness creates their return. They also create successors, either through example or through mentorship, or by the seeds they have sown.

In British mythology there is the dragon killed by St George. Once St George slays the dragon that has been terrorising the people, he tells the frightened damsel he has just rescued that she must not be afraid. He instructs her to put her garter around the neck of the dragon and lead it into the city. Which she does, and miraculously it follows as meek as a lamb.

When I was young my mother, who was born in Grenada, often told stories about the monsters set in play by Eric Gairy. He not only had his henchmen, the equivalent to the Tonton Macoutes of the Duvaliers’ reign in Haiti, but also wielded extraordinary power because of the fear generated by the very stories my mother recited to me.

Power works through fear and that is why the fact that the gens gajé can be defeated by a simple act of sprinkling salt is so important. The story of David and Goliath tells of a young man who was not afraid and killed the giant Goliath with what is in effect a slingshot. This narrative is really about confronting bullies who intimidate us, but who at heart are really not so big and frightening as they make us think they are.

But there is another matter. This is that monsters reside in liminal spaces, in other words between the known and the unknown. So there is a further psychological truth: those who dominate prey on fears that are often in our subconscious.

Bullies and tyrants need to create fear. When one thinks of it, why do people remain subservient to tyrants? Yes, as we are told happened with Robert Mugabe, tyrants resort to terrorist tactics, rape, murder and mayhem. But at the end of the day, what really enables the continuation of power is the fear they generate; a fear that prevents action or reprisal.

People might actually die in the struggle against tyranny, but through the ages the stories that abound teach us that there is always a way if someone is willing to work against fear and terror and to stand up against the monsters. T

he mobilisation against a dictator can only happen when fear subsides. Which may account for the fact that Mugabe who, like Gairy, began life as a hero and liberator, was ousted in a bloodless takeover.

As a frail old man he no longer was a person to be feared. His growing senility allowed the forces lined up against him to consolidate and to grow in strength so that when the moment came, the result was quick and painless. Mugabe represents that image that folklore suggests is all too abundant. When an individual achieves power, it often takes on a life of its own and grows and becomes self-consuming and an all-consuming monster.

This sounds very dramatic. But narratives that teach important lessons need to catch and hold our attention so that we think about and meditate on the truths they contain.

They are stories.

But stories are necessary to teach us how to grow and how to avoid the pitfalls of an evil that is both universal and within the very nature of the human.

The issue becomes how to generate stories that really will motivate others to abandon fear.

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