Zeus Grants Stupid Wishes and the Importance of Irreverence
A couple of days ago, I picked up Fire & Blood : A History of Mexico, historian T.R. Fehrenbach’s attempt to compile a history of the peoples who have, since the dawn of humanity, occupied the central areas of North America, from arid semi-deserts to the lush Yucatan peninsula. It is a reverent, well-written tome that comes off as a concerted attempt to follow the narrative of a settling people, taking the reader on a slow journey spanning thousands of years, and a similar number of deaths. Yuval Noah Harari’s acclaimed work Sapiens is a more incisive read in many ways, picking apart some of the many misconceptions surrounding the Grand March of History and laying bare some of the foundations of our society. But these are not the books I want to talk about today.
Cory O’Brien writes Zeus Grants Stupid Wishes: A No-Bullshit Guide to World Mythology with a single-minded goal: that of telling myths and legends the way they were meant to be: loudly, obnoxiously and with a whole lot of local flavor (read: expletives). O’Brien is deliberately coarse, incredulous, and somehow deadpan all at the same time, giving way to a short but thoroughly entertaining book that picks apart a few myths from many cultures ranging from ancient Hindu and Norse myths to more recent ones surrounding the father figures of the USA. Thor and Odin are ridiculed in the same breath as Shiva and George Washington, alongside other deities from Chinese and Greek myths, to name a few. The author is unabashedly incredulous but still manages to convey a sense of awe and grandeur into a book that is about one-tenth expletive, but there is something more important than that.
The arrest of comedian Munawar Faruqui on the 1st of January 2021 from his own show following harassment by a group of “nationalists” over a joke the Muslim comedian made in April 2020 on his YouTube channel, eight months back. He was accused of hurting Hindu sentiments and was detained in jail for over a month, being granted bail by the Supreme Court only on the 5th of February. On the 25th of January, the presiding judge hearing the case said of him, “Such people should not be spared.” A comedian was arrested for a joke he never made, or for one he had made eight months earlier. Neither alternative paints a pretty picture.
As far back as 2017, the Rajasthan state board of education deemed that Maharana Pratap had won the Battle of Haldighati in 1576, citing that if Akbar had indeed won the battle he would have had no further provocation to attack the Rajputs. Accordingly, Class X students were to be taught, in their social science text books, that the Mughal invaders had been driven away in a show of valiance and grit by Maharana Pratap and his men. Earlier, the same government had questioned the inclusion of a chapter titled “Akbar the Great”, as a part of a larger whitewashing of Mughal influence from history textbooks in India.
Earlier in 2020, a spree of misleading tweets by right-wing political leaders from many countries, including the USA’s Donald Trump, cast a spotlight on the role of independent fact-checkers who strove to refute these claims with proper and established research. Today, in the midst of a pandemic and a corresponding influx of information, be it true or false, the importance of independent fact-checkers continues to grow at an almost exponential rate. As many prominent activists and thinkers have spoken out on the issue, what is most shocking is not the existence of these fact-checkers, but their importance and the degree of reliance on them. This stems, essentially, from the knowledge that people in power are capable of twisting the truth to a degree where their sheer influence can make gross untruths seem like the truth. This power dynamic has ensured that the general public presently cannot find the once-bold line that demarcated fact from fiction.
As extremist ideals based off of religious or geographical identities continue to grow and gain traction across socio-economic strata in society, local myths are raised to and worshipped as facts in order to suit a certain narrative while “established” facts continue to lose credibility at an alarming rate. Legends and myths are being consecrated as sacred and untouchable facts, let alone the subject of ridicule. This has left us in a world where the proverbial sacred cow is lurking around every corner, along with a posse of belligerent guardians looking to safeguard it from harm. With the continuous gatekeeping of information and the dark clouds shrouding the clear face of truth, the world after the Information Age is fast turning into a very scary place indeed. In times such as these, O’Brien’s writing is a refreshing reminder of the importance of questioning, irreverence and independence – there truly is no greater privilege than to be able to think for oneself.