|Pic Courtesy - www.india.com|
The latest murder of Sheena Bora has raised quite a furore in the minds of people, not because of the probable gruesome death of the victim, but more so because the murder was none other than her mother. Mothers in India and similar cultures have a much esteemed position and at times dramatically divine, as mothers are akin to creators, the beings that give birth to the child. This elevated the status of a mother, in a cultural sense, and thus the place of significance. It is this very elevation, which leads to shock and surprise, when we learn of such murders, which raise questions, as to how can a mother kill her child/children? How can the hands that rocked the cradle, end up throttling the life of her child? Melodrama apart, this definitely raises a very pertinent question on the current state of relationships and the complexities involved in some cases, like the present case of Sheena Bora.
Without going into the murky aspects, and the ever-growing web of complex-relationships of the dramatis personae of the case, I am personally quite intrigued by the motif of killing ones children. While this is a disturbing aspect from a social perspective, it is this that has caught my attention, leading me to see, if this is a modern phenomenon and if I could blame it on the modern degradation of familial structures, moral values and a growing lack of sensitivity, or did such crimes exist from time immemorial.
My hunting ground (pardon the ironical usage!) is mythology. Theorists and academicians will say that myths give messages of social or accepted behaviour or norms. Simplistically put, they lay down social and cultural norms. While at it, certain characteristics are reinforced metaphorically and extremes are highlighted to shock and thus bring out the enormity of the sin, which ends up being forbidden or unthinkable. Filicide or killing of one’s children is one of them.
Mythology abounds in examples of filicide, but it is important here to distinguish between sacrifices (often by the orders of gods) and murders (with or without a purpose).
In the case of the first one, parents, often fathers, are asked to offer their sons as an offering to gods leading to the ‘sacrifice’ of their sons. The case of Abraham and Isaac is the best example of this. This is primarily to test the devotion of the father to gods and in majority of the cases, the life of the son is awarded back or the pleased god appears just before the child is about to be sacrificed. Such cases are many and we will not call them acts of filicide here. We will also ignore cases of sacrificing ones children for a specific purpose without the gods asking for them, as they remain examples of sacrifices, like Jephthah sacrificing his daughter to Yahweh, from the Old Testament.
We will only focus on cases where children were killed by their parents, often for no fault of theirs and without the divine order.
A number of such myths exist in the Greek Mythology, chief among them being Medea, Procne and Tantalus. Procne and her husband Tereus lived happily with their five year old son Itys. Once Procne
decided to invite her beautiful sister
Philomela to live with them, and Tereus volunteered to bring her. On the way,
Tereus falls in love with Philomela and ends up marrying her in an island under
the pretext that her sister had died. When the truth was revealed to Philomela,
she threatened to expose him. Fearing the inevitable, Tereus cuts her tongue
and leaves her in an island and goes back to Procne, telling her that Philomela
had died on the way. Soon with the turn of events, Procne learns the truth and
in an act of retribution kills her son, saying that in him she could see his
father. She then cuts pieces of her son and prepares supper from it and offers
it to Tereus. Only after he consumes it, does she reveal the truth and escapes
a raging father at her heels.
|Philomela and Procne|
Tantalus is another similar example, except that he had no reason, whatsoever. Tantalus was a mortal son of Zeus but unlike other mortals, was a favourite with both the gods and Zeus. He was probably the only mortal, who was allowed to dine with the gods, especially the dinner-for-gods-only kind!
|The feast of Tantalus. 1767. Hugues Taraval. French|
Once to prove the gullibility and the foolishness of the gods, he invited them for dinner to his castle. He then cut his son Pelops to pieces and made a stew out of it and served to the gods. None of the gods had quite had the stew except for Demeter, who unmindfully chewed into what turned out to be the shoulder of Pelops. When she realised what had happened she alerted all the gods, who were now furious. Zeus punished him and sent him to the lowest region of the Underworld. (For more on this read The Crime and Punishment of Tantalus).
Finally, the murder considered to be most gruesome was by Medea. Medea had fallen in love with Jason (of the Argonauts fame) and helped him get the Golden Fleece much against the desire of her father. Later when they were escaping from a chasing father, she is supposed to have killed her brother, cut
him into pieces
and scattered the parts all over, so that the distraught father got busy
collecting the pieces for a respectable funeral for her son while Jason and
Medea managed to escape. Yet further in the story, Jason falls in love with the
princess of another city where they were seeking asylum and ends up marrying
her. As an act of retribution for being ditched, Medea killed the princess and
her own two sons, whom Jason loved deeply, leaving Jason all alone. (For more
on this read Medea the Barbarian and Medea the Barbarian – Concluding Part ).
|Medea (about to murder her children) |
by Eugène Ferdinand Victor Delacroix (1862)
In all the three cases, the murder of the children, were not sacrifices; they were either an act of vanity or retribution, where the child was not at fault. All of them go down as gruesome acts of filicide and while literature has glorified Medea, the act of killing her children has always been condoned. There are many more such cases, like Cronos ‘eating’ all his sons, except Zeus, who later ends up killing his father. Besides these well known cases, there are other cases where fathers/mothers have killed their children by mistake, or in a fit of madness, often brought about by divine intervention, but we will not discuss them.
The Celtic myths too have some interesting references to filicide in the myth of Cath Maige Tuired, in which a man kills his son over the difference of opinion of medical method of curing the king who had lost his hand. The father was of the opinion that the king should have an artificial silver hand, while the son wanted to regenerate a hand magically from a tissue. The father was supposed to be so enraged with the superior medical skills of his son, that he struck him with a sword and killed him.
The Prose Edda of the Norse mythology also relates to many such cases of filicide and one of them is similar to that of Procne of the Greek mythology. In this Gudrun, avenges the death of her brothers by her husband by offering the hearts of their sons to the husband! The objective is to cause pain to her husband, leading to an heirless throne, an act which never went down well in the cultural milieu in which the story takes place. In yet another version of the same story, the murder is gruesome. Gudrun issupposed to have killed her sons, made goblets out of their skulls and fed their blood and hearts to her husband. Drinking from the skulls of enemy was a widely practised cultural act and thus went unnoticed by the husband, who is later killed by Gudrun and one of his nephews.
It is important to mention that the murder above and that by Procne earlier in Greek mythology, is seen more as an act of retribution, than filicide. The central theme is more to avenge an earlier act, than the murder of one’s own children. While this might seem an effort to overlook the crime, but the treatment of the acts is less important in the said narratives than what led to the crime. Besides the mothers who have avenged certain acts by killing their children, had to battle emotions before they committed the acts. Their love for their children was not less, though the need to seek revenge was greater, and in the case of Medea it was more out of being spurned or rejected by the one for whom, she had committed the crime of fratricide (killing ones brother) and more.
To be continued……………