Sunday, November 28, 2010

Knowledge comes at a high price: A look at ancient mythology

By Beat Schwendimann

Humans are driven to gain more knowledge, but knowledge comes at a price. The price of knowledge is found in many ancient myth. Humans and even powerful gods and goddesses had to endure much hardship to gain great knowledge.

Odin with his two ravens Huginn and Muninn
The norse god Odin was the god of battle and also of wisdom, magic, and poetry. His name means "fury" or "frenzy," the quality of fierce inspiration that guided warriors and poets alike. Despite his warrior appearance, Odin was an intellectual god. Odin was credited with great wisdom, including knowledge of magic and divination. Odin's knowledge came at a high price: He had to self-sacrifice one eye (by stabbing himself with his magical speer Gungnir) and hang upside down for nine days from the tree Yggdrasil (the tree of life) to get the knowledge of the runes, the Norse symbols used for writing and fortune-telling. Odin's ordeal of hanging on the tree until his enlightenment reminds one of the stories of both the Buddha and Jesus. Odin's ordeal is also resounds in the tarot card "The Hanging Man"). Odin also gained knowledge of the world (Midgard) through his two ravens Huginn ("thought"), and Muninn ("Memory" or "Mind"). These circled the Earth each day, seeing all, and then at night reported to Odin what they had learnt. [Odin was also called Wodan: In English, Wednesday is named after him, "Wodan's day. "Friday" is named after Odin's wife Frya, "Frya's day"]

Prometheus's torment by an eagle
Prometheus, was the wisest Titan. His name means "forethought" and he was able to foretell the future. He was the god of fire. A master craftsman considered the wisest of his race, he was credited with the creation of humans and with giving them fire and various types of skills and knowledge. His name means "forethought". Prometheus was a wise craftsman who taught humans many useful skills, including navigation, writing, and architecture, and he brought the knowledge of fire to man. Zeus punished both Prometheus and mankind for gaining the knowledge of fire. Zeus punished Prometheus by chaining him to a mountain peak. Every day an eagle tore at Prometheus's body and ate his liver, and every night the liver grew back. Because Prometheus was immortal, he could not die, but suffered for thousands of years (until Zeus showed mercy). Zeus punished mankind by creating Pandora and her box containing all evil. Pandora's curiosity (to gain knowledge what is inside the box) released all evil unto mankind, only "hope" remained in the box.

Athena -  Goddess of Wisdom
Athena (called Minerva by romans) is the daughter of Zeus and Metis. Metis was the Titaness of the forth day and the planet Mercury. She presided over all wisdom and knowledge. She was seduced by Zeus and became pregnant with Athena. Zeus became concerned over prophecies that her second child would replace Zeus. To avoid this, Zeus devoured Metis. Athena emerged in full armor from Zeus' forehead. Athena is fierce and brave in battle but, only fights to protect the state and home from outside enemies. She is the goddess of the city of Athens, handicrafts, and agriculture. She invented the bridle, which permitted man to tame horses, the trumpet, the flute, the pot, the rake, the plow, the yoke, the ship, and the chariot. She is the embodiment of wisdom, reason, and purity. She was Zeus's favorite child and was allowed to use his weapons including his thunderbolt. Her tree is the olive. The owl is her bird. She is a virgin goddess.

Ganesha (notice the one broken tusk)
Ganesha is also the god of wisdom and prudence. These qualities are signified through his two wives: Buddhi (wisdom) and Siddhi (prudence). Ganesha has a thorough knowledge of the scriptures and is a superb scribe. Ganesha has an elephant's head with one broken tusk. According to one legend, Ganesha was asked to scribe down the epic of Mahabharata, dictated to him by its author, sage Vyasa. Taking into note the enormity and significance of the task, Ganesha realized the inadequacy of any ordinary 'pen' to undertake the task. He thus broke one of his own tusks and made a pen out of it. The lesson offered here is that no sacrifice is big enough in the pursuit of knowledge.

Adam and Eve at the Tree of Knowledge
Adam and Eve ate a fruit (The Bible does not say "apple") from the tree of Knowledge, gaining knowledge of good and evil.  God responded, "The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever." (Genesis 3:22). The price for gaining knowledge was getting expelled from paradise.

These are just a few of many examples of how great knowledge comes at a great price. Humans and Gods alike paid high prices to gain knowledge of writing, fire, and morality. Knowledge and Wisdom do not come for free, myth tells us that people often pay a price for it. (or as Robert Heinlein put it "There ain't no such thing as a free lunch" (TANSTAAFL).

Many gods of wisdom and knowledge were not gods of peace but were associated with war (power). The symbolism representing the saying "knowledge is power".

It is interesting to notice that the source of knowledge in many ancient myth is a tree - symbolizing nature as the source of knowledge. See further discussion in the blog entry 'Trees of Knowledge').

Today, humans no longer hope to receive knowledge as a gift from the gods (a transmission model of learning), but consider knowledge not as received but as constructed (a constructivist model of learning). Humans developed to tools of science to gain more knowledge about the world. Does human constructed knowledge come with a catch? Yes, of course. As our knowledge is constructed is never certain and always influenced by human interpretation. Uncertainty and tentativeness is the price we pay for scientific knowledge. Science leaves us with ever more questions, increasing complexity, and tentative theories. While science cannot reach ultimate true knowledge, as a pragmatic approach it lead to great technological developments. (Read blog entry on Science and the Loss of Certainty)

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