I was a timid child, fearful of anything that smacked of adventure with its prospect of pain, so I never dreamed of becoming an astronaut, or a pilot, or any sort of aviator, really. Not that the idea of conquering the skies lacked fascination. I had a book as a boy that showed the most vivid sketches of cutting-edge fighter planes, from countries all around the world. I admired their aggressive lines, their fierce, animalistic beauty—but with all that talk of G-force and inverted maneuvers and sound barriers smashed, perhaps it was little surprise that my favorite toys were not the model jets and spaceships that other, more daring children preferred, but those little plastic soldiers with parachutes of cellophane and thread, cast into the air not for the sake of the flight itself, but for the graceful, downward drift toward a soft landing.
No wonder, too, that my chosen profession—cultural anthropology—is one that usually keeps my feet on terra firma. Still, while poring through shelf-worn tomes over the years, I’ve been struck by the symbolic importance of flight in the mythology of various peoples. A general theme seems to emerge, at least when it comes to flying attempts by ordinary human beings (gods, cherubim, and magically-enhanced individuals are another matter): simply, that when attempting to become airborne, it is best to keep a good dose of humility about you.
We all know about Icarus and the molten wax on his wings…hubris, his literal downfall. But also consider the Persian shah Kai Kawus, who stuck four poles straight up on each corner of his chariot throne, then tethered their ends to four extremely hungry eagles. As the birds reached out for pieces of meat dangled just beyond their reach, they beat their mighty wings and set the whole contraption aloft, shah on board. Off to conquer the heavens, then! That is, until the birds, weak with hunger, succumbed to fatigue, thereby sending the whole affair earthbound.
Myths such as these served as cautionary tales. The skies were the domain of the gods, the supernatural; if mere mortals dared to enter at all, they were to do so with caution, mindful of their place in the cosmic order of things. For people like me of tentative disposition, this would have been more than enough reason to stay grounded back then. But now, in an era when technology has made air travel so routine, what is the modern individual’s relation to the heavens? When even we fearful types think nothing of munching on complimentary peanuts mid-flight, how has the idea of aeronautic progress come to fit in the grand scheme of things?
Putting on my anthropologist specs, I trained my analytical eye on the most legendary figures of contemporary mythological lore I know: American comic book superheroes. The preliminary findings are instructive. Batman finds his airtime through a combination of projected cables, cape gliding, and occasional jaunts on the mechanical Batwing. When he first appeared in 1939, he became the more vulnerable, human counterpoint to Superman, who used his natural superpowers to battle the Nazis. If Batman is any indication, it seems that flight-enabling apparatuses are A-OK as long as pressed into the service of the good. (The Man of Steel also takes to the skies, of course, but being an alien who flies on his own natural power, he belongs in the same category as gods and cherubim.)
The same goes for Ironman. His early storylines in the sixties pitted him against the then-evil forces of Communism; he actually developed his flying robot suit under the captivity of the Viet Cong. It is true that while Spiderman’s mid-air exploits come courtesy of genetic mutation (categorize with gods, etc.), those of his vile nemesis, the Green Goblin, do not (he mounts a kind of hover-platform for aerial attacks). Not a problem, though—Spiderman prevails, so the argument still holds. Then there are those in the lesser pantheon of heroes, such as the Rocketeer, a barnstorming pilot who accidentally discovers a flight-enabling jet pack. His enemy? Again, the Nazis.
The initial research seems clear: according to superhero lore, it helps to be on the right side, as it were, when plotting forays into the skies. But ours is an ever-shrinking world—thanks in good part to flight!—and as moral boundaries become somewhat murkier than in former times, it seems the most sensible course for humankind would be to embrace both goodness and humility, just to hedge our bets.
I think of the Chinese legend of Emperor Shun, raised by a father who detested him to the point of ordering several attempts on young Shun’s life. Nevertheless, the son persevered in showing filial respect. One day, Shun’s father commanded him to build a granary. Shun humbly obeyed. The father rewarded his son’s toil by setting the structure ablaze, knowing full well that Shun was standing on top of it. Thinking quickly, the enterprising prince spread out a couple of good-sized reed hats, floated toward the ground—and eventually ascended to the throne, the paragon of a virtuous leader, the ruler, as the Chinese say, of all the heavens.
So upward we proceed. Happy flying to the brave, and soft landings to all.
published 11 September 2011