The Belly of the Whale

Six years ago (woah, that feels weird) I was writing a senior thesis for AP English Literature about Campbell and the Hero.

Every hero follows the same journey, according to Campbell. There are several pit-stops in the journey. Today, as I was doing someone else’s laundry and watching a rom-com, I started thinking about the Belly of the Whale– it’s the lowest point in the cyclical hero’s journey.

The Belly is the darkest place– its where all hope seems lost. It’s name, of course, comes from the Biblical Jonah, who was swallowed not by a whale but by a giant fish (being a pseudo-classicist means I get to occasionally be fussy and split hairs like that.) What makes this agonizing literary midnight interesting, however, is the fact that the hero can’t climb out alone. He needs assistance to get out of the disastrous mess he’s in. Theseus is dead until Ariadne gives him the string to help him navigate the labyrinth; Jason is dead until Medea gives him the tools and the magic he needs to get the fleece; Psyche is dead until everything from Cupid down to the lowest ant gives that dumb butterfly the assistance she needs.

I often wonder if there’s any parallel in real life. If mythology is a functional understanding of the world, surely its mimetic qualities are myriad. Sure, strip away the minotaurs and the Argo, but underneath, a lot of things hold true– team work, jealousy, interdependence, complicated family dynamics, angry mothers, chutzpah, fearlessness, and most importantly, the ability to take that hand up when you need it.

Maybe that’s what mythology’s most important lesson is– you can’t do this shit alone, and that’s okay. To any of you hanging out down here in the dark with me, it’s okay to accept help– if thousands of stories and, if the shared wisdom of the human race is any indication, you’ll need it in order to move onto what comes next.

3 Comments to “The Belly of the Whale”

  1. Just a curiosity: the symbol for god is a fish right? and Jonah was the belly of a fish. So was Jonah really just ‘inside’ god?
    Enjoyed the post, though I think you tell because I hit the ‘like’ button ha.

    • Interesting question. If you’re getting the god = fish argument from this symbol
      ichthus (Jesus fish)

      then not necessarily. The ichthys symbol was from the days when Christians had to be stealthy because they were being actively persecuted. In Greek, the letters in the word “fish” form an acronym for something along the lines of “Jesus Christ, God’s Son and Savior.” If you were a Christian and wanted to test a new acquaintance’s religious affiliation, you would draw the first arc in the dirt. If your acquaintance drew the other arc and completed the fish image, you would know they were also a Christian. If not, well, they can’t prove anything based on you dragging your feet around in the dirt. Wikipedia for more.

      Typically, Jonah’s time in the fish’s belly is seen as a rejection of God, a space of doubt where all hope is lost (he basically gets stuck down there because he’s refusing to go where God tells him to go). He only gets spit back up again once he recants, and promises to do God’s bidding, essentially. Granted, the fish does get sent by God, and it does save him from drowning (but only so the aforementioned deity can keep him alive to do his bidding as a prophet.)

      I always feel the tiniest bit weird having this knowledge– I’m not a religious person (like, at all), and I come at all of this from the perspective of a classical historian rather than a practicing religious person.

  2. Same with me. I’m not religious, just big on history.
    I read somewhere that when a person crosses his fingers it’s a way of making the cross. That in Roman times when Christians were being persecuted, they would cross their fingers behind their backs as a surreptitious way of asking for divine assistance. And, well, if you cross your fingers, I was thinking it looks like the ichthys.

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