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The “Mythology” of Lost May 30, 2010

Posted by Mary W. Matthews in Popular Culture, Religion & Theology, Television.

Carlton Cuse, producer: “Fundamentally, Lost is a mystery show.”

The main problem with shows like Lost, which recently ended its six-year run, is that relatively few non-theologians understand what mythology is. “Don’t worry about Lost‘s plot making sense, just enjoy the mythology,” urged one final review I read. Um, fella: it’s not making sense that’s the core of the problem. It’s Lost‘s faux mythology.

A myth is a symbolic story about the relationship between humanity and the divine, and often includes an explanation of something came to be; for example, the second creation myth in the Bible includes the ancient nomads’ explanation of why women suffer during childbirth. Myths usually take place during some primordeal or prehistoric age, feature at least one divine or semidivine protagonist, and explain how customs, taboos, and such institutions as marriage were established.

While many people throughout the ages have believed their myths are historical, in fact a myth’s historicity is irrelevant. The myth of Noah’s Ark, evolved during the second millennium BCE and painstakingly inscribed onto tanned animal skins (“parchment”) during the first, may be based on race-memory of a huge flood of the Black Sea that took place around 5600 BCE, thousands of years before the invention of writing. More immediately it is based on a section of the Babylonian [Iranian] myths about the mighty warrior Gilgamesh. The myth of Noah’s Ark explains where rainbows come from, why seashells and fish fossils show up on mountaintops, and God’s (eventual) forgiveness of human evil.

One doesn’t create a myth “on the fly.” (Try it!) Genuine myths evolve, over decades or generations. Myths are told and retold because they provide satisfying answers for children and stupid people (“The Tower of Babel is why humans have more than one language”), while at the same time containing complex layers of subtlety for the intelligent and sophisticated. Entire books can be, and have been, written on the Bible’s creation myths alone.

Most important: Myths evolve to answer questions. How did the Universe come to be? Is there a God, and if so, how do we know and what does God want from us? What happens after we die? Why do I sometimes feel so alienated? Why do I sometimes feel so trapped and desperate? If God is good, and God is omnipotent, why did God allow the BP catastrophe to happen?

(In case you’re wondering, the highly misleading title Mythbusters is a better word than Urban-legend-busters, which is what the intrepid stars of this entertaining show actually do.)

I have followed Lost from the beginning, but not obsessively, so it’s probable I’ll get a detail wrong here and there. (A six-year run creates a LOT of details!) I recommend the Lostpedia wiki for you readers who actually want obsessive detail.

Lost‘s Island is presented to us amidst an unsorted jumble of Egyptian, Greek, and Roman myths spanning several thousand years; apparently the Island was uninterested in Phoenician, African, Asian, Polynesian, or Scandinavian seafarers. The Island is a veritable soup of mysterious electromagnetic forces, which amazingly enough only need human intervention to control between 1977 and around 2005, Island time. For no known reason, the Dharma Initiative sets up this control as a button that must be pushed every 108 minutes. (108 is a mystic number in several cultures, as well as the sum of the famous Lost quasi-lottery numbers.) For no known reason, a vision of Walt appeared to Shannon in “Man of Science, Man of Faith [the Season 2 premiere],” and urged her, “Don’t push the button. Button bad.”

At the heart of the Island is a stream flowing into a cave that glows with a golden light. There is a spark of this light of goodness in “all men” — which must be why the hermit, its protectress, eventually sees murder as a first resort; she lacks that all-important definer of true humanity, the penis. Most humans “fight, they destroy, they corrupt, and it always ends the same”; they “always want more” of the beautiful golden light, but for some unknown reason they must not obtain it.

Some time after Christianity became the state religion of the Roman Empire (meaning, after 389 CE), a heavily pregnant Latin-speaking woman named Claudia is shipwrecked and washes up on the Island. Midwifed by a mysterious hermit, Claudia gives birth to Jacob and, moments later, his unnamed brother, whom I’ll call Smoky. These fraternal twins grow up to look like unrelated adults, one who looks somewhat like Leslie Howard and one who looks strikingly like Pernell Roberts.

Moments after Smoky’s birth, the hermit murders Claudia. (Which is when I began to wonder about a middle-aged woman who proposed to rear not one but two newborns, all by herself. What did she do for mother’s milk, diapers, or an hour’s sleep? Pediatrician, shoes, babysitting?)

For some unspecified but probably lengthy time, the hermit has guarded the Light Cave. She murdered Claudia because she “knew” the boys were special. (“Special” apparently means “available.”) By some unspecified magic and for some unspecified reason, the hermit conferred eternal life on both boys, and also ensured that the two could never hurt each other. The hermit reared the boys alone for 13 years, along the way giving them what appears to have been a comprehensive 21st-century education — semi-miraculous, since all this home-schooling took place no later than 1847, and probably many centuries earlier.

Smoky is Mother’s favorite, but Jacob is the twin Mother chooses to protect the Light Cave. Smoky has joined the settlement of the other survivors of the shipwreck, who Mother somehow knows are evil. Smoky murders Mother, and Jacob drags Smoky to the Light Cave. Smoky hits his head on a rock; Jacob pushes Smoky’s limp body into the stream, where it floats into the cave, which instantly goes dark. A moment later, the Smoke Monster bursts out of the Dark Cave, depositing Smoky’s corpse in nearby trees.

Centuries later, Desmond, who is immune to electromagnetic fields, enters the Light Cave. The stream that enters the cave feeds into a waterfall at least 50 feet high. At the bottom of the waterfall, the stream feeds into a circular pool surrounded by skeletons, at the center of which is an ornate white plug that looks strikingly like a giant tampon. To complete the analogy, when Desmond removes the “tampon,” the light turns menacingly red and the Island begins to self-destruct as if simultaneously “on the rag” AND suffering from a semidivine case of PMS. At the last moment, Jack manages to reinsert the “tampon” into the round, red hole, and restore the golden light.

As a theologian, I can only say: WTF? Clearly in the theology of Lost the golden light is good, so the red light of destruction must represent evil. But why must preserving and protecting Good begin with murder? Why must Destruction be implicitly feminine, held at bay by a magical giant tampon? Does Mother know she is assisting in the creation of the Smoke Monster when she apparently attempts to kill Smoky, her favorite “son”? What did Jacob think was going to happen when he sent his unconscious best (only) friend into the Light Cave? Why is “Why am I on the Island?” the most important question (6.4)? Why did Jack dedicate his life to protecting the Island and then immediately help Smoky-Locke destroy it? What force created the Smoke Monster, how, and why?

And these questions don’t even begin to cover the unresolved questions of Lost. Why are some people confined to the Island, while others, including Charles Widmore and Ben Linus, can come and go at will? What were the mysterious six numbers 4, 8, 15, 16, 23, and 42 about? How and why did Jacob select the six candidates to replace him as guardian of the Light Cave, given that small children are not necessarily “flawed” and bereft of “meaning” in their lives? What criteria did Jacob use in assigning each number to each candidate?

Why do some people become zombies who look, talk, and act like ordinary people but are actually evil, as in the Others, as well as the other survivors of Danielle’s and Claudia’s shipwrecks? How do we, the audience, know they’re evil?

Why were women who became pregnant on the Island only in danger between late in 1977 and some time in 2005 (Island time)? Why did Walt have psychic powers? Why did the Others want Walt, and why did they want to run experiments on him? Why wasn’t Walt even mentioned during the finale? (We know what happened to Malcolm David Kelley: he grew up.) Why didn’t we see Mr. Eko, or John Locke’s girlfriend, during the final scene in the Church of All Religions? Or Charlie, or Libby, or Ana Lucia?

Blogger Adam Frazier compares Taweret, left, to the Island statue.

Why did the ancient Egyptians build a statue of Taweret, Egyptian goddess of childbirth and conductor into the Afterlife, on the Island, and why did Lost depict the goddess as male?

If Eloise is “outside” all timelines, an authority respected by all and feared by the baddies, why does the series give her so little attention or respect? Why did Claire abandon Aaron and then obsess about him for three years?

What was that business with Jacob’s cabin and the rings of ash about? When did Jacob stop living in the Temple and start living in the cabin, and why? What was with that Lady of Shalott-like lighthouse from which Jacob could spy on the six candidates he had chosen? What was up with 2004-07, where rescued-from-the-Island Sayid was a hit man for Ben?

Oh, I can think of so many unresolved questions and loose ends that Lost looks like a shag rug! Its “mythology” is a haphazard, semi-digested stew of unintegrated ideas from at least four cultures.

Myths evolve to answer humanity’s questions about the relationship between humanity and the divine. The final few episodes of Lost, and especially the series finale, raised more questions than they answered, and displayed a woeful ignorance about such points of Christian theology as the nature of purgatory. When one contemplates Lost as a six-year whole, its “mythology” looks like a cynical load of Bushwah thrown together by 21st-century males who neither know nor care about the functioning of mythology in culture. “Oh, depict the goddess Taweret as male, she’s going to be mistaken for Anubis anyway,” or “Oh, who cares why Matthew Abbadon sent a cultural anthropologist [Charlotte] as part of the mission to find the Island? Rebecca Mader is hot!”

I truly don’t mind that Lost kept us guessing all the way to the end. I mind that essentially the first, defining event of the Lost-iverse was the murder of Claudia, mother of Jacob and Smoky. I mind that Claudia and all her female friends were too stupid to notice she was carrying twins. I mind that the series told us over and over, “X is important,” and then forgot about X altogether.

(I liked it a lot when Hurley told Ben, “You were a good Number Two,” and Ben replied, “You were a great Number One.” And I laughed out loud when Kate said to Desmond about Jack’s father, “Christian Shepherd? Seriously?”)

For me, the finale of Lost was like eating an entire pint of ice cream in one sitting: I enjoyed it at the time, but it nourished neither body nor spirit. I’ll be fascinated, though, if some time we see a spinoff book entitled Aaron Has Two Mommies.

Why did Lost parody da Vinci's "the Last Supper" in this famous promo?



1. ruthanng - May 31, 2010

Wonderful. Pernell Roberts!! So that’s who he reminded me of!!!

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