Because The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2—the last movie installment of Suzanne Collins’ popular trilogy—is now in theaters, I want remind readers and watchers that Collins states that the basis of her novels comes from the combination of a particular ancient Greek (or Mycenaean) myth, the late Roman violent public spectacle of gladiator games, and family associations to the military.
Not a movie review, this post takes a look back and into the mythology (and just the mythology) underpinning the story of The Hunger Games. Or rather, what Collins (and others) seem to think is the myth!
When the first of the The Hunger Games novels came out in 2008, the publisher, Scholastic Books, anticipating questions centering on how and why Suzanne Collins came up with her plot, produced a “Suzanne Collins Q & A conversation”. Although her answer has been published extensively on the internet, I’m quoting it again here as the entry point to this discussion. Collins says,
“A significant influence would have to be the Greek myth of Theseus and the Minotaur. The myth tells how in punishment for past deeds, Athens periodically had to send seven youths and seven maidens to Crete, where they were thrown in the Labyrinth and devoured by the monstrous Minotaur. Even as a kid, I could appreciate how ruthless this was. Crete was sending a very clear message: ‘Mess with us and we’ll do something worse than kill you. We’ll kill your children.’ And the thing is, it was allowed; the parents sat by powerless to stop it. Theseus, who was the son of the king, volunteered to go. I guess in her own way, Katniss is a futuristic Theseus. In keeping with the classical roots, I send my tributes into an updated version of the Roman gladiator games, which entails a ruthless government forcing people to fight to the death as popular entertainment.”
There you have it—The Hunger Games trilogy is an imaginative, futuristic, and yet, mythological interpretation based on the ancient Greek myth of Theseus and the Minotaur, coupled with the spectacle of Roman gladiator games. In her answer, Collins gives her very rough synopsis of the myth, but, actually skips a lot of its content. My summary of her snippet is that Crete regularly demanded not only the sacrifice of Athenian children to the “monstrous” bull-man, but that the parents, (and implicitly, the government of the Athens city-state) were helpless in preventing this ongoing tragedy, and that only the heroic efforts of a king’s son could save the day, slay the monster, and make Crete pay. Already, it has the bones of a heart-rending drama.
Except, there are problems. First of all, the myth containing the Minotaur and Theseus is not only complex and lengthy, but shows strong signs of multiple historical revisions. Second, Collins is interpreting a portion of this myth literally. However, like nearly all myths, the myth of the Minotaur is symbolic and metaphoric, not literal. Third, her recollection of the myth is scrunched it down to a bare minimum telling combined with subjective and dramatic responses.
From my perspective as a mythologist, to state that your stories are based on a particular myth should indicate that you have a strong working knowledge of that myth. Instead, Collins has taken, say, a rib-bone from the Minotaur myth, to create a highly-popular and well-told story that offers a sharp critique of the cruelties of dictatorial governments, of violence and murder as public entertainment, and of increasing militarism world-wide. Her novels have produced a lot of terrific dialogue as well as showcasing the impact of violence upon and by children.
But The Hunger Games novels really are not based on the myth of the Minotaur and Theseus. Far from it, as a matter of fact. Katniss is no Theseus. Peeta is no Ariadne. The Hunger Games aren’t a modern analogy of an ancient Minoan labyrinth because no such thing existed. Therefore, Collins not only promotes false ideas about the content of the myth, but also, by interpreting her snippet literally, she does her fair share of mucking up the general public’s notions of mythology in general.
To rectify that public diminishment and convolution of the myth is both my privilege and responsibility.
What, then, does the actual myth say? Let’s look at its content and symbolism, along with the context that situates it. Right up front, I admit that, for the purposes of space, I do shorten the myth, but I don’t eliminate important content. What follows is a rather lengthy review of the myth of the Minotaur, as well as information on Crete, the Minoans, sacred bulls (and cows!), plus ancient Aegean goddesses. Therefore, I have placed the remainder of this review here.