it's all good
August 14, 2009 12:35 AM   Subscribe

Any anthropologists, classicists, or world literature historians out there? Looking for stories (from any culture, era, or part of the globe) featuring what we would consider to be moral violations (human sacrifice, incest, slavery etc.), but which the culture or author would have considered morally righteous.

Here's the tricky part: it needs to say, in the story itself, that the characters deem the act to be good. Also, it can't be a god who is doing this morally praiseworthy/blameworthy action, as I'll be asking my students to imagine how they would feel if the story from the myth happened in real life. The more "story-like" the format the better (i.e., told like a folktale or myth).

I am trying to avoid stories from the Bible, as for many students these stories would not considered hypothetical. ;)

Single stories, repositories, electronic databases, or books I could look in would all be useful. Thank you!
posted by Arthur "Two Sheds" Jackson to Society & Culture (30 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
How explicit does the declaration of goodness have to be? One obvious example if it doesn't have to be too explicit is the whole dispute between Achilles and Agamemnon in the Iliad about the slave girl -- it's quite obvious that Achilles's honor is wrapped up in the taking of his "rightful" slave...
posted by paultopia at 12:43 AM on August 14, 2009

Also, I'd keep an eye out for stories about killing adulterers, since that's something that has been accepted throughout much of human history, but not today. Since we're already in the ancient Greeks, how about a court case from Athens where an orator defends his murdering of a man found with his wife? Lysias 1: On the Murder of Eratosthenes. (Imperialistic conquest is another possible general category where you might expect lots of ancient moral difference.)
posted by paultopia at 12:58 AM on August 14, 2009

We can take the Bible as read, yes?

In movie Westerns, there's a lot of vigilante murderin' that gets presented in a positive light.
posted by hattifattener at 12:59 AM on August 14, 2009

Athens was built on the backs of slaves. From there came Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle...and they defended Athens. As to WHERE...I can't remember. Maybe Plato's Republic had some mention of slavery.

I'm so sorry this isn't a complete answer.
posted by hal_c_on at 1:02 AM on August 14, 2009

Response by poster: paultopia: The more explicit the declaration of goodness, the better, but I would settle for implicit but obvious.
posted by Arthur "Two Sheds" Jackson at 1:03 AM on August 14, 2009

hal_c_on, the first pass is Aristotle's discussion of natural slavery in the Politics, but not v. story-like at all.
posted by paultopia at 1:21 AM on August 14, 2009

If I recall correctly, in the Epic of Gilgamesh, the king sends out a hooker to sleep with Enkidu and entice him in from the wilds. It's clearly a command ("Go fuck him") to a temple slave. Unfortunately, it's like a one-line affair.

Actually, as I reread a summary of the epic, the whole thing is filled with morally dubious behavior lauded as righteous and just.

The other thing that might fit is the Arthurian legend. In specific, Arthur orders the execution of Guinevere for her adultery (with Lancelot). My wife and I can't agree whether it went through (or if Lancelot saved her). And it's certain that Arthur didn't feel good about the situation. But, he ordered the execution because it was "the right thing to do".
posted by Netzapper at 2:05 AM on August 14, 2009

If you're talking about Western Civilization and its chronology, try the

Myth of Endymion and Phoebe.

or if that doesn't work, jump ahead to

Tristan and Isolde or even the musical version by Wagner

and if you are still at a loss, see how

A Life in the Day of Benjamin Andre 3000

goes over. Then back pedal to

Romeo and Juliet.

Then full engines ahead to Kafka's, "The Castle."

Still looking? Try again with this:

To the Lighthouse, by Virginia Woolf.
posted by at the crossroads at 2:57 AM on August 14, 2009

The Mabinogion is interesting in terms of legitimate and illegitimate violence - killing hidden men by squeezing their heads until they explode is fine because they were setting up an ambush, hurling your nephew into a fire in a rage isn't.

Y Gododdin is another one where the values of cruelty and violence are praised.

A lot of the Icelandic sagas cover blood-feuds, which are regarded as morally acceptable at the time.

Slavery in ancient Greece - Aristophanes may be something to look at; the Wasps starts with a slave girl being groped for humorous potential.

Book - Her Kind: Stories of Women from Greek Mythology takes the perspective of women who appear in Greek myth; the moral acceptability of their actions at the time varies (Medea was universally condemned for the murder of her children). It is doing the same thing as your exercise though, in taking the perspective of the person.
posted by Coobeastie at 3:20 AM on August 14, 2009

As for incest, brother-sister marriage was a tradition in the ancient Egyptian royal family, adopted by the Ptolemies when they took over Egypt. Hence the famous Cleopatra having to battle her brother/husband over the throne. I guess this is more history than myth, but if you're asking for any more or less fictional story from the Classical world that is fully without divine intervention, you're pretty much stuck looking at comedies, which don't usually include too much incest or human sacrifice.
posted by oinopaponton at 4:59 AM on August 14, 2009

Shirley Jacksons The Lottery (link to analysis not story) is a great example of human sacrifice as a community good. It takes the entire story to figure out it is ahuman sacrifice story.
posted by elationfoundation at 5:07 AM on August 14, 2009

Came in to recommend The Lottery, so I'll just second it and go back out now.
posted by trip and a half at 5:12 AM on August 14, 2009

Not sure if this fits, but there's a scene in Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World that has always jarred with me.

[Do I need to warn for spoilers on a book that's was published 97 years ago? If I do: ahead be spoilers.]

The group are guided into the forest by natives, and not long after they have figured out how to build the bridge to the plateau using the tree, they are betrayed by one of the two black men who brought them there. He calls out to Lord John something about shooting his brother in another location (sorry this is slightly vague, it's from memory), but that is never explored. Instead, Lord John sneaks off to get a better angle and then shoots the native dead.

None of the party seem in any way perturbed by that, though now we know Lord John has murdered at least two people. Challenger makes some comment to the effect that Lord John has always been a dead shot, and they continue on their adventures. I'm not sure the characters would deem the act 'good', but I think you could certainly argue for 'just' or 'fair'.
posted by StephenF at 5:15 AM on August 14, 2009

Check out the University of Pittsburgh's Folktexts: A library of folktales, folklore, fairy tales, and mythology, an electronic collection of stories from around the world. Examples from the link:

Cannibalism folktales from Egypt and Sudan represent monkey's paw-like parables about fear of death and loss and being careful of what you seek, but also portray characters and communities who participate in and support cannibalism as an accepted solution to illness. (For true accounts of cannibalism at sea, see this previous FPP on the blue).

Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm's 1812 German fairy tale Allerleirauh (or All-Kinds-of-Fur), possibly an early iteration of what evolved into the Cinderella tale, involves a king, his daughter, dresses, pursuit, disguise, kitchen servitude, balls, marriage, and happily ever after.

In the Indian folktale of Kora and his sister, a brother seeks to marry his sister with the support of their family and community. Though ultimately a cautionary tale against incest, the family and community support the union—even invoking a storm to force the sister to return to the brother after she flees—until realization dawns at the tragic end.

There is a section on animal brides, but many if not all of the stories likely address spirituality, inner beauty, or other themes rather than bestiality, in much the same way as the fairytales of the Princess and the Frog or Beauty and the Beast. With twists. (In a Philipine myth, Chonguita the Monkey Wife, Don Juan hurls his monkey bride against the wall before she morphs into a beautiful woman. And in an Indian apologue, The Dog Bride, Jitu's canine spouse never transfigures into a beautiful human).

It is indeed unfortunate that you are not seeking folktales of runaway pancakes.

The Folktexts page also contains a link to Folklinks: Folk and Fairy-Tale Sites for other resources.
posted by skenfrith at 5:46 AM on August 14, 2009

On second thought, if you're willing to tweak your guidelines a little, the Oedipus Cycle is pretty much designed to raise moral questions and (if you can accept the idea of fate) is more or less divinity-free. Oedipus Rex is certainly more salacious, what with its incest and murder, but Antigone is probably more useful when comparing value systems-- it's about a conflict between the title character's duty to her (pretty screwed up) family and her duty to authority (complicated because she's engaged to the son of the king). It's pretty clear where Sophocles's sympathies lie; maybe your students could discuss whether they agree.
posted by oinopaponton at 6:16 AM on August 14, 2009

Its modern, and its a bit sci-fi, but Theodore Sturgeon's If All Men Were Brothers, Would You Let One Marry Your Sister? is exactly what you're looking for.
posted by googly at 6:38 AM on August 14, 2009

I'm not at home w/ my anthro books, but I know that several cultures historically (not as much now) felt it was good and right to assist the elderly to death, especially when there were lean times. Ashliman's website, as always, is useful.
posted by cobaltnine at 6:53 AM on August 14, 2009

Somewhere Herodotus talks about moral relativism, specifically people who think it's morally praiseworthy to eat the dead. Not sure of the precise reference.
posted by Beardman at 7:15 AM on August 14, 2009

Eaters of the Dead, by Michael Crichton was my first though when I read your question. Definitely fits the bill, as the narrator disagrees with the culture but his "hosts" often explain their beliefs. Basically the Beowulf saga.

Netzapper, Lancelot fights for Guinevere's honor but she ends up entering a convent. He goes crazy for a while, too (mostly out of guilt).
posted by misha at 7:44 AM on August 14, 2009 [1 favorite]

Here's the chunk of Herodotus Beardman's thinking of.
posted by oinopaponton at 7:47 AM on August 14, 2009

Does it absolutely have to be fiction? How old / what educational level are your students? Ethnographies have plenty of examples of non-Western moralities, that might also lead to the sort of challenge you're looking to give students.

Death Without Weeping might provide some of what you're looking for. The jist is that in conditions of extreme poverty, mothers have to ration their resources and end up looking at a number of factors that indicate, to them, which children "don't want" to live. I recall that Schepper-Hughes has a fairly vivid anecdote about saving a baby that the mother has decided is too weak to invest her time in. Years later neither the mother nor the son (who has survived to adulthood thanks to the author) harbour any regrets or anger over the mother's (non)action. It's quite rapped up in a Catholic-influenced idea about God calling certain babies to become angels, so it could lead to some interesting discussion about how seemingly absolute moralities like Christianity can be reinterpreted in different circumstance, and may not be nearly as absolute as one may think.
posted by carmen at 7:52 AM on August 14, 2009

Oh, and it isn't a culture, but John Irving in Hotel New Hampshire has his brother/sister characters joyfully commit incest.
posted by misha at 7:56 AM on August 14, 2009

Lazarus Long in "Time Enough for Love." (Incest.)
posted by JimN2TAW at 8:17 AM on August 14, 2009

The Ones who Walk Away from Omelas is a classic for this sort of thing. (It's also short, and very folktale-like, since you asked for that.)

Speaker for the Dead has another variation on the idea. You spend most of the book thinking you're dealing with a crazy superstition that makes the Piggies do horribly unethical (by our standards) things. You learn towards the end that the "superstition" is literal, factual truth — this is science fiction; they can do things like that — and that the Piggies are doing good even by our standards.

It's still good for starting discussions about moral and cultural relativism, though. It drives the point home very nicely that everyone's behavior is driven by their beliefs, and that everyone is a good person so long as you take their beliefs to be true.

A lot of tellings of Tam Lin also fit the bill. The titular character rapes a stranger, prevents her by force from getting an abortion, and then drags her and her child into a pretty nasty supernatural confrontation. Within the context of the story, it's taken for granted that this is a really clever ploy on his part, and that she's a lucky girl to have attracted a man like that. From a modern point of view, even if you take all the supernatural whatnot to be true, he's a straight-up asshole and she's a sucker for taking his side.
posted by nebulawindphone at 8:35 AM on August 14, 2009

In Journey to the West,, Sun Wu-Kung (The Monkey King) routinely kills, sometimes with little or no provocation, despite being a novice Buddhist monk. I was just reading a passage the other night which struck me:
As they were on their way, a Taoist priest appeared on the mountain slope. He was carrying a glass salver on
which were two pills of the elixir of immortality. Monkey was immediately suspicious of him, so he struck
straight at his head with the iron cudgel, sending blood splattering out from brain and chest.

"Are you still as wild as this, you ape?" the shocked Bodhisattva asked. "He didn't steal your cassock, you
didn't even know him, and he was no enemy of yours. Why kill him?"

"You may not know him, Bodhisattva," Monkey replied, "but he was a friend of the Black Bear Spirit.
Yesterday they and a white−clad scholar were sitting talking in front of the grassy mountainside. Today is the
Black Spirit's birthday, and tomorrow he was coming to the 'Buddha's Robe Banquet'. That's why I recognized
him. I'm sure that he was coming to greet that monster on his birthday."

"If that's the way it is, very well then," said the Bodhisattva. Monkey then went to lift up the Taoist to take a
look at him, and he saw that he had been a grey wolf. There was an inscription under the glass salver that lay
beside him. It read, "Made by Master Emptiness−reached".

So, Sun Wu-Kung kills an associate (and a priest no less) of the monster they're hunting, and the Bodhisattva (Guan Yin, the Bodhisattva of Mercy) deems this to be a good thing. This is also a single instance in a very, very long work.

A couple of caveats: Sun Wu-Kung has been coerced into becoming a Buddhist disciple through threat of pain. He's a trickster archetype and a folk-hero, so his actions can't be construed as the actions of a typical monk. Also, Journey to the West contains some satirical content, but I don't think the above passage is an example of that.
posted by lekvar at 12:21 PM on August 14, 2009 [1 favorite]

A teacher I had in grade school grew up the child of medical missionaries to Papua New Guinea. She told our class about the researcher (Daniel Carleton Gajdusek, according to Wikipedia) who finally figured out the source of kuru (an up-till-then mysterious disease that afflicted the women in the community her parents worked in--women would get sick, then seem to recover while pregnant, then after they gave birth they would get sick again, eventually dying of the disease). Anyway, this researcher kept asking questions, trying to figure out what set these people apart to make them susceptible to kuru (the people desperately wanted to know as well, of course). Finally, somehow the researcher discovered the culture's ritual cannibalism, which was part of their funeral rites, and he figured out that that was the key (the women would eat human brain as part of the ritual, and kuru is a prion disease). He confronted the people about it and their response was basically, "Duh! That's what you do when your relative dies."

Anyway, my memory is a little hazy, and a little bit of googling doesn't turn up much, but I suspect that if you look into Daniel Carleton Gajdusek's experience in New Guinea in the 50s, you'll find some interesting stuff from the perspective of the Fore people.
posted by Meg_Murry at 2:58 PM on August 14, 2009

The Wicker Man (original '70s version).

Some Orson Scott Card books like Speaker For The Dead and Ender's Game.
posted by polyglot at 8:54 PM on August 14, 2009

There's a few stories in early western mythology in which an individual's children are killed in retribution for that individual's wrong-doings. Job fails one of your conditions, but there's a similar story in greek mythology, although I'm blanking. I think it may be zeus killing the children of one of his wives? In these cases, progeny are basically = property, a view we've long since discarded.
posted by cmyr at 9:14 PM on August 15, 2009

Pigybacking on cmyr's comment, if you're still checking in on this thread: there were (I think mostly/all in the past) tribal customs that basically consisted of shunning, abandoning (to starve), or killing twin babies or babies born with physical defects. The Yoruba people did this with twins, I think. The belief was that twins or babies with birth defects brought evil/bad luck into the community, and so the community had to be protected from them.

You might be able to find this type of thing if you look for Christian missionary narratives, as they tend to want the native people to admit their guilt in their own words (whether or not the native people feel guilt over whatever it is they're doing). Obviously, you'd want to verify any of that type of source material with more neutral anthropological research, but I just mean if you want a story that says "I, member of Culture A, engage in Practice B, because of Culture A's belief in Myth C," a likely source would be the type of missionary narrative I heard and read in my Sunday School classes growing up.
posted by Meg_Murry at 7:36 AM on August 16, 2009

maybe "The Man Wreathed in Seaweed" would fit your bill.
If not, some other of Italo Calvino's Italian Folktales might.
posted by at the crossroads at 8:37 PM on August 17, 2009

« Older Naked man silhouette t-shirt.   |   Subtle but sweet love stories! Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.