“How Mosquitoes Came to Be” Thoughts on a Tlingit Myth

I don’t know how universal the myth of the dragonslayer is. I’m skeptical of analyses of myths that become so general as to be meaningless (Joseph Campbell)—I’m neither alone nor original in feeling this way. The dragonslayer is certainly popular, of course, and that is why stories that break its rigidity in clever ways are so refreshing. “How Mosquitoes Came to Be,” a myth from the Tlingit of the Pacific Northwest, is one of these:

Long ago there was a giant who loved to kill humans, eat their flesh, and drink their blood. He was especially fond of human hearts. “Unless we can get rid of this giant,” people said, “none of us will be left,” and they called a council to discuss ways and means.

One man said, “I think I know how to kill the monster,” and he went to the place where the giant had last been seen. There he lay down and pretended to be dead.

Soon the giant came along. Seeing the man lying there, he said: “These humans are making it easy for me. Now I don’t even have to catch and kill them; they die right on my trail, probably from fear of me!”

The giant touched the body. “Ah, good,” he said, “this one is still warm and fresh. What a tasty meal he’ll make; I can’t wait to roast his heart.”

The giant flung the man over his shoulder, and the man let his head hang down as if he were dead. Carrying the man home, the giant dropped him in the middle of the floor right near the fireplace. Then he saw that there was no firewood and went to get some.

As soon as the monster had left, the man got up and grabbed the giant’s huge skinning knife. Just then the giant’s son came in, bending low to enter. He was still small as giants go, and the man held the big knife to his throat. “Quick, tell me, where’s your father’s heart? Tell me or I’ll slit your throat!”

The giant’s son was scared. He said: “My father’s heart is in his left heel.”

Just then the giant’s left food appeared in the entrance, and the man swiftly plunged the knife into the heel. The monster screamed and fell down dead.

Yet the giant still spoke. “Though I’m dead, though you killed me, I’m going to keep on eating you and all the other humans in the world forever!”

“That’s what you think!” said the man. “I’m about to make sure that you never eat anyone again.” He cut the giant’s body into pieces and burned each one in the fire. Then he took the ashes and threw them into the air for the winds to scatter.

Instantly each of the particles turned into a mosquito. The cloud of ashes became a cloud of mosquitoes, and from their midst the man heard the giant’s voice laughing, saying: “Yes, I’ll eat you people until the end of time.”

And as the monster spoke, the man felt a sting, and a mosquito started sucking his blood, and then many mosquitoes stung him, and he began to scratch himself.

(“How Mosquitoes Came to Be.” American Indian Myths and Legends. Eds. Richard Erdoes and Alfonso Ortiz, Pantheon Books, 1984, 192-3.)

The myth quickly touches the main dragonslaying points. First our bard juxtaposes the dragon and the order it threatens. The human order then calls the hero to action. The hero departs realm of the human and descends to the realm of the dragon, where he uses his unique talents to subdue it. That he is ostensibly unique is clear from “One man said, ‘I think I know how to kill the monster.’” (My emphasis.) Having set up the story on the standard model, the story then breaks it in order to impart a much greater wisdom than we would expect from a typical dragonslayer story. Rather than returning triumphantly from his quest, the hero has merely replaced one dragon with another.

There are many layers to this wonderful story. One is the hero’s absurd luck. At his vital moments, our hero achieves his goal almost entirely by accident. First, had there been firewood already in the giant’s home, the giant never would have been made to leave, and our hero would have been boiled. The giant’s son enters the home at just the right time for the hero to threaten him, and is coincidentally small enough for the man to threaten. It turns out that the giant’s heart just happens to be in his left heel, and the giant’s left heel just happens to appear in the doorway right then. The hero’s claim to have some special dragonslaying know-how is an empty boast. He is little more than spectacularly fortunate.

Another layer is the story’s ambiguous morality. The hero’s meeting with the giant’s son is very unsettling. Threatening children with slit throats, even in the service of an admirable goal, is the behavior of a villain, not a hero. Storytellers creating dully moralistic heroes scrupulously avoid putting their heroes into this kind of moral situation. In the final scenes of Return of the Jedi, for example, having subdued Vader, Luke has a brilliant opportunity to cut the emperor’s head off. Instead, he tosses aside his lightsaber in order that the screenwriters can later redeem his father, and in order that his commitment to the “light side” remains unquestionable. But is there any clear, immediately definable, universal “light side” in war, or even life, for that matter? Of course not.

Like any standard hero, Luke is defined as good, rather than justified as so. A more practical moral thinker might argue that killing the emperor is the clear moral option. Should the attack on the death star fail, how many lives will subsequently be saved with the emperor out of the picture? The rebel alliance might even have a chance at self-rejuvenation with the emperor dead. Luke has no idea at this point that Vader will save him. Does he not owe it to the galaxy to eliminate the greatest threat to its peace and freedom? Of course he does. Would you be condemned if you had dropped an opportunity to kill Hitler in 1940? Thus was Erwin Rommel, for all his flaws, complexities, and unknowns, a better and braver man than Luke Skywalker.

Perhaps my moral calculations of Luke’s options are wrong. The point is not that Luke makes the wrong decision, but that he is never made to grapple with any moral complexity. He avoids making a difficult moral choice, and the writers then bail him out by having Vader kill the emperor anyway. Vader’s redemption is terribly moving (I can malign Star Wars‘ morality and still be a fan), but it is a moment of moral having-and-eating of cake: we kill the emperor without needing to question the story’s moral simplicity. By allowing for some moral nuance, “How Mosquitoes Came to Be” demonstrates much greater wisdom.

“Mosquitoes’” most profound insight, however, is one that calls heroism itself into question. That is, not only does the story question the morality of the hero’s behavior, it also examines the morality of his existence. On the face of it, the hero of “Mosquitoes” is Sisyphean. Our hero’s journey is not like that of the typical dragonslayer, who abolishes the dragon and so becomes savior to his (or someone’s) people, but one whose boulder, once he has gotten it to the top, rolls back down the hill. One dragon has replaced another.

In his famous essay, “The Myth of Sisyphus,” Camus examined this kind of heroism which he called “absurd.” “Mosquitoes,” I think, is even more profound. Camus understood Sisyphean labor as worth it, as redeeming and joyous in itself. Mastery of the absurdity of existence is in naming that absurdity. As he smiles on his way back down the hill, Sisyphus overcomes the gods who believed the futility of his task was a punishment. “Mosquitoes” is more pessimistic, and I think more apt. As an allegory, Sisyphus rolling his boulder up the hill is solipsistic: it assumes that when it rolls down the hill, the boulder won’t roll over somebody else.

But is a boulder-path of broken limbs not what we see from history’s heroic movements? From the violent evangelism of Crusaders to the utopian visions of Stalinism; from the ravages of libertarian capitalists to the geopolitical chaos wrought by neoconservatism, I am not convinced that heroism, even when successful, renders the world any better off. Does it not more often, either by creating new dragons or leaving great wakes of “necessary” destruction, make the world worse? The wisdom of “Mosquitoes” is the realization that heroism is more absurd than Camus believed. Instead of finding our redemption by rolling the rock up the hill, might we be better off just leaving it at the bottom?

I don’t want to suggest that we live inactively. To leave the boulder sitting on top of someone else’s broken leg because, “well, pushing it up the hill might make it worse,” is clearly wrong. But whence our drive for concepts like success and achievement, either in the realm of the personal or the societal? Our current worst heroes are the poorly-named libertarians, who for the sake of becoming ubermenschen, have created—what? The iPhone X and a mass extinction event? What an irony it is: humanity’s greatest dragon will probably be our own desire to kill them.

1“How Mosquitoes Came to Be.” American Indian Myths and Legends. Eds. Richard Erdoes and Alfonso Ortiz, Pantheon Books, 1984, 192-3.

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