How many stories have you read in which the “hero” encounters a deathly situation? Most stories even show the hero meeting his end and is resurrected back to life! This new life that the hero is blessed with often discovers his hidden powers.
There is one such story that I read- The Adventures of Pinocchio written by the Italian author Carlo Collodi. Once a skilled carpenter and puppeteer named Geppetto carves a block of wood into a wooden puppet. He names the puppet, Pinocchio. Geppetto loved Pinocchio like his own son and taught him to walk and talk. Pinocchio was mischievous and an expert liar. He often got into trouble. Later one day, Pinocchio dives into the water and was swallowed by a terrible Dogfish. Inside the Dogfish, he finds Geppetto. Both of them manage to escape.
This was Pinocchio’s new life after spending terrible time inside the Dogfish. He turned into a new leaf.
There are many stories that have a similar motif. There is a version of the “Little Red Riding Hood” a Grimm’s fairytale wherein the wolf swallows the grandma and then the girl too. Another version, however, depicts that girl was saved by a woodcutter after being swallowed by the wolf.
Myth of Hesione
Hesione was a Trojan princess, the daughter of King Laomedon of Troy. This happened right after the Trojan war when Hercules set out of Troy. King Laomedon had taken help from Poseidon and Apollo in building walls around Troy. However, the king failed to pay the wages which infuriated the gods. Apollo cursed Troy by causing an outbreak of a deadly plague. Poseidon unleashed a sea monster that terrorized Troy. It devoured the innocent. To stop these unfortunate deaths, King Laomedon, decided to offer a sacrifice of his own daughter, Hesione, to the sea monster. This would appease its fury. Hesione was tied to a rock near the sea waiting to be killed by the sea monster. Her beauty caught the attention of brave Hercules. Hercules struck a deal with King Laomedon that he would certainly save his daughter’s life if Laomedon gave him the wonderful horses of Zeus. Laomedon reluctantly agreed. Hercules sought to kill the monster. In the terrible combat, the sea monster swallowed Hercules. Hercules however, emerged out of the belly and killed the beast from inside.
Belly of the Whale by Joseph Campbell
Joseph Campbell in the “Hero with the Thousand Faces” explains that the ‘Belly of the Whale’ symbolizes a womb. The hero, instead of conquering or conciliating the evil forces, is swallowed into the unknown and appears to have died. It is just like self-annihilation.
Campbell wisely compares this popular motif to the purification of a worshipper who enters a shrine. Here the temple is compared to the “belly of the whale”. The entrances to temples are usually flanked and defended by colossal gargoyles: dragons, lions, devil-slayers with drawn swords, resentful dwarfs, winged bulls. These could be compared to the unknown forces the worshipper has to overcome before entering the temple. Just when the devotee enters the temple, he undergoes a metamorphosis. He sheds his character like a snake sheds its slough.