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Human Sacrifice: The Hunger Games and King Minos

I’ll start by saying, hella spoilers. When I post about books here, be forewarned that I’m writing an analysis, not a review. (If I am just doing an overall review, it will be noted in the title.)

The first book we’re reading for the book club is The Hunger Games. This already popular young adult trilogy has had a surge lately, thanks to the upcoming movie release next month. I started re-reading it today and I’ve already got plenty of material to work with. It’s not hard to love these books. Suzanne Collins is a superb writer, and she handles action better than most writers. Once you get into the Games in the book, you really feel the tension, the rapidity of everything. That can be difficult to do when writing fight scenes. Believe me, I’ve tried.

Some background, in case you live under a rock:The Hunger Games is about a sixteen-year-old girl named Katniss who is chosen, with twenty-three other teenagers from Panem’s twelve Districts, to participate in the Hunger Games. The Games are a fight to the death; the last “tribute” standing wins a lifetime of luxury and prizes for their home District. The Capitol, the ruling body of Panem, devised the Games after an uprising seventy-four years prior to the events of the book. The Games are a reminder of the total control the Capitol has over the Districts.

So basically:

  • Citizens revolt against government–very disrespectful
  • Government gets cranky
  • Government demands twenty-three teenagers as sacrifice. These teenagers participate in a “Game” that involves traps, labyrinthine landscapes, and other teenagers trying to kill them.
  • Citizens keep quiet

This sounds familiar to me. I’m a huge fan of mythology, particularly Greek mythology. One well-known myth is that of Theseus and the Minotaur. The Minotaur was a half-man, half-bull. Depending on which versions you read, the Minotaur was the son of Queen Pasiphae and a bull, Pasiphae and Zeus in the form of a bull, or Pasiphae and her husband, King Minos of Crete. Minos was so horrified and ashamed of the beast that he had his trusty genius Daedalus build a labyrinth that no one could find their way out of alive. There he places the Minotaur. Years later, Minos’s less bullish son goes to Athens to compete in some games and gets killed. In his wrath, Minos demands a tribute from Athens of seven young men and seven young women, to be sent annually (or every seven or nine years, depending on the version). These tributes are brought to Crete, sent into the Minotaur’s labyrinth, and eaten. According to some versions, Minos threatened a plague on Athens if they didn’t send him his teenagers.

So basically:

  • Foreign king’s son accidentally dies during Athens’ games–very disrespectful
  • Foreign king gets cranky
  • Foreign king demands fourteen teenagers as sacrifice. These teenagers are thrown into a labyrinth and have to either try to escape or be eaten by the Minotaur
  • Athens presumably plays no more games with foreign princes

The parallels are clear. Demanding human sacrifice–I’m sorry, tribute–is a totally acceptable form of social control and/or revenge. But it isn’t self-sustaining. Eventually, if you play the same game over and over again, you get someone who knows how to outsmart it. In the Theseus myth, it’s very simple. Theseus volunteered to be a tribute, planning to kill the Minotaur. Minos wasn’t worried, because Theseus would then still have to get out of the impossible labyrinth. Luckily, the Athenian had some help from Ariadne, Minos’s own daughter. She fell in love with him, and so when he went into the labyrinth she gave him a ball of thread. With this, he was able to trace his steps back to the labyrinth’s exit after he killed the monster.

In The Hunger Games, it gets a little more complicated because there are many levels of manipulation going on, most of which go right over Katniss’s head. Her accomplices include Haymitch (mentor), Cinna (stylist), her sponsors, etc; but in many ways the mastermind of the plan that helps her win the games is her male counterpart from District 12, Peeta. Her own survival skills are impressive, but without Peeta’s manipulation of (slash honesty with?) the Capitol audience, neither of them would have survived.

For those who don’t know what I’m talking about, shame on you. Go read the book.

Anyway. Peeta’s love for Katniss prompts him to help her the way Ariadne helped Theseus. Katniss has the skill and strength to survive in the arena, but she lacks many of the traits necessary to play the social and cultural part of the Games. Peeta, on the other hand, excels at playing the audiences. He uses these skills to give Katniss the boost she needs to become the whole package, the fan favorite. At first, it’s just to save her; but as she plays along with him, the country becomes so supportive of them that they demand an alteration of the rules and allow both Katniss and Peeta to survive the Games. The love he has for her, and the love the country has for them as a couple, becomes a lifeline out of the Games.

I often go back to mythology as the root of a lot of the plots and characters that have come to be kind of stock in today’s entertainment. I enjoy seeing the parallels between something written thousands of years ago and something published in the last decade. The first time I read The Hunger Games, I didn’t remember the Minotaur story. The second time through, it struck me almost immediately. It makes me wonder what other mythological parallels we might find in the trilogy. Perhaps next time, when I do a thorough character sketch of Katniss, I’ll compare her to Artemis, the virgin huntress!

2 thoughts on “Human Sacrifice: The Hunger Games and King Minos

  1. Hunger Games is similar to two stories by Stephen King, both published as Richard Bachman: The Running Man and The Long Walk. Same premise – dystopian future where people are pitted against the State in “games.”

    1. Interesting. I wonder if the whole “games” thing is a recurring feature of dystopian fiction. I can’t think of any examples at the moment, but I feel like I’ve read other similar things like this.

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