Charts & Graphs

As Free as the Gods

Liberation tropes in world mythology.

Drawing of a man with yellow hair and orange hat in profile

As punishment for his role in the death of the god Balder, the Norse gods imprison Loki in a cave, bind him with the entrails of his son, and torment him with a venomous serpent. The thirteenth-century Icelandic poet Snorri Sturluson writes that Loki will lie bound until Ragnarök, the final destruction of gods and humans.

Figure behind bars

A Long Imprisonment

White-bearded man in a turban
In a tenth-century Zoroastrian text, the hero Thraitauna tries to kill the tyrannical three-headed serpentine demon Azhi Dahaka, but scorpions and snakes crawl out of Dahaka’s wounds. To avoid contaminating the world with the creatures, Thraitauna traps Dahaka beneath a volcano forever.
Profile of a woman’s head on a coin
The fourth-century Roman grammarian Servius describes an ancient grove situated thirty-five miles from Rome that was consecrated to Feronia, a Sabine goddess of freedom who was especially popular among freedmen and freedwomen. In the sanctuary was a stone seat inscribed let well-deserving slaves sit and arise free.
Broken handcuffs

The Promise of Freedom

Hebrew letters
In the Book of Exodus, an Egyptian pharaoh enslaves the Israelites living in his kingdom. Their God, Yahweh, sends Moses to negotiate their manumission. The pharaoh refuses until a plague sent by Yahweh kills his oldest son. Moses leads the Israelites out of Egypt; after wandering in the wilderness for forty years, they conquer a portion of Canaan.
Drawing of a spider
In a folktale of the Akan-speaking peoples of West Africa, trickster spider Ananse gathers earthly wisdom in a gourd, which he hangs from a tree. When he realizes some knowledge has escaped, Ananse empties the gourd, giving wisdom to the people gathered beneath him.
Hands in cuffs reaching up

Liberator of Knowledge

Drawing of a coyote paddling a canoe
The mythology of the Karuk tribe of California recounts how Coyote brought them fire after stealing it from a group of mountain dwellers. Concealing a piece of bark between his toes, he lights it on one of their fires and, before it burns out, carries it down the mountain with the help of a relay team of swift animals.
Painting of a young woman with dark hair wearing a yellow sari
The ten-headed demon Ravana abducts Sita, the divine consort of the god Rama, and confines her to a secret garden in the fourth-century-bc Ramayana. Hoping to rescue his wife, Rama pursues and kills Ravana in battle. When Rama doubts Sita’s faithfulness during her time with Ravana, she demands to undergo a trial by fire and emerges unscathed.
Figure escaping out a barred window

A Narrow Escape

Woman with black hair and a pale face
In the eighth-century Kojiki, the Shinto deity Izanami dies while giving birth to a fire god. Her brother (and husband) Izanagi follows her to Yomi, the land of the dead. Lighting a torch to guide their escape, he sees that Izanami is now a maggot-infested corpse. Pursued by his enraged sister, Izanagi flees and seals the entrance to Yomi with a boulder.