One of the lesser noticed aspects of ancient myths and legends is the price that gods, demigods, and spirits sometimes demanded for providing goods or services to humans: their children. This can still be seen in folk tales such as Rumpelstiltskin, and such a legend is alluded to in Kristin Lavaransdatter, where Odin assists a woman in brewing then demands for payment “what was between her and the vat” - i.e. the child she carried in her womb1.
This harsh levy is downplayed in most modern renditions of the legends, but students who study the original tales know that a consistent theme throughout them is the hunger lesser gods and spirits have for human children. This is harsh to modern ears, for we value our children so highly that we shudder at the very thought of turning them over to some god in return for a service provided.
Or do we?
The “gods” of our culture provide many things for us, one of the more prominent being copious entertainment. Thanks to radio, television, movies, and now the nearly-ubiquitous Internet, very few in Western culture lack for something to amuse or distract them. America is renowned world-wide for our movies and programs, and the happenings on popular shows can actually be reported on news programs. Televisions are so common that a home without one is so unusual as to be freakish.
But what price do these cultural gods demand for this service of nonstop entertainment of nearly infinite variety? I thought of that this past week, as the furor over the new MTV series Skins erupted across the news media. Especially telling was this commentary by a secular commentator on a secular station. He argued compellingly that once this kind of content is broadcast and known about, it doesn't matter what controls parents might attempt to impose on their children: they will be able to access the program some way or another.
Suddenly, ubiquitous access to all forms of entertainment doesn't look so inviting. The problem is, the horse has left the barn. Parents who have opened their homes to the cultural gods in order to be entertained have usually accomplished a few things. One is setting an example that if something is appealing, it should be watched. The other is letting time they could have spent parenting be displaced by something else. Every hour they spent being passively entertained was one less hour spent interacting with their children and forming their characters. Another common occurrence in modern homes, where televisions are found scattered around the house including in bedrooms, is that of total individual choice. If someone doesn't like what's playing in the family room, they can go in the den or their room and watch something else. These factors converge when children get to an age when shows like Skins attract them – and suddenly parents find they have no way of controlling what their children watch.
The gods of the culture have provided their service of nonstop, enthralling entertainment. Their price: the children.
Our entertainment culture doesn't walk in the door announcing its intent. Like the gods in the old stories, it offer the allure first – the help with the difficult task, or acquiring the desired item, or providing the enticing entertainment. Only afterwards is the terrible price revealed, but at that point it's too late to deny the god his price. The deed is done, and the price must be paid. I wonder how many parents lapped up the entertainment services of the gods of our culture, only to realize to their dismay that one consequence of this was the loss of their children to values they never taught – but the children learned regardless?
I wish I could say that Ellen and I were prescient enough to see this coming when we decided not to have a television in our home while raising our children. We weren't. All we knew was that we wanted to have tight control over what formed their thoughts and imaginations. We wanted it to be good books, Christian teaching, and our family values. It's only looking back over the results of our decision, and watching the anguish of parents who find their children slipping away, that it's become clear what has happened.
The ancient legends contain a subtle lesson: beware who you speak to casually, and which dells or glens you wander into. Above all, watch out who you let into your house, no matter what kind of aid or service they offer. You may get something you really desire, but at a price too terrible to consider.
The lessons are just as valid these days, they just need to be applied a little differently.
1The Bridal Wreath, Part 3, Chapter 7