2013 Oscar Week: ‘Beasts of the Southern Wild’: Deluge Myths

Quvenzhane Wallis as Hushpuppy in Beasts of the Southern Wild

 Guest post written by Laura A. Shamas, Ph.D.

Warning: spoilers ahead!
With the Oscar season in full swing, many of the nominated films released in 2012 are in the spotlight again. Beasts of the Southern Wild is nominated for four Academy Awards: Best Actress, Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Director. Post-Sandy especially, the flood mythology motifs of Beasts of the Southern Wild deserve further examination, as they point to important symbols and mythic tropes active in the film. Water, personified as a character, reminds us of the potency of tales of the Deluge. Although floods are associated with destruction in mythology, they may also be seen as harbingers of renewal; Hushpuppy, the young female protagonist, leads with hope and wisdom at the film’s end.
Beasts of the Southern Wild, written by Lucy Alibar and Ben Zeitlin (based on Alibar’s play Juicy and Delicious), and directed by Zeitlin, is set in The Bathtub, a fictional delta region similar to parts of southern Louisiana. The story centers on Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis), a six year-old girl growing up in a ramshackle compound in a boggy bayou, raised solely by her ailing caring and erratic father, Wink (Dwight Henry). Hushpuppy’s mother left a long time ago, and in her own special house, the girl sometimes converses aloud with a symbol of her mother — an old sports jersey her mom left behind. In Act Two, Hushpuppy links a flashing white light over water in the distance to her mother’s identity.

WATER AS SYMBOL
We see that Hushpuppy and Wink’s lives are impacted by the presence of Water, as it incites much of the film’s plot. In Act One, a powerful storm of hurricane-force comes at night; their compound is flooded. In the downpour, the monsoon is personified when, with a rifle, Wink shoots up in the torrential rain and yells: “I’m comin’ to get you, Storm.” The next day, Hushpuppy and Wink navigate their rusty boat, crafted from an old truck, through swollen, overflowing waterways; a lone pet dog joins them. They look for survivors and take stock of the crippling destruction in their region. At first, it seems that no one else has survived, and Hushpuppy remarks, in voiceover narration: “They’re all down below trying to breathe through water.” Their square boat resonates as an ark-like image in this sequence. In Symbols of Transformation, C. G. Jung identifies Noah’s Ark as “an analogy of the womb, like the sea into which the sun sinks for rebirth.”[i]

In A Dictionary of Symbols by Jean Chevalier and Alain Gheerbrant, the meaning of water “may be reduced to three main areas. It is a source of life, a vehicle of cleansing and a centre of regeneration.” [ii]

All three of these aspects are depicted in Beasts of the Southern Wild. In Act Two, water is shown as a source of life in a teaching sequence: Wink shows Hushpuppy how to catch fish by hand (“You have to learn how to feed yourself. Now stick your hand in this water!”). Also in Act Two, the ocean feeds the community in the celebratory scene of The Bathtub’s storm survivors feasting on crawfish in their makeshift shelter in Lady Jo’s seafood shack. Wink tells Hushpuppy to “Beast it!” as she eats a crab. We gradually understand that Wink, as Mentor, is teaching his daughter bayou survival skills.

Later, the water serves as a source for spiritual cleansing; Hushpuppy embarks on a search for her mother, and finds maternal nurturing from women who work aboard a pleasure ship, the “Elysian Fields Floating Catfish Shack” featuring “Girls Girls Girls.” Wink’s passing, with final ship burial rites that are similar to those of the ancient Vikings, is connected to a spiritual return to the sea.

The theme of “regeneration” is clear in the ending of Beasts of the Southern Wild, and discussed in further detail below. Much more than a mere setting, water is part of every major plot turn, and somehow young Hushpuppy must learn to live with it, on it, and sail through it. 

FLOODING: MEANING AND MYTHS
Key tropes from flood stories are featured in Beasts of the Southern Wild. In ancient flood mythology, deities send destructive waters to punish humanity; some flood myths are also categorized as part of creation myths because a new cycle may begin after the water recedes. A deluge brings fear, according to ARAS’ The Book of Symbols: “Floods are especially frightening because they intimate unpredictable forces of like nature within ourselves.” [iii] A deluge may herald a post-Apocalypse renewal — a spiritually cleansing effect, related to the purification function of baptism. From a myth perspective, it can be seen as a three-part process: ruination, revival, and purification. [iv] As Tamra Andrews writes in A Dictionary of Nature Myths: “Humanity returned to the water from whence it came, then began again.” [v]

Beasts of the Southern Wild

Classic tales from traditions worldwide feature flood motifs. The Sumerian Epic of Atrahasis predates Noah’s story; ARAS’ The Book of Symbols says the Atrahasis tale “describes casualties of flood strewn about the river like dragonflies.” [vi]

The familiar story of Noah’s Ark is one of many legends in which the deluge brings a renewal, the start of a new cycle, even a rainbow. In the Gilgamesh Flood Myth (which some scholars trace to The Epic of Atrahasis), Upnatishtim must build a boat to weather a storm so foul its verocity frightens the very gods who created it. Like Noah, Upnatishtim’s boat eventually lands atop a mountain.

In the Irish legend of Fintan mac Bóchra, Fintan escorted one of Noah’s granddaughters to Ireland. As one of three who lived through the deluge, Fintan “the Wise” survived the deluge by shape-shifting into a salmon and two birds; eventually he became a human again and advised the ancient Kings of Ireland. A Kikuyu story (Kenya) tells of spirits drowning a town with beer, as inhabitants find refuge in a tavern.

In China, the tales of “Yu The Great” center on flood fighting, with family sacrifices as part of the battles, and supernatural assistance in the form of a yellow dragon, or in some versions, Yu is the dragon. [vii] An ark features prominently in the Greek myth of Deucalion and Pyrrha, Prometheus’ son and Pandora’s daughter, who survive a flood unleashed by Zeus. Floods are also featured in numerous Native American tales, such as the Arapaho story of Creation, in which a man with a Flat Pipe enlists Turtle to help save the land or the Chickasaw Nation’s Legend of the Flood in which a raven delivers part of an ear of corn to a lone remaining family on a raft, post-Deluge.

Hushpuppy faces an Auroch in Beasts of the Southern Wild

In Beasts of the Southern Wild, the melting ice cap imagery is linked to the global warming rise of coastal waters — perhaps Earth’s way of punishing humankind (which could be seen as divine chastisement related to myths above). The “watery end of the world” theme, the motorboat as ark, the tavern as place of refuge, the release of supernatural beings (such as Hushpuppy’s vision of the frozen Aurochs unleashed through global warming), the connection to animals and earth as agents of healing (Hushpuppy listens to them): all of these elements in the film may be seen as related to flood myth tropes. Although there is no rainbow at the end, there is definitely as sense of renewal as Hushpuppy becomes the new Bathtub leader. The imagery and mythic tropes in the film overall resonate with symbols of giving birth: from the womb-like ark, to overwhelming water which could be seen as related to amniotic fluid, through Hushpuppy’s search for her long-absent mother.

HUSHPUPPY AS HEROINE
By the end, Hushpuppy emerges as a culture heroine, leading the surviving people of The Bathtub forward as they walk on a road with water lapping at them from all sides — with Hushpuppy as a signifier of renewal, in keeping with traditional motifs of flood mythology. This conclusion gives us a female-lead vision of hope for the future; Hushpuppy’s voiceover narration tells us that one day scientists will find evidence of a girl named Hushpuppy who lived with her father in the Bathtub.

With our collective experience of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and now Sandy in 2012, the poignant depiction of flood mythology tropes resonate strongly in this award-winning film. Watching Beasts of the Southern Wild allows us to consider the Deluge’s symbolic import to the human psyche not only as an image of destruction, but as an important signal of change, marking a time of transformation. 

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Laura Shamas is a writer, film consultant, and mythologist. Her newest book is Pop Mythology: Collected Essays. Read more at her website: LauraShamas.com.
NOTES
  • [i] Jung,C.G. Symbols of Transformation. Collected Works, Volume V. Edited and Translated by Gerhard Adler and R.F.C. Hull. Princeton University Press, 1977. Page 211, Paragraph 311.
  • [ii] Chevalier, Jean, and Alain Gheerbrant. Trans. John. Buchanan-Brown. A Dictionary of Symbols. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1994. Page 1081.
  • [iii] “Flood.” The Book of Symbols by The Archive For Research In Archetypal Symbolism (ARAS). Amy Ronnberg, Editor-In-Chief. Cologne: Tashen, 2010. Page 50
  • [iv] Andrews, Tamra. A Dictionary of Nature Myths: Legends of the Earth, Sea and Sky. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998. Page 72
  • [v] Andrews, Tamra. A Dictionary of Nature Myths: Legends of the Earth, Sea and Sky. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998. Page 72.
  • [vi] “Flood.” The Book of Symbols by The Archive For Research In Archetypal Symbolism (ARAS). Amy Ronnberg, Editor-In-Chief. Cologne: Tashen, 2010. Page 50.
  • [vii] Wilkinson, Phillip and Neil Phillip. “Yu Tames the Floods.” Eyewitness Mythology. London: Dorling Kindersley, 2007. Page 175.

3 Comments

  • Posted March 18, 2013 at 2:07 am | Permalink

    Thank you….

  • scd2224
    Posted December 30, 2013 at 11:14 pm | Permalink

    While watching this film, I was always looking for the allegory, allusion, and/or symbolism in what I was seeing. In actuality, it backfires beautifully to deliver the powerful message of this film. .

    The world we were shown is Hushpuppy’s world. She sees what she sees because it is through the eyes of a child.

    This world is her world, and the viewer ends up making judgements about what is shown.

    We witness the horrific events and begin to view these people as “beasts” in our eyes,

    Don’t think you would ever think of someone as a beast? Too late, everybody already has treated them as beasts after Katrina.

  • Frank Rizzo
    Posted February 13, 2016 at 3:38 am | Permalink

    Why must you ruin such a beautiful movie by ANAL-izing it instead of simply reviewing it? I’ve always been allergic to literary analysis, as it is a purely academic exercise which often seems to be more aimed at impressing the reader (Usually a teacher) by tossing at him as many pompous references to the likes of Jung and Nietzsche as possible, drowning the actual subject matter of the work being “Analized” beneath a deluge of quotes and comments from other works and authors, as if the actual work being reviewed didn’t provide the reviewer with enough material to qualify as an academic paper. Too often the author of such an “Analysis” just goes too far in his analysis, describing minor symbols in great details, or seeing allegories that the author never intended, which is a perverse consequence
    of being graded by a teacher who is not the author of the the work being reviewed, hence putting the emphasis of the student’s work on the quantity of “symbols” he can identify and describe, rather than the actual pertinence of the symbols, and the understanding of the author’s intent…

    “Beasts of the southern wild” is in my own opinion a masterpiece. A truly unique movie, crafting beauty out of the harshest misery, as appealing to the eye as it is to the mind. This is a true art film, and it achieves that status by staying miles away from the Artsy-Fartsy cliches that plague the industry.
    This way of picturing the very harsh reality of a little girl learning to survive on her own, with the help of a community of “strange” (to our urban eye) castaways of society in the southern U.S.A borders with surrealism, as a child’s interpretation of life’s harsh realities often does, and reminded me of Terry Gilliam’s “Tideland” which I strongly recommend if you enjoyed Beasts of the southern wild, As it is another Beautiful, surreal movie viewed through the eyes of a little girl who has to learn to survive in the rural southern U.S after losing both of her parents. Truly, it is the only other film that I have seen turn the horrible reality of life-threatening misery into a beautiful surrealist fairy-tale through the eyes and imagination of a little girl.

    Here’s the IMDB link for Tideland:
    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0410764/

    The key thing to remember: Beasts of the southern wild is a masterpiece.
    I am truly impressed with Ben Zeitlin’s movie, and can’t wait for his next movie. As for Quvenzhané Wallis, her performance is simply stellar, and I predict that she will be ubiquitous on the silver screen in a few years.
    Dwight Henry too delivers an amazing performance, He has a very difficult role and plays it admirably. Go see this movie, you won’t regret it.