To gaze at the stars is to gaze at the world. In Harry Mulisch’s The Assault (1982), a “type of imagery [is presented] that identifies Anton many times throughout the novel as a stargazer.” (Forst 1994, 49). These images function not only as symbols but also frame the narration of the story. The mythological figures of Orion and Ra, at the beginning and end of the book respectively, encapsulate the metaphorical blindness Anton suffers after the traumatic events he encountered during World War II and his journey towards-+ healing. Therefore, I propose that such references to the celestial bodies and their mythological counterparts outline the course of the novel and parallel Anton’s story.
Following Hesiod’s The Astronomy Orion was blinded by King Oenopion as a response to the rape of his daughter Merope. Thus, when his constellation is mentioned at the beginning of the book, just after Fake Ploeg has been shot, it marks Anton’s figurative blindness: “His eyes were used to the darkness now, and he could see ten times better than before. Orion lifting his sword, the Milky Way, one brilliant, shiny planet, probably Jupiter” (Mulisch 1982, 18-19). The constellation also forecasts the death of the Steenwijks. According to 3rd century Neoplatonic philosophy, the souls of the deceased would travel to the Milky Way, and “In the middle of this cosmic gap, the constellation of Orion was located.” (Šmitek 2001, 122). The spirits would cross Orion’s constellation to reach their new realm. In general, the sky was a concept closely linked to death, but Orion as a human figure was of grave importance:
“But since the soul of the deceased was closely connected with the sky, depictions of the Moon and stars on Greek gravestones were profoundly symbolic and were additionally explained by inscriptions. Man merged with the macrocosm after death; he turned into ‘macroanthropos’, best represented by the constellation of Orion.” (123)
Therefore, Orion is the metaphorical representation of the assault on the Steenwijk family and more specifically Anton. Signalling not only death but also the blindness of one’s memory as a cause of the trauma.
Ra, as the deity of the sun in Egyptian mythology, symbolizes light, life, and rebirth, and holds an antithetic symbology to Orion, at least at first glance. Ra’s attributes could explain the sense of catharsis Anton feels at the end of the book:“ At the same time he thought: ravage, of course, ravage. That would be the Sun God Ra’s vague definition, giving away the U.” (Mulisch 1982, 184) After learning why Fake Ploeg’s body was moved to his lawn, the puzzle is completed. All the unresolved questions related to the assault have now been answered, he’s no longer haunted by them and will be able to live his life fully in the present. Ra gives Anton a new start to his life where his sight is now healed. This journey parallels Orion’s who, after being blinded, travelled east, with the help of a servant, and was healed by Helios, the Sun (Hesiod The Astronomy, Fragment #4). In both cases, the hero, after being blinded, goes on a journey receiving help along the way, and is healed by the sun in the end. The major difference lies in the fact that after regaining sight, Orion seeks revenge whereas Anton will be able to live peacefully.
Even if they come from different religions, Ra and Orion hold several links that go further than this novel. First, the Sun and Orion’s constellation were the two most important figures in the astronomical calendar. As it has been pointed out before, Ra represents rebirth, a new day. Meanwhile, Orion “signified the end of winter and the beginning of a new annual cycle.” (Šmitek 2001, 120). In both cases, they are of astronomical importance due to the meaning they carry of beginning anew. Second, both are associated with Osiris, the god of the land of the dead in Egyptian mythology. On one hand, it has been pointed out that “The influence of Egyptian iconography is visible in Greek astronomical manuscripts from the 2nd century BC onwards. A manuscript roll from that time, Eudoxus (kept in the Louvre, Paris), identifies the Orion constellation as the god of the land of the dead, Osiris.” (ibidem.) This comes without surprise, according to some religious branches in Ancient Greece, many aspects of the afterlife were based on celestial bodies and deities. In addition, Alexandria was a powerful merchant city, which gave place to cultural influence. Thus, many religious traditions in Greece had Egyptian influences, up to the point that “[a]ccording to Herodotus, most of the gods of Ancient Greece were taken from Egypt” (ibidem.). On the other hand, it was believed that every night Ra would travel through the underworld, and with a new day he would be born again. As time went by, the story kept evolving until when in the New Kingdom we find that «[i]n some Underworld Books, Ra mysteriously merges with the corpse of Osiris, the ruler of the underworld. When they become “the United One,” the dead can reawaken and the world can be remade.» (Pinch 2004, 184) Ra’s links to Osiris still point towards rebirth and new beginnings. In both cases, the associations with death deepen the symbology of the novel. It shows that even when everything has been destroyed, something new can grow out of the ruins.
In this essay, I have proven how Orion’s and Ra’s references make the story go full circle, by placing the first before the Steenwijks are unwillingly implicated in the assault, and the latter in the end when all questions have been answered. Moreover, it parallels Anton’s journey with Orion’s myth. This is possible due to the symbology each figure holds on its own, but more importantly the links between each other, death, healing, and rebirth.
Eva Monllaó López is a Literary Studies student at Universitat de Barcelona (UB).
- Ferber, Michael.A Dictionary of Literary Symbols (version Third edition.) Third ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University. 2017
- Forst, Graham N. “‘Shall We Talk about Light?’: Fate and Freedom in Harry Mulisch’s ‘The Assault.’” Modern Language Studies 24, no. 4 1994: 47–53.
- Hesiod. Hesiod, the Homeric Hymns, and Homerica. Translated by Hugh G. Evelyn-White. Project Gutenberg Etext, No. 348. Champaign, Ill.: Project Gutenberg. https://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/348/pg348-images.html
- Mulisch, Harry. The Assault. Translated by Claire Nicolas White. New York: Pantheon, 1982.
- Pinch, Geraldine. Egyptian mythology: A guide to the gods, goddesses, and traditions of ancient Egypt. Oxford University Press, USA, 2004.
- Šmitek, Zmago. “Astral Symbolism on the Pre-Romanesque Relief in Keutschach (Hodiše) Astralna simbolika predromanskega reliefa v Hodišah (Keutschach).” Studia mythologica slavica 4 2001: 119-140.