‘Titanic’ & ‘Erebus’: What’s in a Name


Newport, RI: Herring Gull 9/1/12

          When I take visitors to Cambridge around Harvard Yard, I pause outside Memorial Church, point to the imposing building opposite it and ask if they know what they’re looking at.  They don’t.  ‘The Titanic,’ I tell them.

           The grieving mother of a son drowned April 12, 1912, endowed Harvard’s Harry Elkins Widener Memorial Library.

           The Titanic is always with us.  Its name, now synonymous with hubris, haunts us.  It should.  It has roots deeper than the frigid waters in which the great ship went down.


          ‘Why Name a Ship After a Defeated Race?’ asks the title of Thomas Laqueur’s lead essay in the London Review of Books this week.  It’s a fascinating take on some of the spawn of the centennial of the Titanic’s sinking.

           Laqueur, a history professor at Berkeley, offers some jaw-dropping sidebars to the legend.  For instance, the Nazi propoganda minister, Josef Goebbels,

commissioned a propaganda movie about the Titanic, intended to show that its fate was a parable of British hard-heartedness in the pursuit of Mammon. Like the ship, the movie was excessive. The most expensive German movie made to date, it was wildly over budget. No one made any money from it. Goebbels had the director arrested for badmouthing the film’s Kriegsmarine consultants and then murdered in his cell under cover of suicide.

 And there’s a lot more to the Goebbels story.

            As Laqueur notes, the Titanic was doomed from its christening.

One might have known that naming a ship after the defeated race of Greek deities was a mistake. Kronos, the leader of the Titans, came to power by castrating his father and was defeated by the Olympians with Zeus at their head. The Titanic’s slightly smaller sister ship, Olympic, survived the Great War and became a great favourite with travellers because she was a replica of her ill-fated kin, a relic of the lost age of innocence….  ‘Titanic’ spelled trouble: like Lucifer, rebel against God; like Rome, fallen. Carlyle used the word to describe Danton and he came to no good. The White Star Line was asking for trouble.


           I would argue that the greatest song[1] of the folk-rock era is Pentangle’s ‘Lord Franklin’ on ‘Cruel Sister’ (1970).

It was homeward bound one night on the deep
Swinging in my hammock I fell asleep
I dreamed a dream and I thought it true
Concerning Franklin and his gallant crew.

With one hundred seamen he sailed away
To the frozen ocean in the month of May
To seek a passage around the pole
Where we poor seamen do sometimes go.

           Admiral Sir John Franklin was a noted explorer and adventurer.  At 58 in 1845 he set out on yet another voyage to find the Northwest Passage.  He, his 110 men and two ships disappeared into the wastes west by northwest of Baffin Island’s northern tip.

           His fame and the mystery of the expedition’s fate propelled numerous expeditions – into the past decade.  Beginning in the mid-1850s, the horror Franklin’s company endured on the ice for two years has been documented.  [For a fascinating, if now somewhat dated, summary, see Russell A. Potter, ‘Sir John Franklin: His Live and After-life’.]

           And what were Lord Franklin’s two ships?  Terror and Erebus: the meaning of the first is clear, but what of the second?  Writes Ron Leadbetter in the Encyclopedia Mythica:

Erebus was known as the embodiment of primordial darkness, the son of Chaos (who was the void from which all things developed, known also as Darkness)….  Charon, the ferry-man who took the dead over the rivers of the infernal region, is also said to be the son of Erebus….

Later legend describes Erebus as the Infernal Region below the earth. In this version, Hades was split into two regions: Erebus, which the dead have to pass shortly after they have died, and Tartarus, the deepest region, where the Titans were imprisoned….


           Terror in the primordial darkness.  The Titans and the Titanic.  What were they thinking?


           1.  Why?  It is a genuine folk song and folk tune, reshaped by geniuses.  John Renbourn’s pacing and lead vocal is perfection, as is Jacqui McShee’s other-worldly harmony.  And, the instrumental background, almost lost in the compelling, haunting voices, is provided by two greats, Renbourn and Bert Jansch.