Adaptation of Mythology: Hero of One Thousand Years
-- Barbara Ann Cass
In his 1984 novel Jitterbug Perfume, Tom
Robbins presents a narrative that rivals the often fantastical tales told in myth. Using
classical mythology as a foundation, and, in particular, providing a loose adaptation of The
Odyssey by Homer, Robbins updates and modifies characters and concepts in an effort
to reinforce the importance of the journey of life and the discovery of self. Like the
ancient myth-makers, Robbins commands the readers attention with outrageous
situations and events while at the same time providing characters that the reader can
relate to and learn from.
Jitterbug Perfume is a story of epic proportions, spanning a time-frame of
almost one thousand years. The protagonist, Alobar, is first encountered sometime in the
eleventh century as a king in Bohemia. Alobar rebels against the custom of his tribe that
condemns their ruler to death upon the appearance of his first grey hair. He escapes this
premature and arbitrary demise, and much of the novel follows Alobar's adventures over the
next ten centuries as he continues to avoid death. On the way, he encounters Kudra, the
love of his life, the god Pan, and, eventually, the other important, modern-day characters
in the novel. Their stories all converge in the twentieth century in a series of chance
meetings. These present-day encounters revolve around the search for the secret ingredient
to the perfect perfume, and involve the presence of a vegetable, the beet.
The structure of Jitterbug Perfume contains many similarities to the structure
of The Odyssey. In a manner reminiscent of Homer's opening entreaty to a Muse,
Tom Robbins begins Jitterbug Perfume with a treatise on the beet. While Homer
calls on the Muse to help him tell his tale, Robbins introduces the beet -- "the
ancient ancestor of the autumn moon" -- as a device that connects his story to the
stories of old (Robbins 1). Furthermore, the beet as "the grounded moon-boat"
calls to mind Odysseus's various nautical incidents and accidents (1). This discourse is
chapter one of four brief chapters that introduce the modern-day characters, much as Homer
begins his epic with the four books that acquaint us with the people and the situation in
Ithica. Each work is told retrospectively by a third-person omniscient narrator, and the
adventures of Alobar and Kudra are relayed primarily through flashbacks, much as the story
of Odysseus is told. Homer's use of Athena as a character whose presence permeates and
drives the action of the epic is mirrored, albeit perversely, by Robbins' use of the beet
as a similar "character," an entity that permeates and affects the lives of the
characters in the book. The novel, as does the epic, ends with all the primary characters
coming together to effect a satisfying conclusion.
A key to understanding his writing, says author Tom Robbins, is a knowledge of Greek
myth. A particular influence on him is the life and work of Joseph Campbell, author of
several books on mythology (Hoyser and Stookey 9). Campbell, in turn, owes influence to
the insights of analytic psychologist Carl Jung. Jung recognized the patterns within myths
--- throughout the world and across all cultures -- of characters, situations, and events,
and identified these recurring images as archetypes (Harris and Platzner 40). Campbell
examines mythology using the patterns of these archetypal heroic adventures, and applies
to myths the insights of Carl Jung.
In his book The Hero With a Thousand Faces, Campbell describes the journey of
a hero as one that entails "a separation from the world, a penetration to some source
of power, and a life-enhancing return," a model that Robbins uses for his hero and
heroine (35). In addition, the journeys of Alobar and Kudra are those of self-development,
self- recognition, and maturation, following Jungs process of individuation, the
process that allows them to "fulfill their potential and grow into true
selfhood" (Harris and Platzner 43). By providing his characters with opportunities
for self-discovery as they journey through life, Robbins confirms his belief that
"[o]ur individuality is all, all, that we have. . ." (qtd. in Easton
Alobar embodies physical and psychological characteristics of several mythological
heroes. He is deemed by his subjects as being semi-divine, a trait of many hero figures.
Like Achilles, Alobar is an imposing warrior who had often risked his life in combat. He
is described as having a nose "banded at the bridge with a ribbon of scar
tissue", "war marked hands" and a body "braided with muscle, supple,
quick" (Robbins 19-25). Like Odysseus, he is perceived as a wise and fair ruler. As
one of his wives, Wren, tells him, ". . . you have a brain. . . In the past, many
kings have ruled this people. You have governed them" (24).
Alobar is more like Odysseus than like any of the other heroes of myth in that, despite
the perception of his tribe, he is of human birth, experiences an extremely long journey
with many adventures, remains (relatively) faithful to his wife, and enjoys the
companionship of a god. However, Robbins presents Alobar as a hero who, from his very
introduction, is a man consciously in search of himself, in spite of the fact
that at first the concept of "self" confuses him (Robbins 20). Alobar perceives
himself to be "a part of the community, the race, and the species, yet . . . somehow
separate from them . . . .he sought to become something singular out of his singular
What prompts this search of self is Alobar's questioning the reasonability of the
execution ritual prescribed by his clan in order to avoid having an enfeebled ruler, in
this case himself (19). Here again, Robbins deviates from the traditional portrayal of a
hero, that is, one who does not rebel against the gods. Despite the fact that he feels he
is betraying the gods by resisting his fate he, with the help of his wife Wren, devises
and executes a plan to feign death. He escapes to the far-off village of Aelfric where --
a scant two years later, in a ritual where he is crowned "King of the Bean" --
he is again, ironically, sentenced to death. Enraged at being "twice king and twice
condemned," Alobar determines to run away again from death (51). He becomes a man who
"[stands] up to . . . and demands an accounting from . . . the gods" (109).
Alobar has now twice separated himself from his familiar world, thus accomplishing
"of his own volition" the first step in his journey to self-discovery (Campbell
In his roles as king, Alobar also demonstrates a connection to the Great Goddesses. In
Bohemia, Alobar is the "fertility king," not only responsible for overseeing the
expansions of cattle herds and beet crops, but also expected to produce many offspring.
Furthermore, if he had been executed as "King of the Bean," it would have been
as a sacrifice "to the good old goddess of agriculture" Demeter (Robbins 46).
Travelling across Europe, Alobar begins to encounter the supernatural forces that will
further aid and spur him on his journey (Campbell 69). He soon meets a Shaman who imparts
to Alobar the knowledge that the world is round, an inconceivable concept in
eleventh-century Europe. More importantly, the Shaman encourages Alobar in his quest for
freedom and individuality and infuses him with a special courage that bolsters Alobar on
Full of confidence, Alobar encounters the god Pan. Robbins interprets Pan much as he is
portrayed in classical myth -- that is, as a god who creates both beauty and terror
(Harris and Platzner 140). Alobar is both moved to tears by Pan's emotional piping and
driven by it to a state of literal panic, a "thrilling anxiety [that tempts] him with
irrational impulses" (Robbins 54).
Pan becomes a mentor and periodic companion to Alobar, much as Athena was to Odysseus.
As a source of "moon wisdom," "mountain wisdom," and "body
wisdom," Pan provides Alobar with exposure to female values that expand Alobar's
anima and understanding of the universe (157). Pan also infuses Alobar with a special fear
of death, which represents a "wisdom of the body" (58). This wisdom replaces
Alobars resentment of death, thus relieving Alobar of his "affliction of the
mind" and allowing him greater harmony with the natural universe, traits necessary
for his successful journey(101).
In an interesting twist, Robbins presents the relationship of Pan and Alobar as one
that is more intimate than the relationships of gods and men in classical myth, generally,
and between Athena and Odysseus, specifically. In an allusion to Dinoysian revelry, Pan
and Alobar enjoy together the pleasures of wine and nymphs and develop a grudging respect
and sincere affection for one another. Additionally, their alliance results in a mutually
beneficial experience. Unlike Sisyphus, who was punished for his attempts to avoid death
(Harris and Platzner 212), Alobar is encouraged and helped in his quest for immortality by
Pan, who tells him ". . . gods do not limit men. Men limit men" (Robbins 163).
Pan also reveals to Alobar that gods are "not quite immortal," that they live
"only as long as people believe in [them]" (52). This proves to be a prophetic
statement, when, eventually, Pan, a weakened god, must depend on Alobar for his survival.
Armed with courage, yet with a healthy fear of death, Alobar now sets out to find the
Bandaloop doctors, who he has been told hold the secrets of immortality. In their use of
witchcraft and sorcery, this group of mystical, magical creatures calls to mind the powers
of Hecate, powers that frighten Alobar. Furthermore, their use of trickery and their
alternating "hospitable and antagonistic" behavior towards Alobar confuses and
humiliates him (102). Unable to endure the turmoil, Alobar leaves the Bandaloop before he
learns their secrets. He retreats to a Samye lamasery, where he spends twenty years in
peace and tranquility, though still seeking a "release from the cycle of birth,
death, and rebirth" (105).
At this point in his adventures, Alobar is joined by a female companion who will
accompany him on his journey. Not a sidekick, but a true counterpart -- an anima to his
animus -- a mate, a lover, and a friend. Kudra is someone without whose presence Alobar's
journey could not be complete.
It has been argued that Tom Robbins is a "heroine addict" and this is
displayed in his spirited portrayal of the character Kudra (Whitmer 54). In Kudra, Robbins
presents a complex being that embodies traits of both a Great Goddess and the archetypal
hero(ine). Physically, Kudra is described as being "thick-thighed broad-hipped, and
heavy-breasted" with an exceptionally slender waist, features reminiscent of early
Earth Goddess figures (Robbins 107). As a young woman, Kudra gives birth to four children
and revels in her role as a mother, much as Demeter delighted in her daughter Persephone.
Kudra becomes an enthusiastic and accomplished lover who "radiate[s] an erotic
heat," characteristics that recall the goddess Aphrodite (378). The early death of
her husband, Navin, forces Kudra to question the prescribed fate for widows of either
servitude or death, neither very appealing options, but the only ones available in her
time and culture. Unwilling to serve or die, she escapes, disguised as a boy, leaving
behind most of her possessions in an effort to avoid being pursued. Kudra thereby exhibits
wisdom, intelligence, and resourcefulness, all traits symbolized by the goddess Athena
(Harris and Platzner, 129).
These Athena-like traits also tie Kudra to the image of Penelope, the intelligent,
perceptive, and resourceful wife of Odysseus (357). Kudra also has a particular aptitude
for combining, creating, and distinguishing scents. This talent further connects Kudra to
the image of Penelope the skilled weaver. In addition, like Penelope, Kudra is a faithful
wife, initially to her husband Navin, and later -- except for an irresistible encounter
with Pan -- to Alobar.
Kudra is a hero(ine) following the pattern described by Joseph Campbell. She, too, is
on a journey of self-discovery that involves the process of separation, penetration, and
return (Campbell 35). And, like Alobar, Kudra has a heightened sense of self and a
resentment of her societys arbitrary rules concerning death. By running away from
death, Kudra has left her family, children, and culture, thus realizing the first stage of
Campbell's process: a necessary separation from her original environment (Harris and
In the course of her escape, Kudra meets Alobar at the Samye lamasery. Her presence
reminds him of the sensual pleasures that he has been denied for twenty years, and Alobar
realizes that the absence of desire has led him to an "empty neutral existence"
(Robbins 105). Renewed desire finally allows Alobar to appreciate the chaotic behavior of
the Bandaloop. He realizes that there must be a balance between irrationality and reason,
turmoil and tranquility -- reflecting the aspects exemplified by the gods Apollo and
Dionysus -- in order for humankind to experience life and not just sustain existence
(105). Together Alobar and Kudra leave the lamasery and travel to the Bandaloop caves,
each prepared to tolerate these excesses in order to acquire the knowledge.
Upon arrival at the Bandaloop caves, Alobar and Kudra discover that the
"immortals" are nowhere to be found (118). The potent chthonic powers of the
Bandaloop, however, remain, emanating "vibrations" of "eternal
knowledge" and "life everlasting" within the caves which Kudra and Alobar
"study" for the next seven years (150). They develop a "program" that
focuses on the four elements in order to experience immortality (197). The element of air
refers to a method of breathing in a "circular . . . pattern like a serpent
swallowing its own tail" (291). The use of water consists of ritual baths, earth
refers to diet, and fire to sex (292-95). The couple's immersion in these
elemental rituals further unites them with the power and influence of the Great Goddesses.
Moreover, their experience with these supernatural forces -- the penetration to the source
of their power -- advances the couples journey towards self-realization and
reinforces Kudra's status as a archetypal hero(ine) (Campbell 35).
The association with the Bandaloop is not the only instance of Kudra's encounters with
supernatural forces. She meets, is seduced by, and befriends Pan (161). Through him, she
encounters the nymph Lalo, sister of Echo, who exposes Kudra to the concept of travel to
the "Other Side" of life (194). In addition, as an earth goddess, Kudra also
possesses chthonic powers of her own, primarily evidenced in her ability to foresee events
in the immediate and distant future (176).
Alobar and Kudra spend the next several centuries travelling the European continent.
Like Odysseus, they experience trials, but because of their ability to remain ageless,
they also risk the suspicion and fear of "normal" members of society. They
barely escape a frightened mob in Constantinople in the latter part of the eleventh
century (154), and manage to avoid torture by Gypsies in the 1300s (175). Unlike Odysseus,
however, they have no goal -- that is, no metaphorical "home" to which they wish
This becomes problematic for Kudra. While she and Alobar have managed to maintain an
amazingly harmonious relationship for six centuries, they do not see eye to eye on the
value of extended life. For Alobar, "longevity for longevity's sake is enough;"
Kudra seeks some greater purpose (Robbins 179).
Their disagreement brings them to settle in Paris in the 1600s. They are soon joined by
Pan, who, because of diminished human belief, has become invisible (186). The combined
presence of a god who causes erotic dreams, a man who doesn't age, and a woman who
"jiggle[s] shamelessly when she walk[s]" causes neighboring monks to threaten
their safety (201). In an effort to escape, they attempt dematerialization, which Kudra
had learned from the nymph Lalo (194). Kudra is successful, Alobar is not (207). Thus
Kudra departs earth and Alobar is abandoned, causing them to repeat the separation phase
of the heroic cycle while simultaneously taking another step in their development by being
initiated into the unknown (Harris and Platzner 43)
Alobar experiences several "unknowns" over the next three hundred years. He
travels with Pan to the New World where he continues, companionless, to experience his
journey through a new series of escapades that include owning a spa in Montana, becoming
janitor to Albert Einstein, and bombing a laboratory at MIT. The bombing earns him a jail
sentence, where he experiences the previously "unknown" process of aging and
meets with the first of the modern-day characters. Foremost, however, is the
"unknown" of living life without Kudra, which causes him to reflect on his ideas
of life and love. Eventually, Alobar realizes the power and importance of love,
re-prioritizes his life, and places his love for Kudra above his desire for everlasting
Echoing the journey of Odysseus to Hades, Kudra spends the same three centuries as a
dematerialized body on the unknown "Other Side" -- of life (379). Like Odysseus,
she witnesses the activities and interacts with some of the inhabitants. Her voyage,
however, is not a task or trial, but one of self-discovery. It is from Wren, one of
Alobar's wives during his tenure as king of Bohemia, that Kudra receives the most powerful
gift of self-knowledge.
Although Wren has not attained immortality, she has achieved a place of honor and a
relationship to chthonic powers after her death. Wren echoes the goddess Persephone in her
role as a priestess of the "Other Side", wherein her duties involve directing
the souls of the newly deceased to their ultimate destination (382). It is in this
capacity that Wren is able to impart wisdom to Kudra. Kudra obtains from Wren the secrets
of the "Other Side" -- that is, how souls are judged after death. More
importantly, however, Kudra heeds Wren's lesson to "lighten up" (386). Kudra
realizes that life has meaning for its own sake and can be enjoyed. Kudra learns not to be
afraid of death and, more importantly, not to be afraid of life.
Alobar is returned to the world of freedom, Kudra to the world of life, and their
reunion is imminent at the end of the novel. Both have achieved success in defining
themselves as independent, successful individuals. They have proven themselves to be
heroes, and, as with Odysseus and Penelope, anima and animus are reunited (Harris and
Barbara Ann Cass
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Easton, Tom. "The Reference Library." Rev. of Jitterbug Perfume, by
Analog Science Fiction/ Science Fact. Aug. 1985: 178.
Harris, Stephen L., and Gloria Platzner. Classical Mythology: Images and Insights.
2nd ed. Mountain
View: Mayfield, 1995
Hoyser, Catherine E., and Lorena Laura Stookey. Tom Robbins. Westport CN:
Robbins, Tom. Jitterbug Perfume. Bantam: New York, 1985.
Whitmer, Peter O. "Cosmic Comedian." Saturday Review Jan/Feb. 1985: