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Somewhere in the third century BC -- traditionally 356 BC, actually, on the birthday of Alexander the Great -- an angry young man by the name of Erostratus set fire to one of the seven wonders of the world, the temple of Artemis in Ephesus. He destroyed it. Erostratus has been claimed as an exemplar of various problems or virtues, including the right way to perform architectural criticism. (Apparently he found the construction of such monuments vainglorious.) But most versions of the tale show Erostratus as a man obsessed with fame and immortality. Unable to achieve them in conventional ways, he settled for notoriety.

The instructive part of the story, as it is usually told, is that the Greek authorities, after executing Erostratus, recognized that his greatest desire was to have his name forever known. So in order to deny him this victory, they issued an edict forbidding mention of his name on penalty of death. Of course, this had the opposite effect, turning an ordinary madman into a legendary figure. It guaranteed that we still know his name a couple of thousand years later.

But this figure is not a mere individual. He is a type; his motivations have resurfaced among madmen throughout history.

And, like so many myths, his story has been repeated and adapted in various literary forms because he represents a type that all the ages have known. Jean-Paul Sartre turned Erostratus into an existentialist anti-hero, in a short story of the same name. In Sartre's version, the would-be mass murderer, disgusted by humanity, sends letters to a list of writers announcing his attention to go on a shooting rampage. When the time comes for his planned act, he loses his nerve, realizing that if there is no reason for them to live, there is no reason for them to die, either. But then he gets startled and shoots a passerby in a panic (rather like Camus's "outsider," Meursault, who shoots a stranger on a beach for no good reason).

There was also a stage play based on this character, and divers student films. The pervasiveness of the myth shows one thing: that the desire for celebrity through violence is not restricted to the Internet age.

We have heard a great deal in recent years, and will hear more in the coming weeks, about how school shootings by disaffected young loners are caused by the culture of fame as promoted by popular culture. We have heard psychologists proclaiming that in the age of instant and easily attainable celebrity, as promoted by reality-TV contests such as American Idol, celebrity becomes pathologically important to youth.

The popularity of look-at-me blogs and Facebook pages, the culture of exhibitionism that the Web promotes, it is said, are all part of this and give rise to a disproportionate valorizing of celebrity, and it is this that makes teens crazy, literally crazy, for fame. It is a popularity contest whose importance is grossly magnified: If they gain no celebrity, they feel like dismal failures. And this is maybe why they shoot dozens of their peers at a time.

Well, if that were true, why have schools been favourite targets of mass murderers right through the 20th century, and long before the Internet? Compare the Bath, Mich., school bombing of 1927, which killed 45, the Poe Elementary School bombing in Houston in 1959 that killed six, the Cologne, Germany, massacre of 1964 that killed 11, the Austin, Tex., university clock-tower shooting of 1966 that killed 15, the Cleveland Elementary School massacre in Stockton, Calif., that killed five children in 1989 and of course the 1989 Montreal massacre that we know too well.

This list does not include a similar number of shootings and massacres by similarly unhinged murderers in workplaces (such as postal offices). It is not clear why historians create a separate category for the "school shooting," especially as the apocalyptic motivations of the killers seem to be generally the same regardless of the institutional setting. Perhaps it is because the youth of the victims in school shootings make them seem particularly tragic and deserving of a special symbolism.

It is true that there was a rash of school shootings in the late 1990s and again in the 2000s. The more recent ones are usually attributed to the copycat impulse that followed the fantastic media success of the Columbine High School killers in 1999. In this, the Erostratus principle is clearly at work: The reach and magnifying effect of the 24-hour cable-news channels certainly improves one's chances of attaining immortality through universal loathing.

But it would be a stretch to say the desire for such immortality is recent or caused by celebrity culture or MySpace. The legend of Erostratus is so old because this particular form of insanity is so old. Consider the murderer Meursault's last wishes, in The Outsider, published in 1942: "For everything to be consummated, for me to feel less alone, I had only to wish that there be a large crowd of spectators the day of my execution and that they greet me with cries of hate."