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Plato’s Symposium, depiction by Anselm Feuerbach

In Plato’s Symposium (c. 385–370 BCE), Socrates mentions that, in his youth, he was taught “the philosophy of love” by a woman named Diotima, a priestess from Mantinea. She taught Socrates the concept of love as a means of ascent to contemplation of the divine, arguing that the goal of love is immortality, either through the creation of children or beautiful things. This is an ancient concept. So ancient, in fact, that there are many love stories that were so great that they gave birth to changes in the world and new knowledges that we take for granted today.

The First Winter: Adonis and Aphrodite (Phoenician)

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“Adonis and Aphrodite” by Christian Wilhelm Ernst Dietrich

Adonis was born a most beautiful child. Aphrodite placed him into a coffin which she entrusted to Persephone, goddess of the Underworld. When Aphrodite returned to retrieve the coffin she discovered that Persephone had opened it and claimed the handsome child for herself. The dispute became so nasty that Zeus had to intervene. He then decided that Adonis should spend half the year on earth and half in the Underworld.

In another version of this myth Adonis was a hunter. Because Aphrodite loved Adonis, she tried to persuade him to give up the dangerous sport. Adonis refused and was killed by a wild boar. This myth actually came before the Ancient Greek version. In the sixth century the Phoenician name for this character was discovered. He was the agricultural divinity named Eshmun, which explained the 6 month alternation between the earth and the underworld.

Eshmun was known at least from the Iron Age period at Sidon and was worshipped also in Tyre, Beirut, Cyprus, Sardinia and Carthage where the site of Eshmun’s temple is now occupied by the acropolium of Carthage. Damascius stated that, “The Asclepius in Beirut is neither a Greek nor an Egyptian, but some native Phoenician divinity. For to Sadyk were born children who are interpreted as Dioscuri and Cabeiri; and in addition to these was born an eighth son, Esmunus, who is interpreted as Asclepius.”

Photius summarizes Damascius as saying further that Asclepius of Beirut was a youth who was fond of hunting. He was seen by the goddess Astronoë who so harassed him with amorous pursuit that in desperation he castrated himself and died. Astronoë then restored the youth to life from the warmth of her body and changed him into a god. A village near Beirut named Qabr Shmoun, “Eshmoun’s grave,” still exists.

The First Cesarean Section: Zal and Rudabeh (Persian)

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Zal and Rudaba in a Palace, page from a copy of the Shahnama of Firdausi

Zal, son of a Feridun chief named Sam, was born with snow white hair. This curious condition aroused fear that he might be a son of a devil, and Sam was forced to abandon the boy on a mountaintop. A simurgh, a bird with magic powers, snatched up the crying baby and raised him with its own nestlings.

Upon dreaming that his son still lived, Sam prayed to be reunited. The simurgh instructed Zal that he must return to his father, but gave him a feather that would ensure Zal’s safety if he were ever in danger. Sam welcomed his son and eventually put him in charge of Zabulistan where he performed his duties well. Zal decided to visit other places including Kabul. The chief of Kabul was a descendant of Zohak, an enemy of Zal’s father Sam and the king of Persia. Zal knew that the smart thing to do would be to avoid contact with the chief, but he wanted to meet the chief’s daughter Rudabeh who was described as “fair as the moon with ringlets of dark hair that reached her feet and whose presence made men think of heaven.” Rudabeh in turn had heard of Zal, and invited Zal to her palace retreat. The two realized their great love for each other, but feared their families’ enmity.

When Zal confessed his love for Rudabeh to his father, Sam consulted astrologers, and found out that the offspring of the two lovers would become a great conqueror. He sent Zal with a letter for Rudabeh’s father asking his permission for the marriage. The king received the same sign from the astrologers and consented. Rudabeh and Zal married, and the two kings made peace.

When Rudabeh was ready to give birth, she became gravely ill. Zal placed the simurgh feather on the fire. The simurgh appeared and instructed that Rudabeh be drugged with wine. Her side was opened, her child drawn out, and the incision rubbed with an herb and another feather from the simurgh’s wing – the world’s first cesarean procedure. The child named Rustam revealed himself immediately to be a hero and the fulfillment of the simurgh’s prophecy.

The First Embalment: Osiris and Isis (Egyptian)

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A crocodile with Osiris mummy on his back with Isis (left) and a solar disk (above), Isis Temple, Philae Island, Egypt

Osiris, son of Earth and Sky, was the husband-brother of Isis, goddess of the earth and moon. Set, the god of darkness, trapped Osiris in a coffin and threw him into the Nile. Grief-stricken Isis found the coffin and retrieved her husband’s body, but inspite of her attempts to hide it in Egypt, Set found it again and cut it into fourteen pieces which he scattered throughout the land. Isis searched again. When she found the parts, she rejoined the fragments, and restored the god to eternal life with the first use of the rites of embalment.

The First Dynasty: Sakuntala and Dashyanta (Indian)

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“Shakuntala looking back to glimpse Dushyanta” by Ravi Sharma

Sakuntala was abandoned in the forest where she survived on food brought by birds. She was discovered by the sage Kanva who raised her as his own daughter at a hermitage. One day King Dushyanta was hunting in the forest, and having caught sight of Sakuntala, fell in love. He persuaded her to marry him and gave her a ring of commitment when he departed. Unfortunately, Sakuntala, upon returning to the hermitage, mistakenly offended the irritable sage Durvasas. He cast a curse that she would be forgotten by her husband forever unless King Dushyanta spied the ring he had left with her.

Eventually it was time for Sakuntala to find her husband and she left the hermitage. When she stopped to bathe in a sacred pool, Sakuntala dropped the ring. In accordance with the curse, Dushyanta did not recognize her when she arrived at the palace and denied their marriage, although he did feel sorry for the grief-stricken girl about to give birth to a child. Sakuntala sadly withdrew from the palace only to be whisked away to a sacred grove by an apparition. There she bore a son named Bharata.

When a fisherman later found a ring inside a fish, he was taken before Dushyanta as a suspect of theft. Upon seeing the ring Dushyanta realized his vow to Sakuntala and anxiously sought her. The god Indra appeared in his chariot and carried Dushyanta to the sacred grove. There Dushyanta and Sakuntala were reunited and rejoiced in the heroic destiny of their son Bahrata who later gave his name to the dynasty of which he was the founder. It was in Bharata’s dynasty that later the Pandavas of the epic Mahabharata were born

The First Milky Way: The Cowherd and the Weaver Girl (Chinese)

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“The Moon of the Milky Way (Ginga no tsuki)”, by Yoshitoshi

The Vega and the Altair Stars were in love. However, it was forbidden for the stars to fall in love. The Celestial Queen Mother and the Heavenly Emperor heard of their love and became furious.  Despite the other stars’ protestations on behalf of the two lovers, the Celestial Queen Mother banished the Altair Star down to earth. The Vega Star was punished to weave the clouds in the sky for all eternity. Because of this, she became known as Zhinu (“the Weaver Girl”). Clouds in the skies were weaved by the Zhinu with celestial silk.

On earth, the Altair Star was reborn into a farming family. After his parents passed away, he stayed with his brother and sister-in-law, who treated him badly. Eventually, he was chased out of their home with only an old ox and a broken cart. He and his ox were inseparable, plowing and working hard to make ends meet. Because of this friendship, the people in the village came to know him as Niulang (“the Cowherd”).

One day, the Heavenly Maidens, servants of the Celestial Queen Mother, requested her permission to descend to Bi Lian Lake in the mortal world. They took pity on the heartbroken Weaver Girl and requested for her to be allowed to join them on the trip. The Celestial Queen Mother granted their request.

Unbeknownst to Niulang, his old ox was the reincarnation of the Golden Ox Star Jinniu, one of the stars who dared speak against the Celestial Queen Mother in his defense. One day, the ox suddenly spoke to him, “Go to Bi Lian Lake today. You will find the coats of heavenly maidens by the rocks, while they are bathing in the lake. Take the red coat and the maiden will become your wife.”

Niulang obeyed. He hid near the lake and, true to the Ox’s words, heavenly maidens gracefully danced down from the sky. The maidens placed their dresses by the rock and stepped into the Lake. Seeing his chance, Niulang took the red cloaks. The maidens were frantic to find there was man near them. Putting on their cloaks in haste, they flew back to heaven. Only one heavenly maid was left in the lake, Zhinu.

Niulang stepped forward and asked Zhinu to be his wife. At this moment, Zhinu recognized him as the Altair Star whom she still loved and happily became his wife. She lived with him on earth and bore him a son and a daughter. However, their joy did not last, as when the Celestial Queen Mother soon deployed heaven guards and soldiers to bring Zhinu back to the sky.

Back on earth, the old ox was dying. He asked Niulang to keep his ox hide well, so that one day Niulang will be able to make a cape of the hide and fly into the sky. Sadly, Niuland and Zhinu peeled the hide and gave the ox a burial. Suddenly, the heavenly soldiers came and took Zhinu away. She could do nothing except to be taken back to the clouds and skies with the soldiers. As she was flying, she heard a voice, “Wife, wait for me!” It was Niulang. Looking back, she saw him flying behind them, wearing the magical ox hide, holding a basket with their two children in it. Soon, she could see the faces of her children and hear their cries for her. When they were almost reunited, the Celestial Queen Mother appeared and with a wave of her hairpin, created the Milky Way between them, separating them forever.

The couple and their children gazed tearfully across the Milky Way at each other. All the stars and gods in heaven cried with them, pained that a loving family had to be separated. Soon, even the Heavenly Emperor felt sorry for them. He allowed the family to stay in the sky and remain as stars, permitting them to see each other once every year on the seventh day of the seventh month. On that day, magpies formed a living bridge to reunite the Cowherd, the Weaver Girl and their two children in the skies.

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