The Ancient Beginnings of Witches: The Tragedy of those who Stood between the Mundane and Spiritual Worlds

The Norse god Balder, the good and beautiful god, the son of the great god Odin, and himself the wisest, mildest and best beloved of all the immortals. Balder dreamed something which seemed to forebode his death. He told the other gods about this and, because he was so beloved, the gods held a council and resolved to secure him from any danger. So the goddess Frigg took an oath from fire and water, iron and all metals, stones and earth, trees, sicknesses and poisons, and from all four-footed beasts, birds and creepy things that they would not hurt Balder.

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The Death of Balder,  from the 18th century Icelandic manuscript “NKS 1867 4to”

It was Loki who was responsible for the death of the sun-god. He gave a twig of mistletoe to Balder’s blind twin brother, Hoder – mistletoe being the only thing in the world which had not sworn not to harm Balder. Hoder cast it at Balder and unwittingly slew him. Vali, a younger brother of Balder, avenged him by killing Hoder. Hoder represents darkness and Balder light. The light falls a victim to blind darkness, who reigns until a younger brother, the sun of the next day, rises to slay him in turn.

Balder’s death was already prophesied. The Norse Sibyl sees and describes it, “I behold, fate looming for Balder, Woden’s son, the bloody victim. There stands the Mistletoe slender and delicate, blooming high above the ground. Out of this shoot, so slender to look on, there shall grow a harmful fateful shaft. Hod shall shoot it, but Frigga in Fen-hall shall weep over the woe of Wal-hall.”

The shortness of summer and the length of winter so impressed the people that when they made a story about it, they told of a maiden (the Spring) being put to sleep and guarded, along with a hoard of treasure, by a ring of fire. Only one knight could break through the flames, awaken her and seize the treasure. This knight is the returning sun, and the treasure is the wealth of summer vegetation. So there is the story of Brynhild, pricked by the “sleep-thorn” of her father, Wotan, and sleeping until Sigurd wakens her. They marry, but soon Sigurd has to give her up to Gunnar, the relentless winter. Gunnar cannot rest until he has killed Sigurd and reigns undisturbed. Grimm’s story of Rapunzel, the princess who was shut up by a winter witch, and of Briar-Rose, pricked by a witch’s spindle, and sleeping inside a hedge which blooms with spring at the knight’s approach, also describes the struggle between summer and winter.

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“Mímir and Baldr Consulting the Norns” (1821-1822) by H. E. Freund

The figure of the seer also survives. The flat disk of earth was believed to be supported by a great ash-tree, Yggdrasil, guarded by three fates, Was, Will, and Shall Be. The name of Was means the past, of Will, the power of which men have over present circumstances, and Shall Be, the future over which man has no control. Vurdh, the name of the latter, gives us the word “weird,” which means fate or fateful. Hundreds of years later, the three Weird Sister in Macbeth are also seers.

The belief in witches and sorcery seem to also have been widespread in the Ancient Near East and Nile Valley. It played a conspicuous role in the cultures of ancient Egypt and in Babylonia. The latter tradition included an Akkadian anti-witchcraft ritual, the Maqlû (“burning”) which includes the following:

Pure oven, great daughter of Anu, inside whom the fire of the grave is flaring, inside whom the valiant fire-god has taken up residence, [whose] flames have reached the sky […], burn, set alight, incinerate my witch! May my warlock’s and witch’s life swiftly, quickly come to an end! (Maqlû, Tablet II, 219–224)

A section from the Code of Hammurabi (about 2000 BC.) says:

If a man has put a spell upon another man and it is not justified, he upon whom the spell is laid shall go to the holy river; into the holy river shall he plunge. If the holy river overcome him and he is drowned, the man who put the spell upon him shall take possession of his house. If the holy river declares him innocent and he remains unharmed the man who laid the spell shall be put to death. He that plunged into the river shall take possession of the house of him who laid the spell upon him.

Ornithomancy and Margaritomancy were practiced in ancient Greek. Ornithomancy is the practice of divination by observing the flight of songbirds. It appeared on Archaic vases, as well as in Hesiod and Homer. One notable example from the latter occurs in the Odyssey, when an eagle appears three times, flying to the right, with a dead dove in its talons, an augury interpreted as the coming of Odysseus, and the death of his wife’s suitors. Aeschylus has Prometheus claim to have introduced ornithomancy to mankind, by indicating among the birds “those by nature favourable, and those sinister”. Margaritomancy is a form of divination which uses a pearl covered with a vase which was utilized during trials. The vase was placed near a fire while names of subjects were read aloud. When the name of the guilty person was pronounced supposedly the pearl would bound up and pierce the bottom of the vase. Philtre, a potion that causes one to fall in love with another person, were popular in the Middle Ages, but lost favor to charms and spells in the 17th and 18th centuries.

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Study for the three witches in Macbeth, Henry Fuseli (1741 – 1825)

Some of the healers and diviners historically accused of witchcraft have considered themselves mediators between the mundane and spiritual worlds. Such people described their contacts with fairies, spirits often involving out-of-body experiences and travelling through the realms of an otherworld. Beliefs of this nature are implied in the folklore of much of Europe, and were described by accused witches in central and southern Europe. Repeated themes include participation in processions of the dead or large feasts, and participation in battles against evil spirits to win fertility and prosperity for the community.

In Norse Mythology, Freya and Odin especially had had power over the souls of the dead. When Christianity rebranded the old gods into spirits of evil, they were accused especially of possessing unlawful learning, as having knowledge of the hidden matters of death. This unlawful wisdom is the first accusation that has always been brought against witches.

The Church and European society were not always so zealous in hunting witches or blaming them for misfortunes. In the 8th century, Saint Boniface declared that belief in the existence of witches was un-Christian. The emperor Charlemagne (c.742 – 814) decreed that the burning of supposed witches was a pagan custom that would be punished by the death penalty. King Coloman of Hungary (c. 1070 – 1116) declared that witch-hunts should cease because witches do not exist.

It was not until 1198 that Pope Innocent III dispatched a monk named Rainier to visit France with the power to excommunicate heretics, and orders to local temporal authorities to confiscate the lands of heretics or to “as became Christians to deal with them more severely.” Then an incident occured in 1208. Pierre de Castelnau, the Pope’s legate, and a companion were travelling to to root out heretics. They were staying in a house in Avignonet, in the south of France when, in the middle of the night, a knight of Raymond of Tolouse, killed de Castelnau. After this murder, the Pope was determined to stamp out heretics at all costs. The Albigensian Crusade followed which led to the slaughter of approximately 20,000 men, women and children, Cathar and Catholic alike. In 1244, two hundred of them were burned on a gigantic bonfire at Montsegur. Those that survived were no longer accused of heresy. They were accused of a new crime –  conspiring with the devil or, as it came to be known, witchcraft.

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“Hexenverbrennung”, Fedor Encke (1851 – 1926) 

The fifteenth century saw a dramatic rise in awareness and terror of witchcraft, culminating in the publication of the Malleus Maleficarum (“Hammer of The Witches”), a witch-hunting manual written in 1486 by two German monks, Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger. The book defines a witch as evil and typically female. It outlines how to identify a witch, how to put a witch on trial and how to punish a witch. The book became the handbook for secular courts throughout Renaissance Europe, but was not used by the Inquisition which even cautioned against relying on the work. The book was later officially condemned by the Catholic Church in 1490. Throughout this time, it was increasingly believed that Christianity was engaged in an apocalyptic battle against the Devil and his secret army of witches, who had entered into a diabolical pact. In total, tens or hundreds of thousands of people were executed, and others were imprisoned, tortured, banished, and had their lands and possessions confiscated.

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“Interrogation of the sorceress”, Т. Mattson (1853)

Women were especially vulnerable in this period because it has nearly always been women who were accused. Women for the most part were the priests in the old days. It was a woman to whom Apollo at Delphi breathed his oracles. Women have always been the ones who plucked herbs and concocted drinks of healing and refreshment. Therefore, it was very easy to imagine that they experimented with poisons and herbs of magic power under the guidance of the now evil gods. If they were so directed, they must go on occasions to consult with their masters. This led to the idea of a witches’ Sabbath, when women were enabled by evil means to fly away, and worship in secret the gods from whom the rest of the world had turned.

By the fifteenth century Satan, taking the place of the gods, assumed control of the evil creatures. Now that witches were the followers of the Devil, they wrote their names in his book and were carried away by him for the revels by night. A new witch was pricked with a needle to initiate her into his company. Dancing, a device of the pagans, and hence considered wholly wicked, was indulged in to unseemly lengths. In 1883 Sweden, it was believed that dances were held around the sanctuaries of the ancient gods, and that whoever stopped to watch were caught by the dancers and whirled away. At the witches’ Sabbath the Devil himself sometimes appeared as a goat, and the witches were attended by cats, owls, bats, and cuckoos – creatures which had once been sacred to Freya.

These vilifications and persecutions of witches continued to the eighteenth century. The beliefs about witches also became more incredible. It was believed that they were able to take the form of beasts. If a wolf or other animal is caught in a trap or shot, and disappears, the people would search for a wounded witch. Later, an old woman who lives alone in the woods is found suffering from a similar wound. She is then declared to be a witch.

“There was once an old castle in the middle

of a vast thick wood; in it lived an old woman

quite alone, and she was a witch. By day she

made herself into a cat or a screech-owl, but

regularly at night she bacame a human being

again.”

“Jorinda and Joringel”, Jacob Grimm (1785 – 1863)

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“A voice of weeping heard, and loud lament“: The Death and Re-branding of Ancient Celebrations

THE great power which the Druids exercised over their people interfered with the Roman rule of Britain. Converts were being made at Rome when emperor Augustus forbade Romans to become initiated, Tiberius banished the priestly clan and their adherents from Gaul, and Claudius utterly stamped out the belief there and put to death a Roman knight for wearing the serpent’s-egg badge to win a lawsuit – a serpent’s-egg badge was an item of identification for an ancient Gaelic order of priests and sorcerers. Forbidden to practice their rites in Britain, the Druids fled to the isle of Mona, near the coast of Wales. The Romans pursued and slaughtered them in 61 AD. Not stopping there, the Romans proceeded to cut down the oak groves. During the next three centuries the cult was stifled to death to be substituted by the Christian religion.

“The lonely mountains o’er

And the resounding shore

A voice of weeping heard, and loud lament.

From haunted spring and dale,

Edged with poplar pale,

The parting genius is with sighing sent.

With flower-inwoven tresses torn

The nymphs in twilight shade of tangled thickets mourn.”

“On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity”, John Milton (1608 – 1674)

The miraculous power that the druids seemed to possess was rebranded as “black magic.”

cemetery-577226_1920.jpgIt was a long, hard effort to make people see that their gods had all the time been wrong, and harder still to root out the centuries old rite and symbol. Therefore, the old religions were never completely eradicated – they were rebranded and given new names. Midsummer was dedicated to the birth of Saint John and Lugnasad, the feast of the marriage of the ancient god Lugus, became Lammas. Although the fires belonging to these times of year were retained, their old significance was  reconsecrated or forgotten completely. The rowan, or mountain ash, whose berries had been the food of the Tuatha, now exorcised those very beings. The fires which had been built to propitiate the god and consume his sacrifices to induce him to protect them were now lighted to protect the people from the same god, declared to be an evil mischief maker. In time, the autumn festival of the Druids became the vigil of All Hallows or All Saints’ Day.

All Saints’ was first suggested in the fourth century in memory of all the saints, since there were too many of them for each to have a special day on the church calendar. A day in May was chosen by Pope Boniface IV in 610 for consecrating the Pantheon, the old Roman temple of all the gods, to the Virgin and all the saints and martyrs. Pope Gregory III dedicated a chapel in St. Peter’s to the same, and that day was made compulsory in 835 by Pope Gregory IV, as All Saints’. The day was changed from May to November so that the crowds that thronged to Rome for the services might be fed from the harvest bounty.

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In the tenth century, St. Odilo, Bishop of Cluny, instituted a day of prayer and special masses for the souls of the dead. He had been told that a hermit dwelling near a cave

“heard the voices and howlings of devils, which

complained strongly because that the souls of

them that were dead were taken away from

their hands by alms and by prayers.”

“Golden Legend”, Jacobus da Varagine, (1230 – 1299)

This day became All Souls’. It is appropriate that the Celtic festival when the spirits of the dead and the supernatural powers held a carnival of triumph over the god of light, should be followed by All Saints’ and All Souls’. The church holy-days were celebrated by bonfires to light souls through Purgatory to Paradise, as they had lighted the sun to his death on Samhain. On both occasions there were Prayers – the pagan prayed to the lord of death for a pleasant dwelling-place for the souls of departed friends, and the Christian prayed for their speedy deliverance from torture. They both celebrated death – death of the sun, of mortals, of harvest, of crops, of sacred memories.

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“Had but your sight a spirit’s power, Ye would be looking, eye to eye, at a terrific company” : The Beautiful Elements of Halloween

The sun was the centre of many ancient religions as it marks work-time and rest, divided the year into winter idleness, seed-time, growth, and harvest. When the sun is away, it leaves the land in cold and gloom until it returns bringing the long fair days and resurrection of spring.

The Roman Goddess of fruits, Pomona (pomorum patrona, “she who cares for fruits”) lends us this harvest element of Halloween. She is represented as a maiden with fruit in her arms and a pruning-knife in her hand.

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“I am the ancient apple-queen. 

As once I was so am I now– 

For evermore a hope unseen

Betwixt the blossom and the bough.

“Ah, where’s the river’s hidden gold!

And where’s the windy grave of Troy?

Yet come I as I came of old,

From out the heart of summer’s joy.”

“Pomona”, William Morris (1834 – 1896)

The best known story of Pamona came from Ovid, who says that, although she was wooed by many, she preferred to remain unmarried. Among her suitors was Vertumnus (“the changer”), the god of the turning year, who was in charge of the exchange of trade, the turning of river channel, and of the change in nature from flower to ripe fruit. True to his character, he took many forms to gain Pomona’s love. Now he was a ploughman (spring), now a fisherman (summer), now a reaper (autumn).

At last he took the form of an old woman (winter), and went to gossip with Pomona. After finding her averse to marriage, the old woman pleaded for Vertumnus’ success.

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“Vertumnus and Pomona, an Allegory of Autumn”, Jan Pauwel Gillemans the Younger (1651 – 1704)

“Is not he the first to have the fruits which

are thy delight? And does he not hold thy

gifts in his joyous right hand?”

“Metamorphoses”, Ovid

Then the old woman told her the story of Anaxarete who was so cold to her lover Iphis that he hanged himself and she, at the window watching his funeral train pass by, was changed to a marble statue. Advising Pomona to avoid such a fate, Vertumnus donned his proper form, that of a handsome young man. Pomona, moved by the story and his beauty, yielded and became his wife.

Pomona had been assigned one of the fifteen priests whose duty it was to kindle the fire for special sacrifices. She had a grove near Ostia where a harvest festival was held about the first of November. Then the deities of fire and water were propitiated that their disfavor might not ruin the crops. On Pomona’s day, thanks was rendered them for their aid to the harvest. An offering of first-fruits was made in August and,  in November, the winter store of nuts and apples was opened.

Yuletide, an indigenous midwinter festival, lasts around two months, falling along the end of the modern calendar year between what is now mid-November and early January, celebrates the sun’s turning north. The end of summer was a time of grief for the decline of the sun, as well as a harvest festival of thanksgiving to the sun for having ripened the grain and fruit.

Samhain is a Gaelic festival marking the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter or the “darker half” of the year. Traditionally, it is celebrated from 31 October to 1 November, as the day began and ended at sunset. It was one of the four seasonal festivals of the year, and the 10th-century tale Tochmarc Emire (“The Wooing of Emer”) lists Samhain as the first of these four “quarter days”. The tales say it was marked by great gatherings where they held meetings, feasted, drank and held contests.

In the same state as those who are dead, are those who have never lived, dwelling right in the world, but mostly invisible to most mortals.

“There is a world in which we dwell,

And yet a world invisible.

And do not think that naught can be

Save only what with eyes ye see:

I tell ye that, this very hour,

Had but your sight a spirit’s power,

Ye would be looking, eye to eye,

At a terrific company.”

“Halowe’en“, Arthur Cleveland Coxe (1818 – 1896)

Samhain was also a time when the doorways to the Otherworld opened, allowing supernatural beings and the souls of the dead to come into our world. The Boyhood Deeds of Fionn says that the sidhe (fairy mounds or portals to the Otherworld) “were always open at Samhain”. Each year the fire-breather Aillen emerges from the Otherworld and burns down the palace of Tara after lulling everyone to sleep with his music. One Samhain, the young Fionn mac Cumhaill is able to stay awake and slays Aillen with a magical spear, for which he is made leader of the fianna. Acallam na Senorach (“Colloquy of the Elders”) tells us how three female werewolves emerge from the cave of Cruachan (an Otherworld portal) each Samhain and kill livestock.

An account written by Julius Caesar speaks mainly of the Celts of Gaul, dividing them into two ruling classes; the knights, who wages war, and the Druids who had charge of worship and sacrifices, and were in addition physicians, historians, teachers, scientists, and judges.The name “Druid” is derived from the Celtic word “druidh,” meaning “sage,” connected with the Greek word for oak, “drus,”

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“The rapid oak-tree–

Before him heaven and earth quake:

Stout door-keeper against the foe.

In every land his name is mine.”

“Battle of the Trees“, Taliesin (534 – 599 AD)

The animal sacred to the Druids was the cat. “A slender black cat reclining on a chain of old silver” guarded treasure in the old days. For a long time cats were dreaded by the people because they thought human beings had been changed to that form by evil means.

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Fragment of a pillar; Set I in front of the god Osiris; 19th dynasty, ca. 1290 BC

When the year was over, and the sun’s life of a year was done, it was at this time that the sun fell a victim for six months to the powers of winter darkness. In Egyptian mythology one of the sun-gods, Osiris, was slain at a banquet by his brother Set. On the anniversary of the murder, the first day of winter, no Egyptian would begin any new business for fear of bad luck, since the spirit of evil was then in power.

From the idea that the sun suffered from his enemies on this day grew the association of Samhain with death.

“The melancholy days are come, the saddest of the year,

Of wailing winds, and naked woods, and meadows brown and sere.

Heaped in the hollows of the grove, the wither’d leaves  lie dead;

They rustle to the eddying gust, and to the rabbit’s tread.

The robin and the wren are flown, and from the shrub the jay

And from the wood-top calls the crow, through all the gloomy day.

 

“The wind-flower and the violet, they perished long ago,

And the wild rose and the orchis died amid the summer glow:

But on the hill the golden-rod, and the aster in the wood,

And the yellow sun-flower by the brook in autumn beauty stood,

Till fell the frost from the cold clear heaven, as falls the plague on

men,

And the brightness of their smile was gone from upland, glade, and

glen.”

William Cullen Bryant (1794 – 1878)

Reflecting on the Ancient Beauty of the Lioness

“Danger hides in beauty and beauty in danger.”

— Belva Plain (1915 –  2010)

 

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Bas-Relief of Sekhmet

Although the role of lions in ancient culture were later mostly confined to being slain with lances and spears, the lioness has been an important symbol to humans for tens of thousands of years and appear as a theme in cultures across Europe, Asia and Africa. The earliest historical records in Egypt present an established religious pantheon that included a lioness as one of the most powerful cultural figures, protecting the people as well as their rulers. The earliest tomb paintings in Ancient Egypt, at Nekhen, c. 3500 BC., include images of lions, including an image of a deity flanked by two lions in an upright posture. The war goddess Sekhmet, depicted as woman with a lioness head, was one of the ancient Egyptian’s major deities. Even before the rise of Skehmet’s popularity, there was already a belief that a sacred lioness was responsible for the annual flooding of the Nile. Although the name sometimes differ from one region to another, a lioness deity was the patron and protector of the people and the land. As the country united, a blending of those deities was assigned to Sekhmet. The image of lions and great goddesses did not stop there. The Babylonian goddess Ishtar has been represented driving a chariot drawn by seven lions. Ishtar’s Sumerian Inanna was frequently depicted standing on the backs of two lionesses and Persian goddess Anahita was sometimes portrayed standing on a lioness.

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The goddess Cybele dating from 361/363 AD

Archeologists discovered a figurine at Çatal Hüyük, dating back approximately 8,000 years, which depicts the Mother Goddess flanked by two leopards, squatting, while in the process of giving birth. The leopards were replaced by lions centuries later. Cybele was frequently depicted wearing her turreted crown, while she was seated on a throne, with either a lion lying in her lap or with one of them lying on each side of her. She has also been pictured driving a chariot which was drawn by two lions.  Her association lions lend more strength to her already formidable image – that her power was so great, that even lions became meek whenever they were in her presence. Later, lions were used in sculpture to provide a sense of majesty and awe, especially on public buildings. Ancient cities would have an abundance of lion sculptures to show strength such as lions at the entrances of cities and sacred sites from Mesopotamian cultures, the Lion Gate of ancient Mycenae in Greece and the gates in the walls of the Hittite city of Bogazkoy, Turkey. “The Lion of Menecrates” is a funerary statue of a crouching lion, found near the cenotaph of Menecrates.  Lionesses often flanked the Gorgon, a vestige of the earliest Greek protective deity that often was featured above temples of later eras.

Then, the powerful needs to be conquered.  A poem later relates how a eunuch priest of Cybele, sheltering during a snowstorm in a cave, saves himself from a lion’s attack by beating the great kettle-drum which was used in the worship of Cybele and scares it away. This poem was evidently popular enough that ancient writers such as Alcaeus c. 620 – 6th century BC) and Simonides ( c. 556 – 468 BC) paraphrase it with variations and elaborations of their own.

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Sculpted reliefs depicting Ashurbanipal, the last great Assyrian king, hunting lions, relief from the North Palace of Nineveh (Irak), c. 645-635 BC

The Dying Lioness, depicting a half-paralyzed lioness pierced with arrows, is a well-known detail from the Lion Hunt of Ashurbanipal, a large set of Assyrian palace relief from about 645–635 BC, depicting dozens of lions being hunted, originally in an Assyrian royal palace in Nineveh (modern day Iraq).

Panopeus, hunter of lions and leopards, dies from the sting of a scorpion; the accident is not impossible, though this may be merely a rhetorical exercise, showing how the boldest man may be overcome by the weakest of animals:

Tis in this tomb strong Panopeus rests,
Lion-hunter, piercer of rough panthers’ breasts.
On the hills a scorpion from earth issuing
Wounded his heel with its death-giving sting.
Upon the ground lie his poor darts and spear,
Alas ! — the playthings of audacious deer.

Hercules, slayer of the Nemean lion, is frequently hymned and brave men like Leonidas have lions sculptured on their tombs. We also have the well-known lines from Aristophanes comparing Alcibiades to a lion-cub which should not have been reared in the city. A figure of Eros, driving a chariot drawn by lions (the “whip” has been noticeably absent from previous depictions of lions and deities) is noted by Marcus Argentarius:

Upon this seal Love whom none e’er withstands
I see, guiding strong lions with his hands;
One flaunts o’er them a whip, the other holds
The reins ; and grace abundant him enfolds.
I fear this bane of men; he who wild beast
Can tame won’t pity mortals in the least.

Besides these, there is an anonymous poem praising the Roman Emperor because he emptied Libya of her lions and other prowling monsters, and sent them to Rome to fight in the Circus.  In Socrates’ model of the psyche (as described by Plato), the bestial, selfish nature of humanity is described metaphorically as a lion, the “leontomorphic principle”.

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One night we were together, you and I, 
And had unsown Assyria for a lair, 
Before the walls of Babylon rose in air. 
How languid hills were heaped along the sky, 
And white bones marked the wells of alkali, 
When suddenly down the lion-path a sound . . . 
The wild man-odor . . . then a crouch, a bound, 
And the frail Thing fell quivering with a cry! 

Your yellow eyes burned beautiful with light: 
The dead man lying there quieted and white: 
I roared my triumph over the desert wide, 
Then stretched out, glad for the sands and satisfied; 
And through the long, star-stilled Assyrian night, 
I felt your body breathing by my side. 

Edwin Markham (1852 – 1940)

 

In Defense of Mythology: Some Things Cannot be Explained by Science

now-sing-about-the-race-of-women-sweet-voicedolympian-muses-daughters-of-aegis-bearing-zeussing-of-those-who-were-the-best-of-their-timewho-loosened-their-girdlesmingling-in-union-wi3.jpgWe often hear that something being dismissed as “just a myth”, which means that it is not true. In fact, myth and truth are often seen as opposites. If it is not analysed, written down in reports and be  seen or heard, then it is a myth. For many, mythology is the study of old, meaningless and untrue stories. Some people, repelled by the myths’ more preposterous elements and contradictions, see them as mere fabrications to be discarded in our “enlightened” age. But mythology’s enduring worth is never in its possible historical or scientific accuracy. Some things can be dealt with adequately only in poetry or mythology when recitals of data and observable facts miss the point completely. Love, hate, empathy, aversion, hunger, greed, altruism and all the other positive and negative aspects of being human are also facts. To ignore them by putting everything into numbers is to treat people as insensate objects and their lives as mechanical conditioned responses. This is the statistical perspective and it is as much a distortion of reality as any other limited point of view.

The word “family” is in itself a complicated word containing many combinations of facts, memories, meanings and feelings – it is impossible to describe the concept of “family” by series of facts alone. Every culture’s pantheon of mythical characters was the family in to which every person of that culture was born, as these creatures were as familiar as their parents and grandparents, siblings and cousins. Therefore, a myth is also not a simple proposition that can be judged as true or false  propositions. Rather, it attempts to make sense of our perceptions and feelings within our experience of the world in a narrative format. Myths have been there long before art, language or the written word.

IDMIcarusandDaedalus
Charles Paul Landon (1761-1826), “Icarus and Daedalus”

Of course, there are certainly many aspects of myths are not literally true. However, we understand the stories about the Greek gods because they share some of our emotions and ambitions – two things we cannot measure even if we tried. The stories of Icarus, for example, resonates with us because we have all experienced within ourselves  tendencies to try to fly too high or to force things that has no business happening to begin with, only to crash and burn. Although, as human experience is so multidimensional and varied, no myth can completely represent all of human experience, a myth still captures some important aspects of the domain of human experience it is meant to represent. It is like a map which captures only important features of the terrain but not every detail of the terrain it represents. And just like looking at maps, we learn through imagination, as we feel and visualize the colorful adventures of the deities or heroes. Although mythology is not a literal description of a culture’s history, we can still use myths to explore the culture itself – its viewpoints, activities, and beliefs, and address some of our fundamental and difficult questions that human beings ask: who and what am I, where did I come from, why am I here, how did it all begin?

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Bartholomeus Spranger (1546-1611), “Hermes and Athena”

Truthfully, we are still fascinated by the truths of these mythical stories and we still cry out for magic in our so-called rational world. As human beings are never meant to be totally rational, we crave a bit of mystery to counter our apparent understanding and mastery of the world.  To lend this comfort of mystery, humanity have had deities for many aspects of life. The Egyptians had more than 2000 deities while the Hindus have 333 million. The Irish honored both the goddess of rivers (Boann) and the goddess of the Lagan River (Logia). There have been deities for individual cities (Athena for Athens), mountains (Gauri-Sankar for Mount Everest), lakes, tribes, plant species, temples, constellations, and so on. Deities governed not only major phenomena such as agriculture or love or the sun, but also such common matters as leisure, the kitchen stove, guitars, politics, prostitution, singing, doors, virginity, willpower, firecrackers, gambling, drunkenness and the toilet. Deities have governed virtually every possible activity, object, and emotion, lending a bit of their magic into what would have been rather mundane and tedious interactions.

now-sing-about-the-race-of-women-sweet-voicedolympian-muses-daughters-of-aegis-bearing-zeussing-of-those-who-were-the-best-of-their-timewho-loosened-their-girdlesmingling-in-union-wi9.jpgAs myths are necessary, our modern society develops its own myths. A lack of myths can cause a sense of meaninglessness, estrangement, rootlessness, and the cold brittleness of a life devoid of reverence and awe. Now our “modern” myths seem to rest on certain concepts (such as “progress”) and in our larger-than-life celebrities. We revered Mother Teresa for her compassion and Albert Einstein for his intellect. Marilyn Monroe was a “screen goddess” possessed by the alluring qualities of Aphrodite while Muhammad Ali called on the aggressive instinct of Ares every time he stepped into the boxing ring. Through all these reverence we somewhat conveniently leave out the fact that Albert Einstein failed every exams he had in his school days, Marilyn Monroe was ultimately a tragic and lonely figure and Muhammad Ali was a gentle man off the ring – in short, they were all human, vulnerable and fragile. The media enlarges certain people to mythical proportions. We often project the “hero” archetype onto other people. Corporations myth lies in their “corporate culture.” There is a myth in every group and our mythology changes as our culture changes.

now-sing-about-the-race-of-women-sweet-voicedolympian-muses-daughters-of-aegis-bearing-zeussing-of-those-who-were-the-best-of-their-timewho-loosened-their-girdlesmingling-in-union-wi10.jpgWe each have our own mythology which we create. We have things and people which are important and valued to us personally. We are heroes in our “mythic journeys” by which we romanticize our various passages through life. The truly satisfying and exciting myths are those which arise from our own passions and our own visions. It just so happens that some of those myths have existed since the ancient times.

When the World Despairs, Humanity turns to Their Women: The Wisdom of Ancient Heroines

now-sing-about-the-race-of-women-sweet-voicedolympian-muses-daughters-of-aegis-bearing-zeussing-of-those-who-were-the-best-of-their-timewho-loosened-their-girdlesmingling-in-union-wi.jpg

“Hero has no feminine gender in the age of heroes.”

– Sir Moses I. Finley (1912 – 1986)

At the start of the destructive, long-running war between Athens and Sparta in 430 BC, Pericles, a prominent and influential orator and general of Athens, made a moving speech of ancient valour in honour of those who died in the war.

“… for the Athens that I have celebrated is only what the heroism of these and their like have made her … none of these men allowed either wealth with its prospect of future enjoyment to unnerve his spirit, or poverty with its hope of a day of freedom and riches to tempt him to shrink from danger. No, holding that vengeance upon their enemies was more to be desired than any personal blessings, and reckoning this to be the most glorious of hazards, they joyfully determined to accept the risk… Thus, choosing to die resisting, rather than to live submitting, they fled only from dishonour…”

After speaking at length on this rather splendid theme, Pericles finally remembered to mention the women of Athens who had just lost their husbands, lovers and fathers of their children.

“The greatest glory of a woman is to be least talked about by men, whether they are praising you or criticising you.”

That’s it.

And yet, there was more to classical womanhood than Pericles’s silent matrons. Aspasia, for example, Pericles’ own long-term girlfriend was famously clever and sophisticated. She was certainly talked about and said to have influenced him a great deal. Still, although it was concluded for a long time that there is no female counterpart to the hero, archaeological evidence shows that heroines are included in some of the earliest manifestations of hero cult. The shrines of Pelops and Hippodameia at Olympia may be of great antiquity, early hero-reliefs show hero and heroine pairs, and a dedication to Helen is perhaps the earliest known Laconian inscription, dating from the second quarter of the seventh century.

The classical world has given us many strong women such as Antigone, the heroine of Sophocles’s play of the same name, who only wanted to give her brother, Polydeuces, a proper burial despite her uncle king Creon’s orders. Her sister Ismene struggled to persuade her to obey the king’s edict. “We’re girls,” she cried. “Girls cannot force their way against men.” Antigone would not listen to her and proceeded to commit a crime punishable by death, defying the explicit command of her uncle and gave her dead brother, who died a traitor, his proper funeral rites.

Odysseus has received a lot of attention for his journey. However, he was protected by a woman. The goddess of wisdom, Athena, played the role of Odysseus’s protector and was always on hand to provide magical disguises or advice. Draupadi, from Indian Mythology, was an astute strategist who never failed to take revenge against her enemies. Anath, the ancient Canaanite goddess of love and war, was also someone you want on your side as she was famed for her ferocity in battle. An ancient Ugaritic text describes Anat’s revenge against a man who slighted her in no uncertain terms:

Anat seized Mot,

the divine son,

with a sickle she cut him,

with a winnow she winnows him,

with fire she scorches him, with a mill she crushes him,

she scatters his flesh in the field to be eaten by birds.

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Joseph Stallaert (1825 – 1903), Death of Dido

In Virgil’s Aeneid, Dido, the queen of Carthage, was doing very well for herself and founded a new city in what is now Tunisia before Aeneas, an exile from defeated Troy, turned up. He was an unemployed loser, but he was pretty. The pair fell in love before Aeneas left for Italy and committed one of the most brutal dumpings in literature which led Dido to commit suicide by stabbing herself with his sword. Dido’s handling of her breakup is admittedly rather weak compared to others. In Buddhist mythology, the beautiful, rich and resourceful Kundalakesa of Therigatha saved a young thief from execution one day and then married him, because she thought she loved him. As the thief then tried to kill her and steal all her jewels, Kundalakesa pushed him off a hill and casually moved on with her life. Hidimbi from Indian Mythology is the modern day version of a single mother who raises a son with all the right values and qualities, with no help from anyone. Hidimbi was a rakshasi (demon) who fell in love and married Bhima, one of the famed Pandava brothers. They lived together only for a very short time, enough for Hidimbi to get pregnant, before Bhima left. Hidimbi later gave birth to Ghatotkacha, Bhima’s son, and raised him alone.

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Gustave Moreau (1826 – 1898), Jason and Medea

These are all important accomplishments. However, according to Pericles and Finley, these ladies were no heroes. Medea is referred to as a goddess in a forgotten Mycenaean slate. She was worshiped in Corinth until the Historic Ages. Ancient craters depict her as a priestess in Eleusis. The Greeks of South Italy honored her with hymns. Even Apollonius of Rhodes praised her as a “treasure” that saved the Argonauts, equal to Jason. But she is forever known as the sorceress who killed her children.

To understand how or why these female accomplishments were dismissed, it is useful for us to understand the ancient concept of heroism. Some historians came to the obvious conclusion that heroines don’t often go on quests or engage in combat with monsters or gods. But there is a lot more to heroism than punching monsters. There’s independence, fortitude, humility and sacrifice. The female heroic figure is often free from male assistance in her quest to achieve status. Despite the various under-telling of heroines, the majority of them are independent. It is usually female characters who help male heroes. Ariadne helped Theseus slay the Minotaur, Medea helped Jason in his quest for the Golden Fleece, and Nausicaa was the advisor of Odysseus. While male heroes require female assistance at times, female heroes do not require male assistance, making them independent from their counterparts and highlighting the concept of female heroism in ancient literature.

Euripides’ play Erechtheus is about Erechtheus and Eumolpos who found themselves continuing the rivalries of their divine patrons Athena and Poseidon. After consulting the oracle at Delphi to learn how he might protect Athens from the impending siege, Erechtheus was told that he must sacrifice one of his daughters to save the city. Erechtheus shared the news with his wife, Praxithea, who says:

“If there were a harvest of sons in our house rather than daughters and a hostile flame were engulfing the city, would I not have sent my sons into battle, fearing for their death? … I hate women who in preference to the common good choose for their own children to live.”

now-sing-about-the-race-of-women-sweet-voicedolympian-muses-daughters-of-aegis-bearing-zeussing-of-those-who-were-the-best-of-their-timewho-loosened-their-girdlesmingling-in-union-wi1.jpg

From modern eyes, this may not make much sense. Sacrifice seems to just mean certain death for women while when men go off to war there is always a small chance of them coming home. However, women were often the last line of defense in times of war. An example of this happened in 1467, in the warring states period of Japan. It was a desperate time where everyone was swept up into war and almost all healthy men were drafted into armies or slaughtered in battle. This period gave accounts of bands of women led by the wives of warlords dressed in armors. Appalled by the mass suicide of the surviving women and children in her husband’s besieged castle, the wife of Mimura Kotoku armed herself and led eighty-three soldiers against the enemy. She challenged a mounted general Ura Hyobu, who edged backwards muttering, “She is a demon!”. Heroines, therefore, had to defeat the enemies who were evidently strong enough to kill their husbands and many other strong men – it is no surprise then that, as Rudyard Kipling says, “the female of the species is more deadly than the male” and that the heroines had to be more skilled than their male counterparts for not even half of the glory he would have received had he managed to survive. This endures to a common lament modern women are familiar with today by Charlotte Whitton, “Whatever women do, they must do twice as well as men to be thought half as good.” Odysseus’ last line of defense was his wife, Penelope. If Penelope had married one of her suitors, that man would have had claim over her (Odysseus’ wife), Telemachus (Odysseus’ son) as well as Odysseus’ house and fortune. A simple “yes” from Penelope would have costed Odysseus everything. – the point is that, in desperate times, good men and women will always step up and do their parts according to their abilities. If it wasn’t for the ancient Greeks’ silly insistence for women to be docile and less educated, Iphigeneia might have picked up a spear.

The practice of burning or burying women alive with their deceased husbands was first mentioned in 510 CE, when a stele commemorating such an incident was erected at Eran, an ancient city in the modern state of Madhya Pradesh, India. There are also accounts of widow sacrifice among Scandinavians, Slavs, Greeks, Egyptians and Chinese. This practice usually began among warriors or warrior clans because, as the warriors’ duty was to protect the bodies and honor of their people on the war field, their wives’ duty was to protect their family’s body and honor at home. Therefore, the death of a husband, even while he was away at war, would be seen as the wife’s responsibility. She was the one person entrusted to protect her warrior husband from harm and dishonor – as futile as this may be. The death of her husband would have been seen as her fault.

File:Francesco Fontebasso - The Sacrifice of Iphigenia - WGA7991.jpg
Francesco Fontebasso (1707 – 1769), The Sacrifice of Iphigeneia

The advantage of female heroism in ancient literature is that it really takes an extreme situation for these ladies to die and it is mostly due to the fact that the men failed at their own heroic attempts. Agamemnon was a powerful king and warlord who should be fully capable of defending his own city, but it was his daughter Iphigeneia who had to die to enable the Greek fleet to set sail from Aulis to Troy. The reason all those Japanese women had to step up and fight was because their men were somewhere else or otherwise overwhelmed by the enemy and it was up to them to defend their family. Not making a big fuss, these women were there when they were needed and, if they somehow survived, quietly went about their business when it was over. However, it was this advantage that became the heroines’ downfall in retellings of their heroics. As Anne Elliot in Persuasion says, “Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story . . . the pen has been in their hands.” Ancient Greece was a male dominated society and literature was written for males by males in order to inspire males, hence the concept of male heroism was by far much more established. Women are only witches and harlots or submissive and modest because their stories are written by men who, despite their best intentions, did not understand and never experienced power as women.

now-sing-about-the-race-of-women-sweet-voicedolympian-muses-daughters-of-aegis-bearing-zeussing-of-those-who-were-the-best-of-their-timewho-loosened-their-girdlesmingling-in-union-wi2.jpg

In Lycurgus against Leocrates, Euripides says

“if women bring themselves to act like this, men should show towards their country a devotion which cannot be surpassed, not forsake it and flee, as Leocrates did, nor disgrace it before the whole of Greece.”

In other words,if women were willing to sacrifice themselves for their people and countries, so should the men, otherwise they would be shamed as cowards. If heroes were there to inspire, influence the people and infuse them with their qualities as a reflection of heroic attributes, heroines were there to inspire the heroes. Through heroines in Euripides, Homer and Apollodorus, the authors are expressing the heroine’s lack of pride and ego which men are often governed by, and trying to bestow these self sacrificing qualities on their readers, the heroes and the society.

 

New Course on Udemy, “Ancient Marketing Practices for the Modern World”

Hi everyone!

I would like you to be among the first to know that my new course, called “Ancient Marketing Practices for the Modern World”, is now live on Udemy.

I started researching modern business practices in the ancient world since 2011 out of interest, looking  at things such as taxation in ancient Mesopotamia, trades in ancient Egypt, etc. However, I found branding and marketing in the ancient world particularly intriguing and my research took me to a wide range of places and times from ancient Greek cults to Roman propaganda.

I got the opportunity to speak about this in Yoohcan  early in 2017, and decided to build a course explaining this subject in greater detail. At this time, the course has only been live for less than 24 hours and has accumulated more than 700 students without hardly any promotion on my part (it was the weekend, after all)

To celebrate the launching of this new course, I am opening the course free for everybody until 8 October 2018. An enrollment will give you a lifetime access to the materials to this course.

to enroll in this course, you can follow this link.

I hope to see some of you there.

M

From concubines to emperors, even the people in the ancient world have had to market themselves. “Ancient Marketing Practices for the Modern World” takes you through the practice of marketing and promotion in the ancient world – practices we recognize  in today’s age of the internet, social media and personal branding has been perfected by for thousands of years by everyone from graceful Chinese concubines, powerful Roman Emperors to pious priests of ancient Greece.

If you are looking for more ideas on how to market yourself and your products, this course is for you. For complete beginners, you will also gain ideas on how and where to start your marketing journey. After all, what better way to start than from the beginning?