The Men Behind the Gods and the Power of the Ancient Media

Out of all the millions of myths around the world today, I think we can agree that Greek mythology is arguably the most famous. A significant reason for this is that the ancient Greeks were very media-savvy. The Greek myths that we know today are known primarily from representations on visual media dating from c. 900 BCE to c. 800 BCE onward as well as from written literature.

The ancient Greeks also started what we roughly know now as “product placement.” In this case, the “product” was myths and legends. Mythical narration plays an important role in nearly every genre of ancient Greek literature. They covered their bases so thoroughly and entwined the gods into the mortals’ narratives so well that, although we have of course lost many ancient Greek writings and visual representations, we are still familiar with the gods and heroes as if they were members of our own extended family.

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Bust of Homer. Marble, Roman copy after an Hellenistic original of the 2nd century BC.

Among the earliest literary sources, and arguably the most famous, are Homer’s two epic poems, the Iliad and the Odyssey. Any reader of Homer would recognize the close relationship between the gods and human destinies. The study of Homer is also one of the oldest topics in scholarship. The earliest preserved comments on Homer concerning his treatment of the gods which is not unlike the religious debates we see today. Hostile critics such as the poet Xenophanes of Calophon denounced Homer’s depictions of the gods as immoral. The allegorist Theagenes of Rhegium defended Homer by arguing that the Homeric poems are allegories and thus never meant to be taken literally. These kinds of debate only served to propel Homer and his work even further. As one American political consultant said, “If you’re not controversial, you’ll never break through the din of all the commentary.” In other words, any publicity is good publicity.

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“Homer and His Guide” by
William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905)
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” Apotheosis of Homer ” by
Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres (1780 – 1867)

Hesiod, a possible contemporary with Homer, offers in his Theogony (Origin of the Gods) the fullest account of the earliest Greek myths, dealing with the creation of the world; the origin of the gods, Titans and Giants. He also includes elaborate genealogies, folktales, and etiological myths. Hesiod also includes the myths of Prometheus, Pandora and the Five Ages of Man in his Works and Days, a didactic poem about farming.

Both Homer and Hesiod are central to the history of ancient Greece. They received their greatest endorsement from none other than the “father of history,” Herodotus himself, who credits them with giving the Greeks their gods: “For Hesiod and Homer I suppose were four hundred years before my time and not more, and these are they who made a theogony for the Hellenes and gave the titles to the gods and distributed to them honours and arts, and set forth their forms: but the poets who are said to have been before these men were really in my opinion after them. Of these things the first are said by the priestesses of Dodona, and the latter things, those namely which have regard to Hesiod and Homer, by myself.”

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Hesiod and the Muse ” by
Gustave Moreau  (1826 – 1898)

Not much is known about the actual life of Hesiod. He started his working life as a young shepherd in the mountains. He says that his father left his home at Aetolian Cyme because his life of sea-trading was unprofitable; “he settled near Helicon in a miserable hamlet, Ascra, which is bad in winter, sultry in the summer, and good at no time.” Hesiod then moved on to be a small peasant on a hard land after his father’s death. While tending his flock on Mt. Helicon, he claims that the Muses appeared to him in a mist. It should be noted that this is a common claim. Two of the easiest way to distinguish oneself from the market these days is to be the first or the best. Leaders in the ancient world liked to distinguish themselves by associating themselves to the deities or ancient heroes. Hesiod, like many other epic poets, claims to have been inspired by the Muses and tells his audience that this happened “while he was shepherding his lambs under holy Helicon”.

The Theogony covers the beginning of the world with Chaos, followed by Gaia, Tartarus, and Eros. It then moves on to Gaia’s creation of Uranus, and their parenting of the Titans, Cyclopes and other giants. He tells us about Cronus’ castration of Uranus and the parenting of Cronus and Rhea of the Olympian gods. Cronus, as we know, ate his divine children as soon as they were born, with only Zeus surviving, who later forced Cronus to throw-up the other Olympians. Hesiod took great care to cover the story of Prometheus and his punishment by Zeus for giving fire to humans and the Titanomcahy, the great battle between the Titans and Olympians which Zeus won, casting the Titans and Typhoeus into Tartarus. He also devoted sections to Zeus and his many wives and the birth of Hercules.

The Works and Days, again, begins with an appeal to the Muses, but then goes on to address Hesiod’s brother, Perses, urging him to put aside their dispute, “Perses, lay these things in your heart, and do not let that Strife who delights in mischief hold your heart back from work…”. Hesiod dedicated Works and Days to his brother, giving him advice on life, farming, sea trade, as well as religious and social expectations. On a personal note, although Works and Days tended to be a little overlooked compared to the Theogony, this work appeals to me more due to its humanity and attempt at making the myths and belief that the brothers would have already known relevant to their day to day human existence.

“Hesiod” by ROOSDY

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The Horse, the Snake and the Dog: The Three Heads of the Real Queen of the Night

At the dark of the moon, an ancient goddess walked through the roads of ancient Greece, accompanied by sacred dogs and bearing a blazing torch. Occasionally she stopped to gather offerings left by her devotees where three roads crossed, because she was honored in places where one could look three ways at once. The goddess herself could look three ways because she herself had three heads: head of a snake, a horse and a dog. The dog, according to the Greeks, was the Trojan Queen Hecuba who leapt into the sea after the fall of Troy and was transformed by the goddess. 

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A frightful Hecate in the lower left corner of the painting Jupiter and Semele by Gustave Moreau.

The mysterious goddess, Hecate, is closely connected to the lunar phases. Although she is not mentioned in the Homeric poems, Hecate is featured in the writings of Hesiod as an august figure, daughter of titans Perses and Asteria, the star-lighted splendour of space, honoured above all by Zeus and the other gods although she was born a titan and was not a part of the Olympian pantheon.

Hecate’s worship traveled south from her original Thracian homeland and continued into classical times, both in the private form of Hecate suppers and in public sacrifices, celebrated by Caberioi (“great ones”) with honey, lambs, dogs and sometimes human slaves. In the Argonautica, Jason placates Hecate in a ritual prescribed by Medea, her priestess: bathed at midnight in a stream of flowing water, and dressed in dark robes, Jason is to dig a round pit and over it cut the throat of an ewe, sacrificing it and then burning it whole on a pyre next to the pit. He is told to sweeten the offering with a libation of honey, then to retreat from the site without looking back, even if he hears the sound of footsteps or barking dogs. 

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“HEKATE” by
Maxmilián Pirner (1854 – 1924)

As queen of the night, Hecate was sometimes said to be the moon-Goddess in her dark form, as Artemis was the waxing moon and Selene the full moon. However, she may as well have been also  the goddess of the underworld as she ruled the spirits of the dead. As the queen of dead, she ruled the powers of regeneration. Endowed with a triple dominion in earth, sea, and heaven, she sits in the seat of judgment beside kings, crowns whom she will with victory in war and in the games, grants wealth and honour, is patron of riders and mariners, and is generally Kourotrophos (“a Nursing-mother”). This remarkable goddess, whose character seems more complicated than that of an ordinary divinity, and who receives the utmost respect from the Olympian gods, gives us a striking analogy with Sin, the august Moon-god of the Euphrates Valley who was also born from the stars. wise and ancient ruler of the sea, connected with growth.

Sin is represented by the three tens from the natural circumstance that his course was completed in about thirty days. But this is only one aspect of his triplicity as he was also regarded by the Babylonians as having a threefold movement, one in longitude, one in latitude, and one in an orbit. As people considered the real or supposed different movements movements, they see the orb itself and noticed its three phases: Crescent-moon, Half-moon, and Full-moon. In the Argonautica, Hecate Triformis appears as Horse, Dog, and Snake. Sir G. W. Cox (1827 – 1902) connects the Horse with the Full-moon, the Snake with the Waxing-moon, and the Dog with the Waning-moon.

The earliest known monument of Hecate is a small terracotta in Athens, found with a dedication to Hecate, in 6th century style of writing. The goddess is seated on a throne with a chaplet bound round her head, without recognizable attributes and character, and the main historical value of this work is that it proves the single shape to be her earlier form, and her recognition at Athens to be earlier than the Persian invasion in 492 BC.

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Relief triplicate Hekate marble, Hadrian clasicism

The 2nd century writer Pausanias says that Hecate was first depicted in triplicate by the sculptor Alcamenes in the Greek Classical period of the late 5th century BCE which was placed before the temple of the Wingless Nike in Athens. Greek anthropomorphic conventions of art resisted representing her with three faces: a votive sculpture from Attica of the 3rd century BCE, shows three single images against a column; round the column of Hecate dance the Charites. Some classical portrayals show her as a triple goddess holding a torch, a key, serpents, daggers and other items. 

The three animals also appeared on one of the most venerable relics in England, which is the ivory horn of Ulf now in the vestry of York Minster. A Latin inscription on the horn states that Ulphus, prince of the Western parts of Deira, originally gave it to the church of St. Peter, together with all his lands and revenues. By this horn, the church holds several estates of great value, not far east from the city of York, and which are still called Terrae Ulphi. On this famous horn we find Hecate Triformis and her animas. The horse appears to represent the crescent-moon, the Snake is the emblem of the rays of light from the full-moon, and the dog, which we can only make out its head and neck, represents the half-moon. It is evident that the symbols of  this triple moon phase, the horse, snake and the dog would have been familiar to the artist of the horn and to the writer of the Argonautica due to their existence in the antiquity.

Charm of the Ancient Enchantress: Circe and the Glamour of Independence

“Circe and Her Guests”, by ROOSDY

“There was a time when divine Calypso kept me within her arching caverns and would have had me to be her husband, and another time subtle Circe confined me in her palace and would have had me for husband also. Yet neither of them could win the heart within me.” Odysseus says to King Alcinous.

The thing that I like about Circe is how self-sufficient she is. She has her own house which she manages to her liking, she is surrounded by her books and potions and she turns rude guests into animals. She manages this while still letting Odysseus believe that he was the one who dumps her and that she is the one who is not good enough to win his heart – thus keeping his heroic ego intact.

Like Calypso, Circe is also “a goddess with braided hair, with human speech and with strange powers”. She is the daughter of Helios, the sun-god and Perse, Oceanus’ daughter. Odysseus and his men brings the ship to the shore of her island, disembark and for two days and nights lay there “eating out our hearts with sorrow and weariness,” Odysseus says.


On the third day, Odysseus takes his weapons and hastens up to a vantage-point, hoping to see some human handiwork or to catch the sound of some human speech. “I climbed a commanding crag, and from where I stood had a glimpse of smoke rising from the ground. There were gleams of fire through the smoke, and at sight of this I wondered inwardly whether to go and look. But as I pondered, it seemed a wiser thing to return first to my vessel on the beach, give my men a meal and then send them out to spy.”
Later, Odysseus divides his crew into two companies, and gives each its own leader. He captains one and Eurylochus the other. Then they shake the lots in a bronze helmet, and the lot that leaps out was that of Eurylochus. So he goes on his way with twenty-two men with him. In the glades they found the palace of Circe, built of smooth stones on open ground. Outside, there were lions and mountain wolves that she had bewitched by giving them magic drugs.

From the outer doors, the men can hear Circe singing with her beautiful voice “delicate, gleaming, delectable, as a goddess’ handiwork needs must be – a goddess or a woman, moving to and fro at her wide web and singing a lovely song that the whole floor re-echoes with.”

Then the peeping men made themselves heard and Circe invites them in. The all enter except for Eurylochus. After playing the role of a good hostes, Circe turns the men into pigs. “And now the men had the form of swine – the snout and grunt and bristles; only their minds were left unchanged. They shed tears as they were shut in.” However, Circe is not going to let them starve. She still feeds them.

Eurylochus comes back to tell the others what happened. Odysseus gets his sword and bow, and asks him to guide him back by the same path. But Eurylochus is too scared. So Odysseus allows him to stay on the ship while he goes to see the woman.

“And with that,” Odysseus says, “I left the ship and shore and took the path upward; but as I traversed those haunted glades, as I came close to Circe’s house and neared the palace of the enchantress, I was met by golden-wanded Hermes; … He seized my hand and spoke thus to me : ‘Luckless man, why are you walking thus alone over these hills, in country you do not know?” Hermes helps Odysseus by giving him a magic herb. “She will brew a potion for you, but with good things she will mingle drugs as well. Yet even so, she will not be able to enchant you; my gift of the magic herb will thwart her. I will tell you the rest, point by point. When Circe strikes you with the long wand she has, draw the keen sword from beside your thigh, rush upon her and make as if to kill her. She will shrink, back, and then ask you to lie with her. At this you must let her have her way; she is a goddess; accept her bed, so that she may release your comrades and make you her cherished guest.” In short: trick her, threaten her and sleep with her.

Later, after Odysseus follows all Hermes’ advice, he is treated by Circe’s hospitality. “She bade me eat, but my heart was not on eating, and I sat with my thoughts elsewhere and my mind unquiet.” Odysseus says, because “what man of righteous thoughts could bring himself to taste food or drink before winning liberty for his friends and seeing the men before his eyes?”

Circe then releases Odysseus’ men and send them all off on their way. Perhaps noticing that since they arrive they have done nothing but eating her food and demand things from her.

I will leave the story there. But this is what we can learn from Circe. She lives alone happily and makes herself a wonderful home. Of course, men comes and go and she could have had them as her husband/companion. But she has standards. Odysseus’ men are noisy and greedy so she turns them into swines. Even then she still treats them kindly by giving them food and letting them live. Odysseus only manages to get close to her with Hermes’ help, but even then she quickly realises that she is giving Odysseus much more than what he could ever offer her in return. So she says “… is your mind then set on further perils, fresh feats of war?” and sends him on his way.

Charm of the Ancient Enchantress: Calypso and the Magic of Good Housekeeping

“Calypso” by ROOSDY

From Calypso, the solitary enchantress of the Odyssey, we learn the power of creating a beautiful environment. Calypso was the goddess-nymph of the mythical island of Ogygia and a daughter of the Titan Atlas. She “detained” Odysseus for many years in the course of his wanderings after the fall of Troy but was eventually commanded by Zeus to release him.

Odysseus’ ship was destroyed by the whirlpool of Charybdis and he escaped on floating wreckage. Odysseus drifted for nine days until the gods led him to the island of Ogygja where Calypso lives. Odysseus describes her as “the goddess of braided hair and of strange powers and of human speech; she welcomed me and tended me.”

While Odysseus was being mended, the gods assembled in divine council, and Athena began to recount to them the many distresses of Odysseus that again had come before her mind, “He is pent up in an island now,” she says, “overwhelmed with misery; he is in the domains of the Nymph Calypso, who is keeping him with her there perforce and thwarting return to his own country.” Thus to escape from a lone woman, the hero needs the gods to step in.

Zeus send Hermes over to Calypso’s place, and from Homer’s description of her home one can see why it takes Odysseus so long to leave. One may imagine Calypso to have some sort of supernatural power, but she is a nymph. Her powers, although she has some, are limited. So what could have stopped the powerful Odysseus from leaving? “… when he (Hermes) had reached that far-off island he left the violet ocean and took to the land until he came to a great cavern; in this the Nymph of the braided tresses had made her home, and inside this he found her now. On the hearth a great fire was burning, and far and wide over the island was wafted the smell of burning wood, cloven cedar and juniper.” Cozy, isn’t it? If one has a choice between a really long, tedious, uncomfortable and dangerous journey by sea or stay in a warm cavern smelling of burning wood, cloven cedar and juniper, what option would one take?

The vision continues, “In the space within was the goddess herself, singing with a lovely voice, moving to and fro at her loom and weaving with a shuttle of gold. Around the entrance a wood rose up in abundant growth–alder and aspen and fragrant cypress. Birds with long wings roosted there, owls and falcons and long-tongued sea-crows that have their business upon the waters. Trailing over the cavern’s arch was a garden vine that throve and clustered; and here four springs began near each other, then in due order ran four ways with their crystal waters. Grassy meadows on either side stood thick with violet and wild parsley.” – Calypso the enchantress is a fabulous homemaker. She makes sure that her environment is as beautiful as she is. This is important as a person’s home reflects them. By stepping into someone’s house, room or apartment, one can get some general idea of what kind of person is the master or mistress of the house.

And it is not just the home. We can do this with the simple things. We tend to associate certain pleasant feelings with people – from perfumes, flowers to good food. My family associate me with the smell of brownies as I would make a big batch of them every weekend and, to this day, I cannot walk past a landscape painting without thinking of my grandfather as he himself was a painter. You own your space not by “manspreading” as young people call it, but by understanding your own taste and what makes you special – this inspires confidence and confidence is irresistable even for the most virtuous heroes. So even by bringing a bit of sense of warmth and pleasant feeling with you when you walk into a room will make people feel that something is missing when you are gone. This has nothing to do with “catching” a man or a woman. It is about making you comfortable in your own world before sharing it with other people.

Now back to the brave hero. Where is he in Calypso’s magnificent home? In Homer’s words “bold Odysseus was not to be found within; as his custom was, he was sitting on the shore and weeping, breaking his heart with tears and sighs and sorrows.” So Odysseus, after days of drifting aimlessly at sea, almost dying with no food or shelter, is “forced” to stay in this heaven. And now he is crying because he doesn’t want food, shelter and a gentle woman caring for him. Of course, Odysseus sleeps with Calypo at night but, Homer assures us, “this was against his will; she was loving and he unloving.” How awful it must be to have to sleep with a beautiful woman every night to wake up in a lovely home and delicious food.

Odysseus’ reasons for crying is, I’m sure, heroic. However, by owning her space, Calypso also put herself in charge of the narrative. She’s the queen of the castle, Odysseus is just a guest – and a rather tedious guest at that. From Calypso’s point of view, she is a catch. She is beautiful, powerful and capable of giving Odysseus anything he asks. Clearly, she has a lot to give a man. But Odysseus is no match for her as he can do very little but cry and be miserable until he has to ask his friends (the gods) to break up with her on his behalf.

As it turns out, this is exactly what Calypso does. When Hermes tells her the purpose of his visit is to free Odysseus from her clutches, Calypso is understandably offended. “I saved him when he was all alone and astride his keel, when Zeus with his flashing thunderbolt had shattered and shivered his rapid vessel in the midst of wine-dark ocean. All his brave comrades perished then; he alone was borne on to this place by wind and wave. I welcomed him and tended him; I offered him immortality and eternal youth.” In short, Odysseus almost died in the ocean because of Zeus’ thunderbolt only to be saved and tended to by Calypso who was doing just fine living in her own little heaven until he comes along.

Calypso is much too secure in her own power to cry over this. She says to Hermes, handling the break up with class, “so let the man go–if such is the word and behest of Zeus–go where he will over the barren sea. I cannot help him to depart; I have no ships or oars or crew to speed him over the sea’s expanse; but gladly enough, without concealment, I will counsel him how best to reach his own land unscathed.”