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.

File:Homer Musei Capitolini MC557.jpg
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.

File:William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905) - Homer and his Guide (1874).jpg
“Homer and His Guide” by
William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905)
File:Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, Apotheosis of Homer, 1827.jpg
” 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.”

File:Hesiod and the Muse by Gustave Moreau (1870).jpg
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

Advertisements

Reflecting on the Ancient Beauty of the Lioness

“Danger hides in beauty and beauty in danger.”

— Belva Plain (1915 –  2010)

 

white-lion-2889308_1920

399px-GD-EG-KomOmbo016.JPG
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.

Patera_di_Parabiago_-_MI_-_Museo_archeologico_-_Cibele_e_Adone_-_Foto_Giovanni_Dall'Orto_2_-_25-7-2003
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.

800px-thumbnail.jpg
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”.

lion-2119450_1920

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)