In its journey zigzagging between tradition and geography, ice cream has grown from a dessert for the powerful elite to a street food that everybody enjoys and consumes all year round. Back in Mesopotamia and ancient Egypt, ice-and snow-drinks were served to the rich and wealthy, and what we can loosely call the first ice cream cup was found in Egypt in a tomb from the Second Dynasty in 2700 BC. The “first ice cream cup” was a kind of mold consisting of two silver cups, one of which contained snow (or crushed ice) and the other cooked fruit. “Icehouses”, where snow was stored and ice deliberately formed, were undoubtedly an extremely ancient invention which led to our modern-day refrigerator. A tablet from c. 1780 BC records the construction of an icehouse by Zimri-Lim, the King of Mari, in the northern Mesopotamian town of Terqa. In China, archaeologists have found remains of ice pits from the 7th century BC, and references suggest that these were in use before 1100 BC. Alexander the Great, who loved snow and ice with honey and nectar, stored snow in pits dug for that purpose around 300 BC. In Rome, in the 3rd century AD, snow was imported from the mountains, stored in straw-covered pits, and sold from snow shops. The ice that formed in the bottom of the pits sold at a higher price than the snow on top. Persian records date back to the 2nd century AD for sweetened chilled drinks with ice created by freezing water in the desert at night.
Snow was used to cool beverages in Greece around 500 BC, and Hippocrates is known to have blamed chilled beverages for causing “stomach flow” as Snow obtained from the lower slopes of the mountains was unsanitary, and iced drinks were suspected to induce convulsions, colic, and a host of other diseases. Later, the Romans seemed to take note of Hippocrates’ complaint and did not add ice to their beverages because the easily accessible ice on the lower slopes was not sanitary for use in food preparation. However, in the same century, the people of the Persian Empire did the opposite. Instead of putting ice in their drinks, they would spill grape juice concentrate over the snow and eat it in hot summers. A hundred years later, they invented a special ice cream recipe for their royal families which consisted of iced rose water, vermicelli, saffron, berries and other sweet flavours.
In Ancient Rome special wells were used to store ice and snow which slaves brought down from to mountains to luxurious villas. During the Roman Empire, Nero Claudius Caesar (54-86 AD) often sent runners into the mountains for snow, which was then flavored with fruit and honey toppings.. Among the ruins of Pompeii there are traces which lead us to believe that some shops specialized in selling crushed ice from Vesuvius sweetened with honey.
Gathering ice to preserve food was a practice in Japan where Emperor Nintoku (290 – 399 AD) proclaimed an Ice Day and in China, over a thousand years ago. In the Shih Ching, an ancient collection of odes, mention is made of an ice-gathering festival. King Tang of the Shang Dynasty (c. 1675 – 1646 BC), had 94 ice men who helped to make a dish of buffalo milk, flour and camphor. During the Tang Dynasty an elegant drink was recorded which consisted of goat, cow of buffalo milk cooked with flour and camphor and then placed in iron containers and buried in snow or ice. The Arabs prepared cold drinks with cherries, quinces and pomegranates.
The first “ice cream” on the American continent was the Paila, a tradition in Pre-Columbian Ecuador. The Caranquis (or Caras), before being conquered by the Incas, sent expeditions to bring blocks of ice and snow down from the top of the volcano Imbabura, wrapped in thick layers of straw and frailejòn leaves, for thermal insulation. The ice cream was then made by filling a large cauldron (called a “paila”) with ice, snow and fruit juice (and sometimes milk), and mixing vigorously until the juices and ice froze together. Using this ancestral technique, gradually perfected over centuries, helados de paila are still prepared traditionally today in some places in Ecuador, especially in the modern town of Imbabura.
Ice cream was made possible only by the discovery of the endothermic effect. Previously, the cream could only be chilled so it could not be frozen. The addition of salt reduced the melting point of the ice, which had the effect of removing heat from the cream and allowing it to freeze. The first documented record of this was the Indian poem Pancatantra, dating back to the 4th century AD. The early written description of the method is documented not from culinary sources, but from the writings of Ibn Abu Usaybia concerning medicine in the 13th century. The technique of “freezing” is not known from any European source prior to the 16th century.
Joseph Campbell wrote, “a hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”
Within this concept, the underworld is notable as a place where a hero could descend and prove himself. For the ancient Greeks, the underworld represents a point of no return. However, there are some who managed to descend to the realm of the dead and returned to the land of the living. This journey to the underworld usually provide the hero or upper-world deity with a special object, a loved one, or a heightened knowledge. The ability to enter the realm of the dead while still alive, and to return from it, is considered proof of the hero’s prowess and mastery over himself and the world around him or, in the case of the goddess Persephone’s return from the underworld, the cyclical nature of time and existence.
This is not an exclusively Greek story. The journey to the underworld and the resulting transformation are such an important part of the ancient religions that it influences cultures, rituals and governments of many ancient societies. An ancient Bugis poem called La Galigo is the most coherent account of the introduction of kingship among the Bugis and Makassar people of South Sulawesi, Indonesia. The poem described the earth as being in chaos at the beginning of time. The gods and goddesses then decided to send Batara Guru (“noble lord counselor”) to transform this chaos into a place habitable for man.
We Nyilitimo, the daughter of the god of the underworld, agreed to serve as a wife to Batara Guru on earth. Therefore, as Batara Guru descended to earth from the heaven on a rainbow, We Nyilitimo rose from the underworld on a big wave, earning herself the title Tompo ri busa mpong (“She who rose from the foam of the waves”). The two deities met and began a civilization together. After a period of time, Batara Guru and We Nyilitimo left to return to their respective realms, leaving their children to live on earth. Without their divine parents, mankind began to turn on one another. Batara Guru and We Nyilitimo took pity on them and appointed one of their children to rule over the warring communities. In the Bugis-Makassar kingdoms this being was called the Tu manurung (“the one who descended”), a child of heaven and the underworld whose duty was to lead the people on earth. This legend became the ideal depiction of the origins of rulers that forms the basis of later court writing in Makassar which emphasize the divine ancestry of the royal families. In Bugis-Makassar society, a king was regarded as an essential mediator or link between mankind on earth and the gods in heaven and the underworld, as he was believed to possess the power to move freely between the realms until such time of his death where he would descend to the underworld to join his mother.
The 12th century Epic of King Gesar of Mongolia relates the heroic deeds of the culture hero Gesar,the lord of the legendary kingdom of Ling. His birth was said to be miraculous. One version of his birth is that, like the first king of Bugis-Makassar, he was born from the union between a father, who was simultaneously a sky god and holy mountain, and a mother who was a goddess of the watery underworld. Like the semi-mythical role of the Bugis-Makassar king, King Gesar defended his people against various human and superhuman aggressors. A version of his myth says that he descended to the underworld near the end of his life to rescue his mother from usurpers of the underworld and later, instead of dying a normal death he joined his mother in the underworld from which he may return at some time in the future to save his people from their enemies.
The god Izanagi and his wife, the goddess Izanami, gave birth to the many islands of Japan as well as numerous deities of Shintoism. After Izanami died giving birth to the fire-god Kagu-tsuchi, Izanagi executed the fire god and went to see his wife in Yomi-no-kuni (the underworld) in the hopes of retrieving her. However, like Persephone in Greek mythology, Izanami had eaten the food cooked in the furnace of the underworld, rendering her unable to return. Although he had promised, prior to his descent, to never look upon his wife, Izanagi betrayed this promise only to behold her in her monstrous state. The couple’s relationship turned sour as, angry and ashamed, Izanami took her revenge on Izanagi by dispatching the lightning god Raijin and the hag Yomotsu-shikome to chase after him. In her fury at the escape of Izanagi, the goddess swore to kill a thousand of his people every day. Hearing this, Izanagi retorted that a thousand and five hundred people will be born every day.
The name Guanyin is the short version for Guanshiyin, which means “the one who hears the sound of the world”. In one version of her legend, when Guanyin was executed, a supernatural tiger took her to the realm of the dead. However, instead of being overwhelmed by the darkness like the other spirits of the dead, Guanyin completely surprised the hell guardian by playing music, making flowers bloom around her. Guanyin turned hell into heaven. In Sumerian, the word for ear and wisdom are the same. Therefore, when Inanna “turned her ear to the Great Below”, the implication of this little sentence is that she was seeking wisdom and understanding – this further implies that one descends to the underworld to seek knowledge. When she approached the outer gates of the underworld, she was entering the ordeal of initiation. Inanna shows through her own descent her self-sacrifice for a deep wisdom and atonement. Inanna descended, submitted and died. By descending to the underworld, she opened herself to losing control of her life, facing the very real possibility of never getting out of the underworld, and still kept going. Being acted upon is considered one of the essence of the experience of the human soul faced with the transpersonal. Allowing another to exert their influence upon her is not considered passivity, but an active willingness to receive. `
A main goal of such descents, then, is the letting go of illusions and the old patterns of mundane life. Ereshkigal’s realm is similar to the undiscriminating fires of Kali in the Indian mythology. It combines time and sufferings and killing human distinctions and ego before yielding a new life as well as an acknowledgment that life is cyclical.
The I Ching notes that the symbols for chaos and opportunity are the same. This also relates to the interpretation of a divine descent to the underworld. If the world, society and cherished collective beliefs are being threatened with chaos, I Ching interpret this as the world making its own descent into the underworld prior to its being reborn. If so, then humanity is facing a time of opportunity instead of merely chaos. The world would then shed its illusions before it is empowered.
Although not everybody wants to be famous, it is still a natural human desire to receive some recognition for one’s talents and contribution. For the more ambitious, those who aim for everlasting fame must deal with numerous challenges from jealousy of rivals to possible extinction of their own civilisation and language.
What ultimately claims everyone is simply the steady march of time. Most people who have risen to dizzying heights of fame seems to be largely forgotten. The steamy verses of the Greek poet Sappho titillated audiences for much of antiquity. They were so enchanting, one Athenian lawmaker said he felt that once he’d heard them he could die a contented man. The celebrity gladiator Spiculus was so admired by the emperor Nero that, when he sensed that his own murder was imminent, Nero requested that Spiculus would be the one to kill him instead. Sappho and Spiculus are now largely forgotten except by historians and people who actually have to study them. But, in their day, they were hot stuff. So how is it that some people are almost instantly forgotten when they have gone, while others cling on, embedding themselves so deeply into our culture that we’re still studying them, writing about them and even depicting them in films millennia after they’re gone?
1. Be Hungry for It
A fitting place to begin the search is Ancient Greece, where achieving everlasting glory was a national obsession. In Homer’s Iliad, Achilles says that he was given the option between living a long but undistinguished life or a brief life that would give him a chance to achieve immortal glory. Achilles chose the second option – preferring to be a subject of song for all eternity. However, a more subdued Achilles later reappeared in Book 11 of Homer’s Odyssey where Odysseus sails to the underworld and converses with the shades. One of these shades is Achilles who, when greeted as “blessed in life, blessed in death”, responds bitterly that he would rather be a slave to the worst of masters than be king of all the dead.
Another hero, Ajax, is said to have been driven mad when he lost to Odysseus in a contest over who is the best fighter in the Greek army. Believing that he is avenging himself upon the judges of the contest, Ajax goes on to slaughter a herd of cattle. Once he returns to his senses, the humiliated hero commits suicide by falling on his spear.
2. Hire Your Own Publicist
Master of self-promotion Alexander the Great ruled the kingdom of Macedon from 336-323 BC, expanding it from mainland Greece and a scattering of Mediterranean islands to a global power that stretched all the way to northwest India. His advanced propaganda machine included a troop of historians who accompanied him on campaigns. These historians write the history of his campaign as it was happening. He also authorised only one sculptor to carve his portrait and carefully planned the details of any likenesses that appeared on coins.
Nicias (c. 470 BC – 413 BC), an Athenian Politician and General in the Peloponnesian War, engaged the services of a publicity manager named Hieron to help him cultivate the image of a hard-working and self-sacrificing public servant. It was Hieron who helped Nicias to act out this part by investing him with an air of solemnity and self-importance.
3. Have the Right Career
Those not lucky enough to be born into power still have a decent chance of being remembered if they focus on changing the world through their ideas. Back in antiquity, philosophers weren’t particularly well known by the general public. But thousands of years later, their work still guides modern thinking and they are so widely known they can be considered to be household names. However, ancient philosophers had the added advantage of fewer competitors since most people of their time were illiterate. Finding fame gets harder to achieve without original ideas, but it is still possible to come up with revolutionary thought experiments.
Later, as Da Vinci, Galileo, Einstein and Isaac Newton inch towards a millennium of fame, it might be tempting to opt for a life in the laboratory. Unfortunately, nowadays even a Nobel prize probably won’t do the trick as science is now much more collaborative and you’ll more likely to be noted as just one name in a group of clever people.
In ancient Rome, Gladiators were mainly drawn from the ranks of convicted murderers and slaves. Most of them would only appear in the Colosseum once as they would be killed in the match. However, the best of them achieved great fame. Such was the attention that they received that others, including freeborn women, senators, even the Emperor Commodus (161 – 192 CE), offered their own services as gladiators. Unfortunately, sporting heroes impact a generation, but once they start to go out of living memory they decline.
4. Sleep with Someone Famous
Incidentally, gladiators were thought to be exceptionally potent, and women sleeping with them could achieve fame for themselves. The poet Juvenal scorned a woman named Eppia, the wife of a senator, who eloped to Egypt with a gladiator called Sergius – thus elevating and immortalizing her through his writing. “What was the attraction? The fellow was a physical wreck”’ Juvenal demands. “Ah, but he was a gladiator.” Eppia replied.
A certain degree of self-validation through sleeping with someone famous also emerged in Euripides’ play, The Bacchae, when Dionysus became angered after his aunt Agave claimed that his mother Semele had never slept with Zeus and slept with a mortal man instead – thus denying Dionysus’ divinity and the high profile he would have gotten by being the son of Zeus.
5. Be Outrageous
The man who brought down ancient Rome’s political system was a wealthy nobleman named Publius Clodius Pulcher (c. 93 BC – 52 BC). Well-known in Rome even before his foray into politics, Clodius had already shocked and amused the Roman public by his eccentricities and unpredictable ways.
Clodius entered politics to secure the acceptance and respect of the ruling class who quickly dismissed him as a buffoon. After the elite rebuffed him, Clodius positioned himself as the leader of the angry Roman working classes. This surprised Rome’s ruling classes who continued to despise Clodius. Rome was so divided during Clodius’ campaign for the praetorship that the elections had to be postponed twice due to fighting in the streets between his followers and the faction of his opponent, Annius Milo.
When Clodius happened to meet Milo along the Appian Way, a fight broke out between their guards and Clodius was gravely wounded until Milo ordered his men to finish him off with a consideration that a popular dead opponent was less harmful than an alive and angry one.
6. Look Pretty
Helen of Troy, with her “face that launched a thousand ships” is one example of being famous for one’s beauty as men came to see her all the way from distant lands. Penelope, wife of Odysseus, is another example as she was forced to devise various strategies to delay marrying one of her 108 suitors while she spend twenty years waiting for the final return of her husband.
The fourth century BC Greek courtesan Phryne had clients visited her from all over the Greek world and showered her with gifts. After she became rich, Phryne offered to use her wealth to rebuild the walls around the city of Thebes which had been destroyed by Alexander the Great with a condition that the walls should bear an inscription recording, or rather promoting, her and her generosity.
Her efforts of self-promotion were not in vain as rhetorician Athenaeus of Naucratis provides many anecdotes praising her beauty and generosity. Praxiteles, a sculptor who became her lover, was also said to have used her as the model for the statue of the Aphrodite of Knidos – the first nude statue of a woman from ancient Greece.
7. Be Really, Really Lucky
When Tutankhamun took his last, feverish breath in 1323 BC, he was just a boy king of 18. He’s not known to have achieved anything particularly remarkable – understandable, given his age. Then something extraordinary happened. His tomb was discovered in 1922. Its location and size had kept them safely hidden away, while all the tombs around it were being plundered by looters.
The memory of Tutankhamun has been ensured by the large number of physical artefacts he left behind. His mummy alone has been intensively studied as experts unravel the mystery of his short life and how he died. His fame increases with every headline and documentary. When we think of ancient Egypt, we think Tutankhamun. It doesn’t matter that it was all a fluke.
8. Leave Stuff Behind
Leaving any kind of physical legacy is extremely helpful. This could come in the form of the many, many descendants of the 13th-Century Mongol warrior Genghis Khan, whose prolific loins sired one in 200 men alive today, or the numerous monuments and coins on which Alexander the Great stamped his image. In China, the emperor Qin Shi Huang secured his lasting memory with the Great Wall of China and the vast Terracotta Warriors buried with him – not to mention that he founded an entire country.
9. Be a Villain
Another route to enduring fame that should not be encouraged is to seek notoriety. From Jack the Ripper and Captain Blackbeard, to Hitler and Ivan the Terrible, many of the best-known characters in history are infamous. The most charismatic have been remembered, with a shudder, for generations. This has led some to pursue fame the nasty way. When Mark David Chapman was being charged for murder for shooting John Lennon, he said ‘in order to be the most famous person in the world, I have to kill the most famous person in the world.”
Thousands of years ago, an arsonist called Herostratus set fire to one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, the great temple of Artemis at Ephesus in Turkey in 348 BC. Herostratus later confessed under torture that his crime was driven by his wish to be a celebrity. Hearing this, the Ephesians decided to execute Herostratus and ban all mention of his name – dubbing him instead as “That Who Is Not Lawful To Mention”. However, the ancient historian Theopompus mentions the name of Herostratus in his his book Hellenics and the name appears again later in the works of Strabo. Unfortunately this banning tactic was a failure as Herostratus is remembered to this day. The term “Herostratic fame” refers to Herostratus and means “fame [sought] at any cost”.
I have recently started my own YouTube channel. The reason behind this decision is that I want to share my views, insights and knowledge on this blog as well as in video format. There are many topics that I am very excited to discuss on video as well as in written form in this blog.
The goal of my YouTube channel is to be a place where we can discover more of ancient culture without the boring bits. If you have been following my blog or buying my books, you would know that I am very passionate about world mythology and how we can take lessons from them in the modern world. This channel will be focused world myths and legends which are simple and relatable. You can also access some of my favorite videos on my video page on this website.
I will be very happy if you would like to follow me along on this journey. If you are interested, do come to my channel, watch my videos and comment on it on YouTube or below this blog post if you like. I rely on feedback to improve the quality of the content, and I also would like to choose topics for future videos according to your feedback when possible.
Last, and most importantly, thank you for all your support and friendship through the years. I hope you know that appreciate you very much, and I look forward to taking you on this new adventure.
In Canada in 2014, the rather beautiful Justin Trudeau’s leadership numbers surpassed those of the older, somewhat less Disney prince-like, then-prime minister Stephen Harper with 38 percent of respondents telling Ipsos Reid that Trudeau was the leader they trusted most versus 31 percent weighing in for Harper and 30 percent for Tom Mulcair – this was despite Trudeau’s own lack of experience and sustained political attacks portraying him as feckless and self-absorbed. Sensing trouble, the other political party tried to turn Trudeau’s looks into a negative adding the qualifier “Nice hair, though”. But in doing so, they unwittingly drew attention to a powerful trait that Trudeau had to smooth over voters’ uncertainty. Thanks to this, Trudeau’s physical presentation became his most recognizable feature, setting him apart from his competitors and filling the conversation void left by the absence of reliable information about his experience and trustworthiness. When the time came, Justin Trudeau and the Liberal party won 184 of the 338 seats in the Commons. Shorty after this, he and his also beautiful wife appeared on the pages of Vogue.
As much as our parents like to tell us to not judge a book by its covers (ignoring the fact that most books with ugly covers aren’t flying off the shelves), or “it’s the inside that counts” (as if anyone ever fall in love with a particularly attractive pair of kidneys), we cannot deny that beauty is power. For thousands of years, philosophers and poets marvel at the mysterious power of beautiful people. Each trying to come up with the best way to describe what “beauty” is, giving it numerous other qualities beyond that which we can see such as “a certain something”, “aura”, “sex appeal”, “inner beauty” etc. In the 1960s, a psychological research reveal we tend to persuade ourselves of the greatness of people who we consider as beautiful. We happily project virtues onto the beautiful person without the slightest knowledge of whether or not they possess them. Study after study has shown that we assume beautiful people to be smarter, kinder and more trustworthy even when we have nothing more to go on than pictures of their faces.
Beauty lies in the eye of the beholder, Plato says. But even Plato must have noticed that those beholders have strangely similar tastes relating to facial and body symmetry. He would have realized, then, that agreement on what is “beautiful” is often consistent within nationalities and ethnic groups. For example, women in Egyptian art are often depicted as slim with high waists and narrow hips, ideally with dark black hair and golden skin. In Ancient Greece, however, the ideal woman was light skinned and plump. Plato also tells us tells us the three wishes of every Greek: to be healthy, to be beautiful, and to become rich by honest means. Ancient Greek parents-to-be were so concerned about their offspring’s beauty that they placed statues of Aphrodite or Apollo, the two deities of beautiful physical appearance, in their bedrooms to help them conceive beautiful children.
The rules of beauty were all important in ancient Greece especially for the men. This was, of course, fabulous news for men who were buff and pretty. A full-lipped, chiselled man in Ancient Greece understood that his beauty was a gift of the gods and that his perfect exterior hid an inner perfection, he therefore had no qualms in spending more than eight hours at the gym every day to maximize his gifts. For the ancient Greeks, a beautiful body was considered direct evidence of a beautiful mind.
This did not apply to the ladies. Although being a beautiful man was good news, being a beautiful woman spelt trouble. That charming fellow Hesiod described the first created woman simply as kalon kakon (“the beautiful-evil thing”). The woman was evil because she was beautiful, and beautiful because she was evil. But what is this “evil” that women had? Helen of Troy gives us an example. Her “evil” beauty was considered to stem not from the way she looked, but how she “made” men feel and what she “made” men do. When we first meet Helen in book three of Homer’s Iliad. The old men sing about her “Oh what beauty!”. “Terrible beauty – beauty like that of a goddess” – meaning that Helen has the kind of presence that drives men to distraction. Helen’s beauty, in the ancient world, was a weapon of mass destruction. The “evil” of women’s physical beauty is also emphasised in a famous anecdote about Phyrne. Phyrne was the young mistress of the fourth-century Athenian sculptor Praxitiles. She was also the model for some of his most beautiful works. During a game of follow-the-leader with other courtesans at a feast, Phyrne called for a bowl of water and washed her face. The other women, bound by the rules of the game to follow suit, were then also forced to wash their faces. Young and naturally beautiful, Phyrne of course looked none the worse, but her older companions had to spend an uncomfortable evening with their faces bare of any makeup.
This “eyes of the beholder” business that Plato talked about is also surprisingly specific and modern. One might remember the awful “thigh gap” fashion which started in 2013. We also have that search for the “perfect nipple” in 2017. Nipples that occupied between 25 and 30 percent of the breast were rated highest in terms of desirability. At the top of customers’ cosmetic surgery wish lists is having a symmetrical pair of nipples, despite the fact that most women have asymmetric nipples to go with their also asymmetric breasts. Second on the wish list is making the size of the nipple and areola (the pigmented area surrounding it) smaller. Those are just two examples of our many modern preoccupation with the “ideal” beauty.
The ancient Greeks also recognized specific characteristics as beautiful: a straight nose or one that fell in a slightly depressed line from its root to the forehead, a low forehead and perfect eyebrows called “eyebrows of grace” that formed a delicate arch just over the brow bone. Particularly appealing were eyebrows that grew together over the nose – a feature which we certainly wouldn’t think much of today as we call it “unibrow”. The mouth admired by the Greeks was naturally reddish, with the lower lip slightly fuller than the upper lip. The perfect Greek chin, round and smooth, should be dimple-free.
The ancient Greek housewives were somewhat exempt from this fuss. As Demonthenes put it, a man married “to have a faithful watchdog in the house. Beauty and gratification of the senses came from the mistress.” The use of makeup of enhance one’s appearance was therefore limited to the hetaera (courtesans) as a plain housewife was preferable.
In Asia, in the Han Dynasty of China (c. 206 BC – 220 AD) very slim women with long black hair and red lips were favoured. While the Japanese Heian beauty included pale skin, round and rosy cheeks, and little bow lips. In pre-modern Chinese literature, the ideal man in caizi jiaren romances was said to have “rosy lips, sparkling white teeth” and a “jasper-like face”.
Despite the obvious perks of being beautiful, Bob Dylan was right when he said that “behind every beautiful thing, there’s some kind of pain.” The public tends to be more scathing and less forgiving when a person perceived to be beautiful made mistakes and show weaknesses as they hold this person to a higher standard. This also works the other way. The world’s most incompetent politicians and worst dictators in history tend to be quite unattractive with hideous haircuts. Although no one really expect people with such serious and demanding jobs to look like supermodels, these politicians would have had access to the best barbers in their countries – therefore, they really had no excuse to have their hairs looking so ridiculous. One can only assume that they were so miserable to live with that the people in their lives may have let them out of the house looking like that as a form of payback. However, they seemed to enjoy a higher degree of freedom as they tend be held to a much lower standard and able to get away with so much more than their more beautiful counterparts.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
“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.
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.”
Enchantresses of the ancient world are commonly vilified and blamed for the hero’s misery. However, they are fascinating figures. The hero is usually a big, strong, manly man who has seen his share of war and violence. As he is perfectly capable to remove himself from the clutches of violent men, he would certainly be capable to get away from a delicate woman. The enchantress is usually depicted as a woman (the “weaker sex”) – delicate, sweet-voiced, fair. In short, she is hardly the type to force the physically strong hero to stay with her if he doesn’t want to do so. She must then attract the hero’s mind, will or heart somehow. Because we don’t want to ever think that the great Heracles, Aeneas or Odysseus are anything but virtuous, we prefer not to think of them as understandably weary warriors with a lot of demands being put on their shoulders looking for refuge from their difficult journeys. Instead, the enchantress must have had some special tricks or supernatural powers to attract these men, trapped them in her island against his will and stop them from continuing their travels. In the case of the Odyssey, the enchantresses never even leave their islands. It was Odysseus who comes to them.
Mythology is not all magic and incredible beings. There are perfectly reasonable explanations to the charms of the enchantress – most of which are still used today. The charms of the ancient enchantress is what I want to look at this month. Illustrator ROOSDY is going to help me with the visuals. For more of his work, you can find him on Instagram @roosdy01 . His paintings as well as merchandise for this series will be available on society6
We often hear that femme fatales such as Cleopatra, who managed to entrance not one but two Roman generals, was not beautiful. In fact, she was apparently quite homely in her appearance. However, she was powerful, intelligent and well-read – well-positioned to seduce a thinking man such as a scholar, a senator or an emperor.
The sirens in ancient Greek mythology were no supermodels either. In early Greek art, they were represented as birds with large women’s heads, bird feathers and scaly feet. Later, they were represented as female figures with the legs of birds, with or without wings, playing a variety of musical instruments. The tenth-century Byzantine encyclopedia Suda says that from their chests up, the sirens were little birds with women’s faces.
Their reputation also doesn’t help. “They sit in a meadow; men’s corpses lie heaped up all round them, mouldering upon the bones as the skin decays.” Circe warns Odysseus. As later painters depicted sirens as beautiful naked women instead of scary singing bird ladies, we then assume that they seduce the travellers with their magnificent beauty. If they’re not physically beautiful, well then they must have really divine voices.
To put this simply, what Cleopatra and the Sirens offered the men are romance. A quick google search for the definition of Romance will give you this result: a quality or feeling of mystery, excitement, and remoteness from everyday life. Romance is synonymous with the words mystery, glamour, excitement, mystique. The sirens do more than just sing the travellers to their deaths. They promise romance. They promise something different, an escape for the weary and, at this point, very bored travellers who have been stuck on their ship after being at war for 10 years. For a long time, the lives of these men would have been as far as they could be from anything comfortable, beautiful or artistic. They would have had to find their way home to wives who may have remarried and families who may have moved on and forgotten all about them. In short, whatever journey they experienced were far from over. The sirens provide them respite, with music and the arts. Perhaps their voices are divine, but it is their artistic intelligence that enchants the travellers. As Pausanias says, “Down to the present day men are wont to liken to a Seiren (Siren) whatever is charming in both poetry and prose.”
The deer’s antlers are possibly the most visible characteristics that have made it the figure of a spiritual superiority Like a crown, the antlers grow beyond its body, bringing it closer to the sky. In many cultures, the deer is a symbol of spiritual authority. During a deer’s life the antlers fall off and grow again and the animal is also a symbol of regeneration.
The deer’s fleetness of foot and its longevity are also often commemorated in different cultures. Out of the shin-bone of the fawn, flutes (tibiae) were made which seem to have given forth feeble sounds — whereas Sardinians used to make good ones out of the leg-bones of flamingoes; Pindar’s lyre is described as outringing all the others, even as the Etruscan trumpet outblares this flute. The skins of deer were worn at Bacchic festivals, and one of the five performers holds the body of a stag aloft.
In one of the Jataka tale, Buddha has reincarnated into the form of a deer. The story originated in India around the 4th century BCE, hailing the merits of compassion, empathy and Karma.
In some Scottish and Irish tales deer are seen as “fairy cattle” and are herded and milked by a benevolent otherworldly woman such as a bean idhe or the goddess Flidais who can shapeshift into the form of a red or white deer. In Ireland, The Cailleach Bheara (“The Old Woman of Beare”), who lives on an island off the coast of County Cork, takes the form of a deer to avoid capture and herds her deer down by the shore. The Beare peninsula is also associated with the islands in the western sea that are the lands of the dead. Other Celtic mythological figures also have connections to deer. The name of the legendary poet Oisin literally means “young deer” or fawn. His mother, Sadhbh, was turned into a deer by a druid, Fear Doirche. When hunter-warrior Fionn was hunting he caught her but did not kill her, and she returned to human form. Fionn gave up hunting to settle down with Sadhbh. Sadhbh was soon pregnant, but Fer Doirich turned her back into a deer and she returned to the wild. Seven years later Fionn found his child. Cernunnos, the Celtic god of fertility, life, animals, wealth and the underworld, has deer or stag antlers.
In the Poetic Edda poem Grimnismal, the four stags of Yggdrasil are described as feeding on the world tree. Early suggestions for interpretations of the stags included connecting them with the four elements, the four seasons or the phases of the moon.
In Greek mythology, the deer is particularly associated with Artemis, the virginal huntress. Callimachus, in “Hymn III to Artemis”, mentions the deer that drew the chariot of Artemis:
in golden armor and belt, you yoked a golden chariot, bridled deer in gold.
For the Huichol people of Mexico, the “magical deer” represents both the power of maize to sustain the body and of the peyote cactus to feed and enlighten the spirit. Animals such as the eagle, jaguar, serpent and deer are of great importance to the Mexican indigenous cultures. For each group, however, one of these animals is of special significance and confers some of its qualities to the tribe.
For the Huichol it is the deer that holds this intimate role. The Huichol hunt and sacrifice deer in their ceremonies. They make offerings to the Deer of the Maize to care for their crops, and to the Deer of the Peyote to bring them spiritual guidance and artistic inspiration.
The stag is one of the most common motifs in Scythian art as the swift animal was believed to speed the spirits of the dead on their way.
There are two epigrams about the death of deer, one more strange than the other. The first, by Apollonides, relates how a herd of deer sought refuge from their snow-clad mountains in the moist warmth of a river and were held fast there, to the delight of the country-folk, by a sudden frost which covered the river with ice. Tiberius Illustrius tells the fate of a dorkas which, escaping from hounds into the sea, is drawn to land by fishermen in their nets ; and in Didot III is an epitaph on a hind which was captured in similar fashion. Xenophon says that one can sometimes drive stags into the sea, an occurence which is frequently observed, since deer are excellent swimmers. Macedonius has a quatrain about a certain Codrus who caught a swift deer out of the waves of the sea. The myth of Saron is connected with a stag which took to the water of what was afterwards the Saronic Gulf; he pursued it into the waves and was drowned.