Charm of the Ancient Enchantress: Aphrodite and the Mystery of Passion

“Aphrodite” by ROOSDY

The thing about Aphrodite is that she is passionate. Ancient mythology gives us numerous instances where Aphrodite punished those who neglected her worship or resented her power, as well as others in which she favoured and protected those who did homage to her and recognized her sway. As Aphrodite is the goddess of love, we take it for granted that her “passion” will not stray far from her brand. We imagine her passing her passions along her many lovers. Without a lover, she became “jealous” and her passion is used as a reason for her anger and punishments to those who disrespected her. Aphrodite knows what she wants and she expects recognition.

Aphrodite embodies love and passion because she manages to successfully balance the two concepts. In fact, can we argue that in her depictions, Aphrodite is never that much more gorgeous than other goddesses such as Athena, Hera or Artemis? She must have had something extra that made people utterly charmed by her. That something extra was her passion.

We often misunderstand the word “passion” and associate it with love and desire. But passion goes beyond one’s feelings for another person. In fact, passion is anything that arouses enthusiasm. Aphrodite’s charm is her enthusiasm to those which arouses her interest. The reason why “bad boys” or the “manic pixie dream girls” are so popular is usually because they have a variety of other passions apart from their love-interests. One gets the feeling that there are more to them than meets the eye and they are never completely yours.

In a more unromantic sphere, a group of magistrates worshiping Aphrodite called gynaikonomoi (magistrates in charge of women) actually existed at Sparta. This magistracy was first attested at Sparta in an inscription from early first-century CE. In 230 BCE, the Athenian Council dedicated an inscription to Aphrodite Pandemos (Aphrodite who is Common to all the People). Worshipers sought her blessings not for passionate love or a good marriage but for uniting the people of Athens in both personal relationships and the political realm. Other government bodies devoted to Aphrodite included agoranomoi (magistrates in charge of the marketplace), police officials, supervisors and registrars. Among many other names, Aphrodite is also called Nauarchis (guardian of the naval commanders).

Why did all these powerful people worship the seemingly man-hungry goddess? Simple. Because she was not man-hungry (or women-hungry, for that matter). She was life-hungry. She had a wide variety of interests and she was eager to get involved in making life more harmonious for everyone. Her epithets tell us of her involvement in social causes. These involvement is also on-brand for the goddess of love. Aphrodite carved out a role for herself as the keeper of  harmony of the groups in doing their business. Import-officers of Samos dedicated offerings to Aphrodite to “maintain their camaraderie and work together.” As if those were not ambitious enough, Orphic Hymn to Aphrodite also praises Aphrodite as ruling over all creations. If Aphrodite was a modern woman, she may well be one of those women who have it all.

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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.”

Charm of the Ancient Enchantress: Sirens and the Art of Romance

sirens002 “Siren” by ROOSDY

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.”