We often hear something being dismissed as “just a myth” to imply that it is not true. In fact, “myth” and “truth” are often seen as opposites. If it is not analysed, written down in reports and be seen or heard, then it is a myth (“pics or it didn’t happen!” as young people like to say). For many, mythology is the study of old, meaningless and untrue stories. Some people, repelled by the myths’ more incredible elements and contradictions, see them as fabrications to be discarded because we like to think that we are too “sophisticated” to believe in something so ridiculous. But mythology’s enduring worth is never in its possible historical or scientific accuracy. When recitals of data and observable facts miss the point completely, some things can be dealt with adequately only in poetry or mythology. Love, hate, empathy, aversion, hunger, greed, altruism and all the other positive and negative aspects of being human are also facts. To ignore them by putting everything into numbers is to treat people as insensate objects and their lives as mechanical conditioned responses. This is a statistical perspective and it is as much a distortion of reality as any other limited point of view.
Every culture’s pantheon of mythical characters was the family into which every person of that culture was born, as these creatures were as familiar as their parents, grandparents or siblings. Therefore, a myth is also not a simple proposition that can be judged as true or false. Rather, a myth attempts to make sense of our perceptions and feelings within our experience of the world in a narrative format long before art, language or the written word.
Of course, there are certainly many aspects of myths are not literally true. However, we understand the stories about the Greek gods because they share some of our emotions and ambitions – two things we cannot measure even if we tried. The stories of Icarus, for example, resonates with us because we have all experienced within ourselves tendencies to fly too high or to force things only to crash and burn. Although no myth can completely represent all of human experience as human experience is so multidimensional and varied, a myth still captures some important aspects of the domain of human experience which it is meant to represent. It is like a map which captures only important features of the terrain but not every detail of the terrain it represents. Just like looking at maps, we learn through imagination, as we feel and visualize the colorful adventures of the deities or heroes. Although mythology is not a literal description of a culture’s history, we can still use myths to explore the culture itself and address some of our fundamental and difficult questions that human beings ask – who am I, where did I come from, why am I here, how did it all begin?
Truthfully, human beings are never meant to be totally rational. We therefore crave a bit of mystery to counter our apparent understanding and mastery of the world. To lend this comfort of mystery, humanity have had deities for many aspects of life. The Egyptians had more than 2000 deities while the Hindus have 333 million. The Irish honored both the goddess of rivers (Boann) and the goddess of the Lagan River (Logia). There are deities for cities (such as Athena for Athens), mountains (Gauri-Sankar for Mount Everest), lakes, tribes, plant species, temples, constellations, and many more. Deities governed not only major phenomena such as agriculture, love or the sun, but also such common matters as leisure, the kitchen stove, politics, prostitution, singing, doors, virginity, gambling, drunkenness and the toilet. Deities have governed virtually every possible activity, object and emotion, lending a bit of their magic into what would have been rather mundane and tedious interactions.
Myths also bring out our sense of protectiveness. Mistakes in relating mythological stories may meet with sneers or even anger. Much like a family member being misunderstood or criticized, we stand by our myth because we know that it is our root, the culture from where we came.
Like the lack of sense of family or community, a lack of myths can cause a sense of meaninglessness, estrangement and cold brittleness of a life devoid of reverence and awe. As myths are necessary, and we neglected to preserve most of the ancient ones, our modern society develops its own myths. Now our “modern” myths seem to rest on certain concepts (such as “progress” or “freedom”) and in larger-than-life celebrities. The media enlarges certain people to mythical proportions and we project the “hero” archetype onto other people. We revered Mother Teresa for her compassion and Albert Einstein for his intellect. Marilyn Monroe was a “screen goddess” with the alluring qualities of Aphrodite while Muhammad Ali called on the aggression of Ares when he stepped into the boxing ring. Through all these reverence, we somewhat conveniently leave out the fact that Albert Einstein failed every exams he had ever attempted in his school days, Marilyn Monroe was ultimately a lonely figure and Muhammad Ali was a peaceful man off the ring – in short, they were all human: complicated, vulnerable and fragile. But to understand and relate to them, we amplify aspects of them that are easiest for us to understand.
There is a myth in every group and our mythology changes as our culture changes. We each have our own mythology which we create. We have things and people which are important and valued to us personally. We are heroes in our “mythical journeys” by which we romanticize our various passages through life. The truly satisfying and exciting myths are those which arise from our own passions and our own visions. It just so happens that those myths have existed since the ancient times one way or the other.
A beautiful girl, Psyche, is born after two older sisters. People throughout the land worship her beauty so deeply that they forget about Venus, who is supposed to be the most beautiful being ever. Jealous, Venus plots to ruin Psyche. She instructs her son, Cupid, to pierce the girl with an arrow and make her fall in love with the most hideous man alive. But when Cupid sees Psyche, he shoots himself with the arrow instead.
Meanwhile, Psyche’s family become worried that she will never find a husband, for although men admire her beauty, they always seem content to marry someone else. Psyche’s father prays to Apollo for help, and Apollo instructs her to go to the top of a hill, where she will marry not a man but a serpent. Although this is not the most appealing offer in the world, Psychefaithfully follows the instructions. She waits until she falls asleep on the hill. When she wakes up, she discovers a stunning mansion. Going inside, she relaxes and enjoys fine food and luxurious treatment. At night, in the dark, she meets and falls in love with her husband.
After that, she never sees him in the light. But she lives happily with him, until one day he tells her that her sisters have been crying for her. She begs to see them, but her husband replies that it would not be wise to do so. Psyche insists that they visit, and when they do, they become extremely jealous of Psyche’s beautiful mansion and lush quarters. They deduce that Psyche has never seen her husband, and they convince her that she must sneak a look. Confused and conflicted, Psyche turns on a lamp one night as her husband lies next to her.
When she sees Cupid asleep on her bed, she immediately realizes what she has done. Cupid awakens and leaves her because Love cannot live where there is no faith.
Clown-like characters have been around for thousands of years. Jesters date back at least as far as ancient Egypt. Tracing back the figure of the Jester leads us to the mythological trickster. Tricksters are archetypal characters who appear in the myths of many different cultures. They cross and often break both physical and societal rules, violating principles of social and natural order, playfully disrupting normal life and then re-establishing it on a new basis. They openly question and mock authority and usually fond of breaking rules and playing tricks on both humans and gods. Hermes plays this role in some Greek myths. He is the messenger of the gods, patron of thieves and the inventor of lying, a gift he passed on to his son Autolycus. The trickster is also unconstrained by form or gender. In Norse mythology, the trickster Loki is also a shape shifter who could move freely between genders. At one point, he even becomes a mare who later gives birth to Odin’s eight-legged horse .
In later folklore, the trickster is incarnated as a clever man or creature, who defends himself by using trickery to survive the dangers of the world. For example, typical fairy tales have the king who wants to find the best groom for his daughter through ordering trials. No brave and valiant prince or knight manages to win them, until a simple but clever peasant comes. Instead of fighting, the peasant fools the monsters and villains and dangers and win the hand of the princess.
This leads us to the elusive character of the jester. Early jesters were popular in Ancient Egypt, and entertained Egyptian pharaohs. The ancient Romans also had a tradition of professional jesters called Balatrones who moved freely in the company of the wealthy due to the general amusement they afforded. Perhaps the earliest antecedents of the European court jester were the comic actors of ancient Rome. Several Latin terms used in medieval references to jesters such as scurrae, mimi or histriones originally referred either to amusing hangers-on or to the comic actors and entertainers of Rome. If there was no formal professional jester in Rome, the comic actors fulfilled his functions.
In the 11th and 12th centuries, the title minstrel (“little servant”), was the name given to a wide range of entertainers, including singers, musicians, jugglers, tumblers, magicians as well as jesters. Both men and women were employed as minstrels and there is a record of a female jester called Adeline owning land in Hampshire in 1086. In the 12th century, the title of follus or “fool” began to be mentioned in documents, often when these jesters had been rewarded with land as payment for loyal service. A fool named Roland le Pettour was given 30 acres of land by King Henry II when he retired on condition that Roland returned to the royal court every year on Christmas Day to “leap, whistle and fart”.
By the 13th century, some talented jesters were beginning to achieve superstar status. In Europe and India the most eminent jesters were household names, as top-class comedians are today, and stories about their jokes and tricks circulated freely. In India there is even a kind of lentil soup named after Birbal. The star jesters of China may also have enjoyed this celebrity status, as Ban Gu’s biography of Dongfang Shuo suggests that Shuo’s jokes and sallies, his divinations and guesses, shallow and inconsequential though they are, were passed around among the ordinary run of people, and there was no stripling or cowherd who failed to be quite dazzled by them.
An individual court jester in Europe could emerge from a wide range of backgrounds: a university dropout, a monk thrown out of a priory for nun frolics, a jongleur with exceptional verbal or physical dexterity, or the apprentice of a village blacksmith whose fooling amused a passing nobleman. The recruiting of jesters was informal and meritocratic.
A dwarf-jester called Nai Teh (Mr. Little) at the court of King Mongkut of Siam (r. 1851-68), described by Anna Leonowens in Anna and the King of Siam, was similarly recruited: He was discovered by one of the King’s half-brothers on a hunting trip into the north and brought to Bangkok to be trained in athletic and gymnastic tricks. When he had learned these, he was presented to the king as a comedian and a buffoon.
Tenali Rama, one of the three superstar jesters of India, is said to have earned his position as jester by making King Krsnadevaraya laugh. According to one story, he contrived for the king’s guru to carry him around on his shoulders within sight of the king. Outraged at the humiliation of his holy man, the king sent some guards out to beat the man riding on the guru’s shoulders. Tenali Rama, smelling impending danger, jumped down and begged forgiveness of the guru, insisting that to make amends he should carry him on his own shoulders. The guru agreed, and when the guards arrived the guru was duly beaten. The king found the trick amusing enough to appoint Tenali Rama his jester.
Of at least equal importance with his entertainer’s cap was the jester’s function as adviser and critic. The jester everywhere employed the same techniques to carry out this delicate role, and it would take a really obtuse king or emperor not to realize what he was driving at. The Chinese records give us an idea of just how effective a jester could be in tempering the ruler’s excesses, as the occasions when his words of warning were either ignored or punished are heavily outnumbered by those when he was listened to and rewarded.
Perhaps the reason for this is that Jesters are generally of inferior social and political status and are not in a position to pose a power threat. They have little to gain by caution and little to lose by candor—apart from liberty, livelihood, and occasionally even life. They are peripheral to the game of politics, and this can reassure a king that their words are unlikely to be geared to their own advancement. The ruler can be isolated from his courtiers and ministers, who might conspire against him. The jester too can be an isolated and peripheral figure somehow detached from the intrigues of the court, and this enables him to act as a kind of confidant.
The jester could soften the blow of a critical comment in a way that prevented a dignified personage from losing face. Humor is the great defuser of tense situations. Among the Murngin tribe of Australia, it is the duty of the clown to act outrageously if men begin to quarrel. In making them laugh at him, he distracts their attention from their own fight and dispels their aggression
In the medieval period, being the personal jester of a king or nobleman came with a serious health warning; jesters were often required to go to the battlefield with their masters to carry messages between the leaders of warring armies, demanding that a city surrender to a besieging army or delivering terms for the release of hostages. Unfortunately for the jesters, the enemy did sometimes “kill the messenger” as an act of defiance and some used a catapult to hurl the unfortunate messenger, or his severed head, back into his own camp as a graphic illustration of what they thought of the message.
Jesters also had a vital role to play in the battle themselves. In the early Middle Ages their job was to wage psychological warfare, boosting their army’s morale the night before with songs and stories. When the two armies took up their opposing positions in preparation for battle, the jesters would cavort up and down on foot or horseback between them, calming the nerves of their own men by making them laugh at jokes, singing songs and calling out mocking abuse to their enemies in order to hearten their own soldiers and demoralise the opposition. Some even juggled swords or lances in front of the enemy, taunting and baiting them. With any luck, those in the enemy with the hottest tempers will break ranks and charge prematurely to avenge the insult and kill the fool, which would weaken their own defensive position.
Modern clowns are strongly associated with the tradition of the circus clown, which developed out of earlier comedic roles in theatre or Varieté shows during the 19th to mid 20th centuries. Many circus clowns have become well known and are a key circus act in their own right. The first mainstream clown role was portrayed by Joseph Grimaldi (1778 – 1837) who also created the traditional whiteface make-up design.
In the early 20th century, with the disappearance of the rustic simpleton or village idiot character of everyday experience, North American circuses developed characters such as the tramp or hobo. Examples include Charlie Chaplin’s The Tramp (1914), and Emmett Kelly’s Weary Willie based on hobos of the Depression era. Red Skelton’s Dodo the Clown in The Clown (1953), depicts the circus clown as a tragicomic stock character, “a funny man with a drinking problem”.
Now the figure of the clown develops into something a little bit more complicated, The 1980s gave rise to the evil clown character, the attraction of clowns for small children being based in their fundamentally threatening or frightening nature. Batman’s the Joker is an evil clown character. He is known by a number of nicknames, including “the Clown Prince of Crime”, “the Harlequin of Hate”, “the Ace of Knaves”, and “the Jester of Genocide”. How did this happen? Tricksters and jesters may act strange and tell a nasty joke or two, but they were never considered evil and children don’t have nightmares about them. Why is the more colorful and child-friendly clown is so feared?
In recent decades, one of the great advances in the social sciences is the concept of evil as an evoked feature of social situations instead of a disposition of certain individuals. Specific situations were found that people engage in behavior that would be considered “evil,” and there are specific situations that facilitate pro-social behavior in others.
One of the most important factor that seems to predict anti-social behavior is deindividuation, a state in which one’s identity is hidden. For example, if you are online in an anonymous chat room, you and everyone you come in contact with are deindividuated. If you wear a face covering mask and never reveal your identity, you are deindividuated. Researchers have found that deindividuated individuals are more likely to hurt others, cheat, steal, lie, and even kill under such conditions. Although it was not a requirement of the tricksters and jesters (their “victims” always knew who played the trick on them), deindividuation is one of the hallmarks of clowns. They wear funny outfits, crazy wigs and full make-up with a fake nose. When one is in their clown outfit, their true identity becomes buried in the minds of anyone observing and their behavior is likely to change. From an evolutionary perspective, we can think of deindividuation as a tool individuals have often used during activities such as warfare. In battles across human history, soldiers have worn all kinds of costumes, uniforms and masks. These take away the individuality of any particular soldier, so they all “benefit” from the effects of deindividuation on social behavior, which leads them to be more OK with killing their enemies. When people are in a state of deindividuation, we can expect them to act at their worst.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Although this month I have spoken about the Ancient Greek femme fatales starting from the sirens to Aphrodite herself, the trope did not stop there. We can also find an example in the Gospel of Matthew (14:6–9), “… on Herod’s birthday, the daughter of Herodias (Salome) danced before them: and pleased Herod. Whereupon he promised with an oath, to give her whatsoever she would ask of him. But she being instructed before by her mother, said: Give me here in a dish the head of John the Baptist. And the king was struck sad: yet because of his oath, and for them that sat with him at table, he commanded it to be given. And he sent, and beheaded John in the prison.”
The independent and mysterious women that I have spoken about this month evolved to what we know as a “femme fatale” who often portrayed as a seductress, even to the point of having some sort of mystical power as an enchantress. She is a stock character of a mysterious and seductive woman whose charms ensnare her lovers, often leading them into compromising, dangerous and deadly situations. Her ability to enchant and hypnotise her victim with a spell was in the earliest stories seen as being literally supernatural as who could even imagine the all-powerful hero succumb into an embrace of a “normal” woman? Hence, the femme fatale today is still often described as having a power akin to an enchantress, vampire, witch or demon to actually have power over men.
The femme fatale achieves her hidden purpose by using feminine wiles such as beauty, charm and sexual allure. One of the most common traits of the femme fatale includes promiscuity and the “rejection of motherhood”. However, as proven by Aphrodite, a woman can be a femme fatale and a mother. It is just that motherhood does not seem to take the centre stage of her life as she goes about in her adventures and interests. This is seen as one of her most threatening qualities since “by denying his immortality and his posterity, it leads to the ultimate destruction of the male.” Again, this quality of the femme fatale that leads to the ultimate destruction of the male leaves some room for questions as, often, the femme fatale is not the one who made the first move and pursues the male. It was the male who came to her island, eat her food and erected temples in her name. So was it not the man’s desires that led to his own destruction? Another illustration of this is presented to us by the story of Shiva and Mohini.
In Hindu mythology, Mohini, a goddess who is the only female avatar of the Hindu god Vishnu, is portrayed as a femme fatale, an enchantress who maddens lovers and leads them to their doom. She is worshipped throughout Indian culture, especially in Western India where temples are devoted to her depicted as Mahalasa, the consort of Khandoba, a regional avatar of Shiva.
In the southern version of the Bhagavata Purana, after Vishnu deceives the demons by his Mohini form, Shiva sees Mohini for the first time. Shiva is overcome by Kama (love and desire), becomes “bereft of shame and robbed by her of good sense.” He runs crazily behind enchanting form, while his wife Parvati looks on.
The Tripurarahasya, a south Indian Shakta text, says that when Shiva wishes to see Vishnu’s Mohini form again, Vishnu fears that he may be burned to ashes like Kamadeva by the supreme ascetic Shiva. So, Vishnu prays to goddess Tripura, who grants half of her beauty to Vishnu, begetting the Mohini-form. As Shiva touches Mohini, his energy spills from his eyes, indicating a loss of the merit gained through of all his austerities.
In the Brahmanda Purana when the wandering sage Narada tells Shiva about Vishnu’s Mohini form that deluded the demons, Shiva dismisses him. Shiva and his wife Parvati go to Vishnu’s home. Shiva asks him to take on the Mohini form again so he can see the actual transformation for himself. Vishnu again meditates on the Goddess of Shri Lalita Mahatripurasundari and transforms himself into Mohini. Again, overcome by desire, Shiva embraces Mohini to discharge his seed from his eyes which falls on the ground leading to the birth the god Maha-Shasta (“The Great Teacher”). Mohini disappears, while Shiva returns home with Parvati.
Although the concept of an enchantress is nothing new, the real concept started to take off during the Middle Ages. As the Middle Ages often villified female sexuality, it comes as no surprise that they would make the enchantress characters act as a warning to men. Also in the Middle Ages, Eve and the Celtic legend of Morgan La Fay became popularized as the beautiful dangerous women. It was about this time also that people started to see femme fatales as slightly paranormal in nature.
In American early 20th century films, femme fatale characters were referred to as ”vamps”. This is thanks to actor Robert Vignola who created the first “vamp” movie based on a Rudyard Kipling poem by the same name. The “vamp,” in this case was about a femme fatale who acted almost like a sexual vampire.
Despite Circe and Calypso being descrbed as “braided haired” goddesses, there was no real “dress code” for femme fatales until after the beginning of the 20th century where femme fatales embraced the look of women who are dressed all in black, with striking red lipstick. The standard red lipstick likely began with ancient Roman prostitutes who were required by law to wear blonde wigs and red pipsticks in public to advertise the fact that they were prostitutes and, therefore not looking for a husand. Around the same time in ancient Egypt, the red lipstick was a symbol of status and power for both men and women. .
The red lipstick resurfaced in America in the 1900s, as the women’s suffrage movement advanced and women embraced lipstick as a symbol of feminine identity and defiant empowerment.
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.
“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.