Huitzilopochli: the Birth of a War God

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Aztec Warriors (Eagle Warrior at the left and Jaguar Warrior at the right) brandishing a macuahuitl (a wooden club with sharp obsidian blades). (Florentine Codex)

In the Aztec pantheon, Huitzilopochtli occupied a place similar to that of Mars in the Roman. In ancient Roman religon, Mars was the god of war and a guardian of agriculture – a rather strange combination, but characteristic of early Rome. Second in importance only to Jupiter, Mars was the most prominent of the military gods in the religion of the Roman army. Although origin of Huitzilopochtli is obscure, the myth relating to it is distinctly original in character.

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Statue of Coatlicue displayed in National Anthropology Museum in Mexico City. By Luidger – Luidger, CC BY-SA 3.0

Under the shadow of the mountain of Coatepec, near the Toltec city of Tollan, there dwelt a pious widow called Coatlicue (“skirt of snakes”). She had four hundred sons and a daughter called Coyolxauhqui (“”Painted with Bells”). Every day, she went to a small hill with the intention of offering up prayers to the gods in a penitent spirit of piety. One day, while she was occupied in her devotions, a small ball of brilliantly coloured feathers fell upon her from above. Pleased by the bright variety of its hues, Coatlicue placed it in her breast, intending to offer it up to the sun-god. Some time afterwards she discovered that she was pregnant with another child. Hearing this, her sons rained abuse upon her, incited by their sister Coyolxauhqui.

Coatlicue went about in fear and anxiety, but the spirit of her unborn infant came and spoke to her and gave her words of encouragement, soothing her troubled heart. Her sons, however, were resolved to wipe out what they considered an insult to their race by the death of their mother. They put on their war-gears, and arranged their hair after the manner of warriors going to battle. But one of their number, Quauitlicac, relented, and confessed his brothers’ plan to the still unborn Huitzilopochtli. Huitzilopochtli replied to him: “O brother, hearken attentively to what I have to say to you. I know what is about to happen.” With the intention of slaying their mother, the four hundred sons went in search of her. At their head marched their sister, Coyolxauhqui. They were armed to the teeth and carried bundles of darts with which they intended to kill Coatlicue.

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Huitzilopochtli, from the recto of the folio 5 of the Codex Telleriano-Remensis (16th century).

Quauitlicac climbed the mountain to tell Huitzilopochtli that his brothers were approaching to kill their mother.

“Mark well where they are,” replied the infant god. “To what place have they advanced?”

“To Tzompantitlan,” responded Quauitlicac.

Later on Huitzilopochtli asked: “Where may they be now?”

“At Coaxalco”, was the reply.

Once more Huitzilopochtli asked to what point his enemies had advanced.

“They are now at Petlac,” Quauitlicac replied.

After a little while Quauitlicac informed Huitzilopochtli that the Centzonuitznaua were at hand under the leadership of Coyolxauhqui. At the moment of the enemy’s arrival, Huitzilopochtli was born, flourishing a shield and a blue spear. He was painted, his head was surmounted by a panache, and his left leg was covered with feathers. He shattered Coyolxauhqui with a flash of serpentine lightning, and then chase Centzonuitznaua, whom he pursued four times round the mountain. Many perished in the waters of the adjoining lake, to which they had rushed in their despair. All were slain save a few who escaped to a place called Uitzlampa, where they surrendered to Huitzilopochtli and gave up their arms.

The name Huitzilopochtli means “Humming-bird to the left” as he wore the feathers of the humming-bird, or colibri, on his left leg. From this it has been inferred that he was a humming-bird totem. However, the explanation of Huitzilopochtli’s origin is a little deeper than this. Among the American tribes, especially those of the northern continent, the serpent is regarded with the deepest veneration as the symbol of wisdom and magic. From these sources come success in war. The serpent also typifies the lightning, the symbol of the divine spear and warlike might. Fragments of serpents are regarded as powerful war-physic among many tribes. Atatarho, a mythical wizard-king of the Iroquois, for example, was clothed with living serpents as with a robe, and his myth throws light on one of the names of Huitzilopochtli’s mother, Coatlantona (“Robe of Serpents”). Huitzilopochtli’s image was surrounded by serpents, and rested on serpent-shaped supporters. His sceptre was a single snake, and his great drum was of serpent-skin.

In many mythologies the serpent is closely associated with the bird. Thus the name of the god Quetzalcoatl is translatable as “Feathered Serpent”. Huitzilopochtli is undoubtedly one of these. We may regard him as a god the primary conception of whom arose from the idea of the serpent, the symbol of warlike wisdom and might, the symbol of the warrior’s dart or spear, and the humming-bird, the harbinger of summer, type of the season when the snake or lightning god has power over the crops.

Huitzilopochtli was usually represented as wearing a waving panache or plume of hummingbirds’ feathers on his head. His face and limbs were striped with bars of blue, and in his right hand he carried four spears. His left hand bore his shield, on the surface of which were displayed five tufts of down. The shield was made with reeds, covered with eagle’s down. The spear he brandished was also tipped with tufts of down instead of flint. These weapons were placed in the hands of those who as captives engaged in the sacrificial fight because Hultzilopochtli symbolised the warrior’s death on the gladiatorial stone of combat.

Huitzilopochtli was more than just a war-god. As the serpent-god of lightning he had a connection with summer, the season of lightning, and therefore had dominion to some extent over the crops and fruits of the earth. The Algonquian people of North America believed that the rattlesnake could raise ruinous storms or grant favourable breezes. They see it also as the symbol of life, because the serpent has a phallic significance due of its similarity to the symbol of fertility. With some American tribes also, notably the Pueblo people of Arizona, the serpent has a solar significance, and with its tail in its mouth symbolises the annual round of the sun.

The Nahua believed that Huitzilopochtli could grant them fair weather for their crops, and they placed an image of Tlaloc, the rain-god, near him, so that, if necessary, the war-god could compel the rainmaker to exert his powers or to abstain from the creation of floods. We must, in considering the nature of this deity, bear well in mind the connection in the Nahua consciousness between the pantheon, war, and the food-supply. If war was not waged annually the gods must go without flesh food and perish, and if the gods succumbed the crops would fail, and famine would destroy the race. So it was small wonder that Huitzilopochtli was one of the chief gods of Mexico.

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How to Destroy an Empire: The Rise of Tezcatlipoca and the Destruction of Tollan

The religion of the ancient Mexicans was a polytheism or worship of a pantheon of deities, the general aspect of which presented similarities to the systems of Greece and Egypt. As a matter of fact, the Nahua displayed a theological advancement quite on a level with that expressed by the Egyptians and Assyrians which were rather more nuanced and complicated.

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Red Tezcatlipoca described in the Codex Borgia.

Tezcatlipoca (“Fiery Mirror”) is a sort of equivalent of Jupiter of the Nahua pantheon. He carried a mirror in which he was supposed to see reflected the actions and deeds of mankind. Originally the personification of the air, the source both of the breath of life and of the tempest, Tezcatlipoca had all the attributes of a god who presided over these phenomena. He was the tribal god of the Tezcucans who had led them into the Land of Promise, and had been instrumental in the defeat of both the gods and men of the previous people they dispossessed. Tezcatlipoca advanced so speedily in popularity that within a comparatively short space of time he came to be regarded as a god of fate and fortune, and as inseparably connected with the national destinies.  The place he took as the head of the Nahua pantheon brought him many attributes which were quite foreign to his original character. As what happened with many other deities in pantheons all over the world, fear and a desire to exalt their tutelar deity will lead the devotees of a powerful god to credit him with any or every quality. Therefore, there is nothing remarkable in the heaping of every possible attribute, human or divine, upon Tezcatlipoca. He was known as Moneneque (“The Claimer of Prayer”), and in some of the representations of him an ear of gold was shown suspended from his hair, toward which small tongues of gold strained upward in appeal of prayer. In times of national danger, plague, or famine universal prayer was made to Tezcatlipoca. The heads of the community repaired to his teocalli (temple) accompanied by the people en masse, and all prayed earnestly together for his speedy intervention. The surviving prayers to Tezcatlipoca prove that the ancient Mexicans fully believed that he possessed the power of life and death.

As Tezcatlipoca was regarded as a life-giver, he had also the power of destroying existence. In fact on occasion he appears as a death-dealer, and as such was styled Nezahualpilli (“The Hungry Chief”) and Yaotzin (“The Enemy”). Perhaps one of the names by which he was best known was Telpochtli (“The Youthful Warrior”), from  his reserve of’ strength, his vital force and  his boisterous vigour. Tezcatlipoca was usually depicted as holding in his right hand a dart placed in an atlatl (“spear-thrower”), and his mirror-shield with four spare darts in his left. This shield is the symbol of his power as judge of mankind and upholder of human justice.

Tezcatlipoca is closely associated with the legends which recount the overthrow of Tollan, the capital of the Toltecs. His chief adversary on the Toltec side is the god-king Quetzalcoatl. In the days of Quetzalcoatl, there was abundance of everything as well as peace and plenty for all men.

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Quetzalcoatl, as depicted in the Codex Magliabechiano (16th century)

But this blissful state was too good to last. Jealous of the calm enjoyment of Quetzalcoatl and the Toltecs, three “necromancers” plotted their downfall. They were Huitzilopochtli, Tezcatlipoca and Tlacahuepan. Tezcatlipoca  took the lead as they laid  enchantments upon the city of Tollan. Disguised as an old man with white hair, Tezcatlipoca  presented himself at the palace of Quetzalcoatl, where he said to the pages: “Pray present me to your master, I desire to speak with him.”

Although the pages advised him that Quetzalcoatl was ill and could see no one, Tezcatlipoca insisted to wait outside. Eventually, he was admitted into the chamber of Quetzalcoatl. Upon entering the chamber, Tezcatlipoca feigned sympathy with the suffering god-king. “How are you, my son?” he asked. “I have brought you a drug which you should drink, and which will put an end to the course of your malady.”

Quetzalcoatl drank the potion, and at once felt much better. Tezcatlipoca gave him another and then another cup of the potion, but it was nothing but pulque, the wine of the country. Quetzalcoatl soon became intoxicated, and became putty in Tezcatlipoca’s hands.

Quetzalcoatl_and_Tezcatlipoca

Tezcatlipoca then took the form of a man of the name of Toueyo, and went to the palace of Uemac, chief of the Toltecs in temporal matters. Uemac had a daughter so beautiful that she was desired for marriage by many of the Toltecs. The princess, in seeing the form of Toueyo passing her father’s palace, fell deeply in love with him – so in love that her feelings for her rendered her ill. Upon realizing the reason for this illness, Uemac gave orders for the arrest of Toueyo, and he was haled before the temporal chief of Tollan. Although angry at the handsome youth, Uemac said, “if I slay you my daughter will perish. Go to her and say that she may wed you and be happy.”

Now the marriage of Toueyo to the daughter of Uemac aroused much discontent among the Toltecs. To distract his people from this , Uemac distracted the attention of the Toltecs by announcing a war upon the neighbouring state of Coatepec.

This distraction was proven to be uneffective as, when the Toltecs arrived at the country of the men of Coatepec they placed Toueyo in ambush with his body-servants – hoping that he would be slain by their adversaries. But Toueyo and his men killed a large number of the enemy. His triumph was celebrated by Uemac. The knightly plumes were placed upon his head, and his body was painted with red and yellow – an honour reserved for those who distinguished themselves in battle.

Tezcatlipoca’s, as Toueyo, next step was to announce a great feast in Tollan, to which all the people for miles around were invited. Great crowds assembled, dancing and singing in the city to the sound of the drum. Tezcatlipoca sang to them and forced them to accompany the rhythm of his song with their feet. Faster and faster the people danced, until the pace became so furious that they were driven to madness, lost their footing, and tumbled down a deep ravine, where they were changed into rocks. Others in attempting to cross a stone bridge were changed into stones. Thus, Tezcatlipoca destroyed both the Coatepecs and the Toltecs. However, he did not stop there. On another occasion, Tezcatlipoca put on a different disguise as a valiant warrior named Tequiua, and invited all the inhabitants of Tollan and its surrounding areas to come to the flower-garden called Xochitla. When they assembled there, he attacked them with a hoe, and killed a great number of them. In panic, the survivors crushed their comrades to death.

Later, Tezcatlipoca and Tlacahuepan went to the market-place of Tollan, the former displaying upon the palm of his hand a small dancing baby. This infant was  Huitzilopochdi, the Nahua god of war. At this sight, the Toltecs crowded to get a better view, and their eagerness resulted in many being crushed to death. Even in mythology, anger makes one vulnerable. Tlacahuepan took advantage of this and advised the raging people to kill both Tezcatlipoca and Huitzilopochtli. When this had been done the bodies of the slain gods gave forth such an awful discharge that thousands the Toltecs died of the pestilence. Tlacahuepan then advised them to cast out the bodies, but they discovered that the bodies were so heavy and could not be moved.

It was soon apparent to the Toltecs that their fortunes were on the wane and that the end of their empire was at hand. Quetzalcoatl, chagrined at the turn things had taken, resolved to quit Tollan. In anger, he burned all the houses which he had built, and buried his treasure of gold and precious stones in the deep valleys between the mountains. He changed the cacao-trees into mosquitoes, and he ordered all the song birds to quit the valley of Anahuac. On the road from Tollan, he discovered a great tree at a point called Quauhtitlan. There he rested, and requested his pages to hand him a mirror. Seeing himself in the polished surface, he said in defeat, “I am old,” and from that circumstance the spot was named Huehuequauhtitlan (“Old Quauhtitlan”). Proceeding on his way accompanied by musicians who played the flute, he walked until fatigue arrested his steps, and he seated himself upon a stone, on which he left the imprint of his hands. This place is called Temacpalco (“The Impress of the Hands”).

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“Had but your sight a spirit’s power, Ye would be looking, eye to eye, at a terrific company” : The Beautiful Elements of Halloween

The sun was the centre of many ancient religions as it marks work-time and rest, divided the year into winter idleness, seed-time, growth, and harvest. When the sun is away, it leaves the land in cold and gloom until it returns bringing the long fair days and resurrection of spring.

The Roman Goddess of fruits, Pomona (pomorum patrona, “she who cares for fruits”) lends us this harvest element of Halloween. She is represented as a maiden with fruit in her arms and a pruning-knife in her hand.

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“I am the ancient apple-queen. 

As once I was so am I now– 

For evermore a hope unseen

Betwixt the blossom and the bough.

“Ah, where’s the river’s hidden gold!

And where’s the windy grave of Troy?

Yet come I as I came of old,

From out the heart of summer’s joy.”

“Pomona”, William Morris (1834 – 1896)

The best known story of Pamona came from Ovid, who says that, although she was wooed by many, she preferred to remain unmarried. Among her suitors was Vertumnus (“the changer”), the god of the turning year, who was in charge of the exchange of trade, the turning of river channel, and of the change in nature from flower to ripe fruit. True to his character, he took many forms to gain Pomona’s love. Now he was a ploughman (spring), now a fisherman (summer), now a reaper (autumn).

At last he took the form of an old woman (winter), and went to gossip with Pomona. After finding her averse to marriage, the old woman pleaded for Vertumnus’ success.

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“Vertumnus and Pomona, an Allegory of Autumn”, Jan Pauwel Gillemans the Younger (1651 – 1704)

“Is not he the first to have the fruits which

are thy delight? And does he not hold thy

gifts in his joyous right hand?”

“Metamorphoses”, Ovid

Then the old woman told her the story of Anaxarete who was so cold to her lover Iphis that he hanged himself and she, at the window watching his funeral train pass by, was changed to a marble statue. Advising Pomona to avoid such a fate, Vertumnus donned his proper form, that of a handsome young man. Pomona, moved by the story and his beauty, yielded and became his wife.

Pomona had been assigned one of the fifteen priests whose duty it was to kindle the fire for special sacrifices. She had a grove near Ostia where a harvest festival was held about the first of November. Then the deities of fire and water were propitiated that their disfavor might not ruin the crops. On Pomona’s day, thanks was rendered them for their aid to the harvest. An offering of first-fruits was made in August and,  in November, the winter store of nuts and apples was opened.

Yuletide, an indigenous midwinter festival, lasts around two months, falling along the end of the modern calendar year between what is now mid-November and early January, celebrates the sun’s turning north. The end of summer was a time of grief for the decline of the sun, as well as a harvest festival of thanksgiving to the sun for having ripened the grain and fruit.

Samhain is a Gaelic festival marking the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter or the “darker half” of the year. Traditionally, it is celebrated from 31 October to 1 November, as the day began and ended at sunset. It was one of the four seasonal festivals of the year, and the 10th-century tale Tochmarc Emire (“The Wooing of Emer”) lists Samhain as the first of these four “quarter days”. The tales say it was marked by great gatherings where they held meetings, feasted, drank and held contests.

In the same state as those who are dead, are those who have never lived, dwelling right in the world, but mostly invisible to most mortals.

“There is a world in which we dwell,

And yet a world invisible.

And do not think that naught can be

Save only what with eyes ye see:

I tell ye that, this very hour,

Had but your sight a spirit’s power,

Ye would be looking, eye to eye,

At a terrific company.”

“Halowe’en“, Arthur Cleveland Coxe (1818 – 1896)

Samhain was also a time when the doorways to the Otherworld opened, allowing supernatural beings and the souls of the dead to come into our world. The Boyhood Deeds of Fionn says that the sidhe (fairy mounds or portals to the Otherworld) “were always open at Samhain”. Each year the fire-breather Aillen emerges from the Otherworld and burns down the palace of Tara after lulling everyone to sleep with his music. One Samhain, the young Fionn mac Cumhaill is able to stay awake and slays Aillen with a magical spear, for which he is made leader of the fianna. Acallam na Senorach (“Colloquy of the Elders”) tells us how three female werewolves emerge from the cave of Cruachan (an Otherworld portal) each Samhain and kill livestock.

An account written by Julius Caesar speaks mainly of the Celts of Gaul, dividing them into two ruling classes; the knights, who wages war, and the Druids who had charge of worship and sacrifices, and were in addition physicians, historians, teachers, scientists, and judges.The name “Druid” is derived from the Celtic word “druidh,” meaning “sage,” connected with the Greek word for oak, “drus,”

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“The rapid oak-tree–

Before him heaven and earth quake:

Stout door-keeper against the foe.

In every land his name is mine.”

“Battle of the Trees“, Taliesin (534 – 599 AD)

The animal sacred to the Druids was the cat. “A slender black cat reclining on a chain of old silver” guarded treasure in the old days. For a long time cats were dreaded by the people because they thought human beings had been changed to that form by evil means.

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Fragment of a pillar; Set I in front of the god Osiris; 19th dynasty, ca. 1290 BC

When the year was over, and the sun’s life of a year was done, it was at this time that the sun fell a victim for six months to the powers of winter darkness. In Egyptian mythology one of the sun-gods, Osiris, was slain at a banquet by his brother Set. On the anniversary of the murder, the first day of winter, no Egyptian would begin any new business for fear of bad luck, since the spirit of evil was then in power.

From the idea that the sun suffered from his enemies on this day grew the association of Samhain with death.

“The melancholy days are come, the saddest of the year,

Of wailing winds, and naked woods, and meadows brown and sere.

Heaped in the hollows of the grove, the wither’d leaves  lie dead;

They rustle to the eddying gust, and to the rabbit’s tread.

The robin and the wren are flown, and from the shrub the jay

And from the wood-top calls the crow, through all the gloomy day.

 

“The wind-flower and the violet, they perished long ago,

And the wild rose and the orchis died amid the summer glow:

But on the hill the golden-rod, and the aster in the wood,

And the yellow sun-flower by the brook in autumn beauty stood,

Till fell the frost from the cold clear heaven, as falls the plague on

men,

And the brightness of their smile was gone from upland, glade, and

glen.”

William Cullen Bryant (1794 – 1878)

In Defense of Mythology: Some Things Cannot be Explained by Science

now-sing-about-the-race-of-women-sweet-voicedolympian-muses-daughters-of-aegis-bearing-zeussing-of-those-who-were-the-best-of-their-timewho-loosened-their-girdlesmingling-in-union-wi3.jpgWe often hear that something being dismissed as “just a myth”, which means 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. For many, mythology is the study of old, meaningless and untrue stories. Some people, repelled by the myths’ more preposterous elements and contradictions, see them as mere fabrications to be discarded in our “enlightened” age. But mythology’s enduring worth is never in its possible historical or scientific accuracy. Some things can be dealt with adequately only in poetry or mythology when recitals of data and observable facts miss the point completely. 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 the statistical perspective and it is as much a distortion of reality as any other limited point of view.

The word “family” is in itself a complicated word containing many combinations of facts, memories, meanings and feelings – it is impossible to describe the concept of “family” by series of facts alone. Every culture’s pantheon of mythical characters was the family in to which every person of that culture was born, as these creatures were as familiar as their parents and grandparents, siblings and cousins. Therefore, a myth is also not a simple proposition that can be judged as true or false  propositions. Rather, it attempts to make sense of our perceptions and feelings within our experience of the world in a narrative format. Myths have been there long before art, language or the written word.

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Charles Paul Landon (1761-1826), “Icarus and Daedalus”

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 try to fly too high or to force things that has no business happening to begin with, only to crash and burn. Although, as human experience is so multidimensional and varied, no myth can completely represent all of human experience, a myth still captures some important aspects of the domain of human experience 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. And 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 – its viewpoints, activities, and beliefs, and address some of our fundamental and difficult questions that human beings ask: who and what am I, where did I come from, why am I here, how did it all begin?

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Bartholomeus Spranger (1546-1611), “Hermes and Athena”

Truthfully, we are still fascinated by the truths of these mythical stories and we still cry out for magic in our so-called rational world. As human beings are never meant to be totally rational, we 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 have been deities for individual cities (Athena for Athens), mountains (Gauri-Sankar for Mount Everest), lakes, tribes, plant species, temples, constellations, and so on. Deities governed not only major phenomena such as agriculture or love or the sun, but also such common matters as leisure, the kitchen stove, guitars, politics, prostitution, singing, doors, virginity, willpower, firecrackers, 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.

now-sing-about-the-race-of-women-sweet-voicedolympian-muses-daughters-of-aegis-bearing-zeussing-of-those-who-were-the-best-of-their-timewho-loosened-their-girdlesmingling-in-union-wi9.jpgAs myths are necessary, our modern society develops its own myths. A lack of myths can cause a sense of meaninglessness, estrangement, rootlessness, and the cold brittleness of a life devoid of reverence and awe. Now our “modern” myths seem to rest on certain concepts (such as “progress”) and in our larger-than-life celebrities. We revered Mother Teresa for her compassion and Albert Einstein for his intellect. Marilyn Monroe was a “screen goddess” possessed by the alluring qualities of Aphrodite while Muhammad Ali called on the aggressive instinct of Ares every time 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 in his school days, Marilyn Monroe was ultimately a tragic and lonely figure and Muhammad Ali was a gentle man off the ring – in short, they were all human, vulnerable and fragile. The media enlarges certain people to mythical proportions. We often project the “hero” archetype onto other people. Corporations myth lies in their “corporate culture.” There is a myth in every group and our mythology changes as our culture changes.

now-sing-about-the-race-of-women-sweet-voicedolympian-muses-daughters-of-aegis-bearing-zeussing-of-those-who-were-the-best-of-their-timewho-loosened-their-girdlesmingling-in-union-wi10.jpgWe 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 “mythic 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 some of those myths have existed since the ancient times.

When the World Despairs, Humanity turns to Their Women: The Wisdom of Ancient Heroines

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“Hero has no feminine gender in the age of heroes.”

– Sir Moses I. Finley (1912 – 1986)

At the start of the destructive, long-running war between Athens and Sparta in 430 BC, Pericles, a prominent and influential orator and general of Athens, made a moving speech of ancient valour in honour of those who died in the war.

“… for the Athens that I have celebrated is only what the heroism of these and their like have made her … none of these men allowed either wealth with its prospect of future enjoyment to unnerve his spirit, or poverty with its hope of a day of freedom and riches to tempt him to shrink from danger. No, holding that vengeance upon their enemies was more to be desired than any personal blessings, and reckoning this to be the most glorious of hazards, they joyfully determined to accept the risk… Thus, choosing to die resisting, rather than to live submitting, they fled only from dishonour…”

After speaking at length on this rather splendid theme, Pericles finally remembered to mention the women of Athens who had just lost their husbands, lovers and fathers of their children.

“The greatest glory of a woman is to be least talked about by men, whether they are praising you or criticising you.”

That’s it.

And yet, there was more to classical womanhood than Pericles’s silent matrons. Aspasia, for example, Pericles’ own long-term girlfriend was famously clever and sophisticated. She was certainly talked about and said to have influenced him a great deal. Still, although it was concluded for a long time that there is no female counterpart to the hero, archaeological evidence shows that heroines are included in some of the earliest manifestations of hero cult. The shrines of Pelops and Hippodameia at Olympia may be of great antiquity, early hero-reliefs show hero and heroine pairs, and a dedication to Helen is perhaps the earliest known Laconian inscription, dating from the second quarter of the seventh century.

The classical world has given us many strong women such as Antigone, the heroine of Sophocles’s play of the same name, who only wanted to give her brother, Polydeuces, a proper burial despite her uncle king Creon’s orders. Her sister Ismene struggled to persuade her to obey the king’s edict. “We’re girls,” she cried. “Girls cannot force their way against men.” Antigone would not listen to her and proceeded to commit a crime punishable by death, defying the explicit command of her uncle and gave her dead brother, who died a traitor, his proper funeral rites.

Odysseus has received a lot of attention for his journey. However, he was protected by a woman. The goddess of wisdom, Athena, played the role of Odysseus’s protector and was always on hand to provide magical disguises or advice. Draupadi, from Indian Mythology, was an astute strategist who never failed to take revenge against her enemies. Anath, the ancient Canaanite goddess of love and war, was also someone you want on your side as she was famed for her ferocity in battle. An ancient Ugaritic text describes Anat’s revenge against a man who slighted her in no uncertain terms:

Anat seized Mot,

the divine son,

with a sickle she cut him,

with a winnow she winnows him,

with fire she scorches him, with a mill she crushes him,

she scatters his flesh in the field to be eaten by birds.

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Joseph Stallaert (1825 – 1903), Death of Dido

In Virgil’s Aeneid, Dido, the queen of Carthage, was doing very well for herself and founded a new city in what is now Tunisia before Aeneas, an exile from defeated Troy, turned up. He was an unemployed loser, but he was pretty. The pair fell in love before Aeneas left for Italy and committed one of the most brutal dumpings in literature which led Dido to commit suicide by stabbing herself with his sword. Dido’s handling of her breakup is admittedly rather weak compared to others. In Buddhist mythology, the beautiful, rich and resourceful Kundalakesa of Therigatha saved a young thief from execution one day and then married him, because she thought she loved him. As the thief then tried to kill her and steal all her jewels, Kundalakesa pushed him off a hill and casually moved on with her life. Hidimbi from Indian Mythology is the modern day version of a single mother who raises a son with all the right values and qualities, with no help from anyone. Hidimbi was a rakshasi (demon) who fell in love and married Bhima, one of the famed Pandava brothers. They lived together only for a very short time, enough for Hidimbi to get pregnant, before Bhima left. Hidimbi later gave birth to Ghatotkacha, Bhima’s son, and raised him alone.

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Gustave Moreau (1826 – 1898), Jason and Medea

These are all important accomplishments. However, according to Pericles and Finley, these ladies were no heroes. Medea is referred to as a goddess in a forgotten Mycenaean slate. She was worshiped in Corinth until the Historic Ages. Ancient craters depict her as a priestess in Eleusis. The Greeks of South Italy honored her with hymns. Even Apollonius of Rhodes praised her as a “treasure” that saved the Argonauts, equal to Jason. But she is forever known as the sorceress who killed her children.

To understand how or why these female accomplishments were dismissed, it is useful for us to understand the ancient concept of heroism. Some historians came to the obvious conclusion that heroines don’t often go on quests or engage in combat with monsters or gods. But there is a lot more to heroism than punching monsters. There’s independence, fortitude, humility and sacrifice. The female heroic figure is often free from male assistance in her quest to achieve status. Despite the various under-telling of heroines, the majority of them are independent. It is usually female characters who help male heroes. Ariadne helped Theseus slay the Minotaur, Medea helped Jason in his quest for the Golden Fleece, and Nausicaa was the advisor of Odysseus. While male heroes require female assistance at times, female heroes do not require male assistance, making them independent from their counterparts and highlighting the concept of female heroism in ancient literature.

Euripides’ play Erechtheus is about Erechtheus and Eumolpos who found themselves continuing the rivalries of their divine patrons Athena and Poseidon. After consulting the oracle at Delphi to learn how he might protect Athens from the impending siege, Erechtheus was told that he must sacrifice one of his daughters to save the city. Erechtheus shared the news with his wife, Praxithea, who says:

“If there were a harvest of sons in our house rather than daughters and a hostile flame were engulfing the city, would I not have sent my sons into battle, fearing for their death? … I hate women who in preference to the common good choose for their own children to live.”

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From modern eyes, this may not make much sense. Sacrifice seems to just mean certain death for women while when men go off to war there is always a small chance of them coming home. However, women were often the last line of defense in times of war. An example of this happened in 1467, in the warring states period of Japan. It was a desperate time where everyone was swept up into war and almost all healthy men were drafted into armies or slaughtered in battle. This period gave accounts of bands of women led by the wives of warlords dressed in armors. Appalled by the mass suicide of the surviving women and children in her husband’s besieged castle, the wife of Mimura Kotoku armed herself and led eighty-three soldiers against the enemy. She challenged a mounted general Ura Hyobu, who edged backwards muttering, “She is a demon!”. Heroines, therefore, had to defeat the enemies who were evidently strong enough to kill their husbands and many other strong men – it is no surprise then that, as Rudyard Kipling says, “the female of the species is more deadly than the male” and that the heroines had to be more skilled than their male counterparts for not even half of the glory he would have received had he managed to survive. This endures to a common lament modern women are familiar with today by Charlotte Whitton, “Whatever women do, they must do twice as well as men to be thought half as good.” Odysseus’ last line of defense was his wife, Penelope. If Penelope had married one of her suitors, that man would have had claim over her (Odysseus’ wife), Telemachus (Odysseus’ son) as well as Odysseus’ house and fortune. A simple “yes” from Penelope would have costed Odysseus everything. – the point is that, in desperate times, good men and women will always step up and do their parts according to their abilities. If it wasn’t for the ancient Greeks’ silly insistence for women to be docile and less educated, Iphigeneia might have picked up a spear.

The practice of burning or burying women alive with their deceased husbands was first mentioned in 510 CE, when a stele commemorating such an incident was erected at Eran, an ancient city in the modern state of Madhya Pradesh, India. There are also accounts of widow sacrifice among Scandinavians, Slavs, Greeks, Egyptians and Chinese. This practice usually began among warriors or warrior clans because, as the warriors’ duty was to protect the bodies and honor of their people on the war field, their wives’ duty was to protect their family’s body and honor at home. Therefore, the death of a husband, even while he was away at war, would be seen as the wife’s responsibility. She was the one person entrusted to protect her warrior husband from harm and dishonor – as futile as this may be. The death of her husband would have been seen as her fault.

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Francesco Fontebasso (1707 – 1769), The Sacrifice of Iphigeneia

The advantage of female heroism in ancient literature is that it really takes an extreme situation for these ladies to die and it is mostly due to the fact that the men failed at their own heroic attempts. Agamemnon was a powerful king and warlord who should be fully capable of defending his own city, but it was his daughter Iphigeneia who had to die to enable the Greek fleet to set sail from Aulis to Troy. The reason all those Japanese women had to step up and fight was because their men were somewhere else or otherwise overwhelmed by the enemy and it was up to them to defend their family. Not making a big fuss, these women were there when they were needed and, if they somehow survived, quietly went about their business when it was over. However, it was this advantage that became the heroines’ downfall in retellings of their heroics. As Anne Elliot in Persuasion says, “Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story . . . the pen has been in their hands.” Ancient Greece was a male dominated society and literature was written for males by males in order to inspire males, hence the concept of male heroism was by far much more established. Women are only witches and harlots or submissive and modest because their stories are written by men who, despite their best intentions, did not understand and never experienced power as women.

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In Lycurgus against Leocrates, Euripides says

“if women bring themselves to act like this, men should show towards their country a devotion which cannot be surpassed, not forsake it and flee, as Leocrates did, nor disgrace it before the whole of Greece.”

In other words,if women were willing to sacrifice themselves for their people and countries, so should the men, otherwise they would be shamed as cowards. If heroes were there to inspire, influence the people and infuse them with their qualities as a reflection of heroic attributes, heroines were there to inspire the heroes. Through heroines in Euripides, Homer and Apollodorus, the authors are expressing the heroine’s lack of pride and ego which men are often governed by, and trying to bestow these self sacrificing qualities on their readers, the heroes and the society.

 

Titillatio: A Brief Mythology, Ancient History and Philosophy of Tickling

Tickle

Aristotle defined man as a rational and political animal. But there are also passages in his work that indicate another less remarked upon definition. In Parts of Animals, he writes, “When people are tickled, they quickly burst into laughter, and this is because the motion quickly penetrates to this part, and even though it is only gently warmed, still it produces an independent movement in the intelligence which is recognizable.” He continues to argue that touch is the most primary sense and human beings are uniquely privileged in possessing the sharpest sense of touch because of the delicate nature of their skin. He says that, although other animals have more advanced smell or hearing, a man’s sense of touch is the most fine-tuned. This leads to some of us to think that tickling is a side effect of the hyper-sensitivity of human touch. Thanks to our sophisticated and discriminating access to the world around us, we are particularly vulnerable to tickling.

However, this “privilege” did not last long as many scientific researches have refuted Aristotle’s claim about how tickling could only effect human beings. It has been found that monkeys are ticklish too, and a recorded laughter-like ultrasonic chirping in tickled rats also exists. But, the most famous ticklish animal is the trout as it would fall into a trance-like state when its underbelly is lightly rubbed. In Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, Maria says, while planning to trick Malvolio, “Lie thou there; for here comes the trout that must be caught with tickling.”

Neuroscientist Robert Provine posed a rather elaborate speculation which links tickling with both humorous laughter and the prehistoric birth of comedy. He writes, “I forge recklessly into the paleohumorology fray, proposing my candidate for the most ancient joke—the feigned tickle (Real tickling is disqualified because of its reflexive nature). The ‘I’m going to get you’ game of the threatened tickle is practiced by human beings worldwide and is the only joke that can be told equally well to a baby human and a chimpanzee. Both babies and chimps ‘get’ this joke and laugh exuberantly.” His argument is that proper ticklish laughter is not actually funny because it is too much of an automatic or neurological reaction. To make tickling funny, it needs to be distanced from reflex. It is the suspended gesture that gets a laugh – the real gesture might get one slapped. Therefore, a child will wriggle and squirmed when tickled, but they will actually laugh only if they perceive the tickling as a mock attack, a caress in a mildly aggressive and irritating disguise.

The ambivalence of tickling, a delight that can quickly become excruciating, would seem particularly well suited to describe the concept of pleasure-in-pain that so fascinated thinkers from Plato, Nietzsche, Freud etc. They agree that tickling serves as an alternate way of thinking about pleasure,  as titillation and excitation. Nietzsche put it, “What is the best life? To be tickled to death.” – I hope someone would do a research on whether this man was ever tickled in his life. However, he is not wrong about this. Foot tickling for sexual arousal was used in the Muscovite palaces and courts for centuries. Many of the Czarinas (Catherine the Great, Anna Ivanovna, Elizabeth and others) were participants of this activity. The practice was so popular that eunuchs and women were employed as full time foot ticklers. They developed this skill so well that their occupations brought prestige and good pay. Anna Leopoldovna had at least six ticklers at her feet. While the ticklers performed their task, they also told bawdy stories and sang obscene ballads. This was done to work the ladies up to an erotic pitch so that they could meet their husbands or lovers in a sex impassioned mood.

But can one actually die from tickling? Yes. When children enthusiastically tickle one another, it serves the double purpose of inspiring peer bonding and honing reflexes and self-defense skills. In 1984, psychiatrist Donald Black noted that many ticklish parts of the body, such as the neck and the ribs, are also the most vulnerable in combat. He inferred that children learn to protect those parts during tickle fights, a relatively safe activity. However, the tickling itself can be torture enough. Tickle torture can be an extended act of tickling where the recipient of the tickling would view it as a long time or tickling of an intense nature. This can be due to the length of time they are tickled, the intensity of the tickling or the areas that are being tickled. This can simply be a 30-second tickle applied to the victim’s bare feet, which can seem like a much longer time if the feet are very ticklish.

Mythology is littered with spirits who uses tickling as a torture device. In Inuit mythology, Mahaha is a maniacal demon that terrorized parts of the arctic. This creature is described as a thin sinewy being, ice blue in colour and cold to the touch. His eyes are white and they peer through the long stringy hair that hangs in his face. This demon is always smiling and giggling – taking pleasure in tickling its victims to death with sharp vicious nails attached to its long bony fingers. All of its victim have a similar expression on their dead faces – a twisted frozen smile.

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Leshy – Imagine being tickled by him!

A Leshy is a spirit of the Slavic forests. They serve as the protectors of the various forests and its animals, having a close bond with gray wolves and often being accompanied by bears. They naturally are the form of a large human-looking being, but can shape-shift into any plant or animal. They have long hair and beards made of living grass and vines. In the center of a forest, they are a tree-like giant, who camouflage nicely with their long limbs, grassy eyebrows, and no detectable shadows.  A leshy has the ability to imitate voices of people familiar to wanderers.They will cry out and get their victims to wander deeper into forests or caves. Being tickled to death by a Leshy has been known to happen. This is most likely because they don’t know when “fun” is enough and wind up accidentally killing their victims.

Of course, if something exists in mythology, it would also exist, up to a point, in history. Chinese tickle torture is an ancient form of torture practiced by the Chinese, in particular the courts of the Han Dynasty. Chinese tickle torture was a punishment for nobility since it left no marks and a victim could recover relatively easily and quickly. In ancient Japan, those in positions of authority could administer punishments to those convicted of crimes that were beyond the criminal code. This was called shikei, which translates as ‘private punishment.’ One such torture was kusuguri-zeme: “merciless tickling.” Dutch physiologist Joost Meerloo recounts an especially cruel tickle torture employed by the ancient Romans. On the scaffold, the soles of a victim’s feet were covered with a salt solution so that a goat, attracted by the salt, would lick it off with his rough tongue and continually tickle the skin. By so doing, the salty skin was gradually rasped away. Then, the wounded skin would again be covered with the biting salt solution—ad infinitum, till the victim died from the torture.

In Laurent Joubert’s Renaissance treatise on laughter, he reports hearing “of a young man whom two girls were tickling importunately to the point that he no longer uttered a word. They thought he had fainted until, thunderstruck, they realized he was dead, asphyxiated.” A news item in Illustrated Police News, 11 December 1869, recounts the story of a young wife whose husband, his name was Michael Puckridge, claimed that he had a cure for her varicose veins. After he persuaded her to allow herself to be tied to a plank, she found that her husband had instead devised a plan to tickle her into insanity. The plan worked as she was institutionalized as a result of her husband’s diabolical featherwork.

Unravelling Ancient Myths and Legends FREE Ebook

anniversary_ebook_coversideI am very happy to be able to contribute a chapter for Ancient Origins‘ 4 Year Anniversary Ebook, “Unravelling Ancient Myths & Legends” on the lives and symbolism of the kitchen gods in Asian mythology.

“To mark the occasion of our 4 Year Anniversary, Ancient Origins has released our biggest ebook yet – titled “Unravelling Ancient Myths & Legends”. The ebook is a compilation of fascinating articles written exclusively for Ancient Origins which explores the unique history of myths and the familiar legends you THOUGHT you knew. Contributors include guest authors: Carl Johan Calleman, Petros Koutoupis, Armando Mei, Martini Fisher, Brien Foerster, Leonide Martin, Ken Jeremiah, Vincent Ongkowidjojo, Gary A. David, Dustin Naef, Adrienne Mayor, Chris ‘Mogg’ Morgan, Charles Christian and Hugh Newman.”

To get your free copy, please follow this link:

Ancient Origins’ 4 Year Anniversary Ebook: Unravelling Ancient Myths and Legends

Happy anniversary, Ancient Origins. Here’s to many more!

Martini

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