The Greek Myths
William Harris, Prof. Em. Middlebury College
Chapter 2: Godesses Women and Sex
When man was first emerging from the last Ice Age, human population was small, and the first imperative surely was to produce progeny. Since life was short, life expectancy probably being no more than forty years, and since half the children born probably died before the age of three, the matter of producing young was by necessity primary business for the societies which were going to survive. We often say that the distinguishing mark of humans is the ability to use tools, and toolmaking is certainly for archaeologists a characteristic sign of human activity. But it is the dynamic rise of population which marks the difference between Man the hunter-gatherer and his descendant, Man the agriculturalist and animal breeder. When increasing numbers of men and women can no long find food, they have to learn to raise it, and this in turn calls for numbers of workers to provide the complex duties of the farmer.
Greece's problems with population are similar to the problems faced by any newly developing society. As late as the nineteenth century, America which still was facing the challenge of "new land", with all the problems of civilization compressed into a single century, large families were a necessity. If a woman could give birth to thirteen children in her childbearing years, if eight could survive, and if four were male, then a man could look forward to having a workforce sufficient to farm a small acreage. By breeding one's own workers, one made survival possible, and family farms without progeny simply failed. Possibly the only exception to this was the energetic group called the Shakers, who excluded sex but practiced adoption into their society, finally succumbing to obsolescence by attrition in an age when other lucrative forms of employment appeared. Love, sex and procreation are, in that order, the primary tools of rising humanity, and anything that can be done to foster sexuality will profit humanity so long as population is scarce.
Aphrodite has come down to us from antiquity as a larger than life, rather Rubensesque lady sculpted in stone, a symbol of universal charm and grace, but having a reputation in poetry for light-headed and flirtatious sexuality. In the Classical world she was all this, but at an earlier time she must have had an entirely different role and function. The primitive deity Aphrodite, whose traces go back to a time long before the Greek society was formed, is a figure of primary importance.
Aphrodite's central role, although she is the queen of charm and physical loveliness, is basically sexual. Although sex is usually thought of as pleasure, it is the only pleasure which leads directly to procreation, which is a matter of high priority to developing peoples. After the last ice-retreat, the development of grain hybrids not only made greater population feasible, but in turn required greater population for sowing, reaping, hoarding and protecting the supplies of grain. At this stage Aphrodite becomes a major deity, since she represents the magical function of procreation, which we now formalize under the name of genetics.
It may seem strange that in Homer and the later tradition Aphrodite is married to Hephaistos, the smith and tool maker, whom Homer displays in a somewhat pathetic and at the same time comical manner. However, if we add to Aphrodite's procreative abilities, the equipment which a metal worker can provide, whether he is a Neolithic, early Bronze age or Iron Age craftsman, we have two of the basic ingredients for civilizations: Progeny and Tools. In the passage of time this changes, the maker of tools becomes a subsidiary of a new man of power, the military man who discovers that the easiest way to increase your GNP is to wage war against someone who has what you need and take it away from him.. Stealing is the first stage of economic transfer, buying is more sophisticated and appears much later.
As soon as Hephaistos is secure in Ares' back pocket, Ares assumes Hephaistos' previous role with military arms and of course with Hephaistos' wife, who is forever attractive and always socially useful. The new pair standing at the head of advancing civilization is now Aphrodite and Ares, which is precisely what Homer shows in the Iliad. Ares seduces Aphrodite, and Hephaistos is pretty much out of the picture except as a Chaplinesque figure contributing minor comic relief.
This scenario is repeated throughout history, we can still point to the military in modern Western countries as master of power and contractor-owner of the engineering talents of the modern Hephaistos. In the eyes of the last generation in America, Douglas MacArthur is as much a symbol of power in our society, as Marilyn Monroe is an embodiment of the eternal allure of Love. Put in a prehistoric context, there must have once been a time at which the smith-toolmaker was accorded the same respect as the Goddess of Love who made population possible, but this must antedate the appearance of the military. Since we know of military force as early as the 6th millennium B.C., we should date the Aphrodite/Hephaistos dyad back somewhere towards the 8th millennium, which allows just enough time for the important developments in agriculture which follow the last ice age.
The portrayal of Aphrodite in sculpture is so familiar to our eyes, both in the original work and in the multitudinous Roman and Modern copies, that we often fail to notice some important aspects of the goddess' representation. Restricting ourselves to Greek originals, we discern a strange uneasiness in Aphrodite's stance, her arms and legs seem to be going in opposite directions, although this is cloaked by garments and not immediately apparent. One arm gestures to cover her breasts, while the other vaguely hovers over her groin, so she may be seen to be rather ineffectually defending her sexuality. Her facial features are calm and impassive, neither agonized, nor as ecstatic as we might expect a goddess of sex to be. Yet she is, according to the Greek notion of her role, sexually enticing. A survey of Greek sculpture shows this attitude toward her in the sculptural representation to be conventional; there are no moments either of desperation or of orgasmic ecstasy, which emotions are not found in her any more than in Greek women, with the exception of the short-term female ecstasy which the cult of Dionysos provides.
Compare this with Indic religious art, which depicts female deities with enticing body and enraptured facial expression. The difference is that at some point India made its peace with sex, incorporating it into the flow of religious thought, or even raising it to special levels of respectability because of its involuntary and ecstatic nature. The way in which Greek sculpture portrays the goddess of Love says important things about the way Greek men envisioned sexually desirable women. The half-ashamed, half hiding, partly covered but partly naked posture of an attractive female must have been pleasing and sexually exciting to men, especially if the face were impassive, calm, willing and (above all) not competitive. Consider the parallel in modern Oriental countries, where women are expected to be charming, modestly suggestive, indulging in socially approved smiles accompanied by light laughter with hand over mouth, always available but never sexually challenging. In the past forty years a new type of woman has emerged in the Orient, she is as well educated and intelligent as any man, and she values her new identity, but faced with this "new" woman, many Oriental men find themselves ill at ease, and may even be sexually affronted. Greeks had the same problem, and fled to 'hetairai' for sexual expression, much as modern Oriental men tend to do. Wives are selected on a different basis, since family and society must approve of them. From a careful study of the sculpture of the goddess Aphrodite, an important and revealing chapter on sexuality of the ancient Greek male can be written.
The role of female sexual behavior and orgasm in ancient Greece needs elucidation. In one of Lucian's sketches of people and personalities, admittedly material taken from a much later period, a pair of Lesbian girls is portrayed in the sexual act. What seems most surprising to Lucian is that the more active (masculine) Lesbian is puffing and breathing heavily,(Gr.. 'asthmainei'...he says), in fact just like a man. If more evidence of this kind can be found, it may suggest that female orgasm was rare, and what is worse, socially unacceptable. Certain African groups still surgically remove the clitoris, presumably with the same aim of orienting sex solely toward the male. As the century ends, public attention has been drawn to this insane mayhem, and many groups are actively trying to get change instituted for the coming generations. It is estimated that some hundred millions of women have been mutilated, and the seeds of this practice are deeply rooted in the minds of African males. But traditional curltural and quasi-religious practices are the hardest to reason with and change.
Many men in our own time still fear a woman who is in all ways an equal, and high fashion cover girl portraiture often shows a girl whose eyes are frozen in a scared stare, which apparently is also taken as a look of sexual enticement. This must be oriented specifically toward the male who it excited by the image of a beautiful but scared woman, and may be parallel to the passive and empty look on Aphrodite's face.
Niobe is the daughter of Tantalos, she suffers in Hades for some impropriety related her children. Having seven sons and seven daughters, she boasted so much of her children and their number, that Apollo and Artemis, the two children of Leto by Zeus, took offense, killed her children and turned her, weeping incessantly, into a tear-dripping column of stone. This is a story which reflects the tendency towards overpopulation which a reckless cult of Aphrodite produces, Since early historical times, Greece was plagued by overpopulation in a small land area, much in the manner of Japan past and present. Having a dozen or more children has been the pattern of many cultures over the centuries, since children were basically desirable, since people felt that population should increase, and since infant mortality removed more than half of the progeny. With her fourteen children, Niobe represented the old way, whereas Apollo and his one sister Artemis point to zero population increase.
The number seven, especially when repeated, is magical. A striking example of its use is seen in the passage in the Aeneid in which Juno bribes Aeolus with "twice-seven fair nymphs". Solon says that there are seven-year units which mark out the periods of a man's life., and the title Pleiad was the name used in the time of Ptolemy II for the seven most distinguished tragic poets We also note the symmetry of the generations by sevens at the beginning of Matthew's gospel, which in the third group leads inexorably to Jesus.. In constructing polygons with simple classical tools (the straight-edge and compass), the first really difficult construction is the pentagon (a magic form often associated with the Devil), the construction of which the mathematical Arabs understood. But constructing the heptagon is far more difficult, for the Greeks an impossible problem, hence seven is still an unimaginable, and magical number. Niobe's number had doubly unfortunate associations!
The still weeping column of stone which was once Niobe calls to mind Lot's wife and the act of looking back,. as well as the Gorgon's' snaky gaze which "petrified" men, but it may also reflect knowledge of deposits of salty limestone, worn away by wind and water so as to leave a column standing alone in the desert. Tasting the surface, one would taste the "salt of tears". The similarity of this columnar shape to one of the early Greek stone female figures of the Archaic Period could easily reinforce the female origin. In a sense, such stories are a world away from the Indic myth of Indra and the Ants, which have figurative, moral and philosophical meaning clearly injected into the story line, and that may be one of the distinguishing characteristics of the Greek myths: They are stories drawn from experience and history, which have not been worked over and reformed in the light of a consolidated religious system. This may seem to be a weakness, but as documents illustrating the rise of early civilization, in this lies their real strength and interest.
There are so many interpretations of the myth of Oedipous, that the central problem of inbreeding is often ignored. The fact that Oedipous did inbreed incestuously is probably less important than the possibility that he himself was the result of intensive inbreeding, as is evidenced by his genetically, if not paralytically maimed clubfeet, and possibly his defective eyesight. (These matters will be taken up in the chapter which concern itself with medicine and medical problems.) Alongside of the cult of Aphrodite the producer of men, stands a set of tabus which come from the careful observance of the background of many genetically defective children. The original layer of the story of King Oedipous refers to such tabu, although the later Greek treatment in the drama is focused entirely on bad fate and unlucky chance, since incest as a problem had already been convincingly dealt with in Greek society.
One important fact about Helen which often escapes notice is the manner of her marriage to Menelaus. Wooed by many because of her beauty, she was accorded, by Odysseus' intervention, the opportunity of making her own marital choice, which united her with Menelaus. As Odysseus represents the prototype of the new man, a trader, a practical and realistic dealer with all odds, it is interesting that it is he who proposes for Helen this new and novel way of marrying, by the woman's choice. This would be condemned by traditional public opinion as immoral, permit a woman to choose one man, and she will soon have it in her head to choose another, married or not (say the conservatives), and so goes the story of Paris and Troy and the war. The Trojan War may be a war over trade routes to the Black Sea, but it is also a war over a new and dangerous role for womens' choice which apparently had been tried at Mycene or somewhere else once upon a time. Moreover property goes with persons by ancient tradition, so when a person disappears, what is the legal status of the property?
The deity (Pallas) Athene, familiar as she is, is strangely puzzling. Nothing is known about the name "Pallas". Athene shows the ending '-ene,' which is apparently Mycenean in origin, and often is used for goddesses, some of whom (like Helene) are also queens. She was described as the daughter of Zeus and Metis (this name is actually the common word for "plan, intelligence"), whom Zeus swallowed fearing that she might produce offspring more powerful and wise than himself. Athene sprang from the head of Zeus, the seat of the intelligence (like Metis), which was split open by either Prometheus or Hephaistos. Hephaistos, the smith and metal worker, is always associated with fire, as is Prometheus, not only in the story told by Aeschylos about stealing fire for mortals, but in light of the exact verbal correspondence of his name with the Pramanthas family, a Vedic Indian family of fire worshipping priests in the service of the fire deity Agni (cf. Latin ignis). Since Zeus was originally a sun-god, as was Dyaus his linguistic counterpart in Vedic mythology, the splitting open of Zeus' head with fire is interesting. Recall also that Zeus' aides were the Cyclops, who were recognized by the ancients as volcanoes or volcanic spirits, again establishing a connection with fire. [Were linguistics less unforgiving, one might be tempted to try to connect Ath-ene with the verb 'aith-' " to flame, burn".]
There is a tradition that the often used epithet of Athene, 'glauk-opis'. which is generally taken as "gray eyed", may actually refer to blue eye pigment, and Pausanias mentions seeing a statue of the goddess with blue eyes. Genetically blue-eyedness goes with blond hair color, so that even the Latin word 'flavus" "blond" is linguistically connectable with English 'blue" and the other Germanic cognates. One might consider the possibility of Athene being blue eyed and blond haired. That the daughter of the sun-sky god should be blond, or have hair of the color of bright fire, would seem natural, although that trait has disappeared in the later tradition. Sun-fire as the common ground between Zeus and Athene and also Prometheus and Hephaistos is certainly possible, and may produce further light.
The myth of Attis, although set in Asia Minor, repeats the pattern of the vegetative cycles that we saw in the story of Adonis. His mother conceived him while gathering almond blossoms from a tree which contained the blood of Agdistis, a female Phrygian deity more commonly known as Cybele (or Cybebe) the Great Earth Mother. Cybele loved Attis, opposed his seeking a mate, and drove him mad enough to castrate himself, upon which he died. By Zeus' intervention his life-force passed into the pine tree, while his blood grew into violets. The connection of Attis, who like Adonis is a handsome young man beloved of a goddess, with plant life is clear.-
Hippolytos, the son of the great hero Theseus, a hunter and a man of immaculate purity of life and mind, and totally devoted to his huntress lady Artemis, is approached sexually by Phaedra, the daughter of the Cretan king Minos and wife of Theseus. Rejected,she hangs herself, at the same time denouncing Hippolytos as her seducer. Comparing the sexually violent fate of another Cretan lady, Pasiphae, one might almost think that the breeding of bulls, which was well developed in Crete, might lead to people eating unaccustomed amounts of animal protein, with distressing results. The role of diet in national culture is well established, but and it may enter, if only symbolically, into stories of personal history. Here we have another young man who is a hunter, being killed, but unlike the others we have been dealing with, he is involved in a personal set of circumstances which indirectly violate his faith with his chaste lady goddess, Artemis. Even being suspect of sex and seduction condemns him to death. Perhaps we are reading in this story some ancient legend which marks the hunter as one who must be perfectly single-minded, in other words socially uncommitted and neutral, since only in such a state of mind will he be able to have the sensitivity and all-around-awareness which the master hunter requires. Other societies at early stages have special requirements for the hunter, on whose supersensitive perceptive powers the life of the whole community depends. Once we can control animals by breeding and slaughtering them in captivity, and can sow vegetation to supplement or replace animal protein, we no longer have a need for the highly developed mental concentration and purity of the hunter, whose death is staged in the myths in a convenient, accidental manner. Modern TV directors do this with an actor they no longer need, they write him out of the script. A chariot accident writes Hippolytos out of the script circumstantially, but conveniently, and with obvious intent.
In Artemis, the severely virginal huntress, we witness the existence of woman as hunter-(gatherer) without the responsibilities of reproduction. This would be entirely understandable in a world which was short of food supplies, where the getting of victuals was more important than the begetting of new mouths to feed. Artemis is fossilized somehow at this ancient stage of development, and in the world of Classical myth, she is a strange and rather outree personality. She is often involved in the death of young male hunters, she is clearly dangerous and yet must be propitiated on many occasions, since in the forest and hunting world she cannot be avoided. As long as deep forests persist, she is real, a sign of the connection between man and the prey he needs to survive, but when hunting disappears and animals are bred for meat, she becomes a symbol of ingrown virginity, even more dangerous. At some ancient date her hunting role must have been real, and perhaps the Amazons are her only historical descendant.
Like Artemis, some women had a marked aversion to sex.. Atalanta's story is well known, how she rejected every suitor by outrunning them, until one dropped "Apples of the Hesperides" as he went, which she stopped to gather, and so lost the race and presumably her virginity. The story tells us something about the ancient art of running, which must have preceded Greece by millennia in the service of Neolithic hunters. Only recently has the world re-discovered long distance running, to be surprised at the naturalness of this ancient activity for large numbers of men and women. The stuffy Roman 'incessus',. which was a kind of pompous, gliding gait suitable to formal Quirites and the ancient businessmen of the world, created a staticness of personal stance which stayed with the world for centuries, while only folk dance retained real body movement.
The "Apples of the Hesperides" cannot be positively identified, but the phrase makes it clear than new kinds of fruit were being imported into Greece proper from outlying areas, even from as far west as Spain. We have some evidence here for l) fast sea transportation, since fruit rots quickly, 2) for other strains of fruit being produced in the West Mediterranean Basic, strains not found in the East, and 3) for a specific kind of fruit so striking in its appearance that a shrewd, male-phobic girl could be taken in by their striking appearance . One thinks of oranges, found since the fifteenth century in Spain, which produced a striking impression when first imported into central Europe., and were not eaten, but reserved as the playthings of bishops and royalty.
Hestia is formally recognized as the goddess of the hearth, she is a deity who presides over fire, but only the kind of fire which is used in the preparation of food. Her role is certainly more ancient than any of the deities we have been discussing, since we know from carbon-datable remains that fire was used at an extremely early date in human history for campfires, which are primarily used for cooking, although they are also used for warmth and frightening wolves and felids away from the mouths of man's caves at night. It seems strange that nobody thought of associating Hestia in a marital pair (like Aphrodite) with Hephaestos, but the use of fire for extracting ores and working metals was of a much later date, while the fire-hardening of wooden spearpoints, as was still recently done in Africa, is too marginal to deserve a special presiding deity. Hestia remains as custodian of hearth and family life, naturally enough, since in historical times each house, and a designated hall in each town, and the special facilities at Delphi and Olympia kept fires burning continually. At some ancient time fire was found burning in nature, taken from burning grasslands, and preserved as precious, since there was no easy way of reproducing it anew. The story of Prometheus tells about divulging fire to men, against the will of Zeus who apparently wanted it kept for his special priestly guild to dispense. At the very end of Odyssey Book 5, when Odysseus, wet and beaten by the seastorm, finally crawls under a thick bush, Homer compares this act of preserving life and body heat to that of a man who lives in a far distant country dwelling, where he must go far to get a new light if his fire should fail. Whatever the actual state of fire-production at Homer's time, there seems to be no knowledge of how spinning a stake into a dry board, or striking iron on flint could produce flame. Originally the light of the fire was (as it was for Odysseus) like the warmth of life itself.
Hestia is a ubiquitous goddess, since there was a fire in every farmhouse in Greece, but she is also in a minor way a deity of fire, with her role transferred to home and the purity of family life. With typical conservatism, the Romans at a much later date commemorated the finding and preservation of fire by the rites of the Vestal Virgins, which commemorate something once very important to human existence. All in all, Hestia represents the conversion of Woman from procreator to householder and family cook, a change of function which is bound to happen in the proliferating world which Aphrodite creates.
Dryads are female deities who are associated with trees. Each Dryad or Hamadryad exists in relationship to an individual tree, and is respected and venerated as the life force in that tree. The concept of tree life is holy.- - - -The name Dryad is derived from Gr. 'drus' which is an oak tree. The word in the same linguistic format appears in the term Druid, a Celtic priest related to tree life force, but with other political and administrative overtones in the historical period. - - - - In Greek and Latin the tree names may be masculine in form, but are always considered feminine in gender; this is partly owing to their composite and all-embracing nature, since trees are (to humans) composed of many parts from root to leaf, but there is also a feeling for femaleness in trees as the ancients see them.- - - -The important thing to note is that in a time when people venerate trees and endow them with a female deity. they have not arrived at a stage of civilization at which trees are seen merely as lumber. When this has occurred, Aristotle can speak of 'hyle" ("wood") as the basic material for constructing the world, i.e. "matter", and the Romans can use the term 'materies" for matter, or building material as such. (American lumber yards are still sometimes called Material Companies.) Wood as a construction material, especially as it becomes costly and valuable, is different in nature from wood on the live root or trees as biological miracles of design and evolution, home for "spirits" of some spiritual importance. - - - -All the myths of Dryads and Druids ante-date the larger growth of mega-societies, which in turn learn to use trees as a source for wood and nothing more. This is a constant danger to expanding societies, they see things only in consideration of their uses, exactly as Pliny the Elder in discussing biology, starts his list of animals with the chicken, goat, sheep and cow, which he assume are specifically created for Roman use. Primitive peoples are much more sensitive.
The nymph Eidothea, whose name comes from 'eidos' which is "appearance; a form, a "form"(Plato)", is the daughter of Proteus, whom we will deal with later. Her aid to Menelaos is not important, but her father's infinite changeability of forms, so that nobody can pin him down on anything, true of false, is most interesting. See: Proteus.
A curious example of a semi-divine heroic personality in the making is found in the scene in Euripides' play in which Alcestis is preparing for her departure and death (Euripides Alcestis ll.....). A servant relates in a tone of exaggerated adoration the exact stages by which Alcestis prepared herself for the death-ritual, how she bathed, what garments she drew forth from cedar smelling chests, with what face and manner she conducted herself. Bursting into tears, she slips back into humanness, then rights herself and calmly says farewell to each weeping servant in the receiving line. An emotional tone is maintained throughout this remarkable passage, which is intent on describing the "last moments" of a lady about to be sanctified. The whole passage is remarkably similar in tone to Plato's portrayal of the last moments of Socrates, and both descriptions are constructed on the pattern of divification of an ordinary person, who is raised before our very eyes to the rank of a blessed semi-divine being. We are not surprised by the religious tone used in describing Socrates last hours, since Socrates is in terms of the West's appreciation already a partly holy man, but since the obscure Saintette Alcestis is not a part of our intellectual history, her case seems more sudden and strange. Euripides apparently also thought this sanctification a little odd, since in the denouement of the play, he reverses the whole procedure and has her come back hale, hearty and quite alive to her amazed household. He seems to enjoy the role of first creating a saint our of a dying woman, and then creating a real woman in place of the saint, merely as a playwright's change of mind. But if he can do that, he can also dispense with holiness also, and that is what happens to the creation of religious figures in the ensuing centuries.
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