You are currently browsing the tag archive for the ‘Greek’ tag.
In ancient Greece, there were two incarnations of death. The more well-known Greek personification of Death was Thanatos, the child of Nyx and brother of Hypnos (Sleep). Thanatos represented natural death and was portrayed as a gentle being. He was represented either as a kind handsome bearded man with wings or as a beautiful winged child. Thantos is sometimes portrayed carrying a butterfly, a wreath, or an inverted torch. Thanatos is frequently represented on funerary stele and on vases—a peaceful figure who led souls away after they had lived full lives.
However Thanatos had a flock of hellish sisters, the Keres, dark flying beings with sharp teeth and an insatiable taste for blood. The Keres represented violent senseless death. They flew in the thousands above battlefields and hung over plague ravaged cities. The Keres were associated with the apparatus of violent death–famine, madness, agony, hate, and violence, yet classical authors also sometimes treat them as oddly personal—like a bullet with a soldier’s name on it. Keres were portrayed like harpies or demons—cruel women with fangs and talons dressed in bloody ripped garments. When they found a wounded or sick person the Keres would descend to feast on blood. Hesiod’s harrowing poem, The Shield of Heracles describes them in such a manner:
The black Keres, clashing their white teeth,
Grim faced, shaggy, blood-bespattered, dread,
Kept struggling for the fallen. They all wanted
To drink black blood. Whom first they caught.
Lying or fallen newkly wounded, around him
They threw their might talosns, and the shade to Hades
Went, in icy Tartarus. Their hearts were glutted
With human blood: they threw away the corpse
And back to the tumult and fighting rushed, in new desire
Hesiod also indirectly indicates that the Keres were among the horrible fates which flew out of Pandora’s box and have subsequently plagued mankind. The Romans also believed in these cruel & deadly incarnations of fat. The Roman name for the entities was tenebrae—“darknesses”
The Keres do not fit neatly into the larger Greco-Roman pantheon. Perhaps, like Nyx herself, they were outsider gods left over from some earlier tradition. Throughout the course of classical history, their portrayal and their fatalistic meaning changed. However they were a part of classical thought. It is important to mention them when writing about the Greek underworld. The dark realm below was haunted by these cruel children of night—they would fly forth when disaster struck humankind.
This blog has addressed many different deities of the underworld, but one of the most important figures of classical Greco-Roman underworld mythology has been left out. Persephone (or Proserpine to the Romans) was the queen of the underworld, the reluctant consort of Hades who ruled over a dark and mournful kingdom (as pictured above). However Persephone was one of the few figures in classical mythology who could leave the underworld. Like her mother Demeter, Persephone was a vegetation goddess—a deity that dies and is reborn with the annual growth cycle of plants.
Persephone was not just the queen of the underworld, but also the goddess of spring. When she emerged from the underworld, winter ended and life begin to grow and flower again. The vase below shows her returning with Hermes from the dark realm so that spring could once more come and winter’s darkness be banished for another year.
Some colors are very beautiful yet lack beautiful names. Such is the case with icterine, which sounds like a particularly nasty fruit, but turns out to be a lovely pale yellow. Although the bright spring color is pretty enough, the roots of its ghastly name are also ugly. The name is derived from the ancient Greek word “ikteros” which means jaundice. The color icterine is used by ornithologists to describe birds with pale yellow feathers and there are several birds with icterine in their common or scientific name. The color is not limited to birds: searching through internet images, one discovers various garments, iphone covers, and other consumer goods in shades of icterine, but it seems to be more popular in Europe than in the Americas.
A diadem is a headband made of precious metal (frequently ornamented with jewels or designs) which betokens royal sovereignty. Diadems trace their origins deep into antiquity—the form probably originating in Mycenae and Persia. The diadem soon became associated with classical Greece culture and thus the concept survived for a long, long time. Here is a Byzantine-era diadem discovered in Kiev during an archeological excavation in 1889. It is composed of gold plaques with enamel paintings. The central three plaques show the Virgin and St. John the Baptist supplicating Christ on behalf of humankind. Around them are the archangels Michael and Gabriel as well as the apostles Peter and Paul. According to the Louvre website concerning Russian sacred art, “The presence of Cyrillic letters would seem to confirm the diadem’s attribution to a workshop in the principality of Kiev, home to both Greek and Russian goldsmiths.” Byzantine cultural and political influence reached deep into central Europe during the 12th century when this regal headdress was manufactured: it is easy to see the piece as a bridge between the Eastern Roman empire and the burgeoning Greek-Orthodox kingdoms and principalities of Russia, Kiev, and the Ukraine.
In myth and in legend there are those who rise from the dead. Most of these entities are forsaken monsters and vampires who dwell in darkness and unending hunger. This past Halloween, we visited some of these undead creatures (namely lamiae, draugar, and hopping vampires). However, not all of the undead are ghouls or fiends: a few of the entities that shook off the prison of mortality are transcendent beings—saints, saviors, benefactors, & gods.
In the third century AD, Nikolaos of Myra was born in the city of Patara, which is now Turkey but was, at the time, a long-standing part of the Eastern Roman empire. His parents were wealthy Greeks who died of a plague when he was a small child. Little Nikolaos had no brothers or sisters, but his uncle was the bishop of Patara, and the bishop took in the orphan. Nikolaos proved to be a devout and ardent Christian. Under his uncle’s tutelage, he quickly rose through the church ranks, first being tonsured as a reader, then ordained as a priest, and finally consecrated as bishop of Myra, a port town in Asia Minor (in fact, some sources claim he was elected as bishop before being raised to the priesthood–a very rare career leap).
In 325 AD Emperor Constantine the great, “the thirteenth apostle”, convened all members of the episcopacy from across Christendom to attend the Council of Nicaea. The Christian church in the early fourth century was being torn apart by competing ideas about the fundamental nature of divinity. Followers of the theologian Athanasius believed that the son was begotten by the Heavenly Father from His own divine essence. Followers of the popular presbyter Arius believed that Jesus was created from nothing—as were animals, spirits, and humans. The church aristocracy convened to decide which of these opinions was dogma and which was heresy (and to settle certain other central affairs and credos of the universal Christian church).
Bishop Nikolaos was not one for learned theological argument. Early in the counsel he stormed up to Arius and slapped (or maybe “punched”) him in the face—and Nikolaos was promptly expelled from the proceedings. After weeks and weeks of harrowing canonical debate, the church fathers decided exactly the same thing as Nikolaos. Arius was excommunicated and his ideas were found to be heretical. The Arians either changed their opinions or went into exile. Nikolaos became a folk hero for his rash actions which seemed to take on the quality of foresight considering how the counsel ended.
Nikolaos returned to Myra as a famous figure, but he was troubled by the great temple to Artemis which was there. Myra was sacred to Artemis and her temple in the town was reputed to be the most stunningly beautiful and magnificent construction in the entire part of the world. Nikolaos used his newfound influence to have the structure destroyed and to forcibly convert the remaining pantheists into belief in his one stern god.
He died as a revered figure in 343 AD. Symeon the Metaphrast movingly describes the death of Nikolaos in the following florid manner:
Now after he had long lived in this manner, renowned for his virtuous conduct, he asperged the metropolis of Myra with sweet and lovely unction distilled from the blossoms of divine Grace. When he came to the very advance age, full of days both heavenly and earthly, he need must comply with the common law of nature, as is man’s lot. He was ill but a short time. In the grip of that illness, while rendering those lauds and thanksgivings to God which are said in death, he happily yielded up his spirit [for while he desired to remain in the flesh, Nicholas equally desired to be unyoked from it]. He left this brief and transitory life to cross over to that blessed everlasting life where he rejoices with the angels while more clearly and openly contemplating the light of Truth. But his previous body, borne by the holy hands of bishops and all the clergy with torches and with lights, was rested in the crypt which is at Myra.
Such is the story of the life of Nikolaos of Myra, orphan, acolyte, then orthodox churchman. But for Nikolaos, life was only the beginning. After death Nikolaos, or “Nicholas” to use the Anglicization of his Greek name came back stranger and stronger. His shadowy figure appeared throughout the land and stories began to circulate of miracles and transfigurations performed by the Saint. His post-life supernatural journey would take him across thousands of years and see him transformed from being a (dead) ascetic bishop in the Levant into one of the most beloved religious figures in all of the world. Tune in tomorrow for part two of the strange odyssey of Saint Nicholas, the symbol of generosity, compassion, and Christmastime.
The cornucopia is an ancient symbol of harvest abundance. It is commonly represented as a woven spiral basket overflowing with fruit, grains, vegetables, and other agricultural products. In America it is one of the symbols of Thanksgiving time (second only to the magnificent turkey). The wicker basket stuffed with fruits has become such a familiar image, that it is easy to overlook the Greco-Roman roots of the horn of plenty.
According to Greek legend, the cornucopia is the horn of Amalthea, the goat which served as foster mother to Zeus. In the benign version of the myth, young Zeus, unaware of his own strength, accidentally broke the horn off of the goat while he was playing with her. In the darker version, he slaughtered the goat when he reached manhood. From her hide he fashioned his impenetrable aegis. He gave her horn to the nymphs who had raised him, and this horn provided a magical eternal abundance of farm-raised food. In memory of her generosity, he set her image in the stars as the constellation Capricorn. There is yet another version of the cornucopia myth which Hercules broke the horn off of a river god and this became the original horn of plenty.
Whatever its origin, the cornucopia remained a part of the classical pantheon. It is most frequently seen in the hands of Ceres/Demeter, the goddess of agriculture and grains. In Roman iconography the cornucopia was sometimes an attribute of Fortuna, the goddess of luck, and of the underworld god Pluto (who controlled the ground and thus was responsible for the gifts of the harvest).
I like the Hercules/river-god myth because it reflects on how important water is to agriculture, but I greatly prefer the myth of Zeus and his foster-mother which seems to embody the moral quandaries (and the promise of civilization) which are inherent in agriculture. The story—like that of Cain and Abel–hints at the replacement of hunting with herding and farming (indeed goats were the original domesticated animal). Some cornucopias are now made of baked goods which makes the symbolic transition even more apparent. The horn of plenty is an admirable symbol of humankind’s fundamental dependency on agriculture–which lies at the root of our civilization and our prosperity. I am glad the cornucopia has kept its relevance for all of these thousands of years and has not been replaced by some tamer symbol.
Corona Borealis is a semicircular constellation in the northern sky between Hercules and Boötes. It is of mild interest to astronomers for containing two interesting variable stars: (1) T Coronae Borealis, the so-called “Blaze Star”, which is a recurring nova binary star; and (2) R Coronae Borealis, a yellow supergiant which periodically dims from magnitude 6 to magnitude 14 and then brightens back up (possibly because it is producing carbon).
The constellation is much more interesting to classical artists since a myth about its creation gives artists their symbol for deification. Ariadne was the daughter of Minos, king of Crete who became judge of the underworld after his death and Queen Pasiphae (who was herself a daughter of the sun). The princess fell in love with Theseus, an Athenian hero who was to be sacrificed to the Minotaur, a bull-headed monster who lived in the labrynth beneath the palace. With the help of the wise artificer, Daedalus, Ariadne rescued Theseus and together they fled from Crete (just barely escaping destruction at the hands of Talos, the giant bronze robot which guarded the island).
Once they had escaped, the faithless Theseus abandoned Ariadne sleeping on the island of Naxos. The sleeping maiden was spied by Dionysus who chose her as a consort. She was given immortality and godhood as soon as she was married and Dionysus hung her wedding crown of stars in the sky as the constellation Corona Borealis (maybe it has so many variable stars because it was sacred to the god of intoxication).
This seems like a weird narrative and it probably reflects Greek confusion about the proper status of Ariadne (whom some scholars identify as a Cretan serpent goddess from the Mycenaean era). But irrespective of her origin or how she came by her divinity Ariadne has proven to be a favorite subject of visual artists from classical times onward. Many artists prefer to portray her beautiful, naked, and asleep (and you can easily find many such paintings and statues on the web) but nearly as many are fascinated by her apotheosis—the moment she receives her godhood and escapes mortality.
Perhaps the finest of these paintings was created by the peerless hand of Titian for the Alabaster Room in the palace of Duke Alfonso d’Este–who specifically commissioned the world’s finest bacchanal paintings for his room (a project so fascinating and strange that the Alabaster Room has been virtually created online). The painting shows the moment when Dionysus reveals himself to the bewildered Ariadne with all of his divine retinue. The beautiful god leaps from his leopard-drawn chariot and flies down towards her as maenads and satyrs wildly revel behind him. If you aren’t too distracted by the naked wild man covered in snakes, or by the dismembered donkey, or by the beautiful columbines and irises which bloom purple beneath the feet of the god’s inebriated followers, you will notice the constellation Corona Borealis glowing in the sky above Ariadne’s head.
Titian’s vision was so splendid and influential that other artists adopted the crown of stars as a symbol of apotheosis. The crown of immortality appears in other works as heroes step across the threshold of godhood. It is a reoccurring representation of our desire to step beyond humanity and become deathless divine beings.
Ningishzida was a Mesopotamian deity, worshiped in the city of Gishbanda which lay near Ur in the orchards of the Fertile Crescent. It seems that he was originally a tree god (the name Ningishzida means “lord of the sacred/giving tree” in Sumerian, the first known written language), but he became associated with fertility, the underworld, and the healing force of nature. I wish I could tell you more about Ningishzida, but, remember how I mentioned Sumerian was the first known language? Surviving texts concerning Ningishzida are ancient. The texts were baked into clay tablets and these have become smashed and broken. When translated they look like this (roll over the links along the left side for source identification and click any of the “GI” links for English translations). There is beauty, nature, the underworld, and magic. There are serpents and lions and glowing portals, but the meaning is unclear (to say the least).
Yet if the combination of fertility, a magical tree, the Fertile Crescent, and a serpent do not seem immediately familiar to you, perhaps you should peruse the book which comes free with the hotel room (you don’t even have to read very far). Scholarly tradition asserts that the Pentateuch was written before or during the Babylonian exile of the 6th century. The author/authors seem to have used Mesopotamian sources for the portions which deal with creation and primeval history.
Ningishzida is portrayed as either a serpent with the head of a man, or, more frequently, as a double-headed serpent coiled into a double helix. It is believed that the Greeks also made use of this symbolism in their myth of the caduceus, the wand of Hermes/Mercury which is associates with theft, deception, and death (for Mercury was a psychopomp who led souls to the underworld with his staff). Of course contemporary people are familiar with the double helix as well. We know that DNA, the fundamental blueprint of life is latticed together on a double helix. It is strange that the first use of this symbol is a mysterious Sumerian tree/snake god who apparently also appealed to Jewish scholars during the Babylonian captivity.
In Greek mythology, Apollo was the god of healing (as well as the god of light, poetry, music, and sundry other good things). Yet Apollo was surpassed as a healer by his son the demigod Asclepius. Asclepius should be one of the most exalted figures in classical mythology, yet his story is ambiguous and troubling (which is perhaps a more fitting tribute to the complexity and heartache of the healers’ arts). The mother of Asclepius was a mortal woman, Coronis, who cheated on Apollo with a mortal lover. When a crow reported to Apollo that Coronis was unfaithful, the sun god disbelieved the fowl and he turned all crows from white to black and gave them discordant voices. Yet the story rankled the god’s heart. When he investigated the rumor and found it to be true, Apollo killed Coronis with one of his terrible arrows. As she writhed in death agony, he slit her open to rescue the son she bore (hence Asclepius’ name means “to cut open”). Apollo then granted crows cleverness beyond other birds to make up for his anger.
Like many other demigods, Asclepius was raised and tutored by the centaur Chiron, a matchless teacher. Soon the pupil surpassed the student and it was rumored that snakes licked Asclepius’ ears and taught him secret knowledge (to the Greeks snakes were sacred beings of wisdom, healing, and resurrection). Asclepius bore a rod wreathed with a snake, which became associated with healing. To this day a species of pan-Mediterranean serpent, the Aesculapian Snake (Zamenis longissimus) are named for the demigod.
Being the greatest healer in the world brought wealth and fame to Asclepius, who had many successful children, each of whom was named after some aspect of the medical craft (Hygiene, Panacea, Recuperation, etc…), but his success became his undoing. When he left Chiron, the centaur had given him two vials of blood—one from the left side and one from the right side of a gorgon. The blood from the left side was a fatal poison which caused ultimate agony (as Chiron himself experienced firsthand at his anguished destruction). The blood from the gorgon’s left side was a miraculous elixir which could bring the dead back to life. Asclepius began to accept gold to revive the dead and he drew the baleful attention of Hades. Afraid that the decisions of the gods would cease to hold terror for mortal kind, Hades begged his brother to make a final end of Asclepius. Zeus was in full agreement and he burned Asclepius to a cinder by casting a lightning bolt at him.
Apollo was furious at the death of his son (and the extinction of the apex of medical art). Not daring to strike Zeus, Apollo killed the Cyclops who has fashioned the lightning bolt, an act which led Zeus to banish Apollo to the mortal realm for a year (during which time the god designed the walls of Troy). When his term was served, Apollo joyously rejoined the other Olympians. Different traditions interpret the story’s end differently. In happier versions, Zeus and Hades bring Asclepius’ spirit to Olympus to act as god of healing forever. In other versions Apollo and Zeus hang the image of Asclepius in the heavens as the constellation Opiuchus, “the Snake Bearer” both to remind humankind of the physician’s greatness and to warn them to eschew seeking immortality.
In ancient Greece, one of the most universally popular symbols was the gorgoneion, a symbolized head of a repulsive female figure with snakes for hair. Gorgoneion medallions and ornaments have been discovered from as far back as the 8th century BC (and some archaeologists even assert that the design dates back to 15 century Minoan Crete). The earliest Greek gorgoneions seem to have been apotropaic in nature—grotesque faces meant to ward off evil and malign influence. Homer makes several references to the gorgon’s head (in fact he only writes about the severed head—never about the whole gorgon). My favorite lines concerning the gruesome visage appear in the Odyssey, when Odysseus becomes overwhelmed by the horrors of the underworld and flees back to the world of life:
And I should have seen still other of them that are gone before, whom I would fain have seen- Theseus and Pirithous glorious children of the gods, but so many thousands of ghosts came round me and uttered such appalling cries, that I was panic stricken lest Proserpine should send up from the house of Hades the head of that awful monster Gorgon.
In Greco-Roman mythology the gorgon’s head (attached to a gorgon or not) could turn those looking at it into stone. The story of Perseus and Medusa (which we’ll cover in a different post) explains the gorgon’s origins and relates the circumstances of her beheading. When Perseus had won the princess, he presented the head to his father and Athena as a gift—thus the gorgon’s head was a symbol of divine magical power. Both Zeus and Athena were frequently portrayed wearing the ghastly head on their breastplates.
Although the motif began in Greece, it spread with Hellenic culture. Gorgon imagery was found on temples, clothing, statues, dishes, weapons, armor, and coins found across the Mediterranean region from Etruscan Italy all the way to the Black Sea coast. As Hellenic culture was subsumed by Rome, the image became even more popular–although the gorgon’s visage gradually changed into a more lovely shape as classical antiquity wore on.
In wealthy Roman households a gorgoneion was usually depicted next to the threshold to help guard the house against evil. The wild snake-wreathed faces are frequently found painted as murals or built into floors as mosaics.
Not only was the wild magical head a mainstay of classical decoration–the motif was subsequently adapted by Renaissance artists hoping to recapture the spirit of the classical world. Gilded gorgoneions appeared at Versailles and in the palaces and mansions of elite European aristocrats of the 17th and 18th centuries.
Even contemporary designers and businesses make use of the image. The symbol of the Versace fashion house is a gorgon’s head.