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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 I am glad the cornucopia has kept its relevance for all of these thousands of years and has not been replaced by some tamer symbol.
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.
This is the Ferrebeekeeper’s 300th post! Hooray and thank you for reading! We celebrated our 100th post with a write-up of the Afro-Caribbean love goddess, Oshun. To celebrate the 300th post (and to finish armor week on a glorious high note), we turn our eyes upward to the stern and magnificent armored goddess, Athena, the goddess of wisdom.
Athena’s birth has its roots in Zeus’ war with his father Cronus. In order to win his battle against the ruling race of Titans (and thus usurp his father’s place as the king of the gods), Zeus married the Titan Metis, goddess of cunning and prudence. Her wise counsel and crafty stratagems gave the Olympian gods and edge against the Titans and the latter were ultimately cast down. Metis was Zeus’ first wife and the secret to his success… but there was a problem. It was foretold that Metis would bear an extremely powerful offspring: any son she gave birth to would be mightier than Zeus. To forestall this problem Zeus tricked Metis into transforming into a fly and then he sniffed her up his nose so that he could always have her cunning counsel inside his head. But Metis was already pregnant. Inside Zeus’ skull she began to craft a suit of armor for her child to wear. The pounding of her hammer within his temples gave Zeus a terrible headache. Insane with pain, Zeus begged his ally Prometheus (the seer among the Titans) to cure him of this misery through whatever means necessary. Prometheus seized a labrys (a double headed axe from Crete) and struck open Zeus’ head with a noise louder than a thunderclap. In a burst of radiance Athena sprang forth fully grown and clad in gleaming armor.
Athena was Zeus’ first daughter and his favorite child. For his own armor, Zeus had carried an invincible aegis crafted out of the skin of his foster mother, the divine goat Amalthea. When Athena was born he handed this symbol of his invincible power over to her. Similarly throughout classical mythology Athena is the only other entity whom Zeus trusts to handle his lightning bolts (there is an amazing passage in the first lines of the Aneid where she vaporizes Ajax’s chest with lightning, picks him up with a whirlwind, and impales him on a spire of rock in revenge for an impiety). Her other symbols were the owl, a peerless predator capable of seeing at night, and the gorgon’s head, a magical talisman capable of turning humans to stone (which Athena wore affixed to her armor). Although she was first in Zeus’ esteem, Athena did not forget her mother’s fate and she remained a virgin goddess who never dallied with romance of any sort.
Wisdom, humankind’s greatest (maybe our only) strength was Athena’s bailiwick as too were the fruits of wisdom. Athena was therefore the goddess of learning, strategy, productive arts, cities, skill, justice, victory, and civilization. She is often portrayed as the goddess of justified war in opposition to her half-brother Ares, the vainglorious deity representative of the senseless aspects of war. In classical mythology Athena never loses. Her side is always victorious. Her heroes always prosper. She was the Greek representation of the triumph of creativity and intellect.
Metis never bore Zeus a son to usurp him–but when I read classical mythology such an outcome always seemed unnecessary. Not only did Athena wield Zeus’ authority and run the world as she saw fit, but Zeus was perfectly happy with the arrangement (a true testament to her wisdom). The one slight to the grey eyed goddess is that she does not have a planet named after her (nor after her Roman name Minerva), however I have always thought that astronomers have been secretly saving the name. We can use it when we find a planet inhabited by beings of greater intelligence, or when we travel the stars to a second earth and apotheosize into true Athenians.
According to archaeologists, the first agricultural animals were goats, which humankind domesticated 11,000 years ago. Curiously, the Greek myth concerning the childhood of Zeus, king of the Greek pantheon, reflects this ancient connection. Having tricked Cronus (the rapacious father of Zeus) into swallowing a stone instead of her infant son, Rhea, Zeus’ mother, was naturally unable to raise her child. She sent the baby into hiding on Crete where he was raised by nymphs and suckled on the milk of the divine goat, Amalthea.
The Greeks themselves seem puzzled by Amalthea. While most ancient authors wrote about her as a supernatural goat tended by nymphs, a few seem to think she was herself a nymph/goddess. Classical mythology contains a few other ambiguous divinities who were simultaneously animals and their magical tenders (the Crommyonian Sow for example is another such figure) and it is not unreasonable to think they might be borrowed deities which came from more ancient religions now lost to us. Being a goat-based maternal goddess figure from Crete, Amalthea certainly makes sense in this context. Minoan culture predated classical Greek civilization by thousands of years: its religion revolved around fertility goddesses, horned altars, and livestock.
Whatever the case, Zeus was tenderly raised by the magical goat on her supernatural milk and he swiftly grew to mighty adulthood. Then, when he was ready to begin his war on the titans, he killed Amalthea, skinned her, and fashioned her hide into his impregnable aegis–a symbol of his omnipotent authority second only to the lightning bolt. He broke off Amalthea’s magic horn and made it into the cornucopia (which forever provides an endless bounty of food) and gave it to the nymphs. He then hung his foster mother among the stars as the constellation Capra and set off to make war on the titans.
The story sits jarringly with modern conscience but I suspect it resonated with herdspeople, who must sometimes take an unsentimental view of their livestock. With our endless supply of meat and milk from factory agriculture and all of our leather luxury goods we might be a bit presumptuous to judge Zeus (whose carnal appetite, jealous persona, and rages have always struck me as an oversized portrait of human temperament anyway).
Indeed, I am telling this story just before Earthday, that most uncomfortable of holidays, for a reason. It strikes me that humankind is well represented by Zeus in the brutal tale above. We sprang quickly to whatever uneasy mastery we enjoy thanks to keen and methodical exploitation of the natural world (not least the domesticated animals and plants we rely on). We ourselves are animals (chordates, mammals, primates, hominids, humans) an undeniable part of nature, but we seem bent on consuming or altering every living system in our mad quest for godhood. The real question we should ask for Earthday is whether this is a worthwhile quest? If so can we pursue it more responsibly? Could we even stop if we chose to? The answers are not necessarily happy or easy ones.
In Greek myth the Titan Cronus, was ruler the heavens and king of the gods prior to the ascent of Zeus. Cronus ruled over the golden age of humankind when suffering was unknown and death was but a gentle dream. Yet there was a darkness behind the reign of Cronus, a terrible stain upon the sickle which was his emblem. Even while Cronus ruled heaven, he knew that he would end as a maimed wretch cast down into the underworld. A dread augury had revealed that he would fall at the hands of a son more powerful than he–and his personal history convinced him the prophecy was sooth.
Cronus was the most powerful son of Uranus, the original god of the primordial heavens. At the beginning of all things Uranus ruled as king of the gods and the firmament–but Uranus was displeased by the Hekatonkheires, hundred handed monsters born to him by his spouse Gaia. Despite Gaia’s pleas, Uranus imprisoned these monstrous sons in the dark prison of Tartaros. Incensed by the haughtiness of her spouse, Gaia crafted a great flint sickle from her own bones. Only Cronus had sufficient ambition, nerve, and cruelty to wield the sickle. He ambushed Uranus and cut him into bloody pieces. Gods and monsters were born of the hewn apart body of Uranus. Unfortunately for Gaia’s plans, Cronus saw no reason to free the Hekatonkheires, the Cyclops (one eyed monsters), or the other “undesirables” Uranus had already locked away and thus he, in turn, incurred the wrath of Gaia.
Having committed such an act, Cronus could not rest easy with his own children. Whenever his wife, the Titaness Rhea, bore a son or daughter he snatched the baby away and swallowed it whole. The mighty immortal Olympians, Demeter, Hera, Hades, Hestia, and Poseidon all started their lives as prisoners in their father’s gullet. Just before Zeus was born, Gaia whispered a plan to Rhea. Rhea dressed a stone in swaddling clothes and gave it to her husband in place of their newborn child. Cronus gulped down the rock and was none the wiser. The baby grew to adulthood tended by Nymphs and fed by the divine goat Amalthea. When Zeus had grown powerful he made allies with Gaia and he took a first wife, Mètis, the goddess of wisdom, deep thought, and cunning. Mètis gave Cronus a purgative of wine and mustard which caused the Titan to hurl up the five fully grown siblings of Zeus. Together the Olympians, in alliance with the various sorts of imprisoned monsters, made war on the Titans (except for Prometheus, who could see the future and joined Zeus). This epic battle, the Titanomachy, reshaped the landscape of the world (particularly that of Thessaly), but when it was over, the Olympians were victorious. Cronus was cast down and Zeus locked him in Tartarus along with the other Titans except for Prometheus (and strong Atlas—who suffered his own punishment). Zeus incurred the wrath of Gaia for imprisoning the Titans, who were also her children, and she began plotting against him and bearing further monsters to end his reign.
Thus Zeus became king of the gods, but prophecy whispered that he would one day be supplanted by a stronger son….
What about Cronus? In classical myth, gods are immortal. The maimed Cronus could not die. In some traditions he was imprisoned for a time in Tartaros with his siblings. Mystery cults asserted that he recovered some of his regal glory: the Greek dithyrambic poet Pindar wrote of how Cronus was elevated to be ruler of Elysium, that portion of the underworld reserved for heroes. According to the Orphic poems, Cronus is imprisoned for eternity in the cave of Nyx. In the abject darkness, drunk on soporific honey, he cries out sometimes–for he is troubled by dreams of horrors yet to come.
Ferrebeekeeper is celebrating the Halloween season by exploring the greatest family of monsters in all of mythology—the offspring of Echidna! Today’s monster takes us on a dark but fascinating path: those of you with sensitive natures might wish to avert your eyes…Is everyone still here? Excellent! Today we are talking about the ultimate divine torture–which took the form of the terrible Caucasian eagle.
Allow me to backtrack…
The son of Themis, Prometheus, was the titan with the power of prophecy and the curse of conscience. He is one of the most intriguing characters in mythology since his story involves the Greek conception of humankind’s creation and ultimate destiny (all of which probably deserves a longer post elsewhere). To summarize, Prometheus stole fire from the gods and presented it to mankind, setting the latter on a path towards ever greater technical savvy and ultimate godhood. He was severely punished for the crime. Zeus bound Prometheus to a mountain peak on Mount Kaukasos with unbreakable chains and sent a terrible eagle to daily feast upon the titan’s liver. As Prometheus was immortal, his liver regenerated and he was forced to suffer the hideous torment over and over and over. The eagle, with insatiable appetite and razor claws, was one of Echidna’s offspring. This dreadful scene has frequently been painted by great artists.
Speaking of artists, the liver is a sensitive and frightening subject to some people. Thinking about all the delicate little hepatocytes being exposed to daily wear and tear is enought to make anyone anxious (to say nothing about the massive trauma inflicted by a quasi-divine eagle monster). Carbohydrate metabolism and protein synthesis both require the liver. Fully understanding these processes seems nearly impossible, and just thinking about how many things could go wrong is agonizing. However we must set aside our qualms and push on, for not only is the liver completely and absolutely vital to life (which can be said of other organs), its cellular makeup is unique. Certain hepatocytes are capable of leaving G0 quiescence and re-entering the cell division cycle. Evidence also points to the existence of multipotent progenitor cells in certain parts of the adult liver. This is why the liver is the only internal human organ capable of naturally regenerating itself–as little as twenty-five percent of a liver can regenerate back into a whole organ. The liver is thus a major focus of gene therapy research and stem cell study. Prometheus’ regenerating liver was not unique (though surviving such abdominal trauma certainly would be).
Prometheus was ultimately saved from his terrible fate when Heracles took pity on him. After shooting the eagle from the sky with his great bow, the hero snapped the unbreakable chains and freed the titan. Aeschylus hints that such was the will of Zeus—for Prometheus had divulged a critical secret about Thetis who was fated to…well never mind. That also is a story for another day. Prometheus was free. The Caucasian eagle was dead (though Zeus took care to memorialize it in the heavens as the constellation Aquila). Humankind remains free to keep stumbling forward with fire and a tragic thirst to find how things work. Right now, somewhere in a laboratory filled with axolotls and stem cells, we are fashioning technologies which will provide complete liver regeneration–perhaps even the growth of artificial livers. We must find this out: it is fundamental biotechnical knowledge necessary to truly understand living things. Comprehending and mastering the liver’s ability to regenerate is another step along our road to apotheosis.
Halloween is approaching and, in the spirit of the season, I would like to present some great artworks of magnificent monsters from classical mythology (an exercise which should also help flesh out the deities of the underworld category). Leading up to October 31st I am going to highlight paintings of the different offspring of Echidna, the “mother of monsters,” whose brood cast a long, many-headed shadow over Greek mythology. But we come to an immediate problem: Echidna herself is under-represented in art (indeed her whole story is shrouded in uncertainty). Likewise, Typhon, Echidna’s husband and the “father of monsters,” is not as familiar to artists or poets as his dark progeny.
Echidna was an offspring of Ceto and Phorcys, primordial sea gods who ruled the ocean before the Olympian gods seized power. Possessing the body of a snake and the torso of a woman, Echidna was a fearsome creature in her own right. When Gaia, the great Earth mother, gave birth to her last and greatest child, the monstrous giant, Typhon, Echidna wed him and joined his rebellion against the Olympian Gods. This was a very bold romantic choice because Typhon was no Adonis. The giant has been described as being as tall as the stars with a hundred snakes in lieu of each arm. His legs were two enormous viper coils. His beard was a monstrous mop of ragged hair–which was presumably fire proof since flame flashed from his eyes. Typhon’s body was covered with wings and his voice was an unearthly combination of beast noises.
For a while it looked as though Tiphon would overthrow the Olympians: the great monster tore off Zeus’ muscles and kept them hidden in a cave. Only with the wily intervention of the trickster gods Pan and Hermes did Zeus recover his strength. In a final conflict of power, the King of the Gods hurled the mountain Etna upon Typhon, imprisoning the giant beneath the great mass. To this day the volcano heaves and belches flame. Echidna escaped (to rear her children sired by Typhon) and Zeus allowed her to do so in order that the monsters would provide a future challenge to heroes and demi-gods. The offspring she had are as follows:
- the Lernaean Hydra
- the Chimera (a fire breathing beast: part goat and part lion)
- the Caucasian eagle (who, every day, ate the regenerating liver of Prometheus)
- the Crommyonian Sow
- Colchian Dragon
- the Sphinx
- the Nemean Lion
- the Dragon Ladon
I think you will like the family pictures from this group!
In some stories Echidna preyed on mortals until finally the hundred eyed giant Argus put an end to her (I wish someone painted that fight!). In other tales she escaped to a lair deep beneath the earth where she bides her time, waiting to avenge her husband and her children. As a last peculiar note, that lovable and peaceful monotreme the echidna is named after her, not because of its ferocity, but because it was so strange and alarming to European taxonomists…
In Greek mythology, Argus Panoptes was a giant with a hundred eyes. He was a perfect guard because, even when some of his eyes drifted off to sleep, others would open up and continue his vigil. According to the poems of Apollodorus, Argus slew Echidna, the fearsome half-woman, half-snake, who gave birth to most of the monsters in the Greek pantheon (although more eminent writers have described Echidna as an eternal being). Whatever his status as a monster-slayer, Argus was singularly unfortunate in that he served Hera, whose henchmen always got bumped off horribly (like the villain’s dim-witted flunkies in a James Bond movie).
Argus’ end was singularly pathetic. Hera assigned him to guard a beautiful heifer. This comely cow was in reality Io, once a lovely priestess to Hera. Zeus had “fallen in love with” Io, but, just as the king of the gods had begun his courtship in earnest, the couple was accosted by Hera. To disguise what he was up to, Zeus transformed Io into a heifer (and himself into a cloud). Hera was not fooled and she tethered Io to a sacred olive tree in her grove and set Argus as a guard.
Guarding a cow was dull work for the giant. After a while, the trickster Hermes came into the grove. Hermes told long dull circular stories until Argus was completely enervated, then the messenger god pulled out his pipes and began to play a repetitive lullaby. One by one, Argus’ eyes were lulled to sleep by the magically soporific music. When Argus’ every eye was shut, Hermes murdered the sleeping shepherd with a rock and freed Io (from the tether, not from being a cow). Hera sent a gadfly to pursue the bovine Io, whose desperate attempt to escape the cruel insect took her eventually to Egypt and to other adventures.
Hera regretted losing Argus, however to make sure he was not forgotten, she set his eyes on the tail of her favorite bird, the peacock. Thus ends the tale of a hapless lackey, casually crushed by the capricious affairs of his betters. Even his end was bad–he was essentially bored to death. I can never help think of the poor giant on days at the office when there just isn’t enough coffee. Fortunately the peacocks and allied members of the pheasant family are spectacular. Beyond the familiar Indian peafowl, there is even an Argus pheasant (or “great argus”), whose color is less spectacular, but whose feather “eyes” are even more beautiful. Hopefully everyone out there, being lured to sleep (and crushed) by the stupid affairs of our superiors can take some comfort in this splendid fowl as well as in the peacock at the top of the post. For additional visual interest here is a very splendid painting by Jacopo Amigoni which shows Hermes helping Hera to pull the eyes from Argus’ dead head in order to set them in the peacock’s tail.