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Fallen Angels in Hell (John Martin, ca. 1841, oil on canvas)

Fallen Angels in Hell (John Martin, ca. 1841, oil on canvas)

In the Greco-Roman cosmology, the underworld was a fearsome place not just for mortals, but for the gods themselves. For one thing, only a handful of deities had full freedom of passage to the realm of the dead. Hades reigned there and could come and go as he pleased (though, like a grumpy rich man, he seldom left his dark palace). Persephone’s annual journey to Hades and back defined the seasons. Mysterious Hecate, the goddess of magic and thresholds could go anywhere at all, as could Hermes, the fleet-footed messenger of the gods (and the psychopomp who guided departed spirits to the final door). Nyx, alien goddess of primordial night, existed before the underworld…or anything else…and will exist long after. Although his retirement palace was in Tartaras, the deposed king of the gods Cronus/Saturn seems to have been free to roam the firmament. The Erinyes, spirits of furious retribution could temporarily leave the underworld only in order to goad their charges there…and that is about the full list. There were a lot of deities imprisoned in the underworld and there were lesser deities who worked there…but they were permanently stuck. Feasibly the Olympians, the most powerful gods who ruled heaven, the seas, and earth, could enter the underworld and leave again, but they never deigned to do so. Gaia had the underworld within herself, so she stands beyond the paradigm (and perhaps the abstruse children of Nyx do too…but they were tangential to classical myth).

There is of course an important exception. One Olympian god was the child of a mortal mother. Because of this human origin, and due also to his fundamental gifts and nature, he took the heroes’ journey and went down into the realm of the dead. Here is the myth. I have hesitated to tell it before for personal reasons: this god is one of my two favorite Greek gods but he is also my least favorite—the rewards, delights, and downfalls of worshiping him are all too evident!

Anyway…

Jove and Semele (Sebastiano Ricci, 1695, oil on canvas)

Jove and Semele (Sebastiano Ricci, 1695, oil on canvas)

Semele was a beautiful princess. From heaven Zeus spied her beauty: he courted her and won her heart (without using subterfuge or force), but, unfortunately, his lack of guile allowed jealous Hera to easily discover the affair. The angry queen assumed the guise of an ancient crone and paid a visit on the lovely young princess. The crone flattered the princess and fussed over her whims until Semele was convinced the old woman was a dear friend. Then Hera asked who the father of Semele’s unborn child was (for the princess was just beginning to show her pregnancy).

“The father is none other than mighty Zeus, king of all the gods,” announced the princess.

“Eh, I wonder…” replied the old woman. “All sorts of scoundrels have grandiose pretensions and men will tell any blasphemous lie to seduce a beautiful princess. Zeus? King of all the gods? What nonsense. Back when I was young and beautiful, I used to have a no-good man who told me the same thing. If he really is Zeus, why doesn’t he show himself to you in his full splendor.”

Doubt grew in Semele’s heart. Who was her handsome lover, really? When next he was in her arms, she resolved to find out. Using all of her beauty and wiles she cajoled Zeus and beguiled him and convinced him to promise her a boon. She even made him swear on the River Styx–a sacred oath, binding even upon the gods.

The Death of Semele (Peter Paul Rubens ca. 1640, oil on canvas)

The Death of Semele (Peter Paul Rubens ca. 1640, oil on canvas)

“If you are Zeus, show yourself to me in all of your divine splendor!” she demanded. Zeus equivocated and explained. Finally he outright begged to be free of his promise, but Semele was adamant: he had sworn an unbreakable oath. Sadly Zeus selected his smallest thunderbolt and gathered his most quickly passing squall. For an instant only, the sky father revealed himself as a force of nature with all the power and glory of the heavens, but an instant of such revelation was too much. Semele was burned away and only a pile of ash remained…and a pre-term baby. In horror and sorrow, Zeus grabbed up the little fetus. He hacked a hole in his “thigh” and sewed the tiny demigod into his own body (online classicists have informed me that “thigh” is a euphemism which decorous 19th century myth writers used for gonads). Then he set off for Nysa, a valley at the secluded edge of the world. The king of the gods knew exactly who was responsible for Semele’s death, and he wanted his son to grow up free from Hera’s wrath.

Maenads dance along the rim of a fifth century Greek Drinking Vessel

Maenads dance along the rim of a fifth century Greek Drinking Vessel

When Zeus reached Nysa, he gave birth to Dionysus directly from his “thigh.” Zeus then gave the beautiful infant to the wild nymphs of Nysa–the maenads–to raise. The maenads brought the child up with their own intuition, wildness, and delirium. Leopards and tigers were his playmates. At the eastern edge of the world strange indecipherable noises could sometimes be heard. Grapes grew there too in superabundance, and the child demigod realized how to make them into sweet intoxicating wine. He grew into an inhumanly beautiful adolescent. Then he clad himself in glorious purple robes and began to make his way through the world towards civilization (which, coincidently for this Greek myth, was Greece).

Bacchus and Tiger Quadriga mosaic in Tunisia(Roman Mosaic, circa 3rd century, tile)

Bacchus and Tiger Quadriga mosaic in Tunisia(Roman Mosaic, circa 3rd century, tile)

Everywhere Dionysus went he brought the secret of wine making. Sometimes he rode in a leopard drawn chariot with throngs of naked maenads running before him wildly singing his glory. Other times he revealed his divine nature to humankind differently—more subtly…or more strangely! But the ecstasy, beauty, and power of his gifts of inebriation always became readily apparent. Dionysus grew into the god of art, fertility, drama, and creation, but there is delirium, madness, anti-creation, and an orphan’s violent sadness to him as well.

Bacchus and the Choir of Nymphs (John Reinhard Weguelin, 1888, oil on canvas)

Bacchus and the Choir of Nymphs (John Reinhard Weguelin, 1888, oil on canvas)

In his wild youth as a demigod in the mortal world, Dionysus had many adventures (in fact, we’ll circle back to some of these stories in later posts). Although he was powerful, he was youthful, delicate, graceful, and kind. Clad in purple robes, half-human & half-divine, asking us to drink his wine of revelation…he seems terribly familiar. At the end of his pilgrimage through Greece he came to Olympus and he effortlessly ascended up it to join his father among the other gods. His divinity was obvious to all. Hestia stood up from her throne and offered it to her nephew and went over to take a place at the hearth. Hera gritted her teeth and plotted how to win other battles. Zeus beamed and asked his son if there was anything he wanted as a gift on the special occasion of his apotheosis.

The Triumph of Bacchus (Nicholas Poussin, 1636, oil on canvas)

The Triumph of Bacchus (Nicholas Poussin, 1636, oil on canvas)

For all of his wild delirium, Dionysus was a kind god…and an orphan. He plaintively asked his father if he could see his mother. Zeus readily assented…and then some. He told Dionysus to go get his mother and to bring her back to Olympus. And so it was. Dionysus went to the underworld and took his mother’s spirit away from ignominious death up to the glory of the heavens. The underworld part of this story is an afterthought—a tiny grace note at the very end. However it is worth remembering that Dionysus’ story runs through the world and the underworld. Drink and delirium are also keys to the realm of the dead, as any tragedian or hardened boozer could readily tell you.

Sarcophagus with the Triumph of Dionysos and the Seasons (Roman ca. AD 260–270. Marble)

Sarcophagus with the Triumph of Dionysos and the Seasons (Roman ca. AD 260–270. Marble)

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).

Ariadne (John William Waterhouse, 1898, oil on canvas)

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).

Bacchus and Ariadne (Roman sarcophagus ca. 170-180 BC)

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.

Bacchus and Ariadne (Titian, 1523–24, oil on canvas)

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.

Madonna in Glory (Carlo Dolci, 1670, Oil on canvas)

Cista Mystica from a marble funerary altar of the Flavian period (69-96 CE)

Our lives are filled with Greco-Roman symbols and memes which have lasted for thousands of years: Cupids, cornucopias, the bowl of Hygeia, the staff of Asclepius, Justice with her scales, the gorgonian, Mercury’s feet, the centurion’s helmet, the Aegis, the victor’s wreath, the quincunx, Athena’s owl, the lyre, the comic/tragic masks–they all have immediate meanings for us.  Thus it comes as a surprise to look at actual classical art and see how many ancient Mediterranean motifs have not survived at all, but have become baffling to everyone except for classical scholars.  We now scratch our heads when we realize how many ancient coins and sculptures bear the modius (a grain basket symbolic of the underworld), the lituus (a ritual wand which betokened augury), or the cista mystica—which is the subject of today’s post.

 

Roman coin showing cista mystica

A cista was a little basket/casket which was used to store toiletries, jewels, or other small personal effects.  A cista mystica (literally “secret casket”) was a sacred object of the mystery cults which (seems to have) contained a living serpent.  The cista mystica was known to be sacred to Bacchus, but similar cult objects were probably also affiliated with Isis (and the perhaps with the Ophites, a Gnostic worship sect). In the Bacchic mysteries the serpent was carried on a bed of grape leaves and was a stand in for the god.  The characteristic form of the serpent was an important component of the symbolism and classical sources note it shares its shape with “the forms of men” (which is to say that it directly betokened virility and male fertility).

 

Frescos from a Roman villa (50-40 BC) showing objects associated with the cult of Bacchus

The Roman mind sometimes was surprisingly literal and several preeminent men were rumored to have been fathered by gods in serpent form. Olympias mother of Alexander the Great was allegedly found sleeping next to a snake before giving birth to Alexander and Phillip of Macedon was said to shun her bed afterwards (Renaissance artists enjoyed painting this episode, but I’ll leave it to you to google the paintings and drawings).  It should also be noted that the marriage of Phillip and Olympias was infamously volatile thanks to Phillip’s propensity to take other wives (and everything else).  Augustus, the first Roman emperor, was also allegedly the son of a snake and it was said that his mother always bore the mark of the serpent’s embrace after his birth.  Any Roman seeing the cista mystica on the coin of the realm would understand the message–not only were serpents fertility symbols which betokened otherworldly wisdom, but they were also proxies of divine mystery and Roman ascendance.

…they say that Bacchus discovered honey.
He was travelling from sandy Hebrus, accompanied
By Satyrs, (my tale contains a not-unpleasant jest)
And he’d come to Mount Rhodope, and flowering Pangaeus:
With the cymbals clashing in his companions’ hands.
Behold unknown winged things gather to the jangling,
Bees, that follow after the echoing bronze.
Liber gathered the swarm and shut it in a hollow tree,
And was rewarded with the prize of discovering honey.
Once the Satyrs, and old bald-headed Silenus, had tasted it,
They searched for the yellow combs in every tree.
(Excerpt from “The Fasti” by Publius Ovidius Naso, known as Ovid)

As you have probably apprehended, there is a theme to my posts this week about the ambiguous line between the wild and the domestic–a tension which forever pulses within all human thought and endeavor.  Humans are animals. We came from nature and can never ever leave it.  We continuously long for the natural world in our aesthetic and moral tastes—our very idea of paradise is a garden of plants and animals.  Yet the social and technological forms humans create often seem entirely at odds with the natural world.  Our fishing fleets destroy the life within the oceans as they provide us with the wild fish we long for.  Our cities poison and strangle the beautiful estuaries where we build them. As our hands reach toward the divine and the celestial, our feet break apart the earth we sprang from.

The Discovery of Honey bu Bacchus (Piero de Cosimo, ca. 1499, oil on panel)

I’ll write further about that point (indeed I don’t believe I have ever left off examining it), but for right now I would like to discuss The Discovery of Honey by Bacchus, a painting which symbolically explores the juxtaposition between wild and domestic. The work was created by that consummate oddball visionary, Piero de Cosimo, who disliked wielding fire and refused to clip the trees in his orchard because he felt that doing so contravened the will of nature.  Vasari relates that de Cosimo would sometimes abandon himself to the wilderness and was more beast than man (also the artist seems to have suffered from emotional illness). Yet, within this painting de Cosimo presents that moment when bees were first gathered from the wild and kept for the purpose of honey production.  It was a step away from an imagined era of wildness towards an agricultural era when sweetness and plenty became available to all.

In The Discovery of Honey, a group of satyrs have found a hive of bees swarming within a strangely human stump. Together with Silenus, a bumptious fertility god, they are beating eccentric implements to gather the swarm so it can be collected. On the right side of the painting Bacchus and his coterie stand amidst forests and ravines beneath a glowering monadnock. A satyr carries a woman away into the wild while savage beast-men tear apart a carcass and climb off into the trees. On the left side of the painting, people and fauns bearing iron and pottery march towards the stump from a surprisingly sophisticated town with an elegant campanile.  In the center the bees swarm into a knot as a human-hybrid child pops out of the yonic rift within the torso shaped stump.

The Discovery of Honey by Bacchus (Detail)

What is going on here?  This painting has remained an enigma to scholars since its creation.  Many critics have opined that the right side of the work represents wilderness and the works of the gods while the right side represents society and the works of humans.  Wilderness and civilization meet at the point where the bees are captured and honey is discovered. This interpretation is undercut by the half-human status of the characters on both sides.  Another interpretation holds that the painting represents the symbolic discovery of fertility—metaphorically represented by honey.  The painting’s composition certainly supports this concept: the nursing faun, the baby satyr in the center of the painting, and the satyr spontaneously offering onions (a fertility offering of Greco-Roman society) are all fertility symbols, as our numerous other more overt figures within the painting!

The Discovery of Honey by Bacchus (detail)

Both of those interpretations are right, but there is more to the painting than that.  The Discovery of Honey by Bacchus represents de Cosimo’s homage to the animal spirit within humankind.  Artists paint themselves–and most of the characters in this work are part animal!  Such is our dichotomy. We are animals exploiting other animals and yet we have too a touch of the divine–Bacchus and the wild Arcadian gods are taking part. The urge to capture and recreate wild organisms is part of human nature.  We may have domesticated bees (along with grains, cattle, turkeys, pistachios, and catfish) but we ourselves are not fully domesticated.  The church, the nobles, the city—they never fully civilized Piero de Cosimo, crazy Renaissance artist, who was at his best—his most divine–when living as a beast.  As you watch the diners walking through a strip mall eating honey-glazed turkey sandwiches it may be hard to recognize the same faun-like aspect to them, but look closely in a mirror and you will see another wild beast-person–undomesticated, troubled, rudely great…

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