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Infancy of Jupiter (Giorgio Vasari, 1555-1556)

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 Infant Jupiter Fed by the Goat Amalthea (Jacob Jordaens, 1630-35)

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).

Zeus Wielding his Goatskin Aegis and a Lightning Bolt

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.

A Goatskin

Lupercalia painted by Domenico Beccafumi

It’s St. Valentine’s Day and many newspapers are filled with complaints about how the occasion is a made-up “Hallmark” holiday.  Valentine’s Day is indeed made up (rather like all holidays) but it wasn’t made up recently and its pedigree stretches back before Hallmark Cards…or English…or Christianity.

The holiday we now celebrate as St. Valentine’s Day is rooted in the ancient Roman festival of Lupercalia–one of the most important festivals of the Roman year after Saturnalia.  Lupercalia was a fertility festival which celebrated the coming rebirth of the year in spring.  The day was partly in celebration of Lupa, the mythical quasi-divine she-wolf who nurtured Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome.   But it was more actually in celebration of Faunus, the Roman equivalent of the Greek god Pan.  The festival was overseen by the Luperci, priests of the sacred cave where Romulus and Remus were said to have been nursed.  The Luperci sacrificed two goats and a dog (the flamen dialis) to the gods of the grotto.  After a feast, the priests flayed the animals into long bloody strips. Then, clad in goatskins (or, more traditionally, in nothing), the young men among the luperci would dash about the city lashing young women with the bloody strips of skin.  This custom was believed to bring fertility and to prevent pain and difficulty during pregnancy and birth.

The most dramatic part of the holiday is described online at stvalentinesday.org:

Another unique custom of Feast of Lupercalia was the pairing of young boys and girls who otherwise lived a strictly separated lives. During the evening, all the young marriageable girls used to place a chit of their name in a big urn. Each young man used to draw out a name of a girl from the urn and became paired with that girl for the rest of the year. Quite often, the paired couple would fall in love and marry.

So Valentine’s Day has a very ancient tradition of matchmaking and romance–but with an entirely Roman nature which would make eharmony blush.

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