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Back during the glorious infancy of my blog I wrote a great deal about the demi-god Heracles (a.k.a. Hercules)–the greatest classical hero, who slew so many of the children of Echidna (and even grappled with Echidna herself).  For some reason, when I was growing up, I always had a mental picture of Heracles as a meat-head who solved every problem by means of brute strength; however, as an adult my perspective on the hero has changed greatly.  The craftiness with which Heracles faced problems like the Hydra and the journey to the underworld reveals that his cunning and his political guile became greater and greater as he ground on through his quests and labors towards godhood.  A big part of absolute power involves mastering craftiness…and manners. In fact the story of Heracles is really an epic quest to please a picky mother-in-law (but more about this later). At any rate, when his plans went awry, Heracles always had brute strength, but it often rebounded on him and was the source of his greatest problems as well as his greatest victories.

HeraklesSnakes

Which brings us all the way back around to Hercules’ first great exploit—which was purely of the brute strength variety.  Heracles was the son of Zeus and the beautiful shrewd mortal woman Alcmene (who had a magical pet weasel—but more about that another day).  Naturally Hera hated this rival and she chafed at the glorious prophecies of what the child of Alcmene would one day accomplish.  Hera tried to prevent the birth of Heracles by means of her subaltern, the goddess of childbirth.  When this failed, she resorted to brute force on her own right and she sent two mighty serpents to kill the baby in his crib.  Heracles grabbed one of the poisonous serpents in his right hand and the other in his left and throttled them to death with super strength. The first glimpse we get of Heracles is a majestic picture: an infant throttling two great snakes in his bare hands.  This image was sculpted and painted again and again throughout the history of western art.  It foreshadows Heracles’ difficult life, and his triumph, and his methodology.  Here is a little gallery of baby Heracles/Hercules throttling snakes:

baby Hercules

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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)

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

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