The greek myths



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When Aristotle in the Nichomachean Ethics outlines friendship in its various forms, he speaks of something which we often fail to identify, the friendship between unequals as contrasted to the friendship between equals. The working relationships which we have been discussing are all friendships between unequals, and although these sound unegalitarian to modern ears, their function may be more basic than friendships between equals. By admitting an inequality between two men, competition and edging for position are avoided. Societies which establish formalized ranking and pecking orders tend to be more peaceful than those in which each must fight for his own place in the sun. When a poster is put up in a factory announcing that "The Boss may not always be right, but he is the Boss", or when Japanese businessmen bow automatically to superiors in the organization as they pass in the hall, inequality is tacitly stated while harmony is strengthened. Strongly individualistic persons find this hard to accept, but we must remember that the development of mega-civilizations has never been a friend to the individual as individual, but only as a small part of the social mega-structure. Social relations between one generation and the next, between the young and the older generation, or between fathers and sons, is strained in Greek mythology, often to a point near murder, or to murder.
Paris, the son of Priam and seducer of Helen, was exposed as a child to die in the woods, because of a prophecy that he would destroy the city of Troy. Brought up by shepherds, he did in an indirect manner cause the fall of Troy as the result of his affaire with Helen. It is interesting to note that Paris has the same start in life as Oedipous, each is exposed to die because of a threatening oracle, but each lives, and causes some major social cataclysm. Fathers and sons seem to have a strange tension in ancient Greece, which often results in murder. The death of Odysseus is a case in point: Telegonos (the name is revealing, "he who is born far away") is his son by Circe, he has come to Ithaca to present himself to his father, and kills him by sheer error. The improbability of the story is less important than the fact that a son kills his father, which has coherent social meaning, since it is a regular theme in Greek mythology. The locus classicus for this kind of familial tension is found in the angry dialogue between Admetus and his father in the Alcestis of Euripides, which involves not only the logical arguments about who should, or should not die for whom, but also the brutal hostility of a son to his begetter. The audience must have been shocked and at the same time entranced by seeing acted out this double-sided argument in which now the son, and now the father, seems to have justice on his side.
This was no radically new idea, just a new recreation on the stage of a very old story which the Greeks had heard in the myths many times before. Kings do not ordinarily expose their children unless there is a special reason (for example the curse on Laius' house for kidnapping) and only then would exposure of his son seem a way of expiating guilt by lex talionis. Behind this action lies the socially approved pattern of death by exposure, since it does not incur blood guilt as,in effect, no blood is shed. (Perhaps this is conceived as similar to our legal categories of causation of death, which can be seen as homicide, second degree murder or first degree murder. If Greek ideas of what was acceptable causation of death seem forced to us, think how utterly inexplicable our legal classifications of violent death would have been to them.) In summary, Laius expiates child-stealing by sacrificing his own child, but he cannot do this in a self-incriminatory way, so he chooses the socially acceptable mode in exposing the infant, which does not incur blood-guilt.
From the very beginning of his identity some million or more years ago, Man was clearly a social animal, his hunting habits, his system of protection for the group, and his provisions for rearing the young were highly social, and without this trait he would not have survived. But in the smaller group of family, extended family, or tribe, social behavior is clearer and more understandable than when the social group begins to involve men and women in the thousands and the tens of thousands. These larger numbers appear for the first time, so far as our information goes, in a relatively recent period, starting some twelve thousand years ago, and it is only from that time that we can date what we pridefully call "civilization". But if civilization has its rewards, it also has its difficulties, the first of which is the submerging of the individual's will in the will of the group. This is still a problem which is by no means ironed out in our twentieth century, so we can imagine how difficult adjustment to such new sets of standards must have been when they first appeared.
It is the thesis of this study that the Greek myths document, although often in a somewhat cloaked manner, the early confrontations of "heroes" with societies. The heroes are still the only imaginable worthies which the society can think of appreciating, they stand out as admirable figures in Greek mythology. But they all have a fatal flaw of some kind, and what is more revealing, they all meet a tragic doom and end their lives in despair or violent death. This key, which has generally been overlooked, marks the difficulty of adapting to new social environments, especially when the hero is trained and tested in the old ways which date from an earlier, pre-mega-social stage of development. The fact that the myths are able to combine praise for great heroism, while at the same time chronicling the heroes' tragedies, points to their basic seriousness and truthfulness.

Chapter 2:


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Godesses Women and Sex.
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When man was first emerging from the last Ice Age, human population was small, and the first imperative surely was to produce progeny. Since life was short, life expectancy probably being no more than forty years, and since half the children born probably died before the age of three, the matter of producing young was by necessity primary business for the societies which were going to survive. We often say that the distinguishing mark of humans is the ability to use tools, and toolmaking is certainly for archaeologists a characteristic sign of human activity. But it is the dynamic rise of population which marks the difference between Man the hunter-gatherer and his descendant, Man the agriculturalist and animal breeder. When increasing numbers of men and women can no long find food, they have to learn to raise it, and this in turn calls for numbers of workers to provide the complex duties of the farmer.
Greece's problems with population are similar to the problems faced by any newly developing society. As late as the nineteenth century, America which still was facing the challenge of "new land", with all the problems of civilization compressed into a single century, large families were a necessity. If a woman could give birth to thirteen children in her childbearing years, if eight could survive, and if four were male, then a man could look forward to having a workforce sufficient to farm a small acreage. By breeding one's own workers, one made survival possible, and family farms without progeny simply failed. Possibly the only exception to this was the energetic group called the Shakers, who excluded sex but practiced adoption into their society, finally succumbing to obsolescence by attrition in an age when other lucrative forms of employment appeared. Love, sex and procreation are, in that order, the primary tools of rising humanity, and anything that can be done to foster sexuality will profit humanity so long as population is scarce.
Aphrodite has come down to us from antiquity as a larger than life, rather Rubensesque lady sculpted in stone, a symbol of universal charm and grace, but having a reputation in poetry for light-headed and flirtatious sexuality. In the Classical world she was all this, but at an earlier time she must have had an entirely different role and function. The primitive deity Aphrodite, whose traces go back to a time long before the Greek society was formed, is a figure of primary importance.
Aphrodite's central role, although she is the queen of charm and physical loveliness, is basically sexual. Although sex is usually thought of as pleasure, it is the only pleasure which leads directly to procreation, which is a matter of high priority to developing peoples. After the last ice-retreat, the development of grain hybrids not only made greater population feasible, but in turn required greater population for sowing, reaping, hoarding and protecting the supplies of grain. At this stage Aphrodite becomes a major deity, since she represents the magical function of procreation, which we now formalize under the name of genetics.
It may seem strange that in Homer and the later tradition Aphrodite is married to Hephaistos, the smith and tool maker, whom Homer displays in a somewhat pathetic and at the same time comical manner. However, if we add to Aphrodite's procreative abilities, the equipment which a metal worker can provide, whether he is a Neolithic, early Bronze age or Iron Age craftsman, we have two of the basic ingredients for civilizations: Progeny and Tools. In the passage of time this changes, the maker of tools becomes a subsidiary of a new man of power, the military man who discovers that the easiest way to increase your GNP is to wage war against someone who has what you need and take it away from him.. Stealing is the first stage of economic transfer, buying is more sophisticated and appears much later.
As soon as Hephaistos is secure in Ares' back pocket, Ares assumes Hephaistos' previous role with military arms and of course with Hephaistos' wife, who is forever attractive and always socially useful. The new pair standing at the head of advancing civilization is now Aphrodite and Ares, which is precisely what Homer shows in the Iliad. Ares seduces Aphrodite, and Hephaistos is pretty much out of the picture except as a Chaplinesque figure contributing minor comic relief.
This scenario is repeated throughout history, we can still point to the military in modern Western countries as master of power and contractor-owner of the engineering talents of the modern Hephaistos. In the eyes of the last generation in America, Douglas MacArthur is as much a symbol of power in our society, as Marilyn Monroe is an embodiment of the eternal allure of Love. Put in a prehistoric context, there must have once been a time at which the smith-toolmaker was accorded the same respect as the Goddess of Love who made population possible, but this must antedate the appearance of the military. Since we know of military force as early as the 6th millennium B.C., we should date the Aphrodite/Hephaistos dyad back somewhere towards the 8th millennium, which allows just enough time for the important developments in agriculture which follow the last ice age.
The portrayal of Aphrodite in sculpture is so familiar to our eyes, both in the original work and in the multitudinous Roman and Modern copies, that we often fail to notice some important aspects of the goddess' representation. Restricting ourselves to Greek originals, we discern a strange uneasiness in Aphrodite's stance, her arms and legs seem to be going in opposite directions, although this is cloaked by garments and not immediately apparent. One arm gestures to cover her breasts, while the other vaguely hovers over her groin, so she may be seen to be rather ineffectually defending her sexuality. Her facial features are calm and impassive, neither agonized, nor as ecstatic as we might expect a goddess of sex to be. Yet she is, according to the Greek notion of her role, sexually enticing. A survey of Greek sculpture shows this attitude toward her in the sculptural representation to be conventional; there are no moments either of desperation or of orgasmic ecstasy, which emotions are not found in her any more than in Greek women, with the exception of the short-term female ecstasy which the cult of Dionysos provides.
Compare this with Indic religious art, which depicts female deities with enticing body and enraptured facial expression. The difference is that at some point India made its peace with sex, incorporating it into the flow of religious thought, or even raising it to special levels of respectability because of its involuntary and ecstatic nature. The way in which Greek sculpture portrays the goddess of Love says important things about the way Greek men envisioned sexually desirable women. The half-ashamed, half hiding, partly covered but partly naked posture of an attractive female must have been pleasing and sexually exciting to men, especially if the face were impassive, calm, willing and (above all) not competitive. Consider the parallel in modern Oriental countries, where women are expected to be charming, modestly suggestive, indulging in socially approved smiles accompanied by light laughter with hand over mouth, always available but never sexually challenging. In the past forty years a new type of woman has emerged in the Orient, she is as well educated and intelligent as any man, and she values her new identity, but faced with this "new" woman, many Oriental men find themselves ill at ease, and may even be sexually affronted. Greeks had the same problem, and fled to 'hetairai' for sexual expression, much as modern Oriental men tend to do. Wives are selected on a different basis, since family and society must approve of them. From a careful study of the sculpture of the goddess Aphrodite, an important and revealing chapter on sexuality of the ancient Greek male can be written.
The role of female sexual behavior and orgasm in ancient Greece needs elucidation. In one of Lucian's sketches of people and personalities, admittedly material taken from a much later period, a pair of Lesbian girls is portrayed in the sexual act. What seems most surprising to Lucian is that the more active (masculine) Lesbian is puffing and breathing heavily,(Gr.. 'asthmainei'...he says), in fact just like a man. If more evidence of this kind can be found, it may suggest that female orgasm was rare, and what is worse, socially unacceptable. Certain African groups still surgically remove the clitoris, presumably with the same aim of orienting sex solely toward the male. As the century ends, public attention has been drawn to this insane mayhem, and many groups are actively trying to get change instituted for the coming generations. It is estimated that some hundred millions of women have been mutilated, and the seeds of this practice are deeply rooted in the minds of African males. But traditional curltural and quasi-religious practices are the hardest to reason with and change.
Many men in our own time still fear a woman who is in all ways an equal, and high fashion cover girl portraiture often shows a girl whose eyes are frozen in a scared stare, which apparently is also taken as a look of sexual enticement. This must be oriented specifically toward the male who it excited by the image of a beautiful but scared woman, and may be parallel to the passive and empty look on Aphrodite's face.
Niobe is the daughter of Tantalos, she suffers in Hades for some impropriety related her children. Having seven sons and seven daughters, she boasted so much of her children and their number, that Apollo and Artemis, the two children of Leto by Zeus, took offense, killed her children and turned her, weeping incessantly, into a tear-dripping column of stone. This is a story which reflects the tendency towards overpopulation which a reckless cult of Aphrodite produces, Since early historical times, Greece was plagued by overpopulation in a small land area, much in the manner of Japan past and present. Having a dozen or more children has been the pattern of many cultures over the centuries, since children were basically desirable, since people felt that population should increase, and since infant mortality removed more than half of the progeny. With her fourteen children, Niobe represented the old way, whereas Apollo and his one sister Artemis point to zero population increase.
The number seven, especially when repeated, is magical. A striking example of its use is seen in the passage in the Aeneid in which Juno bribes Aeolus with "twice-seven fair nymphs". Solon says that there are seven-year units which mark out the periods of a man's life., and the title Pleiad was the name used in the time of Ptolemy II for the seven most distinguished tragic poets We also note the symmetry of the generations by sevens at the beginning of Matthew's gospel, which in the third group leads inexorably to Jesus.. In constructing polygons with simple classical tools (the straight-edge and compass), the first really difficult construction is the pentagon (a magic form often associated with the Devil), the construction of which the mathematical Arabs understood. But constructing the heptagon is far more difficult, for the Greeks an impossible problem, hence seven is still an unimaginable, and magical number. Niobe's number had doubly unfortunate associations!
The still weeping column of stone which was once Niobe calls to mind Lot's wife and the act of looking back,. as well as the Gorgon's' snaky gaze which "petrified" men, but it may also reflect knowledge of deposits of salty limestone, worn away by wind and water so as to leave a column standing alone in the desert. Tasting the surface, one would taste the "salt of tears". The similarity of this columnar shape to one of the early Greek stone female figures of the Archaic Period could easily reinforce the female origin. In a sense, such stories are a world away from the Indic myth of Indra and the Ants, which have figurative, moral and philosophical meaning clearly injected into the story line, and that may be one of the distinguishing characteristics of the Greek myths: They are stories drawn from experience and history, which have not been worked over and reformed in the light of a consolidated religious system. This may seem to be a weakness, but as documents illustrating the rise of early civilization, in this lies their real strength and interest.
There are so many interpretations of the myth of Oedipous, that the central problem of inbreeding is often ignored. The fact that Oedipous did inbreed incestuously is probably less important than the possibility that he himself was the result of intensive inbreeding, as is evidenced by his genetically, if not paralytically maimed clubfeet, and possibly his defective eyesight. (These matters will be taken up in the chapter which concern itself with medicine and medical problems.) Alongside of the cult of Aphrodite the producer of men, stands a set of tabus which come from the careful observance of the background of many genetically defective children. The original layer of the story of King Oedipous refers to such tabu, although the later Greek treatment in the drama is focused entirely on bad fate and unlucky chance, since incest as a problem had already been convincingly dealt with in Greek society.
One important fact about Helen which often escapes notice is the manner of her marriage to Menelaus. Wooed by many because of her beauty, she was accorded, by Odysseus' intervention, the opportunity of making her own marital choice, which united her with Menelaus. As Odysseus represents the prototype of the new man, a trader, a practical and realistic dealer with all odds, it is interesting that it is he who proposes for Helen this new and novel way of marrying, by the woman's choice. This would be condemned by traditional public opinion as immoral, permit a woman to choose one man, and she will soon have it in her head to choose another, married or not (say the conservatives), and so goes the story of Paris and Troy and the war. The Trojan War may be a war over trade routes to the Black Sea, but it is also a war over a new and dangerous role for womens' choice which apparently had been tried at Mycene or somewhere else once upon a time. Moreover property goes with persons by ancient tradition, so when a person disappears, what is the legal status of the property?
The deity (Pallas) Athene, familiar as she is, is strangely puzzling. Nothing is known about the name "Pallas". Athene shows the ending '-ene,' which is apparently Mycenean in origin, and often is used for goddesses, some of whom (like Helene) are also queens. She was described as the daughter of Zeus and Metis (this name is actually the common word for "plan, intelligence"), whom Zeus swallowed fearing that she might produce offspring more powerful and wise than himself. Athene sprang from the head of Zeus, the seat of the intelligence (like Metis), which was split open by either Prometheus or Hephaistos. Hephaistos, the smith and metal worker, is always associated with fire, as is Prometheus, not only in the story told by Aeschylos about stealing fire for mortals, but in light of the exact verbal correspondence of his name with the Pramanthas family, a Vedic Indian family of fire worshipping priests in the service of the fire deity Agni (cf. Latin ignis). Since Zeus was originally a sun-god, as was Dyaus his linguistic counterpart in Vedic mythology, the splitting open of Zeus' head with fire is interesting. Recall also that Zeus' aides were the Cyclops, who were recognized by the ancients as volcanoes or volcanic spirits, again establishing a connection with fire. [Were linguistics less unforgiving, one might be tempted to try to connect Ath-ene with the verb 'aith-' " to flame, burn".]
There is a tradition that the often used epithet of Athene, 'glauk-opis'. which is generally taken as "gray eyed", may actually refer to blue eye pigment, and Pausanias mentions seeing a statue of the goddess with blue eyes. Genetically blue-eyedness goes with blond hair color, so that even the Latin word 'flavus" "blond" is linguistically connectable with English 'blue" and the other Germanic cognates. One might consider the possibility of Athene being blue eyed and blond haired. That the daughter of the sun-sky god should be blond, or have hair of the color of bright fire, would seem natural, although that trait has disappeared in the later tradition. Sun-fire as the common ground between Zeus and Athene and also Prometheus and Hephaistos is certainly possible, and may produce further light.
The myth of Attis, although set in Asia Minor, repeats the pattern of the vegetative cycles that we saw in the story of Adonis. His mother conceived him while gathering almond blossoms from a tree which contained the blood of Agdistis, a female Phrygian deity more commonly known as Cybele (or Cybebe) the Great Earth Mother. Cybele loved Attis, opposed his seeking a mate, and drove him mad enough to castrate himself, upon which he died. By Zeus' intervention his life-force passed into the pine tree, while his blood grew into violets. The connection of Attis, who like Adonis is a handsome young man beloved of a goddess, with plant life is clear.-
Hippolytos, the son of the great hero Theseus, a hunter and a man of immaculate purity of life and mind, and totally devoted to his huntress lady Artemis, is approached sexually by Phaedra, the daughter of the Cretan king Minos and wife of Theseus. Rejected,she hangs herself, at the same time denouncing Hippolytos as her seducer. Comparing the sexually violent fate of another Cretan lady, Pasiphae, one might almost think that the breeding of bulls, which was well developed in Crete, might lead to people eating unaccustomed amounts of animal protein, with distressing results. The role of diet in national culture is well established, but and it may enter, if only symbolically, into stories of personal history. Here we have another young man who is a hunter, being killed, but unlike the others we have been dealing with, he is involved in a personal set of circumstances which indirectly violate his faith with his chaste lady goddess, Artemis. Even being suspect of sex and seduction condemns him to death. Perhaps we are reading in this story some ancient legend which marks the hunter as one who must be perfectly single-minded, in other words socially uncommitted and neutral, since only in such a state of mind will he be able to have the sensitivity and all-around-awareness which the master hunter requires. Other societies at early stages have special requirements for the hunter, on whose supersensitive perceptive powers the life of the whole community depends. Once we can control animals by breeding and slaughtering them in captivity, and can sow vegetation to supplement or replace animal protein, we no longer have a need for the highly developed mental concentration and purity of the hunter, whose death is staged in the myths in a convenient, accidental manner. Modern TV directors do this with an actor they no longer need, they write him out of the script. A chariot accident writes Hippolytos out of the script circumstantially, but conveniently, and with obvious intent.



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