Gaia Kourotrophos (Earth nourisher of children). Image from Roscher, Ausfürliches Lexikon der Griechischen und Römischen Mythologie, 1884. The aconite, in the inset photo above, which I took in my garden, is the first flower to come out of the earth in spring, even before the crocuses. Sometimes it gets covered by a late snow, but it always bounces back. The bees love it.
How the universe began
It all begins with Chaos, Earth, and Love. Our Quotation of the Month for April is taken from Hesiod's Theogony, his epic on how the universe came to be. The Theogony (ca. 750 B.C.) can be described in shorthand form as the genealogy of the gods, but it is more than that. It is a dizzying carousel of stories of gods, goddesses, nymphs, monsters, storms, winds, and bizarre phenomena, and their descent from and battles with each other.
Hesiod took his tales from many sources — previous epics, ritual cults sacred to local features like mountains and springs, old stories — and strung them together to make a coherent narrative. The Succession Myth, of successive generations of monarchs (in this case gods: Ouranos (Heaven), Cronos, Zeus) deposing each other has parallels in other Near Eastern mythologies — Phoenician, Hurrian, Babylonian, Hittite. Sometimes, it was surmised by M.L. West in his edition of the Theogony, Hesiod (or some predecessor) simply used his own imagination to make up names to fill out his lists of nymphs and multiplicities of Muses, Cyclopes, Hours, sea goddesses, and the like. He weaves in an array of stories, like the story of the first woman, who brought nothing but trouble. He used this story again in his Works and Days, where he gives her the familiar name: Pandora.
Chaos, Earth, and Love
First came Chaos, then Earth, then Tartarus, and Eros. There is much speculation about the word "Chaos." We moderns are tempted to see in this the Big Bang and the swirling dust that coalesced into stars and planets, but we can't be sure how Hesiod conceived it. Was it simply the Yawning Gap, a great chasm, or some murky dark substance? We can't be sure. Next came Gaia, the Earth, supporter of all life and Tartarus, the nether world, hidden in the dark places of Earth. Then Eros, or Love, "most beautiful of the gods, who makes men weak-kneed and makes them lose their minds and judgment."
Earth herself gave birth to Ouranos (Heaven), by whom she bore many gods and a few monsters, including the one-eyed Cyclopes. Ouranos had a bad habit of stuffing all his children back into Earth, who groaned in pain. Finally her son Cronos took a sickle and cut off his father's private parts and threw them into the sea, separating Heaven and Earth. Around the severed genitalia the white foam spread. It was from this sea foam that Aphrodite, goddess of desire and fertility, was born.
The generations continue
Cronos, married to Rhea, was the father of many well-known gods, including Zeus, Hera, Demeter, Hades, and Poseidon. But Cronos, too, had a bad habit, of swallowing all his children, lest one of them depose him. So when Zeus, the youngest, was born, he was hidden in a cave, while Cronos was given a stone wrapped in swaddling clothes, which Cronos swallowed. He threw up the stone, then vomited up all the children he had swallowed, and Zeus indeed became king of the gods.
Zeus' first wife (before Hera) was Mêtis ("Good Counsel"). Metis became pregnant with Athena, but Zeus was told that Metis' next child would be a son who would depose him, so he stuffed pregnant Metis into his belly, thus not only ensuring his kingship but also making sure that the wise goddess would be there to give him advice. Later (in what may have originally been a separate myth), Zeus gave birth to Athena from his head. By this time Zeus was married to Hera, who was angry at him for producing the wise Athena without her. So on her own she gave birth to the craftsman god Hephaestus.
And so on! The stories are too many to summarize here!
Below, in Greek and English, are the opening lines of Hesiod's cosmogony.
Eros, archaic figure. Image from Roscher, Ausfürliches Lexikon der Griechischen und Römischen Mythologie, 1884.
Statue of Diana, the Roman Artemis. Located at the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens, San Marino, California. Photo by C.A. Sowa. Small picture above: grave stele of Hegeso, 5th cent. B.C., detail.
Women poets of ancient Greece
As we conclude Women's History Month, we celebrate women poets of ancient Greece. Best known, of course, is Sappho of Lesbos. Enough of her work survives for us to appreciate her great talent. Her Hymn to Aphrodite survives intact, quoted entire by Dionysius of Halicarnassus. In another poem, her description of "falling apart" at the sight of a woman she loves, talking to a man — "He seems to me equal to the gods who sits across from you listening to your sweet speech..." — anticipates Patsy Cline's "I Fall to Pieces." The opening stanzas survive because Longinus quoted them as an example of the Sublime. We used this poem as the Quotation of the Month for February, 2008.
Sappho's sister poets
Sappho was not, however, alone. The work of her sister poets has almost entirely perished. Some are only names, but a few pieces survive. Corinna, choral poet from Tanagra in Boeotia, is traditionally said to have been a contemporary and sometimes rival of Pindar (c. 522 - c. 443 B.C.), although some scholars consider a later date. She composed the Contest between Helicon and Cithaeron, these being the two great mountains of Boeotia. (Cithaeron won, but Helicon retaliated by causing a disastrous landslide). Another woman poet, Myrtis, was said to be the teacher of both Corinna and Pindar. Hardly anything remains of the work of Praxilla of Sicyon (in the Peloponnese), a 5th century B.C. poetess, but she was sufficiently famous to be parodied by Aristophanes. Her "Hymn to Adonis" was laughed at because she makes Adonis say, when questioned in Hades about what he missed most in life, that the most beautiful things he left behind were the sun, the stars, and the moon — and cucumbers, apples and pears! Zenobius quoted the lines to explain the saying "sillier than Praxilla's Adonis," implying that produce is not on the stately level of the heavenly bodies. It seems, however, quite reasonable that a woman would realize that Adonis would miss the homely pleasures of a good meal. A pun has also been suggested on the word for "cucumbers" (sikuos) and the name of Praxilla's home town of Sikyon.
A dedication of thanks to Artemis for a successful childbirth
Our Quotation of the Month is perhaps by Sappho, or perhaps "in the style of Sappho" (hôs Sapphous, according to its heading). It comes from the Palatine Anthology, a collection of Greek poems and epigrams dating to the 10th century A.D. The selection is taken from an inscription on a statue dedicated to "Artemis Aethopia" by a grateful mother, following a successful childbirth. The words are those of the newborn girl, or perhaps of the stone itself, "wordless as I am," speaking through the inscription "laid out at my feet."
Artemis Aethopia, goddess of childbirth
Artemis is known as the virgin goddess of the hunt and of the wild mountains. The name is known from Mycenaean sources, but is of uncertain origin, perhaps pre-Greek. She is associated with cults of wild animals, especially the bear. The deer was also sacred to her. She became associated with various other goddesses and other functions. In mythology, she was known as the twin sister of Apollo, daughter of Zeus and Leto. The Romans identified her with Diana. She became identified with Selene, the moon, and Eileithyia, goddess of childbirth. She acquired the epithet Aithopia, from aitho "to burn," "to shine brightly," perhaps from her identification with the moon. (The word does not mean "Ethiopian," although that name comes from the same word, meaning "having dark (i.e. "sunburnt") faces.") It is as a goddess of childbirth that this statue and its inscription are dedicated to her.
The text we use is that of the Loeb edition of 1934 (ed. J.M. Edmonds) which has the child herself speaking, giving the first word of the inscription as pais "child." The manuscript itself has paides "children," meaning that the words are addressed to an audience of children, and that the stone itself is speaking. This reading is followed by other critics.
Below, in Greek and English, is one reading of the inscription.
Sappho about to jump off a cliff, as drawn by the anonymous former owner of my copy of the Greek Anthology.
Memnon's departure for Troy, black-figure vase, ca. 550-525 B.C., Musées Royaux d'Art et d'Histoire, Brussels, Belgium. The Ethiopian hero prepares to aid the Trojans against the Greeks. (Image from Wikipedia.) The thumbnail drawing above shows a warrior wearing a linen cuirass, illustrating the word linothorex ("linen vest") in Autenrieth's Homeric Dictionary, 1876.
The Black Hero of the Trojan War
For February, in honor of Black History Month, we bring you the great Black hero of the Trojan War, Memnon, King of the Ethiopians. His mother was Eos, Goddess of the Dawn. The Ethiopians occupy a favored place in Homeric epic, where they are a semi-mythical people in whose company the gods enjoy lavish banquets. In Iliad 1.423-426, Zeus cannot help Thetis, mother of Achilles, because he is off visiting the Ethiopians. In Iliad 23.205-207, it is the goddess Iris who must hurry off to an Ethiopian sacrifice and banquet. In Odyssey 1.22-25, Poseidon receives sacrifices from the Ethiopians.
Memnon does not appear in the Iliad, which does not describe the last desperate period of the war, but ends with the funeral of Hector, slain by the raging Achilles in revenge for his killing of Patroclus. It is only after this that Memnon arrives with his army to support the Trojans. Memnon was, however, featured in other poems of the Epic Cycle, which were prequels and sequels that filled in stories of what happened before and after the war as told in the Iliad and Odyssey. All of these poems are lost, but summaries and excerpts survive in later authors. One poem was, in fact, called the Aithiopis, or the Ethiopian Poem, which narrates events that immediately follow the Iliad. It begins with the arrival of the Amazon Penthesilea, who comes to support the Trojans, but is killed by Achilles. Then Memnon arrives with his army, but he, too, is killed by Achilles. Achilles pursues the Trojans to the gates of Troy, where he is killed by Paris, who is also eventually killed.
The Egyptian singing statue
In Egypt, Memnon was identified with Amenhotep III (reigned ca. 1411-1375 B.C.). Two colossal statues of the pharaoh still stand near Thebes (as illustrated below). One of these gave a ringing tone when it was struck by the rising sun. While the reason may have been an accident of humidity, the sound was thought to be Memnon's greeting to his mother, Eos, or perhaps her greeting to her son.
Quintus Smyrnaeus' continuation of Homer
In the 4th century A.D., a poet known as Quintus of Smyrna undertook the writing of an epic poem called the Posthomerica, or "After Homer." In a fairly creditable imitation of the Homeric style, it provides another source for the contents of the lost Epic cycle, being based on plot elements of the sequels to the Iliad. Book I recounts the story of the Amazon Penthesilea, Book II tells the story of Memnon. Tall and black, he, like Achilles, wears armor made by the god Hephaestus.
Our Quotation of the Month describes Memnon's arrival in Troy, where the people, and especially old King Priam, are almost pathetically glad to see him, and think he will be their savior. Priam entertains him lavishly, and compares him to the gods. In the narrration that follows our excerpt, Memnon cautions Priam not to celebrate too much, and prefers to go to bed early, rather than stay up all night eating and drinking. His reservations turn out to be all too valid, as he will end up being killed. At the request of Eos, her son's body is wafted away by spirits, and his army is turned into a flock of birds, which fly away.
Below, in Greek and English, is the description of Priam welcoming Memnon.
Colossal statues of Amenhotep III in Egypt, identified as the famous "singing statues" of Memnon, King of Ethiopia, son of the Dawn goddess Eos. Changes in early morning humidity caused cracks in one of the sandstone statues to emit a singing sound at dawn. But you can no longer hear mother and son singing to each other. Later Roman repairs caused the singing to cease. (Illustration in W.H. Roscher, Ausführliches Lexikon der Griechischen und Römischen Mythologie, 1894-1897.)
Asclepius, god of healing, accompanied by a snake, his usual animal symbol. Paris, Louvre. Illustration from Seyffert, Dictionary of Classical Antiquities 1899.
The Year of the Rooster
This is the Year of the Rooster! And not just any rooster. In the Chinese Lunar calendar, there are five kinds of rooster: Wood, Fire, Earth, Gold, and Water. The year 2017, whose New Year is celebrated this January, is a Year of the Fire Rooster. Roosters are talkative and sociable, but they can be vain and boastful. The Fire Rooster, however, is trustworthy, with a strong sense of timekeeping and responsibility. The U.S. Postal Service has issued a Lunar New Year's stamp with a picture of a rooster, as seen above.
"A cock for Asclepius"
The most famous rooster in antiquity is the cock which Socrates, in his last words, told Crito he owed to the god Asclepius. The story is told by Plato at the conclusion of the Phaedo. That dialog purports to recount the last day in the life of the great Athenian philosopher, as narrated by Socrates' disciple Phaedo to his friend Echecrates. In the political upheavals following the Peloponnesian War, Socrates (469(?)-399 B.C.), a philosophical gadfly, was sentenced to die by drinking poison hemlock for "corrupting the Athenian youth" and for "impiety."
In the Phaedo, Socrates' friends gather in his jail cell for one last conversation. The ensuing dialog concerns the nature of the soul, and whether it survives the body. It covers questions of reincarnation and transmigration of formerly human souls into animals, and what happens to good and evil souls. (Souls contaminated by living in the bodies of the gluttonous and violent are reincarnated in the bodies of asses and other such beasts (Phaedo 81e), the unjust pass into the bodies of wolves and hawks (82a), those who have practiced moderation pass into ants and bees (82b)).
At last an attendant brings the poison cup, and Socrates asks permission to pour a customary libation, but the attendant says the poison is carefully measured out, and none can be spared. Socrates' friends start to cry, and Socrates reminds them to act in a dignified manner, and explains (misogynistically) that that is the reason he sent his wife and other women away, because of their emotional outbursts. Socrates drinks the poison, and as his limbs progressively go cold, he reminds Crito that "We owe a cock to Asclepius, pay the debt and do not neglect it" (118a). Crito asks for further information, but Socrates dies, leaving the enigma of what he meant.
What did Socrates mean?
People from Plato's time onward have scratched their heads over Socrates' intent. Offerings were customarily made to Asclepius, god of healing, after being cured of some illness. The animal most closely associated with Asclepius was the snake, but animals, including roosters, were customarily sacrificed to him. Some writers (including Nietzsche) have thought Socrates meant that life is a disease of which he was cured. Others think he meant that his disciples were cured by his teachings of their misguided thoughts. It is also possible that there is a mundane explanation, that he really did owe an offering to Asclepius for some previous cure. Colin Wells in "The Mystery of Socrates' Last Words" in Arion 16.2 (Fall, 2008) offers another very sensible interpretation. Socrates had wanted to pour a libation (perhaps ironically) from his cup of poison, as if it were wine on some special occasion. Prevented from doing so, he still felt that some appropriate offering should be made to the gods. Hemlock was, in fact, sometimes used as a medicine in small doses, and Plato refers to the poison as a pharmakon ("drug" or medicine), so what god is more appropriate than Asclepius?
We also note that a rooster was a traditional gift exchanged by gay men; see the vase painting below.
Below, in Greek and English, are the final lines of the Phaedo.
Ganymede, boy favorite of Zeus, playing with a hoop and holding a rooster. Berlin painter, Louvre. The rooster was frequently exchanged as a gift by gay men. The other side of the vase depicts Zeus in pursuit of Ganymede. (Image from Wikipedia, photo by Bibi Saint-Pol.)
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