Sunday, 4 December 2011

The Modern Prometheus

During my second year module 'Myths and Mythology' our lecturer led a discussion about Mary Shelly's novel Frankenstein. I found this aspect of the course very interesting so I have decided to revisit the topic in my blog. Our Myths and Mythology lecture focused heavily on the 19th century literary reception of Frankenstein and the cult following of Prometheus among the Romantics, I will not only be discussing romantic interpretation but also drawing on Classical sources to give a more comprehensive overview of Prometheus then and now.

Mary Shelly published her novel 'Frankenstein' in 1818 in the aftermath of the French Revolution. She controversially called her book 'Frankenstein; or, the modern Prometheus'. This led to speculation between scholars as to Marie Shelly's meaning. I think the period Shelley was writing in was very relevant to the classical contextualisation of her book.

During the Romantic period authors and artists became increasingly interested in Classical mythology, and the myth of Prometheus was particularly popular. The political climate of the time was one of Rebellion, the French revolution had made the middle and lower classes increasingly conscious of their exploitation at the hand of nobility. The impact of the French revolution was seen worldwide as France was, at that time, seen as a centre of bohemian culture idolised by the rest of Europe; Emanuel Kant even wrote on the French revolution's impact inspiring "a wishful participation that borders closely on enthusiasm"(7:85) in its spectators. This shared 'enthusiasm' for rebellion against oppressive masters explains the connection Romantic authors and artists felt for Prometheus, who rebelled against Zeus's authority and injustice. Byron for example wrote a poem called 'Prometheus' in which he portrays Prometheus as "impenetrable" of spirit, who rebels against "inexorable Heaven, And the deaf tyranny of fate". Shelly however, digressing from the literary norms of her time, envisages a completely different Prometheus.

Harriet Hustis wrote a comprehensive discussion of Shelly's 'Prometheus' in her article 'Responsible Creativity and the "modernity" of Mary Shelly's Prometheus', I found Hustis to be an invaluable source when researching this topic. Hustis writes that "Shelly's novel focuses on an aspect of the Prometheus myth typically overlooked in the more traditional version of the Titan's defiant martyrdom, namely, an offspring's need for sustained guidance, influence, pity, and support from its creator". Although this depiction seems very different to Byron's Prometheus, almost casting him as vulnerable and unloved rather than a powerful revolutionary, It still retains the critical political aspect as Prometheus is neglected by his creator Zeus who personifies the ruling class. However, Hustis implies here that Shelly intended Frankenstein's monster to be interpreted as her modern Prometheus whereas Dr. Frankenstein himself also, arguably, has Promethean aspects to his character. Fire in the myth of Prometheus can be interpreted both as civilisation, and life; When Dr. Frankenstein creates his monster he steals the power to synthesise life from the divine.

 In 'Work and Days' Hesiod tells the story as to why humans must work so hard for their existence:

"For the gods keep hidden from men the means of life. Else you would easily do work enough in a day to supply you for a full year even without working; soon would you put away your rudder over the smoke, and the fields worked by ox and sturdy mule would run to waste. But Zeus in the anger of his heart hid it, because Prometheus the crafty deceived him; therefore he planned sorrow and mischief against men. He hid fire; but that the noble son of Iapetus stole again for men from Zeus the counsellor in a hollow fennel-stalk, so that Zeus who delights in thunder did not see it. But afterwards Zeus who gathers the clouds said to him in anger: "Son of Iapetus, surpassing all cunning, you are glad that you have outwitted me and stolen fire-a great plague to you yourself and to men that shall be. But I will give men as the price for fire an evil thing in which they may all be glad of heart while they embrace their own destruction." (42-53)

From this extract it is clear what the romantics saw in Prometheus. The rebellious figure, despite incurring a curse on mankind, is represented as 'cunning', 'mischeivus' and 'crafty' which are far from negative adjectives. Romantics would have identified with Prometheus' defiance but also in the words
"I will give men as the price for fire an evil thing in which they may be glad of heart while they embrace their own destruction" Hesiod writes Prometheus as an innovator, a bringer of technology and enlightenment as he is clearly referring to the use of fire in casting of metal which bring about weapons, which in turn bring about war. Romantic attitudes to war, especially in France at that time where, for lack of a better word, romantic. War was the catalyst which brought about the revolution. As Aeschylus writes in 'Prometheus Bound' "All human skill and science was Prometheus' gift" (p503), this casts Prometheus as an unlikely hero who brings about change, an end of oppression into an uncertain future.

Aeschylus. Prometheus Bound

Hesiod. Works and Days

H. Husts. (2003) Responsible Creativity and the "Modernity" of Mary Shelly's Prometheus.Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900. Rice University press.

E.Kant (1724-1804) Social & Political philosophy

Friday, 2 December 2011

Sex, Swans and Yeats

Ancient Greek mythology has always been synonymous with the graphic representation of sex. There are countless myths depicting sex be it between deities, mortals or both. Artistic renditions of more risqué myths are very prevalent, it seems the ancient Greeks found depictions of sex as sensational as we do today. However, ancient Greeks certainly had a sense of shame just as we do today as Aesop describes this in his fable 'Zeus and Shame'.

"After he had created people, Zeus immediately implanted in them all the possible human character traits, but he forgot about Shame. Since he didn't know how to get shame inside the human body, he ordered her to go in from behind. At first Shame protested, considering Zeus' request to be beneath her dignity. When Zeus kept insisting, she said, 'All right, I will go in there, on the condition that if anything comes in there after me, I will leave immediately.' As a result, people who engage in sodomy have no sense of shame." (Fables, 528)

This passage contradicts the view that ancient Greeks where particularly sensational and hedonistic in their attitudes towards eroticism, particularly homosexual relations. Although the practise of anal sex was widely accepted they remained controversial. It also serves as a valid comparison between ancient Greek attitudes towards sodomy and the widely stigmatised attitude held by people today.

However one way Greek attitude towards sex differed from modern practises was that, according to S.B. Pomeroy, couples only shared beds about once a month. Adultery, whether with a slave or free woman, was looked down upon as other, more socially acceptable, alternatives where available in Greek society. R.S Morton writes that "Older men having regular sex with a "friendly companion"-regular mistress, concubine or courtesan-was acceptable behaviour" (p61) this role was often performed by young boys. Morton continues, discussing the term "paeserastia" which has been used increasingly to describe homosexual relations between Greek men and "beardless youth" (p63). These relationships where not only tolerated but accepted, Morton likens the relationships between young boys and grown men to the "hero/warrior worship of Homers poems".

I would argue that the promiscuous nature of the gods was a reflection of the attitudes of Greek society as a whole, I feel that the Greeks wrote gods in the image of themselves. The Olympian gods are represented as a nuclear family, with a clear patriarchal structure which is in itself very 'human'. However, according to Morton The relatively liberal attitude towards sex in Greek society 'no doubt owed itself in part to the behaviour of gods and goddesses' (p61). There is some very compelling evidence for this hypothesis, Zeus for example features in countless myths where he engages in sexual liaisons, whether heterosexual, homosexual or bestial (which I will discuss further later). The Greeks even had a personification of bi-sexuality in Hermaphrodite, son of Hermes and Aphrodite. Sex featured prominently not only in the physical, but metaphysical lives of the Ancient Greeks; an example of a link between the two can be seen in the cult of the phallus. Morton writes on this subject in the passage "The cult of phallus initiated religious practises similar to those associated with the Egyptian god Min and Indian god Siva. Representations of the phallus where carried in religious processions, to the temples to Priapus, as the sacred organs of generation. They signified power. fruitfulness and fertility." (p61) Here the concept of Sex transcends the physical and becomes symbolic, as the phallic representation of fertility is also interpreted agriculturally; for example Priapus, the god of fertility born with a huge phallus, is also associated with agriculture and plants.

There are many such examples of the representation of Sex in Greek society, however I have decided to focus on one myth in particular, 'Leda and the Swan'. In this myth Zeus falls in love with a mortal woman called Leda who is the wife of the king of Sparta, Zeus proceeded to assume the guise of a swan and rape (or seduce depending on the source, which I discuss further below) Leda on the same night as she sleeps with her husband. Leda then Laid two eggs, one containing Helen of Troy and Clytemnestra and the other Castor and Polydeuces, deities commonly associated with war. There are many Interesting points about this myth, perhaps the most obvious being the form Zeus adopts in order to rape Leda. 'Leda and the Swan' mirrors a similar myth 'Europa and the Bull' where another anthropomorphic-animal representation of Zeus, in the shape of a bull, abducts and in some sources rapes a Phoenician woman named Europa. The myth is also parallelled in the Hindu tradition in the myth of Brahma and Saraswati where the swan is actually twin brothers Ham and Sa united as one entity. Here not only is the bestial copulation theme the same but also the association of the Swan with twins.

I first came across this myth in my English literature A level course in a poetry class. The Nobel prize winning William Butler Yeats wrote a poem titled 'Leda and the swan' which retells this myth. Yeats employs the literary technique most commonly associated with odes and love poems, the sonnet, with a certain degree of irony as in his version Leda is most certainly raped. Yeats also skillfully employs this poetic form by utilising the separation between the octave and sextet, typically the 'climax' of a sonnet, to bring attention to the line "A shudder in the loins engenders there"; Here the 'climax' of the poem mirrors the climax during the rape of Leda. Directly after Zeus' climax, Yeats also makes references to the Iliad in the lines "the broken wall, the burning roof and tower And Agamemnon dead." here Yeats is interpreting the myth of Leda and the Swan as the direct cause of the Trojan war, not only due to the birth of Helen but also in the birth of Castor and Polydeuces who symbolise war. Yeats is deliberately brief and concise in referencing the Iliad and Agamemnons' death; suggesting that in that very moment, that climax, his fate is sealed. The artful use of structure, historical and mythological reference combined with Yeats' use of powerful language (words like 'staggering' and 'helpless' in the first stanza paired with words like 'mastered' and 'power' in the last) make for a very blunt and brutal depiction of sex in Greek mythology, and most certainly one of my favourite poems from my A level class.

In this vase painting one can see a more classical representation of the myth. Zeus in the body of the swan kisses Leda which certainly contradicts Yeats' rendition. In some more modern renditions of the myth Zeus is also putting his beak into Leda's mouth suggesting consensual sex. In fact I found it very difficult to find classical versions of the myth, and interestingly could not find any which depicts the myth as a rape. Apollodorus 3, 10 for example:

"Zeus in the form of a swan consorted with Leda, and on the same night Tyndareus cohabited with her; and she bore Pollux and Hellen to Zeus, and Castor and Clytaemnestra to Tyndareus. But some say that Helen was a daughter of Nemesis and Zeus; for that she, flying from the arms of Zeus, changed herself into a goose, but Zeus in his turn took the likeness of a swan and so enjoyed her; as the fruit of their loves she laid an egg, and a certain sheppard found it in the groves and brought and gave it to Leda" (3, 10)

Also a later source, Hyginus wrote in Fables 77 (~0AD):

"Jupiter [Zeus], changed into a swan, had intercourse with Leda near the river Eurotas, and from that embrace she bore Pollox and Helen; to Tyndareus she bore Castor and Clymenestra" (77)

This is a completely different story to Yeats' interpretation of the myth. Zeus 'enjoying' Nemesis, or 'consorting' with Leda is far less shocking depiction than him 'mastering' her. Yeats' misreading of the historical text also raises some other questions. For instance, why would Zeus need to conceal his identity to rape Leda, a mortal, this suggests that Yeats thought Zeus had sex with Nemesis rather than Leda who was an immortal which would warrant trickery. But if one reads the mating with Nemesis to be true there is another inconsistency; when two gods mate in Greek mythology the result is normally a mortal hero, but Helen is almost the antithesis of a Greek hero as she is female and her birth will only bring death and destruction to true Greek hero's.

Helen Sword wrote about Yeats' misrepresentation of the myth in her article 'Leda and the Modernists':
"Pastoral depictions of Leda as the swan's acquiescent lover characterise woman as "other-than-human" creatures who, craving still the "animal pleasures" that men have transcended, are to be despised as well as feared; at the same time, the swan god's "assertive act of rape" allows male artists to control such dangerous femininity by returning Leda to woman's supposedly "predestined position of abject submission to male authority". Writers of the period who where attracted to the myth might have been similarly motivated: either they express a male anxiety toward a femme fatale who, so long as her bestial desires remain unfulfilled, can be nether fathomed nor possessed by mortal man" (p.307)

Helen Sword. (1992) Leda and the Modernists PMLA vol. 107 Modern Language Association

Hyginus. Fables, 77

Apollodorus. Book III, 10

Aesop. 'Zeus and Shame'. Fables, number 528, Gibbs' translation (2002)

R.S Morton. (1991) Sexual attitudes, preferences and infections in Ancient Greece: has antiquity anything useful for us today. Genitourin Med.

S.B. Pomeroy. (1973) Selected Bibliography on Women in Antiquity. Arethusa

W.B Yeats. (1928) The Tower: Leda and the Swan

F.Buret. (1891) Syphilis today and among the Ancients. F.A. Davis: Philadelphia

Monday, 21 November 2011

Fate in Ancient Greek mythology

"A man can surely do what he wills to do, but he cannot determine what we wills" Schopenhauer.

Fate is an interesting concept in Ancient Greek religion. In a universe where gods expressed so many flaws and sometimes unsavoury characteristics the Judeo-Christian concept of an 'omnipotent' deity is out of the question. In fact the ruling gods before Zeus, Kronos and Uranous, were even prophesied their own deaths but in the end were unable to do anything about it. Even the gods themselves could not escape their destiny's, and from this point the concept of 'Moria' was devised. Greek philosophy was largely an attempt to apply logic and order to the universe and the idea of Moria fits in nicely with the ancient Greek belief system; In the Homeric poems Moria represents a power over life and death, in some cases can be seen as more powerful than the gods themselves. M.Nilssoon writes on fate in the Homerics with the quote "Fate is not a god, because otherwise the will of the god would be predestinated"(pp.368) thus, Moria represents the personification of a power acting in parallel with the gods in Homer. Later, in the Theogony Hesiod anthropomorphises Moria further into into the Moriae, a power which acts above the Olympian gods.

In the Iliad Apollo warns Patroclus at the walls of troy not to sack the city in the passage "Draw back noble Patroclus, it is not your lot to sack the city of the Trojan chieftains, nor yet it will be that of Achilleus, who is far better than you are"(Iliad 16.) This shows that even the greatest of men have their limits which are dictated by Moira. The role of Fate in the Iliad is complex however, there are instances where the course of events appear preordained by Moria and also others where the autonomy of the hero's is stressed as they make decisions which drive the plot.

Whilst researching this topic I came across an interesting article by J.V.Morrison called 'Kerostasia, The Dictates of Fate and the will of Zeus in the Iliad'. Morrison sites a passage towards the end of the Iliad in the opening to his article. In this passage Achilles is chasing Hector around the Trojan walls, on the forth time round Zeus performs this action:

"Then father Zeus balanced his golden scale, and in them he set two fateful portions of woeful death, one for Achilles and one for Hector, breaker of horses. Balancing it in the middle, Zeus raised it high, and the fated day of Hector sank down: it went toward the house of Hades, and the god Apollo left him"(p.274)

Below I have included a red-figure vase painting of Achilles fighting Hector. This is a quintessential example of this technique being employed. Red-figure painting originated in Athens at around 530 BC and replaced the earlier black-figure technique. The expressive pose of the subjects makes up for the limitation of the medium and despite its simplicity depicts dynamic combat. Achilles on the left looms over Hector who is almost falling backwards. Heroes where usually depicted naked and often with disproportionately large thighs showing their physical prowess.

Achilles and Hector

Many scholars claim the balancing of the golden scales as evidence for Zeus as god of fate (Zeus Moiragetes) but I think this passage portrays Zeus as a witness and agent of fate rather than a dictator or instigator of fate. In the measuring of the hero's fates (kerostasia, literally meaning 'the weighing of an individuals death') it is clear that Zeus has not dictated them himself. Instead Zeus must in act the fate which is already set in motion, in this case Hector's demise (or ker, 'individual doom').

However, contrary to this portrayal of a fatalistic world presented by Homer there is also a sense of autonomy in the actions of the hero's in the Iliad. A key example of this is the role of Achilles in the Iliad. Achilles is fated from the beginning to meet his end in the battle for Troy, even by himself at times (he and Thetis refer to himself as "of the shortest life") although this is not clarified by Homer. Later in the text however Achilles talks of a 'twofold fate' in 9.410-16:

"For my mother, Thetis the goddess of the silver feet, tells me that a twofold fate bears me on to the day of death. Either, if I stay here and fight beside the city of Trojans, my homecoming is lost, but my glory never dies; or, if I return home to the dear land of my fathers, my noble glory dies, but the life that's left to me will be long, and the stroke of death will not come to me quickly." (9.410-16)

Here it appears that Achilles has the option of death and glory on the Trojan battlefield or a long and dull life tending the land of his forefathers (this passage always reminded me of the saying 'Better to live a single day as a lion than one hundred years as a sheep). This contrasts not only with the stress that Achilles' fate is unavoidable at the beginning of the poem but also at the end of the epic when Achilles comes to realise-or perhaps to accept-that he will die at Troy. Morrison accentuates this point in his article in the passage

"If Achilles has no choice, then he must merely endure his destiny of staying at Troy. Yet the poet shows us that Achilles does make decisions. In fact most of the key events of the Iliad are determined by the choices of heroes."(p280)

It remains unclear in Homers' Iliad whether the ancient Greeks believed in a determinists' fatalistic universe, or whether they have a degree of free will but only their eventual fates are predefined. In both cases however Fate plays a key role, dictating events if not directly then in an overarching eventual manner.

M. Nillson (1967) Die Geschichte der Griechische Religion. Vol.1. C.F Beck Verlag. Munchen

J.V Morrison (1997) Kerostasia, The Dictates of Fate, and the Will of Zeus in the Iliad. Arethusa, Vol. 30 pp.276-296. Johns Hopkins University Press.

Homer. The Iliad

Thursday, 17 November 2011

Kronos in Ancient Greek Mythology

Ever since I started my Classics course at Roehampton I have noticed that in almost every aspect of the study of the ancient Greeks some emphasis is made on the lasting influence the ancient Greek culture has had on the world be it in ancient Rome, Renaissance literature (famously by Marie Shelly in Frankenstein), even what NASA call their space programmes!

But more so than anywhere else I have noticed people writing about how ancient Greek religion has influenced mainstream religion, particularly Christianity. People often draw comparisons between the Prometheus myth and the book of Genesis for example. In my second year module 'myths and mythology' we had a lecture based on this topic. When Prometheus steals fire from the heavens he brings about the end of an era of utopia, the end of a golden age; parallels can be drawn between this and the fall of man in the book of Genesis. Also the role of women in the myth is arguably linked, Eve brings about the fall of man and Pandora opens the mysterious jar causing evil to roam the earth.

Whilst I certainly find these comparisons interesting reading, often the same themes and deity's are discussed. I decided to include a biblical comparison of my own to start off my blog but championing an often overlooked figure of ancient Greek mythology, Kronos.

Kronos is a mysterious and enigmatic deity, Renowned for castrating his father Uranus and devouring his sons in an attempt to prevent rebellion he has certainly been given a very dark persona. However this wasn't simply restricted to Kronos.

Bremmer makes a point of this in his book 'Greek Religion and Culture, the Bible, and the Ancient Near East' where he writes that "more than any other mythological group in antiquity the Titans were credited with all kinds of negative qualities. For example, in case of a crime people called out Titans' names against the criminals in order to invoke help; Greek comedy considered them to be all too active pederasts; everything that threatens life was ascribed to them... their rule was called 'lawless and undisciplined' (pp.73-74).

Ruben's 'Saturn devouring his son.'
Suffice to say the Titans had a pretty bad reputation. Almost all the legendary monsters of Greek mythology are fathered by Titans, titans blood was even supposed to consist of dangerous venomous insects and spiders!

Oh, and by the way here's two famous paintings of Kronos (or Saturn in Roman mythology) devouring his son Poseidon by Peter Paul Rubens [right] and Francisco Goya [below] if you haven't got the picture quite yet. Basically Kronos is a bit of an unpleasant fellow. These depictions of Kronos differ greatly from classical representations of Kronos (that few that still exist). It is likely that the ancient Greeks would not have seen this myth in the same light however, Infanticide was relatively common in ancient Greek society as M.G. Spinelli writes in her book 'Infanticide: psycological and legal perspectives on mothers who kill' "It seems clear that infanticide was widely practiced in these societies [ancient Greek, Roman], with the reasons used to justify these actions ranging from population control to illegitimacy"(pp.4). In a society where infanticide was much more prevelent it may have seemed quite reasonable that Kronos would seek to kill his children in order to stop them killing him, especially as he had done the exact same thing.

According to Patricia Wright, from her book 'Eyewitness Art: Goya' "Rubens' Saturn, is outwardly more refined than Goya's, but remains the more horrific of the two. The viewer's sympathy is directed toward the baby, yet to be eaten, and Saturn appears a cruel, and corrupt power. Afraid of losing his great strength, he seems remorseless, unaware of the figure of death behind him."(p.51) The Greek depictions however appear much tamer I was only able to find one picture of Cronus from a Greek source. Kronus stands before Rhea about to eat a stone masquerading as one of his sons. Greek art was largely simplistic and employed symbolism to tell stories which would have been well known to its audience, scenes as expressive as these simply were not possible on Greek pottery.

Goya's rendition

But being the scapegoat of all things evil however doesn't make you the Antichrist, or does it?

Hesychius of Alexandria claimed exactly that, he famously defined Kronos as the Antichrist in response to Irenaeus' regarding the Titans as the most plausible interpretation of the beast in Revelation 13 as 'Teitan' adds up to 666 in the Hebrew numeric code.

Outlandish as the 'number of the beast' claim seems, there are some notable comparisons between the Titans and fallen angels in the Judeo Christian tradition. For instance the rebellion-in-heaven myth where God combats the usurping angels and casts them into hell can be compared with Zeus escaping Khronos' stomach (either by being regurgitated or by cutting his way out) and  vanquishing the Titans with the help of his brothers during a war called the Titanomachy. Zeus then proceeded to imprison the titans in Tartarus. Here a divine being associated with light, dictation of fate, the wold-be king of Gods banishes the epitome of evil just as God forsakes Satan to hell.

There are also other occurrences which take place in the old testament in which one can draw parallels with the story in Hesiods Theogony. Bremmer writes in his article that in the book of Jubilees in the aftermath of the great flood the Lord punishes the angels, "the Lord commanded that they be uprooted from all their dominion. And he told us to bind them in the depths of the earth". Bremmer goes on to quote Jude chapter six where God keeps them [fallen angels] "in eternal chains in deepest darkness for the judgement of the great day" and finally a direct reference to Tartarous in Peter chapter two "For God did not spare the angels when they sinned, but cast them into hell, tartaroo, and committed them to chains of deepest darkness" This final verse is particularly important because the use of the term 'tartaroo' is clearly a referance to the Titanomachy and Zeus' eventual victory over the titans.

The question remains, as always when discussing cross-theistic influence, whether the references to the Titans were simply a metaphorical tool to signify vanquished evil or whether the course of events themselves are drawn from archaic sources. As very little information on the Titans in Greek culture exist, it would be very problematic to attempt to draw any definite conclusions.

J.Bremmer (2008) Greek Religion and Culture, the Bible and the Ancient Near East. Brill Academic Publishers.

M.G Spinelli (2003) Infanticide: psychosoical and legal perspectives on mothers who kill. American Psychiatric Publishing. Washington

P.Wright (1993) Eyewitness Art: Goya. Harper Colins Publishers. Australia.