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.