Posts Tagged ‘Fertility’

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The Songs of Bilitis: III. Epigrams in the Isle of Cyprus

November 26, 2009

Hymn to Astarte

Mother inexhaustible and incorruptible, creatures, born the first, engendered by thyself and by thyself conceived, issue of thyself alone and seeking joy within thyself, Astarte!

Oh! perpetually fertilized, virgin and nurse of all that is, chaste and lascivious, pure and revelling, ineffable, nocturnal, sweet, breather of fire, foam of the sea!

Thou who accordest grace in secret, thou who unitest, thou who lovest, thou who seizest with furious desire the multiplied races of savage beasts and couplest the sexes in the wood.

Oh, irresistible Astarte! hear me, take me, possess me, oh, Moon! and thirteen times each year draw from my womb the sweet libation of my blood!

The Sea of Kypris

I had crouched on the edge of the highest promontory. The sea was black as a field of violets. And the Milky Way was gushing from the great supernal breast.

About me a thousand Maenads slept in the torn-up flowers. Long grasses mingled with their flowing hair. And now the sun was born from the eastern waters.

These the same waves and these the self-same shores that saw one day the white body of Aphrodite rising. . . I suddenly hid my eyes in my hands.

For I had seen the water trembling with a thousand little lips of light: the pure sex, or it may have been the smile of Kypris Philommeïdes.

The Priestesses of Astarte

Astarte’s priestesses engage in love at the rising of the moon; then they arise and bathe themselves in a great basin with a silver rim.

With crook’d fingers they comb their tangled locks, and their purple-tinted hands twined in their jet-black curls are like so many coral-branches in a dark and running sea.

They never pluck their deltas, for the goddess’s triangle marks their bellies as a temple; but they tint themselves with paint-brush, and heavily scent themselves.

Astarte’s priestesses engage in love at the setting of the moon, then in a tent where bums a high gold lamp they stretch themselves at random.

The Mysteries

In the thrice mysterious hall where men have never entered, we have fêted you, Astarte of the Night. Mother of the World, Well-Spring of the life of all the Gods!

I shall reveal a portion of the rite, but no more of it than is permissible. About a crowned Phallos, a hundred-twenty women swayed and cried. The initiates were dressed as men, the others in the split tunic.

The fumes of perfumes and the smoke of torches floated fog-like in and out among us all. I wept my scorching tears. All, at the feet of Berbeia, we threw ourselves, extended on our backs.

Then, when the Religious Act was consummated, and when into the Holy Triangle the purpled phallos had been plunged anew, the mysteries began; but I shall say no more.

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An Exploration of Peitho

October 17, 2009

As the goddess of seduction, Peitho is intimately connected with fertility, sex, pleasure and love. She is also connected to the natural order, to the workings of the kosmos and the continued survival of the human race – and, of course, it is by her will that humans (and certain other animals) are able to have sex simply for the sake thereof.

In myth, Peitho is commonly paired with Aphrodite – either as her daughter (as indicated in the Sappho, Fragments 96 and 200; and Aeschylus, Suppliant Women, 1039) or, else, as her companion. They share the sacred attribute of the dove, too. Peitho’s sacred ball of binding twine is interestingly linked to Tykhe’s ball of fate; the goddesses are quite often given the same parentage, and the links between love–or, at least, sex–and chance or fate are extremely strong.

A further, interesting parallel between fate and Peitho is shown by Nonnus when Aphrodite enters a weaving contest against Athene: ‘Pasithea made the spindle run round, Peitho dressed the wool, Aglaia gave thread and yarn to her mistress. And weddings went all astray in human life.’ (Nonnus, Dionysiaca, 24.261.)The three Moirai–Klotho, the spinner of the thread of life; Lakhesis, the apportioner of lots; and Atropos, the cutter of life–are sometimes said to be led by Aphrodite (in the Orphic Hymn 55 to Aphrodite; in Pausanias, Description of Greece, 1.19.2; and in Nonnus, Dionysiaca, 41.155). Here, then, Pasithea can be identified with Klotho, Peitho with Lakhesis, and Aglaia with Atropos. Plato has this to say regarding the Moirai: ‘The Moirai, daughters of Ananke, clad in white vestments with filleted heads, Lakhesis, and Klotho, and Atropos, who sang in unison with the music of the Seirenes, Lakhesis singing the things that were, Klotho the things that are, and Atropos the things that are to be.’ (Plato, Republic, 617c.) Peitho-as-Lakhesis, then, controls that which has passed–such as the birth of the kosmos, the ability of humans to enjoy sex for the sake of itself and the tried-and-true methods of seduction–, Pasithea-as-Klotho controls that which is–the blurring of the now: reality and imagination, hallucination and truth–, and Aglaia-as-Atropos controls that which will be–the beauty of tomorrow, the joy of a heavily pregnant woman, the opportunity of marriage.

Peitho was, in Classical times, portrayed merely as the goddess of seduction, persuasion and charming speech – this was emphasised by the titling of her, in the works of some Classical authors, as ‘winning Peitho’ (Aeschylus, Suppliant Woman, 1035; and Nonnus, Dionysiaca, 41.250), and ‘she to whom nothing is denied’ (Aeschylus, Suppliant Woman, 1035).

A modern contemplation of Peitho allows for further consideration of her nature and her influence.

As the goddess of seduction, Peitho naturally presides over the methods of seduction: hers are the candle-lit dinners, the love poetry, and the first spark of desire, the seduction that wings through the veins as eyes meet. She is mostly unconcerned with animals and the behaviour of them – they offer her no incense and worship her with their hands and lips, as humans do, honouring her in all of the pleasures that the body can indulge in. It is no surprise, then, that Peitho is sometimes numbered among the Kharites (Hermesianax; Pindar, Eulogies Fragment 123; and Nonnus, Dionysiaca, 24.261) – for she presides over pleasures, but hers are the pleasures of the body, rather than of the spirit.

As the goddess of persuasion and charming speech, Peitho acquires influence over bribes, persuasive speech, compliments and flattery. Anacreon outright identifies Peitho as a goddess of bribes and bribery – ‘And in those days Peitho did not yet shine all silver.’ (Anacreon, Fragment 384) This indicates that, ‘in those days’, Peitho had no care for money–beyond how it could be used to gain pleasure–and yet, with the changing times, she took more of an interest in it for how else it could be used. Further to this, and as a goddess of the pleasures of the body and the sensations that affect it, Peitho is easy to name as the goddess of prostitutes; Pindar, in Eulogies Fragment 122, identifies ‘guest-loving girls’, i.e. courtesans and prostitutes, as ‘servants of Peitho in wealthy Korinthos.’

In combination with Bia–the goddess of force, might, strength and compulsion–Peitho, also, is the, or rather a, goddess of rape. One could say that Peitho is the goddess of rape victims, and Bia the goddess of rapists; this is somewhat confirmed by the depiction of Peitho as fleeing rape scenes in Greek art. Ibycus expands on this idea of a softer, maternal Peitho in his Fragment 288: ‘Euryalos, offshoot of the blue-eyed Kharites, darling of the lovely-haired Horai, Kypris and soft-lidded Peitho nursed you among rose-blossoms.’ Nonnus, in Dionysiaca 3.84, calls Peitho ‘the friend of marriage’ and the ‘nurse of the baby Erotes’.

One can identify Peitho as a goddess of wisdom – in the wisdom of marriage, the knowledge of the human body, and the understanding of pleasure and love. Pindar, in Pythian Ode 9.40, states that, ‘Secret, great Phoibos, are the keys of wise Peitho to love’s true sanctities.’ This somewhat blurs the idea of Peitho as a mindless creature who cares only for sexual gratification–a stereotype linked also to her mother and/or mistress, Aphrodite–and adds to her nature as a goddess of marriage. Nonnus, in his Dionysiaca 25.150, notes that ‘Peitho shook a brazen spear and turned into Pallas Athena to stand by Minos in the fray.’ Athene, of course, is the Olympian goddess of wisdom, strategy and rationality (among other things) – and combining these two quotes, by Pindar and Nonnus, gives the revealing identification of Peitho as a goddess of the wisdom of marriage, sex, pleasure, love and so on; she holds ‘the keys’ to true love, and she is unafraid of deferring gratification in becoming ‘Pallas Athena’ in order to fight for her mistress/mother.

In conclusion for this exploration, Peitho is, like all of the Theoi, an extremely complex and multi-layered divinity. She is not a mere ‘daimona’, or a goddess, of just persuasion, seduction and charming speech, but of all of the pleasures (and, inversely, the pains) that affect the human body (and soul) – the love, marriage, sex, war-for-love, wisdom, and so on. She is, I hope I’ve proved, a goddess worthy of honour and praise, and a goddess not to be taken lightly.

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Ares: the Lover of Love

October 13, 2009

As both the god of war and the ‘counterpart’ and companion to Aphrodite, it is easy to identify Ares as a god of pain. He is the pain of bullets tearing into bodies, of losing limbs in explosions – and the pain, whether momentary or drawn-out, of death. But he is also, as the father of Anteros, god of unrequited love, and the lover of Aphrodite, goddess of beauty and love, the god of the pain of love. The concepts of war and love have been tightly interwoven for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Aphrodite and Ares’ own love affair is testament to this: that love and war belong together, and that you cannot truly have one without the other.

If one considers Ares as a god of pain, he becomes more than the stereotype that many have of him. He becomes god of receiving pain, god of giving pain, and even god of mastering that pain. The giving and receiving of pain is clear in his roles as god of war and god of the pain of love—the heartbreak and heartache that is so oft thought of when speaking of love—but it is only when one thinks deeply on Ares that they can draw closer to a conclusion of who, exactly, he is.

He is the god of war, as is well-known among even the average person. He is the god of the fever of war, of the blood-lust of war – the singing need to battle that thrums through the veins of warriors. He is, of course, the god of warriors, soldiers, heroes, champions – and under this aspect, he becomes, also, the god of sports and sportsmanship. He becomes, too, the god of challenge, of fighting to get what you want (or need) – the god of rivalry, of stubbornness, and of courage. Homer, in the Iliad (such as 5.454, 5.506 and 17.210) concentrates on this latter aspect of Ares, as a god who leads men into battle and encourages them when they would falter. As the father of Deimos and Phobos—the gods of dread and panic respectively—and as the god of courage, Ares becomes the god of the inversion of courage: he becomes the god of cowardice, whether it is retreating in war, running from a love that demands one too many risks, or turning tail in the face of the unknown. Ares himself boldly strives forward to meet all these things, and yet this aspect is often hard to find in the words of the classic authors and the views of the modern world.

In Ancient Greece, Ares was a god that was feared and—often—outright hatred. He represented many of the ills of the world, especially when one considered him as the brother, lover, companion or so on of Eris, mother of the kakodaimones, the spirits that plague mankind.

But, interestingly, Ares’ Roman “counterpart”, Mars, was much less disliked. Mars was initially a Roman god of fertility, vegetation, fields, boundaries and farmers; it was only when the Roman Empire began to expand that he became identified with Ares and, perhaps as a result, gained associations with war. However, it is my opinion that Ares and Mars are, at the core, the same god. Ares could easily be seen as a fertility god, when one takes into account his relationship with Aphrodite. Aphrodite and her husband Hephaistos had no children together—though they were married and, by several accounts, seemed to have had sex several times—and yet Aphrodite and Ares brought forth, by several different accounts, gods such as Eros, Anteros, Deimos, Phobos and Harmonia, suggesting of fertility and, therefore, the fertile earth (including the fertility of vegetation). Also, interestingly, Priapos, the rustic god of vegetation, fertility and garden produce (who is often considered a son of Aphrodite, though not by Ares), taught Ares to dance, therefore further increasing the link between Ares and fertility and vegetation. As the god of war, the pain of love and courage, cowardliness and sportsmanship—and so on—Ares would naturally be a god of boundaries: the boundaries between life and death, between warring armies, between the human body and the world beyond it, and so on. Ares’ links to farmers and fields are more tenuous—as not many Greek authors, it seemed, explored his links to fertility and the farming men and women who so relied on the fertility of the earth—but the links are there. As a god of warriors, he would also be the god of returning soldiers and warriors, and of the family of those people: who would likely be farmers. He is known as a god of the battlefield, but also, as a god of farming and fertility, he would be a god of the fertile earth and areas that can be cultivated for food – namely fields, farms, and so on.

Ares-Mars, then, is perhaps one of the most irrationally disliked gods. As a god of courage, bravery and stubbornness, he is the patron of those who stand up for what they believe in, or who step in to protect those who cannot protect themselves – the innocent; the young and the old. He is the patron of soldiers, both in war and returning home, and he is the guide of those who die on the battlefield. He is a god who does not hide his true nature behind sweet poetry and gentle smiles – he is the harsh truth of the world, the reality that bites. He is the cruelty in being kind; he is not cruel for the sake thereof, but for the greater good of the individual or community. He is the lover of love, and therefore of life – he protects the next generation, and yet he is constantly demonised, reduced to merely one aspect of who he truly is. He is a god of many more things than just war, or the lust for such; and a person could do much worse than having his guidance and protection as one’s patron or friend.

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Rhea-Kybele and Lions

October 10, 2009

Classical writings and art portray Rhea (identified with the Anatolian Kybele, thus forming Rhea-Kybele) as accompanied by, or as riding, lions. To understand exactly why this is—why Rhea-Kybele is so intimately connected with lions—one must look first to the Classical mythologies, and then to the symbolism of the lion.

Rhea-Kybele, as the mother of the gods Demeter, Hades, Hera, Hestia, Poseidon and Zeus, carries titles such as Mêtêr Theôn (mother of the gods), Mêtêr Megalê (great mother) and Mêtêr Isodromê (fast-paced mother). In myth, she is the wife (or ex-wife) of Kronos, the Titane god of destructive time; according to writers such as Hesiod, Pindar and Apollodorus, Kronos took to devouring each of their children, due to a prophecy that he would be overthrown by one of his children. Naturally, Rhea hated this and so when Zeus was born, she hid him away in the mountains, and appointed warrior daimones (spirits) to guard him. These daimones are known by multiple names—they are named the Kouretes of Krete, the Korybantes of Phrygia, the Gigantes of Arkadia, the Daktyloi of Troad or the Kabeiroi of Samothrake—but are, according to Strabo (in Geography, 10.3.7), the same group of spirits. These warrior daimones (which I will, for the sake of ease, name as the Kouretes) guarded the infant Zeus as he aged. According to Oppian, Kronos discovered Zeus when he was a child, and turned Zeus’ guards into lions: ‘And when the son of Ouranos beheld the lusty young child he transformed the first glorious guardians of Zeus and in vengeance made the Kouretes wild beasts. And since by the devising of the god Kronos exchanged their human shape and put upon them the form of Lions, thenceforth by the boon of Zeus they greatly lord it over the wild beasts which dwell upon the hills.’ (Oppian, Cynegetica 3.7.)

The second account of how Rhea-Kybele became so linked with lions is in the myth of Hippomenes, as described by Ovid. According to this, Aphrodite aided the hero Hippomenes in his race for the hand of Atalantê; however when Hippomenes won, he failed to give Aphrodite her dues, and she, incensed, drove Hippomenes and Atalantê to the temple of the Mater Deum (the Mêtêr Theôn; Rhea-Kybele). When they arrived, Aphrodite roused desire within them, and, they ‘entered here and with forbidden sin defiled the sanctuary’ of the Mater Deum. As punishment, Rhea-Kybele changed them into lions: ‘Therefore their necks, so smooth before, she clothed with tawny manes, their fingers curved to claws; their arms were changed to legs; their chests swelled with new weight; with tails they swept the sandy ground; and in their eyes cruel anger blazed and growls they gave for speech. Their marriage-bed is now a woodland lair, and feared by men, but by the goddess tamed, they champ – two lions – the bits of Cybele.’ (Ovid, Metamorphoses 10.681.)

These accounts, though, are somewhat contradictory. In the first, the metamorphosised Kouretes are placed at Rhea-Kybele’s side as a blessing and honour; in the second, lions are her attendants as a warning and a curse. In order to decide which account best fits, one must look to Rhea-Kybele’s relationship to the lion, and, also, to the way that the Ancient Greeks viewed the lion – the symbolism of the lion.

Firstly, The Homeric Hymn 14 to the Mother of the Gods describes how the Mêtêr Theôn is ‘well-pleased with the sound of rattles and of timbrels, with the voice of flutes and the outcry of wolves and bright-eyes lions.’ Secondly, according to Valerius Flaccus, Rhea-Kybele was furious when Cyzicus killed one of her lions and hung its head to shame her: ‘Cyzicus upon his swift horse . . . with his javelin he slew a lion that was wont to bear its mistress through the cities of Phrygia and was now returning to the bridle. And now (Madman!) hath he hung from his doorposts the mane and the head of his victim, a spoil to bring sorrow to himself and shame upon the goddess. But she, nursing her great rage, beholds from the cymbal-clashing mountain the ship with its border of kingly shields,  and devises against the hero deaths and horrors unheard of.’ (Valerius Flaccus, Argonautica 3.20.) Thirdly, Nonnus describes how Rhea-Kybele’s home contains her lions, and how they are fed ambrosia – the food of the gods – by her castrated son and lover, Attis: ‘he entered the divine precinct selfbuilt of Rheia, mother of mighty sons. He freed his ravening lions from the yokestraps, and haltered them at the manger which he filled with ambrosial fodder.’ (Nonnus, Dionysiaca 25.310.)

The above sources do not indicate a hatred of Rhea-Kybele for lions; they, in fact, indicate quite the opposite. She is ‘well-pleased’ with her lions; the slaughter of them causes her ‘great rage’; and her own lover cares for them and feeds them ‘ambrosial fodder’, thus granting them immortality. This all suggests that Rhea-Kybele’s lions are not kept around her as a warning or curse; but as a blessing, as an honour to those who so protected her son, Zeus. In order to confirm—or deny—this suggestion, one should look to how, exactly, the people of the ancient cultures of the time viewed the lion.

Ancient Egyptians sometimes portrayed their pharaohs as sphinxes, thus identifying them with lions. Therefore sphinxes (and lions) were identified with power, rule and protection – interestingly, this is echoed in Rhea-Kybele’s turret crown (as identified by both Ovid and Propertius), which emphasises her nature as a warrior goddess concerned with protection of the city. The Egyptians associated two of their goddesses, Bast and Sekhmet (both originally identified as having the head of a lioness), and the god Maahes, son of either Bast or Sekhmet, with lions. Bast is the Egyptian god of pleasure, festivity, cats, ferocity, perfumes, vermin and the destruction thereof, women, mothers and motherhood and protection; Sekhmet of warriors, hunters, protection, women, motherhood, bloodlust, menstruation, death, disease and deserts; and Maahes of war, weather, knives, hunting, strength, power and protection of matrilineality. It can therefore be assumed that the Egyptians identified lions with such things as power, war, hunting, protection, women, disease and death.

Ancient Greeks “borrowed” the sphinx from the Egyptians in their own Sphinx, one of the Theres, who presided over matters such as destruction, bad luck, riddles, strangulation and the death of young men. The Sphinx is often said to have been sent by one of the gods—usually Hera (as identified by Apollodorus, The Library 3.5.8)—as a punishment to the people of Thebes, and as thus would have connection to Hera’s domain: women, marriage, weather, the heavens, motherhood, etc. This forms an interesting parallel to the Nemean Lion (said by some, such as Hesiod, to be the brother of the Sphinx), whom Hera ‘trained up and settled among the hills of Nemeia, to be a plague to mankind’ (Hesiod, Theogony 327ff). Bacchylides (Fragment 9), Callimachus (Aetia Fragments 55 and 108) and Aelian (On Animals 12.7) also describe Hera as having nurtured or sent the Nemean Lion. Due to their links to Hera (and, sometimes, to each-other), both the Sphinx and the Nemean Lion can be said to be associated with women, wrath, war, death, destruction, revenge, mothers, motherhood, marriage, the (night) sky, and so on. One must also consider Rhea-Kybele’s nature and influence; she is considered a goddess of women, marriage, childbirth (and mothers and motherhood), fertility, sexuality, madness, destruction, protection, and so on.

Linking together the views of the Ancient Egyptians and Greeks, one can presume that these ancient cultures viewed lions as being connected to women, disease, death, hunting, war, power, destruction, mothers, motherhood, childbirth, fertility, protection of cities, madness and protection of women. Because of this, and the manner in which the above-mentioned sources (concerning Rhea-Kybele’s relationship to the lion) portray Rhea-Kybele’s apparent affection for lions, the suggestion that lions are at her side as an honour, rather than a warning, seems more concrete.

Because of all this, one can further understand the nature of Rhea-Kybele. Her links to motherhood, women, fertility, protection, war, death and destruction become even more pronounced; and as such, the links between lions and these matters becomes more solid. In conclusion, then, Rhea-Kybele, when accompanied by her mountain-roaming lions, gains further prestige and connections as an incredibly powerful goddess. Her lions remind onlookers of the benefits of her favour, and of her love for warriors, women and the fertile wilderness – even with their humanity destroyed, her Kouretes linger at her sides, loving and protecting her with everything they have.