18 March 2011

For Libya

One must apply a gentle hand to tend a sore wound: it is easy even for weak men to shake a city to its foundations, but to set it in its place again is indeed a difficult struggle, unless a god suddenly comes to guide its rulers.
— Pindar, Pythian 4: For Arcesilas of Cyrene Chariot Race 462 B.C.E., ln. 271-274.
May Athene protect the people of Benghazi and all of the others whom the current conflict in Libya has endangered.

10 March 2011

Happy Elaphebolia

I sing of Artemis, whose shafts are of gold, who cheers on the hounds, the pure maiden, shooter of stags, who delights in archery, own sister to Apollo with the golden sword. Over the shadowy hills and windy peaks [5] she draws her golden bow, rejoicing in the chase, and sends out grievous shafts. The tops of the high mountains tremble and the tangled wood echoes awesomely with the outcry of beasts: earth quakes and the sea also where fishes shoal. But the goddess with a bold heart [10] turns every way destroying the race of wild beasts: and when she is satisfied and has cheered her heart, this huntress who delights in arrows slackens her supple bow and goes to the great house of her dear brother Phoebus Apollo, to the rich land of Delphi, [15] there to order the lovely dance of the Muses and Graces. There she hangs up her curved bow and her arrows, and heads and leads the dances, gracefully arrayed, while all they utter their heavenly voice, singing how neat-ankled Leto bare children [20] supreme among the immortals both in thought and in deed.
Hail to you, children of Zeus and rich-haired Leto! And now I will remember you and another song also.
– Homeric Hymn #27: To Artemis trans. Hugh G. Evelyn-White
Today, Artemis, the hunter of deer, is honored. While many of us who live in towns remain only marginally connected to the natural world (unless we make the effort to buy locally and whatnot), hunting is something that impacts each and every one of us.

Having destroyed almost all natural predators of deer, hunting has become a service to the community, and deer provide an important food source in some parts of the country. Hunting also prevents the natural population of deer from becoming too overabundant (leading to the “population bottleneck,” a state characterized by widespread disease, malnutrition, and mortality that may crash population — see the current human population crisis for disturbing visuals). In my own area, deer overpopulation is a severe issue responsible for a fair number of car accidents and property destruction.

This evening, I made a stag head-shaped ricotta cake and sprinkled it with sesame seeds and honey, in accordance with the scant information available about the holiday. One of the raisin eyes displaced when the cake rose in the oven.

I pray to Artemis who presides over hunting that, as we move deeper into the new century, humanity gains the wisdom to adequately control the deer population under her guidance.

02 March 2011

The Birth of the Erinyes


First, a cry —
a slash in the night —
a whisper — and hissing snakes
spat venom across the sky.
This is how the Eumenides were born:
where Nyx is blackest
in the void between the stars.

First, a cry —
a stab in the dark —
a sigh — and then silence
dripping like rain onto the Earth.
This is how the Eumenides were born:
from a scythe of cold iron.

First, a cry —
a hole among the violets —
a scream — and a marriage.
This is how the Eumenides were born:
in a bed beyond the sun, where
roots meet liquid iron
and pomegranate trees sway.

First, a cry —
teeth gnashing in the dark —
a growl — and then blood money
denied to a family in grief.
This is how the Eumenides were born:
slighted Poinê bore them in retribution.

The Eumenides have four overall stories describing their birth. The first story calls them daughters of Nyx. In the second story, Gê gives birth to them from the blood of Ouranos’s severed penis. This account comes from Hesiod, whose stories provide the foundation for many popular culture-oriented stories. The fourth story — yes, more on the third in a second — has been traced primarily to accounts from the Roman era.

The third story is my favorite: Here Persephone gives birth to them. It integrates quite well with the Orphic mysteries, as I have mentioned elsewhere, and it lets the Eumenides partake of the rich imagery associated with that body of mythology. 

Persephone wove a tapestry of the world in a dark cave, and Zeus impregnated her with Zagreus. The Titans ripped the baby apart and roasted him on spits; when Zeus discovered their feast, he hurled lightning bolts at them. From the heart — the only part of Zagreus left intact — he made a potion, which Semele drank. She bore Dionysos from the essence of divine Zagreus.* In effect, this makes the Eumenides the half-sisters of the Lord of Vines (... and even his daughters if you take this several steps further: Dionysos = Chthonic Zeus = Hades, at least to Kerényi).

To me, Dionysos remains one of the most frightening deities among the Olympioi. He’s like a vine that cuts — no apologies, no salve —— the kind of deity who pushes people and/or drives them insane. It’s easy to see how he and the Eumenides can have their important Chthonic festivals in the same month. In pursuit of their major antagonists — Pentheus and Orestes respectively — both Dionysos and the Eumenides drive their prey to madness before the final confrontation. The exception is that Dionysos, being a softer god, manipulates Pentheus into following him — a far cry from the flight of Orestes that littered Greece with sanctuaries.

* Of course, Semele then gets incinerated and Zeus decides that he will forgo using a womb on attempt #3. Probably a good decision.