Saturday, January 22, 2005

Classical Mythology by Mark P. O. Morford and Robert J. Lenardon

Textbook for that mythology class I took freshman year of college, and much more readable than I thought it was going to be. It’s real interesting the way traditions and mythologies of different cultures merge and adapt over time. The whole of Roman mythology, for example, is based on Greek mythology. So much so, in fact, that the best Greek mythology tales are told by Roman writers. But Jupiter is not just the Roman name for Zeus. Jupiter existed in the minds of the pre-Romans long before their culture ever heard of Zeus. He was one of their many gods with his own rituals and celebrations. He was lord of his pantheon much as Zeus was lord of his, so when the Romans did learn of Zeus, and became enamored with him, they adopted his stories and rituals and attributed them to Jupiter. They did the same with a dozen others, changing both who the Roman god was and who the Greek god had been in the process. The Greek Ares did not become the Roman Mars. Quite the reverse, the Roman Mars became the Greek Ares, just as the Roman Venus became the Greek Aphrodite, each Roman god becoming something they had not been before when taking on the literary history of their Greek counterpart.

The book teases you a few times with the idea that the same kind of thing happened with certain elements of Christianity. Figures in the Christian tradition who bore resemblance to those in Roman and Greek mythology adopted the pre-history of those mythologic figures and became something that already had a religious and sacred meaning to the worshippers. The most intriguing example of this is the story of Aphrodite and Adonis, the Greek mother goddess and her beautiful young lover who is killed and resurrected of the form of vegetation, and how some of that may have been adopted by the early Christians as a basis for the relationship between Mary and Jesus. “It is possible,” the authors say, “to detect similarities between Easter celebrations of the dead and risen Christ in various parts of the world and those in honor of the dead and risen Adonis. Christianity, too, absorbed and transformed the ancient conception of the sorrowing goddess with her lover dying in her arms to that of the sad Virgin holding in her lap her beloved Son.”

There’s more. Attis is another figure in mythology like Adonis, loved by a goddess, killed, and resurrected as vegetation. The authors state the evidence of springtime ceremonies at which the public mourned and rejoiced for the death and rebirth of Attis.

Our information as to the nature of these mysteries and the date of their celebration is unfortunately very scanty, but they seem to have included a sacramental meal and a baptism of blood. In the sacrament the novice became a partaker of the mysteries by eating out of a drum and drinking out of a cymbal, two instruments of music which figured prominently in the thrilling orchestra of Attis. The fast which accompanied the mourning for the dead god may perhaps have been designed to prepare the body of the communicant for the reception of the blessed sacrament by purging it of all that could defile by contact the sacred elements. In the baptism the devotee, crowned with gold and wreathed with fillets, descended into a pit, the mouth of which was covered with a wooden grating. A bull, adorned with garlands of flowers, its forehead glittering with gold leaf, was then driven on to the grating and there stabbed to death with a consecrated spear. Its hot reeking blood poured in torrents through the apertures, and was received with devout eagerness by the worshipper on every part of his person and garments, till he emerged from the pit, drenched, dripping, and scarlet from head to foot, to receive the homage, nay the adoration of his fellows as one who had been born again to eternal life and had washed away his sins in the blood of the bull. For some time afterwards the fiction of a new birth was kept up by dieting him on milk like a newborn babe. The regeneration of the worshipper took place at the same time as the regeneration of his god, namely at the vernal equinox.

I could be wrong, but I see precursors for the last supper, baptism, the Eucharist, Lent, the resurrection of Christ and eternal life washed clean of sin in this one ancient ritual. How many of those traditions in the Christian faith were divinely inspired and how many were based on the mythologies that people already knew and embraced?

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Another legend from the book on classical mythology I just read that speaks to me is the flaying of Marsyas. Marsyas was a satyr who was so proficient at the flute and so confident in his talent that he challenged Apollo to a contest. He lost. And for his presumption, Apollo had him flayed alive. Ovid writes:

Marsyas cried out: ‘Why are you stripping me of my very self? Oh no, I am sorry; the flute is not worth this torture!’ As he screamed, his skin was ripped off all his body and he was nothing but a gaping wound. Blood ran everywhere, his nerves were laid bare and exposed, and the pulse of his veins throbbed without any covering. One could make out clearly his pulsating entrails and the vital organs in his chest that lay revealed. The spirits of the countryside and the fauns who haunt the woods wept for him; and so did his brothers, the satyrs, and nymphs and all who tended woolly sheep and horned cattle on those mountains—and Olympus, dear to him now, wept as well. The fertile earth grew wet as she received and drank up the tears that fell and became soaked to the veins in her depths. She formed of them a stream which she sent up into the open air. From this source a river, the clearest in all Phrygia, rushes down between its sloping banks into the sea. And it bears the name of Marsyas.

To me, this is the plight of the true artist, struggling to succeed and fated to fail horribly. But even in such failure, sometimes the whole world sees the beauty and dedication that drove the artist to such delusional heights, and it affects them and changes the way they see the world.

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The last thing I want to mention from this classical mythology book is Aeneas’ flight from Troy. The only Trojan leader to escape when the city is destroyed, the scene of Aeneas leaving Troy is heavy with symbolism, as he carries his father, Anchises, and is joined by his young son, Iulus, and his wife, Creusa. As Virgil had Aeneas narrate:

‘Then come, dear father, sit on my shoulders; I will carry you, the load will not weigh me down. Whatever chance may fall, we will share a common danger and a common salvation. Let little Iulus walk beside me and let my wife follow.’ …With these words I spread a cloak and the skin of a tawny lion across my shoulders and neck and lifted the burden. Little Iulus took my right hand and, hardly able to keep up, walked beside his father.

With hope for the future, but burdened by the past, Aeneas leaves the doomed city.

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