Single male god seeking single female goddess...

“...everything … isn’t dead that is buried” – Heinrich Heine, Elemental spirits

In Psalm 95 we read: “For the LORD is a great God,/and a great King above all gods”. Justin, an early and influential father of the church, translated elohim, the word for gods, into daimonion, and from there on out it had a merry career – if you translate “above all gods” as “the gods of the heathens are demons”, you have a nice little program to interpret the stubbornly polytheistic world. Notice, however, that the program does not go so far as to say that the gods of the heathens don’t exist. The saying in Psalm 95 and the admonitions of the early church fathers were a powerful input into the demonization of the pagan gods. Ernst Robert Curtius, in European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages, is merely pressing an old, old historical key when he writes: “For the wedding of the Frankish king Sigebert and the Visigothic princess Brunhild (566) Fortunatus composed an epithalamium (VI, 1), in which Venus and Cupid bless the marriage. But in his metrical Vita s. Maritini (written 573-4) the same writer reports that the saint threatened the demons by calling them by their names; he said that Mercury was an especially evil enemy but that Jupiter was a stupid lout. Christianity did not allow the antique gods to die in peace. It had to degrade them into demons – because they lived on in the subconscious.”

Indeed, the myths of the Greeks actually encoded a myth of the overthrow of the gods. As did the myths of the Norse. A Götterdämmerung. Zeus and his siblings gained power only by killing the old God, Chronos, their father. And the threat that Zeus would be overthrown in turn is the basis of the Prometheus myth, which the romantics took up.

LI is interested in this cycle within the structure of myth because we take myths to be fundamental to roles and figures. Alan, commenting on LI’s happiness post the other day, justly criticized us for being rather vague about the place of the figure in our claim that figures “symbolize a human life through time." They both mediate between the social whole and the individual and operate as trans-individual myths. If you are looking around for them, look in the ad sections of newspapers – the help wanted sections and the personals ads, together, give you a sense of some of the mythical creatures that roam our America. The beautician, the banker, the administrative assistant, the SWM seeking SWF, the sexy middle aged man wants younger woman, here they are, demi-fabulous. One of my aims, in leveling an impossible, Quixote like lance against happiness, is to understand how these figures have changed over time.

Which is why I am going to do my next post about Heine’s funny little essay, the Gods in Exile.

But let’s put in a foreground note:

Paul Veyne wrote a fascinating book, Did the Greeks believe in their Myths, in which he contrasts the modern functionalist view of myth, which he dates back to Fontenelle in the late 17th century, with the Ancient philosophical view of myth, which saw them as stories arising, originally, from the acts of some heroic individual, and accruing legends over time. This was the Euhemerist idea, although as Veyne points out it, too, accepted the Greek division between the gods and the heroes.

“The Greeks distinguished between two domains; gods and heroes. For they did not understand myth or the mythmaking function in a general way but evaluated myths according to content. Criticism of the heroic generations consisted in transforming heroes into simple men and giving them a past that matched tht of what were called the human generations, that is, history since the Trojan war. The first step of this criticism was to remove the visible intervention of the gods from history. Not that the very existence of these gods was doubted in the least. But in our day the gods most often remain invisible to men. That was already the case even before the Trojan War, and the whole of the Homeric supernatural is nothing but invention and credulity. Criticism of religious beliefs indeed existed, but it was very different. Some thinkers purely and simply denied either the existence of a particular god or, perhaps, the existence of any of the gods in which the people believed. On the other hand, the immense majority of philosophers, as well as educated people, did not so much criticize the gods as seek an idea worthy of divine majesty.”

It is majesty – dignity, status, position – with which we are dealing here. When Justin and the early Christian fathers degraded the pagan gods, they were also making a comment on the whole of pagan culture. The nature of the gods was tied up with the decline or increase of a culture not just by the Psalmists or the Christian apologists, but also by pagan theologians. When Plutarch writes an essay about why the oracles have ceased to speak, he sets it in a conversation between, among others, Cleombrotus of Sparta, a traveler who has come back from Egypt, and one of his favorite interlocutors, Ammonius, a Pythagorean. First, Plutarch piously warns us away from a too iconoclastic view of myth:

“The story is told, my dear Terentius Priscus, that certain eagles or swans, flying from the uttermost parts of the earth towards its centre, met in Delphi at the omphalus, as it is called; fand at a later time Epimenides of Phaestus put the story to test by referring it to the god and upon receiving a vague and ambiguous oracle said,
Now do we know that there is no mid-centre of earth or of ocean;
Yet if there be, it is known to the gods, but is hidden from mortals
Now very likely the god repulsed him from his attempt to investigate an ancient myth as though it were a painting to be tested by the touch.”

Then he allows Cleombrotus to bring up a rather ridiculous theory of the degeneracy of the times – to wit, that the very year is decaying.

“He had recently been at the shrine of Ammon, and it was plain that he was not particularly impressed by most of the things there, but in regard to the ever-burning lamp he related a story told by the priests which deserves special consideration; it is that the lamp consumes less and less oil each year, and they hold that this is a proof of a disparity in the years, which all the time is making one year shorter in duration than its predecessor; for it is reasonable that in less duration of time the amount consumed should be less.”

Ammonius in particular shows that the explanation of the priests is ridiculous through use of an argument from plausibility – Occam’s razor before Occam was around – but the lamp story sets the stage for the discussion of why the oracles no longer speak. For the most likely explanation is that humanity has decayed. It is an explanation that is consistent with the notion that the heroic age is divided from the present age. But in the course of the conversation, Plutarch has Cleombrotus expound the notion of the daemons – the kind of spirits who became very popular in Meditteranean cultures around this time. That these words are put in Cleombrotus’ mouth might mean that Plutarch is not entirely committed to them. Still, this is a crucial passage in our mythical history.

"You are right," said Cleombrotus; "but since it is hard to apprehend and to define in what way and to what extent Providence should be brought in as an agent, those who make the god responsible for nothing at all and those make him responsible for all things alike go wide of moderation and propriety. They put the case well who say that Plato, by his discovery of the element underlying all created qualities, which is now called 'Matter' and 'Nature,' has relieved philosophers of many great perplexities; but, as it seems to me, those persons have resolved more and greater perplexities who have set the race of demigods [Demons – LI] midway between gods and men, and have discovered a force to draw together, in a way, and to unite our common fellowship — whether this doctrine comes from the wise men of the cult of Zoroaster, or whether it is Thracian and harks back to Orpheus, or is Egyptian, or Phrygian, as we may infer from observing that many things connected with death and mourning in the rites of both lands are combined in the ceremonies so fervently celebrated there. Among the Greeks, Homer, moreover, appears to use both names in common band sometimes to speak of the gods as demigods; but Hesiod was the first to set forth clearly and distinctly four classes of rational beings: gods, demigods, heroes, in this order, and, last of all, men; and as a sequence to this, apparently, he postulates his transmutation, the golden race passing selectively into many good divinities, and the demigods into heroes.

"Others postulate a transmutation for bodies and souls alike; in the same manner in which water is seen to be generated from earth, air from water, and fire from air, as their substance is borne upward, even so from men into heroes and from heroes into demigods the better souls obtain their transmutation. But from the demigods ca few souls still, in the long reach of time, because of supreme excellence, come, after being purified, to share completely in divine qualities. But with some of these souls it comes to pass that they do not maintain control over themselves, but yield to temptation and are again clothed with mortal bodies and have a dim and darkened life, like mist or vapour.”