The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

Sep 4, 2009

Like a Greek God

[From Allan Chapman’s series God in the Sky (Episode 2) on Channel 4]

In the beginning, according to the Ancient Greeks, there was no Heaven, no Earth, only Chaos. The only thing that existed in the midst of Chaos was a beautiful mighty goddess. She was black-winged Night. As black-winged Night danced, she set in motion Wind, which was something other than herself, with which she could begin the work of Creation. Night danced more and more wildly, arousing the sensual pleasure of the Wind, which coiled itself around her divine limbs and mated with her. And she became pregnant.

In the bosom of the infinite depths, black Night laid a silvery egg. We are told that after long revolutions over the ages, out of this egg, was born graceful Eros, the double-sexed goddess of sexual passion. And Eros brought out with her the Universe itself, the starry firmament set in motion. And to the stars, she added the Sun, the Earth, the Moon, and the planets.

According to the Greeks, the Universe was populated by a curious collection of gods and goddesses, whose adventures were recounted in the most bizarre stories. For example, we are told that after Eros set the cosmos in motion, mother Earth mated with Uranus, the sky god, and gave birth to the seven Titans, including the gigantic Atlas, whose job it was to guard the planets. But mother Earth became angry with her husband Uranus, and she persuaded her son Chronos to castrate his father. Chronos, whose name means time, stole into the royal bedchamber, and holding his sickle in one hand, crept up to Uranus; finding him asleep, he lifted Uranus’s tunic to reveal his father’s genitals, and he grabbed Uranus and castrated him. Chronos hurled the genitals into the sea, and from the foam they created, emerged the lovely Aphrodite, lovely and fatal.

Chronos then married his sister Rhea, who was also an Earth goddess. But it was prophesied that he would be overthrown by one of his own children, so every year that Rhea brought forth a child, Chronos would snatch it and swallow it. But Rhea grew tired of this and stole off one night to give birth in a place that Chronos could not reach. Thus Zeus was born, who in turn fathered two more planetary deities, warlike Ares and the swift Hermes, the speedy messenger of the gods.

001 What to make of all this? First of all, we should recognise that this creation myth shares a lot in common with creation myths of other peoples. These tales begin with primeval Chaos, out of which emerges the cosmic order of the gods in the sky, whose adventures often conceal important astronomical references. But the character of the Greek gods also reflects the nature of the planets. Saturn, the slowest and dimmest of the planets, was represented by the slow-witted Chronos, father of Time. Mercury, which whizzes around the Sun in only 88 days, was personified by Hermes. Jupiter, which is visible for most of the year, was represented by Zeus, King of the gods. Angry Mars, the red planet, was the warlike Ares. And Venus, which mysteriously appears and disappears, was the fickle Aphrodite, goddess of love.

But why did the Ancient Greeks worship the stars and the planets? Just like the Ancient Egyptians, the astronomical worship of gods in the sky had a practical application. The preoccupation here is with the understanding of Time, and this conundrum lies at the heart of many Greek myths. Take for example the story of Nemesis. She was a nymph goddess who always carried a wheel in one hand. We are told that Zeus fell in love with her and pursued her many months, eventually catching her and ravishing her. But we are also told that Nemesis pursued Zeus over many months, until she captured him and devoured him. This is a classic calendar myth, with the wheel of fortune representing the progress of the seasons, Zeus represents the Sun whose fortunes rise and fall as the year moves on. As the days lengthen and the fertile days of spring and summer dawn, so does Zeus enjoy good fortune. At the summer solstice, as the year moves to dreary autumn and bitter winter, Zeus is enfeebled and Nemesis devours him.

002 orion Different myths like this described the various phases of the solar year, and are found in a number of primitive societies. The Greek tales, however, went deeper, and a detailed examination of them reveals a close understanding of the movement of the planets and the stars. Take for example the myth of Orion. We are told that he fell in love with the lovely Merope, daughter of the King of Chios. Orion was the handsomest and cleverest hunter alive, but despite many attempts, he failed in his effort to marry Merope. When he was drunk in desperation, the cruel king of Chios crept up and put out his eyes. An oracle prophesied to Orion that he would regain his sight if he travelled to the east and showed his eye sockets to Helios. Although he couldn’t see, he was guided by the sound of hammering, which came from the workshop of the god Hephaistos, the smith of the pantheon, who made golden tables with the help of the one-eyed Cyclops. When Orion arrived in the east, it is said that the goddess of the dawn fell in love with him and persuaded her brother Helios to restore his eyesight. But then, we are told, Orion fell in love with the virgin Artemis, goddess of the silver bow. But her jealous brother Apollo sent a monstrous scorpion to pursue the hunter. Orion attacked the scorpion with arrows, but the scorpion’s armour protected it. Orion then attacked it with his sword, and failed again. He was forced to flee by diving into the sea. Apollo then persuaded Artemis that the figure bobbing up and down in the sea was some impudent mortal who had insulted her priestesses. And so Artemis was tricked into attacking and killing Orion. Upon realising her error, in her grief, Artemis set Orion and the scorpion into the heavens as constellations.

This myth is rife with astronomical references. Orion and Scorpio were names used by the Greeks to describe constellations as they are today. Helios was the Greek sun-god, whose chariot was built in the smithy of the crippled Hephaistos, who also built golden tables supported by three legs representing the three Greek seasons. Even the Cyclops was linked with the Sun, his single eye being an ancient solar symbol, as it had been for the Egyptians. Apollo, too, was associated with the Sun, while his sister Artemis, with her silver crescent bow, was the moon goddess.

The Orion myth contains important astronomical observations for time-keeping, in this case marking the beginning and end of summer. The Greeks noticed that the constellation Orion sank below the horizon for two months during spring, but rose up to mark the beginning of summer. His blindness represents his temporary absence from the heavens during spring, whilst the restoration of his sight by Helios, which 3000 years ago, would have coincided with the beginning of summer’s heat.

The Greeks also noted that at the end of summer, the sun rose in the constellation of Scorpio. In the myth, therefore, Orion gets chased off by the scorpion.

But was the point of these bizarre calendars? Well, (in KM’s honour) you’ll have to wait for part 2 of this post.


km said...

Fun, fun, fun. Nothing can beat these great stories.

I'm trying to remember - do any of our Indian/Hindu myths also begin with "chaos"?

(And see? The split post is so much more readable.)

Fëanor said...

Can't recall any Hindu creation myths suddenly, although I remember something about the age of Brahma and the oscillating Universe.

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