My first real job was an odd one: Over a period of a year, I had to proofread and edit two dictionary databases. In the process, I began to collect strange words such as septemfluous, rotl, crwth, and medioxumous. The last of these means of or relating to the middle class of deities. This post comes from Philip Matyszak’s amusing book The Classical Compendium. It consists of some classical deities of which you have likely never heard:
Viriplaca. The goddess who reconciled wives with their husbands after a quarrel.
Vervactor, The god who ensured a favourable first ploughing of fallow land.
Vallonia. As you might expect, the goddess of valleys.
Terminus. The god of boundary stones.
Sterculinus. The god of manure spreading [and of Fox News?]
Rumina. The goddess who protects nursing mothers.
Nona. The goddess who, with Decima, presided over the final months of pregnancy.
Meliona. The goddess of bees and honey.
Laverna [and Shirley?]. The goddess of thieves and conmen.
Titian’s painting of “The Rape of Europa” tells of how Zeus turned himself into a bull, seduced the beautiful Europa, and impregnated her. Here is one version of the tale from Greeka.Com:
The name of Europa is mentioned in many contexts, most of which deal with the divine union between a young girl and Zeus. The most popular myth about Europa says that she was the daughter of Agenor, a Phoenician king, and later became a wife of Zeus, the King of Gods.
According to the legend, Europa was the epitome of feminine beauty on Earth. Zeus once saw her on the seashore of Phoenicia playing with her friends. He was so captivated by her beauty that he fell in love with her and developed a strong desire to possess her. Immediately, he took the form of a white bull and approached her. The bull looked wonderful with its snow-white body and gem-like horns. Europa looked at the extraordinary animal curiously and dared to touch and later hang him because he appeared so calm to her. Later, she was somehow motivated to climb on his back.
As soon as she did so, Zeus ran to the sea and carried her all the way from Phoenicia to the island of Crete. There he regained his human form and mated with her under an evergreen tree. This was the abduction of Europa, who later gave birth to three sons of Zeus, Minos, Rhadamanthys and Sarpedon. These men were known for their fairness and became the three judges of the Underworld, when they died. In fact, Minos founded the town of Knossos and gave his name to an entire civilization, the Minoan civilization.
Zeus loved Europa so much that he showered her with three priceless gifts. The first one was a bronze man, Talos, who served as a guard to her. He was the bronze giant that the Argonauts met and killed in their attempt to shore on Crete. The second was a dog, Laelaps, which could hunt anything she wanted. The last one was a javelin that had the power to hit the target, whatever it was. Europa was later married to one of the kings of Crete, Asterius, who adopted her sons and made her the first queen of Crete.
And here is the Roman poet Ovid’s telling of the legend from The Metamorphoses, as translated by Darrell Hine:
Majesty is incompatible truly with love; they cohabit
Nowhere together. The father and chief of the gods, whose right hand is
Armed with the triple-forked lightning, who shakes the whole world with a nod, laid
Dignity down with his sceptre, adopting the guise of a bull that
Mixed with the cattle and lowed as he ambled around the fresh fields, a
Beautiful animal, colored like snow that no footprint has trodden
And which no watery south wind has melted. His muscular neck bulged,
Dewlaps hung down from his chin; his curved horns you might think had been hand carved,
Perfect, more purely translucent than pearl. His unthreatening brow and
Far from formidable eyes made his face appear tranquil. Agenor's
Daughter was truly amazed that this beautiful bull did not seem to
Manifest any hostility. Though he was gentle she trembled at first to
Touch him, but soon she approached him, adorning his muzzle with flowers.
Then he rejoiced as a lover and, while he looked forward to hoped for
Pleasures, he slobbered all over her hands, and could hardly postpone the
Joys that remained. So he frolicked and bounded about on the green grass,
Laying his snowy-white flanks on the yellowish sands. As her fear was
Little by little diminished, he offered his chest for her virgin
Hand to caress and his horns to be decked with fresh flowers. The royal
Maiden, not knowing on whom she was sitting, was even so bold as
Also to climb on the back of the bull. As the god very slowly
Inched from the shore and the dry land he planted his spurious footprints
Deep in the shallows. Thus swimming out farther, he carried his prey off
Into the midst of the sea. Almost fainting with terror she glanced back,
As she was carried away, at the shore left behind. As she gripped one
Horn in her right hand while clutching the back of the beast with the other,
Meanwhile her fluttering draperies billowed behind on the sea breeze.
Semonides of Amorgos (floruit 7th Century BC) is by no means the most famous ancient Greek poet. In Richmond Lattimore’s Greek Lyrics, which I read at Dartmouth in a class on ancient Greek literature in translation, there is a brief quote (the rest of the poem has been lost) to the effect that:
A woman thick around the ankles is no good.
There isn’t much literary quality there. In fact, there isn’t much of anything. But there is something about that line from 2,700-2,800 years ago that has somehow survived whereas many plays by Sophocles and Euripides haven’t.
And are men with thick ankles any good? I know that whenever I visit the doctor, she checks my ankles to see whether the blood is pooling there, indicating poor circulation. (I used to have thicker ankles, but over the last several years it’s been OK.)
There is a word in popular parlance describing the phenomenon. The word is cankles, combining the words calf and ankles. My Mom had cankles, but then she did have problems with blood circulation that eventually precipitated fatal heart failure in her 79th year. Based on my Mom and what I have picked up from my own doctors, cankles go with all kinds of bad things relating to the heart.
Now it is possible for cankles to not be related to heart or kidney failure. I just don’t know what else they could signify, other than obesity.
I read the following at one of my favorite websites, Laudator Temporis Acti for September 7, 2018, where it reminded me of a certain denizen of the White House. The speaker is Libanius in his Orations 1.255.
The successor of this ungodly fellow was another unbeliever himself. He took up his office and began to run to fat through his self-indulgence, as being a man of property, but his property was the fruit of his wickedness. He was more stupid than the other in that, upon my telling him to do no damage to Daphne and to lay no axe to its cypresses, he became my foe….
Further on, at 1.262, he writes:
The rule of our pot-bellied governor was a harsh one, for his wrath had been kindled by a piece of deceit. He had decided to lay the axe to the cypresses in Daphne, and I, realizing that such a course would bring no good to any who chopped them down, advised one of his boon companions that he should not incur the anger of Apollo because of the trees, especially since his temple had already been afflicted by similar misdeeds. I told him that I would invite the emperor to show concern for Daphne, or rather to emphasize the concern he felt already, for he was not without it, as it was.
Now imagine the cypresses in the Grove of Apollo were one of our recent National Monuments.
Libanius was a resident of Antioch in the fourth century A.D. He was a Greek teacher of rhetoric of the sophist school. Through the rise of Christianity, he remainded faithful to the old pagan state religion of Rome.
One of the greatest poets of the ancient world was Sappho—the only woman, with a voice unmistakably feminine even though so little remains of her work. And everything that remains appears in Anne Carson’s If Not, Winter (New York: Alfred A Knopf, 2002).
I have read a number of Anne Carson’s translations from the Greek and love all of them, especially the four Euripidean tragedies collected in Grief Lessons. This is a very different book, four hundred pages of mostly white space. Only a single poem has come down to us in its entirety; as for the rest, we have nothing but fragments.
Yet even in those fragments, we have a soft feminine voice, one with occasionally lesbian nuances:
I would rather see her lovely step
and the motion of light on her face
than chariots of Lydians or ranks
of footsoldiers in arms.
In the following fragment, the lacunae are indicated by square brackets, yet the meaning still comes across:
]for when I look at you
]such a Hermione
]and to yellowhaired Helen I liken you
]among mortal women, know this
]from every care
]you could release me
]to last all night long
]you will remember
]for we in our youth
did these things
yes many and beautiful things
Sometimes, all that Anne Carson has to work with in a single word or two, yet even then something comes across.
If Not, Winter is a quick read, but it leaves a strong impression.
On the Laudator Temporis Acti website, I ran into two quotes from Euripides which go a long way toward explaining the genius of the ancient Greeks.
From the David Kovacs translation of Medea, lines 627-641, comes these lines:
Loves that come to us in excess bring no good name or goodness to men. If Aphrodite comes in moderation, no other goddess brings such happiness. Never, O goddess, may you smear with desire one of your ineluctable arrows and let it fly against my heart from your golden bow!
May moderation attend me, fairest gift of the gods! May dread Aphrodite never cast contentious wrath and insatiate quarreling upon me and madden my heart with love for a stranger’s bed! But may she honor marriages that are peaceful and wisely determine whom we are to wed!
I am reminded of the truth of this observation from a birthday party I attended many years ago. An acquaintance whom I will not name, in the middle of all his friends, gave his bride thirty pounds of potatoes, one for each year of her life. Their love match had clearly turned sour, and the party broke up early after his shaming of his wife.
The next lines come from Euripides’s Iphigeneia in Aulis, also translated by Kovacs:
Blessed are they who with moderation
and self-control where the goddess is concerned
share in the couch of Aphrodite,
experiencing the calm absence
of mad passion’s sting. In love
twofold are the arrows of pleasure
golden-haired Eros sets on his bowstring,
the one to give us a blessed fate,
the other to confound our life.
I forbid him, O Cypris most lovely,
to come to my bedchamber!
May my joy be moderate,
my desires godly,
may I have a share in Aphrodite
but send her away when she is excessive!
I, too, could have been in this situation had the beautiful young pediatrician I was pursuing had turned around and acceded to my passion. But she didn’t, and I found someone better—though I did go through a few rocky years in the interval.
Just because they wore togas and spoke Classical Greek, that doesn’t mean that the ancient Greeks were all that high and mighty. One of the more amusing exhibits at the Getty Villa that Martine and I saw yesterday afternoon illustrated a different and more down to earth use for an amphora.
A bibulous reveler is shown urinating into the amphora (or, more technically, a chous) held up by his slave boy while continuing to declaim his sodden oration.
The closer one gets to the ancient Greeks and Romans, the more we see people very much like ourselves. The conditions of their lives were radically different, but they were recognizably human in he same way we are. Read the letters of Cicero or Pliny the Younger and you will enter a whole new world peopled with recognizable characters.
Roman Statue at the Getty Villa Depicting Leda and the Swan
Today, Martine and I spent most of the day at the Getty Villa in Pacific Palisades visiting their collection of ancient Greek, Roman, and Etruscan art. One of the pieces is a statue depicting the rape of Leda by Zeus in the form of a swan.
I cannot think of the subject without recalling William Butler Yeats’s poem, “Leda and the Swan”:
A sudden blow: the great wings beating still
Above the staggering girl, her thighs caressed
By the dark webs, her nape caught in his bill,
He holds her helpless breast upon his breast.
How can those terrified vague fingers push
The feathered glory from her loosening thighs?
And how can body, laid in that white rush,
But feel the strange heart beating where it lies?
A shudder in the loins engenders there
The broken wall, the burning roof and tower
And Agamemnon dead.
Being so caught up,
So mastered by the brute blood of the air,
Did she put on his knowledge with his power
Before the indifferent beak could let her drop?
According to Greek mythology, the children born of that rape were Polydeuces and Helen of Troy. The latter was responsible for the Trojan War when she was willingly abducted by Paris (no relation). Her half-sister was Clytemnestra, daughter of Leda’s legitimate husband Tyndareus. She was traumatized by the god’s rape of her mother. And Clytemnestra, of course, murdered her own husband Agamemnon when he returned from Troy. All this makes Yeats’s poem a wry comment on the inter-relatedness of history.
It was the Sixth Century BC, and Phalaris, the Greek Tyrant of Agrigentum, described a voting public not so different from our own:
The people, as a whole, are undisciplined, senseless, unmanageable, very ready to be turned in any direction whatsoever, faithless, fickle, passionate, treacherous, mistaken, a mere useless noise, and easily swayed toward praise and toward anger.
The odd thing was that Phalaris is remembered primarily for his cruelty. He built a hollow brass bull in which he roasted his enemies alive. No less a poet than Pindar described his atrocities a hundred years later.
I owe this quote to my favorite source of the thinkers of past times, especially the Greek and Roman classics, namely: Laudator Temporis Acti.
Some day, if you feel like reading some great ancient Greek tragedies, I recommend you try to find a copy of Anne Carson’s Grief Lessons. She takes four relatively little-known plays by Euripides and turns them into wonderful poems in English, such as the following:
Come here, let me share a bit of wisdom with you.
Have you given much thought to our mortal condition?
Probably not. Why would you? Well, listen. All mortals owe a debt to death.
There’s no one alive
who can say if he will be tomorrow.
Our fate moves invisibly! A mystery.
No one can teach it, no one can grasp it.
Accept this! Cheer up! Have a drink!
But don’t forget Aphrodite–that’s one sweet goddess.
You can let the rest go. Am I making sense?
I think so. How about a drink.
Put on a garland. I’m sure
the happy splash of wine will cure your mood.
We’re all mortal you know. Think mortal.
Because my theory is, there’s no such thing as life, it’s just catastrophe.
And here is a kind of prose poem from the February 25, 2016 issue of The New York Review of Books entitled “What To Say of the Entirety”:
What to say of the entirety. The entirety should be smaller. Small enough to say something about. Humans. What if the guy you’re hanging up by this thumbs already has a razorplague of painapples roaming his chest inside. Do you regard that as his own fault? Do you really need to make it worse? Do you think of yourself as a well-loved person? Of course these are separate questions. Like dead salmon and coppermine tailings, separate. So these separations, this anesthesia, we should ponder a bit. Humans. What can you control? Wrong question. Can you treat everything as an emergency without losing the reality of time, which continues to drip, laughtear by laughtear? Where to start? Start in the middle (and why?) so as not to end up there, where for example the torture report ended up after all those years of work. You have to know what you want, know what you think, know where to go. New York City actually. Here we are. Trucks crash by. Or was that another row of doors slammed by gods? They’re soaked, the gods, they’ve tucked their toes up on their thrones as if they don’t know why this is happening. Poor old coxcombs.
I’m still trying to get my head around Anne Carson’s poetry … but then, that’s how I know it’s really good!