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Posts Tagged ‘Athena’

Paganism is about honoring the fundamental aspects of authentic human experience. It’s about looking at the parts of existence that are terrifying and overwhelming and trying to figure out what they mean: things like birth, death, sex, war, love, art, and even the powerful, capricious, and unpredictable forces of the natural world. The gods give rise to these essential facets of human experience (and/or are themselves born from them), and to deny one or more of the gods because there is no place in your life or your worldview or your schema for the things they represent is to deny a fundamental part of who you are.

War is a part of being human. It may be ugly, brutal, and horrifying, but it is omnipresent. To be truly human is to know war. To reject Ares because you reject war is to reject a part of what it means to be you. And to reject Ares because you reject war means also rejecting warlike aspects of many of the other gods as well: Athena, Aphrodite, Zeus, Dionyus just off the top of my head.

Who would Ares be without war? A god of mental conflict? A god of physical exertion? We already have those gods. Ares is a god of a lot of things, and there are a lot of lenses through which to view Ares, but he is primarily a god of war. Trying to edit the war out of Ares is like trying to edit the sex out of Aphrodite. I don’t know what you’re left with, but it isn’t the real deal. That kind of selective approach to the gods is apparently pretty popular among neopagans, but I honestly don’t think it’s a road that is going to take you anywhere worth being.

Think about it: the soldier knows both war and peace, but the pacifist tries to know only peace. The pacifist is rejecting an entire part of human existence because it does not suit him or her. Whether that’s a thing worth doing, or a thing we should be doing, is not actually the issue. But I would maintain that trying to edit human existence to remove the bits we don’t like is just not what any kind of real paganism is about. Christianity does that, with its vision of a new heaven and a new earth. Not paganism.

I also don’t think, with regards to Ares, that it’s a question of whether violence is necessary or justified, but merely whether it is an essential facet of human existence. Violence IS. War IS. We can play at quasi-Christianity if we want and imagine a utopia where violence no longer exists, but even in Christianity that requires massive divine intervention. The overwhelming, unanimous weight of human history tells us in no uncertain terms and with no exceptions that war and violence are fundamentally a part of the human condition.

Whether or not this reality is morally acceptable is a question that is, in my opinion, not even on paganism’s radar. Violence is a part of human reality, and paganism is about how we honor and respond to human reality. The ethics of paganism ask not whether a violent society is morally acceptable, but instead ask “given that violence and war exist as a part of the human condition, how do you respond virtuously?”

Look to the epics, the philosophers, and the myths. Look to the maxims. Tell me what the answer is. The world is violent–we honor that when we honor Ares. The question is how you respond with virtue when presented with that violence, whether you’re a kid in the hall at school getting beaten up by bullies, a young man who just got his draft notice, or a parent whose family is threatened.

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I believe in the Hellenic gods.  I have personally experienced their presence and their effect on my life.  I think that worshipping an honoring them in a traditional way makes sense.  I pray to Zeus, to Hermes, to Ares, to Aphrodite, to Hera, Athena, Dionysus, Artemis, Hestia and the other Olympians.  And I believe that I should also be finding ways to honor Pan, the nymphs, and the other immediate, present land-spirits.  I think that Euripides’s The Bacchae is one of the most intense, meaningful, and wise pieces of literature ever composed.  I believe that classical ethics and the Golden Mean remain–as they always have been–the best and most reliable guide for human behavior.

I have a strong pull towards personal mysticism and inner work: I have a strong desire to explore the landscape of the unconscious.  I think there is immense truth to the work of Jung.  Somehow, rock and roll, Dionysus, the Holy Grail, Jim Morrison, and snakes are all tied up in this.  And probably tarot, too.  I believe that there is something to be accomplished, some Great Work, some journey.  A journey outward into the literal Wilderness that is also a journey inward into the Wilderness of the human psyche.  There’s something there that wants to be discovered.

I believe that the Bhagavad-Gita and the Upanishads, taken together, are an unsurpassed work of spiritual genius.  Reading them is like drinking light and wisdom.  I think that the philosophy of Vedanta comes the closest of any human philosophy to explaining the universe as we are situated in it.  If there is such thing as enlightenment–and I have to believe that there is–then the path outlined in the Gita has to be the way to find it.

So what does that add up to?  I don’t cast spells, or do any magic(k), or even really believe that other people who claim to are actually doing anything.  I don’t celebrate the wheel of the year.  I’ve tried, and it just didn’t click like I thought it was going to–it always seems like it should be relevant and emaningful and important to me but I never am able to make it be anything other than awkward and ill-fitting, like an outfit that looked great on the mannequin but just fits me terribly.  I think.  Or maybe I was somehow doing it wrong.  I don’t believe in assembling a homemade pantheon of gods that I “work with.”  I don’t think “working with” gods is a very good term at all, if nothing else because it fundamentally  misunderstands our relationship to them and in a terrible act of hubris tries to convert them into tools for our use.  I do divinations with tarot–and have often had uncanny insights–but sometimes I think the randomness of drawing cards causes me to miss the power and symbolism that the tarot has as a whole and in all of its parts.  I believe in right and wrong, but I don’t believe that we need salvation from sin.  I’m not sure if I believe in literal reincarnation, or literal life after death (I don’t deny either one: I just don’t know).  I’m inclined to agree on a philosophical level with the revival Druids, but when it comes down to specifics, none of what they do really reaches out and grabs me.  I’m not an ecofeminist.  I’m not a pacifist.  I’m not politically very liberal. 

I don’t feel much in common with most people who get included in the boader umbrella of “paganism” or neo-paganism; I don’t even think that the broader umbrella is a meaningful category because it includes too many things that have nothing in common other than being-clumped-together-into-the-category.  I’m not a Christian, but I have no fundamental problem with or hostility against Christianity.

So what, then?  What am I?  How do these pieces fit together?  How do I move forward, given all of this?  What’s the next step for me, spiritually?  Who am I and what does this all mean?  What does it mean for me as a father, a husband, a lawyer, a brother, a human being?  How do I keep myself from getting pulled away into tangents and driven off-course and away from things I hold sacred by the countless diversions and slippery slopes and spectra of meaning and practice that all of these disparate threads seem to be tied to?

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My belief in the gods is based largely on two things: 1. I find them compelling enough to believe in, and 2. I have experienced their presence, existence, and sometimes even immanence. Not so with Athena. Of all of the major Hellenic gods, Athena has just never seemed that real to me. She’s the goddess of civilization and wisdom, and as an almost-lawyer, she should probably even be my patron, but she just seems nonexistent. At the risk of being impious, I have even siggested on a number of occasions that I thought maybe she wasn’t actually real at all. Maybe the Athenians made her up in some kind of self-serving bid for a patron goddess they could make in their own image.

I mentioned it again today, in a series of text messages to my brother. Recently he ran for class president at his law school, and lacking any other real religious direction of his own, but also not really a commited atheist, he decided what-the-hellishly to pray for help from my gods. Among others (Hermes and Nike I think), he made an offering to Athena. He was a bit disappointed when he lost, and it wasn’t much of a religious conversion moment for him (the Hellenic gods didn’t come through for him, so he has been soured a bit as far as future faith goes). I tried to console him by suggesting that perhaps Athena did not answer his prayer because she is not real.

That was this afternoon, while I was hiking in the woods. Later this evening, I went running around the apartment complex. It was after dark, which is normal for me; I go running at night around the compex all the time, as it is challengingly hilly and conveniently one mile around. Furthermore, while I was running, I was talking on the phone. To my brother.

Suddenly this big bird flies down from behind a lamp-post. And not just any bird. An owl. A big gray owl flies from behind a lamp-post, right over my head, no more than four feet above me, and then flies past me and into a tree, sending terrified little birds scattering.

Now, I realize that owls probably live around here, even though I have never personally seen one. And I realize that I might be just engaging in magical thinking, or making connections that are not really there. But on the very day that I suggest the nonexistence of Athena, a member of a pantheon of gods whose existence I otherwise heartily affirm, I get a fly-by by a big owl. The symbol of Athena. The only time I have ever seen an owl in the wild in my entire life.

My brother pointed out a very real possibility: “Maybe Athena just isn’t interested in you.” Good call, bro.

I hereby publicly apologize to Athena for my impiety. I pledge to never again suggest or imply her nonexistence, and at the next opportunity I will make an offering to her to make up for being a pompous, arrogant mortal.

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As a little kid in elementary school, I was obsessed with Greek mythology.  In high school I branched out into Celtic and Arthurian lore, and then in college I fell in love with Vikings and Norse mythology, but the pattern is fairly consistent: for most of my life, myth and legend have resonated strongly and deeply with me, and I mostly haven’t known what to do about it.  To emphasize, this stuff has hit me deep, much more so than just cool stories.  I felt there was a transcendent truth to mythology–especially the mythology of my genealogical and cultural ancestors.

As a Mormon, the best reconciliation for this was that the world’s mythologies contain truth but in a corrupted form.  All nations in the world can trace their ancestry back to Adam and Eve, in other words to someone who knew the truth of the gospel, and thus their religion and lore contained bits and fragments of Eternal Truth.  This is a decent attempt at reconciliation, but never really flew for me, especially since myth and legend worked its magic on me on a deep, primal level that Mormonism never could reach.

C. S. Lewis attempted a similar reconciliation in Miracles by claiming that these myths, especially inasmuch as they had parallels or thematic similarities to Christianity, were a kind of “good dream,” sent by God as a kind of mental preparation for the message of Jesus Christ.  This makes a lot of sense in the larger context of Lewis’s work, since he gives a lot of credit to the wisdom of our pagan ancestors and feels that it is applicable to Christianity.  More than once he claims that you can’t convert someone from atheism to Christianity, but that you have to learn to be a good pagan before you can learn to be a good Christian.  That works better for me than the Mormon version, but since I still have significant problems with Christianity, the need to reconcile the two sort of fades away over time.

Since leaving Mormonism and trying to figure out what I really do believe, I have gone back and forth because I have to reconcile a lot of different values, interests, and spiritual feelings that are not necessarily tied together in a neat package.  This came to a head last fall when I went to see Amon Amarth and Ensiferum in concert.  At the time I had been mentally committed to Christianity for awhile–I was doing my best to figure out how to proceed as a Christian even though progress was sort of slow and fumbling.  But I went to this overtly pagan heavy metal show, and it reached deep and struck those primal chords that are always compelled by myth and legend.  I walked away form the concert deeply confused and troubled, because here I was trying to be a Christian, when paganism is, at least spiritually speaking, so much more compelling to me.

So I was left muddled for a bit.  The viable options seemed like continuing on with (probably Episcopal) Christianity, AODA Druidry (still), and some kind of pagan reconstructionism.  The problem with all of them was that I had different reasons to find them all compelling to different extents, but none of them had provided me with an experience that was sufficiently Dionysian to make me want to commit spiritually.  Even my romance with mythology was not concrete or well-formed enough to compel me to some kind of spiritual action and/or commitment.  It was just another inconsistent piece of the puzzle–something that seemed really important but I didn’t know what to do with it.

In particular, the concert left me thinking about Ásatrú and Germanic neopagan reconstructionism generally.  There was something there that reached me spiritually, but for some reason, I couldn’t get my head into a place where I felt comfortable saying “this is my spiritual path.” I couldn’t shake the feeling that 1. it just seemed too much like LARPing, and I wanted to have a real, relevant spiritual direction, not to play Viking, and 2. as compelling as I found it, I just… didn’t really believe in the existence of the Norse gods.

Then a series of epiphanies hapened, that have resulted in monumental change in the way I think about religion.  First, my wife and I watched Battlestar Galactica through again, starting with the miniseries.  The human refugees in the show believe in the “Lords of Kobol,” which, at least in the reimagined series, are the Greek gods–they actually pray to Athena, Zeus, and Ares, and it doesn’t seem strange.  What I am saying is that thei belief in the Greek gods did not seem anachronistic.  It opened my eyes to a kind of ongoing universality to those gods–as a western person, the Greek gods are so embedded in my heritage that it was plausible to see the Colonial survivors believe in them and worship them without it seeming inconsistent or like they were playing Ancient Greek.

In particular I was struck by one scene, in the miniseries, where Starbuck quietly prays to idols of Athena and Aphrodite.  There was something so genuine and authentic about it, and so spiritual and intimate, that it really touched me, and set wheels in motion–maybe the Greek gods have a relevance to me that–as cool as I think they are–the Norse gods don’t?  It made me curious, at least, to look into it more, which led to my next powerful epiphany.

I was on the subway reading Edith Hamilton’s Mythology and listening to my iPod.  For the most part, Hamilton is kind of dry, but when I came to the chapter on Dionysus, there was something about the writing that seemed, I don’t know, different somehow.  Out of nowhere, the book grew vivid, compelling, vibrant, and relevant to me.  And then my iPod–on shuffle–started to play the Passacaglia from Battlestar Galactica’s soundtrack.  The combination of the two did something to me.  It was like it moved me into another state of consciousness, almost a trance.  I felt a closeness to Dionysus, I felt his reality.  I could tell you what he smells like, even.  I can feel in my mind what it is like to be in the presence of this god and physically touch him.  It was amazing.  It left my head reeling.

For the next several months I just kind of let that stew.  It was important to me, but I wasn’t sure what t do about it.  I started pouring out libations to Dionysus, and even to some of the other Greek gods, and it seemed fitting and proper. But I wasn’t engaged in any actual practice other than that, and putting together a playlist of songs (including the Passacaglia) that were particularly evocative of divinity in general and of Dionysus in specific.

The next, and perhaps the most significant event happened months later, about five or six weeks ago.  Iw as studying for a Tax exam and I was letting myself get distracted.  My experience with Dionysus had me looking a little more into Hellenic polytheism, mostly courtesy of executivepagan‘s blogroll, and I was thinking about the involvement of the gods in my life, what gods seemed more real than others, and what gods wereparticularly relevant to me.  I was thinking about war gods actually.  I’m an infantryman in the Army National Guard, and so warfare is a significant factor in my life.  The main war gods of the Greeks were Ares, not a very well-liked or sympathetic god, and Athena, who despite the fact that I am a law student and part-time soldier, just doesn’t seem real or accessible to me.  I was reading about Aphrodite, who I had had in mind recently in terms of love, romance, and sex in my relationship with my beautiful and sexy wife, and I came across something interesting: there is a warlike aspect to Aphrodite.  Some of her names include “well-armed,” “warlike,” and “bringer of victory.”  The more I thought about this aspect of Aphrodite, the more excited I became.

What happened next was nothing short of amazing.  My excitement built and built, overflowing the boundaries into a kind of rolling epiphany, and from there it kept exploding inside me until it was full-blown euphoria.  I felt the presence of a goddess.  It was like being high, and it wasn’t fleeting or momentary; it lasted for hours before it finally subsided.  It was like falling in love with a deity–it felt so warm and my pulse was racing and it was all I could think about.  It was classical mystical euphoria–the paradigmatic experience of divinity.  It was the thing I had been waiting for, and it happened to me.

So there I am.  The way forward is not necessarily obvious to me: I can think of a lot of different possible ramifications for these experiences, and I intend to write a post about them later.  But I have had vivid spiritual experiences with these gods, this wasn’t the kind of “spiritual experience” I had grown so skeptical of because of my history with Mormonism.  I wasn’t trying to provoke these; I wasn’t dead set on feeling something, looking for any emotional condition that I could ascribe a spiritual dimension to.  These came almost out of nowhere.  These were surprises that I was neither looking for nor expecting.

The end result is that I not only believe in god, but I believe in gods.

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Mary Lefkowitz wrote an excellent article for the LA Times a little more than a year ago about the Greek gods that’s well worth reading.

Bring back the Greek gods

Mere mortals had a better life when more than one ruler presided from on high.

By Mary Lefkowitz
October 23, 2007 in print edition A-27

Prominent secular and atheist commentators have argued lately that religion “poisons” human life and causes endless violence and suffering. But the poison isn’t religion; it’s monotheism. The polytheistic Greeks didn’t advocate killing those who worshiped different gods, and they did not pretend that their religion provided the right answers. Their religion made the ancient Greeks aware of their ignorance and weakness, letting them recognize multiple points of view.

There is much we still can learn from these ancient notions of divinity, even if we can agree that the practices of animal sacrifice, deification of leaders and divining the future through animal entrails and bird flights are well lost.

My Hindu students could always see something many scholars miss: The Greek gods weren’t mere representations of forces in nature but independent beings with transcendent powers who controlled the world and everything in it. Some of the gods were strictly local, such as the deities of rivers and forests. Others were universal, such as Zeus, his siblings and his children.

Zeus did not communicate directly with humankind. But his children — Athena, Apollo and Dionysus — played active roles in human life. Athena was the closest to Zeus of all the gods; without her aid, none of the great heroes could accomplish anything extraordinary. Apollo could tell mortals what the future had in store for them. Dionysus could alter human perception to make people see what’s not really there. He was worshiped in antiquity as the god of the theater and of wine. Today, he would be the god of psychology.

Zeus, the ruler of the gods, retained his power by using his intelligence along with superior force. Unlike his father (whom he deposed), he did not keep all the power for himself but granted rights and privileges to other gods. He was not an autocratic ruler but listened to, and was often persuaded by, the other gods.

Openness to discussion and inquiry is a distinguishing feature of Greek theology. It suggests that collective decisions often lead to a better outcome. Respect for a diversity of viewpoints informs the cooperative system of government the Athenians called democracy.

Unlike the monotheistic traditions, Greco-Roman polytheism was multicultural. The Greeks and Romans did not share the narrow view of the ancient Hebrews that a divinity could only be masculine. Like many other ancient peoples in the eastern Mediterranean, the Greeks recognized female divinities, and they attributed to goddesses almost all of the powers held by the male gods.

The world, as the Greek philosopher Thales wrote, is full of gods, and all deserve respect and honor. Such a generous understanding of the nature of divinity allowed the ancient Greeks and Romans to accept and respect other people’s gods and to admire (rather than despise) other nations for their own notions of piety. If the Greeks were in close contact with a particular nation, they gave the foreign gods names of their own gods: the Egyptian goddess Isis was Demeter, Horus was Apollo, and so on. Thus they incorporated other people’s gods into their pantheon.

What they did not approve of was atheism, by which they meant refusal to believe in the existence of any gods at all. One reason many Athenians resented Socrates was that he claimed a divinity spoke with him privately, but he could not name it. Similarly, when Christians denied the existence of any gods other than their own, the Romans suspected political or seditious motives and persecuted them as enemies of the state.

The existence of many different gods also offers a more plausible account than monotheism of the presence of evil and confusion in the world. A mortal may have had the support of one god but incur the enmity of another, who could attack when the patron god was away. The goddess Hera hated the hero Heracles and sent the goddess Madness to make him kill his wife and children. Heracles’ father, Zeus, did nothing to stop her, although he did in the end make Heracles immortal.

But in the monotheistic traditions, in which God is omnipresent and always good, mortals must take the blame for whatever goes wrong, even though God permits evil to exist in the world he created. In the Old Testament, God takes away Job’s family and his wealth but restores him to prosperity after Job acknowledges God’s power.

The god of the Hebrews created the Earth for the benefit of humankind. But as the Greeks saw it, the gods made life hard for humans, didn’t seek to improve the human condition and allowed people to suffer and die. As a palliative, the gods could offer only to see that great achievement was memorialized. There was no hope of redemption, no promise of a happy life or rewards after death. If things did go wrong, as they inevitably did, humans had to seek comfort not from the gods but from other humans.

The separation between humankind and the gods made it possible for humans to complain to the gods without the guilt or fear of reprisal the deity of the Old Testament inspired. Mortals were free to speculate about the character and intentions of the gods. By allowing mortals to ask hard questions, Greek theology encouraged them to learn, to seek all the possible causes of events. Philosophy — that characteristically Greek invention — had its roots in such theological inquiry. As did science.

Paradoxically, the main advantage of ancient Greek religion lies in this ability to recognize and accept human fallibility. Mortals cannot suppose that they have all the answers. The people most likely to know what to do are prophets directly inspired by a god. Yet prophets inevitably meet resistance, because people hear only what they wish to hear, whether or not it is true. Mortals are particularly prone to error at the moments when they think they know what they are doing. The gods are fully aware of this human weakness. If they choose to communicate with mortals, they tend to do so only indirectly, by signs and portents, which mortals often misinterpret.

Ancient Greek religion gives an account of the world that in many respects is more plausible than that offered by the monotheistic traditions. Greek theology openly discourages blind confidence based on unrealistic hopes that everything will work out in the end. Such healthy skepticism about human intelligence and achievements has never been needed more than it is today.

I’m not going to claim that the article is flawless: a quick Google search for “Hindu nationalist violence” will demonstrate pretty easily that polytheists are just as capable of violence in the name of their gods as monotheists are. However, I think you can make the case that Hindu religious violence is a primarily cultural rather than specifically religious affair–they’re not lashing out because people refuse to accept the truth of Vishnu, but because they perceive their culture as one that is under siege by a long history of encroachment by Muslims and Christians into India.

At the same time, I think editorials like Lefkowitz’s are important, if for nothing else than to make us think about the plausibility and, well, the utility of polytheism. In modern civilization, polytheism gets a bad rap, honestly. Most people would discard it as completely implausible, even ridiculous, but the only reason they think that is because monotheistic religions–religions that have had a privileged place in western culture and society for over a thousand years–ridicule them.

Even atheists who discard polytheism out of hand do so not because they have dealt with polytheism on its own terms. Instead they’re rejecting a monotheist caricature of polytheism. Polytheism is frankly not treated fairly.

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This post by Sannion is excellent. I shall quote it in its entirety, because I want people to actually read it and not just follow a link, which I don’t think people are likely to actually just do. But if you do read it, be considerate and follow the link, so Sannion gets the hit and thus full credit.

The Other Aphrodite

Everyone knows the goddess Aphrodite, right? The blonde, buxom, bubble-headed beauty rising from the waves on a conch shell, surrounded by fat little flying cupids, flowers, birds, and golden sunlight gleaming off of her diaphanous gown that doesn’t leave a whole lot to the imagination. Her gifts to mortal-kind are grace, feminine wiles, the warmth of love, successful relationships, and everything that is sweet and pleasant about life.

This image of the goddess has been a favorite of poets and painters down through the ages and has become deeply imbedded in our collective unconscious. Even people who do not recognize the divinity of Aphrodite respond to the power of this image, as evidenced by the lasting interest in faded celebrities such as Marilyn Monroe and Anna Nicole Smith, who have both been likened to the goddess by lazy journalists more times than one can count.

And yet, this is only half of the picture. There is, literally, a darker Aphrodite lurking just beneath the surface, a powerful and dangerous goddess smiling enigmatically from the shadows, forgotten and scorned, but waiting to teach her mysteries to those unwilling to accept superficial appearances and easy answers.

We encounter this side of the goddess in a host of random passages scattered throughout the works of various Classical authors, usually alongside more standard representations of her. When the unsuspecting student first discovers them it is often a jarring experience, conflicting, as it does, with our accepted, sanitized notions of who the goddess is and what her realm represents. Some might be inclined to reject them outright, to say that the ancients were mistaken in giving the name of Aphrodite to this deity, that these ideas just don’t fit or make any sense with the rest of what we know about her. (Others may be inclined to reject them because then they’d have to take her seriously: it’s common in the Neopagan community to dismiss Aphrodite as frivolous, vacuous, unimportant and contrary to a conception of modern, powerful women. How different they might feel if they were aware of this other Aphrodite!)

I maintain that these images and ideas are fundamental to a true conception of the goddess, and that they make perfect sense with and can even help elucidate some of her other aspects. Aphrodite is not a patchwork, contradictory, hybrid creature – but a whole and mighty goddess who can only be understood in her totality, both light and dark, joyous and frightening, merciful and cruel – and I would like to help draw the reader’s attention to just how complex and wonderful a deity Aphrodite can be through the following pages.

To begin with, let us examine some of the unusual names that have been bestowed upon this goddess, both in poetry and cult.

In his travels through Sparta Pausanias described visiting a temple of Aphrodite Areia “War-like” where the goddess was depicted armed and wearing a full panolopy or suit of armor. (3.17.5) In Arkadia (8.9.6) he found a cult of Aphrodite Summakhia “Ally in Battle”, while elsewhere (10.19.6) he discovered an Aphrodite Nikephoros “Bringer of Victory”. What, one may reasonably ask, does a goddess of love have to do with warfare? This is precisely the charge that Homer has Athene bring against her sister when she urges her favorite Diomedes to attack the lovely goddess, piercing her with his spear, and driving her shrieking from the blood-drenched battlefield to cower at the feet of Zeus. (Iliad 5.297-430)

It is a naïve question. Anyone who has ever felt the stirring of a true and intense love understands what a violent and overwhelming emotion it can be. Eros, love, is a madness that comes upon us unexpectedly, disrupting our nicely ordered lives, throwing everything into confusion, making otherwise sensible men and women do things they would never contemplate in their right minds. People risk everything for love – wealth, status, family, even life itself scarcely matters in the face of this overwhelming mania. Look at how many politicians have been ruined because of sexual indiscretions; how many families broken apart because of infidelity; how many once-promising careers have been snuffed out because the person couldn’t let go of someone that was dragging them down into the muck; how many lovesick souls have been driven to murder or suicide after being rejected. And the Trojan War, the greatest event in Greek history, was caused by an illicit love affair. Love, as the Greeks well knew, was a powerful, dangerous thing – but it could also be channeled towards a positive, community-strengthening end.

Why, after all, do we do the things that we do? Why do we have families, go to work, live in cities, create laws, fight wars, aspire to improve ourselves and try to leave the world a better place than we found it?

The answer is: Love. That ephemeral, invisible, constantly shifting and impossible-to-pin-down emotion that lies at the heart of everything we do and are. Love is connection. It’s what brings two people together, an unbreakable bond that unites disparate souls as mysteriously as the force of gravity keeps the atoms from spinning out into chaotic dissolution. If there was no love, people would live by themselves in barbarous solitude, never sparing a thought for anything other than their most basic, primal animal needs. It is love that makes civilization possible. For through love we feel a desire to connect with our fellows, to find a way such as language to express our thoughts and understand theirs. Love causes us to place the other person’s needs above our own, to do things that inconvenience us so that their life will be improved, even if there is no more tangible reward for that labor than the person’s affection. Love, further, induces us to put ourselves at risk solely to protect our beloved and their property. Men brawl in the streets to defend the honor of their girlfriends; mothers find the courage to face ferocious beasts when their children are at risk; nations clash over ideals that they deeply cherish. It is love that inspires all of this – as well as honor and pride.

For what is honor, but the desire for the one you love to look fondly upon you? People change the way they act, the way they dress, their level of education, and even their professions simply to impress other people. They will suffer great indignities and even death solely to avoid losing face before countrymen, family, friends, and romantic partners, all of whom they love in different ways.

In his Life of Alexander Plutarch discussed how love made men better soldiers. The Sacred Band of Thebes, which was comprised of pairs of lovers, was considered the greatest fighting force in antiquity because they never backed down out of fear of appearing shameful and forfeiting the love of their partner. Death was preferable to that horrible fate. And when Alexander finally defeated them he wept for the loss of such glorious and unmatched warriors. It was Aphrodite who brought them such undying fame, thus proving that her epiklesis “Ally in War” was an apt one.

Equally appropriate are the names that portray Aphrodite as dark or nocturnal. This may strike some as contradictory – after all, Aphrodite was called Khrusee “golden” (Homeric hymn 5) and Olumpian “brightly shining” (Pausanias 3.12.11); she emerged from the oceanic depths into the joyous sunlit world attended by the Horai and Kharites who adorned her with radiant gowns, shining jewelry, and brightly colored flowers of every hue (Kypria frg. 6). Even her star – the planet Venus – burns the brightest of all the heavenly bodies. She is a warm, glowing, pleasantly intoxicating goddess – at her appearance our flesh flushes with her heat – so how can she be connected with something cold and desolate like the blackness of night?

Well, Aphrodite is a complex, paradoxical goddess with a strongly fluid nature. Her name is derived from aphrou “the sea foam” (Plato, Cratylus 400d) and in Sparta she was worshipped as Morpho “changeable of shape” (Pausanias 3.15.10) which is natural enough when you consider that she is a goddess of life, and like Aphrodite, all life emerges from the watery depths. Our bodies are over seventy per cent water, and the fluids we release in sex have about them a whiff of the ocean to remind us where we came from. Love is an oceanic thing, deeper than we can comprehend. Love, at times, can be serene and beautiful, like the gentle, rocking waves spilling over the sandy beach in an eternal dance of life – yet at other times it can be torrential and destructive, those same waves threatening to engulf us and carry us down to our deaths. This doubling ambiguity is the hallmark of the goddess.

Not only does this suggest that Aphrodite’s nature embraces paradox – but it also hints at a possible reason why she was connected with the night.

Pausanias, never one to be accused of being a deep thinker, provided a straightforward explanation for her epikleseis Melainis “black” and Philopannux “night-loving”:

“This surname of the goddess is simply due to the fact that men do not, as the beasts do, have sexual intercourse always by day, but in most cases by night.” (8.6.5)

And indeed, that is true. Night-time is very conducive to love-making. People seek out the warmth of other bodies against the chill of the evening; they desire comfort and release after the stress of a long day; there is the practical consideration that two people sleeping in the same bed have more of an opportunity to engage in sex; shadows help conceal one’s otherwise noticeable physical shortcomings; it’s easier to slip about unseen under the cover of night if one is looking for some adventurous extramarital activities; and the dark is mysterious, romantic, and a little dangerous, all of which helps set the proper mood for love-making.

But there’s more to this – quite a bit more, in fact.

Most modern people don’t understand what real darkness is actually like. We live in electrical cities and there’s always a light on somewhere: street lamps, television sets, signs in empty buildings, distant traffic, airplanes flying overhead. We have lived with all of this for so long that we hardly even notice it most of the time. Even if we happen to find ourselves out in the wilderness – and suddenly notice the stars shining more brightly since they don’t have to compete with the haze of light from our urban settings – we know that we will soon be back to civilization and surrounded by the comforting omnipresent electrical glow of our cities.

But things were different for the ancients. Darkness was total, all-consuming, and even the light from candles and lamps was fairly dim by comparison, centered in a single spot, a pool of illumination in the midst of eternal darkness. Think about what that darkness must have been like for a moment.

During the day everything is distinct, separate. You can clearly see that this is this and that that, and navigate your way through the world of form easily. But when the darkness came – everything changed. It enveloped the world of creation, blurring things together in an undifferentiated mush of shadows and even darker shadows. You couldn’t see what lay before you – whether you were about to stumble over a rock or if a vicious creature lurked on the side of the road, preparing to tear your throat out. Nothing existed, for nothing could be seen. It was as if the world had been returned to its original primal state – a yawning chasm, chaos and emptiness, everything in a state of potentiality before the process of creation unfolded, as it would when the sun emerged once more and things became distinct, manifest, capable of being seen and navigated through.

This is what night and blackness meant to the ancients – and it is significant that they associated it with Aphrodite. For sex is a chaotic force. It frightens us, deep down. We feel that we are about to lose ourselves, that we are going to dissolve into an oceanic state of undifferentiatedness. The contours of our personality begin to shift, just as our body becomes united to another person’s, and in the throes of orgasm there is no thought for all of the things that make us who we think we are – our job, our politics, our religion, our status within the family and society, rules, inhibitions, fears, hopes, the foibles of our personality – all of this dissolves, fades into the background. All that we feel is the rush of sensation flooding our synapses, the intoxication of pleasure that drives us closer and closer to the edge of the abyss and the looming darkness beneath – and in climax we finally are pushed over the edge and plummet down, down, down into that perfect, primal, emptiness from which we first emerged into life.

That place is where life is. It is also where death is. It is the home of Aphrodite who straddles both spheres – because in truth, they are one and the same. Life is flowing out of the chasm – death is flowing back into it. But in time each stream will change its course and flow in the opposite direction. During the light of day we see these two as distinct – but in the darkness, and those things which remind us of darkness such as love, sex, creativity, madness, ecstasy, and being in the presence of the divine – we intuitively sense their connectedness. Life and death haunt each other – you can not draw close to one without finding yourself in the proximity of the other. When a child comes into this world, it is a dangerous time both for infant and mother with the potential for death looming over every second. From the decaying husk of a fallen log an ecosystem emerges supporting flowers and grass and fungi and insects and other animal life. A couple survives a car crash and for some inexplicable reason find themselves incredibly horny.

And Aphrodite watches over all of this and smiles.

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