One of the few advantages of becoming a senior citizen in the State of Arkansas, and perhaps other states as well, is that achieving that status allows one to take classes free of charge at any one of several state universities. The beauty of that privilege is that one can take classes in any discipline just for the pure pleasure of learning. Additionally, there is the option to audit classes and be free from taking tests, writing research papers and making oral reports. In my case I chose to audit classes in the Art History tract, as I had become interested in art several years ago but knew nothing about what I was looking at when visiting galleries and museums. Having completed both Art History Survey I and II, my enlightenment continued this past semester in Greek Art & Myth.
As is the case in all levels of education, the teacher is key, and in my experiences at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock I have been blessed to have been taught by highly qualified professors who all welcomed the presence of an old guy taking up space in their classrooms. But in the back of my mind I knew that studying about mythological Greek gods that dated back to 700 BCE was going to require a very special person to make it interesting and stimulating. Luckily, I struck gold in the person of Dr. Jane H. Brown, Ph.D who not only possessed a wealth of information on this complex subject but had that unique gift to impart that knowledge to our class in a logical and understandable way as to hold one’s complete attention. In addition to the required textbooks on the subject, Dr. Brown provided an extensive collection of written outlines, graphics and documents in support of her lectures. And, finally, there were the oral presentations by the true undergraduates in my class, two of which will be referenced later. In fact I was so impressed with my entire experience I decided to write about it. However, the challenge for me was to sift through that mountain of information on a very complicated subject and extract just enough key points to construct a summary interesting enough for others to read.
One of the first things you need to know is that these gods and goddesses were no ordinary deity. Instead, they were created by Greek mortals in their own human image as opposed to the other way around as told in the Genesis creation story. As such, they often times would go back and forth between their divine image and their human form, or in some instances the form of some animal if it served their purpose . In fact Nietsche referred to them as “all too human” and a religion where “gods justify human life by living it”. However, true mortals were encouraged never to compete with these gods because as humans they could never win, and the gods were capable of doing some pretty nasty things even if they did. Also, one never knew if someone in the human form was a true god or goddess, so the message to mortals was to be wary of strangers coming to your door. Consequently, it is no surprise that Greek mythology is filled with examples of all the same hubris, emotions and frailties that humans experience including but not limited to love, lust, sex, deceit, betrayal, incest, murder, torture, mutilation, rape, treachery and hunger for power. To better understand how this worked, there are three stories I would like to briefly summarize as illustrations of these powers.
“The Judgement of Paris” - Unlike other periods of history, very little was codified about Greek mythology in book form, but Homer’s epic poems the “Iliad” and the “Odyssey” about the famous Trojan War and its aftermath are the best known. Not only do they describe the events before, during and after that conflict, they introduce us to some principal Greek gods (e.g. Zeus, Athena, Hera and Poseidon who supported the Greeks; Aphrodite, Apollo and Artemis who supported Troy), as well as some other major players involved (e.g. Achilles, Agamemnon, Menelaos, Ajax and Odysseus, Calchas and Nestor for the Greeks; Hector and his cousins and brother, Paris and Priam for Troy). In short, this is a tale of love, jealousy and betrayal brought about by an argument between three vain goddesses Hera, Athena and Aphrodite over who was the fairest among them and deserved to receive the golden apple offered by Eris, the goddess of Discord, as a confirmation of that title. Since Zeus knew better than to make that choice himself because it would create such resentment from the two losers, he instructed Hermes, the messenger god, to take all three of them to the Trojan prince Paris to make the selection. After being offered bribes by all three contenders, Paris chooses Aphrodite who had promised him possession of the most beautiful woman in the world as her bribe. Aphrodite then designates Helen just that, the most beautiful woman in the world. Naturally, Paris is smitten and ultimately selects Helen, a passive participant in all of this, to take back to Troy. The problem is, she is already married to Menelaos, so Aphrodite has to further persuade Helen to go with Paris. She is successful in this effort, even though Euripides contends in his tragedy “Helen” that she may never have actually gone to Troy but, rather, stopped in Egypt intead. Regardless, Menelaos is going to exact revenge for the taking of his wife and gathers up an army to bring her back, and the rest is history so they say.
While there may be other slightly different versions of this story, which is one of the real nuances of Greek mythology, we are compelled to rely on the existence of artifacts from that period to give us a better explanation of what really happened. In that regard there exists a multitude of art forms including wall paintings, vases, sculpture and coins, not to mention songs, plays and poems like the Iliad and the Odyssey that tell the story of not only the Trojan War but of other historical happenings. The trick is to accurately interpret those artifacts into meaningful messages. Besides Dr. Brown, others have done that for us, one being Susan Woodford in her book “The Trojan War in Ancient Art”, which is an easy to read account of many Greek myths which are displayed on a variety of items. Examples of two of the best known artifacts from this Archaic period are the Francois Vase circa 570BCE because it depicts so many different myths important too Greek mythology (to see click here ) and Dinos by Sophilos circa 580-570BCE because of its vivid and detailed portrayal of the prominent wedding procession of Peleus and Thetis (to see click here ). Just as interesting to me, though, is the identity of the artisans who created these fabulous works of art and who or what inspired them. Sadly, very little is known on this subject, but it is thought that many may have relied on muses, as well the same stories, plays and songs of the time to fulfill that purpose.
The two other examples of these deities behaving at their worst were given in oral reports by the talented fellow classmates mentioned earlier. The first was entitled “Aphrodite: Friend or Foe” by Catherine McGibbony, and the other was entitled “Contest between Apollo and Marsyas” by Adrian Quintanar. Both graciously granted me permission to quote from my class notes on their respective presentations in my own words with some added commentary. Hopefully, these are fair representations of what they said.
“Aphrodite: Friend or Foe” - While this daughter of Zeus and Dione, one of his six wives, was commonly known as the goddess of love, sexuality and beauty, she had another persona of being selfish, deceitful, manipulative and vindictive. In the words of Edith Hamilton in her 1940 book “MYTHOLOGY”, she “used her power chiefly to ensnare and betray”. Perhaps her bad attitude was a result of the origins of her birth based on the vengeful act of castration of her lover, Adonis. Regardless, we already know the havoc she reeked on Troy by persuading Helen to go there with Paris. If that were not enough she then goes and has sex with a mortal being, Anchises, who she warned not to boast about the liaison. But he did and paid the price of being struck by a thunderbolt from Zeus. And, finally, she plays a role in trying to get Phaedra to seduce a celibate Hippolytus who refuses her advances and they both die as a result. The lesson to be learned about Aphrodite is that even though she had many lovers, both gods and mortals, she is a much different version from Linda in Woody Allen’s “Mighty Aphrodite” and is not to be messed with, as she always destroys those who oppose her.
“Contest Between Apollo and Marsyas” - As noted above, mortals were advised never to compete with the gods because even if they won the contest, the losing god would exact his revenge. This story is a prime example of that admonition. One of Apollo’s identities, besides being the son of Zeus, was that of being the patron god of music and poetry which included the lyre. This happened to be an instrument that Marsyas claimed he could play better than Apollo, with the loser of the competition paying a price to be determined by the winner. However the contest came about, Marsyas was declared the winner of the first round in which his talent was judged to be basically equal to that of Appolo’s. However, in order to give himself a competitive advantage in the second round, Apollo played his flute turned upside down, a feat Marsyas could not begin to match. As agreed to in advance, Apollo could do whatever he wanted to with Marsysas, so he had him tied to a tree and splayed alive, thus reinforcing the lesson for mortals to stay away from these gods.
So, what have I gleaned from my experience with Greek Art and Myth? First, in addition to the vast array of spectacular art, sculpture and architecture that the ancient Greeks gave us, there are countless contributions they made to creating a more civilized society through language, philosophy (which deserves its own discussion), democracy, the Hippocratic Oath and the Olympic Games to name just a few. Even though none of these were mentioned here in the interest of time and space, they definitely should not be forgotten, particularly the Oracle on the Temple of Apollo at Delphi that advances the concept of moderation and self-restraint summed up simply as “know thyself”. Second, if gods and goddesses are formed in the same image as human beings with all of our flaws and imperfections, there are potentially very severe consequences in dealing with them. So, beware! And, finally, the author of Ecclesiastes, thought to have been the wisest of all biblical kings, King Solomon, may have had it right when he wrote “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun”, because much of what transpired 2,700 years ago between those gods and goddesses, as well as their interactions with mortals, is no different than what we read or hear about today. Then the question is, why do these myths matter? Jeanette Winterson got the answer to that very question during her interview with Bill Moyers on his PBS series “On Faith and Reason” first broadcast on July 7, 2006. In essence Mr. Moyers contended they matter because being familiar with these ancient myths help perpetuate great stories relating to both good and evil, as well as rationalizing these two extremes. In other words we should learn from history or be doomed to it, which seems to have been our pattern over these centuries. Accordingly, it is mankind’s challenge to ACTUALLY LEARN from these ancient myths and maybe fool old King Solomon after all. With that said, I now look forward to exploring the City of Florence pre-Renaissance with Dr. Brown this semester, soak up a little bit more culture and further enrich my soul in the process.