Continuing in the path I set out upon a few days ago, I would like to discuss one of the classic examples of a conflict between the gods and a lesser known example from the same cultural context. These examples are the war between the Titans and Olympians, and Apollo's stealing of the Oracle of Delphi from a female earth goddess through the slaying of the Pythian serpent.
|Apollo Slaying the Pythian Serpent|
Where monotheistic religions, frequently based on the Biblical example, base the story of creation on speech and language, pagan religions are far more drawn to visions inspired by bodily experiences. The Norse creation myth is, ultimately, one of dismemberment and reveals a fascination with bodily constitution and the process of decomposition into new materials. Rot, and the fertility associated with what appears dead, fills these misty northern myths of the beginning. The Greeks, on the other hand, were fascinated with the bodily imperative of sex and reproduction. Where the Norse gods butcher a world into being from a massive corpse, the Greek gods breed a cosmos into existence.
Greek conflicts tend always towards the form of family dramas, and their myths of the oldest wars between the gods are no different. Out of the primordial chasm (Chaos) rose the self-reproducing Earth and she, in turn, coupled with her own first born male child Heaven. The story is well known, Heaven lay too heavily upon Earth and sought to prolong the sexual act indefinitely. Through a process of continual rape he forced her children to perpetually tarry within her womb while she was damned to endless impregnation. Eventually, through her own machinations, her as yet unborn son Chronos was armed with a golden sickle with which he lopped off the tool of his father's extended rape. Chronos, in turn, rose to dominance while Heaven and Earth faded into the background.
Chronos took to wife his sister Rhea, but always in his thoughts lurked the haunting memory of his own rebellion against his father. Here we witness the key aspects of the problem situation within which the standard story of the conflict amidst the Greek gods arose. We see, first, the primacy of the female power of reproduction. The first of the gods is the goddess, Earth, and she needed no male counterpart in order to create from out of her own being. She is, ultimately, self-sufficient. It is this primacy of the female creative force that engendered in her male offspring/lover the fear of her other offspring. Her ability to give birth stood both for her independence from him and for her power, embodied in her children, to overthrow him. The equation here is simple and the entire Greek state of mind is consistently embroiled in this problematic. The female is the more powerful and this power takes its most concrete form in her offspring, and so the doom of the Greek male is declared: "By your children shall you be overthrown."
Each succeeding generation of gods is destined to propose a new solution to this dilemma. Heaven's answer was to freeze time. Engaged in perpetual sexual penetration he sought to stop the march of reproduction and freeze the female temporal force of succeeding generations. This, in turn, failed and the denial of time resulted in the loss of sex itself (figured in the dismemberment of Heaven's reproductive organ). Chronos has well learned the mistake of his father, and so engages in the opposite strategy which, in turn, defines his nature as a god. Chronos, lord of time and death, seeks to speed the passage of time for his young so that they tumble from their mothers womb directly into the grave of his gaping maw. Father time devours his young as they are born so that, in the words of Beckett, Rhea "gives birth astride of a grave".
Rhea, following the model of her mother, conspires with her child Zeus to overthrow her spouse. Now Zeus faces the dilemma, and what new strategum can he produce to overcome the basic fact that male power is derivative from female fertile force? Throughout the sordid family drama the danger of sexual power has been intertwined with the nature of time and so too must Zeus' answer to the drama involve both a response to the problem of sexual difference and the nature of time.
Where Chronos applied the judgment of time, that all things must die and that far too swiftly, to his children Zeus chooses to apply it to his female partner. In other words, he devours his first sexual partner, Metis. In doing so, he takes upon himself the female power of creation, and so gives birth to his own first born child himself. This child, who would fit the mold of Chronos and Zeus, is born not from the mother but from the father. This birth, further, breaks all the rules of time in that the child is born full grown.
We must pause to marvel at the inversions which have occurred. Mother has become father and father, giving birth, has inverted time itself so that the child is born grown. All of this provides the background for the most important, but too frequently unnoticed, fact that Zeus' first born son is born, instead, a woman. Athena, the son destined to overthrow Zeus, has become the mirror to his taking on of the mantle of female power. She, in turn, is a woman in the place meant (according to the mythic structure) for a man. So she is a goddess of manly war and strategy, born fully grown in the clothing of a soldier. Rather than overthrowing her father she is the firmest and least questioning bulwark of his rule. Beyond this, in remaining the father and king Zeus has, in turn, frozen the aging of his children so that while his siblings Hades and Poseidon equal him in maturity his children remain forever infantilized and doomed to never fully age.
It is worth noticing the continuation of this story in the doom of Troy. Achilles is the son of the mortal Peleus and the goddess Thetis. Of Thetis it was prophesied, by Rhea Zeus' mother, that her child would be "greater than his father". This, a seeming blessing to some, was the worst of dooms to the male gods. Before this prophesy Thetis was much desired by both Zeus and Poseidon. But, having heard the prophecy, Zeus marries her off to a mortal as another strategum to avoid his fate to be overthrown by his children. Despite this, in the rage of Achilles and its fate directed drive towards the destruction of Troy, the gods and goddess come into conflict on fields of battle which reflect the war that might have been. Had Achilles been born to Zeus, we can imagine the siege of Olympus and not just Troy.
Another form the conflict we have discussed takes in the Ancient Greek context rests in the mythic history of Ancient Greece's most important religious center, the Oracle of Delphi. The Oracle of Delphi was sacred onto the god Apollo, but it was not always so. The legend of Delphi held that the oracle was originally sacred to the earth goddess and was occupied by a terrible serpent or dragon sacred onto her. In order to make the shrine his own, Apollo had to slay the Pythian Serpent. Hear a fragment of the tale as told in the Homeric Hymn to Apollo:
"But near by was a sweet flowing spring, and there
with his strong bow the lord, the son of Zeus, killed the
bloated, great she-dragon, a fierce monster wont to do great
mischief to men upon earth, to men themselves and to their thin-
shanked sheep; for she was a very bloody plague...
Whosoever met the dragoness, the day
of doom would sweep him away, until the lord Apollo, who deals
death from afar, shot a strong arrow at her. Then she, rent with
bitter pangs, lay drawing great gasps for breath and rolling
about that place. An awful noise swelled up unspeakable as she
writhed continually this way and that amid the wood: and so she
left her life, breathing it forth in blood."
Here we witness an echo of the primordial war between the originary force of the Goddess and the male attempts to usurp that power. Yet, as always, the force can not be fully overcome. Zeus had to become the woman, and his son the daughter, in order for the pattern to be inverted. Apollo's temple, in turn, maintained in antiquity the figure of its ancient nature. The unique character of Apollo's temple, and its power to prophecy the future, depended on its housing both a body of priests and priestesses. The priestesses were gifted with the prophetic gift, which apparently even Apollo could not steal, but it was a gift lost in obscurity and cursed to appear as meaningless on its own. Like the primordial truths these myths prefigure, the voices of the priestesses could not directly convey truth. They spoke in gibberish, meaningless to all normal people. If the priestesses maintained a connection to the basic truth and force of the earth, all-mighty but meaningless, the priests represented the solar clarity and understanding of Apollo himself. To the priests fell the job of understanding, and interpreting, the prophetic mysterious language of the priestesses.
The conflicts amongst gods can be read on many registers. There is the metaphysical register, in which we see the conflict between the force of fertility that spawns growth, change and time pitted against the drive to deny time or turn it upon itself by submitting the force of creative life to an all-devouring force of death. Then there is the historical and cultural register, in which we see either the conflict between different ages in which the world and society were understood along different lines or the conflict between very different cultures which embodied different values and social structures. By here we have precious little to go on. Do these myths embody a conflict between some pre-Mycenaean culture in which ruling power was reserved for women? A culture eventually overthrown by the war like Mycenaean society which give birth to what would become the Greek myths? Or, (perhaps and), do we see here a conflict between historical aeons such as those mapped by Crowley in his Aeon of Isis overcome by the Aeon of Osiris? Here perhaps we see the Aeon of Isis, focused on the basic fertile force of the female and denying the cyclical changes that would become our basic image of time, comes in conflict with the dying God destined, like the ever rising sun and shifting seasons, to be born ever anew.