Monday, October 10, 2011

Eris

Associated with: Greek & Roman mythology
Also known as: Discordia, Enyo
Earliest recorded mention: c. 700 BCE
Major texts: Works and Days, Theogony, the Iliad

The name "Eris" is also the Greek word for strife, and Eris is the goddess of chaos. She's a troublemaker who never gets invited anywhere; she is either a daughter of Nyx, goddess of the night, or a true daughter of Zeus and Hera, and thus one of the highest-ranking immortals.

Hesiod distinguishes between two different goddesses named Eris, one of whom is destructive and one of whom's just restless. Even the restless one, however, is "unwholesome for men." The Greek ideal was placid and peaceful; nothing good could come of discontent.

If I were a serious historian or sociologist, I might study this question: why is the Greek ideal (and many of the Eastern ideals) peace and tranquility, when it is obvious that human progress comes only from discontent and conflict? People who are happy and have all their needs met might create beautiful works of art just for the joy of it, but they don't invent technology. Technology comes from need and want, and it's the simple truth that many of mankind's greatest technological and medical advances emerged from war.

Anyway, Eris is another object lesson in the dangers of leaving people off your guest list. According to Homer, the gods of Olympus gathered to celebrate the marriage of the human Peleus to the sea-nymph Thetis (over Thetis' initial objections, but that's another story). No one invited Eris, because she was a known troublemaker — but she showed up anyway, throwing an apple with a tag reading "For the fairest" into a group that included Hera, Athena and Aphrodite. They asked Paris, prince of Troy, to be the judge, and bribed him with the best they could offer: power (Hera), military might (Athena), or the most beautiful woman in the world, Helen, already married to Menelaus of Sparta (Aphrodite). Paris, poor fool, chose Helen, and the Trojan War began.

The children of Eris were as dangerous as she was, including (among others) the previously-mentioned Ponos, god of labor; Lethe, forgetfulness; Limos, famine; Algos, pain; Hysminai, combat; Makhai, battles; Pseudologoi, lies; Ate, folly; and Horkos, god of false promises.

In the present day, Eris is hailed as the patroness of Discordianism, "a sort of self-subverting Dada-Zen for Westerners" which its adherents say "should on no account be taken seriously but is far more serious than most jokes." For more information, check out Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson's novel Illuminatus!

Saturday, October 08, 2011

Grendel

Associated with: Old English folklore
Also known as: nothing
Earliest recorded mention: sometime after 1000 CE
Major text: Beowulf

As I wrote yesterday's post I found myself thinking about the nature of bullies and bullying. I have been a bully in my time, and once in a while, I'm afraid I still am. I'm ashamed of that. It's something I've worked hard on since childhood, when my mother got in my face — literally — after I punched my younger brother in the stomach. I'd scared him, and she scared me: "How do you like it?" she said. I didn't. I try to remember that, but I don't always know when I'm scary. I'm taller, larger, smarter and more articulate than average. Sometimes it's just too easy for me to make other people feel terrible, and I don't realize I've done it until it's too late to take back.

But most bullies don't realize they're bullies, and most monsters don't realize they're monsters. Most evil in the world isn't deliberate evil; it's expediency, or laziness, or maybe even misplaced good intentions. Eugenicists, for example, honestly believe they're improving the human race. The Westbrook Baptist Church honestly believes - I think - that they're working toward God's glory.

The monster Grendel appears early in the saga of Beowulf, "a fiend of hell:/The wrathful spirit . . . The joyless being". Grendel, whose appearance is never clearly described in the original text, is identified as a descendant of Cain, banished from human society for all time. Compare him to the "Scylding's beloved folk-king," Beowulf, the perfect hero, admired and loved by all.

Grendel didn't ask to be the descendant of Cain, any more than Cain had asked to have his offering rejected by the Almighty. (Genesis 4: "Yahweh looked with favour on Abel and his offering./But he did not look with favour on Cain and his offering, and Cain was very angry and downcast.") It is one of the very oldest human questions: why? Why are some loved, and some not? Why do some have much, and others have none? Why are some people golden from birth, and others permanently outcast?

Cain killed Abel. Therefore he chose to be evil, even if he wasn't evil to begin with, and thus God's rejection seems justified in retrospect — look, he didn't deserve to be loved in the first place. And Grendel, Cain's descendant, is cursed from birth, and never deserves to be part of the community. So he decides to wreck it. Wouldn't you? Wouldn't any of us?

John Gardner's wonderful novel Grendel explores this at great length, and made a huge impression on me when I read it in 10th grade. Grendel knows that he is something other and outside, and the only way he can deal with that is to see the world as something rotten and not worth having: "...the world was nothing: a mechanical chaos of casual, brute enmity on which we stupidly impose our hopes and fears. I understood that, finally and absolutely, I alone exist."

This, of course, is Evil with a capital E: the idea that your will is the only thing that matters. But what terrible sorrow, rage and despair drove Grendel to this conclusion. If someone had invited him to dinner, or offered to brush his hair, all of English literature might have been different.


Friday, October 07, 2011

Apep

Associated with: Early Egyptian mythology
Also known as: Apepi, Aapep, Apophis
Earliest recorded mention: c. 4000 BCE
Major texts: Book of the Dead

I've been neglecting the "demons" aspect of this blog (actually, neglecting the blog altogether, but I resolve once again to do better). Apep is a big, early one, embodying many of the most basic human fears: darkness, chaos and snakes.

Apep was the brother of Ra, the sun god, and Sobek, the creator god. Ra is often depicted with the head of a falcon; Sobek always has the head of a crocodile. Apep has no human form at all, but is always shown as a giant serpent, who kills not by strangling but by poison.

Apep constantly battled Ra, fighting the sun every day and losing again at the end of every night. Solar eclipses were seen as Apep's temporary triumph, thwarted by the prayers and sacrifices of priests. Apep was also responsible for earthquakes and thunderstorms. Because humans could not see an actual snake in the sky, they believed that Apep lived in the underworld, keeping himself deliberately hidden.

Those who believed in Aten, the single god who temporarily replaced the Egyptian pantheon, believed that Aten defeated Apep permanently. But even once the old gods were restored (after the death of Akhnaten), Apep just kind of . . . faded away, superceded by Set, the better-known god of darkness and chaos.

Ancient religions did not worship these evil gods as much as they tried to appease them — they prayed against them, but they also offered sacrifices to fend them off. It's human nature; as above, so below. Earlier this week I made the conscious decision, not once but twice, to appease a bully rather than confront them, because it was easier and saved time. But all that does, in real life as well as in the otherworld, is encourage them. Who wouldn't stick around in hopes of another sacrifice? Apep's fate proves the truth of what my mother used to tell us about the boy next door: ignore them, and they'll go away.



Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Asclepius

Associated with: Greek mythology
Also known as: Asklepios
Earliest recorded mention: c. 8th century BCE
Major texts: The Iliad, Pythian and Nemean Odes, Bibliotheca 3 of Pseudo-Apollodorus

One of the more interesting aspects of the Greek & Roman belief system was that you didn't have to be divine to become a god (yes, I'll probably get to Caligula later). It's quite possible that Asclepius, the Greek god of medicine, was a real human being, who made pioneering advances in medicine and was later remembered as a god, or at least godlike.

Some myths say that Asclepius was the son of Apollo and a human woman - either Arsinoe, an Egyptian princess, or Coronis, daughter of Phlegyas, king of the Lapiths. It strikes me that this was a convenient explanation for illegitimate births, especially among the nobility: a resourceful young woman could always claim that Zeus or Apollo or some other god had happened on her unawares, and had his way.

But Asclepius survives to this day as a symbol and patron of physicians, although I haven't found much that describes his specific practices. Pindar reported that he treated "all who came to him . . . plagues with sores of festering growths, some wounded by the stokes of weapons of bright bronze, of by the slinger's shot of stone, others with limbs ravaged by summer's fiery heat or by the winter's cold, to each for every various ill he made the remedy, and gave deliverance from pain, some with the gently songs of incantation others he cured with soothing draughts of medicines, or wrapped their limbs around with doctored salves, and some he made whole with the surgeon's knife."

Some legends say he had the power to raise the dead, which made Zeus so angry he destroyed Asclepius with a thunderbolt. The dead Asclepius became divine as a star in the constellation Ophiochus, the Serpent Bearer.

I'd like to know more about ancient Greek medical practices. Certainly until about 100 years ago, doctors did as much harm as good. My own great-grandmother died of puerperal fever after giving birth at home, because hospitals were considered too dirty and dangerous. But I actually have a friend who suffers from hemachromatosis, a relatively rare blood disorder whose only effective treatment remains — yes — bloodletting.

So today, as I recover from something that might have been a cold or the flu or something bacterial, I'll push fluids and take some Alka-Seltzer Flu formula, maybe catch a nap, and skip the doctor. For now.

Monday, October 03, 2011

Lir

Associated with: Irish and Welsh mythology
Also known as: Ler, Llyr
Earliest recorded mention: c. 900
Major texts: Sanas Cormaic, Leannaí Lir, the Welsh Triads

Apologies for the two-week hiatus. It's hard to blog from the road, as I don't have access to my bookshelves, but I've also been more than usually distracted by family and work demands. New month, new goals, new discipline: among other things, I'm going to try to do my own work first.

Ler (the correct nominative form of the name) is the ancient Irish god of the sea, which feels appropriate, as yesterday was my dad's 70th birthday — a birthday his children could not celebrate with him, because he's on a Navy supply ship somewhere in the Mediterranean. In the modern way, we all left him messages on Facebook. I hadn't even mailed him a gift because I thought he'd be home this week, and I feel bad about that. So sorry, Dad, and happy birthday.

The better-known Irish god of the sea is Manann√°n mac Lir, Ler's son ("mac Lir" meaning "son of the sea"). Scholars speculate that Ler was an older god whose worship was superceded by his son's. Both are associated with the underworld as well as with the sea, and why not? It seems natural to see the sea as a gateway to that other world, or maybe that's just my own heritage.

We remember Ler now mainly because of the legend of the Children of Lir, which I first read as a child of 7 or 8, in a collection of fairy tales I wish I'd hung onto. Ler and his beloved wife Aoibh had four children, a daughter and three sons. But Aoibh died, and Ler married her sister, Aoife, to comfort himself and give his children a new mother. Aoife was jealous of the children, and tried to have them killed. Instead of being killed, the children were turned into swans. In the version of the story I remember, the curse would last until a bell rang to call them back to their home — but when the bell rang, almost 1,000 years had passed, and all the people and things they loved had gone. The children of Lir became human again, only to die and be reunited happily with their parents in heaven.

This story made a huge impact on me when I was 7 or 8, and even now I can't say exactly why. Ler's hardly in the story at all; the story's about the children. It wasn't his fault that the children turned into swans. The swans lived hundreds of years in exile, waiting to be called home, only to find that home had vanished when the call finally came. When I was 7 or 8, this was the saddest story I had ever read. Almost 40 years later, I think it still is.