Mead and Metal

(This was originally published in March 2015 on polytheist.com saved here for posterity.)

In these times of decadence where the price of our labour is turned into an abstract digit on a computer screen, where we can walk into supermarkets that house every conceivable produce we would ever want, we tend to forget the significance of the objects around us. Imagine a fantasy world where if we wanted a computer we would have to make it ourselves down to every microchip, or at least, knew the person who made it. Now picture that for everything around you. Do you think we would be such a disposable society if we had such intimacy with objects?

What I love about studying ancient polytheist cultures is that everything around these people was part of a never ending cycle of narratives, layers upon layers of mysteries that explain the holy significance of things we wouldn’t even think for a second about now. For example how on earth does honey become associated with the sun and stars? What do swaddling clothes (a long forgotten tradition of binding infants to pacify them) have in common with fermenting? What does mead have to do with metal? I believe that through exploring these unusual mysteries we can get a glimpse into the thoughts of our ancestors and a greater understanding of the gods. Hopefully I’ll touch on some of those secrets in this article.

As I’ve mentioned before, alcohol was of major importance to developing civilisations for factors other than recreation. Its foremost practical purpose was it allowed impure water to be safely consumed and also prevented water from being spoiled while navigating the seas. Thereby, alcohol allowed larger cities to flourish and exploration and trade to spread. It also held a religious significance in its mind altering nature; its euphoria was seen as something divine. We associate Dionysos as being the god of wine but he is the god of honey too, with mead being a popular drink throughout Greek history. Dionysos is attributed by Ovid 1 as being the creator of honey and is often described with honeyed words from honey coated lips, wielding his Thyrsos pointed with a pinecone dripping with honey.

Karl Kerényi dedicates a fascinating and complex chapter to honey and mead in Dionysos: Archetypal Image of Indestructible Life, where he explores the religious significance of mead. In linguistics honey and intoxication have been connected since the birth of language:

“The original Greek words for “to be drunk” and “to make drunk” are methyein and methyskein. Rarer and later is oinoun “to intoxicate with wine.” Echoes of methy signify “honey” not only in a number of Indo-European languages but also in a common Indo-European-Finn-Ugric stratum; for example, Finnish mesimetinen, and Hungarian mez. German Met and English “mead” signify, “honey beer,” and these words have exact parallels in the Norse languages.” 2

Kerenyi continues to explain that mead was developed early in the Aegean, before the introduction of wine, indicating that the production of mead coincided with a celestial calendar which followed the star Sirius (the Dog Star).

“It seems strange to us that the four cardinal points of the solar year-the two solstices and two equinoxes-the summer solstice should have been chosen as the beginning of the year. With it begins the hottest period of the year. The days begin to grow shorter, the nights, longer. Men yearn for the night.”

The Sirius calendar originates from Egypt with the rising and falling of the Nile which corresponds with the Dog Star, a system introduced to Greece via the Minoans and who used natural sun caves to measure the year. The caves around Crete were considered sacred spaces of the gods as often their birth place or place they were brought up and protected in. It was in these places people found mystery, miracles, initiation and epiphany. Of the few animals that inhabited these caves were bees with their honey considered the either the blood or food of the gods – ichor or ambrosia.

“Before they were domesticated, bees had often been found in caves. With their sweet food they were the most natural nurses for a Divine Child who was born and then kept hidden in a cave. The archetypal situation that nature offered was taken into the Greek myth of Zeus.” 3

Before the cultivation of bees, the primitive people of Crete would ‘steal’ the food of gods and place the honey in leather sacks. Men stealing the sacred food of the gods was maintained in myth:

“The cave is inhabited by sacred bees, the nurses of Zeus. It is further related that four foolhardy men wished to gather the honey of the bees. They put on bronze armour, scooped up some of the honey, and saw the “swaddling clothes of Zeus.” Thereupon their armour cracked and fell from their bodies. Zeus was angry and raised his thunderbolt against them, but the goddess of fate and Themis, goddess of the rule of nature, restrained Zeus. For it would had been contrary to the hosion if anyone had died in this cave. The four honey thieves were transformed into birds.” 4

These sacks were kept in the sun and in time became alcoholic. Consuming the sacred substance was then confirmed as a miracle by the mind altering euphoria that was guided by the light of the sun and stars. These sacks were named ‘korykos’ 5 and were associated with the swaddling clothes of the gods which were held in such holy regard that they were featured in caves where gods were said to be born throughout Greece. Just as the clothes transformed the babes into developed gods, it too turns water into an epiphany inducing liquid.

Bee hives were not exclusively for collecting honey either, as perhaps an equally important product of hives is the wax. The surrounding civilisations of Greece may have illuminated the night with candles so we could continue to draw the associations of bees, heat and light from there. However there is little indication that candles were popularly used by Greeks, who preferred instead oil lamps. There are a number of reasons for this; Greece was a major producer of olives and olive oil so as a natural resource it was practical to use oil instead. Beeswax has historically been an expensive luxury item and would have been uncommon in lower and middle class homes. The only alternative to bees wax is tallow, animal fat, which is unpleasant to burn because of the smell.

In regards to the ancient Greeks wax can literately be seen as the flesh of the gods, but the relationship of heat and light is different from candles. Greeks were the pioneers of complex figurative sculpture and perfected a method of bronze casting called the lost wax process.

At art school I minored in bronze sculpture and learnt that bronze techniques have not changed since ancient times. I quickly fell in love with wax as a medium as compared to water-based clays it is relatively stable and also malleable. Unless exposed to extreme heat, such as being left in the summer sun, wax will not melt or disfigure. It can be kept forever.

The lost wax process is simple and genius: one sculpts an object in wax, it is then moulded in a terracotta slip that is fired in a kiln, the wax drips out as the mould is simultaneously cooked. All that is left is a hollow mould ready for bronze to be poured into it. Afterwards the mould is smashed apart and the wax figure is reborn as a metal object that will last forever.

Wax and bronze continue to share an uncanny physical relationship: the heating and cooling of both is similar, for when bronze is poured into a mould its liquid form is a higher volume than the solid cool state. This means when poured into a mould it will expand and constrict, picking up all the detail. Wax goes through the same process and is able to pick up incredible detail, even finger prints. In this regard, copying bronze (counter casting, transference to wax and remoulding) produce identical statues without any size distortions or alterations.

After the bronze statue is complete it is then covered in wax as a finish, as is still practiced today. The green and brown patina that we associate with the look of bronze is the same as how we now envision Greek marble to be always white. Most Greek bronzes were melted down and destroyed and those we have in museums were usually discovered buried or in shipwrecks where they inherited the brown or green colouring from the exposure to the elements. In classical times bronzes would have been highly polished to the point they gleamed like gold with a thin layer of wax polish to protect the metal from oxidisation from the air. To maintain this polish, especially for statues exposed outside, they would have been constantly maintained by polishing and waxing.

The connection between Dionysos and Hephaistos is known in Greek mythology usually attributed to Dionysos being the liberator of the labourers’ burden. According to myth the two gods enter Olympus together, but I believe their relationship goes further with this connection between bees and bronze. As mentioned these substances used in bronze-making have an interconnected back-and-forth affinity. On top of that, the process of bronze making is similar to that of the production of mead: benign substance from bee hives, transference into container, heat, holy transformation (rebirth). Indeed it can be argued that the mould of the statue is as the swaddling clothes of gods, in both function and appearance.

In Delphi there is a legendary artefact called the Omphalos. It is a carved domed stone said to be the same stone that Rhea fooled Kronos with when he was eating his own children and made to appear like the swaddling clothes of Zeus. The Delphi oracle presided over this stone when giving her prophecies and it was kept as a holy symbol as the centre of the world. It appears just like a mould used for casting bronze statues. Also like a mould, the Omphalos is hollowed out. We don’t know for sure what religious purpose the stone served, but I speculate based on the idea of the korykos, that it was a vessel that held the blood of the gods in the form of alcohol. This is further evident in other cultures that still maintain Omphaloi, such as the one found in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, which in appearance has evolved into a cup or grail. 6

Omphalos (left) Moulds after firing (right)

Further, the stone is often directly related to a hive, and the priestesses of Delphi who presided over the Omphalos, when giving prophecy, were called the Delphic Bee. 7 The Homeric Hymn IV to Hermes hints at bees, prophecy, since it states that Apollon learnt the art of bird prophecy from Bee Maidens: Melaina, Kleodora and Daphnis and grants their gifts to Hermes:
“But I will tell you another thing, Son of all-glorious Maia and Zeus who holds the aegis, luck-bringing genius of the gods. There are certain holy ones, sisters born — three virgins gifted with wings: their heads are besprinkled with white meal, and they dwell under a ridge of Parnassus. These are teachers of divination apart from me, the art which I practised while yet a boy following herds, though my father paid no heed to it. From their home they fly now here, now there, feeding on honey-comb and bringing all things to pass. And when they are inspired through eating yellow honey, they are willing to speak truth; but if they be deprived of the gods’ sweet food, then they speak falsely, as they swarm in and out together. These, then, I give you; enquire of them strictly and delight your heart: and if you should teach any mortal so to do, often will he hear your response — if he have good fortune. Take these, Son of Maia, and tend the wild roving, horned oxen and horses and patient mules.” 8

In Samothracian Mysteries we see the three gods Apollon, Dionysos and Hephaistos come together with their association of the Korybantes, a group of armoured warriors that protected Zeus as a child. There also seems to be a parallel with the birds myth mentioned above with the honey thieves.
The Korybantes are shown clad in armour and dancing, clanging and bashing their shield and sword to drown out the cries of the babe. Their dance is an integral part of the mysteries. Bees have a unique method of communication that involves dancing and buzzing their wings, often to communicate an alert to defend the hive… are the Korybantes the bees of Zeus?

Strabo 9 claims that the Korybantes are made up of separate groups of the sons of Hephaistos and Apollon. Details of the Samothracian Mysteries are sketchy, at best, but the sons of Hephaistos are the Kabeiroi (Cabiri), ecstatic dwarves often depicted as satyr-like daimons in the act of making and consuming wine. They are talented smiths that grant blessings to sailors, as well as the caretakers and guardians of the phallus of Dionysos-Zagreus after he is dismembered by the Titans.

It is at the Samothracian Mysteries that the founders of Thebes, Kadmos and Harmonia, met and later wed. Their most renowned daughter is Semele, the mother of the Olympian Dionysos, but Autonoë is also of interest as she was married to Aristaios (Aristaeus), the son of Apollon and the first cultivator of bees.

As with many agriculture heroes that invented and taught the mysteries of cultivation, there are differing myths of how Aristaios domesticated bees. In the theme of this article the most interesting story begins with his natural hives being destroyed by an irate Orpheus after the death of his wife. Aristaios, unhappy that he lost his hives approached the Delphic prophetess for guidance, and she said that he would find bees and honour on the island of Ceos. Aristaios followed her advice and arrived on the island to discover the natives suffering a terrible pestilence. The hero set aside his quest for bees and helped the people by honouring Zeus Ikmaios and the Dog Star, Sirius. He sacrificed bulls to both gods and from their flesh came tamed bees and honey that healed the people of Ceos and brought the cool winds and rain, thereby inventing the New Year festival dedicated to domesticated bees at the rising of Sirius. 10

This is just a minor sample of the nuances of the interwoven tapestry of honey in myth and serves a point to demonstrate that a substance many consider common and mundane was actually part of a rich and complex narrative that resonated with peoples’ identities and faith.
Although what we know of myth is just a fraction of what was told in the past, we are the first people in history to have a compiled database of stories from these people. We have access to hundreds (if not thousands) of unforgotten tales that hint at the nature of the human psyche which allows us to empathise with our ancestors and grasp at their knowledge of nature and the divine. It is through these myths that we can find hints at the mysteries and re-establish what has been forgotten.

 

A special thank you to Emily Kamp for her constructive criticism and Linda Spencer for the use of her photos.

Sources:

1 Ovid, Fasti III 736

2 Kerényi, Dionysos, 38

3 Kerényi, Dionysos, 31

4 Kerényi, Dionysos, 30-31

5 Kerényi, Dionysos, 45:

“The cave was called Korykion antron, “cave of the leather sack” – the most famous of all those places in and outside the Greek world that were named after the korykos, the container for liquids used in fermenting honey and, as we have seen, associated with a Cretan cave of Zeus.”

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Church_of_the_Holy_Sepulchre#Catholicon_and_Ambulatory
Image: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:%D0%9F%D1%83%D0%BF_%D0%B7%D0%B5%D0%BC%D0%BB%D0%B8.jpg

7 Kerényi, Dionysos, 49 via Pindar, Pythia IV 60

8 Homeric Hymns, Trans. By H. G. Evelyn-White, IV. To Hermes.

9 Strabo, Geography 10. 3. 20 – 22 Trans. Jones

10 Kerényi, Dionysos, 39
http://www.theoi.com/Georgikos/Aristaios.html

 

Images:

Fig1: Bronze being poured in moulds at my art school, credit: Linda Spencer, used with permission.
Fig2: Left:  “Omphalos in Delphi archeologic museum” credit: Юкатан, 2009 CC licence.

Right: Fired moulds being removed from kiln, credit: Linda Spencer, used with permission.

 

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The Gifts of Hephaestus

(This is a republished article originally written August 2014)

Vulcan_(Bissen)
Vulcan by Herman Wilhelm Bissen, 1838

Hephaestus is often an overlooked god of amongst contemporary Polytheists. Maybe it’s because his attributes are given to metal smithy, which is no longer a popular profession, or maybe because he is simply an unattractive god compared to the others of the Olympian pantheon, or could it be he is just too busy to communicate with new followers? I’m not sure.  However I find him as a major mover in the Greek mythos, often the cause of problems that mortals struggle with.

As a professional metal worker, mould maker, sculptor – I find myself naturally attracted to the god. Metal working is a type of mystery magic and has always been associated with alchemy and shamanism – even today there are some shamanistic cultures that see it as direct magic and why not? Metal working in itself is turning solid basic elements into liquids and transforming them into objects. Craftsmen in general literally shape the gods and create their features. They also create things like pots to cook food in, jewels for marriage and proof of worth, tools to sow the earth, swords and armour to conquer etc. Industry is magic, it fosters civilisation and brings us closer to the divine. Mystical metals like gold and mercury, power our computers, our heating, cooking and lighting today. In no other time have we been so completely surrounded by the Gifts of Hephaestus.

The Gifts of Hephaestus. Interesting idea, I suppose one of the best things to do is explain myth in summary. Greek mythology has no canon text, it is an oral story that was shared by different people at different times that was later embellished by authors. So there are many variants of the same story. Here is my summery of the Gifts.

hephaestus_by_goatass-d3jqetd
Hephaestus by Wayne McMillan and Markos Gage, 2006

Commonly Hephaestus was born from Hera alone, after Zeus gave birth to Athena.  When Hera saw her child she was disgusted at his ungodly features and threw him from Olympus. He fell on the island of Lemnos and became crippled but was cared for and raised by the Cyclops who taught him the art of metalworking and fostered his natural talents.

As he grew he conceived  a means to take revenge on his mother. Crafting a beautiful golden throne and sent it to Olympus. Hera was so impressed by the craftsmanship of the throne she upon it without thinking, only to discover herself stuck. The gift was a curse. Distressed Zeus called for help from the gods to free his wife with reward of Aphrodite’s hand in marriage. But none of the gods could free Hera. The only god that could free her was Hephaestus, but he refused to help.
Dionysus arrived at his forge and got the smith drunk – placed him on a donkey and took him to Olympus. In the presence of the gods the smith complied to their wishes and released Hera. Dionysus gave his reward (Aphrodite) to the smith and both he and Dionysus became Olympians gods.

Aphrodite was not too keen on being married to a lame and ugly god and soon had an affair with the war god Ares. Hephaestus found out about their union and ensnared them in a trap, he brought them naked before the gods for judgement but they just laughed at his plight. He was not redeemed for their crimes and so instead sort vengeance on the offspring of their union…

Harmona was consummated in the illegitimate union. In the spinning thread of fate she met Cadmus at the mysteries of Samothrace – a mystery cult often attributed to Hephaestus as father of the Cabeiri- they fell in love and were wedded with the blessing of the gods. Hephaestus gave a gift to Harmona, a magical necklace that maintained the beauty of youth, but like many of Hephaestus’ gifts  it was cursed.
Cadmus was exiled from his homeland and after a prophecy followed a cow into the plains of Boeotia and established the city of Thebes. This land was sacred to Ares and guarded by a dragon, which Cadmus killed. The dragons blood forever marked his family with miasma and even penance to Ares for eight years never cleansed the taint he had brought on his family and city. Cadmus and Harmona had five children one being Semele, she was given the necklace and was unintentionally killed by Zeus, but also gave birth to Dionysus (note the chronological paradox.)

After this event Cadmus abdicates from ruling and gave his throne to his grandson Pentheus – while Harmona passed her necklace to her daughter and mother of Pentheus – Agave. Pentheus refused to recognise his cousin Dionysus as a god and was torn apart by his mother and sisters in bacchic madness. Those involved depart the city in exile – Cadmus and Harmona became snakes to be free of their miasma and live a final life on earth before ascending.

In later generations of the Cadmus family line the necklace is worn by Jocasta, Queen of Thebes – wife to Laius. After an ill-fated prophecy of their son – killing his father and marrying his mother – his parents abandoned him on the mountain and pinned his feet. Like Hephaestus, Oedipus was abandoned and crippled (Oedipus means “swollen foot.”)  Oedipus was saved by a shepherd and raised to adulthood by the king and queen of Corinth until he came to adulthood and heard the same prophecy as his original parents did. He thought it related to his Corinthian parents and went into self-exile, becoming an adventurer. In his travels he killed an ingrate noble and defeated the sphinx that had been terrorising Thebes. He was hailed as a hero and rewarded with the queens hand in marriage after the strange murder of king Laius. . .

Do you see where this going? The mounting miasma from necklace continues on and on until the city of Thebes is totally destroyed. The vengeance of Hephaestus is perhaps the most complex and everlasting of all the gods curses and directly influences human lives. Its effects ripple throughout civilisation and history. It is a pure analogy of technology. We are saturated with his gifts, his genius magic improves our lifestyle but at what cost?

Kaveirian skyfos with a procession towards the temple of Cabeiri from Thebes, late 5th, early 4rth century B.C http://medievalpoc.tumblr.com/post/82021731674/athens-archaeological-museum-a-collection-of
Kaveirian skyfos with a procession towards the temple of Cabeiri from Thebes, late 5th, early 4rth century B.C
(Source)

I hinted at mystery side of Hephaestus. The Samothracian mysteries focused around deities called the Cabeiri. It unknown who these gods were, or even if they had names, depending on time their associations are mixed with other deities of Greece, sometimes they are eastern in origin. Some say they are twins who presided over orgiastic dances that honoured Demeter, Persephone and Hecate. They are the metalworking sons of Hephaestus that aided sailors, blessed because they helped in the recovery of the phallus of Zagreus.
Their mysteries were orgasmic with connection to the Kuretes – ecstatic soldiers that dance with clashing shields and armour, their identities hidden by their helmets. These same deities are said to have protected both Zeus and Zagreus-Dionysus in birth.
This mystery cults appears to have changed over time but it seemed have particular empathise on Hephaestus and Dionysus. In some Samothracian illustrations the Cabeiri appear almost dwarf or satyr like with grape vines – crashing and making wine. The mysteries migrated and were honoured in Thebes and elsewhere. In Sicily there was a similar cult, the Palici – dedicated to twin volcanic geysers. This cult was an early abolitionist cult. The Palici, like the Cabeiri are either the sons or grandsons of Hephaestus that offer liberty to slaves.

Lets move on: Fire!

As I write I just lit my cigarette with a lighter. A simple gesture and I have a lit smoke. We forget that fire is sacred. In primitive cultures it was either taken from trees lit by Zeus or after some hard work. Ever made fire from sticks? It’s tough and a skill that takes a long time to master.
It is a mystery and still is today, with Boy Scouts often using it as a simple initiation with rewards of badges and rank.
Some myth claim that Prometheus stole fire from the forge of Hephaestus and gave it to man. From there man moved from living in caves to building cities. Fire is the impetus of industry. In metal working it is a key component of transforming metals. Without fire we cannot refine metal from stone nor make it malleable to make into the shapes we want.

6555170
(source)

In metalworking you learn quite a bit about fire, it burns. Also you learn it’s limitations and develop a relationship that allows you to control it. Seeing molten metal is mesmerizing. It is actually difficult to explain the sensation of being it’s presence – let alone handling it. The heat is overwhelming, you feel it through the protective gear as it clings to your body with your hairs standing on end as if being prepared to be cooked. Handling it is intense, any mistake can bring doom and most of the time it is done in a group. It is a social experience with everyone relying on each other’s expertise to fulfil the task. I cannot speak for everyone but I personally find it to be a mystical experience.

The chthonic side of Hephaestus is fascinating too. Where does metal and gems come from? In early times it may have been possible to discover pure gold ore on the surface, but that time has mostly gone. To find ore – especially those of high erosion- we must dig. Mining is still one of the most dangerous occupations today, collapse, gas leaks, suffocation… But imagine primitive man entering caves with fire and mining at vein only for it to burst into flame for no apparent reason. In Hades domain his jewels are difficult to acquire without forever becoming a member.
Caves have often been a place for initiation or mysteries and for obvious reasons, darkness is mystery. Before Prometheus stole the flame from Hephaestus humans lived in caves, but accordingly if they were without fire they had no means to ventured far into the cave. Fire solved the mystery of our natural abodes, it showed us the gems and gold further into the caves. It melted the soft elements for us to use as tools or decorate ourselves with. So Hephaestus brings these secrets to life, he forms our intellect as we form his metal.

To create alloys one must combined base elements together. Bronze was an alchemical achievement as it was difficult to produce in ancient times, once mastered however it was far superior to any other metals like iron or copper, bronze swords could break copper ones, even primitive iron would break against bronze, not only that, when polished it has a semblance to gold, making it a sort after metal by sculptors.
Greeks had an abundance of copper, but to create bronze they required tin, which is relatively rare element in the Mediterranean.  However there are alternatives to harden copper, such as arsenic. Long term low level exposure to arsenic creates crippling tumours and deformities to the feet, hands and face.  So the followers of Hephaestus would had actually appeared like the god.
Mercury is considered a magical metal ( apart from being a liquid at room temperature) it has the unique ability to transform metals like gold and aluminium from solid to liquid back to solid (amalgamation). It also has the ability to turn the human brain into a liquid too. ‘Mad as a hatter’ was a condition illustrated by Lewis Carroll but a serious issue in the development of industry. Hatters were exposed to mercury when creating felt. Today some gold mining companies use mercury to extract gold from rock. This is an extremely dangerous processes  that creates high levels of toxic gases and acids and was most likely used by ancient metal smiths for the same reasons. Apart from causing madness mercury also deforms the skin.
Then lead is another common element used by metalworkers. Like mercury it has similar effects on the body including deformities, mental and behaviour issues and blindness.  There is a couple of theories why Cyclops are the smiths of Zeus before Hephaestus, one being that blacksmiths were tattooed with cycle on their forehead and another is that blindness was a common occupational hazard. Either from metals being used or from the flame itself. So we see that the class of labourers in ancient times would have been visually apparent, their behaviour too would had been erratic and easy to anger, they would had been deformed outcasts but still essential to the development of civilisation.

Hephaestus today

Thanks for health and safety protocols, advancements in industry and medicine, these ailments are no longer as much as an issue as ancient Greece. But as I mentioned in the intro we are surrounded by the god. Respecting Hephaestus is realising our environment and the devices of his domain. There is a tendency for polytheists to be more nature loving and concerned about environmental issues. This is admirable and valid, however few see the importance of industry within these circles. Since the advent of the internet and raise of the digital age there has been massive boom towards alternative faiths and pagan nature religions. Communication, industry, technology has brought us all together but it’s easy to forget to marvel at the technology behind the screen that you are reading right now. This is the gift of Hephaestus and like all his gifts they are dual formed. Even if we as not a metalworkers nor have an intimate relationship with the deity, we should never forget his dominance over our lives.

To Hephaistos
Incense: Powdered Frankincense

Powerful and strong-spirited Hephaistos,
Unwearying fire that shines in the gleam of flames,
God, bringing light to mortals, mighty-handed, eternal artisan.
Worker, cosmic part and blameless element,
Highest of all, all-eating, all-taming, all-haunting, ether, sun, stars, moon and pure light.
For it is a part of Hephaistos all these things reveal to mortals.
All homes, all cities and all nations are yours,
And, O mighty giver of many blessings, you dwell in human bodies.
Hear me, lord, as I summon you to this holy libations,
That you may always come, gentle, to make work a joy.
End the savage rage of untiring fire,
Since, through you, nature itself burns in our bodies.

Translation by Apostolos N. Athanassakis
(source)

What is myth?

Vienna- hercules cerberus
Hercules and Cerberus in Vienna (image source)

It’s a not so secret, secret that I offer free advice and mentoring in regards to Hellenic Polytheism and related subjects. There are several persons I’ve been working with who have all brought up similar questions regarding mythology — all at the same time —  so from my limited demographic I’m guessing that this is a question that pops up all the time…

Is myth truth?

This is such a delicate question. I believe that truth can be found in myth, but do not believe it as the divine truth akin to that found in the Bible. You see, we have to realise that regardless of our own agenda, the definitions and language used, our culture has been influenced by monotheism. This is a serious problem for people who seek to detach themselves from the over-culture and focus on polytheism . There is an inherent ‘monothought’ that is bred into us, this manner of thought denigrates our “polythought”.

Now before people phase out, allow me to explain my definitions of these made up terms:

‘Monothought’ relates to religious information that is compacted into our brains as “TRUTH”. So we are educated to take these religious things as literal, black and white, right and wrong.

‘Polythought’ is a process of critical thinking. It is being able to hear a literal story but understanding the subtext or possible subtext of the tale and seeing it on multiple levels and even realities.

Mythology is kind of subtext. Often innumerably complex. So every person reading myth will apply their own concept to it, in other words: our interpretations are influenced by our own life experience. This is totally cool to do because it demonstrates how deep mythology is, each person can read the same story and come away with a different meaning. This is the Power of Myth.

However, if we want to explore myth more deeply and come to terms to what it meant to the original people who spoke the stories… this is where it becomes tricky as not only does myth require us to forget our knowledge, it also requires empathy. This is even more difficult because we have to fantasise what it would be like in bronze age Greece, not only at a time and culture we cannot comprehend, but often a location/country we don’t have firsthand knowledge of. In this difficult exercise we can find hints of truth within myth.

So I’ll provide some examples:

Most people, (I hope), know the basics of the Labours of Herakles. As penance of his crimes Herakles is forced to work for his relative and a favourite of Hera, King Eurystheus. Eurystheus deliberately sets Herakles on impossible tasks in order to defeat him and see Herakles’ failure. However Herakles is victorious every time, not only that – he embarrasses Eurystheus who is often so terrified of the heroes’ return he hides in a jar. Now we can take the story as just myth, it’s entertaining and illustrates Herakles ascension to godhood, but it is quite possible it has a deeper meaning. Each labour can be related to ancient star constellations, or zodiac, if we picture Herakles as the sun, he moves through each constellation to illustrate a time of the year. Meaning that the story can be seen as a calendar story. I even theorise that Eurystheus hiding in the jar is the moon, maybe symbolising special festive dates for the cultic calendar of Herakles (so far I have found no academic proof of this, but I think it’s a sound theory.)

So there is the subtext of the tale, it is more than possible that ancient people would use this story to remember the times of the year, they would measure the suns (Herakles) passing of the constellations (labours) to determine when to plant seed, when winter was coming (going to Hades to tame Cerberus) etc. Afterwards Herakles would rise again to repeat the labours.

Another example is a very deep myth – it is deep as it relates to religious rites and possibly actual historic events.
Theseus and the Minotaur. Theseus is an up in coming king of Athens, sadly Athens is subjugated to the wrath of King Minos of Crete. Athens must provide a tribute of seven maidens and seven courageous youths every seven years as tribute to the monstrous Minotaur.
To prove himself as rightful heir to Athens and also to free the city of this horrible tribute, Theseus offers himself up as pseudo-tribute and embarks with the youths to defeat the Minotaur. With the aid of the Princess Ariadne he navigates the labyrinth and defeats the beast. Thus ending the dominion over Athens and eventually proves the rights of Theseus as king.

This again can be seen as a solar story, the traditional seven arch Cretan Labyrinth has celestial significance, sometimes it’s related to the seven known classical planets with its centre being the Minotaur or sun. In other words it can be a primitive representation of a solar system. This is interesting when we think of the constellation of Taurus, a common theme found in classical iconography is the slaying of the bull by the sun (Mithraic Tauroctony) often this is symbolic of the sun conquering, i.e., passing through the bull constellation marking an end a year and beginning of another. So it can be seen that this tale is another calendar myth.

Then there is the historic side. We know through archaeological evidence, mythology and classical study that during the height of Cretan culture (Minoan) it was dominate in the Aegean pre-dark age, early bronze age (3650 to 1450 BC). There is no clear consensus of what actually happened but we know that the Minoan civilization had some effect and influence on mainland Mycenaean Greece until the Minoan’s were somehow devastated, most likely by the Thera eruption. Afterwards we find evidence through language that Minoan culture was taken over by Mycenaeans. Is it possible that the Theseus story illustrates actual historic events of a weaker culture taking over the previous dominate one?

There is so much we can take from this myth, another aspect of this story is the abandoning of Ariadne on Naxos. Ariadne was most likely originally a powerful Minoan goddess, but with the decline of Minoan culture we also see a decline in her role and cult to the point she is ‘downgraded’ to a mere mortal in the story. I often see the abandoning as a cross culture cultic merge of one cult into another. This is quite common in early mythology where goddesses were downgraded or even desexed to fit into the apparent male dominated culture of the Mycenaeans.

The final example I want to talk about has been a little controversial of late: The Crippling of Hephaistos.

In the myth Hephaistos is either born from the consummation between Zeus and Hera, or just Hera alone. Whatever the case the babe is deformed at birth and thrown from Olympus as a reject and becomes forever disabled in the legs. The master smiths of Lemnos, the Cyclopes, adopt Hephaistos and teach him to become a master crafter. Hephaistos eventually gets revenge against his mother (who is often the one that rejects him) by humiliating Hera through his craft. When Hephaistos finally frees Hera from his curse he is welcomed back into Olympus as an Olympian god.

This has been controversial of late because of terms used in myth to describe the affliction suffered by Hephaistos. Certain folk are offended at terms like cripple, lame, deformed and even disabled.  This behaviour fits into my definition of “Monothought” as it’s becoming focused on an aspect of the narrative of myth, while ignoring the context behind it. In this regard I’m pretty critical of people who forcedly want to divert or reinterpret myth by their own modern standards and make it applicable to the wider community. I believe this is very dangerous territory and is ultimately hubris.

Criticism aside, there are cultural subtexts found in these stories that explain the affliction of Hephaistos and his followers. This is where “Polythought” comes in handy as it allows us to critically assess the subtext of the myth.
Health and safety laws were not in effect during the bronze age, nor did the people have an understanding of the dangers of dealing with toxins. On top of that natural elements required to produce metal alloys were not available to Greeks.

The Bronze Age is named that because it was a period where the culture learnt the mysteries of the metal alloy of bronze, a metal stronger than iron and copper, but weaker than the near impossible to produce at the time alloy of steel. It was a technological advancement discovering bronze but also very difficult and toxic to produce. Nearly all bronze today is produced as an alloy of tin and copper, but tin is extremely rare in the Mediterranean, as an alternative arsenic was a substitute of tin. I pray to the gods above and below that my readers are not dim-witted to know how toxic arsenic is… but let’s just say it’s been used to assassinate a number of famous characters throughout history.  Low level, long term exposure of arsenic causes problems to the feet and hands, also mental issues including irrational rage and general madness.
Apart from the obvious toxins in bronze making, metalworkers worked with lead too, also known for inducing madness, deformed limbs and even hereditary dwarfism. And also mercury that was used with gold, silver and copper to create a process called, Amalgam. Mercury makes certain metals cold liquids that enables the base metal to be manipulated without firing. Naturally this is also highly toxic and results in all kinds of mental and physical problems.

So we see by thinking in terms of what we know of ancient times the smiths would had suffered some form of deformity through their work. Honestly I suspect it was seen as a sign of their mastery of craft, magic. This assumption comes from other cultures that exist today in Siberia and West Africa where the role of smiths is akin to priests and shamans and marked out as their own social class. Yet today in our minority culture we are privilege with a flip of a switch or click a cigarette lighter — fire is born, but we don’t know anything about the meaning behind the magic itself. For these ancient smiths they not only mastered the flame they taught fire to turn solids to liquids, back into solids. Solids given to the flame that are reborn into the form of strong swords and weapons or icons of the gods! The price of this magic work and knowledge of the mysteries of flame is deformity. A prideful price to pay for mastery of the mysteries.

I suppose I need to round this essay up. Is myth truth? No, I don’t believe in mythology as literal truth. I don’t believe that historically Herakles performed the twelve labours, nor that historically Theseus killed the Minotaur. I do, however, believe that myth lives in a realm outside our reality and lives on in its own ‘mythscape’,  a place that is anchored in our reality, landscape and history. It is a narrative of our DNA and ancestral collective consciousness. Hidden deep within myth is truth, but how we draw upon that rational truth is no more important than the story itself. We can rewrite mythology, apply rational thought, we can use new terms and even get offended. But deep down it lives within us, therefore it should be respected and embraced as it is the memory and understanding of humanity before us.

That’s why I love mythology.