Only Connect

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    “Orpheus” ( 1908) by Tadeusz Styka (1889-1954); (The Lvov Gallery of Art) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

“Orpheus” ( 1908) by Tadeusz Styka (1889-1954); (The Lvov Gallery of Art) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Orpheus’ singing and music transform the world around him and continue to exert their influence even after his death. The combined themes of art’s ability to transform its surroundings and to survive the death of the artist are so ubiquitous in literature that the challenge lies in deciding which few to select as examples.

John Keats, an English poet of the Romantic period, illustrates these themes in two of the most beautiful poems in the English language. In “Ode to a Nightingale,” Keats is temporarily transported from a world plagued with illness and death to an enchanting world in the long ago past, a world populated with faeries and magical beings, a world plush and green and sweet-smelling, a world in which his senses burst into life. The poet’s imaginative journey is triggered by his engagement with the nightingale’s joyous and exuberant song. He is transported to the magical world echoed in the song through the vehicle of poetry, (“the viewless wings of poesy”). It is through art that Keats experiences his vision; and it is through the art of his poem that he takes the reader along with him.

In “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” Keats explores the images carved on an urn and meditates on its ability to freeze the images in time. As a static work of art, the urn transcends the vicissitudes of time. It exists in this world but is not of this world. It can guide us by being “a friend to man,” and allows us to project our ideas, thoughts, and emotions on to its images. In that sense, we “connect” with the urn just as we connect with any work of art and can potentially be transformed in the process. But the connection is not reciprocal. Although we respond to the urn, the urn does not respond to us. It lives in its own self-contained world outside the realm of human experience and is oblivious to our presence.

Although William Shakespeare is known for his plays, he also wrote some beautiful sonnets. For example, in Sonnet XVIII, he explores the idea of art’s ability to freeze time and transcend death. Sonnet XVIII echoes the story of Orpheus in its desire to sustain the life to a loved one. But unlike Orpheus who journeys to the Underworld to revive Eurydice, Shakespeare uses the vehicle of the sonnet to continually keep his beloved alive.

The sonnet begins with a series of comparisons between the beloved and a summer day. The beloved fares better since the summer day is found to have flaws. Shakespeare then declares his verse to be the vehicle by which his beloved retains beauty, youth, and immortality since each reading of his poem brings his beloved back to life. The sonnet becomes a testament to his beloved’s ability to transcend old age and death and to achieve immortality.

As we saw in our discussion, Orpheus loses Eurydice because he violates the conditions given to him by the gods. He looks back when he has been told not to do so. The theme of the disastrous consequences that can ensue if we look back has a parallel in the Biblical story of Lot and his wife in Genesis 19.

In this story, God announces his intention to Lot of destroying the two cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. He orders Lot to take his wife and family and leave the area to escape the destruction. But they are forbidden from looking back at the city while it is being destroyed. Lot’s wife cannot resist the temptation. She looks back and is promptly transformed into a pillar of salt.

Feminists have taken up the story of Orpheus and Eurydice and explored it in new ways. In her poem, “Eurydice,” Carol Ann Duffy provides an interesting twist on the story. She gives voice to Eurydice, allowing her to tell the story of Orpheus from her point of view. Orpheus is portrayed as an arrogant male, obsessed with himself and his needs. Eurydice has no intention of leaving with him and tries to get rid of him. She finally succeeds in getting him to turn around by flattering his ego. She is relieved to be waving goodbye as she recedes into the darkness. The poem is laced with sarcasm and humor.

H.D.’s “Eurydice” similarly accuses Orpheus of arrogance but adds ruthlessness to the bargain. The speaker is bitter and angry at Orpheus for dangling in front of her the possibility of returning to life but then snatching it away from her at the last minute.

Finally, Orpheus’ assumption that he is above the limitations of mortality is reminiscent of Icarus. As we saw in one of my previous blogs, Icarus thought he could fly closer and closer to the sun with no apparent consequence. Just as Icarus is warned, Orpheus is warned, but neither heeds the warning.

Orpheus’ story is also reminiscent of Gilgamesh. The death of a loved one is the catalyst that sets them both off on a quest to cheat death. Gilgamesh wants to obtain immortality for himself after witnessing the horrors of Enkidu's death. Orpheus wants to snatch his beloved Eurydice from the jaws of death and bring her back to life. Both attempts fail.

 

Coping with Loss

Orpheus mourns when he loses Eurydice to death. He mourns again when he does not heed the warnings of the Underworld and looks back too soon only to see her recede into the darkness. Mourning the loss of a loved one makes us human and is perfectly understandable. But Orpheus goes beyond that. He takes his loss to extremes. 

Just as we saw in one of my previous posts concerning Gilgamesh's inability to accept the death of his beloved Enkidu, Orpheus is unable to cope with the loss of Eurydice. He refuses to accept he is subject to the same trials and tribulations of life as the rest of humanity. He does not acknowledge that although death is a part of life, it is also irreversible. Like Gilgamesh, he thinks the rules do not apply to him, that he should be able to influence who lives and who dies.

Nymphs Finding the Head of Orpheus  (1900) by John William Waterhouse [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Nymphs Finding the Head of Orpheus (1900) by John William Waterhouse [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

At one time or another in our lives, we are subject to accidents, the deaths of loved ones, catastrophes, disappointments, loss, and trauma. These events are woven into the fabric of life. How we cope with these realities determines whether or not we are able to transcend them and move forward. We can either accept what we are powerless to change or we can do as Orpheus does and refuse to accept it, spending the rest of our lives in mourning. The choice is ours to make.

In a previous post, we saw how Persephone swallows the pomegranate seeds to guarantee her return to the Underword. This symbolizes her acceptance, assimilation, and ownership of the trauma she experienced. She uses her experience to propel herself into becoming a stronger, wiser, empowered, and articulate being. 

Persephone demonstrates that the way to transcend a traumatic or catastrophic event is to understand there is nothing we can do to reverse it, that we must accept it, re-frame it, use it to strengthen ourselves, and move forward. 

Orpheus rejects the whole concept of moving forward. Instead, he looks back, violating the condition for the release of Eurydice. And even after he has lost her for a second time, he does not move forward but spends the rest of his days in mourning. He rejects future relationships, symbolizing his rejection of community, an essential ingredient for leading a healthy life. In effect, his life comes to a screeching halt. He alienates those around him and suffers a violent death as a consequence.

The act of looking back does not necessarily condemn us to unhappy lives. Looking back at our past experiences can be a beneficial process of if we use the occasion to gain insight about our behavior and ourselves. But we cannot spend the rest of our lives looking back, mired in the past, mourning our loss, or regretting what might have been unless we want to spend the rest of our days feeling miserable and wallowing in self-pity. Persephone shows us how to move forward; Orpheus shows us what happens if we don't. Which of these two paths we choose to take is up to us.

The myth of Orpheus and Eurydice provides us with rich thematic mateial.  Some of these themes surface in a variety of literary works, as we shall see in my next post. 

 

 

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AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar

Dreams and Memory

Orpheus journeys to the Underworld to retrieve his beloved wife, Eurydice. But as is the case with myths in general, the events and characters in this myth can be interpreted symbolically. If we interpret Eurydice not just as a person but as a symbol, we open up the possibility for a whole new interpretation of the myth in which Orpheus’ journey to the Underworld can be explained psychologically—as a foray into the dark recesses of our mind, the world of dreams and memory.

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     World of Dreams  (1876) by Laura Theresa Alma-Tadema (1852-1909); [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons 

World of Dreams (1876) by Laura Theresa Alma-Tadema (1852-1909); [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons 

 

In this interpretation, Eurydice represents all our positive and possibly idealized memories of the past, memories we desperately want to re-live but which are lost to us forever. We can look back at them with longing, but any attempt to resurrect those moments and experience them again is as doomed as Orpheus’ attempt to resurrect his Eurydice. Our past is lost to us forever except in memories or through dreams. We cannot go back and re-live it, change it, or undo what has been done.

But perhaps more significant than our conscious attempt to re-live the past through the recollection of memories is the surfacing of the past through our dreams. Dreams consist of images, emotions, thoughts, ideas, and bits and pieces of memories buried in our psyche that speak to us during certain stages of sleep. They emerge from our underworld, the deep recesses of our subconscious mind. The nature of dreams varies. They can be frightening, soothing, bizarre, bewildering, sad, comforting, or inspiring. What happens in a dream or where it takes us is beyond our conscious control. 

Most dreams are forgotten as soon as we wake up. We see them recede into the darkness beyond our grasp. Like Orpheus reaching out to Eurydice, we reach out to hold on to our dream, to try to recall it. But the dream disappears before our eyes and we are left with nothing to hold on to except the knowledge that we experienced a vivid dream whose only contents we can remember are fragments of fleeting images. 

 

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AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar

The Transformational Power of the Arts

Orpheus is known above all for his singing. His voice is so exquisite, his songs so potent they enable him to transform nature and even allow him access to the Underworld. His singing stirs the animals into dance; inanimate nature in the form of rocks and stones come alive. Through his art, Orpheus transforms the world around him. As such, he embodies the role of the artist.  

The arts, and by that I mean literature, music, songs, painting, sculpture, and theatre, do more than provide commentary on the world. They have the ability to transform it, making us see reality in a new way by changing our perceptions and interpretations. Like all artists, Orpheus is a magician. He can take the ordinary, the mundane, and transmute it through his art into something new and exquisite, making it dance, making it come alive, and making us perceive it in an out-of-the-ordinary way.

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     Orpheus  by John Macallan Swan (1846-1910); Source/Photographer: Art Renewal Center; [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Orpheus by John Macallan Swan (1846-1910); Source/Photographer: Art Renewal Center; [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Orpheus’ journey to the Underworld also speaks to us in that it demonstrates the power of art to overcome death. His singing and musical skills enable him to pass through obstacles guarding access to the Underworld and persuade Hades and Persephone to agree to the release of Eurydice. We are told even in death, he continues to sing and play his music through his severed head as it floats down the river to Lesbos. His music lives on even though the artist has died.

During his life, Orpheus is able to manipulate the natural world through the magic of his songs. It is significant that after he dies, his body merges with nature. The scattered fragments of his body mingle with the earth before they are collected and given a proper burial. His voice continues to soar even after death. Orpheus as the artist is very much a part of this world both in life and in death. His presence and impact on the world, his ability to transform it, is felt during his life and long after his death.

The power of art to transform the world around us and to survive the death of the artist is a common theme in literature. We shall see examples of this in the “Only Connect” section in my discussion of this myth.

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AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar

The Story

Hailed as the supreme poet and musician in Greek mythology, Orpheus possessed a beautiful voice and excelled at playing the lyre. His music and singing was so enchanting that it was capable of making birds, fish, beasts, and even rocks and trees dance. His song charmed the Sirens when he voyaged with Jason to recover the Golden Fleece. And it was through his enchanting music and singing that he was able to enter and Underworld to seek the return of his beloved Eurydice.

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     The Lament of Orpheus  by Franz Caucig (1755-1828); [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons

The Lament of Orpheus by Franz Caucig (1755-1828); [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons

Orpheus’ love for Eurydice is legendary. Their wedding day is marred by catastrophe when Eurydice is bitten on her heel by a serpent as she walks through tall grass. Her death is instantaneous. Her spirit plummets to the Underworld. Orpheus discovers her body and is overcome with grief. Unable to either eat or sleep, he mourns the loss of Eurydice by playing such mournful songs that even the gods weep to hear him. Finally, Orpheus decides to venture to the Underworld, a feat few living mortals ever accomplish, with the goal of retreiving Eurydice back to the land of the living.

With his music and singing, Orpheus convinces the ferryman Charon to take him across the River Styx to the opening of the Underworld. Once there, he charms Cerberus, the three-headed dog guarding its entrance, to step aside and let him enter. He plays his music and sings his mournful songs, convincing Hades, the god of the Underworld, and his bride Persephone to agree to the release of Eurydice. But there is a condition. Both he and Eurydice are forbidden to look back at the Underworld until they have exited from it entirely and entered the upper world. If either looked back prematurely, Eurydice would have to return. Orpheus agrees to the terms. But for whatever reason, whether it is due to anxiety, excitement, or a lapse in judgment, Orpheus fails to abide by the terms. The consequences prove to be devestating.   

Posted
AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar

Only Connect

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     El Rapto de Proserpina  by Ulpiano Checa (1860-1916); Author: Poniol, 11 April, 2012; [Public domain or CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons   

El Rapto de Proserpina by Ulpiano Checa (1860-1916); Author: Poniol, 11 April, 2012; [Public domain or CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

 

The Homeric Hymn to Demeter has captured the attention of scholars, artists, and authors. Its appeal lies in a richness of themes that continue to resonate with contemporary audiences: the dynamics of the mother/daughter relationship; the progression from childhood to adulthood and what is lost and what is gained in the process; the nature of oppression; recovering from trauma; and the conditions for healing and reconciliation.

As a work of literature, the poem is beautiful and well worth reading in its entirety. Several translations are available but my favorite by far is the translation and commentary by Helene P. Foley.

Scholars have dedicated whole books to discussions of the poem. For example, Christine Downing’s The Long Journey Home is an anthology of essays, contemporary re-tellings, and poems, all of which deal exclusively with the Demeter/Persephone story. This anthology includes one of my favorite poems on the subject, "The Two Godesses" by River Malcolm, a poem in which Demeter and Persephone each speak in the first person of their experience and its impact on their lives and their relationship to each other. 

A wonderful poem that suggests the Demeter/Persephone story is “Offspring” by Naomi Long Madgett. The poem addresses the dynamics of the mother/daughter relationship and the gut-wrenching difficulty a mother feels at relinquishing her child to adulthood. 

In Life’s Daughter/Death’s Bride, Kathie Carlson, a Jungian psychologist, explores the myth in terms of what it reveals to us about our inner lives and relationships.

Our discussion of the myth revealed Demeter reacting to the oppressive behaviors of Zeus and Hades by replicating the behavior of the oppressors against an individual too weak to defend herself. History is replete with examples of just this behavior manifesting itself in the political arena. Numerous books—political, historical, and literary—have been written on the subject. One such book that continues to resonate even 60 years after its publication is George Orwell’s Animal Farm, a classic on the nature of oppression and how easily the oppressed can slide into the role of oppressors if and when they are placed in positions of power.

We witnessed Persephone exercising choice and agency by re-framing her trauma, claiming it through re-telling, and using the experience to catapult herself into becoming a strong, empowered, and articulate being. A plethora of books are available that address the subject of trauma, its aftermath, and the journey to recovery. One book I found most helpful when I worked with victims of sexual assault and/or battery is Judith Herman’s groundbreaking book, Trauma and Recovery. I highly recommend it.

Probably the most appealing aspect of the myth for me is its illustration of the idea that as we progress through our journey in life, we give birth to ourselves many times over. Just as Persephone swallows the seeds of death to give birth to herself anew in a perpetual dance of living and dying, when we transition to a new stage in our lives, some part of our old selves necessarily dies. We have to be prepared to shed our old skin if we ever hope to embrace our potential and live life to its fullest. And we have to be prepared to do so on an ongoing, continuous basis, rotating between living and dying just as Persephone has done.

An exquisite poem that expresses this very theme is “Curiosity” by Alistair Reed. If you click on the link, you can read the poem and hear it read by the poet, himself. It’s quite lovely.

Finally, at the risk of being accused of shameless self-promotion, I refer you to the two books I have written about the myth: Demeter and Persephone: Lessons from a Myth and my novel, A Pomegranate and the Maiden.

Persephone's Voice

When Persephone emerges from the Underworld, she greets her mother and narrates the sequence of events that led to her abduction and release. Homer attributes 30 lines of direct speech to her. This is the first time we hear her speak. She utters a shrill cry as she is abducted; she makes no sounds that we know of while she is in the Underworld. It is only when she emerges that Persephone seems to find her voice.

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     Head of Proserpina  By Gianlorenzo Bernini (Italy, 1598-1690) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Head of Proserpina By Gianlorenzo Bernini (Italy, 1598-1690) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

In myths, fairy tales, and stories in general, voice frequently serves as a metaphor for agency and self-determination. An absence of voice indicates an absence of agency. Finding voice equates with exercising agency. Persephone emerges from the Underworld speaking clearly and with confidence. She has found her voice. She is no longer the inarticulate generic maiden who was deprived of both voice and agency.

Persephone’s recounting of events serves an important function. A traumatic experience that is buried and never articulated will not heal. By speaking of her trauma, Persephone exerts control over it, re-framing it in her own words, thereby facilitating its integration into her life in order to heal. Voice and agency are intertwined. What is true for Persephone is true for all victims of trauma.

The re-telling of a traumatic experience is an essential activity for healing to occur with victims of trauma, including victims of sexual assault and/or battery. It is a necessary part of the recovery process. It reduces the victim’s feelings of isolation by establishing a connection between the speaker and the listener and between the victim and others who have experienced trauma. This re-telling also serves to diminish any possible lingering feelings of guilt or self-blame.

Unfortunately, some of us have a tendency to show little sympathy for victims of trauma and frequently engage in victim blaming. We dismiss the trauma by finding ways to accuse the victim of bringing it on himself/herself. We assume that trauma cannot happen to us or to anyone who exercises vigilance. The truth of the matter is, however, no matter how careful we are, trauma can hit us at any time and at any place. Persephone was engaged in the innocent activity of picking flowers when she was abducted to the Underworld. Similarly, we can be engaged in an equally harmless activity only to find ourselves victims of a trauma we did not instigate. Blaming the victim for his/her victimization is not only cruel, it compounds the problem for the individual trying to heal. All victims of trauma, regardless of the nature of the trauma, deserve our sympathy and compassion, not our recriminations and censure.  

The Homeric Hymn to Demeter continues to sing to us across the centuries. Many of the themes it articulates resonate with us today. In my next post, I will identify some literary works that address similar themes.

The Psychic Descent

The Underworld in Greek mythology is a dark, mysterious realm inhabited by the shades of the dead. The Greeks believed it was an actual place located under the earth and/or across water. Hades emerges from under the earth to abduct the Kore; Odysseus in Homer’s Odyssey has to cross water to get to it. But the Underworld is not just a quaint attempt on the part of the ancient Greeks to explain where we go when we die. It is so much more than that. The Underworld speaks to us as metaphor for the dark, hidden spaces in our psyche.

Sometimes trauma is thrust upon us through no fault of our own. Before we fully grasp what has happened, we find ourselves being sucked into a deep, dark chasm with no apparent way out. We are abducted into our own depths, a descent which can be terrifying. We feel utterly alone, desolate, isolated, and abandoned. This is our underworld.

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     Study Figure for Hell  By John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Study Figure for Hell By John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

This psychic space we inhabit feels like a death. And in many ways it is. A part of us is dying. But just like Persephone who is abducted into death and who transforms her experience into new life, we are presented with the same opportunity through our psychic descent. We have a choice. Do we opt to stay in this death-like psychic state and allow circumstances to overwhelm us? Or do we opt to actively re-frame our experience to emerge as stronger and wiser beings, as better versions of ourselves?

Persephone’s consumption of the seeds of death speaks to us as metaphor for assimilating or internalizing what is learned during tenure in the Underworld and its use as a catapult to higher knowledge. Similarly, while we are in this death-like, psychic space, we can use the time wisely by learning who we are and what we can become. 

Time spent in the underworld can be transformative, a period of psychological and spiritual growth. It has the potential to be a fertile time in our lives, a time for introspection and gestation, a time for being instead of a time for doing. We can forge new meaning out of the trauma by creating a better self as a response to experiences that hurt. Although we don’t necessarily welcome our abduction into its depths and are overjoyed to emerge, once we begin to recognize the potential for growth the underworld presents, our fear of it can diminish. 

Persephone’s visits to the underworld are regulated. Ours are not. We don’t know what circumstances or hurdles will send us plummeting into our own depths. But how we react when we are down there is up to us. If we understand the pain we are experiencing has purpose and potential, we can better tolerate it. Easier said than done, I know. But it may be some consolation to remember there is no growth without pain; there is no birth without death. The birth of the new emerges from the death of the old. By exercising agency and choosing to assimilate the knowledge garnered from our psychic excursion into the depths, we can emerge as wiser, stronger beings who are better equipped to handle life’s challenges. 

In my next post, I will address the issue of Persephone's voice and the important role voice plays in healing from trauma.

Posted
AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar

The Seeds of Death

In order to understand why Persephone intentionally chooses to guarantee her return to the Underworld, we have to see what the Kore is like before entering the Underworld and what she is like when she emerges.

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     The Return of Persephone  by Frederic Leighton, 1981 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The Return of Persephone by Frederic Leighton, 1981 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Before her abduction, the Kore is a young maiden with a generic name, denied a unique identity, and referred to as an extension of her mother. She never speaks. The only sound she makes is the shrill cry to her father as she is being abducted, but even that is reported in the indirect voice.

Persephone in the Underworld is a powerful queen whose authority extends over all that has died. But there’s a catch. If she leaves the Underworld, she’ll never be allowed to return. Her power becomes meaningless. If she stays, she’ll never be able to exit. 

Homer tells us Persephone’s leap for joy occurs immediately after Hades explains the extent of her power. This suggests a causal relationship. Could it be possible that her joy is due to recognition that if she wishes to sustain her power, she must be able to rotate between upper and lower worlds? Such ability would make her virtually unique among the gods since only Hermes shares the same privilege. But she would have greater power than even Hermes. Unlike him, she can influence what transpires in her domain. The shades residing in the Underworld would appeal to her for help. Furthermore, her presence in the upper world would enable her to enjoy the benefit of sacrifices and honors from mortals eager to win her favor for when they die. Without the ability to navigate periodically between both worlds, her stature would greatly diminish.

Recognizing the truth in Hades’ words, Persephone assumes responsibility for her transformation and exercises choice. She opts to take on her role as a conduit. She guarantees her periodic return to the Underworld by intentionally consuming the seeds of death.

Persephone has been transfigured by her experience. She does not pine away or wallow in self-pity because of her victimization. She accepts what has happened to her and uses the experience to propel herself to a higher level of development and growth. No longer subject to the authority of either her mother or Hades, she creates a third space for herself that is independent of both and one that transcends the limitations of both worlds. Loss is thereby transformed into an opportunity for growth.

Persephone’s consumption of the seeds of death demonstrates her awareness that the seeds of death are her vehicle for a new life. In order to be re-born as a powerful, autonomous being, her old self must die.

How this awareness can benefit us will be the subject of my next post.

 

Posted
AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar

Persephone's Choice

We know very little about Kore/Persephone before her abduction to the Underworld. She is not even assigned a proper name when the poem opens. Known as the Kore (a generic word for “maiden”) or as “the slim-ankled daughter” of Demeter, she is denied a unique identity and is perceived as an extension of her mother.

Once in the Underworld, the Kore loses her maiden status. She sheds her generic name and assumes a proper name—Persephone, which means spring. We hear no more about her until Hermes, the Messenger of the Gods, arrives to announce her release. One would think she would be overjoyed to hear the news and show some excitement. Apparently not. Persephone does not react.

As he is about to release her, Hades reminds her she has gained new powers as his bride and as the Queen of the Underworld. Her status has increased among the gods, and her power extends to all that lives since mortals will try to win her favor with sacrifices and honors so she can ease their burden and the burden of their loved ones in the Underworld. It is then and only then that Persephone shows excitement. Homer tells us she eagerly “leapt for joy.” Hades then pops pomegranate seeds in her mouth, and Persephone swallows them. This is significant. Persephone has spent one year in the Underworld without consuming its food. Why would she choose to swallow food from the Underworld just as she is about to exit?

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   Hades (Pluton) depicted sitting on the left holding a bident in his left hand, next to Persephone seated below.  By Publisher: Eduard Trewendt, Atelier für Holzschnittkunst von August Gaber in Dresden, January 1864 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Hades (Pluton) depicted sitting on the left holding a bident in his left hand, next to Persephone seated below. By Publisher: Eduard Trewendt, Atelier für Holzschnittkunst von August Gaber in Dresden, January 1864 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

In order to understand the magnitude of Persephone’s choice, we need to know one of the rules of the Underworld is if you swallow food while you’re down there, you will have to return. So by swallowing the pomegranate seeds, Persephone is ensuring her return. The question is why? Why would she want to go back? Why would she intentionally swallow the seeds of death?

The answer to that will be in my next post. 

Posted
AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar

Oppression

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   The Rape of Proserpina sculpture by Bernini in the Galleria Borghese. Photo taken by Int3gr4te on 01/20/07; via Wikimedia Commons

The Rape of Proserpina sculpture by Bernini in the Galleria Borghese. Photo taken by Int3gr4te on 01/20/07; via Wikimedia Commons

As we saw in a previous post, Demeter reacts to the aggressive behavior of Zeus and Hades by initially running away from the problem. She searches for and finds a substitute in the infant prince Demophoon. She neither informs nor seeks permission from Demophoon’s mother for the transformation/abduction of Demophoon into an immortal. In effect, she replicates the aggressive behavior perpetrated on her by Zeus and Hades when they colluded to abduct her daughter to the Underworld without her knowledge or permission.

Demeter’s action illustrates a frequent reaction people have to oppression. All too often, when a group experiences oppression of any sort—be it discrimination based on race, class, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender, or ability—the members of that group will adopt the role of the oppressor by oppressing those beneath them in the power structure.

Demeter’s initial reaction to oppression is to avoid confronting the oppressor. Instead, she channels her anger at someone who is weaker than her, the mortal mother of Demophoon. Similarly, some people react to oppression by taking out their frustration and anger on those below them in the hierarchy who are powerless or who feel too powerless to retaliate. A pecking order is established. An employee oppressed by a supervisor will turn around and oppress a subordinate. A person victimized by someone powerful may vent frustrations on family members who feel too powerless to retaliate.

This reaction stems from feelings of inadequacy. We feel too weak or too afraid or too powerless to confront the aggressor. So we relieve our pent up anger by behaving aggressively toward those weaker than us. But as the Hymn to Demeter illustrates, such behavior is cruel, unjust, and counterproductive. For is it only when Demeter turns to confront her aggressors with the full force of her fury that she is able to get justice and gain the release of her daughter. And just as Demeter wields her power as the Goddess of the Grain to her advantage, we need to wield our power by using whatever legitimate means we have at our disposal to fight oppression whenever and wherever it hits us. 

 

 

Posted
AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar

The Story

One of my favorite myths in the body of Greek mythology is the story of Demeter and Persephone as told in Homer’s Hymn to Demeter.  My love of the myth inspired me to write two books about it. Demeter and Persephone: Lessons from a Myth (McFarland 2002) is a feminist interpretation of the myth. A Pomegranate and the Maiden (Anaphora Literary Press 2015), my novel based on the myth, is an imaginative retelling of the story which gives voice to each of the main characters through multiple, first-person points of view. The characters describe and interpret the events through a gendered lens. The narrative progresses with each character picking up the thread where the previous character left off.

The myth is complex, rich with meaning, full of choice bits of wisdom. But before we can begin to tease out its nuggets of wisdom, it’s helpful to have a brief summary of the myth.

Demeter, Goddess of the Grain, is responsible for the growth and cultivation of food. Her daughter, the Kore (‘maiden’) is picking flowers one day when Hades, God of the Underworld (the Land of the Dead), emerges from a wide chasm in the earth, grabs the young girl, and abducts her to his deathly realm to make her his bride.

Demeter Mourning Persephone   by Evelyn De Morgan 1906 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Demeter Mourning Persephone

by Evelyn De Morgan 1906 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

 

Demeter learns of her daughter’s abduction after nine days of frantic searching. However, she cannot rescue her daughter since she has no access to the underworld. So she withdraws from the assembly of the gods, disguises herself as a mortal, and becomes a nursemaid to the infant prince Demophoon in the city of Eleusis.

While at the palace in Eleusis, Demeter decides to claim the infant prince by turning him into a god. So each night she places him in the fire to purge him of his mortality. The infant’s mother witnesses the event and is horrified. Demeter then reveals her true identity and orders the people of Eleusis to build her a temple to mollify her anger.

Demeter takes her place inside the temple and uses her power as the Goddess of the Grain to force the release of her daughter from the underworld. She withholds her bounty from the earth, refusing to let anything grow. This leads to famine, starvation, and death. Eventually, the gods are forced to agree to her demands and Zeus orders the release of Kore/Persephone from the underworld.

As she is exiting the underworld, Persephone swallows the pomegranate seeds Hades slips into her mouth. Because she has eaten food of the underworld, she is required to return there for four months of every year. Her return to the underworld triggers Demeter’s mourning, corresponding to the months of winter. Her emergence from the underworld triggers Demeter’s joy, corresponding to the months of spring and summer.

On a superficial level, the myth represents our ancient ancestors’ attempt to explain why the earth dies in winter and is re-born in spring. But that is the least significant interpretation of the myth. If we deconstruct the myth and interpret it with a different set of lenses, we will discover it continues to speak to us with relevant and valuable lessons on dealing with the challenges in life.

What those lessons are will be the subject of my subsequent posts, beginning with Demeter and how she copes with loss.

Posted
AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar

Only Connect

Gilgamesh Statue, Sydney University;    
  
 
  
    
  
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     By Gwil5083 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Gilgamesh Statue, Sydney University; 

By Gwil5083 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

The Epic of Gilgamesh continues to speak to us although it was written over 3,500 years ago. It illustrates the personal, political, and social ramifications of the law of unintended consequences. Through the example of Gilgamesh, we see the danger of overweening arrogance; of engaging in an unprovoked attack against a so-called enemy; of a refusal to recognize winning does not always have to entail slaughtering one’s opponent; of an unwillingness to engage one’s former enemies in implementing a solution to a crisis; of the use of excessive force; and, finally, of the failure to exercise compassion.

We see some of these same sentiments expressed many centuries later in William Shakespeare’s Sonnet 94. Shakespeare argues those who have the power and influence to hurt others but who refrain from doing so are to be admired. But if they abuse their power by hurting others, they are to be severely castigated since “Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.” In other words, power in and of itself does not necessarily corrupt. It is how an individual uses the power that determines his/her worth.  And as we saw, the early Gilgamesh was far from blameless in how he wielded his power.

Another connection can be made between The Epic of Gilgamesh and a two thousand year old text, The Art of War by Sun Tzu. In this classic text, Sun Tzu argues a cornered army must be allowed an appropriate and workable exit strategy, a means to save face. The absence of such an exit strategy forces one’s opponents to resort to desperate measures. Here, again, Gilgamesh committed a fatal error by failing to provide Ishtar with a dignified way out of her defeat when he killed the Bull of Heaven. He humiliated her, depriving her of a dignified means to salvage her wounded pride, leaving her with no alternative but to lash out in desperation. She cries out in anger, convincing the rest of the gods on the need for revenge. Enkidu dies; Gilgamesh grieves. Once again, Gilgamesh has blundered.

The poet of The Epic of Gilgamesh communicated some valuable lessons to his audience thousands of years ago, lessons still very relevant today.  Unfortunately, we pay little heed to them, so like the early Gilgamesh, we act with arrogance, excessive force, thoughtlessness, and a lack of compassion. And so, like the early Gilgamesh, we become subject to the law of unintended consequences, unleashing one catastrophe after another, reeling from the shock while wondering what hit us and why.

Finally, for those of you like me who are fascinated by the words and sounds of ancient texts, you can click on the link and hear the words of this epic masterpiece in all their original glory. 

Posted
AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar

A Transformation

To learn what kind of ruler Gilgamesh becomes after returning home from his adventure, we have to turn to the beginning of the poem where the poet first introduces us to Gilgamesh.

The poet tells us upon his return to Uruk after his epic voyage to Utnapishtim, Gilgamesh dug wells, restored the temple, brought back the ancient rites, was loved by his soldiers, protected his people, sought their welfare, and sought the welfare of his city. This is no longer the same Gilgamesh we encountered earlier, a Gilgamesh consumed by his own self-image, a Gilgamesh terrorizing his people, a Gilgamesh exhibiting an overweening arrogance. He has changed for the better.

Uruk Head;    
  
 
  
    
  
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     By Anonymous (own photoshop) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Uruk Head; 

By Anonymous (own photoshop) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

As we saw earlier, Gilgamesh is initially deaf to Siduri’s advice, dismissing it with impatience. But her advice bears repeating. She reminds Gilgamesh (and us) life is fleeting, so we need to appreciate it while we can by enjoying all it has to offer. Since a healthy body leads to a healthy mind, eating well and maintaining good hygiene makes us feel good about ourselves. However, Siduri is not advocating a life of self-absorbed pleasure seeking. Far from it. She reminds us in addition to seeking our own happiness, we have an obligation to ensure the happiness of those around us: our children, our spouses, our community. In the case of Gilgamesh, this would also include his subjects since he is their king and protector.

Although the poet does not tells us where or how it happened, it is evident Gilgamesh experiences a transformation on his journey back to Uruk, one allowing him to assimilate Siduri’s advice and make it part of his being. The Gilgamesh who returns to Uruk behaves as a caring, selfless, and compassionate king: he builds the infrastructure of the city, seeks the welfare of his people, and acts as their spiritual guide.

The Epic of Gilgamesh is a beautiful and poignant epic poem that continues to resonate with a contemporary audience on many levels. It addresses the universal themes of the quest for the meaning of life, the pride that comes before a fall, the love between soul mates, and the experience of grief at the loss of a beloved. Additionally, it demonstrates how the law of unintended consequences can initially lead to catastrophe but may eventually take us on a circuitous route that ultimately leads to a positive outcome. In the case of Gilgamesh, the law of unintended consequences initially led to devastating grief at the loss of his beloved Enkidu. But it ultimately also led to the humbling of a king—a humbling that served to benefit the king, as well as his whole community.

My next post will draw some thematic connections between The Epic of Gilgamesh and other texts.

 

Posted
AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar

The Advice of Siduri

Gilgamesh sets out on his quest to find Utnapishtim.  He encounters the Scorpion couple who stand at the entrance to the tunnel between the mountains known as the Twin Peaks. In response to their questions of who are you and why are you here, Gilgamesh tells them of his despair at the death of Enkidu and of his mission to learn from Utnapishtim how he overcame death so he could follow in his footsteps. Heeding their instructions, Gilgamesh succeeds in running through the tunnel between the mountains for twelve continuous hours. He emerges in the nick of time before the sun enters the tunnel and burns him to a crisp.  He is now in the Garden of the Gods where he encounters Siduri, the Wine-Maker of the Gods.

Siduri sees Gilgamesh approaching her from a distance. His appearance frightens her so she rushes back into her tavern and locks the door. Gilgamesh threatens to smash her door down if she doesn’t let him enter.  Siduri asks him the same questions as the Scorpion couple: who are you and why are you here? Gilgamesh gives her the same response.

Siduri offers him some sage advice. She tells him to accept his mortality since only the gods live forever. She cautions him against setting himself up for disappointment by seeking something he can never hope to attain. She advises him to go back home and live life to the fullest: to make the most of each day by eating well, bathing regularly, wearing fine clothes, enjoying music and dance, loving his child, and pleasuring his wife. Needless to say, Gilgamesh dismisses her advice.  He is not yet ready to hear it. Siduri sends him on his way by directing him to Urshanabi, the ferryman.

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    Uruk Trough in British Museum By Jononmac46 (own work); 9 February, 2014: 17:27:38; [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Uruk Trough in British Museum By Jononmac46 (own work); 9 February, 2014: 17:27:38; [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

With Urshanabi’s help in crossing the Waters of Death, Gilgamesh finally comes face to face with Utnapishtim. Utnapishtim shares with him the story of how he survived the Great Flood and gives him a parting gift of a plant that can restore eternal youth. Gilgamesh heads back home, losing the plant along the way. In effect, Gilgamesh returns to Uruk with nothing tangible to show for his epic journey. In spite of appearances to the contrary, however, it is evident Gilgamesh has experienced a transformation since the Gilgamesh at the end of the poem is a far cry from the Gilgamesh we met earlier, as my next post will show.

Posted
AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar

The Foolish Victory Strut

Gilgamesh and Enkidu return to Uruk floating logs from the Cedar Forest and carrying the head of Humbaba. They are greeted like returning heroes.  Gilgamesh bathes and puts on his finest robes, attracting the attention of the goddess Ishtar.  She proposes marriage. Gilgamesh rejects her offer, doing so politely at first, but then heaping one insult after another at her, with each insult becoming progressively more hurtful. Ishtar is humiliated and seeks to assuage her wounded pride by turning loose the Bull of Heaven to wreak havoc on Gilgamesh and his city.

Working together, Gilgamesh and Enkidu kill the Bull of Heaven. It can be argued they acted in self-defense since the Bull had already killed hundreds of Uruk’s warriors before meeting his death. Further, even the god Anu suggests to Ishtar she may be partially to blame for the death of the Bull of Heaven because she provoked Gilgamesh. So killing the Bull of Heaven does not appear to be the issue. The problem arises with what happened after.

Gilgamesh and the Bull of Heaven by U0045269 (Own work); Royal Museums of Art and History, Brussels; December 10, 2015; via Wikimedia Commons

Gilgamesh and the Bull of Heaven by U0045269 (Own work); Royal Museums of Art and History, Brussels; December 10, 2015; via Wikimedia Commons

Enkidu rips off one of the Bull’s thighs and flings it at Ishtar’s face, threatening to do the same to her body parts if he could. Meanwhile, Gilgamesh does his little victory swagger in the streets of Uruk, challenging the singing girls to praise his looks and bravery while flaunting Ishtar’s defeat in her face. There is no humility in victory here. There is no attempt to conciliate with a defeated enemy or to provide him/her with face-saving measures. There is only overweening arrogance for the victor and crushing humiliation for the loser.

Once again, the law of unintended consequences comes into play. Because of his unjustified killing of Humbaba, because he joins Enkidu in humiliating Ishtar by adding insult to injury, Gilgamesh unleashes a catastrophic event over which he has no control. His foolish behavior incurs the anger of the gods. To exact revenge, they fasten the eye of death on Enkidu.

Gilgamesh’s subsequent despair triggers another quest: to seek Utnapishtim and learn from him his secret of cheating death. It is while he is on this quest he meets Siduri, the winemaker of the gods, the subject of my next post.

Posted
AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar

Abuse of Power

My previous post described the killing of Humbaba and Gilgamesh’s depiction of him as a scourge on humanity. However, far from being the evil monster Gilgamesh has made him out to be, Humbaba does not appear to have caused harm to anyone. Quite the contrary.  He lives quietly in the Cedar Forest, minding his own business. He may be fierce and threatening, but if he is to succeed in performing the job assigned to him by the god Enlil of preventing intruders from chopping down the much-coveted trees of the Cedar Forest, surely he has to be fierce and terrifying. Gilgamesh’s desire to kill him is unwarranted and entirely unprovoked; his designation of Humbaba as an evil monster who must be destroyed is inescapably suspect. Gilgamesh has gone looking for trouble. And when you go looking for trouble, sooner or later you will find it or it will find you.

Gilgamesh by Samantha from Indonesia; Taken at Sidney University on 6 July, 2006; via Wikimedia Commons

Gilgamesh by Samantha from Indonesia; Taken at Sidney University on 6 July, 2006; via Wikimedia Commons

Gilgamesh’s action is nothing short of an abuse of power stemming from overweening arrogance. Just because he can kill Humbaba, it doesn’t mean he should kill Humbaba. Humbaba had been subdued, had pledged allegiance to Gilgamesh, and had even promised to help cut down the trees of the Cedar Forest. That should have been sufficient to satisfy Gilgamesh. It bears noting that although the god Shamash assisted in subduing Humbaba, he said nothing of killing of Humbaba. Furthermore, Gilgamesh wouldn’t have had to forfeit the chance to win fame since he could claim to have demonstrated compassion as well as obtained for Uruk the much-coveted logs from the Cedar Forest. But apparently none of this was enough for him, so he slaughters Humbaba. Such an unwarranted and unprovoked action shows a degree of arrogance convinced it can do what it wants with impunity. 

This is where the law of unintended consequences comes into play. It is one thing to kill an enemy in self-defense. It is quite another to kill an ostensible enemy who has done nothing to provoke you, who has been assigned the task of protecting natural resources, who gives you the opportunity to withdraw to avoid conflict, who pledges allegiance to you after you subdued him, and who begs for mercy and compassion. Might does not make right. Gilgamesh has yet to learn this and, as a consequence, he pays dearly for his mistake. 

Gilgamesh is not the last political figure to make this mistake. Nor is he the last to abuse his political power. History, including events in the more recent past, is replete with examples of human beings committing the same error in judgment with disastrous consequences. And as for Gilgamesh, the case against him is compounded. This isn’t the only instance of the law of unintended consequences coming into play in the poem, as we shall see in my next post. 

The Story

The Epic of Gilgamesh, also known as the Izdubar Epic, recounts the adventures of the historical king Gilgamesh who ruled the ancient Mesopotamian city of Uruk (modern day Iraq) around 2750 BCE.  Written in cuneiform on baked clay tablets, its first fragments were discovered in the ruins of Nineveh (modern day Mosul) in 1853 although it wasn’t deciphered or translated until many years later.

Written over 3,500 years ago, the poem continues to resonate. It speaks to us about love, grief over the death of a beloved, despair, fear of death, and overweening arrogance. It raises questions about the nature of good and evil and illustrates the law of unintended consequences. 

Epic of Gilgamesh, Tablet 11: Story of the Flood; Located in British Museum; Photographer: BabelStone; Wikimedia Commons

Epic of Gilgamesh, Tablet 11: Story of the Flood; Located in British Museum; Photographer: BabelStone; Wikimedia Commons

In brief, the story is as follows: 

The poem opens in the city of Uruk with a description of Gilgamesh who is part man, part god. He terrorizes his people with his boundless energy, selfishness, and voracious appetite for women. The people plead to the gods for help. The gods respond by fashioning a man from the earth, Enkidu.  Enkidu lives in the wild with animals. He is Adam before the Fall, innocent, uncivilized, natural, naked, and peaceful. 

Gilgamesh hears of the existence of Enkidu and sends the trapper with Shamhat, a priestess from the temple of Ishtar, to seduce Enkidu. Gilgamesh assumes Enkidu’s initiation through sex will cause him to be rejected by animals and force him to join the company of civilized humans.  All goes according to plan. Enkidu succumbs to Shamhat’s seductive wiles, is introduced to civilization, and eventually goes to Uruk where he encounters Gilgamesh.

After their initial contact, (which can best be described as a ferocious battle between two giants), Gilgamesh and Enkidu establish a bond that transcends friendship. They share adventures and exploits. Together they journey to the Cedar Forest and kill Humbaba, the guardian of the forest. They kill the Bull of Heaven sent by the goddess Ishtar to punish Gilgamesh for rejecting her offer of marriage. Angered by these actions, the gods decide someone must pay for the humiliation. They cast the eyes of death on Enkidu. So Enkidu dies, but not before he endures twelve days of excruciating agony.

Gilgamesh falls into deep despair at the death of his beloved and decides to embark on an epic journey to meet with his ancestor Utnapishtim to learn from him how he was able to conquer death. Overcoming many challenges on his journey, he arrives at the garden of the gods where he encounters Siduri, the wine-maker of the gods. She gives him some choice words of wisdom, which Gilgamesh promptly ignores.

Eventually, Gilgamesh comes face to face with Utnapishtim and asks him the burning question: How did you cheat death? Utnapishtim’s response includes a description of the Great Flood, a description that serves as the precursor for the Flood story in Genesis.  Gilgamesh returns to Uruk where he is embraced as a hero.  The poet concludes by praising Gilgamesh as a king who ruled his people with compassion and wisdom.

This very brief summary doesn’t begin to do the poem justice. The Epic of Gilgamesh is a great work of literature and must be read in its entirety to be fully appreciated. There are many translations available for those who wish to delve into it, but my absolute favorite by far is Stephen Mitchell’s Gilgamesh.

Rather than discussing the ins and outs of the whole poem, I aim to focus on three specific episodes: the killing of Humbaba, the victory strut after killing the Bull of Heaven, and the advice of Siduri.  My next post will address the killing of Humbaba.

 

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AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar

Only Connect

The story of Icarus has captivated poets and artists throughout the ages. The idea of a young man struck down as a consequence of challenging his human limitations continues to hold a fascination. We are enthralled by Icarus, admiring his gumption while simultaneously chastising his foolishness. 

Poets and artists throughout the ages have found in the story of Icarus rich fodder for their creative imagination. Through paintings, sculpture, poetry, and fiction, they have rendered their interpretations of the story of this young boy who has the nerve to soar to heights that defy common sense. 

An example of this can be found in the work of the Dutch painter Pieter Bruegel (1525-1569). Bruegel provides an interesting approach to the story of Icarus. In an exquisite painting on exhibit in the Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts in Brussels, Bruegel depicts the Fall of Icarus. The painting shows people going about their business, sailing, farming, etc. while in the lower corner, almost as an afterthought, are the legs of Icarus as he plummets to the sea. 

"Landscape with the Fall of Icarus" by Pieter Brueghel (1526/1530-1569) [Public Domain]; via Wikimedia Commons

"Landscape with the Fall of Icarus" by Pieter Brueghel (1526/1530-1569) [Public Domain]; via Wikimedia Commons

Perhaps Bruegel is suggesting while suffering and tragedy may have a profound impact on those who fall victim to it, the rest of the world seems to take another’s tragedy as a matter of course and go about its business relatively unaffected.  Bruegel may even be hinting at something more: questioning the value of Icarus’ challenge to human limitations.  After all, how significant could this challenge be if it fails to interrupt even the most mundane routines of everyday life?

The English poet, W.H. Auden (1907-1973) tackles the story of Icarus in his poem, “Musee des Beaux Arts” (1940). Auden describes human suffering as seemingly inconsequential to those not affected by it. Interestingly, he includes a description of Bruegel’s Fall of Icarus to illustrate his point, observing that the sight of a young boy falling out of the sky barely elicits mild surprise on the part of those who witnessed the spectacle.

Finally, in his novel, The Testament of Deadalus (1962) Michael Ayrton offers an interesting twist to the story of Icarus by shifting the focus of attention away from the boy. Instead of spotlighting Icarus, Ayrton turns his lens to Icarus’ father, Daedalus. Daedalus speaks in first person narrative to himself and to the reader as he struggles to come to terms with the death of his son. The work is a powerful and poignant testament of a father grappling to find understanding in the midst of overwhelming grief. Ayrton enhances the impact of his story by inserting his own dynamic drawings throughout the text.

There are numerous other artistic interpretations of the story of Icarus. These three happen to be among my favorites and are well worth an exploration.

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AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar

The Importance of Balance

Daedalus fashioned wings to escape incarceration and gain freedom. He warned Icarus to maintain an even balance between the sun and the sea, cautioning him against straying too far in either direction. But Icarus ignored his words. His pride got in the way and controlled his actions. He flew closer and closer to the sun, straying too far in the direction of logic and rational thinking while losing touch with emotions, intuition, and imagination. If, on the other hand, he had strayed too close to the sea, he would have been mired in the subconscious, wallowing in unbridled emotions and feelings to the exclusion of logic and reason. He would have met the same fate and paid the ultimate price for his action.

The story of Icarus warns us of the need to maintain a balance in our lives and the disastrous consequences that may ensue if we fail to maintain balance.  Our actions need to be grounded in rational thinking but not to the exclusion of emotions and feelings. Balancing the energies represented by the sun with those of the sea, the masculine principle with the feminine principle, reason with emotion, the needs of the individual with that of the community, the logos with eros, and the yang with the yin is what is required if we are to survive the journey and make it safely to shore. And this can only be done by keeping our pride or hubris in check. The myth tells us if we can sustain this balancing act by controlling our hubris, we won’t share the fate of Icarus. 

Circe Offering the Cup to Odysseus by John William Waterhouse (1849-1917); [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons

Circe Offering the Cup to Odysseus by John William Waterhouse (1849-1917); [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons

Book X of Homer’s Odyssey presents us with another illustration of the importance of balance. On his way home to Ithaca after defeating the Trojans, Odysseus encounters many dangers and mishaps. One of these occurs on Circe’s island. Odysseus sends his men out to scout the island. They encounter Circe who welcomes them to her home and offers them her special brew. Oblivious to the danger awaiting them, the men drink the brew. Circe immediately swishes her wand, transforming the men into swine and sending them out to their hovel.  One man, Eurylochos, escapes and runs back to tell Odysseus what has happened.

Odysseus heads toward Circe’s home, determined to rescue his men. He is intercepted by Hermes, the messenger of the gods. Hermes plucks a moly flower and offers it to Odysseus as protection against Circe’s magic.

Odysseus enters Circe’s hall, drinks her special brew, but much to her dismay, he does not transform into an animal at the swish of her wand.  The moly flower does its trick: it protects Odysseus from experiencing the same fate as his comrades.

So, what does this have to do with balance? The answer is everything.

The moly is a white flower with black roots. Just as the two halves complete the flower, the white and black colors balance each other to represent wholeness. White is associated with light, sun, and sky. It is the yang of Taoism and represents the masculine principle within which is embedded a small black circle, the yin. Yin is associated with night, darkness, and earth. It is the yin of Taosim and represents the feminine principle within which is embedded a black circle, the yang. Together yin/yang represent the balance associated with wholeness.

Hermes’ gift of the moly flower to Odysseus is the gift of balance, the gift of wholeness, the gift of equilibrium between masculine and feminine principles. Unlike his comrades, Odysseus is able to withstand his descent into brutish animalism because he receives the gift of balance. In effect, his contact with wholeness enables him to do what Icarus was not—sustain the all-important balancing act, the source of his salvation.


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AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar