Shoreline Driftwood shares with its readers the unconventional insights of its author, Don Coorough, into current events, economics, politics, social activism, philosophy, mythology, psychology, neuroscience, the arts and culture, in addition to his poetry.
Tuesday, November 10, 2009
Understanding Classical Greek Mythology and Its Avenues for Enlightenment
The ancient religion of Classical Greece is one of a culture which based its religion more on reality than the unreachable paragon dictated by an autocratic god embraced by contemporary monotheistic nations and cultures. The Greek gods and goddesses not only exhibited human traits, but often to excessive degrees. The immortals can be more accurately understood as personifications of essential or basic energies extant throughout time which infuse and influence the lives of humans (or so the Greeks of the Classical period believed). The gods and goddesses, at their best, exemplify traits of excellence - arêtes to be emulated. However, they also offered foreboding omens to mortals as warnings against allowing these essential energies or potencies to run amok, beyond or outside the degree of excellence or arête.
The Greeks accomplished another feat with their religion. They reconfigured the world from a place full of danger, terror and dread which one should fear into a world of beauty, joy and opportunity. One of the ways that was accomplished was through heroic tales, great men performing great deeds. Another manner by which this transformation was elucidated came through the writing of poets and teaching of philosophers. Rationality and order placed chaos and the terrors of fate’s whims into perspective, allowing the minds of the Greeks to gain a sense of harmony with nature and a growing ability to use nature for human benefit.
Apollo’s mythic nature and attributes, along with the tales, myths and legends about him, offer insight through self-analysis for facilitating healing in today’s world. Apollo’s roles as God of Shamans, a healer, poet, musician and entertainer to the Olympians, and the God of Prophecy, provide glimpses into avenues for healing. Significant individuals, who pushed and prodded the world of the 1960s into social consciousness, helping to spark and enflame the peace movement, embodied those qualities. Jim Morrison, John Lennon, Bob Dylan and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young represent a few examples of people whose Apollonian traits inculcated the ideas of peace, love, understanding, cooperation and nonviolence as a force for societal healing.
A central requirement for imparting a healing message to the world, and having it heard, accepted and acted upon by others, arises from charisma. Physical attractiveness is a part of charisma. The qualities of the gift of speech, an exciting air and aura, charm, wittiness and intense energy each play additional roles in presenting a magnetic personality. For a figure in today’s world to reach a mass audience and be able to excite, energize and galvanize them into a healing force for change, that person must exude ample quantities of charisma.
Apollo is a god whose allure includes magnetic charm. For instance, in the book Classical Myth, written by Barry B. Powell, the author reveals from the “Homeric Hymn to Apollo” the following lines to describe the favor and esteem in which Apollo was held. “How can I challenge the songs already sung to your glory? / Everywhere, Phoebus, the strains of music resound in your honor,” (160). Powell offers this explanation, “Apollo fulfills in the divine community the same function as the oral poet in the human, playing for choral dance and singing and entertaining at the banquet” (162). Hermes gave Apollo the lyre as a gift. It was said in verse of Apollo that he skillfully strummed the lyre (190). Apollo’s charisma was sufficient to command the attention and interest necessary for imparting a message through his gifts as poet and musician.
Apollo’s legend encompasses slaying the serpent, Python. Slaying the serpent represents a leg of the hero’s journey – meeting and slaying a dragon in combat. The serpent or dragon symbolizes evil, both within and without. A study of Apollo would lead individuals and societies to comprehend that evil should not be projected onto others. The projection outward of evil is not a valid excuse for war, interpersonal disputes or violence. Evil is a state of imbalance, sometimes between two or more people or groups and other times within the souls, psyches and collective consciousness of individuals and groups. Healing imbalance is best accomplished by looking within, not making scapegoats of others. Through studying this aspect of Apollo, illuminated as part of the hero’s journey, individuals and societies can learn to practice self-healing. Self-healing will aid them to climb out of their money-wealth-possession accumulation induced narcissism.
In his guise as the God of Prophecy, Apollo assists us to see beyond the veneer of our selfish interests and desires. Prophecy offers warnings concerning the impending cataclysm from Climate Change as well as the degradation, death and destruction awaiting massive populations on the planet from war. If humanity studied Apollo, its collective ear might be attuned to the warnings all around. Then, the disasters which await the planet might be averted. Comprehending Apollo’s nature could assist humanity to heed the signs nature posts instead of ignoring them so they can delude themselves into thinking it will continue to be fine to pursue business as usual: greedily amassing possessions from a fixation with narcissistic consumerism and its resulting perpetuation of corporate excess, the mass production of needless products and the waste of the planet's resources, all contributing to the overheating of the planetary ecosystem.
Apollo, in his guise as the God of Shamans, combines all these elements in one persona. The shaman was a healer and seer for societies in antiquity. “He can read the inner meaning in signs and omens. He can summon the spirits of the dead, and dreams reveal to him what will come to pass. Through his superior knowledge he controls the invisible and dangerous forces that interfere constantly in the lives of human beings, including the most dangerous and puzzling of them all, disease” (Powell 171-72). This is the guise of the doctor, the healer, and the magician. This form of Apollo offers the opportunity for healing to individuals, societies, cultures and the planet, bringing necessary medicine to cure us of soul-sickness while leading us forward into a brighter, happier and more naturally balanced future.
One of the more interesting facets of the Greek myths can be seen in how the myths themselves matured as the Greek societies grew more sophisticated. The natures of the gods and goddesses themselves were altered over time as the Greeks grew in their understanding of ethics, morals and philosophical ideas. Some attributes of the gods seem to reflect a looser morality than other legends and myths reveal. The myths surrounding Zeus offer a case in point. Perhaps this has more to do 1) with the ethics and morals of the contemporary world which judges the actions contained in the myths by contemporary standards and which may have little or nothing to do with the standards held by the societies in the time when the myths were popular, and 2) with the various moral and ethical standards which might have been present at different times while the myths came into being.
As an example, Zeus possessed a dual nature which offers a glimpse at this phenomenon.
One side of Zeus depicted in the tales about him evidences aberrant behavior by contemporary standards. Although he was married to Hera, Zeus had many female consorts, lovers and conquests. He sired children out of wedlock with his sexual partners, some of whom were mortal, others were divine. These tales were popular at a time when kings had concubines, consorts and harems in addition to other sexual adventures. Maybe these kingly prerogatives arose because the kings mimicked the behavior of their gods. However, it is more likely the gods were depicted with these kinds of human moral failings because men conceived of their gods in their own image, especially with regard to the practices of the societies in existence when the myths were created.
Another side of Zeus is as the warrior, leader, ruler and father figure. He is the patriarch. He is also the mightiest and most feared of all the gods and his thunderbolts were the greatest of the gods’ weapons. He was a general who rallied his forces to his side to overthrow the old order as he also protected himself and liberated his siblings from the fate Cronus had in store for them.
Zeus is said to have ruled over Olympus with an iron hand. However, the Olympians lived sumptuously and elegantly. All seemed to enjoy great freedom to do as they pleased as long as they did not interfere with Zeus’ order. Nonetheless, Olympus was always full of intrigue and plots. During the Trojan War, Zeus wasn’t able to control the actions of the other Olympians or prevent them from meddling in human affairs.
There is still another side to Zeus, a very important one for the matters being discussed. He is said to have been an arbiter of fairness and justice and represented the Greek ideal of justice called dike. He is also emblematic of the Greek principle called xenia, which was the custom or formal institution of friendship and reciprocity. A relationship exists between the tarot card The Emperor, the Greek god Zeus (the Roman god Jupiter), the Kabbalistic sephiroth called Chesed and the energies of mercy, justice and the balancing of scales. Zeus is father of the Seasons (Horae), Fates (Morae), Graces and Muses. So, it is from him and his essence that each of those governing and inspiring forces emanate.
“The name Zeus is said to derive from the Indo-European root di- meaning ‘shine’ or ‘sky’” (Powell 137), and which is associated with a luminous heaven and a numinous quality. Transcendence may be found in this description: the luminous, numinous sense of Zeus, his sky/heaven association, his representation of xenia and dike, and his embodiment of justice and fairness. In these qualities, we see something beyond the laws of man and start to discover “the light of the higher laws of the universe” of which Emerson wrote.
One more facet to Zeus’ nature assists in realizing perhaps the most important approach to contemplating his relationship to transcendence. Zeus rose above his human-like frailties and his baser nature. Sometimes he was rooted in the world, seeking pleasure and opulence. At other times, he rose above and beyond that mundane realm of existence and those earthy, earthly qualities to shine luminously, to transcend his nature and enter into communion with his numinous essence and highest nature. Thus, Zeus embodies the ideal of man perfected as a god (also the alchemists' search for the Philosopher's Stone, the Knights of the Round Table's quest for the Grail, the Zen Buddists' desire for Satori, and the Kabbalists' efforts to rise up through the ten sephirah along the 22 pathsthrough the four worlds and attain oneness in Kether).
In this aspect of his story, Zeus shines like a beacon to all of us as we live out our own quests to find the source of personal enlightenment. After all, enlightenment does shine luminously from within, and its glow both induces and reveals transcendence.
In her book The Greek Way, Edith Hamilton, explained, “The power wine has to uplift a man, to give him an exultant sense of mastery, to carry him out of himself, was finally transformed into the idea of the god of wine freeing men from themselves and revealing to them that they too could become divine, an idea really implicit in Homer’s picture of human gods and godlike men, but never developed until Dionysus came.” (213-14). Shortly later, Ms. Hamilton imparts, “’He who is not being inspired,’ Plato says, ‘and having no touch of madness in his soul, comes to the door and thinks he will get into the temple by the help of art – he, I say, and his poetry are not admitted’” (216).
Let us consider the effects of wine on an individual. The first notable effect that wine produces on an individual is a loosening of one’s inhibitions. The senses are also affected, and the individual is prone to errors in perceptions with regard to both time and space. One’s motor coordination is impaired, as well, when under the influence of alcohol. Finally, wine provides a heightened sense of self as well as of self-importance.
Next, as one inquires into the ancient Greek approaches to transcendence, one may seek the perspective of what the Greek mysteries were about. The Greek mystery schools sought to separate the individual from mundane reality, exalt the individual to a level conducive to allowing him or her to identify with an archetype, or a god or goddess from the Greek pantheon. In so doing, the individual was enabled to transcend everyday regularity, move beyond normal perception, and see through perceptual reality to find a deeper meaning in life and connection to and with the universe.
Plato’s point is that the normal, everyday kind of mind, even when that mind is heightened to the degree that one might be an artist or poet, is insufficient to carry the individual past normal perception into the kind of deep trance which can yield transcendence. Furthermore, transcendence is required for the individual to undergo the transformation of the mind and soul necessary to experience the true mysteries. However, by loosening the control which society exerts over us all through the mechanisms of induced conformity and peer pressure, and by loosening the control our minds exert over us to see and perceive reality as based solely on our unaltered sense perceptions, the individual can find an approach or doorway into the temple to discover meaning and connection of the deeper nature offered by the Greek mysteries.
Indeed, in contemporary culture, humans are even more limited in their apprehension of the scope of reality by their senses and perceptual input. Science has reduced the mysterious into a small box it calls by one of the names from among superstition, illusion and delusion, or science demystifies the mysterious with explanations alluding to the intercession of natural processes. The entire culture suffers from severe doses of induced conformity imposed by schools, churches, television commercials and peer pressure requiring adherence to the latest, academically accepted ideas, commercial fads and current moral values while contemporary cultures debase the use of any and all forms of intoxicants as being evidence of aberrant behavior. It is naturally the case that contemporary cultures seek to breed conformity to social, cultural, moral and economic values bred by that culture as a means of perpetuating the system in place and the class of people entrusted with governing that system. The consequence is witnessed in contemporary cultures’ ties to economic models in which the only acceptable values can be reduced to income: the amassing of wealth, proving the individual’s relative power within the culture through the amount and quantity of expenditures as witnessed in the things one acquires, and dedication to productive work which is really only guaranteed to amass greater sums for the already wealthy while reducing the free time and enjoyment of the worker classes. All of these modes of economically induced conformity engage with sense perception in a way as to create a cycle of reinforcement. Consequently, the mind is more and more attached to sense perceived reality as being all there is.
One’s only avenues to loosening the controls – that culture, the economy, contemporary religion, societal mores currently applied and the training and influences of parents, teachers, preachers and television commercials exert on the individual from birth – can be found by relaxing those controls, at least temporarily and to some degree. Hence, the use of intoxicants and psychedelics provide the most approachable mediators (at least in Western civilization, whereas in the East, Sufism, Buddhism, Taoism, Hinduism and Transcendental Meditation all offer additional paths to loosening the strings of convention and physical reality) for deconstructing the societal and cultural edifice long enough and deeply enough to at least investigate alternate insights into reality. These (both the use of intoxicants and Eastern meditation techniques) are the only contemporary avenues for seeking transcendence which can lead to personal transformation and an apprehension of the mysteries the ancient Greeks held so dear.
The most transcendental experience of the ancient Greek religion had to do with the rites of Eleusis. Very little is actually known for certain regarding what occurred in those rites. They were shrouded in secrecy and mystery. Few actual details have been preserved to enlighten us about the Eleusinian Mysteries. However, one can construct some gist of what must have been going on from the details known.
The rites lasted for days. There were two different events staged: one for the Greater Mysteries and one for the Lesser Mysteries. Sacred objects were brought to Athens where they were housed in Demeter's sanctuary beneath the Acropolis. The festival began in the agora when the official announcement of its commencement was given.
Maria Mavromataki, in her book Greek Mythology and Religion, relates that, on the next four days, sacrifices were made and the initiates washed and purified themselves by the sea. On the morning of the fifth day, a splendid procession headed for Eleusis along the Sacred Way made up of mystes (initiates), priests, the hierophant and torch-bearer among the procession. The initiates wore laurel wreaths. Along the Sacred Way, from time to time, the procession stopped to perform mini-rites at appropriate sanctuaries which had been built to other gods and goddesses situated along that path. That evening, they reached Eleusis. Two initiates (to be symbolically, ritually sacrificed to Demeter and Persephone) fasted and drank a barley water potion (74-5). It is from this point forward that little is known.
In The Road to Eleusis, R. Gordon Wasson (the founder of ethnomycology), Albert Hoffman (the discoverer of LSD), and classicist Carl A. P. Ruck collaborated on a thesis which proposed that the secret ingredient in the barley water drink was ergot. Hoffman explains that the ergot of wheat and of barley analyzed in his lab were found to contain basically the same alkaloids as ergot of rye, including traces of lysergic acidamide.
The authors provide the following description of the mysteries within the temple. "As he performed the service, the hierophant intoned ancient chants in a falsetto voice, for his role in the Mystery was asexual, a male who had sacrificed his gender to the Great Goddess... Finally, in acknowledgement of their readiness, they all chanted that they had drunk the potion and had handled the sacred objects... Then, seated on the tiers of steps that lined the walls of the cavernous hall, in darkness, they waited. From the potion, they gradually entered ecstasy" (58-9).
The next portion of the description sounds like something right out of one of Ken Kesey's acid tests with the Merry Pranksters. "This potion - an hallucinogen - under the right set and setting, disturbs man's inner ear and trips astonishing ventriloquistic effects. We can rest assured that the hierophants, with generations of experience [these rites were performed for a period lasting over 2000 years], knew all the secrets of set and setting. I am sure that there was music, probably both vocal and instrumental, not loud but with authority, coming from hither and yon, now from the depths of the earth, now from outside, now a mere whisper infiltrating the ear, flitting from place to place unaccountably. The hierophants may well have known the art of releasing into the air various perfumes [incense scents] in succession, and they must have contrived the music for a crescendo of expectation, until suddenly, the inner chamber was flung open and spirits of light entered the room, subdued lights I think, not blinding, and among them the spirit of Persephone with her new-born son just returned from Hades. She would arrive just as the hierophant raised his voice in ancient measures reserved for the Mystery: 'The Terrible Queen has given birth to her son, the Terrible One'. This divine birth of the Lord of the Nether world was accompanied by the bellowing of a gong-like instrument that outdid, for the ecstatic audience, the mightiest thunderclap coming from the bowels of the earth" (59). Here's how they described the experience that people who dropped acid in the 60s and 70s called peaking, "Then, suddenly, there was light and the boundaries on this world burst their bounds as spiritual presences were felt in their midst and the hall was flooded with glowing mystery" (63).
This rite reveals exactly what is missing from the contemporary world. There's no mystery. There's no glorious apprehension and communion with the mystical. We're too busy anesthetizing ourselves with toys and television and movies and virtual reality games and beer and body shots and sporting events and music videos of glamorous pop stars exuding sex and seducing each new generation with deeper excursions into decadence and the suggested thrills of a tawdry narcissistic infatuation with wealth, celebrity, possessions, and the pleasures of the flesh to actually live life and enjoy the interconnection, companionship and communion with all that is natural and beautiful which life offers. Because we disrupt the flow of current which otherwise should be present in interconnection, we lose respect and appreciation for everything of real value. Acid tests actually sparked a movement back to nature and to reconnection among like-minded "brothers and sisters."
Unfortunately, in today's world of bland conformity, there is no place left for mystery outside the movie theater, and even there, it is only witnessed through brief, vicarious encounters never through direct, experiential interaction.
I wonder sometimes if there are any people left who remember what it was like to roll in the grass on a warm summer day, or fly a kite, or run through the surf. Few bother to recall the joy of playing tag at dusk or recollect the sensation of running fingers over the rough bark of an oak tree and contrasting it with the slippery smoothness of river rocks. The scent of tomorrow is plastic and metallic and antiseptic. The colors are all ecru. But most sadly, the experiences only occur indoors on computers and gaming consoles and lack infusion with one's own imagination.
Without an absurd theater of sublime ecstasy, life itself becomes absurd and meaningless. Without mystery, nature's only value lies in what new commodity can be made from the planet's natural resources. When there is no longer a real connection with the planet and all value for nature ebbs, we bring Climate Change upon ourselves. Laws to limit the amount of carbon emissions will not save humanity from itself. Mystery and reconnection with nature and with each other are the only avenues to a satisfying and rewarding future.