Wednesday, 22 December 2010

The Fall

The Angelic Host rejoices
Engraving by Gustave Doré
“ Here all ye angels, progeny of Light,
  Thrones, Princedoms, Virtues, Powers,
  Hear my decree, which ever shall stand.
  This day I have begot whom I declare
  My only Son, and on this holy hill
  Him have anointed, whom ye now behold
  At my right hand; your head I him appoint;
  And by myself have sworn to him shall bow
  All knees in Heav’n,
  And shall confess him Lord. ”

And so unto the angelic host God gave his command. Rejoice abounded in the heavenly choirs it seemed, as the winged Seraphim greeted the news of the Son of God. All seemed well, but all was not well. For within the crowds on high was one who fell silent of praise, one who did not greet this command with joy at all... We look today to the story of Lucifer’s fall from grace, turning once more to the pages of Paradise Lost (for the first post on this, please click here), and read of the beginning of Evil.

Raphael tells the story of Lucifer
Engraving by Gustave Doré
Some time after Satan (the name Lucifer assumed after his rebellion against God) was hurled to the Pit of Hell, God sent down to the Garden of Eden one of the most trusted of Archangels, Raphael, to bear a message to Adam and Eve. After sharing joyous company and dining, Adam questions the angel of the Lord as to his coming. With a heavy heart, Raphael tells them that God has sent him to warn them of their Enemy, whose ever present threat of deceit and trickery pervades the Blessed Paradise of Eden. Little do they know that Satan himself has already broken into the Garden, and even now torments Eve with nightmares. Sighing, the Archangel sets the scene, of a time before the World and Man were created. Raphael speaks of the ecstasy in Heaven at the announcement of the arrival of the Son of God, and the honouring of the Messiah, how the angels danced and sang and made merry at the wondrous tidings. Until that day, highest in the favour of the Most High and the bright Morning Star, Lucifer was the shining prodigy of the celestial plains. If there was any imperfection within that which seemed perfect, it was that He bore within his frame that most terrible of vices – pride. The command to bow before the new and young Son of God, so honoured by the Almighty, Lucifer - whose name “Is heard no more in Heav’n” -  could not bear the sight.  Deepest malice, envy and rage radiated from his dark mind. As midnight fell on the Heavens, “he resolved with all his legions to dislodge, and leave unworshipped, unobeyed the throne supreme”.

Awakening, Satan turns to his lieutenant and bids him summon all loyal angels under their banners to his side. Satan’s dark thoughts go not unnoticed within the wisdom of the Almighty, who warns his Son “such a foe is rising, who intends to erect his throne equal to ours”. But Satan, “far advanced on winged speed”, flies to his palace in Heaven, raised on a Mount in imitation of that Mount upon which the Messiah was declared. He calls to him the summoned angels, feigning council to appraise the new Son of God. Speaking of bowing before the Son of God, Satan dares to question God’s command:

                                          “ But what if better counsels might erect
                                            Our minds and teach us to cast off this yoke?
                                            Will ye submit your necks, and choose to bend
                                            The supple knee? Ye will not if I trust
                                            To know ye right, or if ye know yourselves
                                            Natives and sons of Heav’n possessed before  
                                            By none, and if not equal all, yet free... ”
                                                   - SATAN REFUSES TO BOW TO MAN

Divided were the angels who stood before the Morning Star, some falling to his heresy, others shocked:

Abdiel rebukes Satan
Engraving by Gustave Doré
“ Thus far his bold discourse without control
  Had audience, when among the Seraphim
 Abdiel, than whom none with more zeal adored
 The Deity, and divine commands obeyed,
 Stood up, and in a flame of zeal severe
 The current of his fury thus opposed.
 ‘Oh argument blasphemous, false and proud!
 Words which no ear ever to hear in Heav’n
 Expected, least of all from thee, ingrate
 In place thyself so high above thy peers'...”

Abdiel orders Satan to bow before the Will of God at once, and pray for the mercy of forgiveness for his impious words. Dismayed and enraged that no other rises to second his order, Abdiel turns to the Fallen Angel, who rejoices in the power of his words. The loyal angel reminds Satan that God created all things, even him. Eyes burning with malice, Satan’s heresy goes deeper still, as he questions the very authority of God himself:

                                           “ Who saw when this Creation was?
                                              Remember’st thou thy making,
                                              While the Maker gave thee being?
                                              We know no time when we were not as now...
                                              Our puissance is our own, our own right hand
                                              Shall teach us highest deeds...”
                                                         - SATAN RENOUNCES GOD

His words echoed with impassioned applause around the vault of Heav’n, as the rebellion is proclaimed. Abdiel looks on in horror to see such betrayal in the faultless plains of Heaven. Turning to the Morning Star one last time, he declares him a traitor to God, warning him of the Almighty’s wrath:

Satan rouses the rebel angels to War
Engraving by Gustave Doré
“ O alienate from God, O Spirit accursed,
  Forsaken of all good; I see thy fall
  Determined, and thy hapless crew involved
  In this perfidious fraud, contagion spread
  Both of thy crime and punishment: henceforth
  No more be troubled how to quit the yoke
  Of God’s Messiah; those indulgent laws
  Will not be now vouchsafed, other decrees
  Against thee are gone forth without recall;
  That golden sceptre which thou didst reject
  Is now an iron rod to bruise and break
  Thy disobedience...”

Alone among the faithless, faithful only was Abdiel, “unmoved, unshaken, unseduced and unterrified”. Taking to flight, and jeered at by the treacherous legions, the angel fled at once, desperately bearing word of the rebellion of the greatest of the Archangels to the Most High. Through the unyielding expanse of the Heavens, the lone angel sped, yet not far behind marched the traitor legions. War was declared in Heaven...
Thus was Lucifer re'christened' Satan ('The Adversary') and Evil was first born. Act One of Satan's rebellion was complete. The time for words was now over, and now He dared to lead a war to dethrone God himself from Heaven. The gripping account of the First Traitor will be continued next time, as the celestial plains of Heaven witness the First War. Here Milton really gets into his stride, as the tension in Paradise Lost begins to build to a new height. Herein lies the beginning of suffering, that curse which Satan lays upon mankind, one already underway within the First Woman, even as Raphael tells his story...

                                      For Part Two, please click here...

Paradise Lost is a rite of passage. With nothing else like it written in the English language, it occupies a special place in literature, and indeed theology. I strongly recommend anyone to give it a read - you will not be disappointed. It is available in many translations, all available cheaply and easily on Amazon:

United Kingdom

Penguin Classics:
Paradise Lost (Penguin Classics)
(Paradise Lost is written in English, so text choice is personal preference)

Oxford World's Classics:
Paradise Lost (Oxford World's Classics)
(Paradise Lost is written in English, so text choice is personal preference)

United States

Penguin Classics:
Paradise Lost (Penguin Classics)
(Paradise Lost is written in English, so text choice is personal preference)

Oxford World's Classics:
Paradise Lost (Oxford World's Classics)
(Paradise Lost is written in English, so text choice is personal preference)

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

The Ear of the Ear and the Eye of the Eye

It is easy in the West to become tied down in the grandeur of the more familiar civilisations of Greece and Rome, when thinking of ancient times. Yet to discount the peoples that lived beyond the then known world is to risk a heavily shackled view of the achievements of mankind. Yet civilisations of towering monuments, great works of art, grand scale conflicts and intricate philosophies existed far beyond the boundaries of Europe, and in many cases, long before it. One such civilisation is India. Homeland of one of the oldest religions in existence, beliefs in many gods arrived long before the tales of Zeus and the Olympians did in Greece, and is still held true today by more than one billion people on Earth. The put this in context, in 2010, there are more followers of Hinduism than there are people in living in Europe. Let us delve within this lore, which is both ancient and modern, and consider a small work which is rightly labelled a classic.

Photograph of the Periyar River, in the public domain.
Just as Zeus ruled over the House of gods in Greece, there is at the pinnacle of Hindu belief Brahman, who is far above the more familiar gods such as Shiva and Ganesha. But in many ways, this is a very mundane comparison.  For Brahman cannot truly be described as a god. ‘God’ is too narrow a term. Reading Hindu mythology and literature is a highly recommendable exercise in opening the mind. A god is a manifestation of Brahman in the physical world, a reflection of the greater power. Think of it like this. You walk along the water’s edge of a vast lake, and suddenly you spy ripples striking the bank. You cannot see where the ripples come from, as the lake is too great in size, and their source is unseen to your eyes. In traditional mythology, a god would be a ripple, yet Brahman is the source of that ripple.
There was once a student who asked a wise man “Who sends the mind to wander afar? Who first drives life to start on its journey? Who impels us to utter these words? Who is the Spirit behind the eye and the ear?” The sage, who was a learned man, considered his question and replied:

Brahman as the source of a ripple
Photograph taken by Sven Hoppe.
“It is the ear of the ear, the eye of the eye and the Word of words, the mind of mind, and the life of life. Those who follow wisdom pass beyond and, on leaving this world, become immortal.
There the eye goes not, nor words, nor mind. We know not, we cannot understand, how he can be explained: He is above the known and He is above the unknown.”

Imparting his learned judgement, the old man teaches his student the wisdom of old:

“ What cannot be spoken with words, but that whereby words are spoken:
            Know that alone to be Brahman, the Spirit; and not what people here adore,

   What cannot be thought with the mind, but that whereby the mind can think:
            Know that alone to be Brahman, the Spirit; and not what people here adore,

   What cannot be seen with the eye, but that whereby the eye can see:
            Know that alone to be Brahman, the Spirit; and not what people here adore,

   What cannot be heard with the ear, but that whereby the ear can hear:
            Know that alone to be Brahman, the Spirit; and not what people here adore,

   What cannot be indrawn with breath, but that whereby breath is indrawn:
            Know that alone to be Brahman, the Spirit; and not what people here adore. ”
                               - THE DEFINITION OF BRAHMAN

The student understands how foolhardy he had been to comprehend such a force, one intricately woven in the fabric of all things, so omnipresent yet invisible. In Nature, when a man is in awe at the flash of lightning, Brahman is neither the man nor the lightning, but the wonder in the flash of the lightning. For the man and the lightning are both ripples in the lake. The teacher’s lesson is that the fool is he who states “I know well”, yet no truth does he know. Darkness there is, for he who does not know Him, yet the light of truth shines for he who does. For true knowledge is acquired only in the “ecstasy of an awakening which opens the door of life eternal”. A man who is truly aware of Brahman is truly in a state of paradise, a concept known in the Indian religions as Nirvana.

Mount Semeru, where Creation was said to have occurred
Photograph taken by Jan-Pieter Nap.

There is too a story of the gods who futilely comprehend the nature of Brahman. It is said that once upon a time, through the matter of Brahman, the gods won a great victory, and in their pride they thought “We alone attained this victory, ours alone is the glory”. Brahman was aware of this and appeared before them. The gods shouted “Who is this being that fills us with wonder?” The gods turn to Agni, the god of fire, and ask him to go and see who this being is. Agni approached Brahman, who asked the god “Who are you?” “I am the god of fire, he said, the god who knows all things”. “What power is in you?” asks Brahman. “I can burn all things on Earth” replied Agni. Brahman placed a blade of straw before him, saying “burn this”. The god of fire strove with all his might, yet not so much as a spark could he produce. He returned to the other gods and told them of his failure. The gods turned to Vayu, the god of the air and sent him before Brahman. “Who are you” asked Brahman. “I am Vayu, the god of the air he said, Matarisvan, the air that moves in space”, replied the god. “What power is in you?” enquires Brahman. “In a whirlwind I can carry away all there is on Earth”, Vayu assures him. Once again, Brahman produced a blade of straw, and commanded Vayu to “Blow this away”. The god of the air strove with all his might, yet the blade was as unmoving as the roots of the mountain.  Vayu returned to the gods and relayed his failure. So they turned to Indra, the god of thunder. Indra ran towards Brahman, but this time, he disappeared. In the same corner of the Sky rose a being of radiant beauty. She was called Uma, divine wisdom, and she was the daughter of the mountains of snow. “Who is that being that fills us with wonder?” asked Indra. “He is Brahman, the Spirit Supreme”, she answered, “Rejoice in Him, since through Him you attained the glory of victory”. Among the gods, Agni, Vayu and Indra excelled all others, for they were the first to come near Brahman, and the first to know him as the Spirit Supreme. Thus Indra, the thunderer, excelled all other gods, since he was first among them all to comprehend Brahman and learn he was the Spirit Supreme, and achieve his own Nirvana.

This is just the beginning of a large corpus of the Sanskrit scriptures, known as the Upanishads. Each Upanishad takes as its focus a different lesson, ranging from considering Brahman to spiritual bliss, karma, death, immortality and rebirth. Each Upanishad is short and succinct, yet told with eloquence and wisdom. I wholeheartedly recommend any to pick it up and give them a read. The collection of Upanishads is a light book, not at all overlong and easily accessible from Amazon at an extremely nominal price:

United Kingdom

Penguin Classics:
The Upanishads (Classics)
(An excellent hybrid of readability and poetic quality)

Oxford World's Classics:
Upanisads (Oxford World's Classics)
(A slightly bigger work, which contains more background information)

United States

Penguin Classics:
The Upanishads (Penguin Classics)
(An excellent hybrid of readability and poetic quality)

Oxford World's Classics:
Upanisads (Oxford World's Classics)
(A slightly bigger work, which contains more background information)

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

The First Aztecs

       “ Among these temples there is one which far surpasses all the rest, whose grandeur
         of architectural details no human tongue is able to describe;
         for within its precincts, surrounded by a lofty wall, there is room enough
         for a town of five hundred families. ”

The Valley of Mexico
Painting by José Maria Valesco.
Such was the awe which the Aztec peoples inspired within the mind of the man who would one day seal their doom. Almost five hundred years since the fall of Tenochtitlan, a city which rivalled Paris, Venice and Constantinople at their height, we continue to be fascinated by the culture of the tribes which inhabited the Valley of Mexico. As the event which sowed the seeds for the American story, and an almost theatrical showdown between pagan gods and Christianity, it is little wonder the Aztec Empire holds a special place in world history. Fine workers of gold, jade and obsidian, fearless warriors, legendary builders and fanatically zealous about their gods, there is much to look on in awe, just as Cortés and his small band of Conquistadors did so many years ago. Deeply pious, mythology and history were so intricately entwined in Aztec culture so as to be indistinguishable from one another. We start, as the Aztecs did, with how they came into being.

Image taken from the Codex Codex Telleriano-Remensis.
The primeval creator of the cosmos was Ometeotl, the god of duality, so named because he existed in both male and female forms. These forms were known as Tonacatecuhtli and Tonacacíhuatl respectively. Both forms resided in the thirteenth and highest level of the Aztec Heaven, known as Omeyocán. One day, out of the darkness, Tonacatecuhtli and Tonacacíhuatl gave birth to four gods, known as The Four Tezcatlipocas, and charged them with creating the gods, the world and the human race. Each Tezcatlipoca was granted a quarter of the cosmos, and was associated with a particular colour. Red Tezcatlipoca, who commanded the East, was the god of vegetation and the creation of new life, and would later be renamed Xipe Totec “The Flayed One” (so named because he would one day flay himself to give food to humanity). Black Tezcatlipoca, who ruled the North, was associated with the night, discord, war and strife, and would later retain the name of Tezcatlipoca “Lord of the Smoking Mirror”, and be known as a malevolent force in the World. White Tezcatlipoca, who took the West, was a god of the winds and a hero of the Aztec peoples, and would one day be renamed as Quetzalcóatl “Feathered Serpent”. To the south was assigned Blue Tezcatlipoca, the god of the sun, war and patron of the Aztec tribe, who would one day take the name Huitzilopochtli “Hummingbird on the Left” and become the supreme deity of the Aztec pantheon.

Image taken from the Codex Borgia.
Deep tensions began to simmer between Quetzalcóatl and Tezcatlipoca, but six hundred years later, even they had to put aside their differences in face of a new foe. A primordial force was rising which was rapidly beginning to eclipse the power of the gods. This force was Tlaltecuhtli, the Earth Monster, who spread terror wherever she ventured in the seas. Using his own foot as bait, Tezcatlipoca lay in wait for Tlaltecuhtli. Suddenly the monster appeared, but the god was not fast enough. Seizing Tezcatlipoca’s foot, the monster tore it from his body and devoured it. Enduring the pain, Tezcatlipoca and Quetzalcóatl took the forms of great rippling serpents, eyes flashing, and seized the monster. One god coiled around her left arm and right foot, and the other her right arm and left foot, and together they tore her apart into two vast pieces. The first piece they hurled into the Heavens and made the sky, and the second they laid out in to make the flat expanse of the Earth (this provides an interesting parallel with the Norse creation, click here for more). The other gods were displeased with the fate of Tlaltecuhtli, reprimanding Tezcatlipoca and Quetzalcóatl, and declaring that from the earthly part of the monster, sweet smelling flowers, herbs and trees would grow. They also decreed that springs and rivers would come forth from her eyes, whilst her mouth formed rivers and caverns. Her nose became the tall snow capped mountains and the deep valleyed sierras. Mankind has since grown used to walking on her body. From her body they also fashioned further gods; Tlaloc, god of the rains and Chalchiúhtlicue, his consort. From her body was crafted the Underworld too (known as Mictlán), and its masters; Mictlantecuhtli and Mictecacacίhuatl, the god and goddess of the dead. Born too was Xochiquetzal, whose name means “Flower Feather”, who was goddess of flowers and the Earth, song and dance. The gods also fixed the calendar at two hundred and sixty days.
Tezcatlipoca and Quetzalcóatl together raised the first sun in the sky, and crafted the first man and woman, called Oxomoco and Cipactonal. They gave birth to a son, called Piltzintecuhtli, who was the first human to have enjoyed pleasure in life, and a wife was fashioned for him from a hair from the head of the flower goddess Xochiquetzal. With their original task of creation complete, the four master gods began the four ages of Earth’s history, yet bloodshed, and the reason why the Aztecs offered human sacrifices to the gods, was coming...
Aztec mythology is a vast story, with many events having many differing stories. Different gods rose into prominence as the ages of the Earth progressed, with the position of supreme deity changing hands several times in mythology. Crucial to understanding the Aztec peoples is understanding their beliefs, as all the facets of their culture were branches growing off the central trunk that was their religion. The next part of the Aztec story we will return to is how the the gods struggled over mastery of the Sun, how the Aztec peoples first arrived by the shores of Lake Texcoco (the basin of which now contains Mexico City), and the rise to prominence of the god Huitzilopochtli in the pantheon.
With the transformation of the Aztec Empire into the colony of New Spain, much of the Aztec culture was subject to forcible conversion to Christianity, and native customs found their survival under threat. With terrible atrocities committed by the conquistadors, countless relics of Aztec culture lay in ruins. It is testament to Aztec brilliance that even the remains which survived such inquisitions continue to hold sway over our imagination. One must understand that much of the Aztec religion was discovered by Spanish missionaries through speech, as the Aztecs largely recorded their stories through art rather than verse. The story I have told today can be pieced together from several sources, some difficult to access, but I have listed one Aztec and one Spanish, both available quite easily at Amazon:
United Kingdom

Aztec Hymns:
Rig Veda Americanus: Sacred Songs of the Ancient Aztecs (Forgotten Books)
(A collection of prayers to the gods, translated from the Nahuatl language)

Spanish account:
The Conquest of New Spain (Classics)
(A written account of the conquest given by a Spanish soldier who actually served under Cortés himself, and therefore a valuable resource)

General reference:
Mythology of the Aztecs and Maya: Myths and Legends of Ancient Mexico and Northern Central America (Mythology Of...)
(A very nice introduction to Aztec and Mayan Mythology, which I found very useful a few years back. Due to the vast nature of the subject, such a book is always helpful in the beginning. The actual front cover is different to the one displayed on Amazon, and the book itself has many high quality photographs in it)

United States

Aztec Hymns:
Rig Veda Americanus (Illustrated Edition) (Dodo Press)
(A collection of prayers to the gods, translated from the Nahuatl language)

Spanish Account:
The Conquest of New Spain (Penguin Classics)
(A written account of the conquest given by a Spanish soldier who actually served under Cortés himself, and therefore a valuable resource)

General reference:
The Mythology of the Aztec and Maya: An illustrated encyclopedia of the gods, myths and legends of the Aztecs, Maya and other peoples of ancient Mexico ... 200 fine art illustrations and photographs
(A very nice introduction to Aztec and Mayan Mythology, which I found very useful a few years back. Due to the vast nature of the subject, such a book is always helpful in the beginning. The actual front cover is different to the one displayed on Amazon, and the book itself has many high quality photographs in it)

Wednesday, 1 December 2010


Though ultimately the protectors of mankind, the gods are also its masters. Though capable of care and affection towards humanity, they are quick to punish men and women who attempt to rise above their servitude – and those who aid them in such action. Just one such being who fell foul of divine authority was Prometheus, one of the Titans of Greek lore. Powerful, wily and cunning, Prometheus laboured tirelessly to improve the lot in life of his greatest creation – mankind – in defiance of Zeus himself, and paid the price in the form of ageless torture.
Sculpture in New York City, by Lee Lawrie.
Born a grandson of Earth and Sky and a cousin of Kronos, unlike many of his brethren, Prometheus sided with the younger gods in the War of the Titans (to read the story of this, please click here), and lent his strength to Zeus. One of four sons of the Titan Iapetus, Prometheus and his brother Epimetheus were to be the champions of mankind, though Epimetheus lacked his brother’s sound reasoning. Of the two remaining brothers, the most powerful was the Titan Atlas, famous for his punishment for siding with the Titans, when Zeus ordered him to bear the unbounding weight of the Heavens on his shoulders for eternity. The last brother, Menoetius, joined Atlas in the Titanomachy, but was struck by one of the thunderbolts of Zeus and cast into Tartarus.
At the creation of the beings which would populate the world, the gods fashioned their forms from clay, and ordered Prometheus and Epimetheus to furnish all the animals with unique qualities. Over eager, Epimetheus convinced Prometheus to allow him to do the deed, and won over the Titan to his plan. Epimetheus then turned to the animals and contrived to make all beings equal, so that the powers of one beast would be laid low by another. To some he distributed thick hides to protect from winter’s chill, to others terrible claws to cause other beasts to fear them, to other hooves to swiften their movements across the world. But not possessed of his brother’s wisdom, Epimetheus soon realised that he had used up all of the defining traits on his animals, and possessed nothing to give to men, “for while the other animals were all very carefully provided for, humankind was naked, shoeless, without bedding and defenceless”. Realising his brother’s mistakes, Prometheus considered the problem for a while. Deciding to make man the blessed race, Prometheus crept into the House of the gods, and stole the ingenuity of Athena and the crafts of Hephaestus, and imparted them into man, so that they would employ their mastery over the elements to overcome the weakness of their form.

Prometheus Bound
Sculpture by Nicolas-Sébastien Adam.
Angered by the Titan’s daring, the gods wished man to acknowledge divine superiority, and held council to discuss how man would honour them. Carving up a great bull, they decided which portions should be burned and gifted to the gods, and which would be retained and eaten by man. Determined that the gods would receive the better half, that is the delicious meats and finest innards, and that man should be humiliated by accepting the bones, gristle and fat, Zeus ordered Prometheus to give him the rightful portion. But the Titan was cunning. He divided the carcass into two piles, one was fat and bones, yet covered with the thinnest layer of fine meat, whilst the other pile contained all the finest parts of the animal, yet covered by the animal’s unsightly stomach. Prometheus came before the King of the gods and asked him to choose which he would like. Confused, the Thunderer replied:

                  “ 'Son of Iapetus, outstanding among all the lords,

                     My good sir, how unfairly you have divided the portions'.

                    So chided Zeus, whose designs do not fail. But crooked schemer Prometheus,
                    smiling quietly and intent on deceit, said to him,

                    'Zeus greatest and most glorious of the eternal fathers, choose then

                    whichever of them the spirit in your breast bids you'. ”

                                      - PROMETHEUS DECEIVES ZEUS

Selecting the more enticing portion crowned with rich meat, in his fury Zeus saw the Titan’s trick. Ever since, whenever men sacrificed, the bones and fat were burned on the altar, and the finest meats were eaten. In his rage, Zeus hid from man the secrets of fire, and cursed them to endure the cold forever.
But Prometheus cared for men. He defied the King of the gods once more, sneaking into the House of the gods, he took a spark from their fire and, concealing it within the pith of a fennel, came down to Earth and granted the secrets of fire to men. Spying the far-beaconing flares of fire among mankind, Zeus was enraged. Ordering Prometheus to be taken to the far flung edge of the world, he ordered the gods to:

                 “ Nail him to the rock; secure him on this towering summit
                   Fast in the unyielding grip of adamantine chains.
                   It was your treasure he stole, the flowery splendour
                   Of all-fashioning fire, and gave to men – an offence
                   Intolerable to the gods, for which he must now suffer,
                   Till he be taught to accept the sovereignty of Zeus.”
                                         - PROMETHEUS IS CONDEMNED

The Torture of Prometheus
Painting by Jean-Louis-Cesar Lair.
Not only this, but Zeus commanded a great eagle to torment Prometheus, to every day peck out his liver. Every night, the Titan’s liver would regrow, and every day the bird would devour it anew, for eternity. As for man, Zeus devised a punishment for their acceptance of forbidden gifts. He ordered Hephaestus to mix earth and water and to imbue it with human voice and strength, and model its form upon those of the immortal goddesses. Athena he ordered to teach this new creation the crafts of weaving and faculty of scheming, and Aphrodite the secrets of charm. The creation he named Pandora, meaning ‘All gift’, as all the denizens of Olympus had had a hand in its creation. For Pandora was the first woman, and from Pandora was descended the female gender, conceived on Olympus as the ultimate curse of man, dooming them at once to lives of servitude and misguided obsession. Prometheus looked on in despair from his mountainous prison, bemoaning his fate, until the day when he will be released from his shackles...
The story of Prometheus is an important, yet oft forgotten, chapter of the creation of man in Greek legend. His role as patron of mankind, and punishment for it, moved the minds of great thinkers and artists of the Renaissance and beyond, just as the stoicism of his brother Atlas did too. Perhaps Prometheus was one of the first tragic heroes? The story of Prometheus is mentioned throughout the Classical corpus, the most enduring excerpts however, are to be found in readily available texts on Amazon:

United Kingdom
His Role in the Creation of Man:
Protagoras and Meno (Penguin Classics)
(A philosophical text, though containing the story of Prometheus and Epimetheus in Protagoras 320d)
His Trickery and the Creation of Pandora:
Theogony and Works and Days (Oxford World's Classics)
(Nice and readable, mentioned in both the Theogony and Works and Days)
His Punishment:
Prometheus Bound and Other Plays: The Suppliants; Seven Against Thebes; The Persians (Classics)
(A sympathetic treatment of the Titan, short and readable)
United States

His Role in the Creation of Man:
Protagoras and Meno (Penguin Classics)
(A philosophical text, though containing the story of Prometheus and Epimetheus in Protagoras 320d)
His Trickery and the Creation of Pandora:
Theogony and Works and Days (Oxford World's Classics)
(Nice and readable, mentioned in both the Theogony and Works and Days)

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

The Fetters of Fenrir

                  “ Among the Aesir is he whom some call the mischief-monger of the Aesir, and
                    the first father of falsehoods, and blemish of all gods and men... ”
                                                     - LOKI, THE TRICKSTER

Loki - The Trickster
Image taken from the 18th century Icelandic
manuscript SÁM 66.
Among the Aesir, or war gods of the Norse lands, there was one who never truly belonged. For while all other gods were descended from Búri, Loki was half Jötunn (for the origin of these races, click here) with Fárbauti, a Giant, as his father and Laufey, a god, as his mother. For while in his most common physical form Loki resembled the Aesir and men, in his heart he bore the wanton cruelty of the most savage among the Jötunn. One of the most notorious tricksters of all time, “He surpassed other men in that wisdom which is called sleight”, able to shape shift at will and take the form of any being, mortal and immortal, monster and man. Though friend to the Aesir in the beginning, Loki and his progeny would one day spell doom for the nine worlds, its gods and men.

In secret, Loki begat with the Jötunn Angrboða three fearsome offspring. The first was the great wolf, Fenrir, famous for his strength. The second, Jörmungand, was a serpent fated one day to be the mortal nemesis of the god Thor. The third was a daughter, Hel. The gods, however, soon learned of a prophecy that warned of their doom at the hands of Loki’s brood, conceived in the land of Jötunheim. Odin ordered the gods to take the offspring and bring them before him. Turning first to Jörmungand, the King of the gods grasped the snake by his tail and hurled him into the ocean which surrounds Midgard (the realm of men). Odin then rounded on Hel. Casting her into Niflheim, Odin gave her power and rule over the dead of each of the Nine Worlds. Those who henceforth died of sickness or old age would ‘go to Hel’. Niflheim was ever after a grim place, where:

                   “ Her hall is called Sleet-Cold; her dish, Hunger; Famine is her knife;
                     Idler, her thrall; Sloven, her maidservant; Pit of Stumbling, her threshold;
                     Disease, her bed; Gleaming Bale, her bed-hangings... ”
                                                   - THE LAND OF HEL

Fenrir bound
Image taken from the 18th century Icelandic
manuscript SÁM 66.
Hel herself resembled a beautiful woman on one half of her body, and that of a rotting corpse on the other. Things were not going to Odin’s plan, for Loki’s children only grew in power. Jörmungand terrorized the high seas, and soon grew to such gargantuan size that his coils could encircle the entire world and take his own tail in his mouth. Hel’s minions grew vast in number, and at her command, the mighty dragon, Nidhogg, began to gnaw at the roots of the World Tree, Yggdrasill. Guarding her gates, the hound of hell known as Garm, unlike his Greek counterpart Cerberus, was possessed of demonic bloodlust, and his chest was at all times dripping with human blood. It is written that Ragnarök, the doom of the gods, will be heralded by Garm’s roar sounding throughout the Nine Worlds, as the hound is no longer to be sated by human blood, but thirsts for the very life-force of gods. But most pressing among the Aesir’s problems was Fenrir. The gods had raised the Wolf as their own in their home of Asgard, with only Tyr, the god of war and heroic glory, brave enough to feed scraps of meat to him. Soon, like his brother Jörmungand, Fenrir began to mature. The gods grew fearful of how much Fenrir grew every day, and mindful of the prophecy foretelling their own doom at his hands the gods conceived a plan. They could not simply kill the Wolf, as the shedding of blood of one they had raised would pollute the sanctity of Asgard forever. Instead they turned to trickery of their own.

The Aesir forged a very strong fetter, called Laedingr, and brought it before the Wolf. The gods asked Fenrir if he would test his strength against the chain. Fenrir considered this “no overwhelming odds” and let the gods do as they wished. To the horror of the Aesir, however, the fetter was broken at the Wolf’s first kick. The Aesir then forged a new fetter, Drómi, stronger again by half than the first chain. The gods flattered the Wolf, and told him that his fame would be great indeed if he could shatter these shackles. The Wolf considered this, and inheriting his father’s evil ways, dreamed of his own legend should he succeed. Reasoning that he must expose himself to risk if he was to become renowned, Fenrir allowed himself to be bound once more:

                 “ Now when the Aesir declared themselves ready, the Wolf shook himself,
                   dashed the fetter against the Earth and struggled fiercely with it,
                   spurned against it, and broke the fetter, so that the fragments flew far... ”
                                                 - FENRIR SHATTERS HIS BONDS

Fenrir bites off the hand of Tyr
Image taken from the 18th century Icelandic
manuscript SÁM 66.
Even Odin now grew fearful that they would never bind the monster, and in desperation sent Skírnir, a messenger of the Aesir, to the realm of the dwarves to ask for aid. The dwarves were skilled craftsmen, and made a fetter called Gleipnir out of six things: “the noise a cat makes in foot-fall, the beard of a woman, the roots of a rock, the sinews of a bear, the breath of a fish and the spittle of a bird”. The Aesir brought Gleipnir before Fenrir, and flattered him once again, assuring him that he would snap it with little effort. To the eye, the dwarven fetter appeared to be no more than a silken ribbon however, and Fenrir was cunning. The Wolf, sensing deception, declared that he would receive no glory for breaking “so slender a band”, but if there be trickery within then he would not allow the fetter to come upon his feet. Desperate, the gods assured Fenrir that they would release him if it proved too strong. But the Wolf, as a son of Loki, would not succumb so easily to deceit. Fenrir agreed to the god’s challenge on one condition, that one among the Aesir rest their hand in his mouth “for a pledge that this is done in good faith”. Looking among each other, their courage buckled, only Tyr strode forth and volunteered to the Wolf’s request.  So, his bond fitted, Fenrir lashed out, struggled and churned and writhed against the ribbon. But the dwarves were skilled craftsmen, for whenever the Wolf shuddered, the band grew tighter and hardened. The gods rejoiced at last, all except Tyr, for when he saw their treachery laid before him, Fenrir slammed his jaws shut and violently wrenched the god's hand off. The Aesir dragged the Wolf across the world, and ran his fetter through a rock and bound it deep in the ground. Fenrir tried to bite the Aesir, so they thrust a sword into his mouth. The saliva which ran from his jaw formed a river in Asgard, as the Wolf seethed with rage. However, he still lived, and another prophecy stated that Fenrir will one day gain his revenge, and at Ragnarök, his chains will be broken...
The stories of Norse Mythology are entertaining in their own right, but one of the many enduring motifs within them, is the careful crescendo up to the end of the world. Masterfully, the Norse skalds (bards) slowly and steadily set the scene for Ragnarök, turning god against god as friendships are formed and broken. Those who were once greatest of allies at the creation become worst of foes at the end. It only makes the end more powerful when we know why the tensions have built. It is for this precise reason why studying the past is a path to boundless understanding.
United Kingdom
Penguin Classics:
The Prose Edda: Norse Mythology (Penguin Classics)
(A fast paced version well suited to the casual reader)

United States
Penguin Classics:
The Prose Edda: Norse Mythology (Penguin Classics)
(A fast paced version well suited to the casual reader)

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

The Shield of Achilles

So long as Greece’s finest champion, the favoured Achilles, nursed his wounded pride by the proud Achaean ships, the Trojan War slipped ever close to victory for the mighty city (For background to this, click here). With Zeus the Thunderer himself favouring Priam’s sons, Hector routs battalion after battalion of the Greek armies, throwing Achaea’s finest back against the ships themselves. Not even towering Ajax, cunning Odysseus, powerful Diomedes or Menelaus of the loud war cry could face the godlike Prince of Troy. Hector even manages to set the first Achaean ship ablaze, causing Patrocles, Achilles’ cousin and greatest friend from home, to beg Achilles to allow him to fight. Achilles relents, but commands strictly that he is to return when the Trojans have been pushed back from the ships. Patroclus takes the great warrior’s armour, and leads the Myrmidons against Prince Hector, setting into motion a chain of events which will spell doom for Priam’s citadel...
Patroclus cuts a bloody swathe through the Trojan ranks aboard his great chariot, and the tide of war begins once again to swing in Achaea’s favour. Fleeing in terror before what appeared to be Achilles himself, the Trojans are thrown back to the very walls of Troy itself. Forgetting Achilles’ dire warning not to go beyond the ships, Patroclus soon finds himself faced by Hector himself. This time however, the gods are decided. It is not Hector’s time. So, at the height of his prowess, and with Greeks clamouring for Trojan blood at the walls themselves:

Achilles mourns over the body of Patroclus
Painting by Nikolaj Nikolajewitsch Ge.

“ Death cut him short. The end closed in around him.
Flying free of his limbs,
His soul went winging down to the House of Death,
Wailing his fate, leaving his manhood far behind,
His young and supple strength. ”

A ripple of foreboding tears through both armies. Both sides fight for the body of the young boy, and many times it changes hands. At last, Menelaus manages to bear the corpse away from the fighting, while Hector and Aeneas break the Achaean lines once more. With Greeks fleeing in terror, Menelaus desperately tells a messenger, Antilochus, to send word to Achilles of the fate of his cousin, hoping at last he will be persuaded to rejoin the fighting. With trepidation, Antilochus approaches Achilles’ tent and finds him sitting by the shore. “Patroclus has fallen! They’re fighting over his corpse! He’s stripped, naked – Hector with that flashing helmet, Hector has your arms!”. A black cloud of agony swirls over Achilles, as he lies, broken with grief and rage. He smears dirt and ashes over his fine clothes and writhes in the dust. The women wail with sorrow, as the great runner begins to weep. But then Thetis, the nymph whose son Achilles was, looked down in pity:

                        “ I am agony – mother of grief and greatness – O my child!
                          Yes, I gave birth to a flawless, mighty son...
                          The splendour of heroes, and he shot up like a young branch,
                          Like a fine tree I reared him – the orchard’s crowning glory –
                          But only to send him off in the beaked ships to Troy! ”
                                                 - THETIS BEMOANS THE FATE OF ACHILLES

Thetis pleads to him to leave the war behind, knowing in vain that it is the fate of her son to die at Troy. But her words fall on deaf ears, as Achilles cares not whether he too is to be hurled to the House of Death, so long as he first stains the lands with Hector’s blood. Resigned to the inevitable, Thetis resolves to go to Hephaestus, the god of fire and the Smith, to forge for her son a mighty new suit of armour, one worthy of a demigod, one greater by far than the gear which Hector now bears. Soaring to the Olympian heights, Thetis throws herself at the feet of the god, and pleads for help. Remembering her kindness to him in ages past, when all other gods spurned him for his lameness, Hephaestus vows to craft the mightiest apparel a god ever made for a mortal. What follows is, in my own opinion, one of the finest passages in literature, as Hephaestus forges the Shield of Achilles. Turning his bellows on the fire, crucibles burning to the god of fire’s wishes, Hephaestus takes his great hammer in one hand and with the other grips the metal with his tongs. Laying down five layers of metal, emblazoned with finely crafted emblems, Hephaestus employs all his craft and cunning as he turns to forging the vast expanse of the Shield:

Painting by Rubens.

“ There he made the earth and there the sky and the sea
   And the ever burning sun and the moon rounding full
   And there the constellations, all that crown the heavens,
   The Pleiades and the Hyades, Orion in all his power too
   And the Great Bear that mankind calls the Wagon:
   She ever wheels on her axis, watching the Hunter,
   And she alone is denied a plunge in the Ocean’s baths. ”
                      - HEPHAESTUS LAYS OUT THE SHIELD

But the god does not stop there. On the shield he then forged two great cities filled with mortal men and women. There are weddings and feasts in one of these cities, and with torches brides are brought forth, marching through the streets, as the choirs sing. Young men are dancing in the street, some playing flutes and harps. The god’s hammer brings forth the people massing in the streets to see the procession. In one place, a quarrel has broken out, and two men are fighting. The crowd around them is cheering them on.

Hephaestus presents his mighty gifts to Thetis
Painting by Sir James Thornhill.

But the god does not stop there. Surrounding the other city, a divided army has set up camp, one side arguing whether to plunder the city or share the riches with the people. Within the citadel untold riches bound, and the people within do not surrender. Hephaestus’ toil carves the image of a raid, as the people hope to break the siege, with wives and children cheering them on from the towering ramparts. Ares and Athena lead them on in war, magnificent in their armour. Spying the enemy's flocks of livestock, the besieged try to take them, but the besiegers spot their ploy and ride to the rescue, and both sides hurl their spears, as Strife, Havoc and Death plunge into the field of war.

Thetis bears the magnificent gifts to Achilles
Painting by Benjamin West.
But the god does not stop there. He forges the image of a fallow field, and broad rich plowlands, as teams drive their cattle through. When they reach the boundary of the field, they pour a libation to the gods on high. It was an image forged in solid gold, “such was the wonder of Hephaestus’ work”. A king’s estate next emerges from the metal, where labourers harvest, reaping the grain as young boys pile up the scythed sheaves. The king in the centre, marvelling at the work. Next a thriving vineyard with endless grapes and climbing vines, all awaiting the hands of the workers, who place them in wicker baskets. The workers toil on, as a young boy plucks a lyre, serenading them with song. Next a herd of longhorn cattle, rumbling out of a farmyard along some rippling stream. Nine dogs accompany them, while a pair of lions seize a bull from the front ranks and drag him off in agony. The herdsman yells to his dogs, but to no avail. The crippled god of the Smith then forged a great meadow in a shaded glen, where dwell flocks of sheep and shepherd’s huts. Round the edge of the indestructible Shield, the god forged the Ocean River in its boundless power. His godly work near complete, he creates a breastplate brighter than fire, and a helmet perfectly aligned to Achilles’ temples.
Hephaestus lays the magnificent gear at the feet of Thetis, who loses no time in flashing back down to her son, bearing the most splendid gifts of the god of fire, the final act of the Siege of Troy about to begin...
As the first and arguably greatest work of poetry in the West, The Iliad deserves a place in the bookshelves of us all. The Shield of Achilles, whose description takes up Book Eighteen of The Iliad, is in my opinion one of the finest pieces of literature ever written, and is more than worth reading. The whole work is available very easily and at a low price from Amazon:
United Kingdom

Penguin Classics:
The Iliad (Penguin Classics)
(A translation which retains much of the poetic meter, my personal recommendation)

Oxford World's Classics:
The Iliad (Oxford World's Classics)
(A translation which omits some of the epithets in favour of 'easier' reading for the casual reader)

United States

Penguin Classics:
The Iliad (Penguin Classics)
(A translation which retains much of the poetic meter, my personal recommendation)

Oxford World's Classics:
The Iliad (Oxford World's Classics)
(A translation which omits some of the epithets in favour of 'easier' reading for the casual reader)