More Gods Behaving Badly: Ancient Mythology & Cultural Narrative (Part 2)

Last week, we talked about myths as half-remembered histories and cultural origin stories through the lens of Egyptian myth. This week we’re going to shift more thoroughly to the Greeks and dissect Plato’s idea that myths-as-stories that are based on the gods having passions and struggles — what he calls false myths — and try to figure out why the Greeks would have made their gods do bad things and otherwise be menaces to decency.

And I think the answer is to look at myths as allegories meant to help people digest the world they actually lived in. Part of this would probably be identified with the analytical discipline of functionalism, which is the idea that myths were told to shape societal behavior, but like the current arguments that act like we might need to cancel parts of Greek mythology because they’re morally icky, I think that is overly simplistic. Mythology is one of the earliest forms of folklore, and folklore always speaks to the world as it is and our fears about it. In a world where very few people had any real power, story was a tool for exploring what that meant and making sense of the universe. The same questions modern religions of all stripes grapple with — why do bad things happen to good people, etc. — were no different for the Greeks and their weird mythology engages with those questions. Which means, yeah, it’s time to look at everyone’s favorite super-powered predator, Zeus.

[Jupiter and Juno on Mount Ida (James Barry, 1773)]

The Greeks developed a mythology where what separated gods from men was immortality and cool abilities, not a special moral prerogative. This can be seen as sprouting from the euhemeristic point of view where the gods were ancient kings, and rulers, as they always have been, are a real mixed bag. Zeus was king of the gods because he was the most powerful Olympian and because he murdered the previous uber-god, his father, not because he was good or even especially just. This doesn’t make him different than more terrestrial rulers people would have had contact with, even those like the Egyptians who believed their rulers to be divine. Zeus was always a god to be feared, not really loved, because even went he wasn’t running around molesting everybody, he could shoot electric missiles from the sky that could kill you instantly. The actions of the powerful often have that tang of unpredictability and arbitrary cruelty to those who by contrast are powerless. In this way, myths serve as how-to guides for dealing with power: how to avoid offending it and how to survive. Even in the rare story where Zeus’ attention is in any way welcomed, like with Dionysus’ mother Semele, her story is presented as a cautionary tale that reminds us that the gods don’t always have mortals’ best interests at heart. Which brings us to the other half of Zeus’ somewhat terrifying presence, his wife, Hera.

Hera rarely comes off any better than her husband in most Greek myths, where she exists as mainly a revenge machine trying to punish all of the women (she tends to give the boys a pass) that had the temerity to let themselves be sexual assaulted by Zeus. I’m not implying that this is a healthy or admirable attitude, but it is a deeply human one. As a species, our weird and deep fascination with celebrity and powerful people comes from living vicariously through people who, as Robin Leach would tell us, live the lives that you and I can only dream of.

But we have this equally weird parallel desire to see those living those unattainable lives as not so different than us (the “guy you could grab a beer with” syndrome). For modern Americans, I’m sure the latter comes from our cultural mythos that anyone can become those rich and powerful people with a little hard work and luck, but for the Greeks, this mythos likely functioned in the same way the alternate Ramayanas did for medieval Bengali women. Hera is the goddess of marriage, but she understands what it’s like to be in a crappy marriage. She is an immensely powerful goddess, but she isn’t as powerful as her husband, either, and she knows the rage and humiliation of being seen as mean and petty when she lashes out at the only people she can touch: those less powerful than Zeus. These are all emotions a Greek wife could identify and empathize with, and while the versions of most Greek myths survive from male-centric storytelling that was respected enough to be written down, it isn’t a terribly big leap to assume that there were female-centric versions of these same myths told from the perspective of Hera and Zeus’ other female victims that would have been told in the secluded, largely illiterate world of the Greek women’s quarters that we have lost. Modern feminist re-tellings are likely only new to us, not their ancient audience.

Speaking of feminist reinterpretation, the ever-popular Hades/Persephone myth is another fertile ground for this sort of collective cultural processing. In the interest of full disclosure, I will admit to being charmed by this myth in that stereotypical internet goth-girl way, even though I recognize it is not without plenty of baggage. But it should hardly come as a surprise to anyone reading this blog that I might have a weakness for charming scoundrels.

[I’m the kind of teenager who needed to constantly remind myself that Edward Rochester was not aspirational partner material. That said, I will never stop bowing to Charlotte Brontë for having the guts to write down her embarrassing childhood Duke of Wellington fan fiction, which I was too chicken to ever do. Reign on, my freaky queen 👑]

However, I really don’t think broody girls papering over Persephone’s abduction by Hades is entirely the creation of modern women with a very specific set of hang ups. And that belief rests on the part of the myth that usually gets swallowed up in the discussion which is Persephone’s abduction is only an abduction to her and her mother, Demeter. Persephone’s father, Zeus, is one hundred percent aware of what is going on. Hades goes to Zeus and asks for Persephone directly. Zeus knows Demeter will not agree to this marriage, but tacitly tells Hades that he will become incredibly interested in whatever is happening in the exact opposite direction of where Persephone is and Hades can do with that information what he will.

I’m not saying that this wasn’t an incredibly traumatic experience for Persephone and Demeter, but it was also a traumatic experience that would have been instantly recognizable to its Greek audience. To many young girls married off by their fathers or other male relatives without a say in the decision, any marriage probably felt like some stranger burst out of the earth and dragged them away from home. Demeter’s physical rage at being excluded from the decision-making process is a space for Greek women to mourn their lack of power in the lives of their daughters. This interpretation is supported by the prevalence of fake abductions in the marriage rites of Greece and, later, Rome. It was another safe space where families could acknowledge the life-altering nature of marriage and express empathy for normal fears arising from it.

[Heck, abductions real and imagined are the reason groomsmen are a thing…]

But, you say, none of this speaks to the idea that you’re not just pining for a bad god slightly less rape-y than Zeus to steal you away. And to that, I will pivot to the other half of my argument that the Persephone myth is more a truthful Platonic type of allegory, rather than one of the supposedly malicious false myths. Which is the nature of Persephone’s post-abduction mythological presence. After the dust settles and the agreement is reached that Persephone will spend winters in the underworld and the rest of the year back with Demeter on earth… we never hear about her non-winter life. Despite spending more of her time as Kore the goddess of Spring and despite this supposedly being her wish, there aren’t any myths I can think of that focus on her in this form after her marriage to Hades. She might only spend a third of her time there, but Persephone is seemingly irrevocably Queen of the Underworld, and I think this too speaks to my interpretation of the abduction part of the myth. There is this quasi-happy ending for Persephone and her mother, where they aren’t separated forever, but the rest of Persephone’s mythic presence speaks to the idea that you really can’t ever truly go home again. Persephone’s power as a goddess flows from her position as her husband’s wife, and separating from one’s family and growing into a role in a husband’s house is the other half of the marriage allegory.

Like the folklore trope of the Demon Husband (or the Monstrous Husband) — Beauty & the Beast, and Cupid  & Psyche are the archetypal Western examples — a young girl is confronted by a seemingly beastly spouse who is transformed over the course of the narrative by marriage (or love, if the telling is late enough in cultural time). Persephone may not have wanted to marry Hades at the start, but the mythological signs point to her having grown into her role as any mortal wife would have done at the time. She joins her mother in the sacred Eleusinian Mysteries, not as simply the daughter of the life-giving Demeter, but as an equal goddess presiding over the chthonic balance of death.

Her life isn’t perfect, sometimes living in the underworld is gloomy, sometimes you have to fight Aphrodite for joint custody of a really cute baby, but it presents a workable example of a mostly-successful Greek marriage. Hades is so oddly monogamous for a Greek god that I can’t even think of another myth where he goes above ground again, let alone is a danger to society at large like his brother, Zeus. Further investigation digs up two very minor myths about the nereid Leuce and the nymph Minthe, but their association with Hades appears to be mostly an allegorical vehicle to explain the Greeks’ chthonic associations for the white poplar and mint. This is referred to in critical circles as the myth-ritual theory of interpretation. Set forth by Scottish scholar William Robertson Smith, this theory postulates that certain mythological stories exist to explain the origins of cult practices and to venerate a nearly-forgotten past. Whether this was something the Greeks routinely did is up for academic debate, but we’ve already seen with the origins of the Lupercalia that the Romans often did this to create a narrative for their obscure native religious practice.

In short, Persephone doesn’t have to spend a lot of time worrying about what her husband gets up to and that was probably the real fairytale aspect of the story for its audience. And I think the reason this myth continues to hold such power, especially over women, is not because those women are being morbid, but because it speaks so complexly about things so deeply rooted in so many women’s personal experiences.

[Bacchus and Ariadne (Titian, 1523)]

Another myth that might speak to women’s cultural marriage fears is that of Ariadne. Ariadne is the daughter of King Minos of Crete, who abandons her family and kingdom to help the Athenian Theseus defeat her brother, the Minotaur. As the pair escape Crete, Theseus abandons Ariadne on the island of Naxos rather than taking her back to Athens as his queen. Luckily for Ariadne, the god Dionysus is passing through, thinks she’s the bee’s knees, and is more than happy to make her his consort instead. How culpable Theseus is in this course of action varies in the telling, signaling that even male storytellers recognized this at least didn’t make Theseus look particularly heroic. The poet Hesiod (c. 750s – 650s BC) frames the action as Dionysus approaches Theseus on the flight from Crete and demands that Theseus leave Ariadne on Naxos for him, which certainly makes Theseus look a lot better. Regardless of version, a male-centric reading of this myth probably see this as a cautionary tale for women about the perils of betraying one’s father for the first handsome stranger that asks for your help, and a cautionary tale for men about the supposed treachery of women. The fate of Medea is arguably another version of this myth, albeit a darker shade with a far more tragic ending.

[Bacchus and Ariadne (Guido Reni, c. 1620)— in case you all wondered where my “exasperated girl” face comes from…]

However, a female-centric reading is more multi-faceted. Because Ariadne’s ending is ultimately a happy one, her story ends up being a sort of display of a Greek women’s choices. The story lets women live out the fantasy of choosing their own husband, but it is realistic about how that may not lead to happiness, either. It also animates, in an exaggerated way, how becoming part of a husband’s household is in its essence always a “betrayal” of your birth family. Marriage shifts a woman’s alliance to a new house, if not a new country, and in many ways cuts off a woman from her previous unmarried life. The Romans always tried to mitigate this by having a father retain legal control over his married daughters as their paterfamilias, but it is obvious in the historical record that this was really only marginally successful in practice. Ariadne’s rescue by Dionysus is also a folklore balm to women disappointed in a marriage, pointing to a second marriage that might prove to be better. Your hero might turn out to be a dud, but there could be a god waiting for you in the wings.

It’s really quite a hopeful story for women, especially since Ariadne is allowed to have a fair amount agency in the tale. She chooses to help Theseus, and is ultimately rewarded for her supposed betrayal because her actions are arguably righteous. Unlike Medea, who betrays her father simply to help Jason and the Argonauts get the Golden Fleece, Minos of Crete is usually depicted as cruel for sacrificing Athenian children to the Minotaur, and one can argue that Ariadne is brave to end this slaughter. This is arguably what makes the rebellious princess of Crete the perfect wife for Dionysus, the god of societal insurgency, rather than the very conventional Theseus. And her elevation to divinity seems to confirm that the gods smile upon her actions. What a potentially subversive story to tell to the agency-starved women of ancient Greece— to tell them that it is within their power to stand up to their male guardians and right injustice.

Though speaking of Medea, I think this opens another set of myths up for multiple readings divided by audience. I’m sure men meant Medea’s story to be a grotesque cautionary tale about a woman so unsexed by black magic that she betrays her father and brothers, kills her own sons, and murders all sorts of people to stay in power and stay one step ahead any comeuppance for her actions. But you cannot convince me that there weren’t Greek women sitting around in their part of the house with their neighbors telling Medea’s story like it was an ancient version of Gone Girl. Rather than just sitting on island and hoping for a god to take pity on her for her suffering at the hands of a faithless husband, Medea saves herself through her own power and proceeds to exact her revenge like John Rambo on anyone who’s stupid enough to cross her. And just when you think she’s about to get caught or punished, she simply hops in her chariot pulled by winged snakes (dragons) and blows Dodge. She’s a potent anti-heroine who allows her audience the same vicarious thrill that true crime shows do today. 

And some of the “bad god” stories fill this same psychic need. For example, we’ve talked about Artemis and Actaeon, which I’m sure was meant to be a standard warning against offending the gods, even accidentally. But for women in a society with only limited control over their own bodies, how satisfying might it be to listen to the powerful Artemis able to punish Actaeon for his transgressions against her. Or for that divine champion of women, Dionysus, punishing Pentheus for mocking his mother and cousins for their religious devotion. I don’t think it’s wholly shocking that Plato, not exactly known for his great insight into the female mind, might have completely missed the point of this kind of myth. This isn’t about making the god look bad or being blasphemous, this is about that primal human need for fiction. In these stories, humans are treating the gods the way we treat superheroes. It’s a way for us to explore our cultural morals when our basic limitations are removed. Millions of words have been written and typed about what Batman and the MCU say about our values, and I think it is short-sighted to assume this is a modern phenomenon. Medea forces her audience to examine whether, if you had magical snakes as getaway drivers, would you be willing to kill your kids to keep them from their cheating father? It forces wives of unfaithful spouses watch Hera get to punish every hussy that takes up with her husband and decide whether her ability to act out her rage makes her any happier.

[Medea on her golden chariot (Germán Hernández Amores, c. 1850s)]

These myths are still edifying, just not in the neat way Plato would prefer. Which isn’t surprising, considering that Plato gives pretty short shrift to the existence of fiction in general. His basic argument, and that of many ancient philosophers, is that fiction is a human appetite that the rational, reason-based person (man) should be ashamed of, like gluttony or lust. It distracts from Truth, and should be rejected. But this is an incredibly narrow view of fiction, and as we’ve just demonstrated, fiction is more than capable of speaking to truth. It might not reveal truths that should make us proud of ourselves, but it has always been useful in getting us to engage with those truths, which is really the only way a culture can hope to change truths it doesn’t want to perpetuate.

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