Mythic Ashley Madison

When the Greek god Hephaestus learned that Aphrodite, his wife, was having an affair, he forged a magic, invisible net in his sacred smithy. He set the trap over his own marriage bed then pretended to leave town. Aphrodite and her lover Ares dove between the silken sheets. The net fell, held them fast, then Hephaestus burst back in with a seismic, “Gotcha!”

469px-Guillemot,_Alexandre_Charles_-_Mars_and_Venus_Surprised_by_Vulcan_-_Google_Art_ProjectHe bellowed for the rest of the Olympians to come witness this travesty. The goddesses declined, giving a self-righteous roll of their ravishing eyes. The gods, on the other hand, dropped everything to race over to Hephaestus’s palace and laugh at the beautiful lovers caught in that glittering net.

You see where we’re going. Angry hackers, crafty as Hephaestus, snared 36 million adultery accounts from a site called Ashley Madison, then bellowed for everyone to look at the evidence. They cheated the cheaters, on a scale grand enough to gratify the gods. 36 million accounts, from all over the world. 36 million human beings. 36 million stories. 36 million situations — cries for help, bids for a thrill, boredoms, yearnings, reachings-out in a way that seemed safe. Now there are 36 million reputations at stake. 36 million broken hearts. 36 million families.

What an archetypal mess.

But where there’s an archetypal mess, there’s an archetypal message, right? In this case I’m sure there are 36 million of them.

Aphrodite, the embodiment of Love, never wanted Hephaestus. He tricked her into marrying him through a separate ruse, to which she agreed because she thought it meant marriage to Ares. Hephastus wanted her for his own and no one else’s, regardless of her desires. Love cannot abide such lovelessness. After the episode of the net, Aphrodite and Hephaestus broke up, leaving her and Ares free to see each other as much as they wish. Which they do to this day.

9achagallfev052The myth gives us an image of one partner treating the other like a possession, demanding fidelity on principle alone. Love — aka Aphrodite — considers this preposterous. Love knows that love comes first. Love means first and foremost loving the beloved, second and second-most wanting the beloved. If Hephaestus loved Aphrodite, he would not have married her, much less expected fidelity, because he knew she wanted Ares. Ares, by the way, never makes petulant demands. He’s too busy going watery in his magnificent knees every time he sniffs her skin, swooning in dizzy joy at her voice, staggering around in a dazed kind of gratitude that she exists at all.

The word “fidelity” comes from a Latin word for faith. And doesn’t the massive manifestation of infidelity encoded in the Ashley Madison data create a massive loss of faith on the part of all those betrayed partners? Acting faithlessly destroys faith. But I’ll venture a guess that some of that faith may have been placed in monogamy as a God-sanctioned prerequisite for love. I know I was trained to believe that, but according to Ginette Paris — an author, therapist, and one of my teachers — we have it precisely backward:

“It is quite a natural thing for satisfied lovers to be faithful to one another, without resentment…. This kind of fidelity cannot be promised, it can only exist and one notices it after the fact, a posteriori. When faithfulness is mixed up with control the confusion fogs the transparency of the relationship even more than unfaithfulness. It moves love into the territory of control and kills desire.” — Ginette Paris, “Marriage, Intimacy and Freedom”

In other words, faithfulness, when it happens, arises from mutual love. This fidelity wells from the deepest springs: faith in each others’ beauty, dreams, talents, being, humor, sorrow, struggles, triumphs. Each partner sees and believes in the other’s true self. We’re talking about soul fidelity — a holy, mystical depth of love that turns Aphrodite on like no amount of walking the beach or snuggling beside a roaring fire.

Ashley Madison profits from people seeking more than they have. Its users hunger for Love, and the site’s marketing team crafts a message that seems to offer exactly that. The names even sound similar, with the initial short “a” and the two strong stresses: APH-ro-DI-te, ASH-ley-MAD-ison. Now those customers might find themselves in embarrassing or dangerous situations, but maybe some of them actually had an Aphroditic experience. Who knows.

The forces at play in the myth are still at play today. Call them by other names, castigate them with moral codes, they will not be denied. So it’s comforting that Hephaestus moved on and dealt with his relationship issues. Eventually he married Aglaia, the Goddess of Glory and one of the three Graces. Theirs is a vital and, yes, faithful partnership. They have a bunch of beautiful daughters. Everyone agrees that no matter how painful it was, he had to cast that glittering net. Look at him now, building swing sets and jungle gyms, raising a new generation of goddesses. He never could have done that with Aphrodite. She approaches child rearing in a completely different way. Just ask Eros and Psyche.

Caitlyn Jenner’s Goddess Tale

One of our nation’s most iconic young male athletes grew up and felt an inner imperative — perhaps a calling — to become a woman in the eyes of society. So he did. He transformed into she, now the nation’s most iconic transgender woman. As part of her debut, she posed for a photo shoot wearing a knockout of a spangly golden gown. Had she attended a ball in that dress, she surely would have lost one of her shoes on the way out.

Caitlyn Jenner’s version of the Cinderella story, like all the others, works with the motif of womanly beauty emerging from a situation where it was not allowed to shine. Hundreds if not thousands of variants of this tale appear around the world. Hers has a particular fascination, though. As a muscle-bound youth, Bruce dominated the Olympic Decathlon then waved the flag in triumph, a uniquely American version of the powerful young male. He showed us how we saw ourselves. Now, from the flat screens of reality tv, Caitlyn steps forward as a uniquely powerful American female. She shows us how we see ourselves today.

220px-Ares_Canope_Villa_Adriana_bRemember how incredibly beefcake Bruce was? He ran fast and he ran far, he jumped like crazy. He hurled beastly heavy things then roared with exultation. He demonstrated all the attributes of a superb foot soldier. In winning gold for the United States, he wore our national image of Ares, the Greek god of war. He let us imagine ourselves as the world’s greatest, strongest, fastest, best. His muscle was our might. At the same time, his youth was our immaturity. His soul roiled with secret misery. So did ours.

Imagine for a moment that you are the repressed energy / force of nature whom many call The Goddess. Let’s say you fume at the way you’ve been treated by jock jerks like Bruce Jenner over the millennia. You finally say, Enough, casting your divine glance around for someone to carry your message. What more perfect emissary could you find than Caitlyn? Who could embody a more potent image of your beauty and power than she who had once been the greatest male athlete in the world?

At sixty-five, the traditional age of retirement, Bruce withdrew so Caitlyn could emerge. With glamorous dresses, flawless hair, and brilliant make-up, she stepped perfectly and precisely into a mature image of Aphrodite. The Greek goddess of love and beauty, incidentally, took Ares as a lover. As Ares, Bruce waved the American flag. So did we. As Aphrodite, Caitlyn embodies beauty, authenticity, complexity. So can we.

popup The story also shows an image of a woman with decades of lived experience as a male athlete. Caitlyn carries that in her muscle memory, all the more powerfully because of the power of those muscles. She walks with the bodily knowledge of life and sex and sports as a champion man in the eyes of society. She now gathers into those same muscles the experience of being a woman in the eyes of society. Because of that, she lives and breathes the union of opposites. She joins Cinderella and Prince Charming within herself. She is Aphrodite and Ares, both at once. The Goddess and her Consort. Caitlyn offers us an image of soul totality, of wholeness. If her soul can do that, ours can too.

In that way her story might help move us past dualistic thinking. Sometimes we look around at this fabulous world, and we purse our lips and say, But is this good or is it bad? Is it light or is it dark? Male or female? Godly or infernal? Those are dualisms. Sometimes, on the other hand, we look around at this fabulous world and say, Wow, the Sky! Wow, the Ocean! Wow, Mountains! Wow, the Sun, the Moon, and the Stars! Wow, People! Love! War! Language! Everything is all just so amazing! This way sees the world as deeply, fundamentally sexy, hopelessly charged with charm and allure.

Monotheism tends toward the first way of thinking, polytheism toward the second. Monotheism loves to judge judge judge, to assign what it deems good-light-male-godly a place in heaven, to reject everything bad-dark-female-infernal and cast it down to hell. Monotheism banishes the sexiness of the world. For anyone associated with banished aspects, this state of affairs constitutes ongoing anguish, and depression so deep that it seems to try to reach down into the underworld and bring back all those lost elements of soul.

443px-Illustrations_to_Robert_Blair's_The_Grave,_object_15_The_Reunion_of_the_Soul_&_the_BodyCinderella stories imagine the soul emerging from that underworld and shining in its own authenticity. They celebrate the beauty of the true self finding its place in the world. Caitlyn Jenner seems to be doing exactly that. She transformed Olympic gold into a golden dress. She acts as an agent of The Goddess. In that capacity, she advocates for the rights and respect due to the transgender community, and for the inner lives of everyone. Her Goddess messages have to do with authenticity, the fluidity of external identity, our vast possibilities for transformation, and polytheistic acceptance and joy rather than monotheistic judgment. She presents us each with the ultimate mythological questions: What is your authenticity? What does your soul want to express? What transformations of body and consciousness would you embark upon, given that you, like Caitlyn, have the strength of the warrior and the courage of the lover?

The Secret Life of a Glass of Wine

Once upon a timeless time, on an island called Crete in the Mediterranean Sea, there lived a woman named Ariadne. One day she fell in love with a guy named Theseus and gave him a skein of string. Her idea was to have him unspool the string as he wound his way through a labyrinth to kill a monster at the center, after which he would turn around and follow the string back out to safety. Theseus was all for it even though concocting the scheme would have been far beyond his mental powers. Alas, when the deed was done, his valiant but scanty brain cells forgot to take Ariadne with him when he sailed back home to Athens.

Ariadne was standing on the beach, watching the ship disappear and wondering how she had fallen for such an outrageous airhead, when a gleaming chariot swooped down from the sky drawn by a pair of panthers. Holding the reins was no mere pin-up boy, preoccupied with flexing his mortal thews, but instead it was a god. It was Dionysus, one of the twelve great shining ones of the mighty Greek pantheon, and he was thrilled to find Ariadne. He leaped from the chariot, took her hands in both of his, and spoke in a voice that made her bones tingle. Come with me to Olympus, love. That’s where you belong. She replied, Are those panthers?? He gave her a wink and said, They’ll carry us to heaven if you’re willing. She cast one last glance over the empty ocean, turned back to the glory of Dionysus, and then she said, Yes.

256px-Pittoni_Bacchus_and_AriadneHe kissed her hands and off they went. As a wedding present he gave her a fabulous crown which he later turned into stars. As the story goes, they loved each other ever after. You heard that right. Dionysus was the only one of the Greek gods who was able to handle commitment. What’s more, there are those who believe that in earlier times, Ariadne was a powerful goddess in her own right. If that’s the case, the story shows Dionysus raising the diminished goddess back to her rightful status. He’s also the god who gave us the gift of wine. So when you swirl a pinot noir in the belly of a wine glass, you’re swirling more than just a beverage. You’re swirling the spirit of Dionysus.

Who exactly is this swirling spirit? Well, Dionysus relishes life. He’s fun and he’s intense, with a spontaneity and exuberance that the other gods lack. He’s playful, faithful, raucous, ebullient. And remember, he’s immortal, so all his traits have divine proportions and nothing about him is bounded by time. We’re talking about spontaneity so powerful that it’s a religious experience, exuberance so profound as to become holy, and playfulness so deep as to render the passage of hours irrelevant. Dionysus can lift our moribund moods with his sacred zest, the way he lifted Ariadne.

Wine, however, like Dionysus, is strong, and it’s complex. It’s not a beverage for quenching thirst. It’s an elixir that demands respect. The right amount is an infusion of joy, but too much is a plunge into oblivion and regret. Wine can heighten celebration, stimulate conversation, and deepen friendship, but it can also deaden feelings, darken depression, and damage relationships. Remember the panthers who drew the chariot? Harnessed, they speed the journey of the soul. Unchecked, they can kill. Dionysus demonstrates the knack of harnessing.

vino A glass of wine is a living thing, in the literal, biological sense, animated by the microorganisms that fermented the juice. It’s also a living thing in the senses of the imagination, exactly the way Dionysus is, so it doesn’t matter whether you actually drink wine or not. The idea alone honors his spirit and makes it easy to imagine partaking of life with the same enthusiasm as the shining one who cherishes and champions the goddess.

So whether the glass in your hand is literal, imaginal, or maybe even both at once, look into those jeweled tones. Inhale the bouquet. Swirl the wine until it’s dizzy, but most of all, listen. Can you hear the sacred question posed, to you and you alone? Can you hear the invitation? If you’re willing, if you say Yes, then lift the glass. Sip that spirit into yourself and savor the liquid epiphany, because the true gift of Dionysus is that he can take us all to heaven anytime we let him.