Category Archives: OMG Mythology

Here We Sing of Hera

A long, long time ago, a goddess-queen ruled a pantheon of gods and goddesses. This queen served as the divine sovereign over her land and her people. So when those people imagined rulership and divinity, they imagined a woman. Babies were born, crops grew, the moon waxed, waned, and waxed again for hundreds and then thousands of years. But one day a band of warlike invaders stormed the land, burning, killing, raping, taking, and bringing with them a stormy new king-god fond of throwing lightning around. Some say the invading king took the queen to wife by force. Others say she agreed to the marriage. No one claims the new god overthrew the goddess. She wielded too much power for that, and he knew he needed her to establish legitimacy. Maybe he found her fascinating, too. Challenging. But no one says they fell in love. King Zeus and Queen Hera simply assumed their thrones side by side, high in the thin, chilly air of Mount Olympus.

Agrigento - Temple of Hera 2 (CC BY-NC 2.0)
Agrigento – Temple of Hera 2 (CC BY-NC 2.0)

For the ancient Greeks, gods and goddesses didn’t just represent the energies of the observable world; they were those energies. Earth, ocean, sun, moon, hearth, love, law, marriage–the stories of these forces clashing, contending, consorting, and creating became what we now call a mythology. Because these figures are personified beings, their stories also illustrate personality dynamics. To the extent that these powers remain active today, Greek myth continues to open windows, onto worlds within and worlds outside. Myth taps into timelessness.

Hera’s name most likely comes from the same root as the word “hero.” She illustrates the aspect of experience whose inherent nature is rulership–a natural leader with ambition and intelligence who happens to be a woman. But soon after her marriage, Hera’s husband began chasing and raping other women all over the land. He arrogated to himself a despotic, entitled, physical dominion over her and all his subjects. In his view, a woman’s most private physical places–metaphorically her inner self, her soul–exist only to be seized by men. Naturally Hera became guarded, defensive. Not long after all this, patriarchal monotheism rose in the Hebrew and then Christian traditions and tried to depose and kill her outright. Christianity’s attacks grew particularly violent, with witch hunts, torture chambers, and burnings at stakes.

hera_di_efeso-vienna_copia_romana_del_100-150_ca-_da_orig-_greco_del_400-380_ac_ca-_6027Hera embodies the aspect of experience that is a strong female subjugated, betrayed, and terrorized. She’s the aspect of experience with awareness of its own displacement and mistreatment. The aspect that has no choice but to go into hiding. The aspect that remembers her throne. The aspect that bides her time.

Hillary Rodham started out as an independent young woman–sharp, successful and full of zest, a leader at her women’s college. After law school, she married and accepted a role as a political wife, first to a governor, then to a president. But when she tried to take her place as a partner to her powerful husband, other politicians lost all composure, especially the conservative Christians. They fumed and foamed about a woman’s place and the inherent evil of healthcare for all. They whipped up their age-old witch hunt, this time using lies and conspiracy theories as pitchforks and torches. Meanwhile, Hillary’s husband proved powerless to resist his urge for nymphs and interns. Hera must have felt similar with Zeus as a husband: the public shame, the helpless rage, the isolation and loneliness, the societal judgment that she was somehow to blame for failing to make her man behave himself.

Hillary stayed married, but she distanced herself from her husband and started her own political career, as senator, as secretary of state. Now she finds herself facing off against another powerful man, this one even more like Zeus than her husband was: a thunderer who blusters about law and order, an assaulter of women, a self-promoter inordinately fond of marble palaces. Hillary’s opponent epitomizes the forces that have arrayed themselves against Hera through the ages.

pufferfish-wallpaper

It’s tempting to dismiss Donald Trump as the archetype of the pufferfish–inflated, cold-blooded, highly toxic even in small doses–but actually he draws his power from the darkest depths of the Zeus archetype. Listen to these lines from the “Homeric Hymn to Zeus,” written sometime around 600 BCE:

         Zeus
         who is the best
         god
         and the greatest
         is who
         I will sing…
         son of
         Cronus
         who sees far
         you’re the most
         famous
         of all
         you’re the greatest

The best, the greatest, the most famous… It sounds exactly like recent political rallies. But the best, greatest, most famous what? Nothing. There is no substance there, not in the poem and not on reality tv. Donald and other Zeuses bring no skills to the table, only their hunger for glory, lust to dominate, bottomless greed for power and wealth. They have no access to wisdom or restraint. They rage. They hurl thunderbolts, verbal or otherwise. They serve themselves. This is why democracy rose, because everyone recognized the perils of kingship. And where did democracy first show up? Ancient Greece, in the time of Zeus.

It’s as though Hera stands behind Hillary and Zeus stands behind Donald. These two forces face off yet again. Hera is grim, determined, knowing what she’s up against. She knows the hatred of her opponents. She knows the bizarrely higher standard she’s held to than are the bozos around her. But she has prepared. She studied the law. She practiced the crafts of planning, organizing, governing. Her feet are planted for battle, but she also glows, newly beautiful in her maturity.

Myth changed with the arrival of Zeus. It changed with the rise of Christianity, the Enlightenment, the Internet. Myth taps into timelessness, but it also rides the currents of change. It shifts and shimmies to reflect what endures and what evolves.

When a goddess is wounded and closes her heart, that’s when blight happens. But when a goddess is glad and opens her heart, well, prepare for flourishing, blooming, blossoming. The psychological sequence goes: see her, love her, be loved in return.

CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Not that Hillary Clinton is a goddess. She is a mortal person with flaws, wounds, and complexities. But the image of a Hillary Clinton presidency is an archetypal upset, a tectonic shift in what American democracy believes to be possible. It means that thinking of leadership can mean thinking of a woman. Try saying it: Madam President. Now open up to the smallest bit of affection for her, the tiniest dram of liking, the same way you can like a man who has flaws, wounds, and complexities. Feel that ripple in the air at your back? That’s Hera standing straighter, stronger, more sure of herself, with a glint in her eye from the light held aloft by her young friend in the New York harbor.

Old Stories, News Stories

Once upon a time, King Pentheus of the Greek city of Thebes worked himself into a froth, because a new god named Dionysus had called the city’s women into the hills for drinking, dancing, and love-making. Pentheus could not abide this, especially the female revelers.

Dionysos © Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons, via Wikimedia Commons
Dionysos © Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons, via Wikimedia Commons

“When women get to celebrate with gleaming wine,” he fumed, “there’s a ritual that’s gone rotten.” He jailed all the truant wives he could find, swore to hunt down the others, to “capture them in iron traps,” then to sell them or enslave them himself. But first he felt oddly compelled to find a stranger who had arrived in town, a man with flowing, perfumed, golden curls and “rosy, wine-flushed cheeks.”

The thought of this effeminate stranger filled Pentheus with rage. He had to find him, would find him, did find him. He handcuffed and interrogated the stranger, then, shaken by the stranger’s uncanny replies and otherworldly gaze, threw him in the palace jail. But the stranger was Dionysus in disguise. And Dionysus is the life force personified, along with all his women — his maenad companions. Pentheus, in his fury, forcibly suppressed the life force. He tried to contain, control, and silence that elemental power.

This story is 2400 years old, written by Euripides in a play called The Bacchae, but Pentheus still stalks among us. He goes by different names these days, but lately his face has been all over the news:

  • On June 2, Judge Aaron Persky and a rapist named Brock Turner colluded in a Penthean attempt to silence a woman known as Emily Doe who had indulged in Dionysian drink and dancing. A jury convicted Turner on three felony accounts for assaulting Emily while she was unconscious — he seized control over her helpless body — but the judge sentenced Turner to only six months in jail.
  • On June 10, Kevin James Loibl equipped himself with two handguns, a hunting knife, and two extra magazines of ammunition to kill the unarmed, twenty-two year-old singer Christina Grimmie. Grimmie’s voice sounded like Burgundy wine before Loibl silenced her.
  • On June 12, Omar Mateen, armed with an assault rifle and a handgun, slaughtered 49 people at the LGBTQ nightclub Pulse, which is basically a temple to Dionysus. Mateen stilled those dancing bodies.
  • On June 16, Thomas Mair shot and stabbed to death Jo Cox, a 41-year-old, unarmed British MP who had stepped out into the world, into the halls of Parliament, where she wore a bright red maenad dress and raised her voice in support of refugees and of Britain remaining in the EU.

Pentheus Being Torn by Maenads, By WolfgangRieger [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Pentheus Being Torn by Maenads, By WolfgangRieger [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
See how easy it is to put these events into a nice, neat list? As though each crime were just-the-facts-ma’am, and not a nexus of collective heartbreak radiating out from the scenes of violence. After the news about Jo Cox, I reached a point of numbness, right in the center of my chest. I couldn’t process more pain, I couldn’t feel, not so soon on the heels of Pulse. So much brutality, targeted at so many beautiful, defenseless people. These victims defied repressive rules that dictate proper behavior, so Pentheus attacked them. He controlled their aliveness by ending it.

The life force will not stand for this. The life force demands to live. It demands connection, expression, release. Back in Thebes, Dionysus wasn’t in prison for five minutes before an earthquake shook the palace down and lightning struck, burning all the timbers. Dionysus strode out untouched, stepping easily over the rubble and through the smoke, summoning the women back to his side.

The spirit of Dionysus also broke out of jail when Emily Doe released her victim statement from the trial. Her life force burst free in her evocative words, and America roared in outrage. Dionysus escaped when tributes to Christina Grimmie flooded the internet, and her voice reached millions who might not otherwise have heard her. Dionysus roared after the tragedy at Pulse, when Democrats in the Senate lifted their voices in a 14-hour filibuster and then those in House staged an overnight sit-in, demanding sanity in gun regulations.

Dionysus shook the UK after Jo Cox’s murder, too. But Pentheus marched back, goose-stepping across Britain and bellowing lies about independence and refugees. Really he wanted independence from refugees, freedom from having to help people in need. Pentheus scorns interdependence. He got his way, for now. Britain voted for rigid borders, for going it alone, for severing a life-giving connection.

In the story, Pentheus thinks that the life force he wants to kill is outside himself, outside his whole city. In reality, Dionysus is within the city walls, within the palace, within Pentheus himself, even though Pentheus savagely represses his own capacity for connection and expression. He is terrified of and disconnected from his own life force. His aggression is his self-hatred. And sure enough, his violence boomerangs right back home.

Bacchus, by Hendrick Goltzius, Metropolitan Museum of Art
Bacchus, by Hendrick Goltzius, Metropolitan Museum of Art

After Dionysus left the jail, he lured the king to the forest to spy on the women’s revels. The women ripped Pentheus limb from limb, then they tore his limbs to shreds. He got his wish for disconnection. The maenads disconnected him, part by part by part.

It’s a chilling end to a chilling tale, like the headline news this month. Pentheus is what happens when anyone acts out their fear, fury, frustration. Dionysus, on the other hand, stands ready to assist with the creative expression of those big feelings, or to help come up with innovative ideas for changing the situation. Emily, Christina, everyone at Pulse, and Jo all demonstrate how to express and address feelings, rather than act them out.

Dionysus is the life force personified. The life force creates. Pentheus is fear. Fear blocks, stops, controls, contains. As surely as Dionysus lives within us all, so does the tyrant king. May the maenads do their grisly work every time he rises.

 

48 Days Without Facebook

February 11: Day 0

Tonight Stephanie and I were moaning about how busy the next month and a half will be, and as we talked, we asked the tarot cards what they thought of the busy schedules. I was particularly keen to get their opinion on a new writing project I wanted to start even though I had no idea where to find the time. The cards cleared their collective throat, then said:

From the Awakening Aeon Tarot Deck, by Marcia O'Hara, AwakeningAeonTarot.com
From the Awakening Aeon Tarot Deck, by Marcia O'Hara, AwakeningAeon.com
Talk about loud and clear! Fortune muses, “Yeah, this could be cool.” Death chimes in, “But something’s got to give, you have to let something go if you’re going to make room for a new project. You’ve got to shed the outworn skin in order to grow.” The Oracle Within: “Fill pages, fill pages, fill pages. See how I’m a full page? Do like that.” Ok. Right. Yes. I get it. Thank you, cards!

So something had to give. I immediately thought of Facebook, and the time I spend every day scrolling through that endless distraction. I thought of the new journal I bought for the project. A scheme formed all at once: I’ll give up Facebook for 40 days, and in the first hour of each of those days, I’ll freewrite for the project in the new journal. After 40 days of writing, or a full journal, whichever comes first, I’ll go back to Facebook. Lent started this week anyway, right? The project begins sort of around Lent, and ends sort of around Easter.

February 12: Day 1

This morning, chatting with Adrianna, I mentioned that today is my first day of a Facebook fast. She said, “Mm-hmm… wait, what?? Did you say Facebook fast? Oh my God, you just blew my mind!” I told her I’d woken up in the middle of the night and reached for my phone before remembering. She gasped and said, “What did you do??”

“I put the phone back down.”

“And then what??”

“I just lay there.”

She gave another gasp, shuddery and shivery, like at the end of a spooky story.

February 13: Day 2

Impulse: Reach for the phone.
Response: Pull your hand back.

February 14: Day 3

Wahh! I feel lost, lonely, cut off — but cut off from what? From voyeuristic eavesdropping, from the desperate hope for a puppy video.

It’s like I hauled myself up out of a river — maybe the River of Time — exhausted, soaking wet, panting in a heap on the bank. And isn’t time one of Facebook’s main metaphors? Facebook generates a time-line for each “user”– meaning each addict, each of us junkies. A Facebook addiction feeds a larger addiction to the conceit of time. And I do mean “feeds.” Facebook provides everyone their very own feed — but what’s the food? Distraction, diversion, outrage. Am I not calling this a Facebook fast?

But still, wah!

February 15: Day 4

Facebook who? It’s fading. Feels less like a fast and more like waking up.

February 16: Day 5

When I pick up my phone to call or text someone, my thumb still feels the muscle-impulse to press the Facebook icon. I only feel cut off anymore when other people in the room pore over their phones and I sit there, twiddling my idle thumbs and watching everyone else having their out-of-body experiences.

Narcissus by @dancretu
Narcissus by @dancretu
Because that’s what it does: it pulls your life energy out of your body through your eyeballs and holds it hostage in the 2-D world of The Screen. There’s a shrinking of awareness, a confining, a narrowing of the horizon down to the size of the responses made possible by whatever the interface allows — Like, Share, Type Something Here.

Facebook is a modern-day deity, a member of the tyrannical pantheon of social media gods and goddesses. Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest, all the billions of dating sites, they all feed (that word again) off the attention of their acolytes. They reward that attention by bestowing attention — the more active you are, the more people see your activity. The currency of the exchange is attention. If that’s what we value, ok, that’s what we value. Is that what we value?

Like all gods and tyrants, the media deities are best approached with alert awareness. They misbehave when their privileges go unchecked.

Like all gods and tyrants, they can be deposed.

March 5: Day 23

There’s more space. The horizon extends further, in every one of those three-hundred-and-sixty degrees. Is Facebook a horizon blocker? It’s certainly a drain. It siphons energy I could use for other purposes.

Instead of looking at Facebook in the middle of the night when I wake up, I’ve started texting myself thoughts, notes, ideas. In the morning I read them and think, “Where on earth did that come from?”

March 29: Day 47

One more day to go. Three empty pages left in the journal. They will fill tomorrow morning. I didn’t write every day, but as of tomorrow, I’ll have written for 40 of the last 48 days. Not that the project is done. It’s a journal full of raw material. Soon it will be time to find out what it would like to become next.

March 30: Day 48

I broke the fast today. Facebook Breakfast, I guess. I knew I had to do it, in order to post an announcement for the Luna Review, but I kept putting it off. In the morning, I thought, “I’ll wait until the afternoon.” After lunch, I thought, “Just a few more minutes.” Finally, in mid-afternoon, I opened a tab on my browser. I typed an f. Autofill took care of the rest of the URL. I posted the announcement I needed to, looked around for maybe five minutes, and closed the tab. It felt oddly boring after all this time. Anticlimactic.

March 31

Last night I woke up in the middle of the night, too sleepy to get up but too awake to sleep. I picked up my phone. 3:17 AM. I glanced at email then thought, “Hey, I’m allowed to look at Facebook again.” My thumb was already moving toward the icon as the idea rolled around, but then I stopped. All at once, all in a rush, I realized what had really changed in the last month and a half.

In the past, unwelcome visitors like anxiety and hypochondria had often haunted my middle-of-the-night wake-ups. But since the Facebook fast, my nights had become quieter, more spacious, more peaceful. They had become the place where I text myself ideas whispered by the sparkling dark, the stillness where I can watch Michael, my bbf (beloved boyfriend), sleeping in the dim light like an archangel at rest. With my thumb hovering over the Facebook icon, I knew I was about to give up that magic. I was about to give my nights back to the low-level madness of the feed. I set the phone down.

The dark blue body of the Egyptian goddess Nut (pronounced noot) arches over the world, feet on one side of the horizon and hands on the other. Her skin is covered with stars. Then there are the Norse goddess Nott and the Greek goddess Nyx, both of whose names mean “night.” Both dress in black, both ride across the starry night sky, drawn in a black chariot or on the back of a magnificent black horse. To imagine any of them is to imagine night as Night, a being whose quiet, dark company can refresh and restore. They dilate the pupils, widening the eyes the better to admit wonder, starlight, and shadows.

Picture-11Night goddesses don’t ask for much, but they do insist on visiting. Actually, we visit them, every evening when our zip code rolls away from the sun and out to face the reaches of space. Night holds the dark half of the planet in the palms of Her cupped hands, at all times. She’s always there as we move into, through, and out of Her domain. When in Night, we’re in all the way, and Night is all the way in us. It’s Night outside, Night in the kitchen, Night in the bedroom. Night within blood vessels, in the synapses between neurons, inside every cell membrane in all of our bodies.

Impulse: Reach for the phone.
Response: Pull your hand back.
Then What: Bask. Relax.

Wars and Stories

Last weekend I went to a matinee. The lights dimmed, previews began, and two last people entered the theater, yelling. They sat near the front, still shouting, over and over: “JUST WANNA SEE THE MOVIE! JUST WANNA SEE THE MOVIE!” They weren’t shouting at each other or at anyone else, but at the theater, at the world, who knows. They mentally waged war with something invisible.

At the time, though, my whole body tense, I only thought, “Are they armed? What guns could they have? Is this it? Do we hit the deck and hope to live? Door, where’s the door?” I ignored the screen, leaning forward in my chair and straining to focus on what was going on in front through the strobe of the film — bright and dark, bright and dark — and the din of gunfire, explosions, a sweeping orchestral soundtrack. At last the police arrived and escorted the shouters from the theater, forcibly, over the running movie. I’ve never felt so relieved to see the cops.

lights at the whitneyFinally I watched the show. I tried to relax. This was supposed to be fun, after all —  Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the epitome of a feel-good adventure film. So I watched. I watched. I kept watching, but I did not relax. Every scene with blasters seemed a thinly veiled mass shooting (San Bernadino, Colorado Springs, Charleston), every scene with weaponized spacecraft an aerial bombardment (Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan). After a brush with the possibility of real-world violence, I couldn’t see the movie as anything but glossed-up news footage.

An irrational response? Or had reality burned away the veil of compliant hypnosis I would have worn otherwise? The one that says, Yes, a galaxy far away! Sweep me into this fictive dream, away from the mundane world! Instead of that sweetly stoned feeling of escapism, I felt hollow. I felt ill. I wondered what the victims of actual trauma experience during this kind of entertainment.

But it’s all just cartoon violence, right? Good, clean fun for kids? Maybe, except more adults than children filled that theater. And the movie boasts the biggest grossing opening night of all time so far. This material makes a major impact on our culture, and as I sat there in shock in the theater, I became acutely aware of the film’s simplistic ideas about good and evil, right and wrong, “light” and “dark” — value-laden, racist terms that have no correlation to the real world. Is sleep worse than waking? Is night worse than day? Does skin tone affect the worth of a soul? But the imagery of Star Wars tells us to draw a sharp line between two sides, to love the “light” and fear the “dark.”

Blake_The_BlasphemerEven while watching the film I felt the blasphemous nature of my thoughts. How dare I question the world of Han Solo! Of Luke Skywalker, the hero’s journey, spiritual guidance for our times! Surely I violated some unwritten rule, betrayed a sacred trust. But that’s an interesting word, blasphemy. To blaspheme, you first need dogma from which to deviate. You have to believe something is true and right, regardless of evidence and rational analysis. Jediism is, in fact, a religion in the UK. This made-up, for-profit story is as susceptible to ideology and fundamentalism as any religion.

Speaking of religion, for the ancient Greeks, the god Ares ruled the physical act of fighting. When called upon to do battle, Ares, like Star Wars, excels at hand-to-hand combat. Ares-at-war and this film share the ethos, “Kill or be killed.” Both demand winners and losers. Both fetishize weapons — blasters (guns) and sabers of “light” (swords) which, because they’re made of light, must be “good” killing tools. Both, if they don’t like someone or something, shoot ’em, slash ’em, or blow ’em up. Even the name of Star Wars’s spirituality — “the Force” — militarizes metaphysics. “May Ares be with you,” the characters could say. Star Wars: Ares Awakens.

The Greeks related to Ares differently than Star Wars does, though. They didn’t only call on him in times of war. They also asked him for protection from their own inclination to fight. The Homeric Hymn to Ares closes like this:

“…diminish that deceptive rush
of my spirit, and restrain
that shrill voice in my heart
that provokes me
to enter the chilling din of battle.
You, happy god,
give me courage,
let me linger
in the safe laws of peace,
and thus escape
from battles with enemies
and the fate of a violent death.”

aresIn other words, Ares can prevent people from flipping out and wreaking havoc. He provides the courage to choose to get along. The strength of the warrior can work on behalf of the complex, nuanced, creative work of peace-making.

Everyone in the theater just wanted to see the movie, but an inner battle prevented those two disturbers-of-the-peace from realizing they could. No one blocked their view. If they could have set down their mental blasters and light sabers, they could have had their wish. It makes me wonder what other deep desires wait right in front of us, freely available, when the deceptive rush of our spirits diminishes.

In the Service of Hermes

When I moved to Santa Barbara, one of my friends asked me if I’d like to work as a guide for her events company, shepherding groups of visitors around to various destinations. A guide? I thought. For travelers? Something gleamed at the corner of my eye, like a golden, winged sandal whizzing past. My friend continued: I’d have to beguile the visitors with stories about the area, and I’d have my phone pretty much grafted onto my hand to receive and relay last-minute changes to itineraries. I couldn’t help but think of Hermes — the guide of souls, patron of travelers, the speedy, talkative (text-)messenger of the gods. How about it? he seemed to whisper. I said, “Absolutely.”

Photo by Michal Maňas, via Wikimedia Commons
By Michal Maňas, via Wikimedia Commons

So I’ve been playing mother duck, leading visiting executives around. Hermes relishes hanging out with all that money. He’s the god of commerce and thieves, after all, and his sandals and caduceus are made of gold. I love how the two serpents climb that winged wand, moving together, moving apart, moving together, moving apart, always in perfect synchrony. They rise in tandem as though lifting each other. Serpents symbolize fear, but also wisdom and rebirth. In the caduceus, they transcend their limitations; they rise up off the ground toward the golden wings. An image of evolution, they even look like the double helix of DNA. But they climb the magic wand of a god, so they also suggest the dazzling surprise of psychological and spiritual growth. Soul evolution. And their image has a unique form of gender fluidity — phallic, but also sinuous and circular. They side-slip all attempts to label them as masculine or feminine. Their relationship is a relationship of two, that’s all the image says.

Anyway, one night last week, after I guided a board of directors during the day, another friend asked me to go with her to get her first tattoo. I picked her up and drove her to an ink den straight out of central casting: everything in black and red, unshaven but heavily tattooed personnel, a gluey residue coating the binders of clip art. The tattooist scheduled to draw on my friend hadn’t shown up because someone else who worked there died that day. They assigned another tattooist to my friend, a gentleman of maybe 60 wearing an Iron Maiden t-shirt and coke-bottle glasses with thick black rims. He injected ink (subcutaneously) into my friend’s foot (the lowest part of her body) until a dragon appeared there (a creature that inhabits caves and underground lairs). Down, down, down I went, from the luxurious realm of CEOs, into the earthen underworld. Meanwhile three other tattooists sat in a circle talking about their dead colleague, tallying up the many people they knew or knew of who died from combining Xanax and alcohol. Beside them lay a giant black dog, part Great Dane, part elephant, all black, all the way. I almost called him Cerberus.

IMG_5327

Hermes, by the way, is the only Olympian authorized to visit the underworld. He guides souls around the earthly plane, sure, but more importantly he leads them to the kingdom of Persephone and Hades when it’s time to make that journey.

Once, maybe a year ago, I attended a writing group where we did a free-writing exercise about a childhood memory. I wrote about my old imaginary friends, and one of the other participants, a woman in her late sixties or early seventies, said, “That reminds me of my daughter’s imaginary friend, who only showed up when she was seven years old and in the hospital. She said his name was Hermy, and he came over to her room from the cemetery across the street.” I said, “Wow, that makes me think of the Greek god Hermes, the guide of souls.” The woman blinked at me, startled.

After the meeting she chased me down outside and spoke urgently, in an undertone: “Hermy stayed with her all the way until the end. She died the next year. She was eight.” She insisted that her daughter had no access to Greek mythology, would have had no possible way of reading or hearing about it.

Antonio da Correggio, Mercury in "The Education of Eros" [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Antonio da Correggio, Mercury in “The Education of Eros” [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Coincidence? If so, it’s a coincidence drenched with meaning. Maybe there’s a logical, linear, cause-and-effect explanation for a little girl’s imagination providing her with a friend and helper named Hermy, from a graveyard, at that time in her short life, and for her mother finding out decades later that the image of this friend has resonance far beyond her family’s experience. Meanwhile the woman wanted to know everything everything everything about Hermes. I told her what little I knew at the time, but it felt hopelessly inadequate. I couldn’t tell her what she wanted to hear: that her daughter was all right, that the girl lived on, that Hermy/Hermes had somehow made everything ok.

Now I know that, in addition to moving with ease to and from the underworld, Hermes also guides the way to growth, change, relationship building. He’s funny and fun, he loves tricks, and, being the messenger of the gods, he carries divine meaning and inspiration. He offers the gift of seeing the world with sparkle, with fresh eyes. To him, souls are as equal as they are unique. He accompanies CEOs around in their private jets, tattoo artists on the way to funerals, children across the great divide, perhaps entertaining them along the way with magic tricks. If I could talk to that woman today, I would tell her that I can’t think of a better friend for a little girl stuck in a hospital room, nor any better traveling companion.

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.

Mythological Online Dating

Once upon a time awhile ago, I downloaded the dating app Tinder and set about swiping through photos of Gentlemen and Neanderthals. The next day, one of my “matches” texted. He was more articulate than the knuckle-draggers out there, but it seemed we weren’t going to connect. I thought, Whatever, and I didn’t text him the following day. The day after that, he sent this:

“Dear Daphne, I want you to know that i understand you try to maintain a respectable distance, but remember what happens: ‘a heavy numbness seized her limbs, thin bark closed over her breasts, her hair turned into leaves, her arms into branches, her feet so swift a moment ago stuck fast in slow-growing roots, her face was lost in the canopy. Only her shining beauty was left’ your choice is to face my ardor or become arbor. Yours in hot pursuit, Apollo”

Well. I don’t receive texts like that every day, let me tell you. He made me laugh, that’s 10 points right there; he cited a book, that’s another 10 for a total of 20 so far; and the book he cited was Ovid’s Metamorphoses, for a cool 10,000 points, enough for him to sail past the threshold required for a return text, with even a few points to spare. It was like the old Olivia Newton John song: “Let’s get mythical, mythical, I wanna get mythica-a-a-l…”

So yes, let’s get mythical. Especially since “Apollo” typed only seven lines of a five-page story. What he left out is that, having just slain the Python, the Roman god Phoebus (Apollo to the Greeks) swaggers around with his bow and arrows and makes fun of Cupid’s arrows for merely being able to “spark a bit of love.” Cupid takes umbrage at the sun god behaving like such a jerk and shoots two arrows: a golden one at Phoebus to fill him with love for the nymph Daphne, and a lead one at Daphne that makes her reject love. Phoebus chases, Daphne runs, and just when he’s about to grab her, she prays to her father, a river-god, to change her shape. Dad turns her into a laurel tree, but Phoebus loves her still. He kisses the tree and claims it as his own, and declares that it shall never drop its leaves the way other trees do, but will always keep its loveliness.

Juicy stuff. But the story is not about humans, right? In the text, the characters are taller than mortals and more beautiful. Their skin glows and their eyes don’t just reflect light but actually shine. They represent deep energies at work in the psyche. They are inhabitants of the domain of soul, aka the imaginal realm.

In this place of larger-than-life and more-than-real, Cupid is the god of love, or, the energy of divine love. This energy operates from above — outside the scene of most of the action. And don’t powerful forces sometimes work on us from outside? Phoebus, meanwhile, is a god of light, shot by a golden arrow (bright, beautiful, incorruptible) which gives him a passion for connection. And yet he moves around on the ground, so he is an image of the divinity of earthly love. Daphne is a nymph, a nature spirit, and she is shot by a lead arrow (dull, heavy, toxic) which fills her with alarm at the thought of connection. She is an earth-dwelling ego driven by empty fears that slow her down and stop her in her tracks.

Those are the players. Here is their play: Cupid (divine love) sets in motion a scenario where Phoebus (earthly love) pushes Daphne’s (the ego’s) resistance to the breaking point. Phoebus won’t take no for an answer, because sometimes the soul doesn’t care about the ego’s fear. And what happens then? Transformation! Ego can handle only so much of its own nonsense before it’s ready to change.

So Daphne turns into a tree. A tree? Yes, a tree! In a forest, a tree’s leaves and roots mingle with those of the other trees all around, exchanging chemical messages and forming a network of connections. Trees also connect heaven and earth: they take sunlight from above, turn it into sugar, and send it down into their roots; they take water from the soil and send it up into the leaves, where it evaporates into the air. Trees are a profound image of connectedness, side to side and up and down. That’s what Daphne turns into: a connected being.

Where are we so far? Divine love makes earthly love push the ego into an experience of its own connectedness. And then, when the ego transforms, the eternal radiance of the soul remains — eternal not in the sense of a clock that will keep running forever, but eternal in the sense of timelessness, of This, Right Here, the boundless Now that is the Always and the Ever. It’s the space where trees are beautiful, and where we’re present enough to realize it. That’s where Phoebus sees Daphne’s real beauty.

Phoebus changes too. For one thing he will probably think twice before making fun of Cupid again, but also the golden arrow pushes him into a deeper experience of love. Initially he just wants a hot date, but at the end of the story he loves Daphne’s essence, and his love is now nourishing; it’s a feast of photons that feeds her leaves every day. Although we should note that it was shining on her all along, regardless of her ability to relax and enjoy it.

I do wonder about Cupid’s take on the whole thing. Does he look down with self-satisfaction? Does it play out the way he knew it would, or does the tree thing surprise even him? By watching the events unfold, does he participate in them through his imagination, the way we vicariously experience our fictions? The way we participate in the great powers through our mythologies?

And what does all of it have to do with “real”-world relations? Maybe nothing. Divine energies roil and churn through us, but we’re also just people, with all our flaws and beauties. Then again, to glimpse the events of the world through the filter of myth a) is so much fun! and b) can open up the possibility of revision. Myth is always subject to rewriting, and recognizing the pattern at play is the first step in trying something different, such as pulling out the lead arrow and soaking up a little sunshine. Who knows how the story might go then?

All of which brings us back to “Apollo.” I should have sent him the preceding paragraphs the minute his message showed up, all in one gigantic text. Believe it or not, that might have simplified things! Instead I thought, Hmph! He thinks he’s a god and I’m a nymph? And I’m going to turn into a tree if I don’t cavort? We will see about that! Which meant the game was on. We met for lunch.

My mythology fetish didn’t seem to frighten him, but then again I didn’t unleash it all at once. At this point, though, we can consider it unleashed. The key thing now is that I have the intel I’ve needed all along for world domination. If anyone out there has any idea how to program things that will work on phones, let me know. It’s time to build a Mythic Tinder.

Cosmic Morsels from Fall Quarter So Far

From The Trickster in West Africa: A Study of Mythic Irony and Sacred Delight, by Robert D. Pelton:

The trickster speaks — and embodies — a vivid and subtle religious language, through which he links animality and ritual transformation, shapes culture by means of sex and laughter, ties cosmic process to personal history, empowers divination to change boundaries into horizons, and reveals passages to the sacred embedded in daily life.

From Alchemy: An Introduction to the Symbolism and the Psychology, by Marie-Louise von Franz:

Psychologically here, there is what the alchemists call the union of the cosmic world, which means getting beyond the microcosm of the human being and being open to life itself, in itself — to be related to the whole of life through watching the process of synchronicity.

From Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti, by Maya Deren:

In Voudoun the cosmic drama of man consists not of a dualism, a conflict of the irreconcilable down-pull of flesh and the up-pull of spirit; it is, rather, an almost organic dynamic, a process by which all that which characterizes divinity — intelligence, power, energy, authority, wisdom — evolves out of the flesh itself.