Greek to Me: Gods of Olympus

olympus-greek-mythology-wallpaperAre Greek myths befuddling to you? Have trouble understanding scholarly references to people like Icarus and Pandora? Don’t know the difference between Epimetheus and Eurystheus? Well, you need fear the Minotaur of ignorance no longer: Welcome to Greek to Me, my blog segment where you will learn about some of the most important and complex myths in the history of Western literature, all accompanied with beautiful art for your visualization! I believe that, given the history and the artistic omnipresence of Greek mythological themes, that knowledge of them is essential for a rounded education on Western culture. In this article, we’ll start from the beginning and give a brief summary of the famous gods of Mount Olympus.

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The mythical home of the gods, Mt. Olympus

Each of the Greek gods and goddesses were very well developed characters, with distinct and unique personalities. For those who do not know, each god and goddess was the patron of an aspect of nature or humanity and had special symbols of these patronages which are often used to identify them in art. They are also known by different names to the Ancient Romans, who worshipped them as well. The focus today is on the twelve Olympian gods, those who were believed to dwell on Mount Olympus. These included Zeus, Hera, Hestia, Demeter Athena, Apollo, Artemis, Aphrodite, Hephaestus, Ares, Hermes and Dionysus. In today’s article, we’ll cover the first seven.

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Zeus and Hera, accompanied by their symbols, the eagle and the peacock

First on the list is the famous Zeus. He was the god of lightning and ruler of all. After being rescued from being eaten by his father Kronus by his mother Rhea, Zeus defeated his father, rescuing his siblings Hestia, Hades, Poseidon, Demeter and Hera. He took kingship of the heavens for himself and assigned the rule of the Sea and the Underworld to his brothers Poseidon and Hades respectively. He was famous for many great feats of power, but most myths featuring Zeus center on his unbelievably numerous love affairs. His romantic escapades and attempts to hide his paramours from his wife provided much amusement to the ancient Greeks in their stories and plays. Zeus’ symbols included the lightning bolt or the mighty eagle, and his name to the Romans was Jupiter

Second is Hera who was, awkwardly, both the sister and the wife of Zeus. She was Queen of the gods and the patron goddess of women, marriage, and childbirth. She was very beautiful and was portrayed with a fairly clever, but haughty and vengeful nature. Zeus’ constant affairs with other women, both mortal and divine, made her jealous and bitter and she often tried to take out her anger on Zeus’ many illegitimate children since she couldn’t punish him for it.  Hera was known to the Romans as Juno and her symbols are most commonly the cow and the peacock.

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Demeter and Hestia

Hestia was the virgin goddess of the hearth, her symbol. She attended the sacred fire of Olympus. She was known as Vesta to the Romans, whose ‘Vestal Virgins’ famously attended the sacred Roman fire. Her sister Demeter, was goddess of the harvest and mother of Persephone, goddess of spring and flowers. Demeter was a generous goddess, willingly sharing the fruit of the earth with mankind and ruling over the seasons. Her Roman name was Ceres, and her symbols were grain and a sickle. Hestia is not featured in many myths, but is usually portrayed with a calm and motherly demeanor. Demeter is similar, but has flashes of protective motherhood and can be quite passionate and dramatic.

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Athena

My personal favorite of the gods and goddesses is Athena. She was said to have been born directly from the head of Zeus. In fear that his child would be more powerful than he, Zeus had swallowed Athena’s mother Metis. But the child developed in Zeus’ head, and eventually burst forth from his cranium fully grown as Athena. She was another virgin goddess, and being the offspring of the mind of Zeus, she was the patroness of wisdom and learning, as well as skilled warfare and handcrafts such as weaving. She was always pictured with symbols of war, such as a helmet, spear or a shield bearing the symbol of Medusa’s head. Her other symbols were the Olive tree, whose creation was attributed to her, and the owl, whose symbolism of wisdom lives on even in modern culture. Athena is of an intelligent, witty and strong personality. While a goddess of war, she is dignified and sophisticated and only very rarely does she lose her temper. She often assists heroes such as Perseus, Odysseus and Jason. Her Roman name is Minerva.

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Apollo and Artemis

Apollo and Artemis were twin brother and sister, children of Zeus and the nymph Leto. Apollo, known as Phoebus to the Romans, was god of many things: light, art, music, poetry, prophecy, archery and medicine. His most famous symbols were the lyre and the laurel wreath. He is of an unsurprisingly artistic temperament, wise, poetic and intelligent. However, his passions, both angry and romantic, occasionally flare over his better judgement.

His sister Artemis, Roman name Diana, was goddess of the Moon, archery, hunting, woodlands, animals and chastity, being another virgin goddess. She was also occasionally associated with childbirth, as the legend went that, after being born, she immediately assisted her mother in the delivery of her twin brother. She is often portrayed with an energetic, youthful and independent temperament and occasionally waxes very headstrong and a little spiteful. Her most identifiable symbols were the deer, her bow and arrows and the crescent Moon.

And so, these are the first seven of the Greek’s Olympian deities. Next time, there will a second article for the rest of the Olympians as well as the lords of the Sea and the Underworld. You’re well on your way to becoming a Greek mythological expert!

Catharsis, the Medicine of the Mind

blog-picsIf I were forced to choose a favorite kind of literature- my “desert island” genre, if you will- I’m fairly sure it would be the Tragedy. No other genre inspires me or makes me happier to be alive than a good Tragedy. No doubt, this sounds a bit weird. Tragedies are sad. They are supposed to make you cry and feel miserable. Let me confuse you further by saying: Yes, exactly. That’s why I like them!

“So, you’re a masochist?” you might be saying now. No. I mean, not exactly… But in a way, perhaps. I look at sadness as a sort of bath for the soul. Through Tragedy, I am able to experience the most important human emotions which, in the comfortable life I have been blessed with, I would not otherwise encounter. I actively seek out literature that rends the heart and touches the soul. I seem to have a bit of an addiction to… Catharsis.

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Aristotle (detail from Raphael’s School of Athens)

But what is Catharsis? From the Greek κάθαρσις, meaning ‘purging’ or ‘cleansing’, Catharsis is the idea that the experience of strong emotions through a vicarious source (such as art) cleanses and strengthens the mind and soul. This idea was first named by the great Greek Philosopher Aristotle, who compared it to the medical processes wherein the filth accumulated in the body is washed out. The philosopher wrote of this after having attended the performance of a Tragedy, during which, he had experienced this sensation of emotional purgation. He felt Catharsis’ benefit and thereafter, Aristotle and many after him believed that, just as an ailing body must sometimes be cleansed of impurities, so the mind can be cleansed of emotions.

I myself am a strong believer in this idea, having experienced the soothing effect of vicarious emotion many times through some of my favorite books and operas. Being the possessor of an artistic temperament and very passionate emotions, I easily experience the pain of the characters, sometimes on a very deep level. And yet, rather than leave me depressed and unhappy, my mind feels refreshed.

But how does that work? Why would experiencing terrible feelings make a person feel good? It probably sounds like some sort of mystic mumbo-jumbo, but not so: There is science to this, believe it or not.

At some point in your life, you’ve probably experienced what’s known as “a good cry”. Where you’re miserable and you just break down for a while and let the tears flow freely. Perhaps you’ve heard people tell you “Crying never helped anyone.” Unfortunately for them, however, they are actually incorrect. Crying has been scientifically proven to help with mental anguish, as tears caused by emotion have been found to contain stress hormones, which the body is attempting to flush out with water.

If that is so, then it stands to reason that crying emotionally for the troubles of others is even more beneficial to us. We expel those stress hormones without even having the stress caused to us that it usually requires. Almost seems like cheating.

But science isn’t all, in my opinion. More philosophically, I believe that tears shed for others are always nobler than tears shed for oneself. I also believe that empathizing with the suffering of others helps us to find meaning in our own and it conditions our fragile emotions like a sort of mental exercise, making us more able to face hardship when it comes.

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The First Mourning, by William Adolphe-Bouguereau

But not all sad works are created equal. There is a bothersome tendency in this age to call absolutely anything “Tragic”. This is because the real meaning of “Tragedy” is a bit lost in our more cushy modern era. Of course, the word “tragic” has changed over time, and can be used to describe anything which makes us sad. But the proper definition of a Tragedy, comes again from our wise old friend Aristotle. According to the philosopher, a tragedy must be the story of a great and/or good person who, through their own Tragic Flaw or through an inexorable power, is destroyed. The destruction can be physical, especially in the form of death, or it can be spiritual, in the form of turning to evil. The meaning of Tragedy has expanded over time, but basically all of the great tragedies have one important theme in common: the annihilation or loss of something good and pure. This is the ultimate pain of mankind. Everything we consider the worst, such as the death of a child or the destruction of a culture, is related to this idea. The very thought of it can make people weep.

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Herbert von Karajan, conducting

Tragedy is not the only way to reach Catharsis, however. Not everyone reacts to a tragic story the same way. It can make some people sad in a destructive rather than constructive way. For many, it is better to reach the cleansing of the soul by witnessing the best side of humanity. Love, beauty, truth and goodness. This is the way that beautiful things such as Art or especially Music can make someone weep. There is nothing sad about them, but witnessing the composer or artist’s glimpse and attempt at perfection is enough to make us truly grateful to be alive.

Ironic, is it not, that often the emotions that feel the best are expressed through tears? And weeping can be done for countless, often opposing feelings. There are tears for death and for life, tears for hate or for love and gratitude. And not always physical tears are present; sometimes, they are from the heart and are therefore invisible to all. And yet they rain down nonetheless, letting the Catharsis wash and purge our whole being, leaving us refreshed and more human than before.

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