Saturday, June 4, 2011
Lost Goddesses of Early Greece: A Collection of Pre-Hellenic Myths
Book Review: Lost Goddesses of Early Greece: A Collection of Pre-Hellenic Myths by Charlene Spretnak (Beacon Press 1978)
Although this is an interesting book it was also perhaps disappointing in some ways. It does represent an honest effort to recreate the pre-Olympian Goddess-oriented traditions of Ancient Greece and indeed Old Neolithic Europe previous to that. There is very good evidence for such traditions although much of modern feministic sentiments seem to be painted onto them. Even so, there seems to be strong evidence that the Olympian pantheon headed by Zeus did reconfigure a much older and long-established tradition where goddess forms were much more prominent with central roles. One notion I generally disagreed with was the assumption that Neolithic peoples did not connect copulation with pregnancy and childbirth. It seems that the connection could have developed with rather straightforward intuitive logic and as we know by their abilities – ancient peoples could work effectively with cause and effect relationships. Another slight disappointment was that the lore and information was rather scant but perhaps that is all that is available. Quite a bit of the information was of a poetic, or personal gnosis nature which was fine in some ways but in others it seemed to overly emphasize the overthrow of the peaceful and nurturing nature of the pre-Hellenic forms with the violent and troubled emotional nature of the Hellenic forms.
The author praises some of the more open-minded of the classicists and archaeologists such as Robert Graves, Jane Ellen Harrison, Marija Gimbutas, Karl Kerenyi, and Martin Nilsson. Writers from the classical period such as Homer, Hesiod, Strabo, Herodotus, Pausanius, and others also preserved accounts of old goddess traditions. Another source is some oral lore – she mentions that of Artemis in Anatolia – that survived until the early Christian times.
Early Greek writers mention three waves of invasions into Greece – usually from the north. First were the Ionians, then the Acheans, and finally the Dorians (estimated between 2500 and1000 BC). Many of the Goddesses were thought to precede these invasions. She notes the Hellenic transformations of Hera – into the jealous and petty wife of Zeus, of Athena – into a cold masculine daughter, of Aphrodite – into a representation of frivolous sexuality, of Artemis – into an insignificant sister of Apollo, and of Pandora – into a dangerous source of trouble and woe. The author also criticizes some of the Jungian ideas of mythology but agrees with others. She notes a few examples of the melding and antagonism of old and new traditions – one being the rivalry between Athena and Poseidon where women side with Athena and men with Poseidon. Her main criticism of Jungian interpretations is that of the feminine which she says some Jungians interpret the feminine from the Olympian patriarchal perspective – particularly she disagrees with Hera portrayed as a protector of marriage by Murray Stein even though Stein does acknowledge the difference between the pre-Hellenic and Olympian versions of Hera. Regarding the ancient goddess tradition I quote the author, Charlene Spretnak:
“The prepatriarchal Goddess tradition is a rich source from which women and men may draw. Yahweh/God the Father is not the omnipotent deity of all humankind, but is merely a figure in one of the many mythological/religious systems from which people may select personally meaningful aspects. In a world where spiritual expressions are valued for nurturing integration, growth, and a sense of our embeddedness in nature – rather than for providing lockstep control over a populace – diversity and evolutionary process are honored. Such are the values of pre- and postpatriarchal spirituality.”
The goddesses she examines are Gaia, Pandora, Themis, Aphrodite, Artemis, Selene, Hecate, Hera, Athena, Demeter, and Persephone.
Gaia was regarded by Homer as the oldest of deities. She is of the early gods – the so-called Titans – who the Olympians displaced. The author suggests that even the Titans were earlier displacers in that Ouranos – her son/lover was added later to her mythology. Indeed it is likely that Ouranos corresponds to the Indo-European/Indo-Aryan Varuna. She mentions Gaia’s original function as an oracle goddess and the earliest of the deities at Delphi, Here there were practices of sleeping with one’s ear on the ground for dream incubation and dwelling where vapors rose from cracks in the earth. She was called as Earth, the primeval prophetess and was called first among the priestesses at Delphi. Offerings to Gaia could be honey and barley cakes deposited in cracks in the Earth, the womb of Gaia.
Pandora is given as the kore, or maiden form of the goddess. She is depicted on ancient vessels as arising from the Earth with outstretched arms. This is known as anodos, the arising of the goddess. Apparently, Pandora’s reputation was tarnished by the story about her told in the writings of Hesiod where she is made by Zeus and is called a temptress, rather than the inspirer in the earlier tradition that the author interprets. Pandora is the giver of the gifts of Earth and is often depicted offering fruits of the earth in a jar.
Themis is given as the Earth Mother presiding over tribe, society, and law. Justice is also her domain and she is also associated with oracular power. In Olympian times she convened the assemblies of the gods as well as feasts. The author makes the interesting note that the earliest human social unit, the family, is rather defined as those who shared arising from the same womb. Those who shared life along the same ground became tribe.
Aphrodite is recounted in her origins arising in anodos form from the sea foam near Cyprus, though it is likely her form as love goddess derives from Western Asia. She is akin to the flower goddess of Knossos in ancient Crete and of earlier goddesses of the ancient Near East such as Ishtar, Astarte, and Inanna. She is typically independent and without consort yet rules all romantic relationships. In the Olympian framework she is mate to Hephaestos and subdues Ares with her passions, although many classicists have apparently acknowledged these relationships as later add-ons. In the Near East among the Phoenicians she is mated to her lover Adonis and perhaps it is from there she came to Greece. The author attributes her with five graces as her servants: Flowering, Growth, Beauty, Joy, and Radiance.
The Triad of the Moon is given as Artemis, Selene, and Hecate. Artemis was apparently a very popular goddess – a patroness of the wild. She was called on to assist childbirth. As the great moon virgin she was venerated in Arcadia and also at Ephesus in Anatolia. The author mentions that two early forms of Artemis were Britomaris of eastern Crete and Diktynna of western Crete. In Arcadia Artemis was Lady of the Beasts and in Olympian times she was the hunter goddess. She is associated with the slender waxing crescent moon. Selene, or Mene, is a goddess of the full moon. She drives the moon across the sky in a chariot pulled by oxen, steers, or sometimes horses. There are little details of her worship. Hecate is goddess of the waning and the dark/new moon. She is associated with magick and ghosts. Food offerings known as Hecate’s suppers were offered at crossroads. Her torches were carried across freshly sown fields to promote fertility. Drooping willow trees were also her domain. In Olympian cosmology she is the daughter of Hera and Zeus.
Hera is another maid, mother, and crone goddess also connected to the three stages of the moon. She was venerated in Samos, Crete, and Argos. She presided over the ‘sacred marriage’ of the lunar cow and the solar bull, associated with fertility and renewal. What later became the Olympics were apparently girls’ races of the cult of Hera. According to Harrison, Hera was indigenous and Zeus came much later. Her first consort was Herakles (the glory of Hera) who later became her son. So Zeus represents the invader marrying the queen of the conquered indigenous tribe – thus their rocky marriage.
Athena – originally from Crete was protector of home and town and goddess of arts, wisdom, skills, and crafts of spinning, weaving, sculpting, pottery, and building. She was thought to be a deity of the Pelasgians – the native Grecians before the arrival of the Mycenaeans. Then she took on a martial form as defender of place. In the Olympian context she is a full goddess of war arising from the head of Zeus. The author associates a less militaristic protector goddess Athena with the earlier Cretan Minoan culture who lived not in fortified towns.
Demeter is the Grain Mother and her origins are also thought to be Cretan. Her daughter Persephone, or Kore, is the Grain Maiden. A very old series of feminine rites were dedicated to Demeter and Persephone. The Thesmophoria celebrated in autumn included the cathodos and anodos, (descent and ascent), fasting, and the fair-birth. The Mysteries at Eleusis involved the Demeter/Kore myths and were old even when Homer wrote about them in the 8th century BC. The author mentions that in the oldest of the myths the rape of Persephone by Hades does not occur, insinuating that it is an Olympian add-on. Apparently, the Greek writer Diodorus taught that Egyptian culture was brought to Greece through Crete and that the underworld mysteries of Demeter, Kore, and Hades is based on that of Isis and Osiris. Demeter Chthonia was venerated as goddess within the Earth and of the Underworld and the dead were referred to as “Demeter’s people.” The author thinks that Goddess Persephone was a very old maiden goddess that was assimilated by the first wave of invaders and that the story of her rape by Hades was added much later in Olympian times. She also suggests in story that Persephone enters willingly the Underworld in order to take care of the suffering ghosts and spirits for the dark time of the year. She is perhaps the very old Queen of the Dead.
Overall this book was good and does highlight several quite plausible examples of appropriation of earlier matrifocal and nature-oriented cults by later patrifocal and power-oriented cults. The author obviously favors a return the previous cults but my own preference would be for some shedding of the more violent and petty of Olympian traditions and perhaps adding more modern attributes to the Greek deities which are perhaps most well-known to us in Western culture as the archetypal beings most associated with us.