What is the difference between a mythology and a religion?


Polytheism is the ancient world hiding in broad daylight. You don’t need to be an archeologist to uncover this buried treasure. Perhaps archeologists dig holes in the ground looking for facts, artifacts, because they believe that the work of digging in the ground is somehow easier – or better paying – than the work of digging into their own way of seeing the world, which determines how truth is perceived. Polytheism is a way of seeing the world and a way of living in it. Of all the creations of the ancient world – and not only of the ancient western world – polytheism is maybe the most wondrous. The most beautiful, the most tragic, the most cruel, the most happy, the most immoral, the most innocent. Let’s look at polytheism, let’s look at how polytheism looks at the world, and let’s look at its variant: monotheism, also an invention of the world called ancient. You will see, dear students, that the Greek language, and also the Latin language, are hiding inside of English, and also inside of Spanish, in a way akin to how polytheism might be hiding in the world lived by you. It is a compound of two Greek words: πολύς (polís): many, and θεός (theós): god. Look at the Greek letter theta, θ: it looks like a mouth with the tongue flat in the middle making the th sound. Did someone look at life, at someone else speaking, when he first wrote this letter? Was the writer of this letter enchanted by the mouth he saw? Enchanted, encantado: from the Latin word incantare, which means to be spellbound by magic. What magic? What chant, what canto, what song? The one of the wind blowing through the trees like echoes of the ocean’s waves, the one that nature always sings and that maybe we tune out, distracted by reality? Like how we are so distracted by grades and points that we don’t have the time to think and feel – rushing to somewhere, we forget where we are. You’ve heard of Pink Floyd? Run, rabbit run Dig that hole, forget the sun. When at last the work is done, don’t sit down it’s time to dig another one. The maneuver of polytheism is to see the sun again, and the moon again, that we forgot were here. Because nature is full of wonderful gifts, and we are rich if we know how to receive them – yet if we don’t, and we are inwardly poor, then maybe we’ll look for compensations elsewhere. Is it so, dear rabbit? Polytheism resounds throughout the ancient world. Civilizations which never met each other were simultaneously and similarly polytheistic. How could it be? From the Egyptians, to the Persians, to the Greeks and Romans, to the Celts and the Vikings, to the Maya, the Incas, the Yoruba, the Hindus… How remarkable it is to imagine that the diversity of the world’s cultures holds this creation in common: polytheism, which in its essence means to see the world as a collection of diversities. I say that polytheism is a creation, and I add that for the sake of this class, focused as it is on Western civilization, I want to draw your attention primarily to Greek


polytheism, or Greek mythology, as an example that illuminates the whole of world polytheism. Because all of the world’s polytheisms are very much alike. What is the difference between a mythology and a religion? Is a mythology simply a religion that no one believes in anymore? Very good, let it be so. Without belief it is easier to think and imagine, and so we can look at polytheism as just a mythology, just a set of stories – like literature, an essential and essentially human creation. Who was it who said that humans are a tool-creating animal? Someone in the Enlightenment, perhaps? But stories are tools too. And we use story-tools to create: to make sense of life, and what we see and do. But behold – stories have already created us. We already live inside of a vision of reality – of a larger story with its concepts, categories and characters framing and defining what we experience. The terms of our perception have been created, but creation is never complete and so you have the space to create more if you choose, to create differently if you choose, and to destroy as gently as you choose. Let’s look now at polytheism’s method of creation: how did it create gods and goddesses, and what can we do with them? The Greek word for creation is ποίηµα (poíema) – like the word poem, or poema in Spanish. Poetry is the highest, ultimate form of creation, and its object – the thing it creates – is not simply a poem in the banal sense of rhyming lines, but a perception of reality, a living story, a pair of glasses through which we see the world and which we forget we are wearing. We perceive the world through the filters of a story’s meanings, and so that story creates the world for us as we know it. You might say that whoever created the story through which we see and experience the world essentially created us – and this is true, literally true. Literally – look at the word. Literally, literate, literature, letter, letra – it’s all the same word, it comes from the Greek λέξις (léxis): word. We use words to create meanings. What would we do if our meanings were lost? Would we become poets and create new ones? Because that is what the poet creates: meaning. Story or meaning, whichever you prefer, it’s the same thing. You are literally in this class now as you read, even if you are not physically so as there is no classroom to be in. Words are magic spells that make the world real. Beware and rejoice at this discovery: you become what you write, so write what you want and don’t be a ventriloquist of someone else’s words. The poet/creator, using words to make sense of the world, is – I will try to show you – a pivotal component of polytheism, but the essence of this concept is evident in our more familiar monotheism too. Look at this line from the Gospel of John: “First there was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” The meaning of the world, manifested in words, precedes the world itself – and that meaning is the work of the creator. The point is that meaning is the ultimate creation – and we can all be poets and creators if we choose, if we dare, if we realize that we already are. What poem of life did polytheism create? A poem is not a set of instructions or a formula, but a dream made real. But then again, so is a set of instructions, if you think about it – it is someone else’s dream that you are making real. Polytheism’s most obvious creation is a set of gods and goddesses. In Greek mythology there are twelve main ones, like there are twelve months of the year that return the same but different each time a number is added to our age. They are eternal not because they live forever in a universe apart, but because they are reincarnated time and again in life itself, wearing different masks but manifesting always the same spirits. Look around you, dear inhabitant of 2020, people are different, are they not? Different on the inside,


in their characters and personalities – you don’t need to be a psychologist to sense this. Are we really just apprentice robots, all trying to assume the same model of existence? Does that work? Is it even worth asking? People are varied in their behaviors and energies. Sometimes they are irreconcilable in their differences, sometimes they are attracted to each other magnetically as if by destiny. Humanity is variable, messy, conflictual, harmonious, irresolvable if posed as a problem, but perhaps enjoyable if posed as a cosmos (as a complete universe). It is from this awareness – that we can still sense today – of the many types of people there are, that polytheism’s vision of life is born. The gods and goddesses are representations of human types – or if you prefer archetypes, or essential types, that recur throughout human history – wearing the specific clothes of their day, but manifesting the same spirit underneath, speaking the specific language of their place, but saying the same thing on the subliminal level of meaning. The gods and goddesses are literary constructs – theoretical characters, that represent essential human characters. It has been said, provocatively, that monotheism, in its postulating of only one god also postulates, by extension, only one model of a human life: one morality valid for all, one system of definitions, one conceptual world that universalizes itself and wishes to include everyone. Whereas polytheism postulates a plurality of types of life, of systems of meaning, that do not line up together but tumble around in perpetual disorder – in frolic and in fight, like a telenovela that never ends. What are the human types that make up polytheism’s pantheon of deities? Perhaps you are already thinking of zodiac signs by now – and why not? That is one way into the question. What types of people, and what scenarios of life, inhabit the cosmos and reappear, in differential repetition, throughout eternity? This question implies that there are certain fundamental things that do not change (types, scenarios), while it also allows that there are other superficial things that do change: the appearance of eternal types and scenarios. The polytheistic world of eternal recurrence is without salvation (a cornerstone of monotheism) and without progress (a cornerstone of modernity’s transcription of monotheism’s essential concept). The polytheistic world is tragic because it can never be fixed and reconciled into a harmonious whole – like the spectrum of emotions that we all feel and that are eternal: love, fear, happiness, anger, wonderment… None of them can be cured, and none of them can exist forever except in the illusion of their own eternity. So what does it mean then, to live well, if living consists of these many sensations that always scatter about? I ask you a question that does not have a preordained answer – and hence is a real question. A question is different from a problem that requires only calculation to find a solution, to find the right solution (just one!). A question gives you the space to wander, to wonder, to create an answer – and to create yourselves in the process, dear poets. Parents: A Short Story If we follow the archeological evidence, we find that the oldest, first, deity that people ever created – in prehistoric times, long before any civilization – was of the mother. Or more lucidly, of the fertility goddess which identifies the mother with the earth – with nature, as in Mother Nature. But consider: archeology only confirms what every child already knows – the first human relation, determined by nature itself, is with the mother and the mother’s body. Is it surprising then, that when people began to create myths and figures to represent life and its meanings, their first creation was of their own creator: of their mother? Perhaps the oldest representation of a human figure in art is of a pregnant woman:


This small statue, only four inches tall, was found in Willendorf, Austria and dated to about 25,000 BC. It is called The Venus of Willendorf. It was made by cave people, hunter-gatherers, millennia before the advent of the world’s first civilizations in Mesopotamia and Egypt. It was made by a people without a written language, and yet it speaks – as all art does – in the language of shapes and of the human form. What does it say? It says, “I am pregnant. I am well fed and able to well feed. And I am round.” Round: think of the emotive meaning of the shape of roundness. Soft, without jagged edges, approachable, touchable – nurturing, maternal. Our first human type: the mother, which exists not only and not always in actual mothers but in each of us, as all human types do – in which of us does this type prevail and what outward form does it take? – Another question that doesn’t fit into the anorexic space of the multiple-choice quiz. But the poetic eye that created deities did not only look at people and their variations. It also looked at nature and found correspondences and affinities between what occurred there and what occurred in the human world. What phenomenon in nature is like the mother giving birth to new life? What phenomenon in nature is a metaphor of this human occurrence? – But the earth also gives birth to new life when flowers bloom and fruits and vegetables grow ripe. In the spring and in the summer, it is as though the earth is bearing children like it were a grand mother. And the earth happens to be round, exactly like the emotive symbol of the mother – a poetic intuition


duly confirmed by science. And so, in polytheism, the mother goddess always finds her symbol in nature in the generative earth. She is called a fertility goddess because fertility is the shared quality seen in people (motherhood) and in nature (the generation of new life). Fertility – the ability to create life. May our minds and imaginations be fertile too, however our bodies choose to live. The fertility goddess, created in prehistoric times when people, as “hunter gatherers” were directly and defenselessly dependent of the earth as a baby is to his mother, survived into the pantheon of the first civilizations’ deities. Every polytheism of the world’s ancient civilizations contains a fertility goddess that identifies motherhood with the earth. Here are some examples:

Look at the Roman fertility goddess, Ceres. What is she holding? Cereals. The offspring of the earth, a gift from the giver of life. And look at the name of the Norse goddess: Freyja. It is from this name, which comes from the Anglo-Saxon language, that we get the English word free. Freedom is different than liberty. Liberty, which comes from the Latin libertas, indicates a legal status, whereas freedom indicates a spiritual status. For the Anglo-Saxons to be free meant to be happy and expansive: to be creative and fecund, or fertile. When we create we are free. And back when the days of the week mattered more, was it not on Fridays that we felt a surge of freedom? Because Friday is named after Freyja. Just as Thursday is named after Thor, and Wednesday is named after Woden.


In Greek mythology the fertility goddess is Demeter. Ancient Greece has left us a plethora of written stories in which the gods and goddesses relate to each other in scenarios that are as timeless as the individual deities themselves. What relates to each other in these stories are not simply characters (the gods and goddesses) but the life qualities that each of them represent. A story that well illustrates this point is that of Demeter, her teenage daughter Persephone, and her antithesis Hades, the god of death. Perhaps you’ve heard it before. It’s oldest written version dates to around 700 BC and is attributed to Homer. But beware: there is no Bible or definitive book of Greek mythology. Its authorship belongs to the Greek people, because as in the case of all ancient polytheisms, their myths developed as folk stories transmitted orally across generations. Some of them were written down, but their written versions never became rigid – they never became the only way of telling the story. Ancient myths are like a piece of music that can be played differently – at different tempos and with lyrics free to be changed – according to the circumstances in which they are being told. Myths are elastic, and hence they never break. Their basic structure is adaptable to all times, or such at least is this myth-lover’s impression of them. Here I will try to retell the story of Demeter, Persephone and Hades in a brief way that puts in the fore the concept of a scenario or relation between life’s components – and in a way that makes clear polytheism’s tragic, irresolvable, yet happy vision of life. Puberty, that mysterious age, is where the story begins. No, just before puberty is where the story begins, because puberty is the story itself. So childhood’s last days is where the story really begins, and to represent this state of life we see Persephone in a field collecting flowers, as though she were still in her mother’s bosom, because that field is her mother’s bosom, since her mother is the earth. And then, an eruption from a cold distant place – from the land of the dead, the domain of Hades, deep underground. Hades, who happens to be Demeter’s brother and therefore also Persephone’s uncle (just ignore all the incest), sees Persephone innocently frolicking in the field and is drawn. Tremendous, cruel, yes, but not a sin in the sense of the disobeying of an injunction, because polytheism is without injunction or sin, and in this it is even more tremendous – for however you choose to interpret this word. Death (Hades) sees the fruit of life (Persephone) with longing eyes, but she does not see him. She is innocent. This painting, from the Roman city of Pompeii in the first century AD, shows us how Hades saw Persephone:


She is seen from behind, picking flowers, unaware of death’s enjoyment of her – we, the viewers, occupy the point of view of death. Hades, then, rides up on his chariot and abducts her, bringing her to the underworld to be his bride. Demeter (life, fertility) searches everywhere for her missing daughter until finally her location is revealed. How can Demeter bring Persephone back from the land of death? She asks Zeus, the god of authority, to intervene and bring justice. Zeus is also her brother, but never mind. What does Zeus say? Persephone may be returned to her mother forever, and Hades’ claim on her can be eternally forgotten – on the condition that Persephone did not eat anything while in the underworld. Food! An important symbol in mythology. Food is nourishment, but even long before the fast-food industry turned food into a cartoon, food was enjoyment and functions as such symbolically in the stories of mythology. Food’s equation to enjoyment remains in our language: look at the word companion, or compañero in Spanish – it is a compound of two Latin words: cum (with) and panem (bread). We are true companions, true friends, when we can enjoy the same things – the same “bread” – together. Friends don’t just survive together (food as nourishment), they enjoy themselves together (food as pleasure). So Persephone, what did she eat, what did she enjoy with Hades that, according to Zeus’s arbitration, would keep her from returning permanently to her mother? She ate four pomegranate seeds – a symbol, of course, since no one can survive for months on just that (and she was with Hades for months). The color of pomegranates – a symbol taken from nature and made akin to the color of blood. I leave the rest to your understanding. And the


number four, what is that? According to Zeus’s judgement, which might seem to us very much like a joint-custody decision, Persephone is to return to Hades for four months of the year in remembrance of the four pomegranate seeds. All of these characters are in our minds: what is it that makes us return to the pleasures that wait for us under the sign of death? When can we no longer bear these pleasures and become innocent again? Which life is not broken? It’s fun to put Humpty Dumpty back together again, but the season is called fall for a reason, because it always returns. And so, for eight months of the year Persephone is with her mother (life), and for the other four she is with her husband (death). What does the earth goddess Demeter do when she is reunited with her daughter? What does anyone do when they are reunited with the persons they love? She is exuberant – and this is a beautiful word that deserves to be known. From the Latin ex, meaning out, and uber meaning the udder of a cow. Exuberant means to come out of the udder. What comes out of the cow’s udder? Milk – another symbol of life. It must come out, it must overflow, it must be given away for the sake of the cow’s own wellbeing and not just the calf’s – for if a cow is not milked then it is in pain. Exuberance: an excess of life, of joy, of energy, of “milk” that must be given away to the world – maybe to remind us that we are really a part of it and accumulation is not an ultimate value. To be exuberant means to be so full of joy that the joy flows out of us – like a contact high. Does the earth (Demeter) not behave like an exuberant person when she gives away all her fruit and flowers in the eight months of the year when things are growing (at least in places where there are actual seasons, like Greece?) Fertility realizes its own possibility in exuberance – and exuberance is always the souvenir of love. But for the four months of the year that the loved one is gone, what is the earth doing them? Do you know how it feels to be lonely? Sometimes when we’re separated from the people we love we grow cold and brittle, we’re down and far from exuberant, we don’t want to do anything. We are in our emotional winter, where nothing grows. The myth ends here. Or does it repeat forever, like the seasons it paints for us in metaphor? Observe the relations in this myth’s scenario: the power of one goddess (Demeter: fertility) is limited by the power of another god (Hades: death), and vice versa. No one deity (no one part of life) reigns supreme. Nothing is resolved into perfection, a spectrum of opposites instead remains in dynamic tension. What do you make of the way that happiness – or rather, exuberance – is presented in this myth? If exuberance is transient like a season, then how should that fertile season be lived? How is it achieved? How do you spend your winters? The prehistoric Venus of Willendorf – the ancient Demeter – and then what? What happened to the deities of polytheism with advent of monotheism? Were they simply abolished, or did they merely change clothes? Here we can see a painting from the Italian renaissance, from the 1500s, by Raphael:


This painting is called The Small Cowper Madonna. Cowper was the name of the Englishman who once owned the painting, and so is irrelevant to its content. Madonna is the Italian name for Mary, the mother of Christ. Is this not also a symbol of fertility? Do you see the faint halos around the heads of Mary and Christ? Why are they so faint? Why are they not intended to be seen immediately, but require you to look closer? The halo – a symbol of divinity – is intentionally faint. Why? Because what you are essentially looking at is a representation of an average mother and child in central Italy from the 1500s – you are looking at a representation of everyday people. But the point is that divinity hides in the everyday, you must attune your eyes to see it. The archetypes of mythology – of polytheism and also of monotheism – are there to be seen, or to be discovered in everyday life, among real people. These figures create a poetry of existence, and allow the world to be experienced as a recurrence of eternal forms. In our world perhaps you will see fertility goddesses at the grocery store, or in some corner of the cement and plastic city. To be able to see eternity in the everyday is a beautiful thing. If we don’t do this enough it is because it doesn’t pay well, it is not a job skill, and we are taught to devalue everything that is not immediately attached to the notion of “success” and its insistence on monopolizing the whole of reality. But this is a very old discussion. As Oscar Wilde said quite rightly in his ironic way, in modern times “All art is quite useless.”


Look back at the The Small Cowper Madonna. Look at the background. In paintings such as these, the background is an indication of the interiority of the central figures. Backgrounds in paintings are never arbitrary, and never just filler. They are always symbolic. Background symbols indicate the inner worlds of the central figures through metaphor. Behind Mary, to the left, we see nature – Mother Nature, la tierra, the eternal symbols of fertility. Follow the line of the horizon, it moves directly across the heart, the child’s embrace, and on the other side, behind the child, the male, we see society, a separate entity from nature (because society is manmade) but not completely detached. Behind the child, on the right, we see institutions: a church (with a duomo) and a tower (representing the state). Society, personified by the male child, should maintain an attachment to nature, personified by the mother, in order to be in harmony with itself. It is with the advent of the first civilizations that we see the creation of a new god that represents civilization’s novel and essential element: the authority of law. Prehistoric peoples gave us the fertility goddess, and she floats with us through time. But prehistoric people lived without strong legal structures, without settled agriculture, without demarcated social classes, without slaves, without writing… roaming the earth, wearing something akin to Uggs. But as you know, in around 3000 BC, the first settled civilizations begin to appear in the Near East. You have heard, that settled agriculture is what made the first civilizations possible, and what made the hunter- gatherers stop roaming. But yet there is a great irony here, because agriculture, which is located in a countryside, makes possible its opposite: the city, which etymologically is the root of the word civilization. Etymology means the study of the origin of words, which we have been doing here in this lesson with various Greek and Latin words. Etymology itself is compound of two Greek words: ἔτυµον (étumon): true, and λόγος (logos): logic. Hence etymology specifically means the logic of the truth, which is contained within the history of words. Civilization is a Latin word, and it’s root is civitas, which means city. A city is a place where no farming occurs, yet a city can exist only if farming occurs somewhere else – in a countryside. The advent of farming (of agriculture) allowed some people to live away from the land, in a more manmade environment where they could devote themselves to other things besides survival – in the city. And so, civilization denotes divisions between people (city and country), classes, property, and ultimately a system of law and authority to watch over this more elaborate form of social life. It is then in human history, and only then, in human history when a male, authoritarian god makes his appearance in human history – bearing all the likeness of an actual ruler of a city, or more intimately, bearing the resemblance of an ideal, stern but just father. Just as their remains a deep symbolic connection, evidenced in language between the maternal figure and the earth, there remains an equivocal connection between the paternal figure and social authority. Colloquial English speech indicates Mother Nature and A Man’s World – these terms are clichéd and sexist from a contemporary point of view, but they are longstanding historical myths that are worth examining from a distance. Fathers, in ancient times and in the particular civilizations we are looking at, were small law-givers in their family setting, presiding over woman and children as an authority, as an initiator into social conduct. How then could people imagine the larger authorities that governed their lives – kings and rulers who were rarely seen in person, but yet who’s laws (when the law itself was a new invention) had to be obeyed? This figure in human history is represented mythologically as a patron god. The male, paternal counterpart to the fertility goddess. A patron god appears in all of the world’s polytheisms, and in fact it is the basis of the monotheistic god in very clear form. Let’s look at this very interesting word patron


to understand what this figure means. In contemporary English the word patron is used very little, and when it is used we might think of someone making donations to a library. Very good. But in Spanish the word patrón appears with greater frequency and means something quite different: boss. But look at the word patrón: it comes from the Latin pater, which means father. With the suffix of –ón the noun is made bigger. Padre, pardone (in Italian), patrón: this word for boss literally means big father. Because bosses, rulers and law-givers – according to an implicit social contract – govern others supposedly for the sake of the others’ wellbeing, like an imaginary, ideal father. We all know that real bosses, rulers and lawgivers are rarely like this. But mythology retains the idea. Patron gods are the representation of social authority, of “fathers” of their people. Where do we see the oldest one? We see him in 1700 BC, 23,000 years after The Venus of Willendorf, in the Mesopotamian city of Babylon:

This seven-foot tall object is The Law Code of Hammurabi. It is the oldest written law code in history – yes, there is writing on it, look closely at the whiter fuzzy part extending from the bottom of the relief to about a third from the bottom: that is engraved writing. Around 300 laws are inscribed on this totem, which was placed in public, in the center of the city of Babylon, so that it could be referred to by citizens (citi-zens, inhabitants of the city). The laws are


depressing: for the same crime there are different punishments prescribed for free people and slaves, and for men and women. “Thou shall not steal” – thanks, Hammurabi. Also indicated in the long list of laws is the set price for which a cow can be sold, and the price of a bundle of grain… The laws themselves are of little interest (to me), but what is interesting is their preamble, which is illustrate in the relief at the top. The preamble to the laws says that Marduk, the patron god of Babylon, dictated the laws to king Hammurabi – who is essentially his prophet and messenger. Hammurabi was instructed to bring Marduk’s laws to his people – the Babylonians – and enforce them with the fear of divine punishment – for the patron god Marduk would always be watching you, like a hawk, even when the merely mortal Hammurabi and his associates were not. Patron god > prophet > people. This is the essential formula of the three monotheistic religions that grow out of the Near East. Each of them with a special book containing a set of laws, or directives of conduct. Yet all of this already existed within polytheism, where the patron god was only one among many, and therefore who’s power was limited by other deities, as opposed to unlimited. In the relief that the top of the totem you can see two figures who look essentially like mirror images of each other, because they are. Their only distinguishing feature is the size of their hats. Seated is the patron god Marduk, dictating the law. Standing is king Hammurabi, in a listening pose. Note that it is only much later in history – in particular with the advent of democracy in Athens in around the year 600 BC – that the basis of law was shifted from a divine source to a human source. And yet, we, ultramodern people, still like to fetishize rules and procedures as though they were an unquestionable, inhuman – perhaps technological destiny. Might our servility to law be in part the product of our education? Simon Says is not a democratic game – if only it were just a game. But as we considered the emotive shape of the first representation of a fertility goddess, The Venus of Willendorf, let us also consider the emotive shape of this first representation of a patron god and his chain of command. What shape defines The Law Code of Hammurabi? What part of the body does it resemble? Lift your left hand and point your index finger, place it next to the image of the totem. Do you see? It is a giant index finger making the pointed gesture that signifies command, attention, exclamation (!). The finger, the arrow, the lightning bolt… we can go on, but you get the idea. This shape is very much identified with the male and male power, just as the round – as we saw with The Venus of Willendorf – is identified with the female in mythological terms – terms which reappear constantly in art. I said that patron gods appear in all of the world’s polytheisms, and here are some examples:


Notice that each of these patron gods bears a symbol that is long and pointed in shape like the form of The Law Code of Hammurabi. Amun, the Egyptian patron god has an erection and an even longer hat. Marduk, who we see again, has a long beard. Zeus, the Greek patron go,d is missing his thunderbolt, which he is throwing at some transgressor. Jupiter, on the other hand, holds his thunderbolt proudly and authoritatively, isn’t he scary? Our Viking friend Woden looks like a can-opener. And Huitzilopochtli holds a snake, and the snake sticks out its tongue. Isn’t it a wonder? The Romans and the Aztecs, for example, never met each other, yet their imaginations produced the same archetypes, the same symbols and gods – not exactly the same, of course, but belonging to the same essence. I mentioned before that each polytheistic god is identified metaphorically with an element of nature – fertility goddesses being identified with the generative earth. What about patron gods? In Greek mythology – and Roman mythology which is its extension – the patron god is identified with the symbols of the sky. The sky, above the generative earth. The watchful sky that can always see you – the way that authority, once internalized, is always watching and judging what you do – just like an online class, ha ha ha. Really though, sometimes this online “experience” can become like a form of police surveillance, where everything you “do” online is monitored, checked and double-checked, and made obsessive. Why do we do this to ourselves? What is the point of making everyone paranoid and stressed? It boggles my mind. Anyway, back to the patron gods: their symbol in Greek and Roman mythology is the sky, and the particular elements


in the sky that can inspire fear, since authority, in its primitive form, operates primarily through fear. The thunderbolt, oh no! And then there is the bird of prey: the eagle. The eagle is the bird that flies the highest and sees all – like the way authority is always watching you from within your own conscience and sees and judges all that you do. To be observed is to be in a weaker position than the person who observes you – remember Persephone and Hades, remember how teachers are suppose to “observe” all of your online activities for their class? Because what would happen if you were not under constant surveillance? Might you actually think a thought of your own at your own pace and in your own way? Or might you think nothing if you choose not to? What a scandal. The eagle is one of Zeus’s main symbols, along with the thunderbolt. And behold, the eagle also appears on the presidential seal of our country, holding the symbols of war (arrows) and peace (olive branches). In monotheism, and in Christianity in particular, how is the patron god, now called just God, represented? Let’s look again at an artwork from the Italian Renaissance, from the early 1500s – Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam, which is painted on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican in Rome:

What is at the center of the painting? It is the index finger again! But how is it different this time from the one “in” The Law Code of Hammurabi? Do you see that it is gentler, not as threatening, raised to touch and connect with Adam (who represents humanity) who laying naked does not look at all afraid of God. Yes, that is God on the right, floating in a round shape that vaguely resembles a human brain. And underneath his left arm is Eve, looking cool. So the symbol of authority – the finger – endures, but it is refined, civilized, made on the level with the people over whom it holds power: Adam’s and God’s fingers are on par and about to touch. And so, fertility goddesses and patron gods. Where will you see them next? The earth and the sky, where might you see them differently through the poetic lenses of mythology?


A Precocious Son In Greek mythology there are twelve main deities – these include Zeus and his siblings Demeter (who we’ve met), Hera (who is also Zeus’s wife, and the goddess of marriage), Hestia (the goddess of the home), Poseidon (the moody god of the sea – like a Pisces!), and, occupying the thirteenth position, is Hades (yes, him). But then there are the children of Zeus (but not always of Hera) who compose the rest of the group: Athena (the goddess of practical common sense – bo-ring!), Apollo (the god of the intellect), Apollo’s opposite Dionysus (the god of ecstasy), Artemis (the goddess of dexterity and agility), Hephaestus (the god of work), Ares (the god of war), and Hermes (the god of communication). They are all extremely fascinating, but for the sake of limited time I want to look here, in this section, only at Hermes. And then, in the following section, we’ll look at the goddess who has no past: Aphrodite, the goddess of beauty. Hermes, you have heard, is the god of messages. But I write communication instead, because communication implies two lines of meaning – which conceptually is often lost, thought really always present in the very form of a message. What I mean is that the meaning of a message is completed by the person who receives and understands it, and is not exclusively created by its sender. Hence a message, from its source to its destination (or its destiny) is always already subject to an interpretation that stabilizes its meaning. Messages communicate, they are inherently a conversation, though sometimes in the conversation a person is only allowed to say “yes” to what the other one says. But you will note that in such conversations, which are actually exercises in domination, the meaning of the intended message evaporates in the mechanical recital of yeses. But Hermes. In mythology he delivers messages – typically messages from his father Zeus to other deities and to mortals. Note that the Greek word for messenger is ἄγγελος (ángelos): the basis of the word angel. Because in Christianity as well, the patron god has his messengers. But yet when we think of angels and the angelic in the Christian imaginary we tend to think of something pure and simple, almost childlike in innocence… This image is very far removed from the character of Hermes, the “original” angel – just as the simplicity of a “Right Lane Must Exist” sign or a Birthday card is very far removed from the complexity of a riddle. In polytheism the genders of the deities are important, as we have seen, but so are their ages. Zeus and his siblings are all, eternally, around 50 years old – experienced adults who speak and act from the perspective of lives fully lived. But Hermes is your age. He is the embodiment of a young man. Now, this raises a very interesting question regarding the symbolic relationship between the young man and communication (or messages). What do young men and messages have in common? It’s very simple. They are both extremely confusing, and confused. Their confusion derives from the fact that they are both incomplete: the young man still has to grow up, and the message still has to be interpreted, which is not the same thing as simply being obeyed. But young men are not defined only by their confusion and incompleteness, they are also full of energy and vitality, they like to play games and have fun, they like to laugh and live life to the fullest – they have a lust for life it was once said. I am speaking here of the eternal human type of the young man, as we see him in mythology in the figure of Hermes. I am aware that today video games and pharmaceutical drugs are creating new “calmer” young men who (surprise!) are better prepared to succeed in online classes – and that many of you are actually lovin’ it. But this is just a matter of interpretation. Hermes is the young man who misbehaves, who plays with rules, who likes to play tricks, who drives other people crazy… and who in the end still doesn’t


know what he wants. He is not immature, but he is not mature either. He is simply young, so let him be young, at least for a while, maybe forever. This portrait of a stage in life (the young man) is I think immediately accessible to everyone’s understanding – just as the figures of the mother and the father are. Polytheism takes these relatable figures and turns them into metaphors of something else, something larger: fertility (the earth), authority (the law), and here, with regards to Hermes, communication, which we are engaged in now. The type of “message” that you might try to understand all communication through is not that of a direction (do or don’t do this or that), but of a riddle whose meaning is not complete, is not given, is not easy and simple – but is confusing and depends on you, the receiver, to put it into a system of ordered meaning. What this implies is that you are always interpreting, or finishing a received statement in the silent voice of your thoughts. Interpretation is a creative act, not a passive act – even when it seems reduced to nothing but the word “yes” and a rote following of instructions. Because even that yes and that following of instructions is ultimately a choice, and the making of a choice is a form of creation – a creation of the self. It is impossible to not note here that our education system trains you to be passive interpreters of messages-as-orders – and this is so that you will be more obedient workers in the future, and your obedience is called success. Obedience is necessary in life too, but that is not all there can be. Many students ask to be told directly what to do constantly in a way that is frightening – because it means that they are afraid, or unable, to create anything meaningful of their own, least they not receive the approval of some patron god walking around in a polo shirt. Kid, get over it. Submission to minute instructions is not a form of education for a free person. You have been terrorized, and infantilized into wanting to submit, and you imagine that the greatest achievement in life is making others submit. What nightmare is this? Let it go. I am trying to show you something else here in the way this is all written, and in the way you might read it – the way you are free to interpret and evaluate and organize this lesson, this communication, this message. And the way you are free to write back – in your two- page responses – with the same spirit of openness. If we can’t have fun while we think and learn and decipher riddles, then it’s not worth it. So, Hermes – we could genuinely call him the god of interpretation, to make a stronger distinction from the notion of obeying (a message). Very interestingly, the Greek name Hermes is the basis of the English word hermit. What do they have in common? A hermit is someone who hides from the world – like Boo Radley, like us in our current collective Boo Radley phase of history. But a message’s meaning also hides – and so waits to be discovered. Where does it hide? Does it hide only in its interpretation, or does it also hide in relation to its context? Is the meaning of a message located solely within the message itself, or is it also based in the context in which it is said, and based in relation to the person who is saying it? With regards to context, we can say that a message’s complete meaning hides outside of itself, rather than inside of its own house as a proper hermit would. But this reversal of locations is just intended to charm. The point is that the meaning is never fully there in the message itself – you must find Waldo, you must find the rest of the meaning, where do you choose to discover it? Ultimately you discover it where you live, in your own spiritual home, where all of your meanings generate. To play with words – remember, Hermes is young and likes to play – is an induction into using words powerfully. What does it mean to use words powerfully? To make people hear you and obey? Hello, Hammurabi. Or to make people dream and discover? Hello, Hermes. It is not simply that communication is always political, it is that politics is always communicative – how we communicate establishes relations, and in what kind of relations do we want to live, in which


kind of relations are we free to be ourselves? Maybe freedom of speech is essentially a way of writing, and not only a right to writing – for if we all write the same thing and in the same way, then our freedom is just the brand name of a mass produced commodity. Here is another painting from the Italian Renaissance depicting the ancient god Hermes:

The painting is called The Education of Cupid, it’s by the artist Correggio, made in the early 1500s. That’s Hermes on the right, beardless to represent his youth, wearing the hat with wings and the sandals with wings too to denote his flightiness, or how messages travel around circuits of meaning. To the left the woman with dark wings is the goddess of beauty, Aphrodite. The kid in the middle is Cupid – Aphrodite’s constant companion in art, he represents love – but love in the sense of desire, not in the sense of love your neighbor. What is Cupid doing? He is reading a letter. He is interpreting meaning. Hermes (the representative of the art of communication) and Aphrodite (the representative of the connoisseur of beauty) teach Cupid (love) how to make sense – not just of a written letter, but of life as whole, which is really nothing other than a very large text. Love (Cupid) must learn how to make sense of the world and understand beauty. Love (desire) must be educated in order for its arrows to find their target. Love must learn how to interpret and listen, and also to speak in a way that draws another’s love to itself. I said before that politics is always communicative, but so is love. Love


is a conversation. Society is a conversation. How do conversations become real, become free – when do they become prisons, when do they go on autopilot and don’t even realize that we’re gone? When you communicate what do you allow the other person to say? What space do you leave them to think? Must you define everything to them so that they can only respond with a yes? Do you exchange monologues that are complete within themselves, but never really create anything literally together with another person? Do you know how to enjoy getting lost in words – your own words, another person’s words, a book’s words? Remember that stupidity hates intelligence, and tries to banish it from its universe. Stupidity is a tyrant. And tyrants rule by fear. Fear always of them. You are corralled into the them by most of the institutions in your life. What rewards do you imagine are waiting for you there? I write these things to you because I have been teaching students for fifteen years, and I know that the most precious thing you can take from this class – even if it just online – is your own voice. There is an immense amount of pressure on you to not have one, and to ultimately not even want one. Communication is just giving and receiving orders, you might think (like a good worker), or expressing likes and dislikes (like a good customer). But it is not, it is more. Communication is a space to create yourself as you want. Mediums, like the computer, do not expand communication automatically by themselves – this is an illusion of advertising. Your ability to explore inner space, and also the outer space of the world around you is what genuinely expands communication – expands it in the sense of allowing you to say more, and listen more. Vocabulary is of course also important, and while it is wonderful to learn new words it is also wonderful to look at words you already know in a new way – that is the pleasure of etymology, I hope you’ll see it. But let’s move on now from the language of words to the language of seeing. Here we will look at how we look at beauty. How Could It Be? When I was a kid I remember seeing a commercial on television for a makeup company, a woman appeared on the screen and said only one thing: “Don’t hate me because I’m beautiful.” But now that I think about it, in the foolishness that I imagine to be my wisdom, I propose that the woman should have said: “Of course you will hate me because I’m beautiful. And that is because you are ugly and can’t do otherwise, because to hate is to be ugly.” Beauty is loved for being beautiful, but also hated for the same reason. Does this not go to show that beauty is also a form of communication, a form of perception and interpretation wherein the meaning of beauty is ultimately determined by its receiver? It is often said that beauty is in the eye of the beholder so as to distinguish beauty’s place from the object being beholden to way the object is beheld. But imagine that beauty only begins in the eye of the beholder, yet eventually reaches the face and the aura of the beholder. Imagine that you become beautiful by seeing beauty – yes, even physically so, because the state of your soul is expressed in your body. This may sound magical, but what is beauty without magic? In Greek mythology Aphrodite, the goddess of beauty, is related very much to the phenomenon of appearances. In the story of her birth she simply appears, fully formed as a grown woman, out of the sea one day on the shores of the island of Cyprus. She is an apparition, so an enigma – another riddle, another message – waiting to be deciphered and read. Here is Botticelli’s


famous painting, The Birth of Venus (Venus is the Latin name of Aphrodite) – again from the Italian Renaissance, from the late 1400s:

To appear out of the blue, such is the way that beauty enters our world. Is the beauty of appearances flat because it lacks the depth of a background, of a past? Is its superficiality the outward sign of an inner emptiness? How firmly rooted in our collective consciousness is the distinction between inner and outer worlds, between inner and outer beauty, and the conviction that appearances inherently lie. But could it be that to not trust appearances means simply to not know how to enjoy them, and furthermore, to not trust one’s own instincts which live beyond reason in the realm of sentiment? Here we are probing “the depths” of the person who accuses beauty of being depthless, of being merely superficial, and are finding quite ugly things. Is it appearances that lie, or is it our mind that lies to us about them – in our probing for appearances’ reasons, for their concealed truths, do we but only conceal better our own? Note that the word mind, said mente in Spanish, is related to the word mentir, which means to lie. This Latin etymology of mind perhaps allows us to laugh at ourselves a bit, at our inquisitive and acquisitive desire to know, and not feel. Because in distinction to the mind, which reasons and thinks and understands, there is the heart which senses and feels and intuits – which acts on the level of appearances that are already perceived to have said everything that is needed, without giving cause to look any further, to “understand” anything more. Could it be that who distrusts appearances ultimately distrusts himself? Beauty is manifested as an appearance in Greek mythology, but to enjoy that appearance requires great interiority on the part of the observer. To appreciate the superficial we must be profound, and allow it to touch us deeply – through the senses (the heart) and not through the logical filters


of the mind’s analyses. I give to you here an aphorism by the 19th century German philosopher/poet Friedrich Nietzsche, from his book The Joyous Science, certainly I have repeated what he wrote:

Oh, those Greeks! They knew how to live: for that purpose it is necessary to keep bravely to the surface, the fold and the skin; to worship appearance, to believe in forms, tones, and words, in the whole Olympus of appearance! Those Greeks were superficial – from profundity!

But how do you look like when you admire beauty? This is the real question. The question that transforms what you see, what you feel, and what you dream into what you are. Beauty, you will note, is a feeling before it is an object – objects in the outer world may lead us to that feeling, but only if we are able to allow ourselves to go there. What is the feeling of beauty, and what brings us there? When we are lost in our senses we are an apparition without a past, without an identity, living in an eternal present. Present, the word has two meanings in English, and they only become one and the same when beauty makes time stand still. Dimitri Papandreu September 9, 2020

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