Tag Archives: hesiod

Thor & Plato: Mythology and Philosophy

I recently finished reading Thor Visionaries: Walter Simonson, Vol. 1. Amongst the excellent tales gathered together in this volume, we are introduced to Malekith the Dark Elf. Most of us undoubtedly know Malekith best as performed by Christopher Eccleston in the film, Thor: The Dark World. Simonson’s Malekith is an excellent supervillain who blends together a bit of Norse, a bit of ‘Celtic’ fairy lore, and a bit of implication from the very name ‘dark elf’ (svart alf). In his return from exile in Simonson’s comic, Malekith — a capricious Dark Elf of Faerie — is seeking the Casket of Ancient Winters to unleash a new Ice Age and free the fiery being Surtur (adapted from the name Surtr) from Muspell to destroy the universe.

The film’s Malekith is an elemental being who has existed before the world, whose own element is darkness. Darkness, in Thor: The Dark World, pre-exists the universe. The goal of the Dark Elves is the unleashing of a substance called Aether that will turn the Nine Realms (the known universe in Thor cosmology) back into the darkness whence they came.

I was thinking about this, about Malekith, and the origins of the universe in mythology and philosophy. In the mythology of the Thor films, we see a universe born out of darkness. Or rather, in opposition to darkness. Darkness itself is pre-existent; it has its own substance, in fact. My first thought was that our modern conception of the universe tends towards seeing ‘nothing’ as darkness. But what we actually live in a universe replete with light? This is the implication of the medieval mind as described by C. S. Lewis in The Discarded Image. Looking up at the rolling spheres of night, rather than seeing the black between, the medieval mind saw a universe filled with light.

What if before everything else, there was light?

Darkness, in such a world, has no substance of its own.

Either way — whether darkness is pre-existent or light — it is still something with substance, still a thing. Substance is, as a result, co-eternal with the universe and, one imagines, its Artificer.

The pre-existence of the matter, the stuff, the substance of the universe as raw material to be worked upon by the Maker is not restricted to the cinematic imagination. In the issues of The Mighty Thor that follow the tale of Malekith, wherein Surtur tries to destroy the universe and bring about Ragnarok, Simonson has Odin tell the tale of his encounter with Surtur at the origins of the universe, with references to the story as we know it best from the Prose Edda and Poetic Edda, such as using Ymir’s skull to form the heavens.

In the Poetic Edda, the universe is born out of a void, as in the Voluspá:

3. Of old was the age | when Ymir lived;
Sea nor cool waves | nor sand there were;
Earth had not been, | nor heaven above,
But a yawning gap, | and grass nowhere.

In the Prose Edda, we learn of Surtr — the inspiration for Simonson’s comics:

Yet first was the world in the southern region, which was named Múspell; it is light and hot; that region is glowing and burning, and impassable to such as are outlanders and have not their holdings there. He who sits there at the land’s-end, to defend the land, is called Surtr; he brandishes a flaming sword, and at the end of the world he shall go forth and harry, and overcome all the gods, and burn all the world with fire

As the Prose Edda makes its way to the creation of the universe as we know it, we encounter a chasm of ice, Ginnungagap, from which Ymir is born. What we do not meet in Norse mythology, whether in Snorri’s Prose Edda or the anonymous Voluspá of the Poetic Edda, is creatio ex nihilo — just as in Thor: The Dark World, something was there. Substance already was.

Greek cosmology is similar. Chaos is where Hesiod’s universe originates — self-generating deities emerge from it on their own. From these, as well as Earth, Tartarus, and Eros, all other deities of his Theogony are born. Chaos is, according the Greek-English Lexicon of Liddel and Scott, infinite space, a chasm, the nether abyss, infinite darkness, the air, any vast gulf or chasm; obviously not all of these at once. It is a nothing with substance. For a chasm cannot be defined without the substances it divides.

The difficulty with the Prose Edda, Voluspá, and Hesiod’s Theogony is that they are richly symbolic and potent expressions of something in the poetic and mythic mode. But not science; not meant to be. Not philosophy; not an attempt to look at the chaos and sort out, using reason and experience, what the cosmos (order) is and how it came to be.

The most influential Classical text that does that is Plato’s Timaeus. In this dialogue, Timaeus says:

This is in the truest sense the origin of creation and of the world, as we shall do well in believing on the testimony of wise men: God desired that all things should be good and nothing bad, so far as this was attainable. Wherefore also finding the whole visible sphere not at rest, but moving in an irregular and disorderly fashion, out of disorder he brought order, considering that this was in every way better than the others. (30a-b, trans. Jowett,Vol. 3,  p. 717)

Earlier, Timaeus had said that the created universe was made as an image of the eternal, rational one that the Artificer had access to. Plato has no chaos; nor does he have creatio ex nihilo. Lucretius the Epicurean Latin poet-philosopher writes:

when we shall perceive that nothing can be created from nothing [nil posse creari de nilo], then we shall at once more correctly understand from that principle what we are seeking, both the source from which each thing can be made and the manner in which everything is done without the working of gods.

For if things came out of nothing [si de nilo fierent], all kinds of things could be produced from all things, nothing would want a seed. (De Rerum Natura 1.155-160; trans. W. H. D. Rouse, rev. Martin Ferguson Smith – Loeb)

I have passed the 1000-word mark, so shall now descend to commenting and skip Ovid. Although the film Thor: The Dark World does not seem to follow either Simonson nor the medieval Norse mythological texts, it is consonant with them in envisioning a universe where some sort of substance was coeval with all that is, even with the Artificer-God(s) — and Norse mythology, in turn, resonates with Hesiod in particular, but also Plato’s Timaeus and Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura.

The material mind in a material world has difficulty conceptualising nothing, nihil. Indeed, it turns out that the ‘nothing’ of much scientific enquiry seems to have been a ‘something’ all along — that is, the ‘nothing’ of balanced equations. The ‘nothing’ of philosophy and theology remains literally ‘nothing’, no existence, neither darkness nor light, neither chasm nor sphere, without form or substance. Void.

But what if we turn back to hints in the Timaeus?

Now everything that becomes or is created must of necessity be created by some cause, for without a cause nothing can be created. … But the father and maker of all this universe is past finding out; and even if we found him, to tell of him to all men would be impossible. (28a, 29a)

What if the uncreated Artificer, in fact, created the matter ex nihilo? A universe with no chasm of ice, no chaos, no sphere of unformed matter. Rather,

In the beginning, God created …

(Quick note for the trolls: The above has nothing [ha!] to do with a literal seven-day creation, so save yourselves time and effort by moving on. Thanks.)

The Ages of Men (and Elves)

Fresco in Pompeii; makes me think of Paradise

Fresco in Pompeii; makes me think of Paradise

One element I wanted to highlight in my last post, but couldn’t find a good place to do it, is Tolkien’s use of the term ‘Age’ to refer to the great epochs or periods of the mythology outlined in Letter 131 and given in full in The Silmarillion. When I think of ‘ages’ in mythology, I cannot but help of Hesiod. First, Tolkien’s ages:

  1. The First Age is the Age of creation and of the Silmarils, of the Valar and the creation of Elves and Men, of war against Morgoth. It ends in cataclysm and destruction.
  2. The next, the Second Age, is ‘on Earth a dark age, and not very much of its history is (or need be) told.’ (The Letters of J R R Tolkien, p. 150) The land is still ravaged by the enemy and war against him; this is the Age when the Rings of Power are forged and when Men are still living great and mighty, close to the Elves and the Valar in Númenor. It, too, ends in cataclysm, and the destruction of Númenor and the sealing off of Valinor from Men — the movement of all Men to Middle Earth.
  3. The Third Age is the Age of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, when Sauron’s power grows again and the War of the Ring is waged, the Ring finally being destroyed.

The Fourth Age is whatever comes next, I guess? Does it commence with the reign of Aragorn? There are no more Elves, the last having sailed West to Paradise. I believe the Fourth Age is our own.

In one of the earliest poems of the great western tradition, Works and Days, by Hesiod (a near contemporary of Homer), we read of the ages of man, lines 106-201. The five ages in Hesiod are:

  1. Gold — the age of Kronos/Saturn.
  2. Silver ‘less noble by far. It was like the golden race neither in body nor in spirit.’ (Hesiod, trans. H. G. Evelyn-White)
  3. Bronze, ‘sprung from ash-trees; and it was in no way equal to the silver age, but was terrible and strong. They loved the lamentable works of Ares and deeds of violence’ (Hesiod)
  4. The Heroes of mythology, ‘the fourth, upon the fruitful earth, which was nobler and more righteous, a god-like race of hero-men who are called demi-gods, the race before our own, throughout the boundless earth.’ (Hesiod)
  5. Iron. Us. ‘Would that I were not among the men of the fifth generation, but either had died before or been born afterwards. For now truly is a race of iron, and men never rest from labour and sorrow by day, and from perishing by night; and the gods shall lay sore trouble upon them. But, notwithstanding, even these shall have some good mingled with their evils.’ (Hesiod)

Plato also discusses the Ages of Man in Cratylus, with explicit reference to Hesiod. When Ovid went through the Ages of Man in Metamorphoses 1, he took out the age of the heroes (logically enough), reducing them to four. Tolkien’s mythology is not, of course, primarily interested with Men but with Elves. Most natural-born mythology, on the other hand, has a primary concern with human beings as well as with gods (Elves are not gods; the Valar are).

The gods, of course, have their generations as well. Hesiod tells us of them in his Theogony. Ouranos begets the Titans who overthrow him. Kronos, a Titan, begets the Olympians who overthrow him.

We are all seeking the Golden Age, though, aren’t we? Here is the Garth and Dryden translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Book 1, on the subject:

The golden age was first; when Man yet new,
No rule but uncorrupted reason knew:
And, with a native bent, did good pursue.
Unforc’d by punishment, un-aw’d by fear,
His words were simple, and his soul sincere;
Needless was written law, where none opprest:
The law of Man was written in his breast:
No suppliant crowds before the judge appear’d,
No court erected yet, nor cause was heard:
But all was safe, for conscience was their guard.
The mountain-trees in distant prospect please,
E’re yet the pine descended to the seas:
E’re sails were spread, new oceans to explore:
And happy mortals, unconcern’d for more,
Confin’d their wishes to their native shore.
No walls were yet; nor fence, nor mote, nor mound,
Nor drum was heard, nor trumpet’s angry sound:
Nor swords were forg’d; but void of care and crime,
The soft creation slept away their time.
The teeming Earth, yet guiltless of the plough,
And unprovok’d, did fruitful stores allow:
Content with food, which Nature freely bred,
On wildings and on strawberries they fed;
Cornels and bramble-berries gave the rest,
And falling acorns furnish’d out a feast.
The flow’rs unsown, in fields and meadows reign’d:
And Western winds immortal spring maintain’d.
In following years, the bearded corn ensu’d
From Earth unask’d, nor was that Earth renew’d.
From veins of vallies, milk and nectar broke;
And honey sweating through the pores of oak.

I cannot leave unmentioned Vergil’s fourth Eclogue, where the poet imagines a world where a recently-born child will usher in a new Golden Age for the world. It is not, of course, a longing deep in the heart of the Greco-Roman soul, as Isaiah 11:1-9 remind us:

And there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of his roots:
And the spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the Lord;
And shall make him of quick understanding in the fear of the Lord: and he shall not judge after the sight of his eyes, neither reprove after the hearing of his ears:
But with righteousness shall he judge the poor, and reprove with equity for the meek of the earth: and he shall smite the earth: with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips shall he slay the wicked.
And righteousness shall be the girdle of his loins, and faithfulness the girdle of his reins.
The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them.
And the cow and the bear shall feed; their young ones shall lie down together: and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
And the sucking child shall play on the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the cockatrice’ den.
They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain: for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea.

Throughout the New Testament as well, there is a hope of undoing the curse from Genesis 3 and returning to the state of Paradise, the Golden Age of Adam and Eve.

This rests in all our hearts, and it is a driving force for us to see it realised to some small degree here, now, in this world. We all want Eden, the Saturnian lands — we all want Valinor in the West, where we can sail with the Elves and walk with the servants of Ilúvatar (God).

Bring me my bow of burning gold!
Bring me my arrows of desire!
Bring me my spear! O clouds, unfold!
Bring me my chariot of fire!

I will not cease from mental fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand,
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England’s green and pleasant land.
-William Blake

Saturn in Keats’ ‘Hyperion’

John Keats by Joseph Severn, 1819

John Keats by Joseph Severn, 1819

Having read Dan Simmons’ Hyperion, I was inspired to read Keats’ Hyperion. Keats’ Hyperion is a fragmentary narrative poem about the Titans after their defeat by the gods of Olympus. I didn’t quite absorb it all. It washed over me in a wave of words and rhythm, entrancing me and tugging me, but I was lulled by it in the wrong way.

So I’ll have to reread it.

Anyway, the thing that struck me at the very beginning is that Keats’ vision of Saturn takes into account one striking fact that careful readers of Latin verse observe — Saturn is not Kronos.

We all know the old story of Roman adaptatio of Greek deities with their own, something that had such a powerful impact upon them (and, it seems, their Etruscan neighbours) that little of pre-Greek Italic myth has any existence. And so, it is very frequently (but not always!) possible to say, ‘Jupiter/Jove is Zeus. Juno is Hera. Minerva is Athena. Mars is Ares.’

Saturn is Kronos.

Right?

I mean, he is the leading ‘Titan’ and father of the Olympians, such as Jupiter.

However, when we read Vergil, it is evident that Saturn is not a mean, nasty jerk-face who enjoys gobbling up his children the moment they’re born (this is about all most of us are aware of re Kronos via Hesiod). He is, rather, the king of the Golden Age. He creates the first and greatest race of human beings. For Latins, the return of the Age of Saturn is a good thing.

Keats’ Hyperion begins with Thea approaching the supine form of defeated Saturn. And the Saturn she approaches is not the Titanic villain Kronos. He is clearly the golden god of good things, the god of plenty, the king of a golden age.

Of course, Keats knows his Greek myths as well.  The creation of all things from Chaos, for example, is part of the poem. But he has made for us a sympathetic Saturn, rather than the rather the unsympathetic Kronos of Hesiod (and Goya).

This is a wee reminder that when Romantics name ‘Greek’ gods by their Roman names, they are not (merely?) being patronising. There may in fact be a point to so doing. And I would further argue that for someone like Keats, naming the gods by their Roman names makes the most sense, given that he spent his final years in Rome, leaving Hyperion unfinished at the time of his death in 1820.

Just a quick thought, but I felt like articulating it.

Mythology through literature

The title of this post is the name of a course my wife, Jennifer, was able to take in her fourth year of undergrad at the University of Ottawa. I, sadly, was only there part-time at that stage, taking naught but Latin and Greek. Unlike U of O’s very good, very popular Greek Mythology course which went through the standard versions of the myths with H J Rose to hand, or the equally good Homer and Vergil which focussed on the epics as literature, this course took a different approach — reading the ancient literature as sources for our knowledge and understanding of ancient mythology.

This is the sort of thing I like. I grew up reading Mary Pope Osborne’s tellings of Greek mythology or The Usborne Book of Greek Myths, and today I enjoy such items as Eric Shanower’s Age of Bronze (on which I’ve blogged here). But where do we get these myths? From the writings of the ancients themselves, of course! Finding the ‘originals’ of the myths has been a pleasure of mine since my first year of undergrad.

From Europe, our only two complete mythological systems, so I’m told in The Oxford Illustrated History of the Vikings, are Greek mythology and Norse mythology. Of course, other myths and strands of folklore abound; I’m not well-versed in those at all. If we cast our eyes to other Mediterranean shores, myths of interest (to me, at least) are to be found in Mesopotamia and Egypt. Here are a few translations of the ancients themselves to go and find the ancient tales for yourselves!* The links are to Amazon, but I urge you to frequent local bookstores and libraries!!

Mesopotamia

  • Myths from Mesopotamia: Creation, The Flood, Gilgamesh, and Others trans. Stephanie Dalley, Oxford World’s Classics. Many of our texts from Mesopotamia are fragmentary, and it is a great skill to recompose the stories. My favourites from this volume are: Atrahasis (flood story), Epic of Gilgamesh, Etana (incl. folk-tale-esque story of eagle and snake, and Etana’s ascent to the heavens), Epic of Creation (the world is created through murder and war, fashioned from the body parts and blood of slain divinites).
  • The Epic of Gilgamesh, trans. Andrew George, Penguin Classics. Dalley’s translation above is good, but so is this one, which also goes into great detail regarding piecing the epic back together. This was my first Gilgamesh, and I still like it very much. This epic includes a flood story and a variety of other interesting stories worth reading.

Ancient Egypt

I have to confess that I’ve not read any Egyptian religious/mythological literature except for a description of the contents of the Book of the Dead in the possession of the Royal Ontario Museum when it went on display. Nonetheless, I want to read more, and have learnt today about this three-volume set:

Ancient Greece and Rome

As the footnote from above shows, we have an overabundance of sources for Graeco-Roman mythology! So I shall give you two, both of which tell many tales, both of which I have read:

  • The Metamorphoses by Ovid, trans. A D Melville, Oxford World’s Classics. Here you will find many of the usual, expected tales of Greek mythology, as told by an Augustan Latin poet in unexpected ways. Melville’s English blank verse is lively and playful, just like Ovid. I highly recommend it, but not the old, prose translation for Penguin Classics by Mary M. Innes (I cannot speak on the other Penguin translations).
  • Theogony by Hesiod, trans. M L West, Oxford World’s Classics. M L West is one of the giants of Greek and Latin translation and textual criticism. I highly recommend his translation of this work, paired with Hesiod’s other poem Works and Days. Here you will find the stories of the births of gods and monsters from Ouranos to Zeus, with all the parricide you can stomach.

Norse Mythology

  • The Poetic Edda, trans. Carolyne Larrington, Oxford World’s Classics. I have to warn you that The Poetic Edda is not the easiest collection of texts. This is an anthology of (possibly) ‘Viking-age’ poetry telling the old tales of the gods and heroes, varying in levels of comprehensibility. Nonetheless, those that make good sense are well worth reading, for here we find Ragnarók and the tales of Thor and the Aesir in bold detail.
  • The Prose Edda by Snorri Sturluson. This is our other major source for pre-Christian Norse mythology, dating to the thirteenth century and giving us all of our tales from creation to Ragnarók. I haven’t read it, but just today got my own copy of Jesse L Byock’s Penguin Classics translation; I liked Byock’s translation of the heroic and mythical Saga of the Volsungs; here’s hoping Snorri doesn’t live up to his name!

These are not the only world mythologies and bits of European-Mediterranean folklore worth reading. I have heard good things about The Táin, and the Hindu Vedas and Ramayana sound interesting; but I haven’t read them, so I cannot really recommend anything. I only recommended ancient Egypt because I’m really interested in learning more!

*For the full panoply of Greek (& Roman) myths, you need to read, amongst others, Pindar’s Odes, the tragedies of Euripides, Sophocles, and Aeschylus, Apollodorus’ Library, Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, the ‘Homeric’ hymns, Vergil’s Aeneid, Apollonius of Rhodes’ Argonautica, Catullus’ 64th poem, the various mythological poems of the archaic Greek lyric poets, bits of Plato, the many fragmentary Hellenistic poets, Callimachus’ hymns, Apuleius’ The Golden Ass, Statius’ Thebaid and Achilleid, Seneca’s tragedies, Claudian’s Gigantomachy and Rape of Proserpina, the Orphic Hymns and so on and on and on. Reading the primary sources for Graeco-Roman mythology is basically an entire career’s worth of reading! Use the above for some quick samplers. Then move on to the epics (Homer, Virgil, Apollonius) and tragedians.