“Unfortunately, Zeus was feeling horny…”
That, it has been claimed, is all of Greek Mythology in a nutshell.
(Many thanks to digger666 for bringing the phrase to my attention. He reckons it is now a internet meme, but if anyone knows an original author, let me know and I will be happy to credit them.)
I first got interested in Greek Mythology as a child, by way of Roger Lancelyn Green’s Tales of Greek Heroes. He explained that the many tales of Zeus fathering gods and heroes on different wives arose as the Greeks attempted to integrate all the different cults of the Greek world into one coherent narrative. Indeed we know that this work was done, or at any rate given its greatest expression, by one particular poet, Hesiod.
Hesiod composed his Theogony, ‘the geneology of the Gods’ around 700 B.C.E. This was also the period in which the Iliad was composed and when the Greeks emerged from the obscurity that followed the Bronze Age Collapse, to once again play a role in the wider Mediterranean world. The poetry of this period gave the Greeks their sense of cultural identity and a narrative that influenced many other peoples of the Mediterranean.
By this period also they were firmly in the Iron Age, with a mature technology of agriculture and crafts. Therefore, to discover the ‘magic that works’, the technological aspects of the cults in Greek religion, we need to look at the oldest stories, in their oldest versions. One possible way to identify the oldest elements is to look at the role of Hera, The Greeks of Hesiod’s time were thoroughly patriarchal, both in the sense of reckoning descent through the father’s line and in valuing the male over female. They cast Hera in the likeness of their own wives, as a wronged woman, insulted by her husband’s dalliance with others, jealous and nagging.
Yet there is evidence that this was not always the way Hera was understood, that at one time the Queen of Heaven was more accepting of the God-born heroes. This seems to hark back to an earlier time when the Goddess, and possibly mortal women, were more powerful and prominent. We see elements of this in the conflicting stories of Hera and Herakles. Herakles may have been considered a son of Zeus, yet his very name means ‘glory of Hera’, surely evidence for the importance of the Goddess when the stories arose.
Hera is said to have been so outraged by the birth of Herakles that she sent twin snakes to kill him in his cradle, snakes that Herakles himself managed to strangle when he was only eight months old. Yet there is also the story that Hera was tricked by Athene into suckling the infant Herakles whom she found apparently abandoned by the wayside. Herakles was said to have suckled so hard that a jet of milk from the Goddess’s ever bountiful breasts spurted across the sky – just one of the stories of the origin of the Milky Way.
Despite this pseudo-adoption however, Hera’s feud with Herakles continued. It was Hera who drove him mad so that he killed his children. Hera who created the obligation to perform his Labours, As the tale is usually told, the feud only ended with the apotheosis of Herakles. When all his mortal parts burned away on the funeral pyre he ascended to Mt. Olympus and welcomed by all the Gods and Goddesses. He was and given Hera’s own daughter, Hebe, as a wife.
The Etruscans were deeply influenced by the Greek myths and recognised a correspondence between their native Gods and Goddesses and those of Greece. They also, however, preserved many variations and traditions of their own. The illustration below was inscribed on the back of an Etruscan mirror. It shows the Uni, their name for Hera/Juno, suckling the adult Herakles and seems to signify a much more nurturing relationship, a true foster-motherhood.
Do we see in this picture evidence that once, perhaps throughout the Mediterranean and the Near East, the Great Mother Goddess was believed to have a very different relationship with mortal Heroes?
We have texts from Ugarit that recount myths of the Canaanite/Phoenician people. They tell how the father god El meets two Goddesses by the sea. After inviting them to share a roasted fowl he asks if they will choose to be his wives or his daughters. This suggest to me that the Phoenicians had a far more fluid, metaphorical understanding of the relationships of the Gods and Goddesses than the literal-minded Greeks. One of the Goddesses in the the story is Athirat, the mother goddess of the Ugaritic pantheon, the other may be named Rahmaya. Both choose to be El’s wives. The story continues that Athirat goes on to have seventy children, to whom she is said to be both mother and nursemaid.
In this view of the cosmos, mortal heroes could be seen as engendered by the Father God, as he engenders all things but also as raised up, nurtured and suckled by the Mother Goddess. Such mortal heroes would be recognised by their achievements, whether in defeating enemies and monsters, founding peoples or in discovering new crops, technologies or ‘magics that worked’. In a very meaningful sense such favoured individuals would have been seen as the beloved foster children of the Gods and Goddesses.