Search Results for: odysseus

By Odysseus’ dog

Kenneth Kitchell, Penelope’s Geese: Pets of the Ancient Greeks
Another pet in the Odyssey is justifiably famous— Odysseus’ long-suffering dog. As Odysseus nears his  home in a deformed beggar’s disguise provided by Athena, he has fooled everyone he has met. But at the city gates lies an old dog named Argos. Odysseus had raised him but left for Troy before the dog was fully grown. Argos had been a great hunter in his day, but now he is banished outside the gates of Ithaca, lying “in the dung, all covered with dog ticks” (Od. 17.300, trans. Lattimore), no longer useful to those who are making decisions in Odysseus’ absence. He is at least 20 years old—ancient in dog years—but as soon as Odysseus comes near, he sees through the disguise and recognizes his master. In one of the most heart-wrenching scenes from antiquity, the dog—who can no longer walk—lays his ears back, wags his tail, and closes his eyes for the last time. Homer tells us that tears came to Odysseus’ eyes as he watched the dog first welcome him and then die.

Shaken, not stirred

Oh my. *fans self*

So I’m mulling over the etymology of óðr and specifically this bit:

Ultimately these Germanic words are derived from the Proto-Indo-European word *wāt-, which meant “to blow (on), to fan (flames)”, fig. “to inspire”. The same root also appears in Latin vātēs (“seer”, “singer”), which is considered to be a Celtic loanword, compare to Irish fāith (“poet”, but originally “excited”, “inspired”). The root has also been said to appear in Sanskrit vāt– “to fan.”

When I remembered something about Odysseus.

He carries the Mystica Vannus Iacchi.

And Odysseus of many wiles answered her, and said: “Strange lady! why dost thou now so urgently bid me tell thee? Yet I will declare it, and will hide nothing. Verily thy heart shall have no joy of it, even as I myself have none; for Teiresias bade me go forth to full many cities of men, bearing a shapely oar in my hands, till I should come to men that know naught of the sea, and eat not of food mingled with salt; aye, and they know naught of ships with purple cheeks, or of shapely oars that serve as wings to ships. And he told me this sign, right manifest; nor will I hide it from thee. When another wayfarer, on meeting me, should say that I had a winnowing fan on my stout shoulder, then he bade me fix my oar in the earth, and make goodly offerings to Lord Poseidon—a ram and a bull and a boar, that mates with sows—and depart for my home, and offer sacred hecatombs to the immortal Gods, who hold broad heaven, to each one in due order. And death shall come to me myself far from the sea, a death so gentle, that shall lay me low, when I am overcome with sleek old age, and my people shall dwell in prosperity around me. All this, he said, should I see fulfilled.” (Homer, Odyssey 23.263-284)

Particularly relevant in light of this post, winnowing is a method of separating the wheat from the chaff, as Wikipedia discusses here:

Wind winnowing is an agricultural method developed by ancient cultures for separating grain from straw. It can also be used to remove pests from stored grain. Winnowing usually follows threshing in grain preparation. In its simplest form it involves throwing the mixture into the air so that the wind blows away the lighter chaff, while the heavier grains fall back down for recovery. Techniques included using a winnowing fan (a shaped basket shaken to raise the chaff) or using a tool (a winnowing fork or shovel) on a pile of harvested grain. 

Regarding the winnowing fan, Servius (in his commentary on Vergil’s Georgics 1.65) writes:

The mystic fan of Iacchus, that is the sieve of the threshing-floor. He calls it the mystic fan of Iacchus because the rites of Father Liber had reference to the purification of the soul, and men are purified in his mysteries as grain is purified by fans. It is because of this that Isis is said to have placed the limbs of Osiris, when they had been torn to pieces by Typhon, on a sieve, for Father Liber is the same person. Whence also he is called Liber, because he liberates, and it is he whom Orpheus said was torn asunder by the Giants. Some add that Father Liber was called by the Greeks Liknites. Moreover the fan is called by them liknon, in which he was placed after being delivered from his mother’s womb. Others explain its being called ‘mystic’ by saying that the liknon is a wicker vessel in which peasants, because it was of large size, used to heap their first-fruits and consecrate it to Liber and Libera. 

Jane Ellen Harrison had a good deal more to say about this object in an article published in the Journal of Hellenic Studies vol. 23, available herehere is an alternative hypothesis worth considering. 

The Quest for the Flower


I think the magical restorative flower depicted on the Shield of Dionysos is the one that Óðr (either alone or with his comrades) went searching for when the Gods of Ásgarðr were suffering from the theft of Iðunn’s golden apples, as well as the μῶλυ flower which Hermes gives to Odysseus. What we’re seeing are different stages of an underlying myth, scattered through diverse and seemingly unrelated sources.

And I think another stage of this myth involves a confrontation with a Giant, before the long sought for flower can be recovered. This Giant is either one-eyed or three-headed, and can change its shape into that of various animals – most commonly an eagle or a snake. 

Note that Nonnos recounts Ganymedes’ abduction by the giant golden eagle as a prelude to the story of Moria, Damasen and Tylos; Ganymedes represents youthful vitality, just like Hebe did before he replaced her as cup-bearer of the Gods. While in the Norse it is her fruit rather than Iðunn herself that is stolen, that theft is performed by Þjazi, a Giant who turns himself into an eagle. And Odysseus has to face off against the Laistrygones and Polyphemos (both terrible, uncivilized, maneating offspring of Poseidon of immense size) before he can make it to Aiaíā and receive Hermes’ benefaction. (Kírkē’s fabled abode is called “Eagle Island” by the way, from the Greek aietos, eagle.)

This is what I had in mind when I mentioned the possibility of a lost myth in connection with the dolphin coins of Olbia. It’s also possible I’m making this myth up as I go, or that there is a myth but I’m forging connections that don’t exist or are tenuous at best. Remember what I said about biases? Don’t think I’m immune to that, just because I’m clever!

However, if I’m right I believe that a great deal of this myth has been depicted on the Golden Horns of Gallehus. I’m not going to bombard you with a ton of links (though man have I researched the hell out of these things) but I will suggest you start with these four  here, here, here and especially here. Obviously I don’t agree with all of the ideas expressed therein but a rough picture should start to emerge by the time you’re finished with them.


A wind brought me from Troy to the Kikonians

So, you know my whole theory that Freyja is Kírkē and Óðr is Odysseus, who has forgotten that he is Dionysos?

Well, I found something that could be interpreted as further confirmation.

And I don’t mean this statue of a Bacchic Freyja whose staff is topped by a little dancing Satyr, which Tetra recently posted about:


Though that is pretty fucking cool.

Our household actually has one of these, though I use a different eidolon in my personal devotional practice. My mouth hung open like a gasping fish (or dolphin) when I first saw it.

No, what I’m referring to is a passage from George Hinge’s Dionysos and Herakles in Scythia ‒ The Eschatological String of Herodotos’ Book 4, which I was rereading to mine for ideas for the play. Specifically, this passage:

A fragment of a black-glazed kylix found in Olbia carries the very beginning of Odysseus’ own tale in the Odyssey (9.39): Ἰλιο[θεν] µε φ[ερων] ἄνεµ[ος Κικ]ονεσσι [πελ]ασσεν “a wind brought me from Troy to the Kikonians” (= SEG XXX, 933); given that the concept of the wind carrying the soul to and fro was ascribed to Orpheus (Arist. De an. 410b = Orph. fr. 27 Kern), and the Thracian Kikonians and their king Ismaros were connected not only with wine (Od. 9.196-7, Archil. fr. 2.2 West), but also with Dionysos (cf. Ps.-Hes. fr.238 Merkelbach-West), the inscription may be yet another testimony to the character of the Olbian cult of Dionysos.

The Winds or Anemoi were really important in certain strains of Orphism, as Renaud Gagné makes clear in Winds and Ancestors: The Physika of Orpheus. Ditto the more Apollonian/Pythagorean side of the tradition, as Leonid Zhmud shows in Pythagoras’ Northern Connections: Zalmoxis, Abaris, Aristeas (and you yourself may have noticed with how frequently Boreas in particular has been showing up.)

Troy, by the way, is the Labyrinth – and labyrinths are important both in Russia and Scandinavia. Indeed, Snorri Sturluson relates in the Prologue to the Prose Edda (3-4) that the Æsir were originally neighbors and allies of the Trojans: 

Near the earth’s centre was made that goodliest of homes and haunts that ever have been, which is called Troy, even that which we call Turkland. This abode was much more gloriously made than others, and fashioned with more skill of craftsmanship in manifold wise, both in luxury and in the wealth which was there in abundance. There were twelve kingdoms and one High King, and many sovereignties belonged to each kingdom; in the stronghold were twelve chieftains. These chieftains were in every manly part greatly above other men that have ever been in the world. One king among them was called Múnón or Mennón; and he was wedded to the daughter of the High King Priam, her who was called Tróán; they had a child named Trór, whom we call Thor. He was fostered in Thrace by a certain war-duke called Lóríkus; but when he was ten winters old he took unto him the weapons of his father. He was as goodly to look upon, when he came among other men, as the ivory that is inlaid in oak; his hair was fairer than gold. When he was twelve winters old he had his full measure of strength; then he lifted clear of the earth ten bear-skins all at one time; and then he slew Duke Lóríkus, his foster-father, and with him his wife Lórá, or Glórá, and took into his own hands the realm of Thrace, which we call Thrúdheim. Then he went forth far and wide over the lands, and sought out every quarter of the earth, overcoming alone all berserks and giants, and one dragon, greatest of all dragons, and many beasts. In the northern half of his kingdom he found the prophetess that is called Síbil, whom we call Sif, and wedded her. The lineage of Sif I cannot tell; she was fairest of all women, and her hair was like gold. […] He who is named Vóden, whom we call Odin: he was a man far-famed for wisdom and every accomplishment. His wife was Frígídá, whom we call Frigg. Odin had second sight, and his wife also; and from their foreknowledge he found that his name should be exalted in the northern part of the world and glorified above the fame of all other kings. Therefore, he made ready to journey out of Turkland, and was accompanied by a great multitude of people, young folk and old, men and women; and they had with them much goods of great price. And wherever they went over the lands of the earth, many glorious things were spoken of them, so that they were held more like gods than men. They made no end to their journeying till they were come north into the land that is now called Saxland; there Odin tarried for a long space, and took the land into his own hand, far and wide.

Which may be where they first met Óðrysseus, before he was carried away by a terrible storm.

Possibly even a Typhoon.


Santiago Carbonell art Pausanias, Description of Greece 2.13.3
On the Phliasian citadel is a grove of cypress trees and a sanctuary which from ancient times has been held to be peculiarly holy. The earliest Phliasians named the goddess to whom the sanctuary belongs Ganymeda; but later authorities call her Hebe, whom Homer mentions in the duel between Menelaos and Alexandros, saying that she was the cup-bearer of the gods; and again he says, in the descent of Odysseus to Haides, that she was the wife of Herakles. Olen, in his hymn to Hera, says that Hera was reared by the Horai, and that her children were Ares and Hebe. Of the honours that the Phliasians pay to this goddess the greatest is the pardoning of suppliants. All those who seek sanctuary here receive full forgiveness, and prisoners, when set free, dedicate their fetters on the trees in the grove. The Phliasians also celebrate a yearly festival which they call Kissotomoi (Ivy-cutters). There is no image, either kept in secret of openly displayed, and the reason for this is set forth in a sacred legend of theirs though on the left as you go out is a temple of Hera with an image of Parian marble.

Canes Venatici


Continuing the theme, in addition to Odysseus’ loyal companion, there are the Heavenly Hunting Hounds or Canes Venatici.

These are the dogs of Boötes, who is both the Hunter and Guardian of the Great Bear. The Canes Venatici pursue Ursa Major as it circles the Pole, and would catch it if it weren’t for Boötes’ leash. Their name Venatici has some interesting associations, according to Anne Wright:

The word Venatici is from Latin vinaticus, from Latin venari, ‘to hunt, pursue’, and comes from Indo-European root *wen ‘To desire, strive for’. Derivatives:  win (‘to seek to gain’), wynn (an Old English rune having the sound  W or uu; rune for granting wishes), winsome, won (achieved victory), wontwean (to accustom, train a young mammal gradually to get less milk from its mother), ween (to think; suppose), wishVanir (an early race of Norse gods who dwelt with the Aesir in Asgard), vanadium (from Old Norse Vanadis, name of the goddess Freya), veneratevenerealvenery (indulgence in or pursuit of sexual activity), Venus, venom (from Latin venenum, love potion or poison), Wend (to wend one’s way, from Germanic *Weneda-, a Slavic people), venial (easily excused or forgiven; a venial offense, from Latin venia, favor, forgiveness), venery (hunting or game), venison (used to mean any meat that was hunted, but is now restricted to the flesh of deer), venatic (relating to hunting, from Latin venari, to hunt), Venus is said to have derived from the eponymous mother of Venetian tribes of the Adriatic, after whom the city of Venice was also named.

The names of these two dogs themselves are rather interesting. The Southern is named Chara meaning “graceful, cheerful, joyous, favored, etc” – while the Northern dog is named … Asterion. Yes, as in the Minotaur and marijuana.


Curioser and curioser


Synopsizing the Kypria, Proklos in the Chrestomathia mentions the legend of Odysseus’ feigned madness:

Nestor in a digression tells him how Epopeus was utterly destroyed after seducing the daughter of Lycus, and the story of Oedipus, the madness of Heracles, and the story of Theseus and Ariadne. Then they travel over Hellas and gather the leaders, detecting Odysseus when he pretends to be mad, not wishing to join the expedition, by seizing his son Telemachus for punishment at the suggestion of Palamedes.

Couple of notable things, starting with the mention of Lycus (= Wolf.) 

Then the sequence: Odysseus > madness of Herakles > Theseus and Ariadne > madness of Odysseus. 

Also, the trauma of a threatened child breaks his mask of insanity, which had withstood all of their previous tests. 

Don’t worry. As Josho Brouwers relates in Odysseus the Jerk: A terrible person despite being fictional, he ensures that prick Palamedes gets his. 

Homer left some details out

If you don’t care for this ending there’s always the variant tradition that makes Pan the Freddy Krueger of Greek Mythology.

From the Wikipedia article on Penelope:

In some early sources such as Pindar, Pan’s father is Apollo via Penelope. Herodotus (2.145), Cicero (ND 3.22.56), Apollodorus (7.38) and Hyginus (Fabulae 224) all make Hermes and Penelope his parents. Pausanias 8.12.5 records the story that Penelope had in fact been unfaithful to her husband, who banished her to Mantineia upon his return. Other sources (Duris of Samos; the Vergilian commentator Servius) report that Penelope slept with all 108 suitors in Odysseus’ absence, and gave birth to Pan as a result. [15] This myth reflects the folk etymology that equates Pan’s name (Πάν) with the Greek word for “all” (πᾶν).

He never left the throne

Starry Bear myth is so romantic.

Each time Dionysos completes a regenerative cycle he begins again as a vulnerable child beset by monstrous foes who seek his utter annihilation.

Just when that is about to happen Hermes swoops in and whisks him away to safety in some exotic locale where he is protected and tutored by indigenous land-spirits until he reaches maturation and sets off on a new set of adventures.

And that’s how he ended up as Odysseus that one time. Hermes wiped the God’s memories and stitched him into the mortal line of the Wolf Itself, so his malign pursuers would lose track of him and he could be trained for war.

It works for a while; he has many adventures, overcomes many tests and trials.  But the persona cracks while in Italy, when the Falcon Sorceress from the Black Sea has him sit on a throne, drink a hallucinogenic potion from her chalice and asks him the questions from the gold lamellae while he’s tripping balls.

After that he journeys to the underworld, overcomes further ordeals and eventually returns home to his beloved Weaver, massacring her 108 suitors in a berserk frenzy.

He convinces her that he truly is her long-lost husband by noting something only he would know – one of the pillars of their marital bed is a living tree. (And also the Tree of Life or World Tree.)

She embraces her man, and welcomes him home. Then she introduces him to the half-goat child she had with Hermes while he was away. 

Another selection, which leads into a discussion of werewolf warrior-societies

Although they are not formally married, the most important romantic relationship that Hermes has is with the Goddess Aphrodite, with whom he shared a temple at Olbia on the Black Sea. We have records of a magical duel conducted by Pharnabazos, a diviner of Hermes who worked out of this temple, and one of his rivals; it is also possible that Pharnabazos was the Orpheotelest who inscribed enigmatic signs and phrases on the bone tablets found nearby. (For more on this matter consult Andrei V . Lebedev’s Pharnabazos the diviner of Hermes and The Devotio of Xanthippus: Magic and Mystery Cults in Olbia.) 

We find a similar pairing in the Magna Graecian city of Lokroi Epizephyrii where their temple contained a series of pinakes or terracotta plates: 

On two pinax types they appear together as cult statues. In one example Aphrodite stands facing Hermes, extending the offering of what appears to be a lotus blossom. Eros stands on her outstretched right forearm, mimicking her gesture with his own extended right arm; he holds a tortoise shell lyre in his left hand. Hermes holds the kerkyreion in his right hand and there is a thymiaterion between the divine pair. The scene appears to represent a meeting between the two divine lovers but we have no mythological context in which to place the scene. […] On the next example Aphrodite and Hermes are clearly shown as cult statues inside a temple of mixed Ionic and Doric orders. The statue of Hermes is nude except for a chlamys draped over his shoulders and his petasos, travelling hat. He holds a patera in his right hand. Aphrodite is clothed in a peplos and her hair is worn down with a filet at the top. She appears to be holding a dove in her right hand but most of the remaining examples are badly damaged at this point. In front of the temple, a bare-foot young woman and young man are pouring a libation on an altar. The plaque is iconographically rich and suggestive of Aphrodite and Hermes’ cultic “personality” at Locri. The seemingly somber libation being performed by the mortal couple is subtly undermined by the erotic relief on the altar — a satyr copulating with a hind. This complicates the interpretation of the plaque. In the overall context of the pinakes the mortal couple would seem to be either betrothed or married. However, they are pouring a libation to an unwed divine couple on an altar. depicting an erotic sexual act that stands outside the bounds of the civic intercourse necessary for reproduction. I would argue, therefore, that this pinax type would have been a dedication made by worshippers of Aphrodite who fall outside the bounds of ‘civic society’ but who also recognize the overall power of the Mannella sanctuary to protect all women within Locrian society. (Rebecca K. Schindler, Aphrodite and the Colonization of Lokroi Epizephyri

The concern of Hermes and Aphrodite for individuals and couples who do not conform to societal norms is perhaps most potently expressed through their child Hermaphroditos:

… whose name is a combination of his parents’ names. Some say that this Hermaphroditos is a God and appears at certain times among men, and that he is born with a physical body which is a combination of male and female elements, in that he has a body which is beautiful and delicate like that of a woman, but also possesses male genitalia and the vigour of a man. There are some however who declare that such two-sexed creatures are monstrosities, and coming rarely into the world as they do they have the quality of presaging the future, sometimes for evil and sometimes for good. (Diodoros Sikeliotes, Library of History 4.6.5)

Hermaphroditos was the prototype for the Enarees, a group of gender-variant diviners described by Herodotos:

But the Skythians who pillaged the temple, and all their descendants after them, were afflicted by the Goddess with the “female sickness”: and so it is that visitors to the Skythian territory see among them many who are in the condition of what the Skythians call Hermaphrodites. (Histories 1.105.4)

There are many diviners among the Skythians who divine by means of willow wands. They bring great bundles of wands, which they lay on the ground and unfasten, and utter their divinations as they lay the rods down one by one; and while still speaking, they gather up the rods once more and place them together again; this manner of divination is hereditary among them. The Enarees, who are Hermaphrodites, say that Aphrodite gave them another art of divination, which they practise by means of lime-tree bark. They cut this bark into three portions, and prophesy while they braid and unbraid these in their fingers. (ibid 4.67.1)

Aphrodite is not Hermes’ only romantic partner, however. 

There is his union with the Witch-Goddess Hekate from the Black Sea region: 

We are told that Helios had two sons, Aeëtes and Perses, Aeëtes being the king of Kolchis and the other king of the Tauric Chersonese, and that both of them were exceedingly cruel. And Perses had a daughter Hekate, who surpassed her father in boldness and lawlessness. she was also fond of hunting, and when she had no luck she would turn her arrows upon human beings instead of the beasts. Being likewise ingenious in the mixing of deadly poisons she discovered the drug called aconite and tried out the strength of each poison by mixing it with food given to strangers. 

Which also resulted in the production of an androgynous child, Hermekate:

I call upon you, Mother of all men,
you who have brought together the limbs of Meliouchos,
even Meliouchos himself,
Entrapper, Mistress of Corpses,
Hermes, Hekate, Hermekate
I conjure you, the daimon that has been aroused in this place,
and you, the daimon of the cat that has been endowed with spirit.
Come to me this very day and from this very moment,
and perform for me the NN deed…
(PGM III 45-52)

He lay with the mysterious Brimo:

Brimo, who as legend tells, by the waters of Boebeis laid her virgin body at Mercury’s side. (Propertius, Elegies 2.29)

And also Chione (whose name means “Snowy”) by whom he had Autolykos, the shapeshifting trickster and thief (whose name means “the wolf itself”) who was responsible for naming his world-famous grandson:

Autolykos was the noble father of Odysseus’ own mother, and excelled all mankind in thieving and subtlety of oaths, having won this mastery from the God Hermes himself, for to him he was wont to burn acceptable sacrifices of the thighs of lambs and kids; so Hermes befriended him with a ready heart. Now Autolykos, on coming once to the rich land of Ithaka, had found his daughter’s son a babe new-born, and when he was finishing his supper, Eurykleia laid the child upon his knees and spoke, addressing him: “Autolykos, find now thyself a name to give to thy child’s own child; be sure he has long been prayed for.” Then Autolykos answered: “Since I have been angered (ὀδυσσάμενος; odyssamenos) with many, both men and women, let the name of the child be Odysseus.” (Homer, Odyssey 19.395-410)

Hermes blessed and watched over clever Odysseus, even when he wandered among Northern barbarians:

Moreover, some speculate that Ulysses, driven on that long and fantastic journey to this Ocean, had himself come to the lands of Germany, and that Asciburgium, which was located on the bank of the Rhine and is inhabited even today, was founded and named by him. Nay, even more, they say that there was found in that same place an altar consecrated to Ulysses, which bears also the name of his father Laeertes; further, there are monuments and tombs bearing inscriptions in Greek letters which are still extant today on the borders of Germany and Raetia. I have no intention either of confirming or refuting these speculations: everyone may either add or withdraw his belief according to the inclination of his own mind. (Tacitus, Germania 3)

When Odysseus encountered Kírkē (herself an émigré from the Black Sea) Hermes was there to offer counsel and the magical plant μῶλυ (moly) which rendered the hero immune to the Goddess’ sensual sorcery. 

Her response to Odysseus’ challenge suggests that Kírkē was on rather familiar terms with Hermes:

“Who are you, and from where? Where are your city and your parents? It bewilders me that you drank this drug and were not bewitched. Never has any other man resisted this drug, once he had drunk it and let it pass his lips. But you have an inner will that is proof against sorcery. You must surely be that man of wide-ranging spirit, Odysseus himself; the Radiant One of the golden wand has told me of you; he always said that Odysseus would come to me on his way from Troy in his dark and rapid vessel.” (Homer, Odyssey 10)

This dalliance has added significance within the Starry Bear tradition, for we understand Kírkē to be one of the personae adopted by Freyja as she searched for her lost husband Ódr, whom we identify with Dionysos:

Freyja is most gently born (together with Frigg): she is wedded to the man named Ódr. Their daughter is Hnoss: she is so fair, that those things which are fair and precious are called hnossir. Ódr went away on long journeys, and Freyja weeps for him, and her tears are red gold. Freyja has many names, and this is the cause thereof: that she gave herself sundry names when she went out among unknown peoples seeking Ódr: she is called Mardöll and Hörn, Gefn, Sýr. Freyja had the necklace Brísinga-men. She is also called Lady of the Vanir. (Gylfaginning 29)

Odysseus we likewise regard as Ódr, having forgotten his true identity – which gives added poignancy to the question Kírkē puts to him. (As does the one-eyed Polyphemos, whom he answers – Οὖτις; “Nobody.”) 

Accepting this, however, means that on some level Hermes is the progenitor of Dionysos, or at least one of the mortal lines that he incarnated into. This is no stranger, however, than what we find in the cult-hymn of a group of Orphics from Asia Minor:

Orphic Hymn 57. To Chthonic Hermes
Incense: Storax
You dwell in the compelling road of no return, by the Kytos.
You guide the souls of mortals to the nether gloom.
Hermes, offspring of Dionysos who revels in dance,
and Aphrodite, the Paphian maiden of the fluttering eyelids,
you who frequent the sacred house of Persephone,
as guide throughout the earth of ill-fated souls,
which you bring to their haven when their time has come,
charming them with your sacred wand and giving them sleep,
from which you rouse them again.
To you indeed Persephone gave the office 
throughout wide Tartaros to lead the way 
for the eternal souls of men. But, O Blessed One, 
grant a good end for the initiate’s work.

For those familiar with the Battle of the Bull and Wolf mytheme the grandfather of “Odysseus” becomes a very intriguing figure. 

Autolykos – “the wolf itself” – was both a protector of flocks and a devourer of them, and this latter habit had tragic consequences. 

Back when Herakles was a boukolos or cowherder:

Herakles was taught to drive a chariot by Amphitryon, to wrestle by Autolykos, to shoot with the bow by Eurytus, to fence by Kastor, and to play the lyre by Linos. This Linos was a brother of Orpheus; he came to Thebes and became a Theban, but was killed by Herakles with a blow of the lyre; for being struck by him, Herakles flew into a rage and slew him. When he was tried for murder, Herakles quoted a law of Rhadamanthys, who laid it down that whoever defends himself against a wrongful aggressor shall go free, and so he was acquitted. But fearing he might do the like again, Amphitryon sent him to the cattle farm; and there he was nurtured and outdid all in stature and strength. Even by the look of him it was plain that he was a son of Zeus; for his body measured four cubits, and he flashed a gleam of fire from his eyes; and he did not miss, neither with the bow nor with the javelin. While he was with the herds and had reached his eighteenth year he slew the lion of Cithaeron, for that animal, sallying from Cithaeron, harried the kine of Amphitryon and of Thespius. (Apollodoros, The Library 2.4.9)

Autolykos was preying upon his neighbors, for which Herakles was blamed, driving the son of Zeus into another murderous frenzy:

Not long after, some cattle were stolen from Euboea by Autolykos, and Eurytus supposed that it was done by Herakles; but Iphitos did not believe it and went to Herakles. And meeting him, as he came from Pherae after saving the dead Alkestis for Admetos, he invited him to seek the kine with him. Herakles promised to do so and entertained him; but going mad again he threw him from the walls of Tiryns. Wishing to be purified of the murder he repaired to Neleus, who was prince of the Pylians. And when Neleus rejected his request on the score of his friendship with Eurytus, he went to Amyclae and was purified by Deiphobos, son of Hippolytos. But being afflicted with a dire disease on account of the murder of Iphitos he went to Delphi and inquired how he might be rid of the disease. As the Pythian priestess answered him not by oracles, he was fain to plunder the temple, and, carrying off the tripod, to institute an oracle of his own. But Apollon fought him, and Zeus threw a thunderbolt between them. When they had thus been parted, Herakles received an oracle, which declared that the remedy for his disease was for him to be sold, and to serve for three years, and to pay compensation for the murder to Eurytus. (ibid 2.6.2)

Hermes stepped in to help his brother fulfil the oracle and attain healing and release:

After the delivery of the oracle, Hermes sold Herakles, and he was bought by Omphale, daughter of Iardanes, queen of Lydia, to whom at his death her husband Tmolus had bequeathed the government. Eurytus did not accept the compensation when it was presented to him, but Herakles served Omphale as a slave, and in the course of his servitude he seized and bound the Cercopes at Ephesos; and as for Syleus in Aulis, who compelled passing strangers to dig, Herakles killed him with his daughter Xenodoce, after burning the vines with the roots. And having put in to the island of Doliche, he saw the body of Icarus washed ashore and buried it, and he called the island Icaria instead of Doliche. In return Daedalus made a portrait statue of Herakles at Pisa, which Herakles mistook at night for living and threw a stone and hit it. And during the time of his servitude with Omphale it is said that the voyage to Kolchis and the hunt of the Calydonian boar took place, and that Theseus on his way from Troezen cleared the Isthmus of malefactors. (ibid 2.6.3)

During this period of transvestite sexual slavery Omphale instructed Herakles in the mysteries of weaving, much as Óðinn had to submit to Freyja to learn the art of seiðr

One wonders if Hermes knew (and perhaps had a prior relationship with) the Lydian Queen Omphale. After all, when Saint Paul was traveling through the region people mistook him for Hermes:

And when the crowds saw what Paul had done, they lifted up their voices, saying in Lycaonian, ‘The Gods have come down to us in the likeness of men!’ Barnabas they called Zeus, and Paul, Hermes, because he was the chief speaker. (Acts 14.11-12)

This is where things get really interesting. For you see, Lycaonia is “wolf country” (from the word lykos) and Hermes has some strong connections with the animal. As a pastoral deity he was invoked to protect the flocks against wolves (just as he was said to have power over guard-dogs in more domestic contexts) and in Hellenistic Egypt he was frequently equated with both Wepwawet and Anubis, to the point where he was depicted with canine features as Hermanubis. Diodoros Sikeliotes mentions these two as a pair of heralds (and Hermes is the God of heraldry) who marched in the army of Osiris-Dionysos:

Now he was accompanied on his campaign, as the Egyptian account goes, by his two sons Anubis and Makedon, who were distinguished for their valour. Both of them carried the most notable accoutrements of war, taken from certain animals whose character was not unlike the boldness of the men, Anubis wearing a dog’s skin and Makedon the foreparts of a wolf; and it is for this reason that these animals are held in honour among the Egyptians … Makedon his son, moreover, he left as king of Makedonia, which was named after him. (1.18ff)

A feature that is curiously paralleled much later on in Nonnos of Panopolis’ epic on the Indian conquest of Dionysos when he speaks of the Satyroi Hermeides:

With Pherespondos walked Lykos the loudvoiced herald, and Pronomos renowned for intelligence – all sons of Hermes, when he had joined Iphthime to himself in secret union. To these three Eiraphiotes entrusted the dignity of the staff of the heavenly herald, their father the source of wisdom. (Dionysiaka 14.105ff)

Beyond Patrons

A companion to this piece

The thing that brings people to Hellenismos is usually the Gods. Sure, there’s the occasional person who comes to the religion through a fascination with ancient Greek history and culture, or because of their great admiration for her literature (and who doesn’t feel their soul stir upon reading the opening lines of the Iliad) but I rather suspect that these individuals are in the minority. For most it is the Gods who lead us here – and who keep us around long after we find out what an opinionated, argumentative, and cantankerous bunch Hellenists can be.

And while there are those people who are drawn equally to the whole pantheon, and to the Gods precisely as a pantheon, again, I don’t think this is terribly common. Most people when they describe what brought them to Hellenismos will cite a strong attraction to a particular deity, or perhaps to a small group of them. While this attraction may change over time, blossoming to include other Gods or passing from one deity to another, for many this attraction holds a singular power in their life. They may feel especially devoted to this divinity who inspires their greatest aspirations and most praiseworthy efforts, and they often feel that in some respects the divinity reciprocates by showing interest in their development and a certain measure of protectiveness for them. This type of relationship is usually called patronage, which borrows as its model the client system of ancient Rome, and has precedent in the relationships between Odysseus and Athene (Iliad 2.279), Aristeas and Apollon (Herodotos 4.20), Marcus Antonius and Dionysos (Plutarch’s Life of Antony), and perhaps most famous of all, Socrates and his daimonion (Plato’s Apology). 

Plato has voiced what many in a patron relationship intuitively felt – namely that every human soul is under the control and guidance of a particular divinity: “The Demiurge divided the whole mixture into souls equal in number to the stars, and assigned each soul to a star … and when he had sown them, he committed to the younger Gods the fashioning of their mortal bodies.” (Timaeus 41-2) And in the Phaedrus he adds, “He who follows in the train of any God honours him, and imitates him as far as he is able; and this is his way of life and the manner of his behaviour. Everyone chooses the object of his affections according to his character.” (252c)

This is, clearly, a very important relationship. Even if one’s patron is not directly responsible for the creation of their soul and body, our proximity to the divinity will certainly have an effect on our life. This may be on the subtlest of levels, for instance by influencing our thoughts, whether that be simply by making us think about something in a totally different light or by exerting a kind of gravitational force which constantly draws us back to a particular network of associations, images, and concepts. And yet, even this seemingly simple thing can have a profound effect on our lives, for our thoughts, to a large extent, shape who we are and how we react to the world around us. If we are aligned to a particular world-view, which is under the domain of a single deity and which exists in counter-distinction to other divinities, we are going to make different decisions than if we were aligned to the world-view of someone else. For instance, the Dionysian world-view is one of freedom, and abundance, and the transgression of boundaries resulting in an orgiastic loss of distinctions. How different that is from the law and order and rational remoteness of Athene’s world-view. (Of course it is important to remember that the Gods are not simply ideas or archetypes, but distinct beings, and further, as true divinities they represent a totality which embraces both a particular point as well as it’s polar opposite: thus, healing Gods also bring plague, rationality contains an element of ecstacy, and there is a speck of light at the center of even the vastest darkness.)

I can personally attest that having this world-view, this cluster of ideas in the back of my head, has caused me to make decisions I might not have otherwise. Dionysos is always there inspiring me to boldly take life by the throat, to experience things to their fullest, to be aware of the sensual beauty which surrounds me, and to root out within myself whatever threatens to hold me back or diminish my experiences of the world. He is the enemy of fear, of stasis, of empty formality. I have had to make hard choices, to give up things I thought important to me because in the end they were really strangling me and keeping me enslaved, and he is constantly urging me to open myself up to a deeper awareness and acceptance of frightening and challenging ideas. The bios Dionusou or Dionysian life is an unfolding process, and one that I am constantly striving to live. Thus, I am who I am today largely because of my devotion to this God. I suspect a follower of Demeter or Apollon or Poseidon feels exactly the same way about their God and the impact that that deity has had in their life.

And that’s really the point that I want to make. No matter how great a God is, no matter how fully they may fulfill the desires of the individual devotee – no God in a polytheistic system exhausts the totality of existence, nor claims the whole of the world as theirs alone, nor monopolizes the ways of being and worship. All of the Gods exist in relationship to each other. This may be through diametrical opposition or through a certain affinity or even a similarity of essence. They are friends, enemies, lovers, relatives, and more – a plurality of beings relating to each other and creation in every conceivable manner, their relationships forming a wonderful, complex tapestry which animates the cosmos and our lives within it. This is the fundamental, beautiful truth of polytheism – and unfortunately, there are times when the patron relationship can endanger that.

Because of my close identification with Dionysos and his world-view other relationships have been closed off to me. I have almost nothing to do with Athene, Apollon, and Artemis. Sometimes this is a result of the decisions I have made in life, sometimes it’s because there is a spiritual repulsion that takes effect like when you place two magnets together and they push away from each other, and much more commonly I am simply so preoccupied with Dionysos, so conditioned to find his presence in the world, that I either don’t think to look for the others or miss them entirely when they are present. I don’t think that this is necessarily a bad thing, but it is certainly limiting. There is so much out there that it would be a real shame if I never had the opportunity to see and experience it. Sometimes this intense focus can actually be harmful, in the way that if you only eat one food, no matter how tasty it may be, you are depriving yourself of complex nutrients that you can get only through a diverse and well-balanced diet. Each of the Gods have certain blessings to bestow on us, lessons to teach us, experiences to share with us. If we are locked into only one pattern there’s going to come a time when that pattern leads us into conflict and pain. Dionysian exuberance and abundance can easily become addiction and fatal excess. Just look at Jim Morrison or Baudelaire if you have any doubt. These men led life to its fullest – and burnt out in a very short span of time. That may make for a Romantic ideal – it’s better to be consumed by fire than to fade away – but realistically, they couldn’t sustain that level of intensity, and their art, especially in the case of Morrison, suffered for it. In the beginning, his work was brilliant and prophetic – towards the end, sad, self-obsessed, and pathetic. Imagine if he had acquired some Apollonian restraint and discipline, if he had learned to temper his spirit just a bit, to curb his addictions, to find real freedom instead of nihilistic renunciation. His craft could have gone on for years, allowed to grow and mature and reach its full potential. Perhaps he could have changed the world with his words – instead he ended up a miserable, bloated drunk choking to death on his own vomit in a bath-tub in Paris.

My relationship with Dionysos is unquestionably the most important in my life – the one constant in a world of Protean transformation. No other God can hold a candle to that, come close to the affections I have for him. And yet, sometimes those secondary and tertiary relationships have radically altered the course of my life. They have opened me up to new experiences and taught me lessons Dionysos either couldn’t or felt needed to be done by someone else in order to bring the point home more forcefully. Sometimes those relationships have lasted for a long time. Hermes, for instance, has been present in my life for a number of years. He has refined my writing, encouraged me to undertake strange journeys, revealed things about certain parts of my personality that didn’t fit into the Dionysian mould, and nudged me to take on a more magical practice. He has also been a doorway through which I was able to make contact with other Gods. As a consequence, I consider him to be a second patron, only slightly below Dionysos in my own personal divine hierarchy. But there are other Gods who have come into my life for only very brief periods, whose presence has focused on one particular area or idea, and once that issue has been resolved, have passed back out of my life. Horus came in seemingly only to inaugurate an interest in Egyptian religion. After about a week or two of intense epiphanies I’ve had very little to do with him since. Zeus came to teach me about power and its responsibility. Aphrodite to lend beauty and refinement to my life. Sobek to protect me during a difficult transition. Hekate made it possible for me to attend Pantheacon in 2007. If I had turned my back on them, refused to have anything to do with them because Dionysos is my all and everything – think how much smaller my life would be as a result of that.

I’ve also noticed, unfortunately, that some people feel inadequate spiritually because they do not have a strong attachment to a single God. They feel like they aren’t good enough, that they’re doing something wrong, that maybe this isn’t the religion for them since everyone else has a patron and they don’t. This is nonsense. The patron relationship is not the de facto form in Greek religion. It is a unique experience, one that has special benefits but also comes with heavy duty responsibilities, and which is not the norm, now or back in antiquity. In ancient times the average person tended to pray to a wide variety of Gods. At different times in their lives different Gods would have had different levels of importance to them. Artemis was said to watch over young girls, but once they reached maturity and marriage she became remote until they were pregnant and gave birth. Hestia or Demeter would likely have held more sway over them while they were concerned with the domestic sphere. If they were sailing, they may have made offerings to Poseidon, a God they otherwise would have had no contact with unless they lived on the coast. Others would have been prominent only at festival time or if they entered a particular career, and so forth. Taken as a totality over time, this created a possibility for an abundance of minor relationships – which is by far the norm, both today and in antiquity, however common the patron relationship may be. So people shouldn’t be worried if they don’t have a patron – maybe they just haven’t found one yet but the God is still out there waiting for them, or maybe they don’t have one, and instead are meant to cultivate a number of these lesser relationships. There is no one right way – the religious life of each person is as unique and individual as a snow-flake to make use of that insipid metaphor. Instead of trying to conform to the pattern of someone else, they should be seeking what works the best for them. That may involve recognizing the existence of a patron relationship – or moving beyond the concept altogether.

This is the stuff of mysteries

Interesting fact: many of the cities of Magna Graecia had a double foundation. First by a god or hero and later by a mortal, who was like their living shadow. As an example, Tarentum was originally settled by Taras, the son of Poseidon and Satyra the swamp-nymph and then later, after the Messenian war Phalanthos led the Spartan Virgins’ sons there. Phalanthos was eighth in descent from Herakles, which I found significant since eight is a number with obvious arachnid associations. Speaking of which, did you know that Tarentum was famed for it’s wool and murex in antiquity?

The most esteemed wool of all is that of Apulia, and that which in Italy is called Grecian wool, in other countries Italian. The fleeces of Miletus hold the third rank. The Apulian wool is shorter in the hair, and only owes its high character to the cloaks that are made of it. That which comes from the vicinity of Tarentum and Canusium is the most celebrated. (Pliny, Natural History 8.73)

I find it interesting that Tarentum was colonized by the Partheniae since the constellation Virgo is the asterized Erigone. Though that story is set in Athens, the Spartans had their version of it too:

Opposite is what is called the Knoll, with a temple of Dionysos of the Knoll, by which is a precinct of the hero who they say guided Dionysos on the way to Sparta. To this hero sacrifices are offered before they are offered to the god by the daughters of Dionysos and the daughters of Leucippus. For the other eleven ladies who are named daughters of Dionysos there is held a footrace; this custom came to Sparta from Delphi. (Pausanias, Description of Greece 3.13.7)

But in this version Ikarios is a king:

The image of Modesty, some thirty stades distant from the city, they say was dedicated by Ikarios, the following being the reason for making it. When Ikarios gave Penelope in marriage to Odysseus, he tried to make Odysseus himself settle in Lacedaemon, but failing in the attempt, he next besought his daughter to remain behind, and when she was setting forth to Ithaca he followed the chariot, begging her to stay. Odysseus endured it for a time, but at last he bade Penelope either to accompany him willingly, or else, if she preferred her father, to go back to Lacedaemon. They say that she made no reply, but covered her face with a veil in reply to the question, so that Ikarios, realizing that she wished to depart with Odysseus, let her go, and dedicated an image of Modesty; for Penelope, they say, had reached this point of the road when she veiled herself. (ibid 3.20.10-11)

Gee, what was it Penelope was famed for again?

This was her latest masterpiece of guile: she set up a great loom in the royal halls and she began to weave, and the weaving finespun, the yarns endless … So by day she’d weave at her great and growing web –. by night, by the light of torches set beside her, she would unravel all she’d done. (Homer, Odyssey 2.93-95)

Nearby the spot where Ikarios’ maiden daughter was abducted rites of Kore were celebrated:

The sanctuary of Demeter surnamed Eleusinian is where, according to the Lacedaemonian story, Herakles was hidden by Asklepios while he was being healed of a wound. In the sanctuary is a wooden image of Orpheus, a work, they say, of Pelasgians. From Helos they bring up to the sanctuary of the Eleusinian a wooden image of the Maid, daughter of Demeter. (Pausanias, Description of Greece 3.20.5-7)

This is not the only time we find an overlap of Erigone and Persephone. As you know, Erigone was honored during the Aiora on the 12th or 13th of Anthesterion. During that same month the Lesser Mysteries of Eleusis were carried out:

Great and Lesser Mysteries used to be celebrated at Eleusis in Attica. Previously the Lesser did not exist, but when Herakles came and wanted to be initiated. It was not lawful for the Athenians to initiate any foreigner, but as they respected his outstanding qualities and because he was a friend of the city and a son of Zeus, they created the Lesser Mysteries into which they initiated him. The Great Mysteries belong to Demeter, the Lesser to Persephone her daughter. (Scholiast on Aristophanes, Ploutos 845)

The inventor of these mysteries was Mousaios, according to Diodoros Sikeliotes:

Herakles, having completed the tenth Labour, received an order from Eurystheus to bring Cerberus from Hades up to the light. For this Labour, supposing this would benefit him, he went along to Athens and took part in the Mysteries at Eleusis. Mousaios, son of Orpheus, was at that stage in charge of the rite. (4.25.1)

Mysteries which had a Dionysiac tenor:

Agra and Agrai: place, singular and plural, in Attica in front of the city; there the Lesser Mysteries are celebrated, which are an imitation of matters concerning Dionysos. (Stephanos of Byzantium, Lexikon s.v. Agrai)

You find this same constellation during the Haloa:

Haloa is a festival at Athens including secret rites of Demeter and Kore and Dionysos, celebrated by the Athenians at the pruning of the vine and the tasting of the stored-up wine. In these rites images of male organs are displayed, concerning which they say that they are performed as a symbol of the procreation of men, since Dionysos, who gave the wine, made it a potion which stimulates one to intercourse. He gave it to Ikarios, whom the shepherds killed, in ignorance that drinking wine had such consequence. Then they were driven mad, because of their outrageous actions against Dionysos, and they had remained in the state of shame. The oracle, to stop their madness, ordered them to make and dedicate clay sexual organs. When the evil had passed, they established this festival as a memorial of the incident. In this festival, an initiation is given in Eleusis by women, and many games and jokes are told. Since only women are present, they have freedom to say what they want. And they say the most shameful things to each other then; the priestesses stealthily draw near to the women and discuss illicit love, whispering, as it is something unspeakable. All the women shout shameful and irreverent things to each other, holding up indecent representations of male and female organs. Here much wine is set out, and tables full of all the foods of earth and sea, except the things forbidden in the mystery, namely: pomegranates, apples, domestic fowl, eggs, seal-mullet, erythinos, black-fish, crayfish, dogfish. The archons furnish the tables, and leaving the inside to the women they go outside and remain there, expounding to all the inhabitants that cultivated foods were discovered among them and made common to all men by them. Sexual organs of both sexes, made from pastry, are set out on the tables. The Haloa are named on account of the fruit of Dionysos. The aloai are the vineyards. (Scholia to Lucian 279)

A maiden is abducted by death; the land is cursed with madness so that the girls swing from trees and the boys rage with lust. Deliverance comes through dance, music and feasting at the marriage of the bull-leading hero and the divine daughter. This is the stuff of mysteries.

Oh, and incidentally – Satyra the swamp-nymph? She wasn’t always a nymph.

Originally Satyra was the sister of the hero Iapyx, famed for his healing powers and knowledge of drugs, after whom the Iapygians were named, a population that had settled in Italy at an early period and were displaced by the Spartan colonists who arrived with Phalanthos. But here’s where things get really interesting. The Iapygians were Cretans who had either arrived in Italy when Theseus was blown ashore there on his return voyage to Athens or else they came with Minos in pursuit of Daidalos, who had taken up residence with the Sicilian king Kokalos. Iapyx and Satyra were children of Minos. Which, of course, makes Taras the nephew of Ariadne.


We don’t need another shero

Apparently breastfeeding is sufficient to make one a shero these days. (And, just for clarification female heroes are heroines, not sheroes.)

Before I have the mommy brigade up in arms let me just say that while there’s nothing wrong if you can’t, I think it’s optimal for mothers to breastfeed as this not only provides the child with nutrition, minimizes its exposure to harmful chemicals but also provides the pair with some truly essential bonding at that early stage.

So I applaud this woman’s desire to breastfeed regardless of the pain and obstacles involved. That demonstrates strength of character and commitment, which are virtues all of us should strive to cultivate.

Likewise I agree with her comparison of giving birth to war, which is straight out of the ancient Greek epigraphic tradition. Epigraphic as in what’s inscribed on tombstones – giving birth was a tremendously dangerous enterprise back then, with a staggering mortality rate for both mother and child. Anyone who walks away from such an intimate brush with death is a badass in my book. Perhaps not a warrior, per se, since one of the defining characteristics of a warrior is that they are a person who not only can but has taken human life and I detest how this word has gotten watered down to the point where anything that requires discipline, fortitude, bravery, etc. is described as a “warrior’s path” – but you know, pushing something that large out of such a small orifice is indeed a praise-worthy accomplishment. (I should know – I was rather constipated last week.)

So, mad respect to mothers and all but come on – nor does letting a baby suckle from your tit automatically make you a hero. By definition there is something extraordinary about heroes and doing a thing that the majority of women throughout history have done and which is furthermore common to all mammals isn’t very extra ordinary. In fact it’s kind of the antithesis of that.

And if we’re going by the ancient Greek understanding of the ἥρως it’s even more inappropriate since in order to receive hero cultus you pretty much had to be dead first. (Alexander the Great tried to get his men to pay him heroic honors while still respiring and they found an efficient solution to that little theological dilemma.) Death alone, however, does not make one a hero.

Heroes did things such as found citiesslay monsters, or have divine parentage or favor, as well as associations with fertilityprotection and the underworld. More important than what this person may or may not have done in life, however, was their ability to act posthumously. I summarized the Hellenic conception in my piece on hero cultus for Jim Morrison in the following way:

For the ancients a hero was predominantly a dead person who continued to influence things on earth from beyond the grave in stark contrast to the majority of the deceased who resided as impotent and ignorant shades of their former selves in the underworld. Without first being fed on the blood of sacrificial victims, Teiresias informs Odysseus in the Homeric Nekyia, they cannot even recognize their fellows let alone what transpires in the world above. The hero, on the other hand, was one of the mighty dead who sent disease, blighted the crops, destroyed livestock and afflicted their families and members of the community with other violent punishments if neglected. Conversely if a proper shrine was built and tended for them with sacrifices, games and similar appropriate honors regularly bequeathed to them then the hero could be a powerful ally to the community, promoting fertility and health and offering prophetic guidance and protection from outsiders. In fact the assistance of the heroic dead was considered so vital to the wellbeing of a community that wars were fought over possession of the hero’s remains and the rights to conduct his or her festivals.

Information on these beings and their veneration is easily attainable. For instance you can read the complete text of Flavius Philostratus’ Heroikos, Sarah Hitch’s Hero Cult in Apollonius Rhodius and Gregory Nagy’s The Ancient Greek Hero in 24 Hours all from Harvard’s Center of Hellenic Studies. For free. So really, there’s no excuse for not knowing who and what these beings are. And if one doesn’t want to be limited by the standard understanding why employ the terminology at all? Trying to appropriate the cachet of this word without fulfilling any of the requirements is just going to cast one in a poor light. I mean what would you think of me if I started describing myself as a mother because I crapped out a log last week?

So why do I care if someone else thinks that giving birth and breastfeeding qualify them for heroic status? Because doing so muddies the waters and if that’s permitted to happen people won’t be able to recognize heroes any longer and thus will be deprived of engagement with them – and that can have potentially serious consequences.

Polytheism, for me, isn’t just about the veneration of multiple deities. Gods are great and I’m all about the restoration of their worship in the modern era but even in their vast plenitude they are only a portion of what constitutes the category of “divinities.” Using the standard Hellenic model as an example, preceding the Gods are immense cosmological powers and alongside them are other races or families, such as the Titans, Giants, Cyclopes, etc. Then you’ve got Nymphs and other Spirits associated with the heavens, the earth and bodies of water. Then you’ve got daimones and Heroes and ancestors and tons of other entities ranging in power and influence. Even things like winds, dreams, money and virtues are possessed of intelligence and agency in a properly polytheistic worldview.

And yet a lot of people who come into polytheism tend to focus on the Gods to the exclusion of all other types of beings. Which I’m not knocking entirely because hey, that puts them ahead of the majority of neopagans – but by doing so they are missing out on some really vital elements of religion.

You see, one of the things that makes the Gods so great is their bigness. Take Dionysos, for instance. He’s been bopping around the globe more or less without interruption since the second millennium BCE, even well after Christian domination brought an end to the worship of the Olympian Gods on the state level. He’s got epithets in the triple digits, each with their own set of associations, attributes, functions, myths, etc. Indeed some of these are so complex and contradictory that it almost feels at times as if you’re dealing with an entire pantheon of Dionysoses. Today there are thousands of people across the globe who are having intimate and unique experiences with him – sometimes simultaneously with others. Because Dionysos tore me apart and put me back together again, he knows me in ways that no other entity can and yet after twenty years I still don’t know even the tiniest fraction of who he is. I especially don’t know who he is or what he reveals of himself when he’s off dancing with other Dionysians. And because of his bigness when he looks at the world or even at me he cannot help but see the big picture. No matter how dear to him I may be (and he has taken very good care of me) I cannot be his primary focus or concern. He’s got all of his other Bakchai and Bakchoi to look after, as well as his role in maintaining natural order and the obligations he has to the other Gods and Spirits – not to mention the fact that he’s an innate schemer and so he’s no doubt pursuing a multitude of interests and agendas of his own. So even if he might want to do me a solid he may not be able to because of conflicting loyalties or duties.

Smaller, less powerful beings often do not have as many of these limitations. Their sphere of influence is diminished accordingly but on the other hand if you’re the only one paying them cultus they’ll likely have the time, motivation and freedom to reciprocate. Plus I think a mature polytheism necessitates engagement with these beings as an extension of hospitality.

Using Dionysos as an example – when we bring him into ritual with us he is essentially our guest. After all, his homes are on Mount Parnassos, Mount Olympos, Mount Nysa and in the underworld as well as all of the temples that have been consecrated to him over the centuries. Even when we give over space in our homes to him by setting up shrines we are still, by default, the owners and maintainers of that property. Setting up a fully functioning temple is an entirely different matter as I’m sure my Thracian Adversary can attest. (And I owe this whole analogy I’m making to a conversation we had a couple days ago amid copious amounts of alcohol so if I’m butchering it hopefully he will chime in.) Therefore as host it is proper that we should demonstrate generosity and devotion as we feast and celebrate him.

But with ancestors and land-spirits the situation is reversed – we are coming into their territory as suppliants. In the case of the ancestors we have our whole existence through them – we owe them for the flesh that adorns our bones, the blood that flows through our veins, the traits and culture, the fortune and luck that has been handed down through their line. In the case of the land-spirits they are the place where we build our homes, the soil that produces the food we eat, the water that nourishes and cleanses us and when we go out to the woods or down by the shore of the river or deep beneath the earth in a cave – in these particular places that are unlike any other place on earth – it is them that we are visiting, and we should ever remain mindful of that. As suppliants we should treat our hosts properly and request of them what we desire instead of just greedily taking it. And I think it is proper for a guest to ask a favor of their host for that enhances their stature and gives them an opportunity to demonstrate their power. And when applied to spirits, approaching them in such a fashion keeps us mindful of the pervasiveness of their dominion.

So when want is created in our lives we should look to who presides over that area and approach them for assistance. Accepting such then produces debt and obligation on our part and as we go about repaying that we are bound to them in a more intimate relationship. This, of course, applies to Gods as well as the various types of Spirits but since we owe our existence more directly to the ancestors and spirits we should probably start with them first and work our way up the chain of divinity.

As an example, consider this story about the second prophet of the Bacchic Orphic tradition, Melampos:

Bias wooed Pero, daughter of Neleus. But as there were many suitors for his daughter’s hand, Neleus said that he would give her to him who should bring him the kine of Phylakos. These were in Phylake, and they were guarded by a dog which neither man nor beast could come near. Unable to steal these kine, Bias invited his brother to help him. Melampos promised to do so, and foretold that he should be detected in the act of stealing them, and that he should get the kine after being kept in bondage for a year. After making this promise he repaired to Phylake and, just as he had foretold, he was detected in the theft and kept a prisoner in a cell. When the year was nearly up, he heard the worms in the hidden part of the roof, one of them asking how much of the beam had been already gnawed through, and others answering that very little of it was left. At once he bade them transfer him to another cell, and not long after that had been done the cell fell in. Phylakos marvelled, and perceiving that he was an excellent soothsayer, he released him and invited him to say how his son Iphiklos might get children. Melampos promised to tell him, provided he got the kine. And having sacrificed two bulls and cut them in pieces he summoned the birds; and when a vulture came, he learned from it that once, when Phylakos was gelding rams, he laid down the knife, still bloody, beside Iphiklos, and that when the child was frightened and ran away, he stuck the knife on the sacred oak, and the bark encompassed the knife and hid it. He said, therefore, that if the knife were found, and he scraped off the rust, and gave it to Iphiklos to drink for ten days, he would beget a son. Having learned these things from the vulture, Melampos found the knife, scraped the rust, and gave it to Iphiklos for ten days to drink, and a son Podarces was born to him. But he drove the kine to Pylos, and having received the daughter of Neleus he gave her to his brother. For a time he continued to dwell in Messene, but when Dionysos drove the women of Argos mad, he healed them on condition of receiving part of the kingdom, and settled down there with Bias. (Apollodoros, Bibliotheka 1.9.12)

Why would you go to Zeus the cosmic king, ruler of all Gods and men when it’s the tree itself that was harmed and required placation?

Of course, this brings up another area where I think contemporary polytheist practice tends to be deficient – it’s not just the over-emphasis on the Gods but devotion as the default ritual setting.

Look, there’s nothing wrong with honoring and celebrating the Gods and Spirits – far, far, far, far, far from it!

It’s just not the only category of ritual.

The Greeks and Romans had tons of rituals that touched on practically every area of their lives. We can get a sense of the diversity of these ritual actions from this sketch of deisidaimonia by Theophrastos:

He is one who will wash his hands and sprinkle himself at the Sacred Fountain, and put a bit of laurel leaf in his mouth, to prepare himself for each day. If a marten should cross his path, he will not continue until someone else has gone by, or he has thrown three stones across the road. And if he should see a snake in his house, he will call up a prayer to Sabazios if it is one of the red ones; if it is one of the sacred variety, he will immediately construct a shrine on the spot. Nor will he go by the smooth stones at a crossroads without anointing them with oil from his flask, and he will not leave without falling on his knees in reverence to them. If a mouse should chew through his bag of grain, he will seek advice on what should be done from the official diviner of omens; but if the answer is, ‘Give it to the shoemaker to have it sewn up,’ he will pay no attention, but rather go away and free himself of the omen through sacrifice. He is also likely to be purifying his house continually, claiming that terrible Hecate has been mysteriously brought into it. And if an owl should hoot while he is outside, he becomes terribly agitated, and will not continue before crying out, ‘O! Mighty Athena!’ Never will he step on a tomb, nor get near a dead body, nor a woman in childbirth: he says he must keep on his guard against being polluted. On the unlucky days of the month– the fourth and seventh– he will order his servants to heat wine. Then he will go out and buy myrtle-wreaths, frankincense, and holy pictures; upon returning home, he spends the entire day arranging the wreaths on statues of the Hermaphrodites. Also, when he has a dream, he will go to the dream interpreters, the fortune-tellers, and the readers of bird-omens, to ask what God or Goddess he should pray to. When he is to be initiated into the Orphic mysteries, he visits the priests every month, taking his wife with him; or, if she can’t make it, the nursemaid and children will suffice. It is also apparent that he is one of those people who go to great lengths to sprinkle themselves with sea-water. And if he sees someone eating Hecate’s garlic at the crossroads, he must go home and wash his head; and then he calls upon the priestesses to carry a squill or a puppy around him for purification. If he sees a madman or epileptic, he shudders and spits into his lap.

Few of these could be described as devotional in any kind of meaningful sense and many blur the line between magic and religion – and yet in their totality they constituted a full and dynamic engagement with the holy powers through mindfulness and ritual. As it should be.

So, to bring it back around – if you don’t even know what a hero is how are you going to be able to figure out how to honor them properly? And if you can’t you’re either going to neglect or offend them which will end up compromising your quality of life.

Personally I feel Areios Didymos goes a little too far, but only a little when he writes:

It is the Stoic view that every wrong act is an impious act. For to do something against the wish of a God is proof of impiety. As the Gods have an affinity with virtue and its deeds, but are alienated from vice and those things which are produced by it, and as a wrong act is an activation in accord with vice, every wrong act is revealed as displeasing to the Gods. Furthermore enmity is disharmony and discord in matters of life, just as friendship is harmony and concord. But the worthless are in disharmony with the Gods in matters of life. Hence, every stupid person is an enemy of the Gods. Furthermore if all believe that those opposed to them are their enemies, and the worthless person is hostile to the worthwhile, and God is worthwhile, then the worthless person is an enemy of the Gods. (Epitome of Stoic Ethics 3.684)


The poems I posted earlier today are from Wine Dark, my Bacchic Orphic riff on Homer’s Odýsseia


You know what’s crazy? I wrote it well before I arrived at the conclusion that Freyja is Kírkē and Odysseus Óðr. (Continued here.)

Read it again from that perspective, and everything changes. 

Prelude: We Magna Graecians do everything better – including women

Or Hate the Athenians, not the Greeks

I get so fucking sick of hearing about how “the ancient Greeks” were misogynist pigs. Ever notice that 90% of the evidence these people cite comes from Classical Athens? By Herakles, it’s as if the only two cities that existed in all Greece were Athens and Sparta!

Of course, even then there’s really no excuse for this idiocy since as Plutarch ably demonstrates Spartan women were totally badass and didn’t take shit from anybody, least of all a man. Plutarch was so fond of women (he addressed several of his most important treatises – including his masterpiece On Isis and Osiris – to his colleague at Delphi the Thyiad Klea and wrote a tender and touching letter of consolation to his wife when their daughter died while he was abroad) that he put together several pieces defending their virtue and taking their side in mythological disputes, such as that between Circe and Odysseus. Note that he came from Chaironeia in Boiotia not Athens.

Also not Athenians were the Epizephyrii Locrians, whom Polybios describes in the following manner:

For I know for certain that the inhabitants themselves acknowledge that the report of Aristotle, and not of Timaeus, is the one which they have received from their ancestors. And they give the following proofs of this. In the first place, they stated that every ancestral distinction existing among them is traced by the female not the male side. For instance, those are reckoned noble among them who belong to “the hundred families”; and these “hundred families” are those which were marked out by the Locrians, before embarking upon their colonisation, as those from which they were in accordance with the oracle to select as virgins to be sent to Ilium. Further, that some of these women joined the colony: and that it is their descendants who are now reckoned noble, and called “the men of the hundred families.” Again, the following account of the “cup-bearing” priestess had been received traditionally by them. When they ejected the Sicels who occupied this part of Italy, finding that it was a custom among them for the processions at their sacrifices to be led by a boy of the most illustrious and high-born family obtainable, and not having any ancestral custom of their own on the subject, they adopted this one, with no other improvement than that of substituting a girl for one of their boys as cupbearer, because nobility with them went by the female line. (Histories 12.5)

In fact most of the Magna Graecian colonies had a pretty high regard for women.

Angry over the treatment of their mothers, a group of Spartan men left with them in tow to found a new colony, Taras or Tarentum, where such sexual bigotry would not be tolerated:

A number of young men were sent back to Sparta with permission to form promiscuous connexions with all the women of the city, thinking that conception would be more speedy if each of the females made the experiment with several men. Those who sprung from these unions were called Partheniae, as a reflection on their mothers’ violated chastity; and, when they came to thirty years of age, being alarmed with the fear of want (for not one of them had a father to whose estate he could hope to succeed,) they chose a captain named Phalantus, the son of Aratus, by whose advice the Spartans had sent home the young men to propagate, that, as they had formerly had the father for the author of their birth, they might now have the son as the establisher of their hopes and fortunes. Without taking leave of their mothers, therefore, from whose adultery they thought that they derived dishonour, they set out to seek a place of settlement, and being tossed about a long time, and with various mischances, they at last arrived on the coast of Italy, where, after seizing the citadel of the Tarentines, and expelling the old inhabitants, they fixed their abode. (Justin, Epitome of the Philippic History of Pompeius Trogus 3.4)

Another foundation-myth of Tarentum enshrines the love and support of spouses for each other:

Tarentum is a colony of the Lacedaemonians, and its founder was Phalanthus, a Spartan. On setting out to found a colony Phalanthus received an oracle from Delphi, declaring that when he should feel rain under a cloudless sky (aethra), he would then win both a territory and a city. At first he neither examined the oracle himself nor informed one of his interpreters, but came to Italy with his ships. But when, although he won victories over the barbarians, he succeeded neither in taking a city nor in making himself master of a territory, he called to mind the oracle, and thought that the god had foretold an impossibility. For never could rain fall from a clear and cloudless sky. When he was in despair, his wife, who had accompanied him from home, among other endearments placed her husband’s head between her knees and began to pick out the lice. And it chanced that the wife, such was her affection, wept as she saw her husband’s fortunes coming to nothing. As her tears fell in showers, and she wetted the head of Phalanthus, he realized the meaning of the oracle, for his wife’s name was Aethra. And so on that night he took from the barbarians Tarentum, the largest and most prosperous city on the coast. They say that Taras the hero was a son of Poseidon by a nymph of the country, and that after this hero were named both the city and the river. For the river, just like the city, is called Taras. (Pausanias, Description of Greece 10.10.6-8)

Likewise, the men of Cumae were famed for enjoying the company of their wives:

And the people of Cumae in Italy, as Hyperochos tells us, or whoever else it was who wrote the History of Cumae which is attributed to him, wore golden brocaded garments all day, and robes embroidered with flowers; and used to go to the fields with their wives, riding in chariots. (Athenaios, Deipnosphistai 12.37e)

While the men of Sybaris were fond of their wives showing off and gave them pride of place at their festive banquets:

But Phylarchus, in the twenty-fifth book of his History states that the Sybarites, having given loose to their luxury, made a law that women might be invited to banquets, and that those who intended to invite them to sacred festivities must make preparation a year before, in order that they might have all that time to provide themselves with garments and other ornaments in a suitable manner worthy of the occasion, and so might come to the banquet to which they were invited.

Of course the medal for progressive gender relations goes to the Tyrrhenians whom I’m going to pretend are descended from Greeks since their origins are hotly disputed (and were equally so in antiquity) and it serves my argument to do so:

Sharing wives is an established Tyrrhenian custom. Tyrrhenian women take particular care of their bodies and exercise often, sometimes along with the men, and sometimes by themselves. It is not a disgrace for them to be seen naked. They do not share their couches with their husbands but with the other men who happen to be present, and they propose toasts to anyone they choose. They are expert drinkers and very attractive.  The Tyrrhenians raise all the children that are born, without knowing who their fathers are. The children live the way their parents live, often attending drinking parties and having sexual relations with all the women. It is no disgrace for them to do anything in the open, or to be seen having it done to them, for they consider it a native custom. So far from thinking it disgraceful, they say when someone ask to see the master of the house, and he is making love, that he is doing so-and-so, calling the indecent action by its name. When they are having sexual relations either with courtesans or within their family, they do as follows: after they have stopped drinking and are about to go to bed, while the lamps are still lit, servants bring in courtesans, or boys, or sometimes even their wives. And when they have enjoyed these they bring in boys, and make love to them. They sometimes make love and have intercourse while people are watching them, but most of the time they put screens woven of sticks around the beds, and throw cloths on top of them. They are keen on making love to women, but they particularly enjoy boys and youths. The youths in Tyrrhenia are very good-looking, because they live in luxury and keep their bodies smooth. In fact all the barbarians in the West use pitch to pull out and shave off the hair on their bodies. (Theopompos of Chios, Histories Book 43)

And the Epizephyrii Locrians loved their women so much that they went to fairly extreme lengths in defending their virtue:

And Clearchus, in the fourth book of his Lives, writes as follows:—“But Dionysius, the son of Dionysius, the cruel oppressor of all Sicily, when he came to the city of the Locrians, which was his metropolis, (for Doris his mother was a Locrian woman by birth,) having strewed the floor of the largest house in the city with wild thyme and roses, sent for all the maidens of the Locrians in turn; and then rolled about naked, with them naked also, on this layer of flowers, omitting no circumstance of infamy. And so, not long afterwards, they who had been insulted in this manner having got his wife and children into their power, prostituted them in the public roads with great insult, sparing them no kind of degradation. And when they had wreaked their vengeance upon them, they thrust needles under the nails of their fingers, and put them to death with torture. And when they were dead, they pounded their bones in mortars, and having cut up and distributed the rest of their flesh, they imprecated curses on all who did not eat of it; and in accordance with this unholy imprecation, they put their flesh into the mills with the flour, that it might be eaten by all those who made bread. And all the other parts they sunk in the sea. But Dionysius himself, at last going about as a begging priest of Cybele, and beating the drum, ended his life very miserably. We, therefore, ought to guard against what is called luxury, which is the ruin of a man’s life; and we ought to think insolence the destruction of everything.” (Athenaios, Deipnosphistai 12.58)

Strabo provides confirmation of Dionysius’ abuse of the Locrian maidens:

After the Locrians had lived under good laws for a very long time, Dionysius, on being banished from the country of the Syracusans, abused them most lawlessly of all men. For he would sneak into the bed-chambers of the girls after they had been dressed up for their wedding, and lie with them before their marriage; and he would gather together the girls who were ripe for marriage, let loose doves with cropped wings upon them in the midst of the banquets, and then bid the girls waltz around unclad, and also bid some of them, shod with sandals that were not mates (one high and the other low), chase the doves around—all for the sheer indecency of it. (Geography 6.1.8)

And unlike far too many in contemporary neopaganism the Temesans took a clear stance against rape:

Odysseus, so they say, in his wanderings after the capture of Troy was carried down by gales to various cities of Italy and Sicily, and among them he came with his ships to Temesa. Here one of his sailors got drunk and violated a maiden, for which offence he was stoned to death by the natives. (Pausanias, Description of Greece 6.7)

Women played an important role not only in religion (which is true of most parts of ancient Greece, even Athens) but in the arts and intellectual lives of their cities as well.

For instance, there was Nossis whom Antipater of Thessalonica (Palatine Anthology 9.26) included among the pantheon of female poets alongside Sappho:

Such women with divine tongue raised with hymns the Helicon and so did the peak of the Macedonian Pieria, Praxilla, Moero, the mouth of Anyte, the female Homer, Sappho jewel of Lesbos’ women by the beautiful hair, Erinna, the famous Telesilla and you, Corinna, who sang the fearsome shield of Athena, Nossis by the soothing female voice and the sweet song of Myrtis, all authors of immortal texts.

And justifiably so, for this Locrian maiden penned lovely verses on local subjects such as:

Away from the wretched shoulders threw these shields the Bruttii,
beaten in the fray by the Locrians fast in the fight,
now, laid down in the temple, devote hymns to their bravery,
neither regret the arms of the cowards left without them.
(Palatine Anthology 6.132)

Nothing is sweeter than Love; and every other joy
is second to it: even the honey I spit out of my mouth.
Thus Nossis says: and who didn’t love Kypris,
doesn’t know what sort of roses her flowers are.
(Palatine Anthology 5.170)

Pass by over me with a ringing laugh, and then tell me
a friend word: I am Rinthon, the one of Syracuse.
A small nightingale of the Muses; from the tragic phliaxes
I was able to pick an ivy different and mine.
(Palatine Anthology 7.414)

And women were especially prominent in the Pythagorean communities in Southern Italy.

Iamblichos, for instance, provides the following list of female members of the sect:

The most illustrious Pythagorean women are Timycha, the wife of Myllias the Crotonian. Philtis, the daughter of Theophrius the Crotonian. Byndacis, the sister of Ocellus and Occillus, Lucanians. Chilonis, the daughter of Chilon the Lacedaemonian. Cratesiclea the Lacedaemonian, the wife of Cleanor the Lacedaemonian.  Theano, the wife of Brontinus of Metapontum. Mya, the wife of Milon the Crotonian. Lasthenia the Arcadian. Abrotelia, the daughter of Abroteles the Tarentine. Echecratia the Phliasian. Tyrsenis, the Sybarite. Pisirrhonde, the Tarentine. Nisleadusa, the Lacedaemonian. Bryo, the Argive. Babelyma, the Argive. And Cleaechma, the sister of Autocharidas the Lacedaemonian. (Life of Pythagoras 36)

Diogenes Laertios relates a story about one of the most illustrious of these women:

Telauges wrote nothing, so far as we know, but his mother Theano wrote a few things. Further, a story is told that being asked how many days it was before a woman becomes pure after intercourse, she replied, “With her own husband at once, with another man never.” And she advised a woman going in to her own husband to put off her shame with her clothes, and on leaving him to put it on again along with them. Asked “Put on what?” she replied, “What makes me to be called a woman.” (Lives of Eminent Philosophers 8.43)

Another important Pythagorean woman was Perictyone, who wrote:

A woman should be a harmony of thoughtfulness and temperance. Her soul should be zealous to acquire virtue so that she may be just, brave, prudent, frugal, and hating vainglory. Furnished with these virtues, when she becomes a wife, act worthily towards herself, her husband, her children and her family. She should venerate the gods, thereby hoping to achieve felicity, also by obeying the laws and sacred institutions of her country. For no greater error or injustice can be committed by men than to act impiously towards their parents.

And Phintys, also of the sect, provided this defense of female philosophical aspirations:

Now some people think that it is not appropriate for a woman to be a philosopher, just as a woman should not be a cavalry officer or a politician. I agree that men should be generals and city officials and politicians, and women should keep house and stay inside and receive and take care of their husbands. But I believe that courage, justice, and intelligence are qualities that men and women have in common. Courage and intelligence are more appropriately male qualities because of the strength of men’s bodies and the power of their minds. Chastity is more appropriately female. Women of importance leave the house to sacrifice to the leading divinity of the community on behalf of themselves and their husbands and their households. They do not leave home at night nor in the evening, but at midday, to attend a religious festival or to make some purchase, accompanied by a single female servant or decorously escorted by two servants at most. They make modest sacrifices to the gods also, according to their means. They keep away from secret cults and Cybeline orgies in their homes. For public law prevents women from participating in these rites, particularly because these forms of worship encourage drunkenness and ecstasy. The mistress of the house and head of the household should be chaste and untouched in all respects.

So there you go. Greek men’s attitudes toward women were hardly monolithic, even in this particular region. Though clearly women were much better treated in Italy than in Attica.

Day III. To Hermes Hermêneutês

Hermes the interpreter, intercessor,
and inconvenience eliminator I pray,
you who bear messages to and from
men and Gods and the dead
and make signs for us to find
in books, on billboards,
through songs and overheard snatches
of random conversation,
Hunt Master and pattern finder,
manipulator of meaning
and expert navigator of chaos and flux,
help me as once you came to the assistance
of waywinding Odysseus when he was
on the isle of the lovely sorcerous Queen
from the faraway barbarian North.
You gave him the flower that Óðr
once went in search of
which can transform even the stoniest of hearts,
taught him techniques for unbinding enchantments,
told him clever words to say
and how she liked a man who acted
direct, dominant and assertive,
and so it went well for him.
He did not become like one
of those wretched, sniveling, powerless beasts
who like to gorge themselves on soybeans
and wallow in filth, ignorant
of their true identities and potential.
Hermes, if it is within your power I pray,
likewise spare my people from such an ignoble fate.
It’s one thing to be lovely-thighed Kirke’s oinking footstool,
far worse to be reduced to a servile state by nothing,
bad politics, marketing and modernity.

Auch ich in Arkadien

It is my belief that the Goddess Freyja appears in Greek mythology under the guise of Kírkē, daughter of Helios and sister of Pasiphaë.

I first began to form this belief after reading in Simon Halink’s Asgard Revisited: Old Norse Mythology and Icelandic National Culture 1820-1918 of Óðr’s quest for a magical flower capable of transforming the harsh heart of the Witch of the North:

In the South, Óður meets Apollo, god of light and poetry, who leads the way to a magical flower which symbolises the warm virtues of the South. Óður takes the flower to Ásgarðr where he presents it to his wife, who is not only the goddess of love but also of war and therefore arguably too belligerent to personify Benedikt’s more Romantic concept of love. The hard, martial element in Freyja’s character is here symbolised by Brísingamen; a piece of mythical jewelry generally considered to be a necklace but here presented as a brooch. Upon Óður’s return, this cold metal object is dramatically shattered and replaced by the flower of the South.

The literary theme of a quest for a hidden flower with supernatural (transformative) powers did not arise from the Eddic sources themselves, but forms a quintessentially Romantic trope which started with Novalis’s ‘blue flower’: an allegory for the Romantic ideals of nature, inspiration, and the Sublime. This theme already inspired Bjarni Thorarensen’s application of ‘white lilies’ in his Sigrúnarljóð (‘Sigrún’s Song’; 1820), but in Brísingamen the flower is for the first time applied as a symbol not of personal, but rather national transformation and regeneration. This innovative resignification serves as a good example of how the personal (or subjective), the natural, and the national (Volksgeist) are intertwined in the Romantic imagination.

The poem ends with the rather non-descriptive remark that the reunited lovers ‘returned home’, but this does not diminish the monumental message Benedikt tries to convey in these verses. The love goddess Freyja, stripped of her Nordic harshness (Brísingamen) and adorned with the flower of Southern love and warmth, personifies Benedikt’s ideal of a balanced symbiosis of Nordic and Southern/classical characteristics.

Which immediately made me think of the magical μῶλυ flower given by Hermes, rich in wiles, to the πολυτρόπως (‘much-traveled’ or ‘of many forms, personalities’) hero Odysseus, so that he might counteract Kírkē’s seductive sorceries and win over her savage Southern heart:

And with that I left the ship and shore and took the path upward; but as I traversed those haunted glades and was approaching the palace of Kirke the enchantress I was met by golden-wanded Hermes; he seemed a youth in the lovely spring of life, with the first down upon his lip. He seized my hand and spoke thus to me : “Luckless man, why are you walking thus alone over these hills, in country you do not know? Your comrades are yonder in Kirke’s grounds; they are turned to swine, lodged and safely penned in. Is your errand here to rescue them? I warn you, you will never return yourself, you will only be left with the others there. Yet no–I am ready to save you from all hazards, ready to keep you unscathed. Look. Here is a flower of magic virtue; take it and enter Kirke’s house with it; then the day of evil never will touch your head. I will tell you of all her witch’s arts. She will brew a potion for you, but with good things she will mingle drugs as well. Yet even so, she will not be able to enchant you; my gift of the magic flower will thwart her. (Homer, Odyssey 10.274-90)

And that’s when my head began whirling like a falcon’s gyre.

Κίρκη, you see, means either “falcon” (from κίρκος) or “ring” (from κρίκος) – both of which ultimately derive from the Proto-Indo-European *(s)ker- “to bend, turn, or move in a circular fashion.”

Judith Yarnall in Transformations of Circe: The History of an Enchantress argues that:

… the more the association of hawks with Circe’s character is investigated, the more convincing it becomes. The ornithological aspect of her name has a familial significance, since her brother Aietes’ name derives from aietos, meaning eagle. The name of her island Aiaia, may be based upon a West Semitic word for hawk, ayya, though we have no way of knowing for sure. But there are better, more encompassing reasons for seeing the hawk in Circe. Long before Homer imagined Circe, birds had been associated with the divine. According to Marija Gimbutas, birds appear in the prehistoric art of Europe and Asia Minor as “the main epiphany of the Goddess as Giver-of-all, including life and death, happiness and wealth.” Flesh-eating birds such as hawks and vultures possess a distinct but related tradition of iconography that was particularly strong in Anatolia, along whose Aegean coast Homer probably spent most of his professional life. This tradition is particularly relevant to Circe. According to Gimbutas birds of prey, when they appear in prehistoric art, “are omens of death and epiphanies of the Death-Wielder.” The tradition of a Vulture/Hawk Goddess who was indigenous to Asia Minor appears to stretch from neolithic Çatal Hüyük to Hellenistic times. At one of the oldest levels of settlement James Mellaart unearthed what he calls “Vulture Shrines,” mudbrick rooms painted with murals depicting the great birds swooping down with their ominous, outspread wings upon headless human bodies. These murals pictured part of this people’s death rites, for they exposed corpses to be picked clean before burying the bones beneath the floors of their houses. The human legs of one of the vultures suggest that it is more than just a bird, actually the Goddess herself in the form of a vulture. Gimbutas, following Mellaart’s interpretation, calls her, “She Who Takes Away Life, maleficent twin of She Who Gives Life.” The huge birds are not black but red, a color strongly associated with the blood of animal life and suggestive, therefore, of regeneration. In a shrine at a higher level Mellaart’s workers found a pair of heavy plaster breasts, with beaks in the place of nipples, protruding from a wall; they were found to be modelled over griffon vulture skulls. What image could express more directly or intensely the two sides of the Goddess? More than eight thousand years after its creation, this symbolism still arrests and appalls. In the millenia following Çatal Hüyük, raptors rather than vultures became the birds most often associated in Anatolia with the Goddess.           

A similar origin is sometimes proposed for Freyja, for instance in Valgerður H. Bjarnadóttir’s Prolegomena to a cosmology of healing in Vanir Norse mythology:

Falcon in Old Norse and Icelandic is valr, the same name as for those who die in battle, the slain. The valr were likely originally the bird messengers of the great goddess of death and regeneration, having a function very similar to the vultures shown on the 8,000 year old walls of Catal Hüyük, where we also find a statue of a goddess with two lions or panthers (cats) by her side. This reference to the vultures of Catal Hüyük is not meant to indicate a direct correlation between the goddess culture in Anatolia in prehistoric times and the culture of the Vanir, although such a relationship could be argued for. It is meant to give an indication of the role of the fateful birdgoddess wherever she is found in the world. Death for her is a part of a spiraling process, of nurturing and being nurtured; she is as active in the slaying part as in the reviving and healing part, but those parts cannot be separated. The valkyrjur, those who weave the web of fate for men in battle are, like the nornir and dís, female beings who play an important role in the fate of individuals of human and divine ancestry, as well as the fate of the worlds. A part of their role is nurturing, healing, and regenerating. They serve, tend to, nurture and heal the dead in Valhöll and Fólkvangur every night after the day’s battle, so that in the morning they can rise again. Some valkyrjur take it upon themselves to protect certain people from death, they were their hamingjur or fylgjur. Although in so many of the myths that have come down to us they are connected to the battlefield, we can assume that they had a function around life, death and rebirth even in times when war was an unknown phenomenon. The many poems about valkyrjur, of whom the Völsunga poems are the best known, show well the enormous power to do good and ill those beings were thought to have. We also see from the poems and stories that they were thought to be woman, bird, gyðja and vættur all at once.

Remnants of which can be found in Eddic tales such as Þrymskviða:

The poem Þrymskviða features Loki borrowing Freyja’s cloak of feathers and Thor dressing up as Freyja to fool the lusty jötunn Þrymr. In the poem, Thor wakes up to find that his powerful hammer, Mjöllnir, is missing. Thor tells Loki of his missing hammer, and the two go to the beautiful court of Freyja. Thor asks Freyja if she will lend him her cloak of feathers, so that he may try to find his hammer. Freyja agrees, “That I would give thee, although of gold it were, and trust it to thee, though it were of silver.” Loki flies away in the whirring feather cloak, arriving in the land of Jötunheimr. He spies Þrymr sitting on top of a mound. Þrymr reveals that he has hidden Thor’s hammer deep within the earth and that no one will ever know where the hammer is unless Freyja is brought to him as his wife. Loki flies back, the cloak whistling, and returns to the courts of the gods. Loki tells Thor of Þrymr’s conditions. The two go to see the beautiful Freyja. The first thing that Thor says to Freyja is that she should dress herself and put on a bride’s headdress, for they shall drive to Jötunheimr. At that, Freyja is furious—the halls of the gods shake, she snorts in anger, and from the goddess the necklace Brísingamen falls. Indignant, Freyja responds, “Most lustful indeed should I look to all if I journeyed with thee to the giants’ home.” The gods and goddesses assemble at a thing and debate how to solve the problem. The god Heimdallr proposes to dress Thor up as a bride, complete with bridal dress, headdress, jingling keys, jewelry, and the famous Brísingamen. Thor objects but is hushed by Loki, reminding him that the new owners of the hammer will soon be settling in the land of the gods if the hammer isn’t returned. Thor is dressed as planned and Loki is dressed as his maid. Thor and Loki go to Jötunheimr. In the meantime, Thrym tells his servants to prepare for the arrival of the daughter of Njörðr. When “Freyja” arrives in the morning, Thrym is taken aback by her behavior; her immense appetite for food and mead is far more than what he expected, and when Thrym goes in for a kiss beneath “Freyja’s” veil he finds “her” eyes to be terrifying, and he jumps down the hall. The disguised Loki makes excuses for the bride’s odd behavior, claiming that she simply has not eaten or slept for eight days. In the end, the disguises successfully fool the jötnar and, upon sight of it, Thor regains his hammer by force. (Wikipedia, s.v. Freyja)

And Skáldskaparmál:

At the beginning of the book Skáldskaparmál, Freyja is mentioned among eight goddesses attending a banquet held for Ægir. Chapter 56 details the abduction of the goddess Iðunn by the jötunn Þjazi in the form of an eagle. Terrified at the prospect of death and torture due to his involvement in the abduction of Iðunn, Loki asks if he may use Freyja’s “falcon shape” to fly north to Jötunheimr and retrieve the missing goddess. Freyja allows it, and using her “falcon shape” Loki successfully returns Iðunn after a furious chase by eagle-Þjazi. (ibid)

Freyja’s falcon cloak speaks to the shamanic currents within seiðr, an ecstatic practice which Wikipedia describes as follows:

Seiðr is believed to come from Proto-Germanic *saiðaz, cognate with Lithuanian saitas, “sign, soothsaying” and Proto-Celtic *soito– “sorcery”, all derived from Proto-Indo-European *soi-to- “string, rope”, ultimately from the Proto-Indo-European root *seH2i- “to bind”.

Related words in Old High German and Old English refer to “cord, string,” or “snare, cord, halter” and there is a line in verse 15 of the skaldic poem Ragnarsdrápa that uses seiðr in that sense.  However, it is not clear how this derivation relates to the practice of seiðr. It has been suggested that the use of a cord in attraction may be related to seiðr, where attraction is one element of the practice of seiðr magic described in Norse literature and with witchcraft in Scandinavian folklore.  However, if seiðr involved “spinning charms”, that would explain the distaff, a tool used in spinning flax or sometimes wool, that appears to be associated with seiðr practice.

Old English terms cognate with seiðr are siden and sidsa, both of which are attested only in contexts that suggest that they were used by elves (ælfe); these seem likely to have meant something similar to seiðr. Among the Old English words for practitioners of magic are wicca (m.) or wicce (f.), the etymons of Modern English “witch”.

Seiðr involved the incantation of spells (galðrar, sing. galðr) and possibly a circular dance. Practitioners of seiðr were predominantly women (vǫlva or seiðkonaseiðr woman”), although there were male practitioners (seiðmaðrseiðr-man”) as well.

These female practitioners were religious leaders of the Viking community and usually required the help of other practitioners to invoke their deities, gods or spirits. The seiðr ritual required not just the powers of a female spiritual medium but of the spiritual participation of other women within the Norse community: it was a communal effort. As they are described in a number of other Scandinavian sagas, Saga of Erik the Red in particular, the female practitioners connected with the spiritual realm through chanting and prayer. Viking texts suggest that the seiðr ritual was used in times of inherent crisis, as a tool used in the process of seeing into the future, and for cursing and hexing one’s enemies. With that said, it could have been used for great good or destructive evil, as well as for daily guidance.

In the 13th century Saga of Eric the Red, there was a seiðkona or vǫlva in Greenland named Thorbjǫrg (“Protected by Thor”). She wore a blue cloak and a headpiece of black lamb trimmed with white ermine, carried the symbolic distaff (seiðstafr), which was buried with her, and would sit on a high platform. As related in the Saga:

Now, when she came in the evening, accompanied by the man who had been sent to meet her, she was dressed in such wise that she had a blue mantle over her, with strings for the neck, and it was inlaid with gems quite down to the skirt. On her neck she had glass beads. On her head she had a black hood of lambskin, lined with ermine. A staff she had in her hand, with a knob thereon; it was ornamented with brass, and inlaid with gems round about the knob. Around her she wore a girdle of soft hair (or belt of touch wood), and therein was a large skin-bag, in which she kept the talismans needful to her in her wisdom. She wore hairy calf-skin shoes on her feet, with long and strong-looking thongs to them, and great knobs of latten at the ends. On her hands she had gloves of ermine-skin, and they were white and hairy within.

Practices Freyja was responsible for spreading among the Gods:

Like Oðinn, the Norse goddess Freyja is also associated with seiðr in the surviving literature. In the Ynglinga saga (c.1225), written by Icelandic poet Snorri Sturluson, it is stated that seiðr had originally been a practice among the Vanir, but that Freyja, who was herself a member of the Vanir, had introduced it to the Æsir when she joined them. Freyja is identified in Ynglinga saga as an adept of the mysteries of seiðr, and it is said that it was she who taught it to Oðinn: “Njǫrðr’s daughter was Freyja. She presided over the sacrifice. It was she who first acquainted the Æsir with seiðr, which was customary among the Vanir.” (ibid)

And among mankind:

Because of her knowledge of seiðr, Freyja was the prophetess for the gods in Ásgarðr. But on earth or Miðgarðr, it was the vǫlva (pl. vǫlur), her priestesses, who could simulate Freyja’s prophetic function, although the distinction between the divinity and her priestesses could become quite blurred, if not fully identical. This is well illustrated in the Sörla þáttr where Freyja disguises herself as a vǫlva by the name of Göndul and is then solicited for numinous knowledge by an earthly king. Based on the written evidence as well as the archaeological discoveries of graves belonging to vǫlur – in all cases associated with very wealthy and distinguished women – the cult was widespread and much revered in Viking-age Scandinavia. Written and archaeological sources connect the cult of the vǫlur and the vǫlur themselves with birds and their sacrifice. For one, excavations of vǫlur graves have revealed that they were often buried with birds. Thus, in one tenth-century grave (the richest) at the Fyrkat cemetery in Denmark, identified as belonging to a vǫlva, a wooden chest filled with the remains of bones of birds and small animals was placed at the feet of the deceased female. Also, aside from the female figures with bird heads represented on the Oseberg tapestry, the boat grave of the two women (a least one of whom is identified as a vǫlva/priestess) also contained a pile of down and feathers, inside of which were placed cannabis seeds (most likely used in shamanic ritual). But, the most compelling evidence comes from the written records. Erik the Red Saga relates that during her prophetic vision ceremony in Greenland in ca. 1000, a vǫlva sat on a special high-seat on which a pillow was placed and that this pillow had to be stuffed with hen’s feathers. In his famous eyewitness account of 921/22, Ibn Fadlān observed how a rooster and hens were sacrificed during the funeral of a Rus’ chief in the middle Volga area, administered by an old woman/priestess whom he called the “Angel of Death.” Erik the Red Saga provides invaluable details on the function of the vǫlva and the nature of Freyja herself. Aside from noting the vǫlva’s use of a pillow stuffed with hen feathers when she sat on her special high-seat, it describes her attire, various ritual objects she bore such as her staff (representing a distaff used in weaving), and the ceremony she performed. Other sagas that speak of vǫlur corroborate many of these details, leading historians of Nordic religion to conclude that the vǫlva had much in common with a shaman priestess performing classic shamanic rites. To attain the visions and insight into the future, it was required that the vǫlva, like her chief priestess Freyja, traveled in spirit into the “other world.” To do so, as H.R.E. Davidson put it so well in regard to Freyja, she took “on a bird-form, which meant that she could journey far in some shape other than human. As goddess of the Vanir, the prosperity of the community and marriage of young people were within her province, and these were precisely the subjects on which the vǫlva used to be consulted.” This then further elucidates the connection of the goddess and her vǫlur with birds as well as sheds much light on the origins of their prophetic visions and wisdom or numinous knowledge that it brings. All that can be added is the obvious other feature of the falcon’s natural attributes – extraordinary eyesight, which may well have added to its connection with the “seeress” divinity and her priestesses. (Roman K. Kovalev, Grand Princess Olga of Rus’ Shows the Bird: Her ‘Christian Falcon’ Emblem)

Shamanic shapeshifting also comes up in Freyja’s relationship with her favored hero Ottar, renowned for his piety and cleverness. Indeed, as Freyja tells Hyndla in the Hyndluljóð, the young hero won the Goddess’ heart by:

“Making for me a shrine of stones,
which has turned to glass
from all the blood of oxen
he has spilt on it;
always in the Asynjor
has Ottar placed his trust.”

And now, in danger of losing his paternal inheritance because details of his genealogy are vague, Freyja intercedes on behalf of Ottar, summoning Hyndla the Giantess and völva from her oracular cave to accompany her on a mission to Valhalla to convince Óðinn to grant him a boon. Hyndla’s mount is a wolf, and Freyja rides Ottar, whom she has transformed into her battle-swine Hildisvíni. But Hyndla, whom Freyja had earlier called her sister and girlfriend, sees through the magical ruse:

“Falsely you asked me, Freyja, to go,
for I see in the glance of your eyes
that your lover goes with us
on the way to the slain,
Ottar the young, the son of Instein.”

At first Freyja attempts to keep the gambit going:

“I think you’re having a wild dream
when you say my lover is with me
on the way of the slain;
there shines the boar with bristles of gold,
he who was made by Dain and Nabbi,
the cunning dwarfs.”

But then relents, and confesses the true reason for asking her along – to use Hyndla’s keen sight to look back and recount the ancestors of Ottar, that he may claim what is owed him.

After Hyndla accuses Freyja of being an unfaithful whore:

“Eagerly to Óðr did you run,
whose love was constant,
though many under your apron have crawled;
my noble one, you leap out in the night
like Heiðrún in search of goats.”

Freyja threatens to set her on fire, which Hyndla warns will have dire repercussions:

“Flames I see burning,
the earth is on fire,
and all will pay the price
losing their precious lives;
yes, even your Ottar, too,
will drink a venomous brew
and suffer an evil fate.”

The two eventually reach an agreement, and Hyndla recites Ottar’s genealogy going all the way back to the Gods and further to primordial creation. Freyja then asks that Ottar be given memory-beer so that he may have perfect recall of everything the Giantess has just told him for up to three days.

It is interesting that Freyja asks the Giantess to procure the memory-beer for Ottar, since Njörðr’s daughter herself is often the dispenser of magical potions and sacred beverages:

The “drink of precious mead” (drykk hins dyra miadar), “the ale of memory” (minnis aul), the “Poetry Stir” (Óðrerir), thus is the drink called that the Maiden offers to the hero after trials of initiation. This drink is connected to the three wells and is somehow drawn from them through the leaves of the World Tree by an entity who has the shape of a goat but who could equally well be the Great Goddess. The mead has a transformative effect and keeps the drinkers eternally alive. It is associated with “hidden knowledge”. Through the Maiden-mythology, we learn that it is strongly associated with memory of what is taught in the Other Worlds, that it conveys secrets of the cosmos, the knowledge of runes, fate, healing and poetry. As Sigrdrífa said, it is filled with good charms and runes of pleasure, manliness and power. It is offered by a goddess to a man who is her lover. (Maria Kvilhaug, The Maiden with the Mead – a Goddess of Initiation in Norse Myths)

Passages in the Poetic and Younger Eddas often depict her acting as a cupbearer (i.e., in the Skaldskapurmål, where Freyja is the only one who dares pour for the bellicose giant Hrungnir). According to Snorre Sturlason’s Heimskringla, the title húsfreyja (literally “lady of the house,”) which derived directly from the name of the love goddess, was an honorific given to a woman who owned her own estate. Freyja clearly embodied a number of what were considered to be highly desirable feminine characteristics of elite women in Old Norse culture. (M. Mattsson McGinnis, Depending on Sex? Tongue, sieve, and ladle shaped pendants from late Iron Age Gotland)

A role with profound religious, political and socioeconomic significance in the lands of the North, as McGinnis goes on to show:

Drinking rituals and the “great halls” in which such rituals would have taken place are probably some of the most emblematic elements of Viking culture in terms of both the amount of scholarship dedicated to the topic and how the lives of late-ancient and medieval Scandinavians are conceived of in the popular imagination. Central to these conceptions is the figure of the “lady of the hall” acting in the role of “lady with the mead cup” (as she is named in Michael J. Enright’s eponymous work on this topic), who is by now a very familiar archetype within Viking studies. The prominent role women played in ceremonial imbibing, and thus in the sociopolitical and religious processes to which these ceremonies were so integral, in Iron Age and early medieval Scandinavia is supported by a variety of literary, documentary, and archaeological sources. Goddesses and heroines are depicted in the role of sacralized hostess and peacemaker in the Eddas and the Old Icelandic sagas and the oldest extant Scandinavian law code, the Grágás laws of Iceland, even cites the ritualized drinking of ale served by the new bride as an essential requirement for a marriage to be considered valid. This strong association between women and the ritual service of alcohol is particularly manifest in the archaeological record of the Baltic island of Gotland, located southeast of the Swedish mainland. Here the motif of a female figure bearing a drinking horn and presenting it to a male warrior riding on a horse or sitting in a high seat is frequently repeated on the island’s famed Viking Age picture stones, and costly Roman-style drinking utensils have been found in both male and female graves from the Roman Iron Age onwards.

A function Freyja shares with the daughter of the Sun:

As soon as we arrived and reached the portal, lions, bears and wolves, hundreds of them together, rushed at us and filled our hearts with fear; but fear we found was false; they meant no single scratch of harm. No, they were gentle and they wagged their tails and fawned on us and followed us along, until the maids-in-waiting welcomed us and led us through the marble vestibule into their mistress’ presence. There she sat, in a fine chamber, on a stately throne, in purple robe and cloak of woven gold; and in attendance Nymphae and Nereides, whose nimble fingers never comb a fleece nor spin a skein, but sort and set in baskets grasses and flowers, heaped in disarray, and herbs of many hues; and as they work she guides and watches, knowing well the lore of every leaf, what blend is best, and checks them closely as the plants are weighed. She saw us then and, salutations made, her welcome seemed an answer to our prayers. At once she bade the servants mix a brew of roasted barley, honey and strong wine and creamy curds, and then, to be disguised in the sweet taste, she poured her essences. We took the bowls she handed. Our throats were dry and thirsty; we drank deep. (Ovid, Metamorphoses 14.245-73)

Which was represented in temples at Circaeum:

Kirkaion in Italy is a mountain which has the form of an island, because it is surrounded by sea and marshes. They further say that Kirkaion is a place that abounds in medicinal roots – perhaps because they associate it with the myth about Kirke. It has a little city and a temple of Kirke and an altar of Athene, and people there show you a sort of bowl which, they say, belonged to Odysseus. (Strabo, Geography 5.3.6)

And Olympia:

There is represented a grotto and in it a woman reclining with a man on a couch, as at a feast. I was of the opinion that they were Odysseus and Kirke, basing my view upon the number of the handmaidens in front of the grotto and upon what they are doing. For the women are four, and they are engaged in the tasks which Homer mentions in his poetry. (Pausanias, Description of Greece 5.19.7)

We frequently find Kírkē protecting the sanctity of the home through cleansing rites, as when her niece Mēdeia and her companion Iásōn show up at Kírkē’s door polluted from the various crimes they’d committed during their wanderings, as Apollonios Rhodios relates in the fourth book of his Argonautika:

Kirke, at a loss to know why they had come, invited them to sit in polished chairs; but without a word they made for the hearth and sat down there after the manner of suppliants in distress. Medeia hid her face in her hands, Jason fixed in the ground his great hilted sword with which he had killed Apsyrtos, and neither of them looked her in the face. So she knew at once that these were fugitives with murder on their hands and took the course laid down by Zeus, the God of Suppliants, who heartily abhors the killing of a man, and yet as heartily befriends the killer. First, to atone for the unexpiated murder, she took a suckling pig from a sow with dugs still swollen after littering. Holding it over them she cut its throat and let the blood fall on their hands. Next she propitiated Zeus with other libations, calling on him as the Cleanser, who listens to a murderer’s prayers with friendly ears. Then the attendant Naiades who did her housework carried all the refuse out of doors. But she herself stayed by the hearth, burning cakes and other wineless offerings with prayers to Zeus, in the hope that she might cause the loathsome Erinyes to relent, and that he himself might once more smile upon this pair, whether the hands they lifted up to him were stained with a kinsman’s or a stranger’s blood. When all was done she raised them up, seated them in polished chairs and taking a seat near by, where she could watch their faces, she began by asking them to tell her what had brought them overseas and why they had sought asylum at her hearth.

And later, after Odysseus has bested her with his iron will and the aid of Hermes:

So I spoke, and she swore at once the thing I asked for. When Kirke had uttered the due appointed words, I lay down at last in her sumptuous bed. All this while four handmaids of hers were busying themselves about the palace. She has them for her household tasks, and they come from springs, they come from groves, they come from the sacred rivers flowing seawards. One spread the chairs with fine crimson covers above and with linen cloths beneath; in front of the chairs, a second drew up silver tables on which she laid gold baskets for bread; a third mixed honey-sweet lovely wine in a silver bowl and set the golden goblets out; the fourth brought water and lit a great fire under a massive cauldron. The water warmed; and when it boiled in the bright bronze vessel, the Goddess made me sit in a bath and bathed me with water from the cauldron, tampering hot and cold to my mind and pouring it over my head and shoulders until she had banished from my limbs the weariness that had sapped my spirit. And having washed me and richly appointed me with oil, she dressed me in a fine cloak and tunic, led me forward and gave me a tall silver-studded chair to sit on–handsome and cunningly made–with a stool beneath it for the feet. She bade me eat, but my heart was not on eating. (Homer, Odyssey 10.345-74)

We also find Kírkē offering hospitality to Odysseus and his companions and performing a different sort of cleansing rite after their return from the Underworld:

Our coming back did not escape the watchfulness of Kirke. She attired herself and hastened towards us, while the handmaidens with her brought bread and meat in plenty, and glowing red wine. Then, coming forward to stand among us, the Queenly Goddess began to speak, ‘Undaunted men who went down alive to Haides’ dwelling, men fated to taste death twice over, while other men taste of it but once,–come now, eat food and drink wine here all day. At break of morning you must set sail, and I myself will tell you the way and make each thing clear, so that no ill scheming on sea or land may bring you to misery and mischief.’ Such were her words, and our own hearts accepted them. So all that day, till the sun set, we sat and feasted on plenteous meat and delicious wine. When the sun went and darkness came, my men lay down to sleep by the vessel’s hawsers, but as for myself, the Goddess took me by the hand and made me sit down apart; she lay down near me and questioned me about everything, and I told her all from first to last. (Homer, Odyssey 12.20-35)

That cathartic ceremony was undoubtedly a hieros gamos, for Kírkē was the high priestess of archaic sexual mysteries:

In the Ancient world, the Master of the Animals maintained order by controlling the beasts that lived in the desert and the mountains. These wild animals signified disorder. Just as the Master of the Animals provided order, so did the Mistress of the Animals, who also controlled them. The Mistress was naked, bringing female sexuality into play and female sexual dominion over the animal world. Depictions of naked goddesses probably originated in Egypt, Palestine and Syria. In Egypt, the female demon Beset, which was portrayed nude and holding snakes in both hands, protected houses against evil. Naked women were engraved on shields, swords and other weapons. These representations were aimed at protecting soldiers from the enemy. Some of these items arrived in Greece during the Orientalising period and were found in sanctuaries such as the Heraion of Samos and the Idaean cave on Crete. Circe’s naked body and men-pig portraits are found on archaic vase paintings. Circe is portrayed as a beautiful goddess who is sexually attractive, Mistress of wild animals who seduces men and transforms them into domesticated animals. She is fair-tressed. Her voice is sweet. She dresses in lovely clothes. She is at the same time a cruel, irrational goddess capable of awful acts of badness. She confronts Odysseus, trying to seduce him, to control him sexually. She then becomes a protection and an adviser for Odysseus and his men against the Sirens and in the Underworld. Her cruel behaviour contrasts with her love towards the hero. Coulter writes of her as a combination of fairy Mistress and cruel witch. Circe represented a relationship of seduction and concubinage, which went against patriarchal societal rules. Women that deviated from their social role were seen as acting against their rational soul and moving into the irrational which lead to disaster. Women that were without a kurios, or male authority, were seen as an anomaly in the patriarchal system. They were presented as incapable of controlling their sexual desires and keen to evoke the irrational. Men had to control women’s instincts. Circe is the anti-social goddess who influenced representations of posterior sorceresses and magicians. Magicians are marginal figures of society and women were marginal in Greece. Those that did not follow the established rules were at risk to be targeted. Circe is acting against these rules. She is an independent woman, unmarried, living without a patron and a foreigner inhabiting their land. This depiction also presented characteristics of the Greek ideal wife such as her weaving, which was divine. She is both the dangerous sexual goddess that makes men lose their minds and the ideal oikos wife. (Javier Girona Martinez, The goddess Circe in Homer’s Odyssey)

Indeed, she was so sexually alluring that the Goddess Aphrodite once borrowed her appearance:

Of a sudden Venus was sitting on Medea’s bed, having changed her heavenly form to that of a counterfeit Circe, Titan’s daughter, with broidered robe and magic wand. But the girl, as though mocked by the lingering image of a dream, gazes perplexed and only little by little deems her to be the sister of her mighty sire; then in tearful joy she sprang forward and of her own accord kissed the cruel Goddess. (Valerius Flaccus, Argonautica 7.210)

This is why Hermes counseled the wise and faithful hero Odysseus that the sensual sorcery of Kírkē was an ambiguous blessing, capable of bringing about alternately ecstasy and joy or inversion and unmanning:

“She will shrink back, and then ask you to lie with her. At this you must let her have her way; she is a Goddess; accept her bed, so that she may release your comrades and make you her cherished guest. But first, make her swear the great oath of the Blessed Ones by the river Styx to plot no mischief to you thenceforward–if not, while you lie naked there, she may rob you of courage and of manhood.” (Homer, Odyssey 10:291-300)

One is reminded of the year that the Mediterranean’s greatest hero spent as a submissive transvestite serving an Oriental Goddess-Queen in order to learn the feminine mysteries of weaving from her:

Texts of the first and second centuries describe Omphale in two quite different ways. The Greek mythographers and those who preserve their stories, especially Diodorus Siculus and Apollodorus, follow one textual path. They indicate that Hercules, ill after committing murder, allowed himself to be sold into slavery as expiation. He was bought by Omphale the queen of the Lydians, whom Apollodorus refers to as having inherited the throne from her husband and whom Diodorus calls virgin queen. Hercules’ heroic deeds in the queen’s service and the passage of the necessary period of time result in his cure and freedom. The mythographers’ story retains the dignity of the protagonists and has no indication of exchange of clothing. The work of the poets and playwrights of the first and early second centuries take another path and emphasize the romantic or mocking elements of the story. The writers of the period insist on Hercules’ ludicrousness and Omphale’s domination of him through sex, and they find diverse ways to insult her for it. They call Omphale puella, girl; Ovid and Propertius comment on her body and the luxurious clothing she wears, and they say she made Hercules spin with her maids – the ultimate abasement. Ovid, like Lucian writing a century later, remarks on Omphale’s domination of Hercules, and the latter depicts Omphale slapping the hero with her slipper in a mixture of seduction and sadism visible in the comparable late Hellenistic statue of Aphrodite threatening Pan with a sandal. When Ovid has Deianeira describe Omphale in the Heroides, she is speaking in anger and jealousy, but she calls Omphale whore and concubine, describes how the mistress threatens and beats the hero, and asserts that the conqueror is conquered. Augustan artists and writers made specifically political use of the motif to compliment the emperor by disparaging his enemy Mark Antony. They used Antony’s self-identification with Hercules to pillory him by connecting Cleopatra with Omphale. Propertius in 3.11 marches out Medea, Penthesilea, and Semiramis along with Omphale in order to make clear the connection between the East and the dominating woman Cleopatra, while earlier Cicero’s invective against Antony or Verres and Plutarch’s later use of Omphale as the dominating woman in the Pericles and the Antony make such women the mirror that reveals the moral flaws and weaknesses of male political enemies. (Natalie Kampen, Omphale and the Instability of Gender)

Notably, this was an art Kírkē taught Odysseus:

Odysseus hastened to tie the cunning knot which Lady Kirke had brought to his knowledge in other days. (Homer, Odyssey 8.447)

Such emasculating fears were woven into seiðr as well, as we see in the acid remarks Loki directs at Óðinn in the Lokasenna:

“They say that with spells in Samsey once
Like witches with charms didst thou work;
And in witch’s guise among men didst thou go;
Unmanly thy soul must seem.”

This is also the poem where Loki and Freyja have a heated argument about sexual morality and gender roles:

In the poem Lokasenna, where Loki accuses nearly every female in attendance of promiscuity or unfaithfulness, an aggressive exchange occurs between Loki and Freyja. The introduction to the poem notes that among other gods and goddesses, Freyja attends a celebration held by Ægir. In verse, after Loki has flyted with the goddess Frigg, Freyja interjects, telling Loki that he is insane for dredging up his terrible deeds, and that Frigg knows the fate of everyone, though she does not tell it. Loki tells her to be silent, and says that he knows all about her—that Freyja is not lacking in blame, for each of the gods and elves in the hall have been her lover. Freyja objects. She says that Loki is lying, that he is just looking to blather about misdeeds, and since the gods and goddesses are furious at him, he can expect to go home defeated. Loki tells Freyja to be silent, calls her a malicious witch, and conjures a scenario where Freyja was once astride her brother when all of the gods, laughing, surprised the two. Njörðr interjects—he says that a woman having a lover other than her husband is harmless, and he points out that Loki has borne children, and calls Loki a pervert. The poem continues in turn. (Wikipedia, s.v. Freyja)

Not the first or the last time they sparred over such matters, as we read in Sörla Þáttur 1 & 2:

To the East of Vanakvisl in Asia was a country called Asialand or Asiaheim. Its inhabitants were called Æsir and the chief city they called Asgarth. Othin was the name of their King, and it was a great place for heathen sacrifices. Othin appointed Njörth and Frey as priests. Njörth had a daughter called Freyja who accompanied Othin and was his mistress. There were four men in Asia called Alfregg, Dvalin, Berling and Grer, who dwelt not far from the King’s hall, and who were so clever that they could turn their hands to anything. Men of this kind were called dwarfs. They dwelt in a rock, but at that time they mixed more with men than they do now. Othin loved Freyja very much, and she was the fairest of all women in her day. She had a bower of her own which was beautiful and strong, and it was said that if the door was closed and bolted, no-one could enter the bower against her will. It chanced one day that Freyja went to the rock and found it open, and the dwarfs were forging a gold necklace, which was almost finished. Freyja was charmed with the necklace, and the dwarfs with Freyja. She asked them to sell it, offering gold and silver and other costly treasures in exchange for it. The dwarfs replied that they were not in need of money, but each one said that he would give up his share in the necklace for nothing else except  for her to lie one night with each of them. And at the end of four nights they handed it to Freyja. She went home to her bower and kept silence about it as if nothing had happened.

There was a man called Farbauti who was a peasant and had a wife called Laufey. She was thin and meagre, and so she was called ‘Needle.’ They had no children except a son who was called Loki. He was not a big man, but he early developed a caustic tongue and was alert in trickery and unequalled in that kind of cleverness which is called cunning. He was very full of guile even in his youth, and for this reason he was called Loki the Sly. He set off to Othin’s home in Asgarth and became his man. Othin always had a good word for him whatever he did, and often laid heavy tasks upon him, all of which he performed better than could have been expected. He also knew almost everything that happened, and he told Othin whatever he knew. Now it is said that Loki got to know that Freyja had received the necklace … and this he told to Othin. And when Othin heard of it he told Loki to fetch him the necklace. Loki said that there was not much hope of that, because no-one could get into Freyja’s bower against her will. Othin told him to go, and not come back without the necklace. So Loki went off howling, and everyone was glad that he had got into trouble. He went to Freyja’s bower, but it was locked. He tried to get in but could not. The weather outside was very cold and he became thoroughly chilled. Then he turned himself into a fly, and flew around all the bolts and along the whole of the woodwork, but nowhere could he find a hole big enough to enter by, right up to the gable. He found only a hole no bigger than would allow of the insertion of a needle. Through this hole he crept. And when he got inside he stared around, wondering if anyone was awake. But he found that the room was all wrapped in slumber. Then he went in and up to Freyja’s bed and found that she was wearing the necklace and that the clasp was underneath her. Loki thereupon turned himself into a flea and settled on Freyja’s cheek and stung her, till she awoke and turned over and went to sleep again. Then he laid aside his flea-form, drew the necklace from her gently, opened the door and departed, carrying the necklace to Othin. When Freyja awoke in the morning she found that the door was open, though it had not been forced, and that her lovely necklace was gone. She had a shrewd idea of the trick that had been played on her, and when she was dressed she went into the hall to King Othin, and told him that he had done ill to rob her of her trinket, and begged him to return it. Othin replied that considering how she had come by it she should never get it back, “unless you bring about a quarrel between two kings, each of whom has twenty kings subject to him; so that they shall fight under the influence of such spells and charms that as fast as they fall they shall start up again and fight on.” Freyja agreed to this and recovered the necklace.

Lokasenna is not the only place where Óðinn is accused of being a little argr; the Heimskringla says:

Óðinn knew and practiced that skill that was followed by the greatest strength, called seiðr, and from it he knew the fortunes of men and things that had not yet come to be, and also caused the deaths of men or bad luck or ill health, and also took from men wit or strength and gave it to others. And this magic, when it is practiced, comes with such great queerness that it was shameful for a man to practice it, and the skill was taught to the Goddesses.

Among the Norse ergi was a pretty serious charge, as Heathen poet, scholar, theologian and vitki Galina Krasskova explains in Transgressing Faith: Race, Gender, and the Problem of Ergi in Modern American Heathenry:

The concept of ergi is drawn from Norse legal codes which remained in force through the early medieval period. It encompassed a broad spectrum of behavior considered by social mores of the time and place to be “unmanly”. To be ergi  had clear moral implications and overtones of sexual deviance or gender transgression. As such, it fell under the category of nið, or accusations that might impact a man’s honor. Historian Preben Sorensen notes that accusations of nið almost always had a sexual component. Such accusations abound in Icelandic literature, and legal penalties are clearly recorded in law, most notably in the early Icelandic law collection Grágás, and the Law of Gulathing, Norway’s oldest legislation. To accuse a man of nið was a verbal offense of slander that could, in some circumstances, evoke a legally sanctioned honor killing. Within modern Heathenry, the concept of ergi evokes great feeling on both sides of the debate. Gender issues surface in subtle and not-so-subtle ways, most especially in the area of liminal practices and, most especially, the development of a Northern Tradition-based practice of shamanism. It is significant that a majority of practitioners of Northern Tradition shamanism are gender transgressive in some way. This can range from gender performance that transgresses accepted norms to being transsexual to having sworn celibacy for spiritual reasons. Many, like intersex shaman Raven Kaldera, specifically connect their own gender transgression to being ergi and define this as a necessary and often integral part of Northern Tradition shamanic practice. He is not alone. The growing number of Northern Tradition shamans – the majority of whom are also female-bodied – are regularly castigated by nearly every denomination within Heathenry. Surprisingly (or perhaps not so surprisingly) they are rarely attacked outright for their beliefs, though this can and does occasionally occur. Rather, their morality, sanity, and sexual practices are consistently questioned. One well known practitioner was deemed “a misfit, degenerate, and an unworthy person” for no other reason than that she sacrificed to a powerful and controversial female Deity. Another was accused of engaging in Lokian-focused “sex orgies” solely on account of her association with Kaldera.

We find a similar affliction among the Enarees of Aphrodite Ourania on the shores of the Black Sea:

There are many eunuchs among the Skythians who perform female work, and speak like women. Such persons are called effeminates. The inhabitants of the country attribute the cause of their impotence to a God, and venerate and worship such persons, every one dreading that the like might befall himself. (Hippocrates, Airs, Waters, Places 22)

Herodotos goes on to relate the cause of the disease and some of the Enaree practices:

But the Skythians who pillaged the temple, and all their descendants after them, were afflicted by the Goddess with the “female” sickness: and so it is that visitors to the Skythian territory see among them many who are in the condition of what the Skythians call “Hermaphrodites.” (Histories 1.105.4)

There are many diviners among the Skythians who divine by means of willow wands. They bring great bundles of wands, which they lay on the ground and unfasten, and utter their divinations as they lay the rods down one by one; and while still speaking, they gather up the rods once more and place them together again; this manner of divination is hereditary among them. The Enarees, who are hermaphrodites, say that Aphrodite gave them another art of divination, which they practise by means of lime-tree bark. They cut this bark into three portions, and prophesy while they braid and unbraid these in their fingers. (ibid 4.67.1)

Which sounds an awful lot like the method of Germanic divination recounted by Tacitus:

For divination and the casting of lots they have the highest regard. Their procedure in casting lots is always the same. They cut off a branch of a nut-bearing tree and slice it into strips; these they mark with different signs and throw them completely at random onto a white cloth. Then the priest of the state, if the consultation is a public one, or the father of the family if it is private, offers a prayer to the Gods, and looking up at the sky picks up three strips, one at a time, and reads their meaning from the signs previously scored on them. If the lots forbid an enterprise, there is no deliberation that day on the matter in question; if they allow it, confirmation by the taking of auspices is required. (Germania 10)

This also just so happens to be the region Kírkē came from, before immigrating to Italy:

Although Kirke also, it is said, devoted herself to the devising of all kinds of drugs and discovered roots of all manner of natures and potencies such as are difficult to credit. She was given in marriage to the king of the Sarmatians, whom some call Skythians, and first she poisoned her husband and after that, succeeding to the throne, she committed many cruel and violent acts against her subjects. For this reason she was deposed from her throne and, according to some writers of myths, fled to the ocean, where she seized a desert island, and there established herself with the women who had fled with her. Though according to some historians she left the Pontos and settled in Italy on a promontory which to this day bears after her the name Kirkaion. (Diodoros Sikeliotes, Library of History 4.45.1)

Leaving behind the land Freyja had once called home:

On the south side of the mountains which lie outside of all inhabited lands runs a river through Sviþjóð, which is properly called by the name of Tanais, but was formerly called Tanakvisl, or Vanakvisl, and which falls into the Black Sea. The country of the people on the Vanakvisl was called Vanaland, or Vanaheim; and the river separates the three parts of the world, of which the easternmost part is called Asia, and the westernmost Europe. (Ynglinga Saga 1, Heimskringla)

Regarding this passage Brent Landon Johnson writes:

An etymological chain connects the present-day Russian Дон back to the Old East Iranian Dānu, and to the Greek Τάναϊς, which Snorri links to Old Norse Tanakvísl, or Vanakvísl. The Indo-European root “danu-” pertains to “river” and is similar to “dhanu-” (grain). The present-day Don River is notably surrounded by lands fertile, green, and warm, given to a prosperous harvest. […] The Germanic migrations during the height of the Roman Empire placed the Goths – the central human players in the legendary sagas and eddas often referenced as the Sviþjóð – at various times in present-day Sweden, Poland, Ukraine, northern Turkey, and southwestern Russia. Along the north side of the Black Sea where the Goths have settled are four fertile river watersheds – the Danube, the Dniester, the Dnieper, and the Don. Snorri ties the “Dana” word root with “Vana” by interchanging them, which could imply that Vanaheimr may have been a very large region of eastern Europe spanning these four rivers. (In Search of Vanaheimr)

Kírkē’s home in Italy was a truly special place:

Previous cultures believed that the Sun journeyed through the universe every day. It passed through the Underworld at night and regenerated itself in the morning. It did this on a circular cycle. This was believed in Egyptian, Near Eastern and also in Ancient Greek society. These cultures shared the duality of up and down, east and west, which related to the contradictory behaviours of female deities. Circe’s island is the “House of the Rising Sun”. The Goddess is the daughter of the Sun. This circular universe, with the two cosmic junctions, presents the West as a descent to darkness which is connected with Hades. Circe’s island is the gate between the day and the night and once that gate has been trespassed, the hero travels through day, which according to the Ancient Egyptians is a much easier path to go through. Circe’s island constitutes a gate to and from the island of the Sun. Circe’s character reflects these two poles, the beautiful and terrible, the day and night sides, the polarity of her island. When the hero journeys to Hades, he doesn’t see the Sun. He then sees it when they return to Circe’s island. This is as if they followed the Sun’s journey through darkness and then came to light, enjoying it until reaching the island of the Sun. This cosmic journey has a meaning for the hero as it poses challenges and intents to mark on him, to shape him before returning to civilisation. (Javier Girona Martinez, The goddess Circe in Homer’s Odyssey)

Almost the double of Freyja’s felicitous abode:

According to both Grímnismál and Gylfaginning, Freyja owns the hall Sessrumnir (Many-seats) which stands on Folkvangr (the People’s plain). There she welcomes half of the war-fallen. Odin receives the other half into Valhalla. Thus, Freyja was associated not only with procreation and childbirth, but also with death and the afterlife, completing the full circle of the life-cycle. In Egil’s Saga, ch. 79, Egil’s daughter Thorgerd expresses her belief that upon dying, she will go to join Freyja, (engan hefi eg náttverð haft, og engan mun eg fyrr en að Freyju). As a destination for the dead, Freyja’s Folkvangr directly competes with the early Catholic concepts of heaven and hell as the exclusive destination of departed souls, providing yet another reason for Snorri not to detail her cult. Of course, we cannot now know Snorri’s intentions, but suffice it to say, Christians found the cult of Freyja in particular offensive. The morality exhibited in her mythology, and more broadly by the Vanir cult which she represents, is often in direct conflict with Christian tenets which promote the pretence of celibacy among its priests. (William P. Reaves, The Cult of Freyr and Freyja)

Which makes the ordeal Odysseus undertakes to reach the palace of Kírkē all the more significant:

But when Dawn of the lovely tresses gave birth to the third day I took my sharp sword and spear and climbed swiftly from the ship to a high lookout point, hoping to see signs of men, and hear their voices. I reached a rocky height with a wide view, and standing there I saw smoke rising through thick scrub and woodland, from the wide clearing where Circe’s halls lay. Seeing that smoke from a fire, I pondered whether to go and explore, but it seemed better to return to the ship and the shore, and allow my men a meal, then send them to investigate. Then as I neared the swift ship some God took pity on me in that solitude, and sent a huge stag with great antlers right across my trail. The power of the sun had troubled him and sent him down from his woodland pasture to drink at the river’s edge. As he came from the water I struck him on the spine with my bronze-spear, in the centre of his back, and it pierced right through, so he fell in the dust with a groan, and his spirit passed. Then I planted my foot on his carcass, drew the bronze spear from the wound, and laid it on the ground while I gathered willow shoots then wove a rope, six foot long, by splicing them together end to end. Next I tied the great creature’s feet together, and carried him down to the black ship on my back, using my spear to lean on, since he was too large to sling over my shoulder and steady with my hand. I threw him down in front of the ship and cheered my crew with comforting words, tackling each man in turn, “We’re not bound for the Halls of Hades ahead of time, my Friends, despite our troubles. Come, while there’s still food and drink in our swift ship, let’s think about eating, not waste away with hunger.” They soon responded to my words. They drew their cloaks from their faces to marvel at the stag’s huge size, as he lay on the barren shore. When they had sated their sight with gazing, they washed their hands and readied a fine feast. All day long till the sun went down we sat and feasted on meat in plenty, and drank sweet wine. But once the sun had set and darkness fell, we lay down on the sand to sleep. (Homer, Odyssey 10)

In the Classical world deerskins were an ubiquitous part of the Bacchic regalia:

He’s welcome in the mountains,
when he sinks down to the ground,
after the running dance,
wrapped in holy deerskin,
hunting the goat’s blood,
blood of the slain beast,
devouring its raw flesh with joy,
rushing off into the mountains,
in Phrygia, in Lydia,
leading the dance—

(Euripides, The Bakchai 172-180)

Which is given cosmic significance in Macrobius Saturnalia 1.18:

In the line, “The sun, which men also call by name Dionysos,” Orpheus manifestly declares that Liber is the sun. And in riddling verse he also says, “One Zeus, one Hades, one Helios, one Dionysos.” And concerning the ornaments and vestments worn by Liber at the ceremonies performed in his honor, Orpheus says:

Let the worshiper first throw around him a crimson robe,
like flowing rays resembling fire.
Moreover from above the broad all-variegated skin of a wild fawn
thickly spotted should hang down from the right shoulder,
a representation of the wondrously-wrought stars and of the vault of heaven.
And then over the fawn-skin a golden belt should be thrown,
all-gleaming to wear around the breast a mighty sign
that immediately from the end of the earth the Beaming-one springing up
darts his golden rays on the flowing of ocean.

Having harnessed the terrific power of the Lord of Animals the Hunter killed, butchered, brought back and apportioned meat to his community (placing their needs above his own in the process) and by so doing Odysseus has demonstrated his worthiness to come before the Mistress of the Isle and challenge her in a contest of sexual dominance. If he loses, he becomes a Magician. If he wins, a King.

As Homer relates in the 10th book of the Odyssey:

‘Noble Odysseus, we went, as you bade us, through the thickets, and in the glades we found before us a stately palace. Someone inside it, a Goddess or a woman, was singing in high pure notes as she moved to and fro at her wide web. The men called out and made themselves heard; she came out at once, she opened the shining doors and she called them to her. They in their heedlessness all entered; only I myself foreboded mischief and stayed outside. They vanished utterly, all of them; not one among them appeared again, though I sat a long while there, keeping watch.’

So he spoke. I slung across my shoulders my great silver-studded sword of bronze; I slung on my bow as well, then told him to guide me back by the same path. But he clutched my knees with both his hand and made supplication : ‘Heaven-favoured king, do not force me back that way again; leave me here. I know you will neither return yourself nor yet bring back any of your comrades. Instead, let us flee from this place at once, taking these others with us; we may still escape the day of evil.’

Such were his words.


So spoke the Radiant One; then he gave the magic herb, pulling it from the ground and showing me in what form it grew; its root was black, its flower milk-white. Its name among the Gods is moly. For mortal men it is perilous to pluck it up, but for the Gods all things are possible. Then Hermes departed; over the wooded island he went his way to the mountain of Olympos. I myself passed on to Kirke’s palace, with my thoughts in turmoil as I walked.

I paused at the doorway of the Goddess, and standing there I gave a great cry; she heard my voice and came out quickly, opening the shining doors and calling me in. I went up to her though my heart sank. She ushered me in and gave me a tall silver-studded chair to sit in–handsome and cunningly made it was–with a stool beneath it for the feet. In a golden goblet she brewed a potion for me to drink, and treacherously mingled her drug with it. When I had taken and drunk it up and was unenchanted still, she struck at me with her wand, and ‘Now’ she said ‘be off to the sty, to wallow with your companions there.’

So she spoke, but I drew the keen sword from beside my thigh, rushed at her and made as if to kill her. She shrieked, she slipped underneath my weapon, she clasped my knees and spoke in rapid appealing words: ‘Who are you, and from where? Where are your city and your parents? It bewilders me that you drank this drug and were not bewitched. Never has any other man resisted this drug, once he had drunk it and let it pass his lips. But you have an inner will that is proof against sorcery. You must surely be that man of wide-ranging spirit, Odysseus himself; the Radiant One of the golden wand has told me of you; he always said that Odysseus would come to me on his way from Troy in his dark and rapid vessel. But enough of this; sheathe your sword; then let us go to bed together, and embracing there, let us learn to trust in one another.’

It is good to be the King.

But notice a couple things?

The high seat that Kírkē keeps offering to her guests – it doesn’t just play a role in seiðr, but was also used in the Bacchic Orphic initiatory rite of thronismos:

So it is just as if someone were to initiate a man, Greek or barbarian, leading him into some mystic shrine overwhelming in its size and beauty. He would see many mystic spectacles and hear many such voices; light and darkness would appear to him in alternation, and a myriad other things would happen. Still more, just as they are accustomed to do in the ritual called enthronement, the initiators, having enthroned the initiands, dance in circles around them. Is it at all likely that this man would experience nothing in his soul and that he would not suspect that what was taking place was done with a wiser understanding and preparation? … Still more, if, not humans like the initiands, but immortal Gods were initiating mortals, and night and day, both in the light and under the stars were, if it is right to speak so, literally dancing around them eternally. (Dio Chrysostom, Oration 12.33-34)

Which is reflected in the Gold Leaves, even down to Kírkē’s probing questions, “τίς πόθεν εἰς ἀνδρῶν; πόθι τοι πόλις ἠδὲ τοκῆες?” (Who are you and where from? where are your city and your parents?)

Gold tablet from Rome:
A: I come pure from the pure, Queen of the Underworld, Eukles and Eubouleus, noble child of Zeus! I have this gift of Memory, prized by men!
B: Caecilia Secundina, come, made divine by the Law!

Gold tablet from Pelinna:
Now you have died and now you have been born, thrice blessed one, on this very day. Say to Persephone that Bakchios himself freed you. A bull you rushed to milk. Quickly, you rushed to milk. A ram you fell into milk. You have wine as your fortunate honor. And rites await you beneath the earth, just as the other blessed ones.

Gold tablet from Eleutherae in Crete:
A: I am dry with thirst and am perishing.
B: Come, drink please, from the ever-flowing spring on the right, where the cypress is. Who are you, and where do you come from?
A: I am the son of Earth and Starry Heaven.

Gold tablet from Thurii:
A: I come from the pure, o Pure Queen of the earthly ones, Eukles, Eubouleus, and You other Immortal Gods! I too claim to be of your blessed race, but Fate and other Immortal Gods conquered me, the star-smiting thunder. And I flew out from the hard and deeply-grievous circle, and stepped onto the crown with my swift feet, and slipped into the bosom of the Mistress, the Queen of the Underworld. And I stepped out from the crown with my swift feet.
B: Happy and blessed one! You shall be a god instead of a mortal.
A: I have fallen as a kid into milk.

Gold tablet from Thurii:
But whenever a soul leaves the light of the sun–enter on the right, where one must, if one has kept all well and truly. Rejoice at the experience! This you have never before experienced. You have become a god instead of a man. You have fallen as a kid into milk. Hail, hail, as you travel on the right, through the Holy Meadow and Groves of Persephone.

Note the animal transformations?

Note the crowns, wheels, circles and sexual union with an Underworld Goddess?

Note the Dancing Stars?

Which should remind you of the Corona Borealis:

This is thought to be Ariadne’s crown, placed by Father Liber among the constellations. For they say that when Ariadne wed Liber on the island of Dia, and all the Gods gave her wedding gifts, she first received this crown as a gift from Venus and the Hours. But, as the author of the Cretica says, at the time when Liber came to Minos with the hope of lying with Ariadne, he gave her this crown as a present. Delighted with it, she did not refuse the terms. It is said, too, to have been made of gold and Indian gems, and by its aid Theseus is thought to have come from the gloom of the labyrinth to the day, for the gold and gems made a glow of light in the darkness. (Hyginus, Astronomica 2.5)

Given an alternative aition in the scholia on Homer’s Odyssey 11.321

Theseus son of Aigeus, assigned by lot with the youths, sailed to Crete to be supplied to the Minotaur for destruction. But when he arrived, Minos’s daughter Ariadne fell in love with him and gave him a ball of thread that she took from Daidalos the builder. She instructed him, when he entered, to bind the beginning of the ball around the crossbar above the door and to go along unrolling it until he entered the innermost place, and if he overtook him while he was sleeping (text missing) that having vanquished (him) to sacrifice to Poseidon from the hairs on his head, and to return back by rolling up the ball of thread. And Theseus took Ariadne and embarked on his ship with both the youths and maidens not yet served up to be killed by the Minotaur. And when he had done these things, he sailed out in the middle of the night. And when he anchored at the island of Dia, he disembarked to sleep on the shore. And Athena stood beside him and ordered that he abandon Ariadne and come to Athens. He did this and departed immediately. But when Ariadne bewailed her lot, Aphrodite appeared and advised her to be strong, for she would be Dionysos’ wife and become famous. Whence the God appeared and mated with her, and gave her a golden crown that moreover the Gods placed among the stars by the grace of Dionysos. And they say that she suffered death at the hands of Artemis for throwing away her virginity. The story is in Pherekydes.

This is commenting on the passage when Odysseus follows Kírkē’s necromantic instructions and  beholds a vision of Ariadne in the Underworld:

“And Phaidra and Prokris I saw, and fair Ariadne, the daughter of Minos of baneful mind, whom once Theseus was fain to bear from Crete to the hill of sacred Athens; but he had no joy of her, for ere that Artemis slew her in sea-girt Dia because of the witness of Dionysos.” (Homer, Odyssey 11.321)

Those instructions:

The lovely Goddess replied swiftly: “Odysseus, man of many resources, scion of Zeus, son of Laertes, don’t think of finding a pilot to guide your vessel, but raise your mast and spread your white sail, and take your seat aboard, and the North Wind’s breath will send her on her way. When you have crossed the Ocean stream, beach your ship by the deep swirling waters on a level shore, where tall poplars, and willows that shed seed, fill the Groves of Persephone. Then go to the moist House of Hades. There is a rock where two roaring rivers join the Acheron, Kokytos, which is a tributary of the Styx, and Pyriphlegethon. Draw near then, as I bid you, hero, and dig a trench two feet square, then pour a libation all around to the dead, first of milk and honey, then of sweet wine, thirdly of water, sprinkled with white barley meal. Then pray devoutly to the powerless ghosts of the departed, swearing that when you reach Ithaca you will sacrifice a barren heifer in your palace, the best of the herd, and will heap the altar with rich spoils, and offer a ram, apart, to Teiresias, the finest jet-black ram in the flock. And when you have petitioned the glorious Host of the Dead with prayers, sacrifice a ram and a black ewe, holding their heads towards Erebos, while you look behind towards the running streams. Then the hosts of the dead will appear. Call then to your comrades, and tell them to flay and burn the sheep killed by the pitiless bronze, with prayers to the divinities, to mighty Hades and dread Persephone. You yourself must draw your sharp sword and sit there, preventing the powerless ghosts from drawing near to the blood, till you have questioned Teiresias. Soon the seer will come, you leader of men, and give you your course, and the distances, so you can return home over the teeming waters.” Kirke finished speaking, and with that came golden-throned Dawn. Then the Nymph dressed me in a tunic and cloak, and clothed herself in a beautiful long white closely-woven robe, and clasped a fine belt of gold around her waist, and set a veil on her head. Then I walked through the halls, rousing my men with cheerful words, speaking to each in turn: “My Lady Kirke has explained what I need to know: don’t lie there culling the flower of sweet sleep: let us be on our way.”

Which Kírkē took extraordinary steps to ensure could be fulfilled:

My crew were already on their way, as I addressed them: “No doubt you think you are heading home, but Kirke has set us on a different course, to the House of Hades and dread Persephone where I must consult the ghost of Theban Teiresias.” At this their spirits fell, and they sat right down where they were and wept, and tore at their hair. But their lamentations served no purpose. While we made our way to our swift vessel and the shore, grieving and shedding tears, Kirke went on ahead of us, and tethered a ram and a black ewe by the black ship. She had easily slipped by us: who can observe a Goddess passing to and fro, if she wishes otherwise?

All this suggests a knowledge and expertise in ritual matters which is comparable to Freyja’s own, for she was appointed blótgyðja (sacrificial priestess) of the Gods as Terry Gunnell remarks in Blótgyðjur, Goðar, Mimi, Incest, and Wagons: Oral Memories of the Religion(s) of the Vanir:

It would seem questionable whether these stanzas were composed by Christians—or even by Icelanders, since no specially-constructed hof (temple), hǫrgar (altar), or so-called kulthus (cult-houses) of the kind described in the sagas and eddic poems and later found in archaeological excavations in mainland Scandinavia have ever been found in Iceland. The stanzas would thus appear to have roots in earlier Nordic tradition, and a Nordic tradition that had some reason for connecting Njǫrðr and Freyja to sacred spaces: once again, no mention is ever made of a hǫrgr being dedicated to any other god. The same ideas of Vanir connections with religious practice, ritual, and hof are reflected in Snorri’s comments in chapters 4 and 10 of Ynglinga saga, in which Njǫrðr and Freyr are called “blótgoðar”, and Freyja a “blótgyðja”. In terms of absence, it should be borne in mind that Snorri makes no similar statements about either Óðinn or Þórr (or even Frigg). Furthermore, while hof and hofgoðar are mentioned elsewhere in Ynglinga saga in connection with the Æsir (ch. 2 and 5; cf. Vǫluspá st. 7), Snorri stresses that “Freyr reisti at Uppsǫlum hof mikit” (Freyr raised a large hof at Uppsala), underlining once again the direct connections he saw as existing between the Vanir (and especially Freyr), Uppland, and the religious activities he describes elsewhere as taking place at Gamla Uppsala (Ynglinga saga ch. 15, 34 and 38; and Ólafs saga helga ch. 67). No similar statements are made about Þórr (who is strangely near absent from Ynglinga saga). Finally, it is worth considering Snorri’s words about Freyja, which underline that she, a woman, not only ruled after Freyr’s death, but also personally “hélt þá upp blótum, því at hon ein lifði þá eptir goðanna” (kept up the sacrifices because she was the only surviving member of the gods) (Ynglinga saga ch. 10). Freyja is also said to have been the one who introduced the Æsir to seiðr  which “Vǫnum var títt” (was common amongst the Vanir) in Ynglinga saga (ch. 4), an idea which suggests yet further close associations between the Vanir and ritualistic activities. In both cases, as in Hyndluljóð, Freyja is said to play a particularly active role in these rituals, even though the nature of this role is never described in detail. One must assume that it was similar to that of the hofgyðjur noted above. The Vanir, however, are not only shown to be more closely associated with religious buildings than other gods in the extant accounts. They are also depicted as being more directly bound up with particular holy sites in the landscape, and not least sites where they are supposed to “live on” after their deaths: in contrast to Óðinn and Njǫrðr, who are cremated (Ynglinga saga ch. 8 and 9).

Odysseus is not the only one Kírkē has shared her knowledge of ritual (or her bed) with. Note what follows her inquiry into Odysseus’ identity and genealogy:

“Who are you, and from where? Where are your city and your parents? It bewilders me that you drank this drug and were not bewitched. Never has any other man resisted this drug, once he had drunk it and let it pass his lips. But you have an inner will that is proof against sorcery. You must surely be that man of wide-ranging spirit, Odysseus himself; the Radiant One of the golden wand has told me of you; he always said that Odysseus would come to me on his way from Troy in his dark and rapid vessel.”

That sure sounds as if she was on intimate terms with Hermes.

Which has some interesting implications when one considers that Tacitus, Paulus Diaconus and Columbanus all identified Mercury with Óðinn.

Speaking of Tacitus, he relates in the Germania that it was believed Odysseus had traveled through the Northlands:

Ulysses also, in all those fabled wanderings of his, is supposed by some to have reached the northern sea and visited German lands, and to have founded and named Asciburgium, a town on the Rhine inhabited to this day. They even add that an altar consecrated by Ulysses and inscribed also with the name of his father Laertes was discovered long ago at this same place, and that certain barrows with monuments upon them bearing Greek inscriptions still exist on the borders of Germany and Raetia.

Which is, perhaps, why traces of his story can be found in the literature of Norway and Iceland, as Ben Waggoner relates:

The younger version of Trójumanna saga adds material from another Latin retelling of the fall of Troy, the so-called Ilias Latina attributed to Baebius Italicus—plus some more material from Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Heroïdes, and scraps from elsewhere. The younger version is rather a patchwork—but none of the texts of Trójumanna saga draw directly on Homer’s Iliad, and the plot of Trójumanna saga diverges from the Iliad quite a bit. Snorri Sturluson was keen to try to tie in Norse history to the “Matter of Troy”, and his Prose Edda includes a long explanation of how the Norse gods and goddesses were really Trojan heroes who had come north. Most of this is based on chance resemblances in names—Öku-Thórr, “Chariot-Thor”, is supposedly Hec-tor, for example, while Frigg’s name supposedly comes from Phrygia. This isn’t considered sound by any serious scholars today. Still, it does show that Snorri and others knew something about the Trojan War, knew it was a hugely famous story, and tried in various ways to link their own heritage with it. And you can argue that the style of foreing works like Trójumanna saga influenced Icelandic literature quite a bit; styles and phrases and occasionally whole scenes in the sagas can sometimes be traced to foreign models. (There’s a funny bit in the “legendary saga” Egils saga ok Ásmundar in which the hero is being held captive by a giant—he tricks the giant into letting himself be stabbed in the eyes with a red-hot poker, and then gets out of the giant’s cave by hiding underneath one of the giants’ sheep when they have to be let out to pasture. Yep, somehow Odysseus and Polyphemus made it into a saga of Nordic heroes.)

But I digress.

We were discussing Kírkē’s other lovers, such as Picus, king of Latium:

And on the doors of the palace there, holding the augur’s staff, arrayed in a short toga purple-striped, the holy shield on his left arm, sat Picus, tamer of horses: vainly lusting to bed with him, golden Circe had used her wand and her magic potions, and turned him into a bird, into a pied woodpecker. (Virgil, Aeneid 7.187)

And Kalchos, king of the Daunians:

The story goes that Kalchos the Daunian was greatly in love with Kirke, the same to whom Odysseus came. He handed over to her his kingship over the Daunians, and employed all possible blandishments to gain her love; but she felt a passion for Odysseus, who was then with her, and loathed Kalchos and forbade him to land on her island. However, he would not stop coming, and could talk of nothing but Kirke, and she, being extremely angry with him, laid a snare for him and had no sooner invited him into her palace but she set before him a table covered with all manner of dainties. But the meats were full of magical drugs, and as soon as Kalchos had eaten of them, he was stricken mad, and she drove him into the pig-styles. After a certain time, however, the Daunians’ army landed on the island to look for Kalchos; and she then released him from the enchantment, first binding him by oath that he would never set foot on the island again, either to woo her or for any other purpose. (Parthenius, Love Stories 12)

And Dionysos, king of Nysa, with whom she had a child by the name of Komos:

The splendid entrance, with its golden doors, reveals a very wealthy pair just married who are lying on a couch. And Komos has come, a youth to join the youths, delicate yet full grown, and always flush with wine. Do you not hear the castanets and the flute’s shrill note and the disorderly singing that accompany him? The torches give a faint light, enough for the revellers to see what is close in front of them, but not enough for us to see them. Peals of laughter rise, and women rush along with men, wearing men’s sandals and garments girt in strange fashion; for the revel permits women to masquerade as men, and men to put on women’s garb and to ape the walk of women. Their crowns are no longer fresh but, crushed down on the head on account of the wild running of the dancers, they have lost their joyous look. (Philostratus the Elder, Imagines 1.2)

Komos is the κῶμος personified:

The Greek komoidia means “the song of the komos.” A komos is a communal ritual
carouse: on a small scale it is the ancient equivalent of party-crashing and bar-hopping rolled into one, but as part of a communal festival of Dionysus it recalls modern carnivals such as that of Mardi Gras (although the ancient rites were usually more carefully scripted and ordered) — a time when normal social rules and inhibitions are cast aside and people party in the streets, singing, dancing, and drinking. The ancient komos often involved masks and costumes, as does Mardi Gras, but was marked by another practice foreign to most festivals in modern North America: aischrologia or the ritual abuse of individuals. Another distinctive feature, found in many Dionysiac rites and no doubt in some komoi, was the phallos: an imitation penis, often too large for one person to lift with ease, carried on a pole or cart. As with Mardi Gras, these rites tended to occur in spring (or mid- to late-winter) and although they may have served a number of psychological, social, or political ends, their main function was to promote fertility by honoring or encouraging the god (and driving away any spirits of blight) through a boisterous display of health, prosperity, and virility. The chorus of comedy often appears dressed as animals, insects, or in some other nonhuman guise (as the titles of many plays indicate: e.g., Wasps, Birds, Frogs); Old Comedy teems with vitality: it abounds in references to food, drink, and sex, and frequently concludes with a triumphant revel — often celebrating a marriage — reminiscent of the komos. (John Porter, Aristophanes and Greek Old Comedy)

English poet and prophet John Milton invokes him thusly:

Bacchus, that first from out the purple grape
Crushed the sweet poison of misused wine,
After the Tuscan mariners transformed,
Coasting the Tyrrhene shore, as the winds listed,
On Circe’s island fell. (Who knows not Circe,
The daughter of the Sun, whose charmed cup
Whoever tasted lost his upright shape,
And downward fell into a grovelling swine?)
This Nymph, that gazed upon his clustering locks,
With ivy berries wreathed, and his blithe youth,
Had by him, ere he parted thence, a son
Much like his father, but his mother more,
Whom therefore she brought up, and Comus named:
Who, ripe and frolic of his full-grown age,
Roving the Celtic and Iberian fields,
At last betakes him to this ominous wood,
And, in thick shelter of black shades imbowered,
Excels his mother at her mighty art;
Offering to every weary traveller
His orient liquor in a crystal glass,
To quench the drouth of Phoebus; which as they taste
(For most do taste through fond intemperate thirst),
Soon as the potion works, their human count’nance,
The express resemblance of the gods, is changed
Into some brutish form of wolf or bear,
Or ounce or tiger, hog, or bearded goat,
All other parts remaining as they were.
And they, so perfect is their misery,
Not once perceive their foul disfigurement,
But boast themselves more comely then before
And all their friends, and native home forget
To rule with pleasure in a sensual sty.

Milton’s masque Comus unfolds as follows:

The plot concerns two brothers and their sister, simply called “the Lady”, lost in a journey through the woods. The Lady becomes fatigued, and the brothers wander off in search of sustenance. While alone, she encounters the debauched Comus, who is disguised as a villager and claims he will lead her to her brothers. Deceived by his amiable countenance, the Lady follows him, only to be captured, brought to his pleasure palace and victimised by his necromancy. Seated on an enchanted chair, with “gums of glutinous heat”, she is immobilised, and Comus accosts her while with one hand he holds a necromancer’s wand and with the other he offers a vessel with a drink that would overpower her. Comus urges the Lady to “be not coy” and drink from his magical cup (representing sexual pleasure and intemperance), but she repeatedly refuses, arguing for the virtuousness of temperance and chastity. Within view at his palace is an array of cuisine intended to arouse the Lady’s appetites and desires. Despite being restrained against her will, she continues to exercise right reason (recta ratio) in her disputation with Comus, thereby manifesting her freedom of mind. Whereas the would-be seducer argues appetites and desires issuing from one’s nature are “natural” and therefore licit, the Lady contends that only rational self-control is enlightened and virtuous. To be self-indulgent and intemperate, she adds, is to forfeit one’s higher nature and to yield to baser impulses. In this debate the Lady and Comus signify, respectively, soul and body, ratio and libido, sublimation and sensuality, virtue and vice, moral rectitude and immoral depravity. In line with the theme of the journey that distinguishes Comus, the Lady has been deceived by the guile of a treacherous character, temporarily waylaid, and besieged by sophistry that is disguised as wisdom. Meanwhile, her brothers, searching for her, come across the Attendant Spirit, an angelic figure sent to aid them, who takes the form of a shepherd and tells them how to defeat Comus. As the Lady continues to assert her freedom of mind and to exercise her free will by resistance and even defiance, she is rescued by the Attendant Spirit along with her brothers, who chase off Comus. The Lady remains magically bound to her chair. With a song, the Spirit conjures the water nymph Sabrina who frees the Lady on account of her steadfast virtue. She and her brothers are reunited with their parents in a triumphal celebration, which signifies the heavenly bliss awaiting the wayfaring soul that prevails over trials and travails, whether these are the threats posed by overt evil or the blandishments of temptation.

Milton isn’t the only one to preserve the tradition of an affair between Kírkē and Dionysos; the God is coming from Kírkē’s mythic isle when he discovers the grieving Cretan princess Ariadne on Naxos, in the famous opera by German composer Richard Strauss and librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal:

Ariadne is alone in front of her cave. Three nymphs look on and lament her fate. Watching from the wings, the comedians are doubtful whether they will be able to cheer her up. Ariadne recalls her love for Theseus (“Ein Schönes war”), then imagines herself as a chaste girl, awaiting death. Harlekin tries to divert her with a song (“Lieben, Hassen, Hoffen, Zagen”) but Ariadne ignores him. As if in a trance, she resolves to await Hermes, messenger of death. He will take her to another world where everything is pure (“Es gibt ein Reich”). When the comedians’ efforts continue to fail, Zerbinetta finally addresses Ariadne directly (“Grossmächtige Prinzessin!”), woman to woman, explaining to her the human need to change an old love for a new. Insulted, Ariadne leaves. After Zerbinetta has finished her speech, her colleagues leap back onto the scene, competing for her attention. Zerbinetta gives in to Harlekin’s comic protestations of love and the comedians exit.

The nymphs announce the approach of a ship: it carries the young god Bacchus, who has escaped the enchantress Circe. Bacchus’s voice is heard in the distance (“Circe, kannst du mich hören?”) and Ariadne prepares to greet her visitor, whom she thinks must be death at last. When he appears, she at first mistakes him for Theseus come back to her, but he majestically proclaims his godhood. Entranced by her beauty, Bacchus tells her he would sooner see the stars vanish than give her up. Reconciled to a new existence, Ariadne joins Bacchus as they ascend to the heavens. Zerbinetta sneaks in to have the last word: “When a new god comes along, we’re dumbstruck.” (Synopsis of Richard Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos from the Metropolitan Opera)

Becca Goldknopf elucidates on the seemingly inexplicable presence of the Harlequinade on Naxos:

There are a few additions to the cast of the myth of Ariadne in Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s opera, Ariadne auf Naxos. While the three beautiful nymphs naturally fit into the ancient mythological setting of the story, the five-member comedy troupe with all their merriment would seem to have no connection to the desolate island of Naxos or its mournful inhabitant. These apparently contrasting groups produce the same effect of emphasizing the inconsolable grief which consumes Ariadne. By introducing new characters into the mythical world of Ariadne, Strauss and von Hofmannsthal present a deeper interpretation of the princess’ emotions and of her resulting behavior. They give insight into Ariadne’s pain and isolation, allowing the audience to empathize with her more intimately. They illustrate the interconnectedness between Ariadne’s relationships with Theseus and Bacchus and her desire for death.

Ariadne’s lament in the opera expresses overwhelming sorrow. The nymphs watching over her say she is “weeping in her sleep.” So heavily does her grief lie upon her that even in sleep her sobs continue. In “Ariadne to Theseus,” Ariadne’s cries are said to be answered only by the echoing of the rocks on the beach around her. Thus Strauss and Hofmannsthal place three nymphs, including Echo, with Ariadne, who sympathize with her and join in her lamenting, but since the Minoan princess does not recognize their cries, she feels isolated. The composers also integrate a five-member comedy troupe into the plot, who, led by the charming Zerbinetta, make a number of valiant and enthusiastic attempts to console Ariadne and cheer her up. Ariadne simply cannot be consoled and remains, in fact, oblivious to the song and dance going on around her. The jovial nature of the bunch of buffoons presents a sharp contrast to Ariadne’s state of grief. She is “. . . the epitome of human loneliness,” according to the Composer character in the opera’s prologue. She feels the weight of the world on her shoulders, and she simply wants to die.

In both Ovid’s Epistles and the opera, Ariadne desires death. She wants to forget her pain and suffering and the man who caused it. In “Ariadne to Theseus,” Ovid describes her angrily cursing Theseus for not having killed her before he left and actively praying for death to end her misery. In the opera she behaves more passively as she allows her emotions to wash over her, simply waiting for death rather than calling out for it. Her view of the Underworld is strangely positive. She sings of “. . . a realm where all is pure. . . .” and where her soul can be free from the misery of living alone. The way Strauss and von Hofmannsthal interpret the myth, Ariadne does, in a sense, die. Since she is in love with the idea of death, she instantly and unrestrainedly falls in love with Bacchus thinking he is the messenger god, Hermes, come to take her to the Underworld. In falling in love with Bacchus, the pain inside her is replaced with joy, and she leaves behind the Ariadne who wept and mourned the betrayal of a lover. The woman who leaves is a different person entirely, free from the chains of despair and sorrow.

The ship Bacchus arrives on, while beautifully majestic, appears to be a less godlike, more earthly mode of transportation compared with swooping down from the sky as he does in Catullus’ account. This element of humanity in the god allows the audience to more closely empathize with Bacchus by making him more real and believable. Yet still the nymphs make abundantly clear with their cries of “A young god!” and “A charming boy!” that Bacchus is no mere human.

Ariadne’s meeting with Bacchus in Ariadne auf Naxos shows her vulnerability and its connection to her relationship with the god of wine. The composers insert a new part of the story in which Bacchus spent the day before his arrival on Naxos in the company of Circe on her island. This experience causes him to be slightly wary of the vision of beauty he finds himself in love with the next day, questioning her as to whether she is a sorceress like Circe. Ariadne, rather than questioning who Bacchus is, believes that he must be Hermes, for whom she has waited. It is not clear whether she is ever really convinced that he is not the messenger god, but if so she is so in love with him that it does not matter who he is. All that matters is that he has lifted the weight off her shoulders and set her free from her pain and suffering.

In the prologue to Ariadne auf Naxos, the Composer insists Ariadne is “… one of those women who belong to one man only in their life and after that to no one else – to no one else, save Death,” yet Zerbinetta sings at the end of the opera, “When the new god approaches, we surrender without a word.” These two ideas, though they seem to be in complete contradiction, somehow coexist in the heart of Ariadne. The interpretation by Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannsthal, rather than showing Ariadne as moving on so quickly as to almost herself betray her love of Theseus, illustrates that she was only able to love Bacchus because she loved Theseus. She loved him so deeply she wanted to die without him, and she desired death so strongly she mistook Bacchus for the god of death. In Ariadne auf Naxos, Ariadne is more than just a woman who is left by one lover and forgets her tears as soon as another man comes along. Her emotions run deeper than most people could imagine, and her love is pure and eternal. The composers use the prologue, the nymphs, and the comedians to help illustrate their interpretation of Ariadne without significantly altering the plot as it applies to Ariadne and while remaining true to the mythical nature and size of the story.

More resources on Mister E.

And here are a couple posts from the pre-scrubbed days at House of Vines:


In my post on the Sortes Empedocleae I said:

Empedokles of Akragas was a Sicilian holy man and wonder-worker who, combining elements of Orphism with indigenous Italian traditions, created a philosophy that anticipated atomic and evolutionary science.

Although instances of this are to be found throughout much of the remaining fragments of his works, one of the most striking is this passage:

Many creatures arose with double faces and double breasts, offspring of oxen with human faces, and again there sprang up children of men with oxen’s heads; creatures, too, in which were mixed some parts from men and some of the nature of women, furnished with sterile members.

Among the cities of Magna Graecia (particularly those within the orbit of Lokroi Epizephyrii) an important hero was venerated, the Olympic athlete Euthymos who was either the son of Astykles or the river-god Kaikinos. While he presumably had a regular human body as a mortal (since he competed in boxing and the pankration) he took on quite a different form posthumously:

Many terracotta plaques featuring three female heads were found in the Grotta, sometimes with Pan and sometimes with Dionysiac symbols. This trio of heads is found in nymphaea, in Persephone shrines, and in tombs elsewhere in the Greek world, but in the Grotta Caruso an unusual combination occurs: sometimes the nymphs appear with a tauromorph, a bull with a human face and horns. The iconography of this figure is consistent with portraits of Acheloos or other river gods, and we have textual evidence that ties the Locrian one to a river. An inscription on one of the Grotta’s plaques names the bull-man as Euthymos, a curious Locrian hero. (Bonnie MacLachlan, Kore as Nymph, not Daughter: Persephone in a Locrian Cave)

Pausanias (Description of Greece 6.7-11) relates the aition for his cult:

Odysseus, so they say, in his wanderings after the capture of Troy was carried down by gales to various cities of Italy and Sicily, and among them he came with his ships to Temesa. Here one of his sailors got drunk and violated a maiden, for which offence he was stoned to death by the natives. Now Odysseus, it is said, cared nothing about his loss and sailed away. But the ghost of the stoned man never ceased killing without distinction the people of Temesa, attacking both old and young, until, when the inhabitants had resolved to flee from Italy for good, the Pythian priestess forbad them to leave Temesa, and ordered them to propitiate the Hero, setting him a sanctuary apart and building a temple, and to give him every year as wife the fairest maiden in Temesa.

So they performed the commands of the god and suffered no more terrors from the ghost. But Euthymos happened to come to Temesa just at the time when the ghost was being propitiated in the usual way; learning what was going on he had a strong desire to enter the temple, and not only to enter it but also to look at the maiden. When he saw her he first felt pity and afterwards love for her. The girl swore to marry him if he saved her, and so Euthymos with his armour on awaited the onslaught of the ghost.

He won the fight, and the Hero was driven out of the land and disappeared, sinking into the depth of the sea. Euthymos had a distinguished wedding, and the inhabitants were freed from the ghost for ever. I heard another story also about Euthymos, how that he reached extreme old age, and escaping again from death departed from among men in another way. Temesa is still inhabited, as I heard from a man who sailed there as a merchant.

This I heard, and I also saw by chance a picture dealing with the subject. It was a copy of an ancient picture. There were a stripling, Sybaris, a river, Calabrus, and a spring, Lyca. Besides, there were a hero-shrine and the city of Temesa, and in the midst was the ghost that Euthymos cast out. Horribly black in color, and exceedingly dreadful in all his appearance, he had a wolf’s skin thrown round him as a garment. The letters on the picture gave his name as Lycas.

Another example of the bull-wolf ritual combat theme I have previously delineated. Which means that while people usefully draw comparisons between Euthymos’ story and Herakles’ contest with Acheloos for the hand of Dionysos’ daughter Deïanira, as described in Sophokles’ Trachiniae:

I had a river as a suitor, Acheloos, who asked my father for my hand in three shapes, coming now as a bull plain to see, now as a slithering, coiling serpent, now bull-faced with a man’s body; and streams of fresh water poured from his shaggy beard. Anticipating such a suitor, I, wretch, prayed continually to die, before I ever drew near such a marriage bed. (9-17)

I think an even more useful comparison is with the story of Theseus and the Minotaur:

And by means of the ingenuity of Daidalos Pasiphae had intercourse with the bull and gave birth to the Minotaur, famed in the myth. This creature, they say, was of double form, the upper parts of the body as far as the shoulders being those of a bull and the remaining parts those of a man. As a place in which to keep this monstrous thing Daidalos, the story goes, built a labyrinth, the passage-ways of which were so winding that those unfamiliar with them had difficulty in making their way out; in this labyrinth the Minotaur was maintained and here it devoured the seven youths and seven maidens which were sent to it from Athens, in recompense for the murder of Minos’ son Androgeus. (Diodoros Sikeliotes, Library of History 4.77.1)

There is even a tradition where Euthymos disguised himself as the maiden who was to be deflowered by Lycas, much as transvestitism played a role in the Oschophoria celebrating Theseus’ triumphant return and that Ariadne never set foot on Attic soil.

Which is significant since in the Orphic gold lamellae found in Southern Italy the initiate is instructed to proclaim Ἀστέριος ὄνομα. This could just be a suggestive synchronicity except that the epilogue of the Minoan myth took place in Sicily:

Minos, the king of the Cretans, who was at that time the master of the seas, when he learned that Daedalus had fled to Sicily, decided to make a campaign against that island. After preparing a notable naval force he sailed forth from Crete and landed at a place in the territory of Acragas which was called after him Minoa. Here he disembarked his troops and sending messengers to King Cocalus he demanded Daedalus of him for punishment. But Cocalus invited Minos to a conference, and after promising to meet all his demands he brought him to his home as a guest. And when Minos was bathing Cocalus kept him too long in the hot water and thus slew him; the body he gave back to the Cretans, explaining his death on the ground that he had slipped in the bath and by falling into the hot water had met his end. Thereupon the comrades of Minos buried the body of the king with magnificent ceremonies, and constructing a tomb of two storeys, in the part of it which was hidden underground they placed the bones, and in that which lay open to gaze they made a shrine of Aphrodite. Here Minos received honours over many generations, the inhabitants of the region offering sacrifices there in the belief that the shrine was Aphrodite’s; but in more recent times, after the city of the Acragantini had been founded and it became known that the bones had been placed there, it came to pass that the tomb was dismantled and the bones were given back to the Cretans, this being done when Theron was lord over the people of Acragas. (Diodoros Sikeleiotes, Library of History 4.79.1-4)

And not just anywhere in Sicily – but specifically the home of Empedokles. So I think in the fragment I opened with Empedokles is drawing a comparison between the Locrian man-faced bull hero Euthymos and the more widely known bull-faced man Asterios the Minotaur, one with profound implications when you consider Euthymos’ role in the baptismal and eschatogamic mysteries at the Grotta Caruso. (Especially since it comes in a discussion about Aphrodite and Nestis, likely a local name for Persephone.)

All of which is a good example of the bricolage method that characterizes ancient Orphism:

I propose a re-examination of the ancient evidence that takes seriously the model, proposed by Burkert and others, of itinerant religious specialists competing for religious authority among a varying clientele. Rather than looking for a coherent set of sacred texts canonical to people who considered themselves Orphics, texts expressive of doctrines pertaining to sin, salvation, and afterlife, we should look for the products of bricolage, pieced together from widely available traditional material to meet the demand of clients looking for extra-ordinary solutions to their problems. If the texts and rituals are products of bricolage, however, and their creators bricoleurs competing for authority, we cannot expect to find either consistency of texts or doctrines, merely a loose family resemblance between composites of the same traditional elements. A redefinition of ancient Orphism requires a polythetic definition that accommodates the complexities of the ancient contexts rather than the sort of monothetic definition that identifies Orphism by its scriptures and doctrines. Nevertheless, the attempt to force the evidence into this preconceived modern construct has created unnecessary confusions in interpretation, as, e.g., the debate over the Orphic status of the author of the Derveni papyrus shows. (Radcliffe G. Edmonds III, Redefining Ancient Orphism)

And though Empedokles never explicitly references Orpheus a lot of his cosmological speculation agrees with the various Orphic theogonies that have come down to us and he, himself, seems to have engaged in activities similar to the Orpheotelestai. Compare Plato’s account:

But the most astounding of all these arguments concerns what they have to say about the gods and virtue. They say that the gods, too, assign misfortune and a bad life to many good people, and the opposite fate to their opposites. Begging priests and prophets frequent the doors of the rich and persuade them that they possess a god-given power founded on sacrifices and incantations. If the rich person or any of his ancestors has committed an injustice, they can fix it with pleasant things and feasts. Moreover, if he wishes to injure some enemy, then, at little expense, he’ll be able to harm just and unjust alike, for by means of spells and enchantments they can persuade the gods to serve them. And they present a hubbub of books by Musaeus and Orpheus, offspring as they say of Selene and the Muses, according to which they arrange their rites, convincing not only individuals but also cities that liberation and purification from injustice is possible, both during life and after death, by means of sacrifices and enjoyable games to the deceased which free us from the evils of the beyond, whereas something horrible awaits those who have not celebrated sacrifices. (Republic 2.364a–365b)

With what Empedokles describes in the Katharmoi or Purifications:

And thou shalt learn all the drugs that are a defense against ills and old age; since for thee alone will I accomplish all this. Thou shalt arrest the violence of the weariless winds that arise to sweep the earth and waste the fields; and again, when thou so desirest, thou shalt bring back their blasts in return. Thou shalt cause for men a seasonable drought after the dark rains, and again thou shalt change the summer drought for streams that feed the trees as they pour down from the sky. Thou shalt bring back from Hades the life of a dead man … Friends, that inhabit the great town looking down on the yellow rock of Akragas, up by the citadel, busy in goodly works, harbors of honor for the stranger, men unskilled in meanness, all hail. I go about among you divine and no longer mortal, honored among all as is meet, crowned with fillets and flowery garlands. Straightway, whenever I enter with these in my train, both men and women, into the flourishing towns, is reverence done me they go after me in countless throngs, asking of me what is the way to gain; some desiring oracles, while some, who for many a weary day have been pierced by the grievous pangs of all manner of sickness, beg to hear from me the word of healing.