In the Beginning
The gods did not enrich man with knowledge of all things from the beginning of life. Yet man seeks, and in time invents what may be better. Xenophanes
Napoleon The Great, at the head of his battalions in Egypt, reminded soldiers that from the tops of the Pyramids five thousand years were looking down upon them. As we enter a new millennium can anyone answer how many millions are looking down upon us with pensive eyes?
While those who walked before us remain silent witnesses their experiences, senses and knowledge paved the way for language and provided us with the power to write ourselves into being, invent an identity for ourselves and record the past, present and future. Poets have traditionally had the power to write the universe into being, to name the latent forces residing in nature and to create something better than what might really have been. So perhaps it is best that 'the gods did not enrich man with knowledge of all things from the beginning of things'.
Stories about the origin of the universe sprang from an absence of 'knowledge.' In the beginning the human retina was confronted with a diverse natural environment. When the first humans looked at the world around them they must have felt bewildered and terrified in the presence of this inexplicable, immense and unforgiving force. Naked, homeless and weaponless they quickly came to understand that they were at the mercy of something beyond their power, a force that had the power to annihilate them. In bleak environments, where spring floods washed out whole villages in a fleeting, frenzied, flash mere survival was a dawn to dusk battle and to this day such hostile environments remain thinly populated.
As humankind adapted and found shelter, warmth and food they were freed from the daily struggle against nature for long enough to develop intellectual and artistic pursuits and it was within the safety of the cave, warmed by fire, that myths flourished. These stories described the darker times, provided guidance and comfort, celebrated achievements and told of gods and goddesses and other creation beings. With these stories came order and a hierarchical structure that provided an illusion of control in the face of violent external forces. By conceiving natural forces as spiritual beings that impersonated themselves as sky, earth and sea, humankind created a crucial illusion that removed them from the position of constant fear and flight they had once known. From generation to generation stories were passed down to explain the origin of the world, of humankind and to clarify the meaning of life. Humankind used story to make sense of the mysteries. Creation stories reveal the working of the human mind and its search to balance the forces, not only of creation but also of destruction, life and death.
It was in these circumstances that humankind invented a rich company of spirits and gods. These gods and spirits were believed to reside within groves and marshes, in pastures and within rocky outcrops. They supposedly floated in the currents of streams and traversed untrodden snow. It was invisible forces such as these that were believed to have created the world and who controlled man's destiny. People believed that if they could just appease these spirits the lot of the human would become better. Artificially constructed deities provided an important deference against nature's power. Without the safety of the container, that these creations provided, humankind would have been left adrift in the violent, volcanic eruption that is nature.Stories about angry, thunder wielding gods and avenging goddesses helped to reduce the sense of passivity and helplessness in the face of a force that appeared to have a terrifying, unknown agenda.
Once humankind took charge of their physical environment they could turn their mind to wonder about diversity of patterning that surrounded them and question the origin of their own existence. Numerous mythologies tell how the creator emerged from a cosmic egg or Primordial Ocean. In the beginning, according to Greek belief, there was a great void called Chaos. No one suggests that in the beginning there was nothing, any more than an artist really begins with nothing. To make something you have to have something to mold and someone to form a shape. God was said to 'have moved upon the face of the waters' and this would suggest that there was a base for him to work with. Certainly, when we look into the void and darkness behind our eyes we see sparkles of light, rather than an empty void.
When I was working with students ranging in age from 11 to 13 we tried writing about nothing. To do this we closed our eyes and examined the void that confronted us. We looked through the veil of darkness that our eyelids created, to see what nothing was like. We listened to the sounds of nothing and described how we felt about nothing. The result was remarkable. Everybody found that there was something, not nothing.
Natalie wrote: "When I close my eyes I see red fuzzy stuff and I think to myself, what does this mean? Am I going to hell? What does this mean? Is there a fire around or is it simply my favourite colour? Is it something I should fear? How can I find out what this means? Do I have a fiery red heart? Am I mad at something? Do I have a mean background or do my friends hate me? Do my friends have a mean background? I can hear voices when I close my eyes. They say to me something that I can't understand. What are they saying to me? Maybe I can find someone who can tell me."
Rachel wrote: "When I close my eyes I first saw orange. Then after a second it turned to rocky sands and a desert sprang into my mind. That is all I saw. I was actually in it. I was hot and dying for a drink. There wasn't even a tree in my sight. I couldn't hear anything except for a far off cry of a bird. It reminded me of the photos my friend showed me last year when he got back from his holiday near Alice Springs."
If you close your eyes and look at nothing you will see a flickering as the galaxies dust swirls before you. Within the dust you will perhaps see a flickering light. Then you may get a glimpse of how a mass can be shaped out of what seems like nothing. When we do this we can see what our ancestors saw, we can understand how they believed that in the beginning it was Night. Once we look at nothing it is possible to conceive a goddess who was a bird with black wings.
Deference to the Immortal being whose shape appeared in the dark of night was born from the awe humankind felt. This awe, in the face of a supreme deity, led to sacred stories passed down over eons. All cultures have used such stories in their endeavor to explain man's presence on earth, each offering their own unique creation myth. The Greeks, for example, believed that from Chaos issued forth the Elder Gods, or Titans, led by Cronus. Cronus' son Zeus led the next generation of deities known as Olympians. They told stories about the Titan, Prometheus, who was said to have shaped human kind from clay. The Unalit said that the first man was born from the pod of a beach pea while Egyptians believed that the first human came from the tears of Ra, the Sun god.
As they looked around at his fellow man, humans must have wondered at the differences that existed between them and observed the power of some. To immortalize and preserve the memory of Kings, Queens and other outstanding figures they built elaborate tombs, filled them with worldly possessions and told stories of gods, goddesses, heroes and heroines who were endowed with a similar diversity of qualities. It is likely that many of the deities that graced Mount Olympus once walked on earth as mortals, gaining their stature only after death. Zeus, as ruler of Mount Olympus was powerful, a rebel who won the battle of the universe while Apollo was skilled in archery, music, medicine and prophecy. Perhaps these figures were once men whose qualities and presence needed to be maintained.
Proponents of the Greek myth that it was Prometheus who shaped man in his own image waxed lyrically and suggested that after he shaped man a collective group of gods bestowed his clay handiwork with their special skills. A marble relief from a Roman saracophagus, A.D. 3rd century shows Prometheus creating man out of clay. Behind the Titan stands Minerva (the Roman version of Athena) guiding him in his endeavours. If we extend this relief we might see the host of Gods and Goddesses, surrounding Prometheus, each offering the first human gifts to carry throughout life. Demeter would surely offer knowledge about farming, Ares a few skills in the art of defense, Themis some sense of justice and wisdom, Hermes the power of shrewdness and cunning necessary for trade and Hestia the expertise in maintaining the hearth. Mnemosyne would have to be there to ensure that man possessed a memory, for without that he could not survive in the harsh environment of the world, and her daughters, the nine muses, would have lined up to offer knowledge of the arts, literature and science. It was the muse who endowed man with ways to keep official records of the important events of life and the craftsmanship needed to pass on stories that told of the gods and heroes. She presided over the recording of the past, present and future.
Generally the gods were not believed to have had direct or permanent relationships with humans after this moment but that did not mean that humans did not think that these deities were disinterested in their destiny or behavior or that they could not be invoked to provide timely support. In fact the gods and goddesses were believed to have established relationships in many different ways. Sometimes they were believed to be guides and counselor's and often they were believed to be the bearers of warning. Hence Euripides writes that Medea venerated Hecate above all other deities. Medea was said to have been a priestess of Hecate because she used sorcery under the guidance of this goddess and she had learned to handle magic herbs with skill. Thanks to Hecate Medea was believed to be able to stay the course of rivers and to check the paths of the stars and moon. Similarly Achilles was at pains to explain to Priam how Zeus possesses two jars, one filled with pleasant gifts and the other of a sinister sort. Maybe, drawing from the two jars at random, he will hand out to certain mortals a mixture of the good and the bad.
This helps to explain why humankind became votaries of and worshipped specific gods and goddesses. When everything seemed to be outside the realm of their control, in the hands of Fate, Moira, fortune, lot or destiny, they took their problems to gods and goddesses and sought their intervention. In doing so they knew that the gods could do nothing to alter the portion of days and hours allocated a mortal. The laws of fate ordered the world and it was within this framework that a process of exchange and reciprocity came into being. When Jason betrayed Medea she invoked Themis, the goddess of justice to intervene and pass judgment on the unfaithful Jason. Meanwhile artists, musicians and poets alike turned their full attention to Mnemosyne and the Muse and pleaded with them to fill them with creative inspiration. In return for these gifts the artist made an exchange of some sort - be it a sacrifice on an altar or a gift to place in the treasure house at Delphi.
Over time groups of people have evolved complicated means of contacting gods, goddesses and the rich collection of spiritual beings that, it was believed, inhabited the world. Aboriginal men of high degree all used drumming, dance and song to enter an altered state, while others made offerings and sacrifices to bridge the gap between the two worlds. Today this process can be as simple as silently burning laurel leaves and leaving libations of milk and honey beside the computer so that the ancient goddesses will infect it with a creative virus.
The allure of the old stories and myths of gods and goddesses is eternal and still has the power to protect us against harsh outside forces. Myths fuel our imagination, inspire us to use our senses and empower us as we seek to take charge of our lives. Young children and adults alike love the idea of gods and goddesses being present as Prometheus shaped them, bringing with them rich gifts and filling their bodies with vibrant and energetic souls. Personally it nourishes my psyche to think that the Muse Calliope was present at my birth, assisting Clotho as she wove the banner that depicts the evolutionary process of my life story. It was Calliope who presided over the timeless arts of creative inventiveness and writing and I like to believe it is her who nourishes me with rich ideas and a passion for the teaching of language. However, I know that there were others Gods and Goddesses who came to bless me as well, for where else could that sense of social justice, my great need to protect the hearth and the considerable personal power have come from? Clearly a veritable crowd gathered to celebrate my coming.
Curiously humankind has difficulty grasping the view that all creation is based on the same principal and that man creates in the same way as god might create. Instead of acknowledging the wonder of human potential humankind continues to defer to a supreme deity and, as a consequence, human achievements such as the Pyramids and Stonehenge are deemed to be the work of 'outside forces'. For all our advancement we seem little further down the track. Interestingly, it is St Paul who casts some light upon this eternal mystery with the words 'Thou fool, except a grain of wheat fall into the ground it cannot bring forth much fruit.' Upon the shelf the corn of wheat would wither of its own element, just as sperm laying in isolation cannot fertilize and bear fruit. The original source of the grain of wheat may remain a mystery but there is no doubt that once the wheat is planted and nourished it brings forth much fruit.
The following work bears witness to the collective value of human ancestry and is based on the belief that if the human spirit is to flourish the 'grain of wheat' must come under the rays of the sun and be nourished. It is built around the view that just as an acorn has the potential to become a towering oak tree, so each human, assuming that the seed was not flawed, has unlimited potential. It is supported by the premise that human advancement is dependent on the development of techniques enabling access the storehouse of information gathered and stored, from conception, by sensory systems designed to ensure the survival and advancement of the species.
The gods and goddesses of Ancient Greece said to have presided over our birth and to have bestowed us with generous gifts, remain a useful symbol to help us nourish the spirit and to come to grips with the vastness of our potentiality. The ancient gods and goddesses provide a useful tool to key into our knowing. If we have become oblivious to the nature and extent of our potential it is because 2000 years of jaundiced interpretations of the Bible, the rise of rationalism and the under utilization of our senses have all but erased this knowledge.
The mythology of Ancient Greece no longer plays any part in our daily lives and gets much less attention from the education system. Yet, if we want to nourish our imagination and be infused with inspiration, for those who traverse the old haunts there are rich symbols to be mined and techniques which, when replicated can aid our creative powers. Zeus lay with Mnemosyne to give birth to deities capable of recording victories and other events of importance. It is their daughters, the nine Muses who provide us with the tools and skills needed to access Apollo's gift of insight and mine the vast storehouse of the subconscious. When we find the time to enter the world of the collective unconscious something happens.
'The Princess and the Muse' is a mythical tale that promotes the view that despite neglect the gifts bestowed on our species are enduring. It uses the ancient Muse to make the point that those gifts remain, secure within the collective unconscious. It also provides an explanation of how, even in our current climate, we can achieve an altered state, contact the Muse within, replenish our reserves of creativity and reap the full benefit of our birthright. When we can return to the Muse and delve into the storehouse of our subconscious we learn to put faith in the potentiality of humankind. When we put our faith in the human spirit and revere it as a 'divine' creator we come to really know ourselves and open ourselves to the magic within.
It is the responsibility of each human being to bring forth to perfection the good fruit of seeds sown by those who walked before us and to draw upon the treasury of knowledge acquired by the labor of philosophers, sages and legislators through a long succession of years. This treasury has been laid open by the custodians of past, present and future, the Muses. They hold the key to wisdom that is ours to utilize.