Sunday, February 14, 2010

For the Love of Venus

Muse, tell me the deeds of golden Aphrodite the
Cyprian, who stirs up sweet passion in the gods and subdues the
tribes of mortal men and birds that fly in air and all the many
creatures that the dry land rears, and all the sea: all these
love the deeds of rich-crowned Cytherea.

(Homeric Hymn V - To Aphrodite)

Today (February 14) is what is commonly known as St. Valentine's Day - a time when millions of people flock to card shops and chocolatiers to pick up something that says 'I love you' for their significant other. Even though everyday should be a day of affectionate expression to the person that lights one's heart, it is good that at least one day out of the year is earmarked for LOVE.

What many people don't know is that, yes there was a St. Valentine (a priest in Rome who was martyred in the 3rd century) but he was not associated with love or affection until Geoffrey Chaucer wrote about him in such a fashion in the 14th century. It is quite probable that the real origins of St. Valentine's day, are the Roman festivals of Lupercalia (February 15), which involved purification and fertility rites, and the festival of Veneralia (April 1), in honour of Venus Verticordia (the 'Changer of hearts').

As with many Christian days, the origins are strongly pagan, invented by the church to help along conversion of the masses to the new religion. Pope Gelasius (AD 492-496) abolished the Lupercalia and established a day to honour the Virgin Mary. The St. Valentine association came later. All the politics of religion aside, this is a time of year when our ancestors worshipped Love, prayed for fertility, and honoured the sanctity of marriage - this is also the ancient Athenian month of Gamelion, dedicated to the sacred marriage of Zeus and Hera.

Most of us would be hard-put to find a pagan temple in our communities, especially in North America, but perhaps it is fitting that at this time of year we take our wishes for love, intimacy, longing and genuine affection to the people that embody these most inspired feelings. Perhaps the people we love are the temples or statues where we should lay our offerings? And that is an altar at which we should do homage for not just one day but everyday that we live and breathe.

There the moist breath of the western wind wafted her
over the waves of the loud-moaning sea in soft foam, and there
the gold-filleted Hours welcomed her joyously...they brought her to the gods, who welcomed her when they saw her, giving her their hands. Each one of them
prayed that he might lead her home to be his wedded wife, so
greatly were they amazed at the beauty of violet-crowned

(Homeric Hymn VI excerpt - To Aphrodite)

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Against All Odds

Hear your fate, O dwellers in Sparta of the wide spaces;
Either your famed, great town must be sacked by Perseus' sons,
Or, if that be not, the whole land of Lacedaemon
Shall mourn the death of a king of the house of Heracles,
For not the strength of lions or of bulls shall hold him,
Strength against strength; for he has the power of Zeus,
And will not be checked till one of these two he has consumed.

Thus spake the the Oracle at Delphi, long ago, as recorded by Herodotus, the 'father of history', in Book 7 of The Histories. This was the prophecy that was given prior to the Greek stand at Thermopylae in which 300 Spartans and 700 men of Thespiae made one of the most heroic stands in the history of the world. Roughly one thousand Greek hoplites defended the pass known as the 'hot gates' (photo above) for three days against an army of about 1 million under Xerxes of Persia. This is a deed of heroism by which all others have been measured in western history ever since, and it echoes across the ages, unspoilt, radiant, despite politics and the greed of much lesser men.

Why is it that this signal event in western history is revisited again and again, what do we get out of it today when our lives are so very different from those of 480 B.C. ? There are probably several answers to that question but for myself it is summed up in one word: Inspiration.

I know, "there he goes again, on about inspiration. Totally corny, right?" No. Not to me, and that is what matters, for inspiration, whether conscious or unconscious, is highly individualistic. I have stood on the battlefield of Thermopylae and though there is a motorway running through it and the sea has silted up for kilometers, the place casts a spell. It is not the impressive modern monument to Leonidas of Sparta and his men that I find moving but rather the little hillock the other side of the road where the Spartans made their last stand, died for what they believed in.

It is difficult for the modern mind to grasp this concept, no doubt, and out of misunderstanding, or perhaps fear, many might dismiss this as something that happened long ago. These men and their king volunteered for death and they shall never be forgotten. They lived strongly, true to themselves. They have been celebrated through history to the modern age. Artists, filmmakers and yes, writers, have paid their tributes. I won't forget a picture of American troops in Afghanistan, sitting in the sand reading copies of Gates of Fire by Steven Pressfield. What reading that book must have done for their morale, I can only guess at, but I suspect that it inspired in them something of a will to fight on and face their fears. This is completely separate from the politics around our sad and current state of war and the reasons for it. The president at the time was certainly no Leonidas.

Many folks will say that this simply does not apply to them, for they are not soldiers fighting in a war on some foreign field. True, granted. However, some past events, deeds, transcend all else, including war, and are applicable everywhere. We all face our own struggles day to day, and must meet whatever it is we must meet on our own, personal battlefields. For a youth, that battle might be the fear of exams or being bullied in school. For an adult, it could be facing that daily commute to go to a job that is anything but inspiring. It might be not having a job at all. A new mother may fear yet another day inside with the same routine, over, and over and over again. A family too may be dealing with the looming spectre of an allergy. However small and insignificant these things may seem, they are our own battles, fears, and it is crucial that we fight on daily.

No doubt that Leonidas and his men each wrestled with some measure of fear, perhaps of loss, of not being remembered, of failing their way of life. But they overcame and though they died, they raised the bar of human achievement to heights we can only now dream of but for which we should never cease to aim. And now, they grace our canvases, our screens and our pages.