Spoor of Desire: Selected Poems
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Sunday, August 1, 2010

Aphrodite’s Bed: Love in the Homeric Hymn

I'm afraid I still don't know how to use Greek letters. I've transliterated some phrases here.

Among the glories of Greek poetry is its poignant fascination with pleasure, whether of the athletic field, the table or the bed (including, indeed, true love). Unlike certain other traditions that insist on angling after a share in eternity, the Greeks seized what beauty they found before their eyes, making of it a profoundly ambivalent ideal, its pleasure excruciatingly heightened by its transience. Their vision was elaborated in one of the grandest and most precise mythological systems preserved in words. The so-called Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite, one of the oldest texts in the European tradition, deploys an array of mythological figures to define all-too-human love, a love that proves no less transcendent for its limitation in time.

The opposition of time and eternity is reflected in that between the human and divine worlds. In the Hymn these dualities are exploded and explored through the theme of threatening or enervating intercourse of a mortal with a goddess. The theme of is, of course, very common in literature and folklore from Ishtar's attempted seduction of Gilgamesh through tales of succubi in medieval tail-rhyme romance to Keats' "Belle Dame." In the twentieth century the search for heavenly connections fraught with danger continues in Lawrence, Henry Miller, Norman Mailer and many others and remains animated, more or less subtly, by the supernatural.

In nearly all these stories – the mythological and the “realistic” alike -- the motif is suggestive of the following themes: the numinous nature of sexuality itself; a simultaneously heightened vision of mortality and of the confusion or, indeed, unity of the impulses toward life and death in the psyche; and, finally, a sense of man's ultimate passivity and helplessness before the currents of fate. In spite of the pessimistic coloration of these latter themes, it in significant that a story of divine-human intercourse deals with a bridging of the gap, however temporary or even disastrous for the participants, between mundane reality and perfection.

In the “Hymn to Aphrodite” the transcendental character of sexuality is expressed in several ways. First, it is all but omnipotent, overmastering even Zeus. Secondly, human figures, when viewed as sexual objects are explicitly described as god-like, shining, divine (1. 55 and 1. 86 are two of many examples). Aphrodite and Ganymede are alike called thauma idein (l. 90 and l. 205). The clothing and ornament of the beloved assumes likewise a magical glow reflecting the onlooker's aroused energies.

As for the vision of mortality that is an intrinsic part of commingling with the divine, it is necessary here only to mention that, upon discovering what he has done, Anchises is not delighted at the grace that has' descended, but rather he fears for his life. (Topic II discusses other negative aspects of the encounter in more detail.)

The entire poem stresses passivity and helplessness. People are snatched by gods (Ganymede, Tithonus, Aphrodite in her deceitful narration, Anchises himself in a figurative sense); they are enwrapped by age (1. 244 ; eros "takes" them (1. 91). Both Anchises and Aphrodite are compelled to act as they do. Nowhere is human life or character portrayed as a self-made entity for which one assumes responsibility.

Yet it is worth recalling at this point that the entire poem is based on the ecstasy Anchises experiences. However disillusioned he is in the end, Anchises has felt a real though momentary restoration of Edenic conditions. Though he may be shaken, he must be also inspired.

The entire poem is structured by the design of its central theme -- the mingling of opposites: the human and the divine, heaven and earth, pleasure and fear, love and cruelty. Both Aphrodite and Anchises act with powerful and opposing inclinations contesting within their minds. Aphrodite acts with single-minded intensity, but once she has shared Anchises' bed, she is overcome with shame and distress, declaring mala pollon aasthen(1. 253). Anchises is apprehensive upon first seeing her (1. 83), submits to her with qualifications and misgivings (1. 145-151) as well as enthusiasm, and is again frightened when she reveals her true form (1. 182), Each then, feels what behaviorists call an approach-avoidance conflict, though the outcome is never in doubt. But the ambiguity of their motives goes beyond this doubt, for the love and desire they feel are themselves strangely compounded with malice and deceit. Zeus tosses lust to Aphrodite out of his resentment of her apparently stable will. She, in turn, tosses lust to Anchises in a cruelly calculating and manipulative manner. After lying to him and using him, she confronts him in a chilling and imperious manner orseo Dardanidel. 177) and she leaves him with threats and suspicions (1. 281-290). For his part, Anchises is self-absorbed to the point of narcissism. The reader's original glimpse of him suggests this quality that made him vulnerable and the appropriate victim for Aphrodite as he is seen while "all the others" are at work, strolling up and down alone, playing on his kithara (1. 79-80). Love appears in the poem as an instrument of manipulation, a leash by which another's ego may be led about.

The contradiction is epitomized in Aphrodite's epithet philommeides. The term expresses at once her association with pleasure and beauty and with heartless and sadistic mockery. It is first used (1. 17) in speaking of those whom she cannot "tame," "ensnare," or "bend." It occurs next (1. 49) in a context of her ridiculing all those whom she can render foolish and powerless by her wiles. It is also used in the moment (1. 155) of mounting the great bed. So it bears a burden of meaning at once sinister and intimate, welcome and frightful, the smile of a lover melting into the harsh grin of a victorious opponent.

Another highly memorable image of the contradictory sides of love is the familiar one of wild beasts. The haunting and beautiful lines describing Aphrodites approach to Anchises’ home surrounded by predatory animals (1. 69-74) suggest the wild, uncontrollable lust she feels and also its devouring, vampiristic quality. The bears and lions appear again on Anchises' bed, trophies of his earlier victories in subjugating wild natural forces (1 159). These animals, though potent and attractive, are merciless and driven.

These tensions precipitate a fall that is quite similar to the Biblical fall. Anchises, who had been inhabiting an idyllic but static rural world, finds himself the progenitor of a turbulent and tragic, but vital and energetic line. We see the Trojan War in the future, in which the erotic debacle is moved from myth to legend as it advances in time. This prediction, which foreshadows in fact the whole Greek world of those who originally heard the poem, clearly places the flaw that caused the fall into the category of a felix culpa in that it makes history possible. As Empedocles and Freud said, love and strife make the world move.

Examining the exceptions to Aphrodite's rule catalogued near the poem's beginning, one may see her defined negatively and better understand her attractions and her dangers. Athena, Hestia, and Artemis are mentioned as exempt from Aphrodite's sway. It is significant that the opposition implied is by no means between pleasure and reality principles. Athena is associated with war, Hestia with domesticity, and Artemis with the hunt, the dance, and civic life. What links these goddesses is the social nature of their functions. War insures a profound and emotional social solidarity. The ties forged in family life are at least as significant for the community as a whole as for the nuclear family as a separate unit. In the case of Artemis one might view the hunt as representing collective food production (hunting communities generally share their prey), while the dance is, though ecstatic, a ritual confirmation of group assumptions. Thus, the third element associated with Artemis, that of "orderly towns," which may have originally appeared somewhat out of place when juxtaposed with the wild cries of the hunt and the excitement of the dance, is actually fully of a piece with these other terms. Love in opposition to them is seen as a selfish, a paradoxically solitary obsession. One may act with devotion, determination, or bravery in response to circumstances, but erotic passion is exclusively self-justifying. That is the reason it carries the potential for such disorder, and why it is viewed with as much awe and fear as delight. The mutual dance of vulnerability and aggression that Aphrodite brings is a threat to the social order of self-defense, stable families, and group activities represented by the other three goddesses.

The tales of Ganymede and Tithonus, cited by Aphrodite as precedents in her apologia, further develop the concept of love in the poem. Neither suggests the delights of sexuality; those are assumed. What they do stress is the quantifying, the calculating quality of love that grows naturally from the solipsistic concerns of the lovers. In the case of Ganymede, almost no space is given to the putative point Aphrodite is making the fact that Zeus himself shares in the failings of the flesh. Nearly the whole passage is devoted to explaining how his father was pleased to be given some fine horses in exchange for his son, surely a cynical and disturbing comment on what Ganymede meant to Zeus and to the other heavenly banqueters. Even worse, because of its horror and inevitability is the story of Tithonus. Here the theme is the temporal limitation of love. The necessity for passic to flag and flesh to decline is presented in such a frightening way that when Eo closes the doors on the old babbler in his one-room nursing home, the reader feels quite sympathetic to her desire to avoid seeing, at least, the spectre of loathsome age. Though on earth, one's lover may age also, the leering faces () of youth will reproach him nonetheless.

Even so merciless a dissection of the pitfalls of love does not suffice for the cautionary burden of the poem. The hymn to a goddess that is really the story of that goddess’ defeat and of the tragedy of human existence closes with the curious, almost disorienting device characteristic of the prosodion form in the "Homeric hymns."


This anticlimactic ending, so immediately unsatisfying, has a peculiar effect of tossing the mythic action that has preceded it into a larger context, a swirl, a matrix far grander than the events just narrated, which had seemed all-important. The poets' mention of turning to other gods reminds the reader that on Olympus as on earth, psychic quantities of various coloration determine events by their mutual interrelationship and balancing of tensions. It is ill-advised to put all one's eggs in one basket or all one's votive offerings before a single altar. The formula may here have roots in a genuine function as prelude, but as evolved it seems to be as well a prudent recognition of the multiplicity of the gods and a reminder that no single force can guide one's mind toward integration and wholeness. It is also reminiscent of the statue to the unknown god (present in today's Africa as well as in St. Paul's Athens) that granted the powers even of those potencies of which one is not aware.

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