Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Athena's and Asclepius's snakes: women leaders, earth-venoms, healing, part 1

It was the second time I had gone to the new Acropolis Museum, this time with students. I was looking at the great frieze on the second floor about the gigantomachy, the battle, this time Athena alone, with four giants, from an early temple on the Acropolis, built from 525 to 500 BC and dismantled by the Persians around 480. Warrior Athena, Athena with a sword.

A mere fragment of a foot of Engelades, the giant beneath her, remains. Three other giants sprawl on the ground, trying a curator says in the slight note, to get up, one pulling perhaps on an invisible shield to steady himself.

I look at her. She is calm. In her hand curls a snake, perhaps an oxia (a viper, the deadliest of the snakes in the soil here in Athens). One side of her cloak survives. It curls into twelve snakes. Even the last of her braids twist into snakes (shades of Medusa). Among the remaining fragments of her neck, there are some scales. She looks down at the giant at her feet with ferocity. One of my students Hana Truscott later found in the National Archaeological Museum three images of Zeus as a snake, Zeus meilicthios; another Jonilda Dhamo, suggested that perhaps we saw here an Athena who combined sweetness (melos or honey is somewhere in the word) and calm. Fell would be a better word. Her face shows neither anger nor pain. She is going about her business, destroying all the giants with poison. They were not trying to get up, as if they were warding off blows from swords. The venom moving through their veins was producing in them a deathly stillness.

I have been working on Heidegger, whose enthusiasm for the Greeks conjoins with Blood and Soil, Blut und Boden (or “Blubo” in his Jewish student Guenter Anders’ mocking abbreviation). He was interested in an authochthonous Athens, the indigenous Athens, the polis in a wider sense of association, which was dominated by a tyrant, by the fierce rule of the one male. He identified all this with the German soil, with the roots of “the Aryan,” with Hitler and his “beautiful hands.” This is interesting textually in Heidegger’s interpretaton of Plato’s Republic, see here, here and here), but horrific politically and pretty well the opposite of what the autochthonous culture, one of the goddess, was really like. Heidegger just had some hubris about being good at philosophy, garbed himself woodsily in peasant attire, wanted to stomp with the Nazis on others’ faces, and is a really bad scholar – as were most eugenicists – of the actual, civilizational changes that occurred.

Here instead is something real, Athena, the snakes coiling out of the earth, dispenses with her enemies with a cold ferocity. I had last year discovered some things about the religion of the mater on Crete (de ma or de mater which became in Athens Demeter. h/t Athanasios Bobos) and moved into the center of the Eleusinian mysteries, see here. But I had believed the patriarchal propaganda about Athena, the victor’s story, canonized on the Parthenon, in which she sprang, fully armed and armored, from the head of Zeus, “of no woman born,” perversely loyal to her father, full of patriarch’s reasons, and humbling the mothers. The founding story of Athens is the vote between Athena and Poseidon to see who will be the god of the city. Though a warrior, Athena conjures the olives (here, she resembles Demeter who makes everything grow) and Poseidon, formerly an underworld god of earthquakes, has now moved out to sea and become blue. He c0njured a spring of salt water,an at the time misunderstood harbor for Athenian seafaring. One more woman than a man, a majority chooses Athena.1

The men are so incensed that they "pass laws" disenfranchising and imprisoning the women. Not democracy, but the rule of the stronger is, with Thrasymachus, Carl Schmitt and Heidegger the theme. See here. Though it was to become increasingly democratic, Athens reveals the role of women only in the Mysteries or mockingly, in Aristophanes’ comedies (Lysistrata, Ecclesiazusae). Plato spoke for Athenian manliness – why one should be in politics a crazed killer, like Achilles – fused with temperance. They should become more philosophical killers.

I pointed out the snakes to students. I was sufficiently enthusiastic to say something immediately to a guard/official nearby. And then something startling happened. The new Acropolis Museum, is a special place, prepared to hold the returned Elgin marbles, a museum of surpassing beauty, inventiveness, and resource. The floors have glass as if they were the bottoms of ship; as if in magical waters, one sees layer upon layer of Athens extending beneath, from which excavations have just begun. In the glass of giant windows, from many angles on many floors one can see the Acropolis, including from the restaurant between the second and third floors. The Museum has become part of the artistic configuration of Athens. It lends a cool, modern architectural element to the city and is filled with treasures. That the British imperialists no longer have a claim on the objects stolen by Lord Elgin will be obvious to almost anyone who sets foot in the museum.

An older Englishwoman walking by overheard me speaking with students about this. “But the British saved it,” she said, “when no one else cared.” Leaving aside colonialism – the Greeks were beaten down and in little position to care – and Elgin’s theft and mutilation of these objects initially to take them to his estate – he violated his agreements even with the Ottomans - I said, “that was the past. Look at this place: it is such a magnificent setting for them now.”2 The Parthenon frieze belongs here in Athens, and the museum is a dazzling contemporary structure, built into the city and into relationship with the Acropolis – something that mirrors it, adds to it in a modern idiom, novelly asserts the Athenian spirit , not simply the old lit up ruins on the hill - now in process of being reconstructed and a bit Disneyfied as some of my students pointed out - high above the crushed, defeated and dominated Athens of the centuries, but a resurgence of democracy.

That spirit has also shown up in the strikes and the democratic protests these last two years (see here). And Athenians in a great demonstration recently unfurled a banter on the Acropolis “Europe join us!” here. Why should ordinary people give up their pensions or continue to suffer so that Goldman Sachs can realize its bets on derivatives, lending money to the Greek government, but making even more money on its failure?4 Why should ordinary people put up with this future in the rest of Europe or the United States?

The new Acropolis Museum puts to shame the British Museum, in this respect a dead international monument to the now fortunately dead British Empire. Even Hong Kong is gone (Prince Phillip wept for Britain’s past “glory”), and now at last the time is coming for the Elgin marbles to return home.

The Museum has archaeologists to answer any questions visitors may have. So the guard got Vassilis Chrysikopolous, to come talk to me. Vassilis immediately responded to my enthusiasm about the Athena of snakes. He said: it is her magic that is killing them (we do not quite agree on this point, the image is of the giants falling from the real venom, being struck; the sign suggests a different kind of battle, not what is happening before one' eyes). See Snakegoddess here. But Vassilis walked with me over to a seated, unrestored Athena nearby (“the Endolos Athena” - sculpted by Endolos, 525 BC) and pointed out sixteen holes in her cape. Sixteen snakes had poked out of those holes, he said.

An indecipherable medallion hung on her breast. That is Medusa, he said, with all those snakes for hair, her gaze freezing anyone who saw her to stone (back into the earth, my student Cheryl Wachowe later added). Vassilis also took three of us to the start of the second floor. On the sides of a great frieze, there were two large snakes, with differing patterns of scales, one with its mouth open striking…

There is a frieze on the top of the stairs, with, on the right, three mysteriously smiling, guiding spirits (demons in English, which gives a very different sense). They come out of the earth on three intertwined serpents’ tails, like the first Athenian king, Cecrops. They hold no longer visible objects, but Vassilis identified them as brandishing water, fire and air, the four elements of the pre-Socratics, and of course, an incipient chemistry long afterwards. Snakes grow out of the soil. I was immediately intrigued by the snake goddess roots of Athena and its ties to the mother-spirituality which long flourished in the Greek islands. See here and here. I shared with Vassilis some of my thoughts about Heidegger and Plato and what was visible in the art. We talked intently for a long time, and agreed to meet again.

With the historian Athanasios Bobos, I took my students to the Museum and reconstruction of Mycene. At that time, the gods were chthonic, under the earth. Poseidon, so far as one may make him out, was a god of earthquakes. There is not yet an Athena (none of the gods yet have distinct faces) who is a creature of snakes. But several coil in the surrounding displays. Zeus was, if at all, some powerless air-god. Power was in the soil.

We then returned to Athens and visited the National Archaeological Museum. I wanted to look particularly at the first room - the Minoan civilization - to see if there were snakes. The objects, particularly the long women, hands across their chests perhaps in an agony of giving birth, long vaginas, influenced twentieth century sculpture (Giacometti and Brancusi, for example). There is a wonderful pot on which four fisherman stand, holding fish down from each hand. Their eyes are the eyes of the fish: they take the shape of the nature they see. Theirs and their artists' was not an abstract vision, even thought the artists sometimes depicted what they saw abstractly and influenced 20th century art. They saw something immediate.

But patriarchal Greek culture eschews powerful and free women. They have renamed sacred objects found in graves, “frying pan sculptures.”5 One part of the circle of the “pan” is a vagina with pubic hair (the poor curators run away, run away...).

There are six of these objects. Some include a boat, and all have “spirals” and stars. But what would the islanders have seen? Perhaps the spirals are waves though the vaginas and pubic hairs don’t seem to be part simply of a seascape. Perhaps they are…snakes.

On pots, the patterns of incision and coloring are coiling snakes, scales of snakes. It is not just the destructive goddess with a ferocious mien brandishing two snakes. It is all snakes.6

There is some link of this culture with Syria and Africa (which way the causation or interplay goes is unclear). The word Metis (the mother of Athena) comes from Africa as does apparently the name Athene. Metis figures in two legends, one of the birth of her daughter, the other of Medusa (the Greek name for the Gorgon is a variant of Metis).

One can too easily think of the beautiful murals, 3400 years old, on Crete and Santorini, of boys boxing, of crocuses and deer, of daily life, no warrior stuff at all, the “lily prince” whom Sir Arthur Evans tried to cast as a “manly” militarist. A sarcastic curator wrote amusingly in a short paragraph near this mural: “some think the figure is a woman.” An archaeologist spoke of “the grace of daily life” – see here.

But goddesses also preside over or guide the spirit to the underworld. They are goddesses of mortality, or “Sein zum Tode” as Heidegger put it. This spirit has a destructive face, the woman brandishing two snakes, whom another archaeologist at the Acropolis Museum conventionally but mistakenly identified to me, as a goddess of fertility: she has naked breasts. But you would not want to be within a universe of her expression or the energy that radiates from her. To sell her as a trinket outside the Museum in Iraklio (Heraklion), they whiten or pacify the face, shrink the snakes, enlarge the breasts.8

This discovery goes along with the recent German thesis, offered by Hans G. Wunderlich in The Secret of Crete that the Palace at Cnossos was a funerary area, reshaped by Sir Arthur Evans to match his anachromistic Imperial preconceptions. See the Palace at Knossos brought to you by Sir Arthur Evans here. All that elaboration not for a palace, but to keep the spirits of the dead inside, the snakes in the ground or at least not poisoning so many. As well as giving birth and nurturing graceful lives, the women-led culture was also a death culture. It is hard to look at those vagina, pubic hair objects so peacefully now; the soil, the pots teem with snakes.

Martin Bernal has advanced the thesis that Athena is black. I haven’t yet studied his text (looked at a few pages, and it doesn’t seem exact). I am not sure the snake goddess is not Cretan. But Bernal’s seems a broadly plausible way of looking at things, particularly if one connects Athena and the snakes.

I and three of my students who had come too late for the first trip through the Acropolis Museum later pursued this theme on the second floor. There are two examples of Athena Promachus in the “Severe Style” in bronze, a transition to the golden age (475 BC). One holds a spear. The other, Arielle Finkelstein pointed out, had 8 snakes on her cape; Nicole Lepzinski noticed scales on her neck.

Poison comes from the soil. As one goes up to the Acropolis, there are interesting images of snakes. The Asclepion is there, brought from its center in Epidauros. Asclepius, a god of suffering and healing, used snakes to heal and has a snake winding around his staff. The snake sheds its skin and regenerates; the human sheds her suffering and is anew. In the actual temple, those to be healed passed by a sculpted serpent at the entrance, harmless snakes slithered on the floors; the sufferer went to a couch and slept to have a dream in which the god would indicate a course of treatment. Then the physicians would fill in the meaning of the dreams. In a later Latin report, Galen describes Asclepius’ use of viper venom for treatment:

“The god appeared to a wealthy man in Pergamem and prescribed: ‘you should drink every day of the drug produced from the vipers and should anoint the body from the outside.’ The elder Philostratus describes a similar practice of ‘the wise Ascepiads’ who ‘heal the bites of venomous creatures…using the virus itself [and] as a cure for many diseases.’”

The treatment often involved baths (there was a sacred spring of salt water in the Asclepion at Epidaurus). A theater of Dionysos is a centerpiece at Epidauros – the sound perfect however high you sit - and an amphitheatre of Dionysos remains just below the Acropolis, the masks of sileni, the satyr flutist Marsyas and Dionysos there in the Museum.7 Tragedy gives one catharsis, recognition from the point of view of the underworld of the horrors often carried out in the daylight world, and emotional release. Tragedies, too. are a dream, in which Cassandra’s voice can be heard, Antigone leads her father, the blind Oedipus, 15 years after his horror, to the best death a man has known in Oedipus at Colonus, and then suffers an unjust death for trying to bury her brother in Antigone.9

At the National Archaelogical Musuem, Hana Truscott found an image of healing from Asclepius which involved poison. A sufferer receives treatment from a physician on his neck, just behind him is a scene of a previous treatment or perhaps from the initial dream, a snake rising up open-mouthed over the neck….

The Greek word for drug, pharmakon, refers both to a substance that heals and a poison. Starting in the sixth century, those associated with Asclepios experimented with venoms. The snake still associated with medicine (the modern symbol of the two intertwined serpents) comes out of this first process of trying to use poison to counter the poison. From the early observation that one can swallow poison and survive (and a keen sense of how powerful and regenerative snakes were), many insights and a whole kind of medicine – in fact, modern medicines, homeopathy and American - originated.10 Once again, Latin authors inform us. Thus Lucan reports in the first century A.D. that the younger Cato, tells his troops in Libya during the Roman civil war: “The poison of snakes is only deadly when mixed with the blood. Their venom is in the bite and they threaten with their fangs. There is no death in the cup.”

In the Acropolis Museum, there are suction cups – good for extracting venom from a wound one might imagine – and other instruments associated with treatment. Snakes and anti-venin were the core; the rest, including dreams and tragedy grew up around the possibility of a cure. Physicians at the Asclepion offered an integral cure, one in which the soul, in dreams, in tragedy, was fused with the body, psychology with physiology, serpent and psyche one. Some surviving objects in the Museum are dedicated to Asclepius from those who were healed. The great power of Asclepius grew from the same place as that of Athena.

My blog program is not currently posting links. The relevant previous posts are the last one (the poem Snakegoddess), the Heidegger posts from May, and the photographs and posts for June 2009. I hope to get this corrected and post the text again.

1. In another version of the story, Cecrops, the first king of Athens (first named Cecropia), half-snake, coiled from the soil, and half-man, chose Athena.

2. Today Harvey Mansfield’s Manliness is by its title alone an unintentional satire on patriarchy. Tin-eared, David Brooks wrote a laudatory column on it in the New York Times; For an intellectual devastation, see Stephen Colbert’s interview with Mansfield during his book tour, here.

3. I also omitted to mention that by attempting chemically to “whiten” the frieze, the British museum curators harmed it, as Greek curators pointed out.

4. The capitalism here is self-refuting or self-destroying. Remember the admirableness of the occasional mom and pop store – say the pharmacist in It’s a Wonderful Life – and how you could trust mostly that they would do business with you straight. Now think of Goldman Sachs, sued by the SEC for bilking rich clients out of $9.4 billion on mortgages for which a phony rating was posted, the government of Bush deliberately sleeping. They put the “reputation of Goldman Sachs” behind these securities, at the same time, they sold $15 million of bets that these investments would fail to one man, who made $34 million dollars, and in addition, made a large bet against their own, unwarned customers. Obama had better watch out; the information exposed by this kind of lawsuit might persuade any person with sense, even the very rich, never to put a dime into Goldman Sachs again.

5. At the Cycladic museum, one card insists “man is the measure” and that these objects were all “made by men.” 50 vaginas and no penises will do that to some guys. Another sees a vaginal object, not hanging down, but attached, as some sort of – at last – “penis.” Perhaps the head is coming out in birthing…

6. Interestingly, the Goulandrises’ collected marble statues of the goddess. But they bought only one “frying pan” and no pots. One can go through this part of the Cycladic museum and miss the presence of the snakes.

7. In the Symposiumm, Alcibiades likens of Socrates to a silenus filled with gold images, to someone more musical than Marsyas, whose words exceed the flute.

8. At the Herakleion Museum, there is an accompanying dark figure with snakes wound around her arms.

9. Freud was aware of the complexities of the Greek story. When he was old, he had throat cancer and had to have a device put in his throat each morning to speak. His daughter Anna would do it. “My Anna,” he wrote, “my Antigone...”

10. As Will Altman has pointed out in "A Tale Two Drinking-parties," the drinking parties of the first book of the Laws are to be set beside the Symposium and the Phaedo: Socrates is hiersiarch of the strangest drinking party, that in which he goes to his death for philosophy. Wine, says Plato in Lysis, is a cure for hemlock. Venom, anti-venin. The fear-drug (phobon pharmakon) is the hemlock, the pleasure drug, one of an Athenian Stranger who has escaped the poison and thus differs in kind from Socrates. Deciphering what Plato thinks is true and false in the Stranger’s words is especially interesting and difficult.


Anonymous said...

the food is delicious!............................................................

Anonymous said...

the food is delicious!............................................................

enowning said...

In your: " Heidegger’s interpretaton of Plato’s Republic, see here, here and here", none of the heres appear to link to anywhere.

Alan Gilbert said...

My apologies. The program wouldn't post them. In the next post, I give the links.

Shahzada Sher Saddozai said...


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