Friday, October 19, 2012

TFBT:The Divine Aversion to Death and Nyctophobia

“Hear me, O Thanatos, whose empire unconfined extends to mortal tribes of every kind. On thee the portion of our time depends, whose absence lengthens life, whose presence ends. Thy sleep perpetual bursts the vivid bolds by which the soul attracting the body holds: common to all, of every sex and age, for nought escapes thy all-destructive rage. Not youth itself thy clemency can gain, vigorous and strong, by thee untimely slain. In thee the end of nature's works is known, in thee all judgment is absolved alone. No suppliant arts thy dreadful rage control, no vows revoke the purpose of thy soul. O blessed power, regard my ardent prayer, and human life to age abundant spare."

                     -Orphic Hymn 87 to Thanatos

Thanatos is described as the god of Death and fatherless son of “the thrice-prayed for, the most fair, the best-beloved Night!”[i]  Night is the primordial Greek goddess Nyx.   Death is the dark-winged grandson of Chaos and twin of Sleep.  Thanatos is called hateful, dread and distressful.  Death is portrayed as the dark-robed priest of Hades. Of him it is said “ alone of gods, Thanatos loves not gifts; no, not by sacrifice, nor by libation, canst thou aught avail with him; he hath no altar nor hath he hymn of praise; from him, alone of gods, Peitho (Persuasion) stands aloof."[ii]  The gods of Olympus prefer not to look upon Thanatos. This is “the divine aversion to death.”[iii]
The goddess Artemis refers to this distaste for death as a law, saying, “Farewell: it is not lawful for me to look upon the dead or to defile my sight with the last breath of the dying.”[iv]  As she cruelly abandons her favorite Hippolytus.  Aeschylus puts into the mouth of one of his characters, “Pray that the rampart withstand the enemy spear. Yes, the outcome is in the gods' handsbut then, it is said that the gods of a captured city abandon it.”[v]  Plutarch suggest something similar in the case of Mark Anthony.[vi]  Helios the sun-titan may never look upon the house of death in the underworld “neither as he goes up into heaven nor as he comes down from heaven."[vii]  The Artemis’  twin brother Apollo with similar indifference to the death of his favorite’s wife announces, “For it is on this day that she is fated to die. And I, to avoid the pollution of death in the house, am departing from this palace I love so well.”[viii]   In a similar circumstance Demeter referring  to Limos (Hunger) declares such laws are decreed by the Fates. [ix]  

But, Nyx’s  son Thanatos and  granddaughter Limos are not her only descendants avoided by the Olympians.  Harsh old age (Geras is) …dreaded even by the gods."[x]  Eris, Nyx’s strife-causing daughter,  was not invited to the wedding of Peleus and Thetis and when she tried to crash the party was famously not admitted to the banquet[xi]  In turn Eris’ daughter Ate was caught by the shining hair of her head and flung from the heavens by Zeus grandson of the earth.  The king of the gods swore a mighty oath that this deluder of all could never “come back to Olympus and the starry sky.”[xii]  The Olympian gods could not touch nor “share a feast in common” with the Erinnyes.[xiii]  To quote Casus Belli, it appears that “the descendants of Nyx…are excluded from any parental lineage or cosmogonic succession relating them to Zeus” [xiv]  Clay declares “Gaia, whose line remains completely separate from that of Chaos – intercourse between these two fundamentally opposed cosmic entities seems impossible.“[xv] 

So, if the children of the Night were not party to the dispensation of Zeus at Mecone.  The law separated them from the children of Gaia.  The Erinnyes, whether daughters of eternal Night or born of the spilt blood of Gaia’s husband Uranus were elder deities than the Olympian gods, and were therefore not under the rule of Zeus.[xvi] The same logic would apply to the Fates. So from where do their powers and honors flow?

In the Iliad when Zeus discovers Hypnos, the brother of Death conspiring against him with his own wife Hera, Zeus chases the winged deity to the very gates of Hell itself.  But, it is not Death that ends the chase but rather Night.  Nyx whom, Homer calls her the subduer of gods and men.  Of her, Zeus stands in awe.  It is this divine nyctophobia that seems to insure the honors of Nyx and her descendants.  For Statius[xvii] and Heraclitus[xviii] both warn that Nyx and her descendants could correct Helios’ course.  And Iris reminds Poseidon that in a fight with his brother, the descendants of Nyx would take the elder brother’s side.[xix] 

So, the divine aversion to death evolved from pollution, the laws of bloodlines and honors distributed before the beginning of time.  It separates the descendants of Nyx living below the earth from the Olympians living a carefree existence in the Heavens.  But, Night will come and with her “ ghoulies and ghosties and long-leggedy beasties and things that go bump in the night,”[xx]  It is the law that establishes aversion, but is nyctophobia, the fear of the night that enforces it.

See also;  TFBT: Zeus' Aversion to Autochthons

[i]Hymn to the Night | Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
[ii] Aeschylus, Fragment 82 Niobe (from Stobaeus, Anthology 4. 51. 1)
[iii] I credit Dr. R. Drew Griffith of Queen University for the phrase.
[iv] Euripides Hippolytus, 1437-8
[v] Seven Against Thebes 216
[vi] Plutarch’s Lives, Anthony 75.4
[vii] Hesiod, Theogony 744
[viii] Euripides Alcestis 20
[ix] Ovid, Metamorphoses 8. 791
[x] Homeric Hymn 5 to Aphrodite 243 ff :
[xi] Pseudo-Hyginus, Fabulae 92
[xii] Homer, Iliad 19. 85
[xiii] Aeschylus Eum[349]
[xiv]  Casus Belli; The Causes of the Trojan War, Menelaos Christopoulas, Univeristy of Patras
[xv] Jenny Strauss Clay, Hesiod’s Cosmos 2003
[xvi] Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology.
[xvii] Statius, Thebaid 1. 97
[xviii] Bulfinch’s Mythology
[xix] Homer, Iliad 15. 200
[xx] Ending with “Good Lord, deliver us!”  Scottish Prayer

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