Monday, June 24, 2013

TFBT: Symbolism in Greek Mythology

French psychologist Paul Diel wrote “Symbolism in Greek Mythology: Human Desire and Its Transformations in 1966.  It was translated from the French in 1980. 

Diel references solar mythology early on, confounds the Titanomachy and the Gigantomachy, adds Medusa to the brood of Echidna, thinks Chiron was the only centaur with a name, believes baby Oedipus’ tendons were cut by his father, says Cerberus has two heads...

His un-referenced work provides interpretations of the classical myths that are more esoteric in nature than I am use to seeing in scholarly works.  But, that’s okay; I bought the work to learn new perspectives.  Early on Diel states, “…mythical explanation must follow a strict rule…This rule is:  never be satisfied with an isolated translation of a symbolic feature. The meaning of a symbol is considered to be substantiated only if the assumed meaning explains not only the myth in question, but all myths containing that symbol.”  I found that rule encouraging, but rarely followed. Rather Diel states the meaning and uses that definition throughout the series of myths he studies without further discussion.

Starting with page, Diel begins laying out his world neatly. 
·        The super conscious or spirit is represented by mountains, Olympus, the sky and the sky-gods. 
·        Consciousness and intellect occupy the earth. 
·        And the subconscious is “represented by monsters which emerge from the underground regions from a dark cavern, from a den…” and “monsters which rise the ocean depths.”

·       “The radiant sun…becomes a symbol of the illuminating spirit."
·    “Intellect is symbolized by terrestrial fire”
 ·     And the “subconscious…where infernal fire burns.

The book then analyzes a dozen or so Greek heroes based on their futile attempt to become “sublime”.  As often happens with scholarly tomes, the greatest arguments are submitted at the beginning of the book. At which point you can look at the rest of the book as supporting arguments.  Or, and I’m sorry to have to say this, the accumulation of mis-information and false logic because such a burden in later chapter the exhausted reader sets down the book and walks away.  That’s what I did at page 125 of 208.

But along the way I read some interesting things;

Of Tantalus the author says, “A man cannot be “the guest of the gods” at every moment of his life.”  He says we shouldn’t even wish to live in that sublime sphere, but must be able to   “come down earth” to fulfill our earthly needs.  He also suggests that “Tantalus…offers this abominable food to the gods, (his son Pelops in a stew)because, wishing to become their equal but being unable to rise to their level, he tries to bring them (the gods) down to his own.”

Diel says, “(Phaeton) dissatisfied with being only the mortal son, means to play the god; he wants to become the equal of the divinity.”  Phaeton’s wish is to drive the solar chariot across the sky. The horse is the symbol of impetuous desire…Helios begs his son to give up his immoderately exalted wish” but Phaeton “is reluctant to school himself according to the counsel of the spirit(his father a sky-god).”  “Just as he tame and controls the horse, man must be able to bridle his desires”.

Of the Earth Goddesses
·        Demeter represents the earth populated by man.
·        Gaea is the symbol of the undefiled and monstrously wild
·        Rhea, the symbol of the earth over flowing with wildlife.


  1. I wonder what arguments Diel brought for Cerberus having "only" two heads.
    I had independently reached the same conclusion, though hardly by the same reasoning. In my rendition clearing the mythological events of supernatural elements, Cerberus could only be a result of developmental abnormality. However, conjoined triplets are extremely rare, so I made Cerberus a pair of conjoined twins, the third "head" (in the middle) being an underdeveloped paw.
    Are you interested in the true origin of Cerberus? (You'll read it nowhere else!)
    After gods find out that their children are prone to ageing and death, they start a search for some means to preserve immortality. It is found - a synthetic food supplement called ambrosia. Despite the few sober voices demanding animal studies of the long-term effects of ambrosia and particularly of its effects in pregnancy, the substance is immediately added to the food of all considered worthy of it.
    Very soon, a surge in birth defects is observed among children of gods eating ambrosia. Zeus finally allows Athena to set up a study on dogs. The results: the group on ambrosia (unlike the control group) produces more puppies, but some of them are abnormal. Most severely affected is Cerberus.
    After the experiment, the grown-up puppies join the retunue of Artemis. However, she doesn't want poor Cerberus who is useless in hunting. He is finally taken by Hades, who, being himself disabled, sympathizes with other disabled creatures, though not enough to consider marrying a disabled woman.
    (Hades suffers from xeroderma pigmentosum which forces him to live in the darkness of a cave. In the rare cases when he goes out in daytime, he is reliably covered by non-transparent clothes and gloves, and his face is protected by a special helmet.)

  2. Maya,

    Thanks for a great laugh. I mean a spectular secular explanation of amobrosia and nectar. Do Orthorus, Geryon, the Chimera and the Hydra know their other heads are just paws? How do your findings apply to "soma" and the golden apples of Idun? Thanks again.

  3. Actually, more than two heads are extremely rare as a natural or non-specifically induced abnormality. If specifically created by transplantation, I guess they could be as many as the body can support. I conveniently omit the question of the number of heads of Hundred-Handers, describing them just as "not with 100 hands, of course, but definitely with more extremities than any vertebrate should have". Typhon's morphology is so abnormal that "it was easier to describe him as built according to another body plan than as a deviation from the standard body plan". The other monsters are just briefly referred to as "results of irresponsible experiments" :).
    Soma is easy - you can find hallucinogenic plants and mushrooms everywhere. The golden apples of Idun must have been carefully engineered to have the effect they are described to have. BTW, I wonder whether Robert Graves could be right, identifying the golden apples of the Hesperides with oranges. I must check whether oranges (or, for that matter, apples themselves) were cultivated in Bronze Age Europe. In the same book (The Golden Fleece), Graves makes a serious error, saying that if a protégé of the Olympians commits a crime, they "spit him out like a hot potato". Today, New World plants are so deeply integrated in our life that we tend to forget their relatively recent import.

  4. I was writing only about ambrosia. Nectar is another story: Gods, like other advanced primates, are unable to synthesize vitamin C. Because they live in a seasonal climate, they suffer of fatigue in early spring. When the cause of it is found, vitamin C is produced synthetically, then mixed with honey and one or two other ingredients for better taste, diluted with water and offered as a soft drink. Consumers like it so much that they soon start to drink it throughout the year.
    When ambrosia is developed later by another team, the creators of nectar regret that they have not found another solution (such as cultivating plants in flower-pots in winter). They realize that, by encouraging the consumption of a synthetic substance, they have made their people too trusting and ready to swallow every stuff that comes out of a lab and is advertised as healthy.

  5. I like your mention of "Soma - hallucinogenic - mushrooms and Robert Graves" all in the same sentence. I remember reading in an updated preface that Graves had decided ambrosia was made from hallucinogenic - mushrooms.