'I think therefore I am.'  Descartes            'I AM THAT I AM.'  Exodus.3.        'I am what I am.'  La Cage aux Folles

25 October 2010

The Pantheon

Greece and Rome

As the concept of divine intervention grew  we created heaven in our own likeness and with what we knew. Just as we have duties so did a myriad of gods have their duties. Just as we had a chief, a pharaoh or one who made decisions so did the pantheon of gods have a supreme King and just as our leaders could change so could the importance of a particular god. We tend to refer to what we understand as paganistic beliefs in derogatory terms, but they are part of our progress and to some, this understanding still remains suitable. No one has the complete truth and none should curse another for his own search. In Egypt we generally believe that many gods and goddesses ruled life, however the Egyptians believed in one supreme god, the beginning and end of light. The apparent pantheon of gods and goddesses were merely the personifications of the essence of our existence, the faces of what god created, or the reflections of his various aspects. Each civilisation, each region, each town named their God differently, but this does not deny His uniqueness. In Greece and other civilisations we seem to see many Gods but sometimes I wonder if the same principle reigns, that of a creator under various guises to explain his all encompassing and eternal unknowableness.
The ultimate triumph and involvement of all gods, both good and bad from all cultures, is the creation, manipulation and history of man. Why did we invent them? Did we need to explain ourselves and that which we could not understand? Did they invent us?  We always prefer to have someone to blame and sometimes we need someone to thank, but normally we will reserve praise for ourselves. So who are the monsters? The gods or us?

There is so much in the mythology of the Ancients that is contradictory and changeable. Like today life and beliefs evolved so it is hard to get a grip on just who is who and what is when. No snapshot of the gods is ever complete or long-lasting so I won't try. I am just giving a minute glimpse of one of my interests. Have you ever read the Robert Graves two volume Greek Myths? It is not a single story, only a collection of fragmented, sometimes opposing stories. I guess that most history is like that unless the author subjectively pushes his/her own favourites into a linear tale under the claim of artistic license.
The 'Dynasty' of the ancient world is much like the Offenbach operetta 'Orpheus in the Underworld'. Life must have been fun with so many bickering, jealous, bad-tempered, selfish gods. The Family of gods and their interaction with humanity is often cruel and a reflection of how unsympathetic and selfish mankind itself can act. Below is the Greek version of the Family Tree and a few examples of the hundreds of gems of this ancient mythology.

Adonis and Venus
Venus wounded in the breast by her son Cupid, fell in love with the beautiful Adonis. Her influence was far from benign as she encouraged his cowardice, and a boar gored him to death. That part is usually ignored. A strange story and neither Venus nor Adonis can be considered admirable representations of love and beauty. Two cases of vain beauty.

The son of a river god and a nymph he was the most beautiful in the land but forbidden to see himself. Arrogantly he rejected all as unsuitable. One day his neighbour, Ameinias  asked him to be his lover. Narcissus sent a servant to deliver a dagger in response. Ameinias understood and took his own life, cursing him to ever meet in love the same disdain that he had for others. When Narcissus stumbled across his reflection in a pool he fell in love with the beautiful youth he saw and his vain entreaties to the image, came to naught, so rejected by his own unspeaking self, he waited and died.

Having sprung fully armed from Zeus's head,after he swallowed her mother, she was the Goddess of wisdom, war, arts and the protector of Athens. What a woman. Strange choice of the  male dominated Athenians as their number one protector. The destruction of her Temple - The Partheneon is another of the great tragedies of civilisation.

Cupid   -  Eros  -  Love
The winged son of Venus and mischievous manipulator of the loves of gods and man. His arrows wounded many and caused unwanted loves and often the pain we all know so well. Protecting Hera, the wife of Zeus,with his arrows he nearly had her raped. Venus used him to impart vengence on those who appeared more beautiful, like Psyche. Death, revenge, jealousy and all the wonders of lust and love have often found this impish boy hovering in the background.

Mars   -  Ares
The god of war and agriculture and thought by the Romans as the father of Romulus. His sacred statue stood in the place where youths exercised. Son of Jupiter and Juno. Along with Venus he sided with the Trojans. Astrology and the naming of the planets after the gods came to Greece from Babylonian and Palastinian origins. The astrological deities of the seven day planetary week of the Canaanites was abandoned in favour of the twelve zodiac signs. Mars was growth.

Bacchus  -  Dionysus
The son of Jupiter and Semele. When she saw the god in his glory she turned to ash. Bacchus was raised by nymphs. Driven out and made mad by the ever jealous Juno he recovered,then discovered and spread the cultivation of the vine throughout the world.As god of wine he represented both the intoxication and the benefits of the grape. He promoted civilisation, law and peace. When Ariadne was abandoned on Naxos, the favourite island of Bacchus, he, after a promise to her from Venus, married her At her death, he threw her crown into the sky and it became a constellation in the heavens. Women were said to celebrate the god in drunken, private rituals where they were known to tear any male intruder to pieces.

Once a beautiful girl whose rniglets were changed to snakes when she chalenged the goddess Minerva's beauty. So hideous and cruel was she, that anyone who looked at her directly was transformed into stone. Perseus who was the son of Jupiter and Damae had set his wife and daughter adrift to protect himself from an oracle that said his daughter would be the cause of his death. They found protection with King Polydectes who many years later sent Perseus to kill the gorgon. Having favour with Minerva and Mercury Perseus was given their shield and winged shoes. He used the shield to see the reflected image of Medusa and cut off her head and gave it to Minerva.

Tantalus, the king of Sipylus, was a son of Zeus and had his son, Pelops cut into pieces and served in a stew. For his crimes his kingdom was laid waste, and he died by Zeus's own hand.  Zeus restored the son to life and his beauty was now beyond compare. Poseidon, the god of the seas, saw the radiant boy and instantly fell in love with him. He ran after the lad, lifted him into his chariot drawn by golden horses, and took him up to Mount Olympus. Poseidon appointed Pelops to be his cup-bearer and lover. He fed the youth on ambrosia, taught him to drive his magic chariot and would have kept him there forever, but the other gods,  had the son return to earth. Poseidon sadly parted from his friend, but not before hea

Daphnis was a hero from the island of Sicily. His father Hermes, and his mother a nymph. He was abandoned and brought up by shepherds. From an early age he was renowned for his beauty, and for his delightful songs about the shepherd's life. Many were those who desired and courted this beautiful boy. He was a beloved of the god Apollo , and also of Pan, who taught him to play the pan-pipes. He fell in love but  was struck blind and spent the rest of his short life on earth playing the flute and singing his sad and beautiful songs, until Hermes took him up to Mount Olympus.

The Greek deities and their Roman equivalentsOriginally in the early days of Rome the gods had no relationship with each other nor with the Family of Olympian Gods, but as with many cross cultural influences what is originally seen as unique is recognised as the same under a different name. - The Greek Zeus,

Greek Gods
Roman Gods
Greek Gods
Roman Gods
Charites (Graces)
Moirae (Fates)
Aurora, Matuta
Cupid (Amor)
Dis Pater, Pluto,

A couple of great standard books on the gods.
'Myths of Greece and Rome' by Thomas Bullfinch
'The Greek Myths' by Robert Graves

16 October 2010

Thomas Mann

Novelist and Critic
``To be grateful for all life's blessings, . . . is the best condition for a happy life. A joke, a good meal, a fine spring day, a work of art, a human personality, a voice, a glance -- but this is not all. For there is another kind of gratitude . . . the feeling that makes us thankful for suffering, for the hard and heavy things of life, for the deepening of our natures which perhaps only suffering can bring.''

Thomas Mann was born to a merchant family in Lubeck, Germany.  His father inherited a large family firm and was twice Mayor of the city. He had five brothers and sisters. His brother Heinrich Mann also became a playwright and novelist. Heinrich's novel 'Professor Unrath' was turned into the legendary Josef von Sternberg film 'The Blue Angel' with Marlene Dietrich. Soon after his birth, Mann's father died and the family then moved to Munich.  At nineteen he  worked for a insurance firm as a clerk and  secretly wrote his first Novel 'Fallen'. He Went to Munich University to study art and literature and also worked  for a German journal called "Simplicissimus". After living in Rome for a year he devoted his talents to writing. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1929 and left Germany  in 1933 when Hitler rose to power. After five years in Switzerland he was encouraged by friends to move to  Princeton,  USA for two and a half years 1938-1941. He lectured in the University and  gave public lectures on Goethe, Wagner, and Freud as well as courses on the German romantic movement and the European novel.  He and Albert Einstein, who had been a friend in Germany, met frequently in each other's homes. Eventually  Mann moved to California, where he remained until 1953 when he returned to Zurich in Switzerland where he lived until his death in 1955.

Thomas Mann  was  one of the most important novelists of the early 20th century. His books often pointed to the clash between the extrovert life of the bourgeois and that of the intellectual and the artist. He believed that genius led to decay and a fascination with death, just as Ashenbach sought true beauty through austere intellectual labour he is described as hitting sterile 'rock bottom' and once he realises his futility, death consumes him.

Mann's erotic attraction to the male sex is revealed in much of his work. In 1911, Thomas Mann vacationed in Venice and became very attracted to a fourteen-year-old Polish boy Wladyslaw Moes whom he saw and this became the novella 'Death in Venice'. In Tonio Kröger (1903), the homoerotic feelings of the young Tonio has for his friend Hans Hansen is used as a metaphor for being an outsider to the normal bourgeois life, yearning to belong to the 'blond and blue-eyed, the brightly living, the happy, those worthy of love, the ordinary people.' His diaries and letters, along with several essays and prose works, show the author's erotic attraction to handsome young men. In an essay Mann had defended homosexual poet August von Platen, claiming that he channelled his sexual desires into his art but admits that Platen may have bestowed some sensual love on 'unworthy boys.'. He also spoke of an affinity with the homosexual poet Walt Whitman and the 'spiritual love of comrades'. and 'the queerly sympathetic response one feels upon touching with one's own hand the naked flesh of the body,' but Mann himself withdrew from writing about obvious encounters of the flesh. He had however formed strong male relationship's. One such was the 'passionate love' for Paul Ehrenburg (who was 23 and Mann was 25) from around 1899 to 1903 and reportedly the last with Klaus Heuser the son of a family acquaintance in 1927 when Heuser was sixteen and this lasted for a few years. He had admitted to kissing the boy and it was obvious to his family that he was regularly noticed spying on the boy out of the corner of his eye and even had him stay with him.  As usual many critics had denied this sexual attraction but publication of his diaries have now made such denials impossible
Thomas's daughter Erika (1905-1969) was an actress and author and married Gustaf Grundgens an actor/director. Her second marriage was to W.H.Auden, although they never lived together as she only wanted an foreign passport. Mann's son Klaus (1906-49) was also a novelist/playwright and outwardly gay. He and his sister had a very strong love for each other.  His novel 'Mephisto' 1936 was based on his sister's first husband's accommodation with the Nazis. This became a well known film in 1981. Klaus Mann's first novel 'The Pious Dance'  1925 describes the impoverished life of sexually ambiguous and lost youth in the gay underworld of the Weimar republic; an obvious  challenge to the image of homosexuality and  aestheticism as described in Thomas Mann's 'Death in Venice'. He became a US citizen and committed suicide in 1949. Thomas Mann's second son Golo (1909-94)  became a historian teacher and writer.

Works include  
'Buddenbrooke' 1901,     'Death in Venice' 1912,    'Tristan' 1913,    'Tonio Kroger'    1914,    'Reflections of a Nonpolitical Man' 1916,  'The Magic Mountain' 1924,   'Children and Fools' 1928,   'Mario and the Magician' 1930,      'Joseph and his Brothers' 1934-44,       'Doctor Faustus' 1948,       'The Holy Sinner',   'The Black Swan' 1955,  'The Confessions of Felix Krull'  Published after his death.  

In my late teens I discovered Thomas Mann. Death in Venice, the movie, was released around this time and could have been the spark. However I soon read and re-read all of Mann’s novels. The Holy Sinner  and Confessions of Felix Krull being my favourites.
If anything should be made into a film or an opera, it is Thomas Mann's 'The Holy Sinner'   Roughly it is his epic story of arch-sinfulness ending in triumph. A brother and sister of noble birth sleep together one evening. She has a child and enters a convent while he goes off to the crusades and is killed. The child is abandoned and then brought up in a monastery. He then sets off to prove his nobility, rescues a woman against invaders and sleeps with her - His Mother. Now he goes off to do penance on a rock. After some visions in Rome the Cardinals set off discover this hairy shape on the rock and he now becomes Pope.  Eventually mother sets off to Rome to seek forgiveness for her exceptional sins. And hence the climactic greeting  - "Father, husband and son!"
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