A Critico-Structural Excursion into the Classics
The mythology of a people is a serious and conscious presentation of stories that reflect culture. It is the collective memory that heightens a people’s sense of cultural identity, social dignity and national pride. Myths are a cultural “road map” that takes us to the socio-existential terrains of the human soul. Myths reflect the uniqueness of the culture of a people as well as the frame of mind of each individual denizen in that cultural context. They are actually “dramatic stories that form a sacred charter either authorizing the continuance of ancient institutions, customs, rites and beliefs in the area where they are current, or approving alterations.”
However, there is something technical about “myth” or “mythology”: It is fundamentally ancient Greek (i.e., Hellenic) in origin. And so, the question being triggered now is: Does it therefore mean that the terms “myth” and “mythology” do not have significant bearing outside of the ancient Greek civilization? The French scholar Jean-Pierre Vernant says otherwise:
To be understood themselves, the Hellenic legends must be compared to the traditional stories of other peoples from very diverse cultures and periods, whether ancient China, India, the Middle East, the Pre-Columbian Americas, or Africa. The comparison is necessary because those narrative traditions, however they differ, display enough common elements, both with one another and with the Greek example, to establish kinship among them.
These so-called common elements discovered in various mythologies are structural milestones that speak of a universal anthropological reality critically affirmed and put forward in the scholarly works of the proponents of the philosophico-anthropological school of thought called Structuralism or the Structuralist Theory in the academic orbit. One of its renowned patrons was the French intellectual and scholar Claude Levi-Strauss who
can declare [such commonality] as indisputable observation that no matter where it comes from, myth is instantly recognizable as such with no risk of confusion with other kinds of story. It bears a marked distinction from the historical story, which in Greece grew up somewhat in contrast to myth, insofar as it was meant to be the accurate account of events recent enough to be confirmed by trustworthy witnesses. As for the literary story, it is pure fiction presented frankly as such, whose value derives primarily from the talent and skill of the person who made it. These two types of story are normally attributed to an author, who answers for them and who offers them under his name, as written texts, to an audience of readers.
Structurally, we can thus say that the terms “myth” and “mythology” have a wider — even universal — scope of meaningfulness farther beyond its parochial origin.
II. Scope and Limits
This paper specifically focuses on the issue of the dynamics of love in ancient mythologies in both Near Eastern — particularly Mesopotamian and Egyptian — and Indo-European — particularly Greek — traditions.
Love in these mythologies — more pronounced in the Mesopotamian tradition — is viewed as a primal life-force characterized by 1) fertility (possibilizing-of-being); 2) formity (molding-into-being); and 3) formality (ordering-of-being).
In the Greek tradition, it is a primeval energy that cyclically flows from a universal timeless ocean — the Primordial EROS — to the “lakes” of gods/goddesses-in-time-and-space — Aphrodite and Eros — to the “rivers” of human passion and back to the universal timeless ocean.
Egyptian mythology dramatizes that in the “rivers” of human passion, love expresses itself as 1) physical desire (ka love); 2) sharing of the soul (ba love); and 3) commitment of the spirit (akh love).
Ontologically, the love portrayed in ancient classical mythologies cannot be boldly signified if not viewed as the spirit that “inspires” the embracing arms of creation and destruction, order and chaos, peace and violence. In Greek mythology, love (Eros) is the intensifying passion that calls into being the sting of destruction/violence (Eris).
Love is, hence, an ancient wave that vibrates, interpenetrates, and interconnects the divine and the human in an eternal cosmic dance that makes life dangerously exciting, poignantly challenging and desperately imminent in its expression of a “longing for itself”.
III. Love as Primal Life-Force in Mesopotamian Myths
Mesopotamian religion and culture span a very long period of four millennia. Materials of both archeological and literary significance may be generally availed of from almost every era of this ancient past. The Sumerian gods and goddesses were embraced and enshrined by the dominant Semitic races — the Akkadians, the Amorites, and the Assyrians — in the area.
Dumuzi-abzu is a Sumerian god of the marshes in the earliest Mesopotamian mythology. Generally, he is viewed as a fertility deity whose sister, Geshtinanna, is the power in the grape, and whose companion, Inanna, symbolizes the “storehouse of dates.” Dumuzi (in Semitic, Tammuz) is the central figure of a myth and cult whose manifestation of fertility is in the power of the date palm that appears in the spring. A fertility deity in an ancient myth is a well-spring of the creative energy of love that possibilizes being. Everything in the world springs naturally from the creative power of love represented in the activities of a fertility deity. The sexual expressions of Dumuzi’s covenanting with and marriage to Inanna, the occurrence of his tragic and lamented death, as well as the effort of his sister and mother to venerate him and look for him in the underworld, are within the corpus of this myth. The myth and cult of Dumuzi in the Mesopotamian religion reveals the typical weaknesses of humanity in its encounter with the appearance of holiness in the forms of nature.
There is a sustained, though subdued, stability of the fertility motifs in the myths of Mesopotamia’s middle period (ca. 2500 — ca. 1900 BCE). Fertility’s symbolism from the simplicity of sexual intercourse is transformed now to one of cosmic significance — the powerful aggressiveness of the thunderstorm that pushes the river’s course. The god Enlil — “lord wind” — is the cause of the storm. As wind-power, he leads over and controls actions intended to benefit humanity. The supreme deity in the pantheon is Anu, the sky-power. His relationship with his wife, Ki — the earth — has produced trees, reeds, and the rest of nature’s vegetation. Anu is the father of Enki — “lord of the soil” — who epitomizes the sacred character of the waters of rivers (the Tigris and the Euphrates), rain and marshes. As lord of the soil, Enki symbolizes the necessary intention of fresh water to bless the soil.
There has been more written about Enki than any other Sumero-Akkadian deity. The importance of water in a particularly arid climate may explain why Enki, the water-god, played such a prominent role in the creation myths of Sumer (Kramer & Maier).
In addition to being the water-god, Enki was the god of wisdom and craftiness. It’s possible that wisdom and craftiness spawned from his designation as water-god. The building of irrigation canals on the otherwise arid plains of southern Mesopotamia are what allowed Sumer to bourgeon into humankind’s first known urban civilization. For this very reason, it is possible that water was associated with the genius of harnessing it — through the use of irrigation — thus the supreme god of water would also be envisioned as wise and crafty.
Hence, Enki, whose activity leads to the formation of clay out of water and soil, likewise represents the human semen. Enki, being a deity who forms and gives shape — formity deity — is a molder. He is typically understood as the archetype — the original form.
Also during the middle period, the form of Inanna (Isthar in Semitic) changes. Added to her fertility symbolism is that of a war goddess, the rain-power, the evening and morning star, and the harlot. This period is also characterized the display of dynamic energies that excitingly inspire brisk interactions between humans and divines. The myth aims for cosmic order and the gods and goddesses — formality deities — projects themselves as intrinsic participants in the context.
The Goddess Inanna ruled the people of Sumer, and under Her rule the people and their communities prospered and thrived. The urban culture, though agriculturally dependent, centered upon the reverence of the Goddess — a cella, or shrine, in her honour was the centerpiece of the cities. Inanna was the queen of seven temples throughout Sumer. Probably the most important Sumerian contribution to civilization was the invention and creation of a standard writing and literature; the Sumerians even had libraries. Their literary works reveal religious beliefs, ethical ideas, and the spiritual aspirations of the Sumerians. Among these works are the hymns and stories of Inanna — important here because they were recorded at a time when the patriarchy was beginning to take hold, and the position of the Goddess, although strong, was changing.
IV. The Egyptian Mythological Vehicle of The Same Primal Life-Force called Love
The identification of love as a primal life-force in the forms of fertility, formity, and formality are likewise structurally conveyed in ancient Egyptian mythology. The element of love as fertility is present in the Old Kingdom mythology through the sun-god Atum (a.k.a. Aten or Ra) who appears as the first creator. The deities Shu and Tefnut (air and moisture) come out of Atum. Later, Shu and Tefnut produce Geb and Nut (earth and sky). From the latter couple emerge Osiris, Isis, Set, and Nepthys. The cosmos is established from the first four deities and the later four take the role of mediators between humans and the cosmos.
Love as formity and as formality is most pronounced in the theology of Memphis which is recorded on the Shabaka Stone. In the Memphite theological tradition, all local and former mythological traditions converge in the god Ptah. The text presents a cosmology wherein creation of the world (love as formation) and the unity of the land of Egypt constitute a process in the eternal ordering of the world (love as formalization). From ideas in his heart pronounced by his tongue, Ptah creates everything: the universe; all living things; virtues like, justice, beauty, honesty, honor, dignity, etc. Even the gods are created in this manner. They initially come forth as ideas in the mind of Ptah. Then, they take the form of this world’s materiality which have also been equally created out of Ptah.
V. The Developmental Flow of Love from Primordial Divinity to Its Humanized Form in Ancient Greek Mythology
The movement of events that projects love in the structural vehicles of fertility, formity, and formality seen in the ancient Greek mythological tradition undergoes the process of revelation that flows from the primordial eternity of divine presence to the temporal orbit of human reality. Love as fertility is solely of divine prerogative and responsibility. Love as formity is characterized by interactions among gods/goddesses and humanity in space and time where the former enjoy power advantage (being divine) over the latter. Love as formality brings us to the exciting drama of human passion and aggression that characterize the signification of socio-existential events in human terms.
In the beginning, there is only the Void and Chaos until Gaia (Earth) comes into being. The seed of love that is not yet conscious of itself (non-thematic Love) appears as Gaia. It is love-fertility whose appearance is actually a “possibilizing-of-being”. Gaia, in other words, is “pregnant” with being.
The earth appears. The Greek call it Gaia. Earth rises up in the very heart of the Void. And here it is: born after Chaos, and in some respects its opposite. Earth is not the realm of falling, dark and boundless and undefined; Earth has a distinct, separate, precise form. Against the confusion and shadowy vagueness of Chaos stand Gaia’s sharpness, firmness, stability. On Earth everything is outlined, visible, solid. Gaia can be defined as the entity upon which the gods, men, and beasts can walk with confidence. It is the floor of the world.
After Chaos and Gaia comes Eros — Old/ Primordial Love (thematic Love). Primordial Eros is love that is not located within a sexual framework because in the most ancient times, there was no gender yet. Primordial Eros being the original love is not the one who will later appear in the era of humanity.
The original Eros expresses a new thrust in the universe: In the same way that Erath emerged from Void, from out of Earth there springs what she contains within her own depths. What was in her, as part of her essence, comes forth and out: She gives birth to it with no need for sexual congress with anyone. What Earth delivers and reveals is precisely the thing that had dwelled darkly within her.
Now that love has become thematic in Primordial Eros, Gaia gives birth to Uranus whose place in Greek mythology is especially important. Uranus inaugurates a dramatic phase in Greek mythology that flows from fertility to formity. Uranus (Sky) is born out of Gaia and is originally the same dimension as she is. Gaia is covered by Uranus in full entirety. The Uranus that Gaia produces precisely corresponds and symmetrically duplicates her. Now, a pair of opposites — male and female — is present. In Uranus, we have the Male Sky and the Female Earth in Gaia. Love is now at the transition point between fertility and formity. From the union of these two forces emerge beings distinct from both of them.
But Gaia can no longer bear the difficulty of being closely attached with Uranus. So she comes up with a cunning scheme. She carries it out by shaping a sickle inside her womb where one of her offspring, Cronus, is trapped. Cronus will use the sickle to castrate his father, Uranus, while having intercourse with Gaia. While Uranus is emptying his seed in Gaia, Cronus grabs his father’s sexual organ and slices it off. Upon its occurrence, Uranus instantly separates from Gaia and his severed sex organ is thrown by Cronus and lands into the sea.
In castrating Uranus, on his mother’s advice and through her shrewd tactics, Cronus brings about a fundamental stage in the birth of the cosmos: He separates the earth from the sky. Between sky and earth he creates open space: Everything the earth produces, everything living beings engender, will now have room to breathe, to live. Space is liberated — but time is transformed as well.
The blood spilled out of Uranus upon his castration produces three distinct types of beings that personify violence, retribution, war, and slaughter: Eris. Eris is the opposite of Eros and he signifies all types and forms of hostility and disorder. Eris, on the one hand, is the internal turmoil in a single unit of relationship. Eros, on the other hand, is harmony and mutual agreement between two beings as distinct: masculine and feminine.
Now the sex organ that Cronus threw into the sea does not just sink into the water of the ocean; it drifts about and the sperm in it mixes with the sea. From there emerges a magnificent woman: Aphrodite. Now the phase of love as formity has come.
As she walks on the sand, the most fragrant and beautiful flowers spring up beneath her steps. In Aphrodite’s wake, hard on her heels, come Eros and Himeros, love and desire. This is not the original Eros, but a later one who demands that there be a masculine and feminine in the world from then on: he is sometimes said to be Aphrodite’s son. This Eros has a different task; it is no longer what it was at the very beginning of the cosmos — drawing forth what lay contained in the dark interior of the primordial powers.
As Uranus moves away from Gaia, he inaugurates the way to a non-stop sequence of generations. In each generation, as gods are seen in a situation of constant war, it is predicted that there will be no relenting of conflicts in the world. It is therefore hoped that the war of the gods must stop to establish once and for all world order. This is love’s expression of the need for formality (order and harmony). The need is, in fact, perennial as the movement of the story goes to the realm of humanity that is generally characterized by war, disorder, hatred, treachery, violence and crime. And so the focus now moves to the level of individual humanity where the concrete existentiality of love becomes authentic.
VI. The Existentiality of Love in the Individual Person: Ancient Egyptian Interpretation
Individual human love is understood in ancient Egyptian mythology in reference to the three components of the individual human person: the Ka, the Ba, and the Akh.
Our selves consist of several parts which experience life as well as death in different ways:
A. The Akh (or Khu) is our exalted divine self, the spark of divine matter which knows only gradually deepening awareness as our series of lives progresses. It is almost unaware of life and death. The ancients visualized it as a star, or as a high soaring white bird.
B. The Ba, or astral body, is our dream self, which carries life experience to the Akh. This body can become a ghost, and lives for some time after the body dies. (Some seers describe a Sahu, or magical body, similar to and in addition to the Ba).
C. The Ka, or conscious/sexual body. This generally dies at the same time as the body, although in, for instance, Alzheimer’s disease, it dies before the body. It embodies our alertness, logical mind, our desires, our fears, and our lusts, our prides; it is the part by which we deal with everyday life. It perceives the experiences and transactions which the Ba reports to the Akh.
Love may be understood in these three perspectives. Ka-love is physical engagement expressed in sexual desire, ownership, capitulation or ascendancy. Ba-love is soul-encounter where facilitation stands face-to-face with distress and need. It offers a vision of eternal sharing of human existence. Akh-love is a spiritual embracing that attends to the fulfillment of certain virtues that elevate humanity to the level of the divine. Akh-love aims for the eternal unity of all existence and of our very own individual divine spark.
VII. A Reluctant Conclusion
This paper is by no means exhaustive and complete. It is a simple introduction to prime the intellectual’s interest to seriously pursue the search for invaluable wealth that still needs to be discovered in mythological traditions of the ancient world. We have barely scratched the surface.
It is therefore unlikely at this point to end this study.
1. Robert Graves & Raphael Patai, Hebrew Myths (New York: Doubleday,1964), p. 11.
2. Jean-Pierre Vernant, The Universe, the Gods, and Men: Ancient Greek Myths (New York: Perennial, 2002), p. ix.
16. Jean-Pierre Vernant, The Universe, the Gods, and Men: Ancient Greek Myths, pp. 3-4.
18. Vernant, p.5.
20. Vernant, p.9.
22. Vernant, p. 12.
© Ruel F. Pepa 2004