Hubris: The Cosmos Menaced by a Return to Chaos
—or, How the Absence of Wisdom Spoils the Existence of Mortals
I have already had occasion to mention how, on the pediment of the temple at Delphi—one of the most celebrated monuments raised to the glory of Apollo—proverbs were engraved in the stone, enshrining fundamental tenets of Greek wisdom. Two of which, at least, remain celebrated to this day: “Know Thyself!” which appears prominently, along with its corollary, apparently more enigmatic, but in effect meaning the same thing, “Nothing to Excess!” As I have also mentioned, in passing, the sense of these messages has become obscured with the passage of time, and today their true meaning is often misinterpreted. We have a modern tendency to “psychologize” myth, to interpret the lessons of archaic wisdom with a modern slant, in the light of psychoanalytic schemas. This is, quite simply, a gross error. The famous “Know Thyself,” in particular—adopted by one of the founding fathers of philosophy, Socrates,* as the governing motto of his thought—is often construed to mean that we must at all costs “find” ourselves or, in analytic jargon, “bring to light our unconscious if we are to make any progress in this life, without fearing the return of what is repressed.” In the Greek world, the injunction “Know Thyself” has nothing to do with this modern mantra. And it is important to restore its authentic and original meaning, not for reasons of pedantry but because it furnishes (as we shall see) a precious and vital thread, indispensable even, if we are to understand a whole group of important myths that I shall now describe.
At its origin, in archaic Greek culture, this injunction possessed an obvious significance, even for the humblest citizens: we must stay in our allotted place, not get “above ourselves”—as is still said today in rural societies to describe someone proud, arrogant, someone who takes himself for what he is not. Moreover, another modern locution corresponds perfectly to what we are trying to restore to view and equally employs a spatial metaphor: to “put someone in their place”—referring to when we “teach someone a lesson,” when we “take someone down a peg or two.” This expression, like “Nothing to Excess,” commands us to discover our limits, within the cosmic order, so as to guard against hubris, against this vanity or immoderation that defies the gods and, by doing so (since it is all one and the same), flouts the universal order. For mortal men, hubris invariably leads to disaster, and it is this sense of a catastrophe foretold that is staged in the myths that now concern us.
The original model of hubris, the primary instance of a behavior that goes beyond all measure, we have already encountered: namely the example furnished by Prometheus. This is in some sense the archetype for all those stories that bring us the edifying news of disasters caused by this one supreme flaw, in the estimation of the Greeks—but which also allow us to glimpse the temptations it arouses. For, it goes without saying, if mortals sin through hubris, it is because there is something that leads them on… . Prometheus is the very first to be punished on account of arrogance and pride, and mankind with him. We have already seen in what manner—by means of Pandora, the wife “who wants always more than enough”—and why: because, with the weapons given to them by Prometheus (stolen from Hephaestus and Athena), namely fire, the arts, and industry, human beings are in danger of no longer knowing their rightful place, and of taking themselves one day for the equal of the gods. Here already, for the Greeks, lies the difference between man and animals. As you will recall, when Epimetheus arranged all living creatures in their order, when he distributed the qualities and attributes that allow them to survive, we see that the creatures each have a precisely designated place in the order of things. With animals there is no possibility of hubris, for they are guided by the instinct common to their species, and there is no risk of them stepping beyond their bounds. Impossible to conceive of a rabbit or an oyster in revolt against its destiny, undertaking to steal fire or the arts from the gods! On the contrary, men are endowed with a sort of liberty, with a capacity for excess that no doubt makes them more interesting than the animals—capable of so many detours and ruses—but capable equally of the most crazed acts of hubris.
Many centuries later, we find in contemporary humanity this same conviction that—unlike the animals, who each have a mode of being that is predefined, from which it is impossible to deviate—man is no way predetermined from the outset, that he is potentially anything and everything, that he can do and become whatever he chooses. He is par excellence the creature of possibility—as symbolized by the fact that, in the myth of Epimetheus, precisely, as distinct from the animals, he arrives, so to speak, “entirely naked” at the outset. He has neither fur like the bear or the dog, to protect himself from the cold, nor a carapace like the tortoise or the armadillo to shelter him from the rays of the sun; he is neither swift or agile at running, like the rabbit, nor armed with claws and teeth like the lion. In short, the fact that he is so unprotected at the outset means that he must devise everything for himself if he is to survive in a world as fundamentally hostile as that which succeeded the golden age. The myth implies, even if it does not say so explicitly, a power of invention, a certain freedom, if by this is meant that man is not imprisoned inside a role prescribed in advance by Epimetheus, as is the case with the animals. Now, it is precisely this liberty that is at the root of all hubris, for without it, man could not step outside his place, nor deviate from the role allotted to him. He could not make mistakes, and it is indeed the history of these mistakes—and the obligation, on the part of the gods, to put man “back in his place”—that the great myths of hubris will relate.
The human individual is thus defined, above all else, as he who can go too far. He can be wise or foolish. He has the choice. An infinity variety of lives awaits him: nothing says at the outset that he should be a doctor or a carpenter, a mason or a philosopher, a hero or a slave. It is up to him, at least partly, to decide the matter—and it is, moreover, this breadth of choice that often turns youth into a crucial moment. Crucial but difficult. And it is also this freedom that exposes man to the risk of defying the gods, to the point of even threatening the entire cosmic settlement. It is what the ecologists still reproach him with, long after the philosophers and poets first stigmatized the consequences of hubris: that humanity is the only species capable of laying waste to the earth, for it is the only species to possess such inventive and insurrectionary capabilities against nature as are able to truly disturb the universe. Once again, it is hard to imagine rabbits or oysters laying waste to the planet, or devising the means to do so. But humanity, on the other hand, at least since Prometheus bestowed upon it the sciences and the arts, is well and truly in a position to do so. Whence the threat it permanently poses to the cosmic order guaranteed by the gods.
Is this the sin of pride, in the Christian sense? Doubtless, but not exclusively so. In certain respects hubris goes much further: it is not limited to a subjective fault, a personal failing that tarnishes an individual and makes him wicked. It possesses, far beyond the simple sin of pride or concupiscence of which Christianity warns us, a quite other and cosmic aspect that I have just evoked: hubris always risks overturning the beautiful and just order of things established so painfully by Zeus in his war against the forces of chaos. And it is for this reason in particular that the gods punish hubris: quite simply, they are trying to preserve universal harmony against the madness of men. Or, at least, as far as certain of the gods are concerned. Which is why Greek mythology abounds in stories that recount dreadful punishments, whose victims are those who have the audacity to defy the precepts of wisdom the gods have imparted. It is not merely an affair of obedience, as in conventional Christian discourse, but of respect and concern for this world.*
A final remark before getting to the heart of the matter, to the stories themselves. Doubtless because the original audience was immediately able to grasp their true significance, these narratives of hubris sometimes follow on from one another a little drily, without literary embellishment. As if what takes place is self-evident, and any reader or auditor would perceive the meaning immediately, without needing it to be underlined. In each myth the scenario is the same: a mortal, sometimes a monster or even a minor divinity, thinks himself (or herself, or itself) powerful enough to step outside his allotted role and measure himself against Olympus; each time the transgressor is put back in his place with unswerving brutality, with a maximally deterrent effect upon all those who might be stupid enough to want to risk making a similar mistake. Unswerving, because it is the cosmos that is reasserting its rights, through the instrument of divine punishment. The resulting narratives, at least in the written form in which they have reached us, are often therefore quite skeletal. They confine themselves to a fairly basic framework: a hubristic revolt against the cosmic order is described, followed by crushing retribution—all presented in their chemically pure state, so to speak, without any ornament. Such is the case with the myths of Ixion, Salmoneus, Phaeton, Otus and Ephialtes, Niobe, Bellerophon, Cassiopeia, and so many others. By way of illustration—and because some of these myths are celebrated, and it is good for us to be familiar with them—I have offered the basic outline of these stories in a footnote and, where appropriate, the source texts in which the myths are to be found.* But we must also bear in mind that amateur or professional storytellers (of an evening, around the hearth) would embellish and add their tuppence worth, breathing new life and emotion by the addition of details, or spinning out events—as did the Greek tragedians in their evidently grander fashion, choosing to bestow their letters of nobility on certain of these myths.
Very fortunately for us, other narratives revolving around this same theme of hubris have survived in versions that are fully developed and probe more deeply from a literary and philosophical point of view. They constitute entire dramas, accompanied by rich and profound lessons in wisdom, both comedic and tragic; these, too, have often been enriched with accretions of new material over the course of time. We have already seen a case in point, in the myth of Midas. I will describe several others that are both worthy of close attention and often poorly understood, buried as they frequently are (without our modern mythographers even being aware of the fact) under a carapace of Christian morality, or bourgeois rectitude, or even contemporary psychology, all of which dilute their original savor and significance. It is important to reinsert them into the cosmological and philosophical contexts that are truly theirs, and with which we are becoming properly acquainted in these pages. All the more so since the richest of these myths directly concern the question of the relations between mortals and what unavoidably awaits them—namely, of course, death itself.
I. Tales of hubris: the case of those who “cheat
death,” Asclepius (Aesculapius) and Sisyphus
Within the category of stories addressing the tribulations to which mortals expose themselves by transgressing through immoderation, those myths that deal with the attempt to escape or “cheat” death—involving figures like Sisyphus or Asclepius, who try to outwit mortality by arts or by cunning—occupy a special place and demand close attention. Not only is the literary merit of these myths generally superior, but their cosmic aspect and their subsequent history are also of signal importance. Once again, as with Midas, we are dealing with a group of individuals who are not merely wrapped up in their own arrogance, as if their personal failings alone were in play, but whose behavior in effect menaces the universal order. Let us begin with the founder of medicine, Asclepius (Aesculapius for the Romans). Some versions of the myth diverge widely, which suggests we should pay attention to those among which there is close agreement. I shall follow, for the most part, the accounts of Pindar and Apollodorus; excepting a few details, without fundamental significance, they complement each other sufficiently for us to assume that they derive from a common source or tradition.
Asclepius as original model for the
Frankenstein myth: the doctor who
brings the dead back to life
The life of little Asclepius begins in a singularly violent manner. He is one of the sons of Apollo, who was, of course, not merely the god of music but also of medicine. Apollo has fallen in love, as is not uncommon with the gods, with a ravishing mortal by the name of Coronis. You will have noted, in passing, that the gods are especially susceptible to mortal women. Not that women are more beautiful than goddesses. On the contrary, the beauty of the latter is infinitely superior to that of humans, whoever they be, but the gods are susceptible precisely to the imperfections of mortality—to the fact that mortal beauty is so ephemeral, so transient. Paradoxically, it is what gives women their irresistible charm, something precious and infinitely touching, a fragility never encountered among the Immortals … and which makes gods fall in love with them. Which is why Apollo is besotted with Coronis.
Whether he has seduced her or forced her, we do not know. The fact remains that nothing can resist a god, and so he succeeds in sharing the bed of his beloved. And from their passion is conceived little Asclepius. So far, so usual. But things soon start to spoil. Coronis, it seems, is not for her part in love with Apollo. She has the supreme audacity—which even her father disavows—to prefer a simple mortal, a certain Ischys, and she becomes his wife. The marriage is, as you may imagine, resented by Apollo as a downright insult: How dare his mistress have the impertinence to prefer a common mortal to a god? All the more so, since Apollo passes for the handsomest of the Olympians… .
How does Apollo find out that he has been deceived, not to say cuckolded? Here the accounts diverge. According to some, it is thanks to his famous art of divination that he discovers what has been going on. But according to Apollodorus, Apollo sends a crow (in Greek, corone, a name with a strong resemblance to that of his beloved) to keep an eye on the lovely Coronis. Unfortunately, the bird reports back what he saw: Ischys and Coronis making love with unabashed enthusiasm. Distracted with jealousy, Apollo starts by punishing the messenger, turning the crow entirely black (according to the myth, crows and ravens were originally as white as doves prior to this regrettable episode). The case has its application even today: we often bear a grudge toward the bringers of bad news, however unfairly, even when the latter are quite innocent of involvement. In the first place, because we cannot help ourselves from suspecting a secret complicity, on their part, with the ill that has befallen us. And after all, without this bird of ill omen Apollo would have continued happily, or at least untroubled—for no one ever breathes a word of what they know, where love is concerned, and what we do not know does not harm us… . Woe betide those who are the first to peddle bad news! They are never forgiven.
Be that as it may, Apollo is clearly not satisfied with chastising the unfortunate crow. He takes his bow and arrows—and you may recall that, of all the gods, it is he and his twin sister, Artemis, who are the most accomplished archers—and transfixes both Ischys and Coronis, who promptly expire in the most dreadful agony. But Apollo now remembers that his lover is pregnant by him and is carrying his infant. According to Greek funerary rites, the corpse must be burned after the vigil over the body, and silver coins placed over the eyes or on the tongue of the deceased, to pay the boatman Charon, who ferries them across the river Acheron to the underworld. It is only at this moment, when Coronis has been placed on the funeral pyre and the flames are licking her body, that Apollo comes to his senses. He quickly snatches the infant from the womb of Coronis—according to some versions it is Hermes to whom this thankless task is entrusted—and hands the child over to the greatest educator of all time: the centaur Cheiron, a son of Cronus and first cousin to Zeus, a sage among sages who has already raised the likes of Achilles, hero of the Trojan War, and Jason, who leads the expedition of the Argonauts to find the Golden Fleece. In short, Cheiron is the gold standard in matters of education. He is even said to have taught Apollo medicine. At any rate, it is Cheiron who will raise Asclepius, destined as he is to become the father of this art and, according to legend, the greatest healer of all time.
You will notice already—and this is important for an understanding of what happens next—that there is a similarity between the origins of Asclepius and of Dionysus: each is snatched from his mother’s womb after the latter has died, consumed (in both cases) by fire. Which is to say that Asclepius, if not twice-born, as is the case with Dionysus (who as a fetus is sewn into the thigh of Zeus until the time comes for him to be properly born), is nonetheless saved in extremis. From the outset, his existence is placed under the sign of rebirth or renaissance: the quasi-miraculous victory of life over death.
And it is indeed this that will mark the art of Asclepius as healer. Not only does he become an incomparable surgeon, but also, in the image of a god (rather than a man), he will become in the deepest sense of the word a savior of men. He is said to have received from Athena a gift that will enable him to realize the secret dream of all doctors: that of resuscitating the dead. It is the goddess Athena who, together with Hermes, has helped Perseus to combat Medusa, the dreadful and terrifying Gorgon, who instantly petrified (literally, turned to stone) all who looked into her eyes. Perseus cut off the head of Medusa, from whose neck—as she breathed her last—sprang Pegasus, the winged horse, while at the same time two liquids flowed from her open veins. From the first vein there streamed a virulent poison that could kill any mortal within seconds; from the other vein streamed, on the contrary, a miraculous remedy that possesses, quite simply, the power to bring the dead back to life. Armed with this precious viaticum, Asclepius sets about healing the living—but also the recently dead—in large numbers. To the point that Hades, who reigns over the kingdom of the dead, complains to Zeus when he sees his intake of clients decline at an alarming rate. As in the case of Prometheus, who stole fire and the arts from Athena, Zeus begins to be uneasy at the possibility of mortals achieving parity with the gods: What is the difference between the two, in effect, if the former can now provide for themselves the means to achieve the immortality so precious to the latter? And if they are allowed to do so, the entire cosmic order will be shaken to its first principles—starting with the cardinal distinction between mortals and Immortals.
We are in the presence of the original version of a myth that I have already touched on, that of Frankenstein. Like Dr. Frankenstein, Asclepius has succeeded—with the help of Athena, it is true, who here plays an intermediary role analogous to that of Prometheus—in making himself master of life and death. He is, so to speak, the equal of a god: a supreme arrogance in the eyes of a Christian, of course, for whom power over life is the sole prerogative of a supreme being—but equally a case of absolute hubris as far as the Greeks are concerned, insofar as it is not merely the gods who are threatened, and the respect and obedience that are their due, but also well and truly the universal order of things. Let us try to imagine what would become of life on earth if people stopped dying. Soon there would no longer be room to house and feed everyone. Worse still, the functioning of the family would be turned upside down: children would attain the same seniority as parents, the meaning of different generations would be confounded, and all would end in confusion… .
Worried by this same prospect, Zeus (as always) takes extreme measures: he simply eradicates Asclepius with a thunderbolt. Pindar tells us, whether justly or otherwise, that Asclepius was in effect mercenary, driven by the lure of gain, amassing a great fortune by bringing back the dead. But this is off the point. What matters is that Zeus decides when enough is enough, and sounds the call for a return to order. As always, he intervenes to secure the continuity of the cosmos, for this is clearly what is at stake above all in the story of Asclepius cheating death. Apollo, who loves his son, as is clear from the care he has taken over his education (by confiding him to Cheiron), is distracted with grief and rage when he learns what Zeus has done. Apollodorus tells us that, to avenge himself, he kills all of the Cyclopes who—as we recall—had forged the thunderbolt for Zeus, to help him win the struggle against the Titans and establish order. Other accounts claim that it is not the Cyclopes whom Apollo puts to death, since they are immortal, but rather their children… . Whatever the case, Zeus is not best pleased by Apollo’s repeated rebellions and decides to imprison him in Tartarus, just as he dealt with the Titans. But Leto, mother of the divine twins Apollo and Artemis, intervenes. She implores Zeus to show clemency, and Zeus commutes the sentence to a year of enslavement: Apollo, too, has sinned by hubris, by pride and arrogance. He must therefore relearn the humility and respect due to the ruler of the gods. To which end, nothing could be better than a whole year spent minding the herd of a simple mortal by the name of Admetus, to whom as it happens Apollo will in due course render a considerable service… .
Nonetheless, Zeus—who owes it to himself to act justly on all occasions—wants to pay tribute to the skills of Asclepius: after all, the latter sought only to alleviate the lot of mortal men; he has not committed a great fault, at least not intentionally. So Zeus decides to immortalize him by transforming him into a constellation, that of Ophiuchus, which means “serpent bearer.” In this sense, Asclepius succeeds in realizing for himself what he can no longer achieve for others. He undergoes what the Greeks called an “apotheosis”—a term that, literally, means a divinization, or transformation into a god (apo = “toward,” theos = “god”). This is why he is not merely considered the founder of medicine but well and truly the god of healers. Even today, Asclepius is usually represented with a serpent in his hand—and his scepter, consisting of a serpent coiled around a staff, or “caduceus,” still serves as the symbol of those who practice the difficult art of medicine.
Why a serpent, you might ask, and what is the story of this famous caduceus that can still be seen on the windshields of medical vehicles and, with small variations, in the storefronts of pharmacies? It is worth a digression to clear up some of the confusion that has surrounded this symbol.
In effect, there are in Greek myth two different kinds of caducei, only one of which relates to medicine, although they have become confused with each other over the course of time.
The word “caduceus” derives from the Greek kerukeion, signifying “herald’s wand or staff,” not as pertaining to a hero who wins battles and performs exploits but as designating the herald who announces news, like Hermes, messenger of the gods. The first caduceus is indeed the emblem of the god Hermes, and consists of two serpents entwined around a staff, itself topped by a pair of miniature wings. The myths diverge at this point. According to some, Apollo exchanges his golden scepter with Hermes for a flute, which the latter supposedly invented after inventing the lyre. According to others, Hermes, seeing one day two serpents in combat (or making love?), separates them by throwing a staff (the magic wand of Apollo?) between the two reptiles, which then coil themselves around it, to which Hermes adds his trademark wings, which allow him to travel the world at high speed. Strangely, it is this same caduceus of Hermes that in the United States to this day so often serves as an emblem of medicine. In reality, however, it has no connection to the art in question. This caduceus has been confused with another, that of Asclepius, probably because ancient medicine (and modern medicine likewise) is a “hermetic” art that uses learned words and obscure jargon, and, above all, because the earliest faculties of medicine were close to being secret societies. An understandable error, therefore, but an error all the same.
The other caduceus, which truly symbolized medicine, belongs not to Hermes but to Asclepius. Here, too, the accounts are both obscure and contradictory. There are two principal and competing lines of transmission. According to the first, Asclepius, while a pupil of Cheiron, who teaches him healing (as instructed to do so by Apollo), has a strange experience: coming across a serpent on his path he kills it … and is then amazed to see another serpent come to the aid of the first, bearing in its mouth a small herb that it makes the other swallow, and that brings the dead serpent back to life. It is from this moment that Asclepius is said to have discovered his vocation for resurrecting the dead. According to the second version of the story, Asclepius takes the serpent as the symbol of his art for a much simpler reason: because this creature seems to begin a new life when it sloughs off its old skin. It is enough to take a walk in the rocky terrain of Greece to see these abandoned snake skins more or less everywhere. To conclude from this that the dead creature comes back to life is but a small step, and one that Asclepius supposedly takes. As you can see, the two versions are fundamentally one: in both cases, the serpent signifies rebirth, the hope of a second life. This is why, when he strikes down Asclepius, Zeus transforms him into the constellation of Ophiuchus, the serpent bearer, which is a way of making Asclepius immortal. European physicians adopted the caduceus of Asclepius as the emblem of their art, to which was added a mirror, to symbolize the prudence necessary for the proper exercise of their calling.
A third caduceus was subsequently devised, as used by pharmacists. In truth, this is but a variant of the caduceus of Asclepius. It, too, consists of a serpent coiled around a staff, with the difference that in this case the head of the creature surmounts a cup into which it spits its venom. This is the cup of Hygieia, one of the daughters of Asclepius (from which we derive the word “hygiene”) and sister of Panacea (universal remedy); the venom deposited in the cup symbolizes the ingredients of medicine, whose secrets are known only to pharmacists—the word “pharmacy” connoting both poison and remedy.
By way of conclusion: the great Greek physician Hippocrates claimed to inherit the mantle of Asclepius and to be his direct descendant. Even today, all doctors before they begin to practice must swear an oath of good conduct, referred to as the Hippocratic Oath… . Unfortunately they are not always able to restore to life those we would wish to see again. But at least now they know that, when a mortal takes himself for a god and claims mastery over life and death, a higher power will intervene to put him in his place. As is demonstrated by the tale of another death deceiver, the wily Sisyphus.
The two stratagems of Sisyphus
The case of Sisyphus seems at first sight quite different from that of Asclepius. Firstly, Sisyphus acts on his own account: he does not try to save others but only to save himself; secondly he does not resort to science but to deception. However, in both cases we are dealing with an extreme form of hubris, in that both Sisyphus and Asclepius potentially endanger the established order. Here again I will follow the account given by Apollodorus, supplementing it in one or two places with that of Pherecydes of Athens, a mythographer of the fifth century BC.
The punishment meted out to Sisyphus in Hades is familiar and has attracted considerable commentary: after his death he is condemned by Zeus to roll a great boulder to the top of a high hill, from which, each time, it immediately rolls down—so that he must keep starting over again, interminably, without his intolerable task ever coming to an end. Moreover, we do not know precisely what motivates this dreadful punishment. The great French writer, Albert Camus, devoted a whole book to this myth, which in his eyes encapsulates the absurdity of human existence. But in Greek myth, as we shall see, the story possesses a quite other meaning, not remotely connected with the real or supposed absurdity of human lives.
The story proper begins when Sisyphus plays a very low trick on Zeus. We need to know that this hero is, rather like Odysseus, a man of a thousand ruses. Some even claim that Sisyphus was in reality the true father of Odysseus: the day of the marriage of Laertes to the ravishing Anticlea (mother of Odysseus—of this we are certain), Sisyphus supposedly managed, by trickery, to take the place of the bridegroom in the marital bed and enjoy Anticlea ahead of Laertes—the product of this illicit encounter being Odysseus. Reputations shape reactions: true or false, the anecdote suggests fairly well the type—morally disreputable, and ready at every turn to deceive his neighbor.
Even when the neighbor in question is Zeus. As it happens, the latter, as is his wont, has abducted a ravishing young beauty: Aegina, daughter of Asopus, a river god and secondary divinity. The latter, torn between anxiety and fury, searches feverishly for his beloved daughter: he can see that she has disappeared, but does not know that it is Zeus who is responsible. To complete the picture, it needs to be added that Sisyphus is the founder of one of the most famous Greek cities: Corinth. And for his city he needs water, as do all mayors in all ages. So he proposes a bargain to Asopus: “If you cause a clear spring to gush forth, for my city, I will tell you who carried off your daughter.” The deal is struck, and Sisyphus now commits the unmitigated folly of informing against Zeus—who is far from pleased.
To begin with, Zeus makes the river Asopus retreat into its source by means of his favorite weapon, the thunderbolt. Ever afterward, it is claimed, the river, whose banks were charred, still bears large lumps of coal… . What is certain is that Zeus is unimpressed by the anger of the girl’s father, and carries her off to a deserted island. Their amorous union even produces a little boy, Aeacus, who gets bored all by himself, for the island is deserted, so Zeus transforms the ants into inhabitants to keep him company. He now turns his attention to the business of punishing Sisyphus according to his just deserts, of which there are two versions, a short one and a long one. According to the first, Zeus simply strikes down Sisyphus with his bolt and sends him after death to Hades, where he is condemned for all eternity to his celebrated punishment.
The longer version, as reported by Pherecydes, is rather more interesting. Sisyphus remains undisturbed, in possession of his magnificent palace in the city of Corinth, watching the waters that have been set flowing by Asopus. So Zeus now sends death—the divinity known as Thanatos—to conduct him to the underworld. But Sisyphus has more than one trick up his sleeve. He sees Thanatos coming from afar and lies in wait for him, with one of those traps that are his specialty. Thanatos walks right into it: Sisyphus hurls himself upon him, ties him up with sturdy ropes, and conceals him in a closet somewhere in his immense palace. As with the myth of Asclepius, the world now begins to go off the rails. With Thanatos imprisoned, no one can die. Hades, wealthiest of all the gods, stops accumulating wealth: he no longer has his quota of the dead, and if Zeus does not do something to restore order, the planet earth will become so cluttered as to make life impossible. It is Ares, god of war, who decides to act. You may guess why: If nobody dies any longer, what is the point of war? Ares finds Thanatos, frees him, and delivers into his hands the unfortunate Sisyphus, who is now well and truly forced to descend to Hades … at which point you might think that the game is up for Sisyphus. But wrongly so: he has one more trick up his sleeve.
Before dying and forsaking his palace for the realm of Hades, Sisyphus makes a very strange request of his wife: “Above all, please grant this wish, and do not accord me any burial or such funeral honors as every good wife is obliged to perform on the day her husband dies… . Do not ask why, I will explain later.” And Merope, his charming wife, does as her husband says: she does not watch over his corpse; she carries out none of the rites that would normally be performed. So that, as soon as he arrives in the depths of the underworld, Sisyphus makes straight for Hades himself and complains bitterly about having such a bad wife, and no burial rites. Profoundly shocked by such a lack of propriety, Hades allows Sisyphus to return home to the upper world, to chastise his unworthy spouse as he sees fit, on condition of course that he promises to come back directly afterward. As you may imagine, Sisyphus goes home and promptly forgets his promise about returning to the underworld. On the contrary, he gives grateful thanks to his wife, proceeds to give her numerous children over the years, and ends his days dying quietly in old age. Only then is he obliged to return underground, where he is forced to interminably roll his great boulder: a torment that Hades imposes so as not to be duped a second time. As for the meaning of the torture itself, it relates directly (as always) to the crime. For mortals, life is a perpetual beginning, not an open road without end. And whoever tries to push back these limits—as dispensed by the cosmic order—will learn to his cost that, once arrived at its term, the process must begin again from zero: life is a state of constant renewal. In other words, and to restate the lesson of Odysseus, no individual can escape the essential finiteness of his human condition.
II. Foiled resurrections, successful resurrections:
Orpheus, Demeter, and the Eleusinian Mysteries
With Orpheus and Demeter, properly speaking, we are no longer dealing with stories of hubris. Nevertheless, I will speak of them here because their extraordinary adventures are in one essential respect related to the theme touched on in the myths of Sisyphus and Asclepius: in effect, the question of escaping death—or at least that of returning from the underworld to the light of day. As we shall see, this journey, impossible for mortals (there is as far as I know only one exception in the whole of Greek mythology*), is not easy even for those gods who, albeit immortal, find themselves imprisoned in the kingdom of the dead. And this theme of resurrection bears upon the nature of the cosmic order within which gods and mortals cohabit, for it is in the nature of things that men die, from which none can escape without provoking a disorder that, in the end, would overturn the course of the universe. We must therefore accept death, in whose shadow we must nonetheless seek the good life.
Orpheus in the underworld—or why
death is stronger than love
Let us begin with Orpheus, whose story is one of the rare myths to have influenced the Christian religion, perhaps because it is built around a question that will be of central concern to the Gospels: that of the unavoidable and insoluble contradiction between love and death,* a contradiction that provokes in mortal men the notion of resurrection followed by an ardent yearning for resurrection. Who among us would not wish, with every fiber of our being, to bring back those whom we have loved passionately or devotedly? It is thus that, in the Gospels, Jesus begins to weep when he learns of the death of his friend Lazarus: although divine, he experiences, like you or me, the infinite pain caused by the death of a loved one. And, of course, Christ is well placed to know—it being one of the cornerstones of Christian belief—that, in his words, “love is stronger than death.” Which he goes on to prove by restoring life to his friend, who has been dead long enough (as the Gospel makes clear) for his flesh to have already started decomposing. But what matter since love triumphs over everything, and the miracle of resurrection must be accomplished… .
But with the myth of Orpheus we are in the world of the Greeks, not the Christians, and such resurrection seems entirely beyond the reach of mortals. When the unfortunate Orpheus loses his wife, who dies before his eyes, stung by a poisonous snake, he is properly inconsolable. But let us not anticipate, until we are clear as to whom we are dealing with here.
Orpheus is first and foremost a musician. According to the Greeks he is the greatest musician of all time, superior even to Apollo, who, moreover, finds his playing so exceptional that he is said to have made Orpheus a present of the famous lyre invented by his little brother Hermes. The lyre is an instrument with seven strings, and Orpheus, deciding that this is not quite enough to create perfect harmonies, adds two supplementary strings … which in turn “tunes” his instrument to the number of the Muses: the nine goddesses, daughters of Zeus, who are held to have invented the principal arts and to inspire all artists. To which it should be added that Calliope, queen of the Muses, is none other than the mother of Orpheus. Music can therefore be said to run in the family. It is said that when he sings to the accompaniment of his instrument, wild beasts, lions and tigers, fall silent and become as gentle as lambs; fish leap from the water to the cadence of his divine lyre; and the rocks themselves, which, as is well known, have hearts of stone, are moved to weep… . In short, the music of Orpheus has magical properties, and with nine strings to augment the harmony of his song, nothing can resist him. When he joins the expedition of the Argonauts, led by Jason, who set sail in search of the Golden Fleece on a boat constructed by Argos (whence their name), it is Orpheus who saves them from the Sirens, those bird-women whose singing tempts unfortunate mariners to shipwreck… . Orpheus is the only being in the world who can outperform their baleful song.
But let us return to the story of what will draw Orpheus to the underworld.
Orpheus has fallen in love with Eurydice, a nymph of matchless beauty who, according to some sources, is even a daughter of Apollo. Her beauty aside, this is a story of true love, and Orpheus cannot exist without her. Deprived of her presence, life no longer has any meaning for him. According to Virgil, who retells their story at length in the Georgics, one day as she is walking along a riverbank Eurydice is pursued by the violent advances of one Aristaeus. She starts running to escape him, and looking behind her now and then, to see if he is catching up, she fails to see a poisonous snake ahead of her, on whom she places her delicate foot. Death is more or less instantaneous, and Orpheus is inconsolable—nothing can stop his weeping—to the point that he resolves to attempt the impossible: to go and seek her himself in the underworld, where he will endeavor to convince Hades and Persephone, his queen, to allow him to return to the upper world with his beloved.
The descriptions in Virgil and Ovid of Orpheus’s passage through the underworld are vividly realized. Even to this day the story inspires painters, musicians, and writers. Orpheus must first find the entrance to the underworld, which is by no means straightforward. He succeeds, orienting himself by a source that springs from the earth at the place where one of the four infernal rivers flows out of the depths. He must cross or keep close to all four. First there is Acheron, the river that all those who die must cross before they can enter Hades. It is here that the frightful Charon, a repulsive and grimy old boatman, demands an obol to ferry the dead souls from one shore to the other—which is why, as we have seen, the Ancients placed coins on the eyelids or in the mouths of the dead, so they could pay the ferryman, without which they must spend a hundred years wandering the shore to await their turn… . Thereafter, Orpheus must navigate the Cocytus, a glacial river along which are swept great blocks of ice; then the terrifying Phlegethon, a huge torrent of fire and molten lava; and finally the Styx, upon whose waters the gods swear their oaths.
But this fearful landscape is peopled with beings who are even more appalling. There are, first and foremost, the throngs of the dead, those pitiable phantoms, without any identifying features, unrecognizable, who harass the visitor unceasingly. Worse still, if possible, Orpheus encounters infernal monsters: Cerberus, the dreadful three-headed hound; centaurs and Hundred-Handed Ones; abominable Hydras, whose hissing is enough to freeze the blood; Harpies, who torment whomever they meet; Chimeras and Cyclopes and … In brief, the descent to the underworld surpasses in horror whatever can be imagined by the human mind. For the sake of Eurydice, Orpheus is prepared to endure it all. Nothing can stop him. Besides, he sings for the entire length of his appalling voyage, accompanied by his lyre—and in these depths, as elsewhere, his music produces the same results. Under the spell of his song, even those being tortured recover a little and enjoy (if not happiness, in such a place) a little respite: Tantalus ceases momentarily to feel hungry and thirsty; the wheel of Ixion stops turning; the rock of Sisyphus stops rolling downhill. Cerberus himself lies down as biddably as a lapdog, and would almost allow himself to be stroked… . The Furies stop their vile work for a moment, and the tumult that usually resounds through this infernal place subsides. The rulers of the underworld, Hades and Persephone, themselves fall under the spell. They listen to Orpheus attentively, even favorably. His courage impresses them, and his love for Eurydice—so true, so unquestionable—fascinates these two deities famed for being ordinarily so impervious to the least human emotion.
It is Persephone, it seems, who is the first to let herself be persuaded. Orpheus may return to life and light with his Eurydice … but on one condition: that she follows him in silence and, above all—above all—that he does not turn around to look at her before they have entirely left the underworld. Orpheus, mad with joy, accepts. He leads Eurydice, who follows him meekly, as agreed, a few steps behind. But without any explanation as to why he does so—Virgil speculates that Orpheus is overcome by a sort of lunacy, a sudden gust of love that can wait no longer; Ovid inclines to suggest a gnawing anguish that makes him doubt the promise of the gods—Orpheus for whatever reason commits an irreparable error: unable to help himself, he looks over his shoulder at Eurydice—and this time the gods are inflexible. Eurydice must remain forever in the kingdom of the dead. There is nothing more to be done, nothing further to discuss, and the unfortunate girl dies a second time, definitively and without appeal.
As you may imagine, Orpheus is once more inconsolable. In despair, he returns home and shuts himself in his house. He refuses to see other women: What is the use? He is a man who can only love once, and her name is Eurydice. He will never love again. But according to the Latin poets, Orpheus thereby offends all the women of his city. They do not understand how a man of such charms, whose song is so seductive, can possibly be so neglectful of them. All the more so since, if we believe some sources, not only does Orpheus turn away from the fairer sex but he also interests himself henceforth exclusively in young men. He even entices to his home the husbands of the region, with whom he shares his new passion for young boys. This is the last straw, and more than these women can endure. According to this version of the myth, Orpheus is literally torn to pieces by the jealous spouses: arming themselves with sticks, stones, and various agricultural tools left in the fields by laborers, the women hurl themselves upon him, then throw his dismembered limbs and severed head into the nearest river, which carries everything out to sea. Thus do the head and the discarded lyre of Orpheus float on the current until they reach the island of Lesbos, whose inhabitants erect a tomb for him. According to some mythographers, the lyre of Orpheus is transformed (by Zeus) into a constellation, and his soul transported to the Elysian Fields, which is roughly a Greek equivalent for paradise, or more accurately, a return of sorts to the age of gold.
This detail is not without significance since it allows us better to understand how and why the myth of Orpheus was to give rise to a cult, or even a religion, aptly named Orphism. Orphic theology claimed to take its inspiration from the secrets that Orpheus discovered in the course of his voyage, and that permitted him, despite his grievous fate on earth, to find salvation ultimately in the blessed realm of the gods… . As we shall see, here is a feature that links the story of Orpheus with that of Demeter, as I am about to relate, and equally with what are referred to as the Eleusinian Mysteries, named after the city in which Demeter established her temple and her cult.
But first we must ask ourselves, again, as to the exact meaning of this combat of Orpheus against death. In particular, how are we to understand the strange prescription by Persephone that Orpheus should not look behind him? Stranger still, how can Orpheus have been fool enough to turn around when he had all but reached his goal and after so many painful tribulations? Strangely, none of the texts devoted to this myth offer any plausible explanation. Virgil puts everything down to love: blind and impatient love. But even were this to explain the error as such, it throws no light on the restraining order imposed by the gods: Why, in effect, must the backward glance of Orpheus be fatal for the two lovers?
Many different answers have been given to this question, and it would be long and tedious to repeat them all here, especially since none of them strikes me as very convincing. Commentators have often grafted a Christian perspective onto the myth, explaining that Orpheus turns around because he doubts the divine word, and he who loses his faith is lost because only faith can save us, and so forth. I think that, in the end, we should rather keep the details of the story in our sights: the contradiction between love and death as insurmountable by mortals, despite all the hopes placed in the attempt by Orpheus. If Orpheus loses Eurydice a second time by turning around, and if she is under strict instructions to remain behind him, and on no account to pass in front, and if the gods have imposed these conditions in the full knowledge that they will not be obeyed (otherwise why impose them?), it is simply because by looking backward Orpheus will finally understand that what is behind is indeed behind, that the past is past, that time is irreversible, and that every mortal must accept (as Odysseus did when faced with Calypso) the human condition that is his: that of a species that, like the rock of Sisyphus, sees its term unroll between this point of departure and that point of arrival, and which none can alter, not by so much as a single jot.
Our birth and our death are not ours, and Time, for us mortals, is quite irreversible. The irremediable is our common fate, and ill fortune does not negotiate terms: in the best of cases, it remains sufficiently tacit and slumbering to allow us to follow the natural course of our lives, rather than diverting it, so that we must start again from a point that is somewhere behind us. As so often, despite the proximity to Christianity in the way the paradox is formulated—that love wants at all costs to prove itself stronger than death—the Greek attitude proceeds inversely: death always wins out against love, and it is in our interest to recognize this from the outset if we wish to attain the wisdom that alone permits us to accede to a good life. Nothing can change this primary fact, which is the most solid pillar of the cosmic order—around which the difference between mortals and Immortals, between men and gods, revolves. As for those mysteries that the Orphic priests claimed to reveal to their flock, I fear that these must forever remain (as always in such cases) where they were at the outset … neither more nor less than mysteries.
This leads me directly to the mysteries of Eleusis, which is to say the myth of Demeter, goddess of harvests and of seasons. We shall see how the fact of being immortal changes everything: for the fortunate gods, unlike the unfortunate mortals, it is always possible to leave Hades, even if the latter is determined to keep you by his side… .
Demeter—or how return from the underworld
is possible if you are immortal …
Although it brings us back once more to the underworld, the story of Demeter and her daughter, Persephone, does so on quite different terms to that of Orpheus.* Here the protagonists are immortal gods, not simple mortals trying desperately to escape the clutches of death, which is to say that their relation to the underworld is not the same. Nevertheless, this myth also establishes—albeit in a different mode—a causal link between the realm of Hades and the order of the world above. It is with this myth, moreover, that the Greeks explained to themselves a fundamental aspect of the organization of the cosmos, namely the fact of the seasons: the end of autumn and winter, when everything dies, followed by the arrival of spring and summer, when everything comes back to life and blossoms once more. A process that is directly linked to the descent into the underworld of Persephone, daughter of Demeter, which I shall now recount.
Demeter is herself the daughter of Cronus and Rhea; she is consequently the sister of Zeus, but equally of Hades. As the goddess of seasons and of harvests, it is she who makes the wheat grow, which is why the Romans named her Ceres, whence derives the word “cereals”—with which of course men make bread and many other products besides. It is likewise Demeter, moreover, who first teaches men the art of cultivating the earth: namely agriculture. She is an immensely powerful goddess since she bestows life—upon plants, at least, and vegetables and fruits, flowers and trees—and who can equally, when she wishes, take life back: arrange things so that nothing grows in the fields and orchards. Insofar as human life, as distinct from that of the gods, depends on food as such, Demeter possesses from the outset an especially powerful link to mortality and survival.
Now, Demeter has a daughter, by her brother Zeus, to whom she gives the name Persephone—who is also sometimes named Cora, which in Greek signifies “young girl,” and to whom the Romans will give yet another name, Proserpine. In the archaic age it is common, among gods, for brothers and sisters to have children together—after all, in the beginning there was not much choice: like the Titans, the Olympians were obliged to make do with one another since there was no one else with whom to procreate. So, Demeter has a daughter who is a goddess and whom she deeply loves. She is, if anything, besotted by her child. To which we should add that Persephone is by all accounts lovely beyond compare. Like all goddesses, she is of course endowed with perfect beauty, added to which she embodies everything that is suggested by a young girl in blossom: fresh, innocent, gentle—and desirable. While her mother wanders the world surveying the harvests and keeping watch over the grain, Persephone plays in a meadow with a group of nymphs, gathering flowers to make a bouquet. But Zeus has other plans for her, which he has made sure not to mention to his sister Demeter: that he intends their daughter, Persephone, to marry the richest of all the Immortals, Hades, ruler of the underworld—also known as Plouton, meaning “wealthy one,” which will in turn provide the Roman name Pluto. He reigns over the dead, which is to say over the most numerous group of mortals, since the dead greatly outnumber the living. If we estimate the wealth of a king by the number of his subjects, then inevitably the master of the underworld must be the wealthiest sovereign in the universe.
To attain his ends, Zeus has asked Gaia, his grandmother, to create a magical flower, unlike any other, and more to be admired than any other, from whose single stem there grow a hundred dazzling sprays, whose perfume is so intoxicating that the whole sky smiles approval. Those who see it, whether mortal or immortal, fall instantly under its charm. Naturally, Persephone, playing in her meadow, makes straight for this miraculous flower, which of itself would make the most beautiful of bouquets. But as she is about to gather it the earth opens (which proves that Gaia is indeed closely involved in the plot), and the ruler of the underworld surges upward on his chariot of gold—for he is extremely wealthy!—drawn by four immortal horses. He seizes Persephone in his all-powerful arms and carries her off. She in turn utters a terrible scream, of such shrillness as to resound throughout the cosmos, a shriek made all the more heartrending in that it is fueled by despair at ever seeing her mother again. For she adores her mother reciprocally and as equally as she is herself loved. There are in the universe only three individuals who hear this shriek: Hecate, a deity whose attributes are somewhat mysterious but who often shows herself to be clement toward those in pain; Helios, the sun god who sees everything and from whom nothing escapes; and of course Demeter herself, who is seized with terror at hearing the terrified shriek of her daughter.
For nine days and nights, Demeter wanders the earth, from east to west, from sunrise to sunset, searching for her beloved child. At night she carries immense torches to light her way. For nine days and nights she touches neither food nor water, does not wash or change her garb; she is stunned with grief. No one, either among the mortals or the gods, is willing to tell her the truth, and no one comes to her aid—except for the kindly Hecate, who brings her to see Helios, the sun god who witnessed everything. And this latter, sympathizing with her grief, resolves to tell her the truth: Persephone has been well and truly abducted by her uncle Hades, the prince of shades. Of course, Demeter immediately grasps that this operation cannot have taken place without the consent or even complicity of their brother Zeus. By way of retaliation, Demeter immediately withdraws from Olympus. She refuses to sit any longer among the assembly of gods and comes down to earth to live among mortals. She casts off her immortal beauty and, as in a fairy tale, takes on the disguise of an old woman, ugly and poor. Then she goes to the city of Eleusis, where, by a well, where they have come to draw fresh water, she meets the four daughters of the king of this city, a certain Celeus. They start to converse, and Demeter, who continues to conceal her identity, tells them that she is looking for employment, hopefully as a nurse. This is a happy coincidence, for the four girls do indeed have an infant brother: they run back to ask their mother, Metanira, if she will hire this old woman as a nanny. The deal is soon concluded, and Demeter finds herself in the palace of King Celeus. Here she becomes friendly with Metanira, the queen, and a woman of their company, Iambe, who notices the sadness etched on the countenance of Demeter and undertakes to distract her. She tells her jokes and funny stories, by means of which she manages to cheer Demeter up a little, making her smile and even laugh!—which has not happened to her for many a day. She regains a little of her zest for life, enough at least for her to take an interest in the little boy who is henceforth her charge.
Now occurs an episode that is not without interest, for it, too, is linked to the theme of death that runs through the entire myth. Finding herself in the role of a mother once again, Demeter decides to immortalize this child who has been entrusted to her—in other words to bestow on him the greatest gift a god can offer a human. She rubs him all over with ambrosia, which enables him to escape his mortal confines, as a result of which the little boy grows at an extraordinary rate, to the considerable surprise of his parents, for he seems to eat nothing. Immortals are content with nectar and ambrosia, never touching the bread or meat with which humans nourish themselves, and this small boy is already almost a god. Each night, Demeter plunges him into the sacred fire that she takes care to light in the chimney. The flames contribute their share to making mortals immortal, stripping them of their mortal flesh. But the boy’s worried mother, Metanira, conceals herself behind the door to spy on Demeter and discover what she is up to each night. When she sees the goddess plunge her son into the fire, she begins to scream. She has cause to regret it, for Demeter drops the child to the ground and he instantly becomes mortal again. In symbolic terms, Demeter is once more stripped of her maternal role. Her second motherhood has, so to speak, been thwarted. She reassumes her immortal appearance, recovering instantly all of her beauty and brilliance. She reveals her true identity to Metanira and her daughters and gives them to understand the scale of the error perpetrated by Metanira, without whose ill-advised intervention her son would have joined the ranks of the immortal gods. Now it is too late, so much the worse for him and for them. Then Demeter orders that the people of Eleusis erect a temple worthy of her and create a cult so that she can, when she sees fit, reveal to them the mysteries (of life and death) to which she holds the key. From which is born the famous cult surrounding what are called the Eleusinian Mysteries. The adepts of this new religion, linked to the memory of Demeter, hoped, by penetrating the mysteries of life and death, to gain salvation and achieve immortality. In which respect, as you see, the myth of Demeter joins that of Orpheus, which also inspired a cult (Orphism) linked to the hope of penetrating the secrets of eternal life, thanks to the teaching of those who have descended into Hades… .
But let us return to Demeter. Deprived of a child for the second time, her attitude hardens, even to the point of menace. She decides that the joke has gone on for long enough, and it is time her daughter was restored to her. And she will do whatever it takes to achieve this. And as she, too, possesses the secrets of life and death, or at least those that govern the vegetable world—which are directly and exclusively her privilege—she decides that nothing more will grow or flower on earth for as long as Zeus refuses to give back what is hers. No sooner said than done: everything organic on earth wilts and dies, and soon the cosmos as a whole is threatened, the heavenly spheres included.
Here is how the Homeric “Hymn to Demeter”—our archaic source for the myth—describes what ensues:
So Demeter made a most terrible and cruel year for human beings on the nourishing earth. The ground did not send up seed, for rich-crowned Demeter kept it hidden. Many times the oxen dragged the curved plough across the fields in vain, and many times the white barley fell upon the earth fruitlessly. So she would have destroyed utterly the mortal race of human beings, starving them to death, and deprived those who live on Olympus of the glorious honour of gifts and sacrifices, if Zeus had not taken note and reflected upon it in his heart… .
As always, when the cosmic order is truly endangered—ever since the original ruling by which Zeus divided and organized the world—it falls to him to propose an equable solution, one that is just and lasting for all the parties concerned. We may note in passing how the existence of mortals is justified in this poem: the possible extinction of humanity is not presented as a catastrophe in itself, but rather as a source of frustration for the gods. In other words, men exist above all for the sake of the gods, to entertain them and to pay tribute to them. Without organic life, and the dimension of history that humans introduce into the cosmic order, the latter would be fixed forever, immutable for all eternity, and as a result deathly boring… .
Be that as it may, Zeus dispatches the Olympians to intervene with Demeter, one by one, and try to persuade her to arrest the unfolding catastrophe. But without success. Demeter remains stonily indifferent: until such time as her daughter is restored to her nothing will grow again on earth—until all life disappears, if necessary—which naturally dismays the gods. Once again, without mankind to distract them, to honor them and make handsome sacrifices to them, the Immortals will themselves die … of boredom. Without life—which is to say without history, without time itself, as symbolized by the birth and death of mortal men, the succession of the generations—the cosmos will be entirely devoid of interest. Zeus therefore sends in his ultimate weapon, Hermes, as he did when he needed to convince Calypso to release Odysseus. Everyone obeys Hermes, because everyone knows that he is the personal messenger of Zeus and speaks in his name. Hermes notifies Hades that he must release Persephone back to the world of light and to her mother. Let us note in passing that, apart from the episode of the abduction itself, where Hades must have used force, he has shown himself extremely attentive to Persephone. He is doing everything in his power to be loving and gentle with her.
Hades must obey the orders of Zeus. It is futile to try in any way to shirk the command, or even to think of using force to do so. On the other hand, a little cunning never hurt anyone: surreptitiously, looking quite unconcerned, and just as she is leaving with Hermes, Hades offers Persephone a few pomegranate seeds, a delicious fruit that she tastes quite thoughtlessly. What she is unaware of is that these few ill-starred seeds will bind her forever after to Hades, for it means that she has consumed something that comes from the world below, and through this nourishment, however modest, she is linked irrevocably and forever after to the underworld.
Zeus now must find a fair solution: one that reflects both his decision to give his daughter to Hades and the equal claim of the mother to keep her daughter by her side in the world of light. He must, so to speak, meet both claims halfway if he is to reestablish a just order. Here is how, according to the Homeric Hymn:
Then loud-thundering, all-seeing Zeus sent a messenger to them—Rhea with her lovely hair—to bring Demeter in her dark-blue cloak back to the tribe of gods; and he promised to give her honours, whatever she chose among the immortal gods, confirming with a nod that her daughter would live in the kingdom of dusk and darkness for a third part of the circling year, but for the other two parts she would live with her mother and the other immortals. So he spoke. And the goddess did not disobey the message of Zeus.
In effect, there is no disobeying the messages of Zeus. But most important of all, the solution possesses profound significance in terms of justice. As we can see, it weaves together two “cosmic” themes, each crucially important: on the one hand that of life and death, on the other that of seasonal divisions. When Persephone is with Hades, among the dead, for a third of the year, nothing more can grow on earth: neither flowers, nor leaves, nor fruit nor vegetables. This is winter, with its glacial cold that hems in men and animals alike. Death reigns over the vegetable world, mirroring what occurs below when Persephone is prisoner in the kingdom of shades. And when she returns to the light, to rejoin her mother, it is spring, then summer, until the beautiful season of autumn: everything is once more in flower, everything grows, and life takes the lead again.
The division of the world, of the entire cosmic order, is hereby guaranteed: death and life alternate in a rhythm that corresponds to reality above and below ground. No life without death, no death without life. Put differently, just as a stable cosmos needs the rhythm of generations played out by mortal lives—without which the ensuing immobility, without life or motion, albeit stable, would be indistinguishable from death itself—so, too, there is no perfect cosmos without the succession of seasons, the alternation of winter and spring, death and rebirth. The same goes for Apollo and Dionysus: the one requires the other. A rich and living universe needs both stability and vitality, order and excess, reason and madness. It needs humans so that the animate world of gods and mortals alike can participate in the movement of history; it needs seasons so that the inanimate world of nature can also experience the living principle of change and diversity. This is the deeper meaning of the Demeter myth, which does not strictly belong with the other stories of hubris examined earlier. However, I wish to make the connection to those myths because the Demeter myth likewise shows that cosmic disorder must ensue when an injustice between the gods takes center stage (Hades behaves unjustly). And, as before, it is Zeus who must intervene to put an end to the anomaly, by a cosmic ruling that in turn establishes a new order: during the season of Persephone’s absence, nothing grows; during that of her return, all is reborn. Thus does life proceed on this earth of mortal men, in whose absence the gods themselves would end by perishing… .