Athena & The Olive Tree

The Greek goddess Athena, wise and fair, was born from the head of her father, Zeus.  This came to pass because of a prophecy that any child born of Metis, goddess of wisdom, and Zeus, first among gods, would grow to be even more powerful than its father.  Fearing such a fate, Zeus swallowed Metis before she could bear him a child.

Some time later, Zeus began to suffer pounding headaches, which were remedied only when his head was cleaved open by a mighty ax.  Athena leapt forth, fully grown and fully armed, from her father’s head.  She became his favorite daughter, a patroness of the arts and a counselor of heroes.

At the time that the great city of Athens was founded, Poseidon, god of the seas, and Athena each coveted the city.  To determine which god would be granted the city, the citizens decided that both Poseidon and Athena would give the new city a gift; the giver of the best gift would be awarded the city as his or her own.

Poseidon struck the earth with his triton, causing a salt water spring to appear on the dry land.  Although beautiful and impressive, the salty water was of little use to the people.  Athena’s gift was more subtle–an olive tree.  But although the tree was small and delicate, its gifts were great:  shade, olives, oil, wood.  The city was given to, and named for, Athena.

The simplest gifts are often the greatest.  They may be hidden, they may seem mundane, yet these are the things that nourish our lives and give them meaning.

And speaking of beautiful goddesses born fully grown (and armed) from their father’s head… today is Father’s Day and my sister’s birthday.  So this post is both for my father (first among gods, but never afraid of his children’s potential) and my sister (a goddess of fire, passion and creativity if there ever was one).  I love you both.

Into The Labyrinth

Ariadne was a princess of Crete, daughter of Minos, the king that created the labyrinth that housed the Minotaur.  There is a dark family history here–the Minotaur, half-man and half-bull, was the son of a pure white bull and the queen, Ariadne’s mother.  He was a monstrous creature who devoured innocent men and women, and so was imprisoned within a dark and twisting labyrinth far beneath the palace.

The hero Theseus arrived from Athens intent on destroying the monster.  For love of him, the princess Ariadne betrayed her father and family and promised the hero her help.  She gave Theseus a ball of red thread, and told him that if he would unwind it as he made his way through the labyrinth, he would then be able to follow the thread out again.

Did Theseus need the red thread?  Or was Ariadne’s gift one of hope and comfort?  A labyrinth, unlike a maze, is not always a place of dead-ends and twisting turns.  A labyrinth may be a direct, although curving, journey to the center of the self, a winding path that is nevertheless sure in its destination and in the return.  It is, in fact, a mirror of our own lives.  We can see ourselves as lost in a frightening maze, unsure of the terrors around the next corner.  Or we can see ourselves in a true labyrinth, in which we cannot see what lies ahead but know we will ultimately be led to the center of our souls, and back again.  The fact that we cannot see what is coming next is the gift of time.

We fear that, buried deep within our souls, far below the realm of our daily lives, there lives within us a beast, an unknown and unfaced aspect of ourselves that cannot be controlled.  But into the labyrinth we must go, as Theseus did, to face the part of ourselves that we would hide.

Whatever the Minotaur represents, and whether his home was a maze or a labyrinth, Theseus took Ariadne’s thread with him and was able to slay the beast.  On finding his way safely out, from darkness into the light, he stole away with Ariadne, sailing back towards Athens with the promise that he would make her his wife.

And then he left her, alone and sleeping, on the shore of a small island.  Some versions of the tale say he was unwillingly swept away in a storm, in grief over her loss; others that he had no care for her and abandoned her at the first opportunity.  And yet other versions claim that he was forced to leave by the God of Wine, Dionysus, who loved her and desired her for himself.

When Ariadne awoke, alone on the sandy beach, she thought herself abandoned and betrayed, whatever the reality might have been.  She had left her family, her home, her life, to sail away with a man who did not or could not love her as she loved him.  She did not realize that, whatever Theseus’ intent, a better future awaited her.  One in which she was the chosen, the beloved, of a god, brought into the heavens and made a goddess in her own right.  Her wedding crown, the Corona, was placed in the night sky as a constellation, as a tribute to the endless love between Dionysus and Ariadne.

Like Psyche, Ariadne could not have known what future awaited her; none of us can.  But it is usually better than we could ever hope or imagine.

The Soul’s Journey

Psyche was a butterfly spirit; her name means “soul” or “breath.”  I see her standing at the top of a broad staircase, gray stone and clear windows behind her, dressed in a white gown, a red sash tied at her waist, thick curls cascading down her back.  Birds and butterflies of bright blue and red surround her, flutter down the stairs below.  She is the soul, awakened from a slumber of one hundred years, starting to remember that once she flew free, and that she can once again.  This is where the story begins, when Psyche stirs.

The legend tells us that Psyche was the most beautiful of mortals, so beautiful that the Goddess of Love and Beauty herself became jealous and commanded that the girl be taken to the top of a lonely mountain and offered up to a monster as sacrifice.  And yet I wonder–is jealousy not a human emotion?  Those who understand love and beauty know that both are available in abundance, that the more love and beauty we find in others, the more we ourselves possess.  This could be no mystery to Aphrodite, the Goddess of Love and Beauty.  And so I wonder if the command that sent Psyche up into the distant mountains alone was not, in fact, anger or punishment but merely the call to adventure, an invitation into a new life.

For once she stood upon the mountain top, far removed from the world she had known, a gentle breeze brushed past her, lifted her gown, her hair, and then her very body up into the sky and away to a place beyond her most beautiful dreams.  She was set gently on the ground before a golden palace, and upon exploring her new home found every nature of luxury and delight.  Lovely rooms, decadent meals, lush gardens all her own.  And at night, when the world was dark and quiet, a kind and gentle man came to her room and became her lover.

All was perfect bliss, the story tells us, until Psyche asked for and received a visit from two jealous sisters, who told her that as she had never seen her lover’s face, he must be the hideous monster that the Goddess had sent to bear Psyche away.  But we do not need jealous sisters to raise the fear of doubt and judgment in our minds; we do that well enough for ourselves.

Whatever the cause, Psyche began to doubt.  Although her eyes and heart showed her only beauty and kindness, her uncertainty grew.  She wondered if the man she thought she loved and who offered every proof of his love for her might, in fact, be a hideous monster who meant her harm.  The only request her lover had ever asked of her was that she never try to see him in the light.  Nevertheless, as he lay sleeping by her side, she crept from the bed, lit an oil lamp and discovered that her sleeping lover was none other than the God of Love himself, Eros.  Cupid.  Aphrodite’s son.

As she trembled in the face of love, a drop of oil spilled from the lamp and fell upon the sleeping God.  He woke, saw that his love had been doubted and betrayed, and flew away into the night, leaving Psyche alone.

Without love, the beautiful palace felt empty and cold.  Psyche longed for her Cupid to return, but he did not.  And so Psyche began her journey into the world to find her love.  She searched far and wide, with no sign of her lover.  Finally, in despair, she went to a temple of Aphrodite to ask for her help, despite her belief that the goddess despised her.

Aphrodite heard the girl’s pleas and did agree to help her, but only if Psyche could complete a series of tasks.  Each task was not merely difficult but impossible, seemingly designed to break Psyche’s already fragile spirit–they were beyond the hope of any mortal girl.

But Psyche is not, after all, just any mortal girl.  She represents the soul, and when her soul is clear it reflects beauty bright enough to dazzle the God of Love himself.  This beauty is not merely physical, it contains power, knowledge, a state of being that transcends the material world entirely.  The soul is never without aid if it will only ask for it.

And so when Psyche cries out for help in completing one impossible task after another, the entire world conspires to aid her.  Creatures great and small appear, eager to turn her tears into smiles.  One by one, every task is accomplished.

Was the Goddess of Love and Beauty surprised?  Did she not realize the power of her own gifts, her own domain?  Was she taken unawares?  Or instead, did the Goddess know what Psyche was capable of better than the girl herself, and so devised a clever way to teach the girl her own power?  When Psyche passed each of the Goddess’ tests and came into full knowledge of herself, she was at last ready to stand by Cupid, the soul equal to love, the woman equal to a god.

Looking too closely at love is dangerous.  It may leave us alone, afraid, confronted with impossible tasks.  Yet we must question the love we find, for true love, true union and partnership, requires openness and understanding and, most of all, an understanding of ourselves, of our own gifts and power.  It is only after we have dared to look reality in the face, dared to know the truth of our love and of ourselves, that we can ever hope to be truly and forever united with our desire.

Once we have seen love, our journey begins.  Once we have seen love, we must follow ever after it, no matter the cost or the peril, until we are at last reunited with it forever.  This is the path of the soul, different for each, but leading always to love.

And when the soul and love are finally reunited?  They have a daughter, whose name is Pleasure.  And the story begins again.