Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave
Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare;
Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal yet, do not grieve;
She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,
For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!
(John Keats, Ode on a Grecian Urn)
“We’re almost out of our time together. Do you have any more questions?” asks Orpheus, my guide in Paradise.
“Not for the moment, thank you, you’ve given me such a wealth of information to reflect on and absorb. You’re a star!”
“Alas not I, only my instrument,” he raises an ironic eyebrow. “And you’re welcome. I enjoy coming here and it gives me a chance to spend time with my wife.”
“Your wife?” My face must have fallen a little, for Orpheus gives me one of his most radiant smiles and pats my hand gently.
“My beloved wife Eurydice is Queen Persephone’s favourite lady-in-waiting. Her main job is looking after the court entertainment, and she often arranges a soirée when I’m here. We get some quite glamorous guests, including Queen Isis and her god-daughter Queen Cleopatra.”
“Isis?!” *shock face*
“What? Oh I see, the ignorance of humans.” *smirk face*
“Now pay attention. Isis was and is the greatest Goddess of the classical world, widely worshipped throughout the Mediterranean as well as in Egypt. She is also a Mother of God, whose iconography was adopted and adapted by early Christians.
“There’s a lot more I could tell you about Isis, but for now just be mindful not to take her name in vain by associating her in any way with mindless violence and barbarism. Isis says: ‘Not in my name’.”
“Thank you for enlightening me.” Feeling contrite, I smile appeasingly. “It sounds like the royal court is a fun place to hang out.”
“Yes, the court is quite civilized nowadays, now that we are all healed from the scars of the outbreak of mindless violence which shook our own world.”
“What are you talking about?”
“You must have heard the story. It was the biggest scandal, the sole topic of conversation on Olympus for ages. Persephone is now a great queen, but at the time she was just a child, living happily in Arcadia. One day she was picking flowers with her mother Demeter in a sunlit meadow – ‘herself a fairer flower’, the very picture of innocence.
“Suddenly King Hades came thundering up in his chariot and leapt down, trampling the flowers with his hobnailed boots, blotting out the sun with his hulking frame. Before mother and daughter had a chance to recognize him, he snatched up Persephone and abducted her to his gloomy underground kingdom. A 16-year-old virgin, so rudely forced! Demeter was distraught, literally tearing her hair out as she wandered the world in search of her daughter. No help from our Lord and Master – indeed there were rumours that Zeus was complicit in the plot. When the scoundrel was finally apprehended, he refused all offers and threats to let her go. Of course he married her in the end, but it was hardly an auspicious beginning to conjugal life.
“So you see, even a Goddess is not safe from the lust of a powerful lord. Et in Arcadia … When a God descends from the mountain it’s lock up your daughters everyone. Zeus himself was known as a bit of a lad, always cavorting with the nymphs and shepherdesses, and you wouldn’t believe the stories about that wild man Pan, not to mention the drunkard Dionysos. But it was one thing having your way with the peasant girls, another thing violating your own kind. The rape of Persephone was a step too far, even by the standards of the times. After that Hades was non grata on Olympus and has skulked down here ever since.”
“What are you saying? Speaking as a woman of the people, I’m shocked by this double standard.” For the first time the pedestal starts to crumble a little.
“My dear Sybil, calm down.” Orpheus sees my face, and now it’s his turn to look contrite. “Please don’t take it personally. Let me explain it to you. You must understand it was quite different back then. Bad behaviour was the right and privilege of Gods, just as it was for the aristocracy. Women were part of the spoils of war, even noblewomen, even princesses and queens … but not Goddesses.” #nowaytotreatagoddess
“Thanks, Orpheus. I understand cultural relativism.” With an effort I put aside my indignation, feeling it unfair to blame Orpheus for the misdeeds of his comrades. “So what happened to poor Persephone?”
“Persephone came out of her ordeal stronger, with courage and dignity. She graciously accepted the settlement that Zeus brokered eventually, which gave her the summers off to spend with her family on a secluded Mediterranean island. She has become a wise and compassionate ruler, determined that nobody under her care should ever suffer such an indignity. Nowadays consent is mandatory, and all girls from any background – plebs or patricians, human or divine – are off limits. Hades knows enough not to lift a finger against any of her ladies. Don’t think for a moment I would leave my wife here if there was any doubt.
“So yes, the court is civilized nowadays, especially after Britannia’s reformation. As part of their rehabilitation programme our monarchs have been given separate areas of responsibility. Hades has a new role overseeing the rebuilding of the infernal realms after the scorched earth policy failed – which you could call constructive penance. Persephone manages Asphodel Meadows, and as you can see it is flourishing under her feminine touch.
“Nowadays we value emotional intelligence as highly as power, and so our rulers were sent off to relationship counselling. Hades was very reluctant to attend but has benefited greatly. He now understands that abduction is not the best courtship tactic – a lady likes to be asked nicely. Under the aegis of Britannia, Gods are expected to behave like gentlemen, not barbarians.”
“And how does that play out with those bad boys and hunky dudes?”
“You must understand, Hades’s crime violated our code of honour; as a result the Gods lost face. Worse, they lost hearts and minds. There was already scepticism among the educated class; now the common people also started to question whether they wanted to worship and support a caste of deities who were debauched, violent, and fickle with their favours. The people voted with their feet. Our rites were neglected, our temples abandoned. Vox Populi, Vox Dei.
“This paradigm shift was driven by the philosophers. Warriors were out, scholars were in. Athens had an intelligentsia! School was cool; philosophers argued on every street corner. New ideas and theories were generated daily, philosophical treatises sold like hot cakes, and everything was up for question. Science was born; art and literature flourished.
It is the task of the enlightened not only to ascend to learning and to see the good but to be willing to descend again to those prisoners [in the Cave of Ignorance] and to share their troubles and their honours, whether they are worth having or not. And this they must do, even with the prospect of death.
Plato, The Allegory of the Cave (Republic)
“Those were glory days for artists and intellectuals but not so good for Gods. Before we knew it the leading school of philosophy had reduced us to mere ideas, the shadow of our former glory – archetypes, forsooth! With hindsight, it was the beginning of the end of our glorious reign on Olympus. But hey, we were the Immortals! We didn’t need oracles – we were the oracles – and nobody expected it would ever end.”
“But it didn’t end, did it?”
“Well, it almost ended right there in the agora. ‘God is dead!’ they loudly proclaimed. ‘Science is the new Logos!’ But the Gods are great and the Fates were on message; out of the blue came a new lease of life.
“Now I’ll let you into an open secret that has been forgotten over time. Everyone knows and laments that the rise of Rome encompassed the fall of Greece, which in my homeland was understandably viewed as a catastrophe. I don’t want to sound unpatriotic, but you know the saying: It’s an ill wind that blows nobody any good. Well, the Roman Empire was a blessing in disguise for the Olympians. The Romans (bless them!) were warriors, not thinkers. While they liked to keep a few tame philosophers on board to show they weren’t barbarians, they had little interest in ideas. What they needed was a strong pantheon to unite nation and empire – not clever johnnies questioning everything and confusing people.
“We Olympians were seen as powerful allies who had blessed and orchestrated the spectacular rise of Greece. Now we were commandeered to perform the same service for Rome against Carthage and any other foes. Our whole pantheon was taken over and relocated with minimal redundancies. The only real change was the Romanization of our names, and we had no objection to additional titles. So we donned our armour and cleaned up our acts. Suddenly we had brand new temples, rites and cults, fresh laurel crowns, patrician priesthoods, populations of new worshippers. It seemed that finally we had taken over the whole world. Sic transit gloria mundi….”