Womanly Herakles

Note: This poetic offering was written before a lot of things happened in US politics. I reread it recently and one of the metaphors kinda falls flat because 2017 and 2018 were not great years politically for most people in the USA. Eventually, I may do a new version of this poem, but since I offered this, it’s staying up. Just please read it in the context of two years ago.

Sometimes, it’s the fourth day of the month
When the moon is still a pale sliver in the thumb
Of blue day sky, but it’s always Herakles who gets the incense
Fired up and smoking from hissing lightning because the fourth day
Means Aphrodite, Eros, Hermes, and this god
Who some say was once a man, murdered by
Women — unintentionally.
Sometimes, on the fourth day, when I light that incense
And read his hymns, I think, what am I doing here
Because I am a feminist.

I once saw translations of the Orphic hymns online
That omitted him and Zeus both for their deeds.
Woman-Hater is one of Herakles’ epithets.
And when I knew better, that Woman-Hater means
Women could not be in his worship circles in some places,
Lighting incense on the fourth day was honestly in the same
Category as filial piety towards my father:
Bare minimum, respectful, and disengaged,
A balance of “honor your parents” and self-preservation.
I still lit that incense because who am I to break the chains of tradition
when half of the point of this is rebuilding what was lost to fifteen hundred
Years of some bureaucracy telling us we could not have goddesses
Peeking out at us from temple alcoves.

And that’s when I started digging into the deep earth,
A sacrifice of my time and effort in the chthonic
Realm where old and new scholarship meet and academics tell stories.
It’s never as simple as hate and love and I am nearly 30 and should know.
Herakles is the god of marriage worshipped alongside Hera and Hebe.
In most places women worshipped him, too.
On Kos Island, the priest dressed in women’s clothes for sacrifice
Because Herakles has done that, manly-man that he is,
And bridegrooms decked out in women’s adornments to receive their brides.

It is never so easy, love and hate.
It varies from place to place, like red states and blue.
What does it mean about us that we see how men behave
And how they take that story of Herakles’ death to demonize women
When some mythologies led to wedding rituals
And women worshipping this god freely.
Think about the narratives we teach ourselves
Because it is never that simple and sometimes the answer
Is purple-colored, like the robes of the Erinyes’ priestesses.
Patriarchy does so much, but one of those things is to make us
See the bad things in people and gods or say that
Men cross-dressed as priests to protect Herakles from women
Or that his women priestesses needed to be virgins until death
As if virginity is a yoke that means anything more than that
She has said fuck you in the profane sense of the term to all men
In favor of being her own human in the audience of god.

Perhaps it is not so odd, then, to take my lightning-lighter
On the fourth day and intone hymns softly,
Reclaiming this space that some men have said is theirs
And that real history reveals is not so clear cut.
Gods slip into the spaces that people open for them.
When I honor Herakles at my shrine,
Let him come in his guise as a womanish man.

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