My girlfriend and I watched a clip from Strawberry Shortcake last weekend. While it came out before I was born, Strawberry Shortcake reruns aired on television in the late 1980s and early 1990s when I was a baby/toddler. I had a VHS recording that I watched and rewatched frequently.
What struck me the most about watching the clip was the sun character. Strawberry Shortcake includes a being who is the sun — who watches over all things — and who low-key narrates and comments on what is happening under his watchful gaze. It reminds me of the Greek Alphabet Oracle for eta, “Bright Hêlios, who watches everything, watches you.”
Hêlios (yes, I’m making this call ¯\_(ツ)_/¯) is helpful to Strawberry, the main character. He is usually kind and gentle, and he shows concern for what is happening in the world that he watches.
Over the past week, I’ve been thinking about the Hêlios that was in Strawberry Shortcake versus the one in modern popular culture, specifically his depiction in the novel Circe that I found so alien and (sigh, I guess I’ll be blunt even though I know this is a loaded term, sorry, y’all) impious despite the beauty and deep mythological literacy of Miller’s prose and imagery — the Gods, as they are depicted there, are the opposite of good.
I watched Strawberry Shortcake at about the same time I was paging through illustrated books for young children about the Greek Gods and watching media like Pegasus (1991) narrated by Mia Farrow.
Miller’s book got me thinking a lot about how people treat Gods’ myths from the Classical era and earlier as canonical, static things that are in their “correct form”; we ignore the complexities of reactions and responses that ended up changing the myths over time, either via allegory or remixing or revision or some combination, and we discount the words of religious experts (many of them) and/or philosophers (ancient and modern) either because many people don’t know how to read myths with a religious mindset or they don’t want to tackle how to read them.
BTW, if the Google Books link above doesn’t work, it’s to this passage, which contextually appears in a discussion of Socrates purifying himself after saying untoward things about Eros:
What error in relation to mythology (243A3) actually is is erring in relation to theology, for mythology is a kind of theology. So not behaving intelligently in relation to mythology, that is, not mastering the thought of the myth-makers in an intelligent manner but instead following their apparent (phainomenos) [meaning], is error in relation to mythology.
Hermias, On Plato’s Phaedrus 227A-245E, 78,15f
Myth, when taken on its own, also removes the context of human cultus, of philosophical discourse, and of the many layers that stories about those ones who cannot be described that help triangulate to what a God even is or might be.
When I wrote “What Remains in the Ruins,” I was working with that — it was important that I ground the sacred in people, which is why the poem uses the imagery it does — a sacred place is a “cavern of mementos” because it is filled with the tangible record of cultus going back decades, centuries, and millennia; the quasi-interpersonal facet of a God that is often lost if we just talk about this myth or that aspect and remove the relationship with person(s) from the equation. I was thinking about the psychological impact on a woman of seeing a Goddess’ temple sacked and being powerless to do anything about it — of seeing the material evidence of these relationships smashed before your eyes.
Reading Circe, I understood the cutting sharpness of the divine landscape that the author made, could feel its texture/taste/scent on my tongue (hi synesthesia), and yet Miller’s fictionalized gods were utterly unfamiliar below the surface. I think that most work that focuses exclusively on myth cannot help but be hollow to me, like I am pressing my hand against frosted glass and can only imagine what is past the barrier theoretically, not actually. I see others reacting positively to a thing that I cannot see.
In the section of Orphic Traditions and the Birth of the Gods by D.A. Meisner that I’m reading through (I’m on p. 130), Meisner is comparing and contrasting Damascius’ interpretations of Orphic stories with a Christian apologist — the philosopher wants to explain and unpack the myths, and the Christian apologist wants to use the myths to tear the idea of polytheism apart. The philosopher is saying, “hey, let’s look at this in allegory and see how deftly this captures x,” and the apologist is saying, “look at these filthy pagans and their filthy Gods.” The philosopher is integrating the stories into a model to give people a healthy paradigm for understanding them, and the apologist is at the attack.
A lot about myths and Gods probably relies on the ways we first encounter them and on our subjectivity. I realized this past weekend that, as a toddler, I saw Strawberry Shortcake, read Greek myths, and decided that Hêlios was kind, even if he can be stern. How I have always conceived of Helios fits neatly into the philosophical things I have read recently, the hymn that Proclus wrote to him, and the fragments of the Chaldean Oracles that I perused only weeks ago. This is why my mind is so resistant to Circe.
About two years ago, I had another realization. It was at the height of #MeToo, and people started to say things about Zeus on social media that I found confusing. Sometimes, it was emotionally painful to read things. It took me a while to reflect on why: My first concrete impression of Zeus as a child was from the 1991 film where he is the benevolent father of the Muse Ourania who comes to comfort her when she has lost Pegasus, who drinks from the sacred spring, and who makes things soothing and right again.
Today, I worship Zeus primarily as a household God, where he presides over things like storerooms, so he is literally the God of your tea stash, box of aromatherapy candles, and winter duvets. The hymns I recite to him focus on his aspects as a ruler or a thunder/lightning deity. I read philosophical works and essays that discuss him.
Theogony and mythology are a box of tools, polyvalent and open-ended, but they are not the house itself. The things that make Gods full to me is dimensionality — of having poetry, myths, philosophical excerpts, and everything else shoved into my head all at once, some of it even conflicting, because the result is something that I can almost taste and touch, something that is more whole than the fragmentary input.
One of the first rituals I tried to do in a Hellenic style happened while studying abroad in the UK in my dorm room, when I offered Zeus wine and meat. Exposure to Hellenic ethics in those first few months of 2008 gave me a stark view of my unhealthy behaviors and actions, and it helped me take the first steps towards correcting them to become a better person — although the process itself took longer and is still ongoing. (Apollon was the primary motivator, to be frank — know thyself.) I know full well that many non-polytheists wouldn’t consider my view of the Gods to be “authentic” because it’s too tainted by Plato, ideas about the Good and the Gods being wholly good, and the struggle to be a decent person in a world that is falling apart in a game of dominoes that started in 312 CE now cascading faster and faster.
When I read Orphic fragments in Meisner about Zeus swallowing Phanes (or Ouranos’ penis, depending) and taking the whole of creation into himself, in that moment in the Orphic stories when all is Zeus, I don’t think about the physical actions of the narrative. I think about how perfect the imagery is —
Zeus was born first, Zeus the last, god of the bright bolt;
Zeus the head, Zeus the middle, and from Zeus all things are made,
Zeus was born male, Zeus has become the imperishable bride,
Zeus the foundation of earth and starry sky,
Zeus the king, Zeus himself the first origin of everything […]
And he was about to bring forth everything hidden again into the delightful light,
back again from his heart, doing wondrous things.
(I think this is OF 243B, as translated by Meisner on p. 105? The author picks a few lines out of a longer poem, and I think it’s the same one, or a variant thereof, that HellenicGods.org has put up here.)
— because that is exactly what such a thing would be like — it a breath held suspended for a moment before expansion, the contraction at the center of an hourglass, the moment a ball is thrown straight up when its velocity is exactly zero before acceleration due to gravity pulls it back down — and it requires displacing myself from myself to see anything other than that.
In these late 2010s, I’ve realized that, for many people, the myths are the only reference point they have — my perspective is detached from theirs, and theirs from mine, so is it any wonder that we might each feel like the other is on another planet? Moreover, is the reason I have such a negative reaction to the mythological discussions I saw (and sometimes still see) because I grew up in Neopaganism, so I’m always worried about being singled out and attacked like I had been as a girl? Meisner says at one point,
The way most apologists used Greek myth, in particular those found in Orphic texts, was to take myths literally and to reject “any allegorical interpretation that might make them more acceptable.” A part of their basic strategy was to demonstrate that the gods are “unworthy of this divine rank,” not in the sense that they are “entirely non-existent,” but in the sense that they “do not deserve to be called divine.” […] Eventually this method of reading scandalous myths literally became a staple argument of most of the Christian apologists, including Athenagoras (p. 131).
Is something like the above passage what I’m expecting when my gut does flip-flops? I had to fight with Biblical literalists so much as a kid — the people around me who wanted to bring everything down to their level, the ones who called me biologically inferior and low-key sexually harassed me on a daily basis back in middle and high school. Part of me wants to say that refusing to take something allegorically is religious violence because it is part of the project of fundamentalism to deny others’ world views, and the rest of me chastises myself for being too harsh towards other people by even thinking that.
More centrally, I wonder — is this disconnect resolvable without one of us in these more contemporary conversations getting flustered or feeling unheard/unseen?
What this post ended up being is a far cry from what prompted me to start writing this — Friday morning, I was walking down a sidewalk daydreaming to a Spotify playlist, my mind on the brightness of the sun overhead and the awesome feeling of having pieced together a reason behind something based on a chance rediscovery of a childhood show. This post doesn’t even end with answers.
Hêlios in Strawberry Shortcake, wouldn’t you know?