Tag Archives: Zeus

“Gods play a part in humans’ affairs, which I think is unfair…”

The plural “gods” suggests (accurately) that he was writing about the Greek and Roman gods, who certainly did play a part in humans’ affairs, and frequently were the humans’ affairs. Zeus in particular was pretty busy in the affair department. Less literally, many of the other gods took sides in human conflicts and manipulated events to suit themselves, or their adherents (or whoever had provided the most fragrant barbecue).

Readers who admire Hector and have little sympathy for Achilles in The Iliad tend to feel strongly about the gods’ meddling. They are probably inclined to find it unfair.

My student isn’t just taking sides, though; he has a good reason for his opinion:

“Gods play a part in humans’ affairs, which I think is unfair because they are inevitably immortal and won’t be affected.”

I agree with him! Intervening in a situation in a way that is sure to victimize—perhaps severely and irrevocably—one side may sometimes be justified; but when the intervenor knows all along that he or she cannot be harmed in the process or as a consequence, “unfair” is a word that can reasonably come to mind.

What gives a reader pause here is the word “inevitably.” Perhaps my student meant “invariably”? Actually, if the lore, legends, and teachings are to be believed, not all gods are immortal. Pan dies. Nietzsche even proclaimed of the great Western god (although he and countless thinkers since have made the statement far more nuanced and complex than it sounded), “Gott ist tot.” Ragnarök gets rid of them wholesale. So, depending on the god or gods one chooses, that immortality may not be “inevitable.”

And usually when we say “inevitably,” we imply that efforts have been made or could be made, all in vain. So have any gods tried to avoid being, or stop being, immortal? We might mention Jesus here, but his death was the precondition for his resurrection and therefore although painful, risk-free. Yes, death certainly affected him in the moment, and changed his physical being; but it didn’t alter his immortality.

Would my student yell “NO FAIR!” at someone who claimed to “have God on our side”? Should we recall all those championships and medals won, according to their winners, “with God’s help”? Didn’t they have an unfair advantage?

Next time some god shows up at your house wanting to kibbitz, should you tell him or her to move along and stay out of the affairs of mortals, “go back to your own kind”? Well, being human, I’d probably feel that my side was the right side, and welcome the aid of the divine to make sure things turned out “right.” That would be only fair.

Worked for Achilles.

“She became impregnated with the Trojan War.”

For sheer compression of information, this student ought to win some kind of prize.

He’s writing about Yeats’ great sonnet “Leda and the Swan.” And he’s got the gist, or at least the gist of the central action, the point of Yeats’ meditation.

The poem is such a wonderful thing, it deserves quoting here:

    A sudden blow: the great wings beating still
    Above the staggering girl, her thighs caressed
    By the dark webs, her nape caught in his bill,
    He holds her helpless breast upon his breast.

    How can those terrified vague fingers push
    The feathered glory from her loosening thighs?
    And how can body, laid in that white rush,
    But feel the strange heart beating where it lies?

    A shudder in the loins engenders there
    The broken wall, the burning roof and tower
    And Agamemnon dead.
                        Being so caught up,
    So mastered by the brute blood of the air,
    Did she put on his knowledge with his power
    Before the indifferent beak could let her drop?

That broken eleventh line, in a poem about a rape, a poem about a fusion of consciousness and a rift or shift in history, is breathtaking. And it’s that line, really, that my student is trying to explain. Leda, herself a “broken wall” by the act of rape, is also the means of engendering the Trojan War.

You know the story. Zeus is cruising along, randy as usual, ogling the nymphs and ordinary maidens of the earth. The old shape-shifter spots Leda and considers what form to take this time. Eagle? White bull? Someone’s husband? (When he tried “mortal man” with Semele, he did beget Dionysus; but then she asked him to appear in his own form—a bolt of lightning, more or less—and as one of my students had it, “she made love with him and crisped away.”) Artemis? Shower of gold? Aha, got it! Swan! And down he goes. Myths conflict about the issue of this union: was it just a girl named Helen? Helen and the twins Castor and Pollux? Helen and Clytemnestra? Yeats is clearly referring to Helen, and probably also to Clytemnestra. (Most traditions have it that the child or children hatched from eggs; do with that what you will. Not important to Yeats.)

So my student is exactly right, and this is the “knowledge” Yeats wonders about: did Leda realize in the moment of rape that the child thereby conceived would grow up to be Helen of Troy (and probably Yeats also wants to include Clytemnestra as the second child, eventually wife and then, on his return from Troy, killer of Agamemnon)? Helen is the “broken wall, the burning roof and tower”; Clytemnestra, the “Agamemnon dead.” Zeus knows this; Yeats asks, Does Leda?

To my student: Good job!

But alas, also Hilarious job! What an uncomfortable pregnancy that must have been, with all those Greeks and Trojans battling away, a big wooden horse (a kind of womb-within-a-womb, then, come to think of it) poking at the uterine walls as well as the Trojan Wall, all those sharp objects, all that noise and blood. Can you imagine the surprise of all her gushy intrusive neighbors, asking if they can “feel the baby”? “Awww,” says the lady next door, caressing her belly. “Kapow!” goes the Trojan War.

Who says words don’t matter?