Greek Mythology Limits and Domesticates a Previous Notion of Power in the Divine Feminine Essay

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Greek Mythology and Feminine Divinity

Hesiod's Theogony tells of many goddesses who were wily, powerful and ruled many significant aspects of life. However, the Homeric Hymns to Demeter and Apollo show how limited and domesticated goddesses had become. Though the goddesses retained powers over human beings and their own fertility, they were nevertheless considerably weakened when dealing with other gods.

Greek Mythology Limits and Domesticates a Previous Notion of Power in the Divine Feminine

Hesiod's Theogony

Hesiod wrote about women like he was going through a tough divorce: "Zeus who thunders on high made women to be an evil to mortal men, with a nature to do evil" (Evelyn-White, The Theogony of Hesiod ll. 590-612). Beginning with Persephone (Evelyn-White, The Theogony of Hesiod ll. 767-774), women keep men poor but are good for bearing children, who can take care of men when they are old (Evelyn-White, The Theogony of Hesiod ll. 590-612). However, the goddesses in Hesiod's Theogony were powerful. Hesiod gave female names to many important facets of life and called them goddesses. Their names alone show the kinds of power they wielded. For example, Themis gave birth to children names Hours, Order, Justice, and Peace (Evelyn-White, The Theogony of Hesiod ll. 901-906). Meanwhile, some of Night's frightening children were Doom, Death, Sleep, Indignation, Deceit, Friendship, Age, Strife, Blame and Woe (virgin births), the Destinies and the Fates, who "give men at their birth both evil and good to have, and they pursue the transgressions of men and of gods: and these goddesses never cease from their dread anger until they punish the sinner with a sore penalty" (Evelyn-White, The Theogony of Hesiod ll. 211-225).

Some goddesses' names were less obvious but Hesiod explained the power they had. The Muses have their own special power: they can tell lies as though they are true because they are persuasive; they can also "utter true things" because they have knowledge. Muses give their gifts to humans they like and so they gave their gifts to Hesiod, a shepherd, so he could sing stories (Evelyn-White, The Theogony of Hesiod ll. 29-35). Also, Demeter, who is later dealt with in the Homeric hymn dedicated to her, is called "all-nourishing" (Evelyn-White, The Theogony of Hesiod ll. 912-914) and a "bright goddess" (Evelyn-White, The Theogony of Hesiod ll. 969-974). Consequently, even when goddesses were not obviously named to show that they controlled important aspects of life, Hesiod "sang" about their significant powers.

In addition to being Night, Day and much in between, goddesses were wily, powerful and most seemed to care more about their children than their husbands. Earth was the daughter of Zeus and Hera (Evelyn-White, The Theogony of Hesiod ll. 1-25). After Heaven and Earth have children, Heaven traps his children who each have a hundred hands and fifty heads within Earth. Earth is furious, makes a jagged sickle and has Cronos, the youngest Titan, castrate Heaven (Evelyn-White, The Theogony of Hesiod ll. 176-206). Rhea was also powerful. Rhea was a titan (or titanette) who was the daughter of Heaven and Earth (Evelyn-White, The Theogony of Hesiod ll. 116-138). After Cronos and Rhea have children, Cronos eats all his children, except Zeus because Rhea saves Zeus by feeding Cronos a rock disguised to look like a baby. (Evelyn-White, The Theogony of Hesiod ll. 453-491). Earth and Rhea care more for their children than their husbands and they are powerful and clever in beating their husbands for the sake of their children. Some goddesses stuck up for their husbands and did so relentlessly. To this day, every day, Day rises in the east, scatters darkness and pulls her husband, Brightness, over the Earth with her chariot. However, Night wants her husband to rule, so Night rises in the east, scatters brightness and pulls her husband, Darkness over the Earth with her chariot (Evelyn-White, The Theogony of Hesiod ll. 744-757).

Homeric Hymn to Demeter

In the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, the goddess is helpless against gods. Zeus and Demeter have a daughter named Persephone. Demeter's daughter, Persephone, is taken off and raped by Hades, who is Zeus' brother. Zeus allows it and does not tell Demeter (Evelyn-White, Hymn to Demeter ll. 1-33). Rather than forcefully getting Persephone back or having someone castrated, Demeter was grief-stricken and would not eat for 9 days. On the 10th day, Helios tells Demeter what happened but tells her not to be upset because Hades will make a great husband (Evelyn-White, Hymn to Demeter ll. 59-90). Demeter is even sadder and becomes angry at Zeus, refusing to return to Mount Olympus. Throughout the hymn, Demeter can do nothing about the kidnapping until Zeus finally told Hades to let Persephone return to Demeter (Evelyn-White, Hymn to Demeter ll. 334-359). Hades did so but tricked Persephone into eating the pomegranate to remember her promise to return. After she ate the pomegranate, Persephone was forced to return to Hades for part of every year and there is nothing that Demeter or Persephone can do about it (Evelyn-White, Hymn to Demeter ll. 360-383).

Though Demeter is at a loss when dealing with other gods, she retains her power over humans. When Persephone is still being held by Hades, Demeter wanders the Earth, arrives at Eleusis and sits by the Maiden Well looking like a very old woman (Evelyn-White, Hymn to Demeter ll. 90-117). The King's 4 daughters see her at the well and asked about her. Demeter lies and says she is a human who was kidnapped by pirates but escaped and is now looking for work as a housekeeper or nurse (Evelyn-White, Hymn to Demeter ll. 118-146). She becomes the nurse of the girls' brother, though she does reveal herself to them as radiated light in the doorway. She retains powers to order humans around because she orders the girls' mother, Metaneira, to mix meal, water and mint for Demeter to drink, which Metaneira does (Evelyn-White, Hymn to Demeter ll. 184-211). Demeter then takes on the domestic task of nursing the boy but she also exercises her divine power by putting him in fire at night, which made him grow, and she was on the way to making him immortal until Metaneira saw her son in the fire and cried out (Evelyn-White, Hymn to Demeter ll. 213-248). Demeter continued to exercise divine power by allowing Demophoon to flourish and have honor. Demeter also exercised divine power by transforming herself back to her divine form. Demeter also ordered the humans to build a temple and altar to her, which they did. Demeter still controlled the harvest and because of her grief, there was no harvest during the year of Persephone's disappearance (Evelyn-White, Hymn to Demeter ll. 249-333). When Persephone is with Demeter, the earth is fruitful, but when Persephone returns to Hades, the earth is barren (Evelyn-White, Hymn to Demeter ll. 459-483). Consequently, the Homeric hymn to Demeter limits and domesticates her, though she still holds power over human beings.

Homeric Hymn to Apollo

In the Homeric Hymn to Apollo, many goddesses are reduced to being quite domestic midwives. When Leto has to hide from jealous Hera when she is about to give birth, she is attended by goddesses: "And there were with her all the chiefest of the goddesses, Dione and Rhea and Ichnaea and Themis and loud-moaning Amphitrite and the other deathless goddesses save white-armed Hera"…[and] Eilithyia, goddess of sore travail" (Evelyn-White, Hymn to Apollo ll. 89-101). When Eilithyia hears that Leto is about to give birth, Eilithyia goes to her, "And as soon as Eilithyia the goddess of sore travail set foot on Delos, the pains of birth seized Leto...Then the child leaped forth to the light, and all the goddesses washed you purely and cleanly with sweet water, and swathed you in a white garment of fine texture, new-woven, and fastened a golden band about you (Evelyn-White, Hymn to Apollo ll. 115-122).

In addition to domestication, goddesses like Hera are limited when dealing with the gods. In this Hymn, Hera complains about Zeus cheating on her and having exceptional children, like Athena, through his extramarital affairs. Meanwhile, Hera stayed faithful to Zeus and had her embarrassing son, Hephaestus, who has a shriveled foot. Rather than directly fighting or castrating Zeus, Hera vows that she will not have sex with Zeus and will cheat on him with other gods (Evelyn-White, Hymn to Apollo ll. 311-330). Still, Hera retains some powers: she prays to Heaven and Earth to have a child without Zeus and was able to bear a "child" without Zeus, though "she bare one neither like the gods nor mortal men, fell, cruel Typhaon, to be a plague to men" (Evelyn-White, Hymn to Apollo ll. 334-362). Consequently, even though Hera's prayers for a child who would essentially be Zeus' equal were not answered, and even though Hera apparently could not fight Zeus face-to-face and beat him, she retained the power to have a child on her own.


Hesiod's Theogony shows his low opinion of women, yet assigns many vital…[continue]

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