Searching for heroines (II): Psyche


In the previous post, I gave you one model of how heroines might be similar to, but also different from, heroes. Here is another model for the archetypes of femininity and heroism. It is the story of Psyche.

Right away, the heroine’s very name might get our attention. Psyche is of course what we call mind or (as in the Greek meaning) soul. Clearly, the story of Psyche promises to be about more than intrigue, sex, love, fear and overcoming (although it certainly has all those in plenty). There is something universal and large hiding in the story. Your task is to find it.

Before I tell the story in brief and analyze it, here is the context for newcomers to this blog: This post is part of a series exploring heroes and heroism. The premise is the monomyth theory, according to which all of humanity shares certain archetypes of storytelling that appear again and again in every culture and age. After I featured several male heroes, the question arose: What is female heroism?

This post, like the previous one, is based on a lecture course by Grant Voth, who in turn borrows from research by Meredith Powers and others.

To make the heroic pattern more explicit, I’ll break the story into “chapters” with “titles” taken from some of the archetypes as Joseph Campbell described them. (Here is the list.)

The call to adventure

Psyche is the youngest of three daughters of a king, and the most beautiful woman of her time, so beautiful that she rivals even the goddess Aphrodite.

Aphrodite naturally becomes jealous and wants to punish Psyche. So she tells her son, Eros (known to the Romans as either Cupid, desire, or Amor, love), to shoot one of his little arrows into Psyche so that she might, perversely, fall in love with the nastiest and ugliest creature alive.

When Psyche’s father, the king, asks the Oracle of Apollo about Psyche’s future, he receives a dreadful reply (which I took from here):

On some high crag, O king, set forth the maid,

In all the pomp of funeral robes arrayed.

Hope for no bridegroom born of mortal seed,

But fierce and wild and of the dragon breed.

He swoops all-conquering, born on airy wing,

With fire and sword he makes his harvesting;

Trembles before him Jove, whom the gods do dread,

And quakes the darksome river of the dead.

Psyche’s marriage, in other words, is to be a funeral; love is to be death; and the groom makes even hell tremble!

The threshold

Psyche and her parents submit to the oracle’s command in sorrow, and Psyche is brought in a funeral procession to the mountain top. But instead of plunging to her death, she is wafted by gentle winds to a valley where she falls asleep.

When she wakes up, she finds herself in a beautiful palace, where voices invite her to dine and bathe. This looks more like paradise than hell.

At night, in total darkness, her groom comes to Psyche’s bed to consummate the marriage. Psyche cannot see him and he leaves before dawn.

This happens night after night. Psyche quite enjoys the love-making, but she has no idea with whom she is making love.

After a while, her two sisters come looking for her. Psyche’s husband, whoever he is, does not want Psyche to see them. When he finally relents, he makes Psyche promise never to let her sisters talk her into trying to find out who he is.

The sisters (also archetypes: picture the step sisters in Cindarella, for instance) arrive and are impressed by the splendor of Psyche’s palace. They themselves are in bad marriages with husbands who are much older and no fun. They envy Psyche.

Psyche makes up a story that her husband is away all day hunting.

The sisters leave. The next time they visit — Psyche is pregnant by now — they try harder to find out who Psyche’s husband might be. Psyche, who has forgotten her previous story, tells them that he is a rich merchant, away on business.

The sisters realize that Psyche is lying. Still envious, they want to spoil her fun. They remind her of the oracle and tell of alleged rumors that her husband is really a terrible serpent who will eat both Psyche and whatever child creature she will bear.

They persuade Psyche, who is suddenly full of doubt and fear, to bring a knife to bed for self-protection and also an oil lamp so that, when her husband falls asleep after love-making, she might shine a light on him and see who he is.

Entering the “belly of the whale” (ie, the danger zone)

The next night, after Psyche and her husband make love and he falls asleep, Psyche lights the oil lamp. This is the first heroic moment: It is an act of choosing knowledge and self-awareness, a daring shedding of light into the dark places of the unconscious, whether the heroine is ready or not.

To Psyche’s great surprise, she beholds not a monster but the most handsome man she can imagine, the god Eros. She immediately falls in love. Wanting to make her love eternal, she deliberately pricks herself on one of his arrows.

But as she does so, a drop of oil falls from her lamp and wakes Eros. Eros must now tell his story.

He tells Psyche how his mother, Aphrodite, issued her cruel order, how he came to execute the command, and how he, upon seeing her, fell in love with Psyche, deciding to take her as his own wife.

But he thereby subverted his mother’s wishes, which is very, very dangerous. And now the truth is known. Devastated, Eros abandons Psyche.

Eros returns to his mother and confesses all to her. (Archetypes are a Jungian thing, but the Freudians among you might have fun analyzing the relationship between Eros and Aphrodite.)

Aphrodite is livid. She wants revenge. She wants to punish “that whore”, Psyche.

Initiation and trials

Psyche at first tries to kill herself, then decides, like the hero(ine) she is now becoming, to rise to the challenge and seek out her enemy, Aphrodite, in order either to placate her or to die in the attempt.

What Psyche wants, of course, is her husband. (As the soul forever wants to be reunited with love?) Psyche is thus on a love quest.

Aphrodite, however, wants to humiliate Psyche, to make her fail by giving her seemingly impossible tasks. (These seem to be very close analogs to the labors of Hercules, so if there ever was any doubt, we are definitely in a hero story.)

Psyche must, for instance:

  • sort a pile of mixed seeds (= the Augean stables? Certainly reminds me of Cindarella again!), which she does with the help of ants;
  • fetch wool from a lethal sheep (Hercules’ Nemean lion?), which she does with the help of a reed growing by the river;
  • fill a vial of water from a spring that is guarded by dragons and runs into Styx (Hercules’ Hydra?), which she does with the help of Zeus’ eagle; and
  • go to the underworld, Hades, to bring back in a box a bit of Persephone’s immortal beauty, which she does with the help of a tower that tells her how to get to Hades and back.

She is now in exalted company indeed. Hercules, Theseus, Odysseus, Aeneas, Orpheus — only the greatest heroes get to go to Hades and back, to die and be reborn in a more aware state, to cross the ultimate boundary in both directions.

She’s been warned not to open Persephone’s box. But (compare Orpheus) curiosity overcomes her, and she does open it. She falls into a deep coma and seems dead (≈Sleeping Beauty?).

Her lover and husband, Eros, finds her and pricks her with an arrow. This wakes Psyche. Eros now pleads with Zeus to let them be reunited.

Zeus sympathizes. He gives Psyche ambrosia, thus making her immortal (as he also made Hercules immortal).

The return and the boon

Psyche has now become one of the family, as it were. She has been accepted. Aphrodite, too, must embrace her as part of the family. And thus, there is finally the proper wedding and a feast.

Psyche soon gives birth. The baby is Voluptas, either joy or pleasure.

The harmony of the new, or newly reunited, family and the gift of joy and pleasure is Psyche’s boon, her gift to mankind. She has thus completed her heroic quest, quite as a male hero might have done.

The feminine twist

But we might observe two subtle differences between Psyche’s apotheosis and those of the male heroes we have been comparing her to:

1) Psyche has not killed anybody! It was not expected of her, not a prerequisite of her heroism.

The only two people in the story who die are her sisters (and they kill themselves, after coming to the mountain top again, greedy to revisit their sister’s palace, then plunging down, only to discover that this time no gentle wind wants to catch them).

2) The goal of Psyche’s quest was not individual triumph but family reunion and group harmony.


A Freudian might see this entire tale as a “family romance”, as the story of a young woman coming of age and overcoming her repression about sex and intimacy until her mate is no longer bestial and loathsome but lovable and desirable.

But the monomyth theory, which dates back to Jung and regards archetypes as “collective dreams”, sees in Psyche’s story universals:

  • the human journey toward self-awareness,
  • our yearning to unify sex and love, body and soul, individual and family,
  • our striving for harmony.

Viewed this way, Psyche plays the same heroic role that Arjuna plays in the Bhagavad Gita (recall that Arjuna really stands for the noble part of our own soul, in battle with our sordid instincts).

Finally, Psyche is clearly a very powerful archetype. Variants of her seem to appear in countless stories through the ages. I leave you with the familiar image of just one: Beauty and the Beast.

Searching for heroines (I): Hester Prynne

What exactly is a female hero — ie, a heroine? In this post and the next, I’ll put forward two possible models.

Today: The model of Hester Prynne (above, with her baby Pearl) and Demeter (below).

Even though one is a character in 19th-century American fiction and the other a Greek goddess, you may, by the end of this post, agree that they tap into the same archetype of female heroism.


So far in this series exploring heroism, we breezed through all sorts of mythical and timeless heroes, both Western (Greek) and Eastern (Indian). The presumption has been that they are all different and yet all the same, because they tap into archetypes of human storytelling (this is called the Monomyth theory).

But along the way we repeatedly slammed into the “problem” of women. Is there a female version of heroism?

(We’re not, by the way, just talking about an individual being brave, or admirable, or good. You can be all of those things and yet not be a hero.)

I engaged the topic with an opening salvo on Joan of Arc, but the prodigious debate that ensued in the comments taught me, and I think all of us, that we were in an intellectual cul-de-sac. We need an entirely different way of approaching the topic of feminine heroism. We cannot just graft male archetypes onto female protagonists to declare them heroines.

Female as opposed to male heroism

Implicitly, the monomyth relies on male archetypes of heroism:

  1. A young man proves himself to be unusual in some way, usually by passing a test by, or for, or against, his father. (For example, Theseus moves the boulder to find the sword left there by his father, King Aegeus.)
  2. The lad then receives a call to adventure, and follows it.
  3. He leaves society in an act of autonomy and individualism, crossing thresholds (for Theseus, the dangers along the road to Athens) to emphasize this separation.
  4. He meets women along the way, but they are probably temptresses, femme fatales or helpmates (Ariadne, for Theseus).
  5. He finally succeeds in his quest (in Theseus’ case, killing the Minotaur, liberating Athens), and
  6. returns to society, bringing it a boon (Athenian democracy).

(Now you might be able to see why I looked into the story of Joan of Arc, even though she was a historical rather than mythical character: her journey hewed closely to these male archetypes.)

A female version would look quite different. Meredith Powers apparently explored this in her book, The Heroine in Western Literature. I haven’t read it, but I listened to some lectures on mythology by Grant Voth, which he bases on Powers’ book.

Here, according to Powers and Voth, are the differences:

  1. Instead of some tense situation between father and son which marks the son as hero, it is now the deep connection between mother and child, and probably mother and daughter, which marks the mother, not the daughter, as the heroine.
  2. The ‘call to adventure‘ takes a totally different form than for men. It is probably some oppressive inflexibility in patriarchal society that threatens the mother/daughter dyad.
  3. In answering the call, the heroine does not leave society in an act of (male) individualism, but stays within it. As Powers puts it: “alone, apart, she accepts herself as a living critic” of her society.
  4. The heroine then form new bonds of solidarity with other women and
  5. also gives a boon to society in the process, a civilizing gift of a communitarian nature that is good for the group.

Example 1: Demeter and Persephone

Demeter was not, of course, a heroine but a goddess, but for Powers she establishes the archetype. Demeter (the Romans called her Ceres, whence our word cereal), was the goddess of grain and agriculture. She was the sister of Zeus, Hades and Poseidon, and the mother of Persephone.


The love between mother and daughter is our archetypal starting point. So what is the call to adventure?

It comes in the form of a deal between her brothers, Hades and Zeus, whereby Hades is allowed to abduct Persephone and take her as his wife in the underworld. This is classic patriarchy: Zeus is the mightiest of the gods as well as Persephone’s father; Hades is Persephone’s uncle.

Demeter is beside herself with maternal grief and for one year becomes barren — meaning that the crops fail. Her brother Zeus realizes that he has destabilized Olympian society and tries to placate her.

But Demeter does not accept the abduction. Nor, however, does she confront or attack Zeus or Hades in a test of power. Nor does she exile herself from the Olympian family. She stays within it.

As she does so, she wins the solidarity of other women, including her (and Zeus’ and Hades’) grandmother, Gaia, and mother, Rhea. Together they sway the men to soften their stance.

Finally, they reach a compromise. Persephone is to spend half of each year with her mother and half with her husband. The first half becomes spring and summer, the second becomes autumn and winter.

Thus Demeter gives her boon to the world: It is called agriculture, and introduces the rhythms of fertility, where every death (Persephone’s departure) leads to a rebirth. Everybody is better off.

Example 2: Hester Prynne

Those of you who are American and have read Nathaniel Hawthorne’s classic The Scarlet Letter, probably already see how its heroine (for that is what she is!), Hester Prynne, is really a Puritan Demeter.

Hester bears a child, named Pearl, out of wedlock in 17th-century Boston. This makes her an adulteress, so she must wear a prominent and scarlet letter A to bear the public shame.

Here, too, the archetypal love between mother and daughter is our starting point. And again, the call to adventure arrives from an inflexibility of patriarchal society: the community demands to know who Pearl’s father is. Hester goes to prison, then stands for hours on a scaffold in Boston. But she accepts the call to adventure: she does not divulge the father.

Again, Hester is, in Powers’s phrase, “alone, apart, a living critic of society.” She embroiders the Scarlet A as though to emphasize it. She does not leave Bostonian society (although she will later go to Europe before coming back). Nor does she attack it.

Instead, she reaffirms the act that created her daughter and the relationships around it.

And she changes society in the process. Years later, she returns to Boston with her boon. She does charitable work. Society now respects and admires her. Everybody is better off.

The vapors of Delphi

Pythia (oracle of Apollo)

When the ancient Greeks and Romans had a question of great import, they traveled to the navel (omphalos) of the world, which they believed to be at Delphi, on the steep slopes of Mount Parnassus in Greece (see map below).

They climbed up the Sacred Way, past about 3,000 statues and various temples and shrines, until they reached the Temple of Apollo. (This post is apropos of our discussion about Apollo the other day.)

Mount Parnassus was Apollo’s mountain — the mountain of wisdom and music, the place where Apollo had given Orpheus his lyre and taught him to play it, a place that other artistic places (such as Montparnasse in Paris) still try to evoke today.

Click for credits

Because Apollo could see the future, he would have the answer to any question, here at his temple.

And he gave his answer through a woman, the Pythia (pictured above). She would sit above a chasm in the rock through which the god sent vapors (pneuma) that put the woman in a trance. Thus possessed, the Pythia would babble, and priests were at hand to transcribe her words into beautiful hexameter which they gave to the individual who had asked a question.

The answer was coherent syntactically but not necessarily substantively. You recall that both King Croesus and Socrates, for example, had received answers from the Pythia that were ambiguous at best (disastrously so, in Croesus’ case).

But nobody could dispute the power of the god, or rather of his vapors.

And that remains true even today. The vapors are real, it turns out. Mount Parnassus sits atop several very active faults. The earth below constantly rubs and often quakes, grinding the rock until it emits … vapors.

Which vapors? Methane and ethane, apparently. Even the spring water at the site contains ethylene.

In short, even the scientists who go there today, if they hang out there long enough, if they inhale and ingest, may enter the trance of the Pythia and receive the ambiguous wisdom of Apollo.

And so mythos and logos meet; and ‘Socrates’, Dionysus and Apollo become one.

Somewhere between Apollo & Dionysus


Friedrich Nietzsche not only loved Greek art and culture per se but he was also, as we discussed the other day, always searching for timeless lessons from the Greeks to help us understand modernity and ourselves.

He found one such lesson in an apparent duality that ran through all of Greek art: the tension between two gods who were also two archetypes and half-brothers: Apollo and Dionysus.

Think of them as a Greek Yin and Yang.

Apollo, the god of the sun and wisdom, as well as poetry and music, would be the equivalent of the Chinese yang (ie, the bright, masculine sun).

Dionysus, the god of wine, intoxication, ecstasy, passion and instinct, would be the equivalent of the Chinese yin (ie, the dark, feminine moon).

Obviously, I am stretching that analogy, so don’t get too wound up about it. If you prefer, you can think of them in our contemporary pop-psychology terms of left brain (Apollo) and right brain (Dionysus).


So why should this duality be so interesting, for the Greeks or for us?

From Homer to John Wayne: The Apollonian

Nietzsche saw in these two archetypes two approaches to art, and indeed life.

Homer, for example, followed his Apollonian instinct in writing the Iliad and Odyssey in the 8th century BCE. How so? Because he glorified the war against Troy and the subsequent nostos (homecoming) of Odysseus. He made these stories beautiful, as Apollo was. He gave the Greeks and us role models.

He made the Greeks proud to be Greeks, proud to descend from whichever hero in the long catalogue of ships they traced their lineage to. He made them aware of their individuality, of the structures of society, of its fundamental order to which, after intervening episodes of wrath (see: Achilles), everything must return.

Julian Young in his biography of Nietzsche compares this to, for example, our Westerns (the ones with John Wayne more than those with Clint Eastwood). There, too, you see people dying, but they die in a stylized, Homeric way: The bullet hits and they tumble from their horses, looking good as they do so. They are our heroes, beyond the sordidness of reality.

Young gives another modern example: women’s magazines. Those are full of celebrities (our goddesses?) with their tales of disease, divorce, death and drugs. The subtext is ugly, and yet it is presented to us as glamour.

Nietzsche calls this being “superficial out of profundity.” Apollonian art does not censor facts (such as death) but perspectives. It involves a certain amount of self-deception, but it is uplifting. It deifies everything human, whether good or bad. And so it is, yes, religion.

From Sophocles to the rock concert: The Dionysian

By contrast, Aeschylus and Sophocles (but not Euripides, see below) followed their Dionysian instincts in the tragedies they created the fifth century BCE. This might have been expected: Those tragedies were, after all, performed once a year at the festival of Dionysus.

Dionysian art is about the abandonment of order, or ecstasy (ex-stasis = standing out of everyday consciousness). It transcends words or concepts. This is why it tends to involve visuals and music.

Music was in fact an important part of Sophocles’ and Aeschylus’ tragedies (we just don’t know how it sounded, what a pity!). Apparently, the audience sang along with the chorus and became one with it.

The individuals there would have become hypnotized by the sound (rather as yogis feel a certain ‘vibe’ when chanting Om with others). In fact, they would have, as one says, lost themselves in the crowd. They would have stopped feeling separate and individual, Athenian or Greek. They would have had (Freud’s) oceanic feeling.

Credit: Nambassa Trust and Peter Terry

Young compares this to our rock concerts or raves, to our football and soccer stadiums. Dionysian art is a trance and a trip, usually good, sometimes bad.

It is, in contrast to some Apollonian art, apolitical and devoid of any message. The Athenians participating in Sophocles’ tragedies stopped caring about worldly affairs. They became almost apathetic.

This was the only way they could bear to see their heroes — those same Apollonian heroes — torn down and devastated, knowing that they themselves might meet the same fate, understanding that reality was sordid, that it was primal and dark, and that it demanded to be accepted in that way. And they found a beauty in that feeling, too. So it, too, was a form of religion.

From Socrates to Princess Diana: What Nietzsche decried

Nietzsche loved both the Apollonian and the Dionysian, understanding that, like yin and yang, neither can ever be denied.

What he did not like, however, might surprise you: Socrates.

Why? Because Socrates represented, to Nietzsche, the religion of reason — not Apollonian wisdom but cold, methodical logic. In that sense, Nietzsche believed that Socrates “killed” Attic tragedy and Homeric poetry, and the playwright who represented that trend (to Nietzsche) was Euripides, the youngest of the three great tragedians.

Our own age, Nietzsche might say, is “Socratic” in the sense of scientific and myth-less, neither Apollonian nor Dionysian. Because we can’t act out these two instincts, we instead cobble together what Young calls “myth fragments”. We don’t release urges, as the Greeks did, but instead look for thrills, for sex and drugs and trips. We sky- and scuba-dive, we get a new app.

We worship neither Dionysus or Apollo but idols like Princess Diana. How appropriate, since Diana was the Roman Artemis, sister of Apollo.

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The Alexandrian Solution

A lot of people have a very famous story … wrong.

The story is that of the Gordian Knot and precisely how Alexander the Great loosened it. Most people imagine Alexander slashing the knot with his sword, as pictured above. But he did not.

In the nuance of how he really untied the knot lies hidden a worldview: the supremacy of simplicity and elegance over brute force and complexity. The true “Alexandrian Solution” was, for example, what Albert Einstein was looking for in his search for a Grand Unified Theory — a formula that was simple enough (!) to explain all of physics.

I’ll give you the background and the nuance of the story in a moment, but first another fist bump to Thomas for reminding us to make the association.

We are, remember, talking about complexity. The Gordian Knot is the archetypal metaphor for mind-numbing, reason-defying complexity; Alexander’s triumph over the knot is the archetypal metaphor for triumphing over complexity. Now read on…

I) Background

a) Phrygia

The Gordian Knot was, as the name implies, a knot in a city called Gordium. It was in Phrygia, an ancient kingdom in Anatolia (today’s Turkey).

The Phrygians lived near (and may have been related to) those other Anatolians of antiquity: the Trojans and the Hittites. They were Indo-European but not quite “Greek”. Their mythical kings were named either Gorgias or Midas (and one of the later Midases is the one who had “the touch” that turned everything into gold). Later, they became part of Lydia, the kingdom of Croesus. And then part of the Persian Empire. And then Alexander showed up.

b) The knot

Legend had it that the very first king, named Gorgias, was a farmer who was minding his own business and riding his ox cart. The Phrygians had no leader at that time and consulted an oracle. The oracle told them that a man riding an ox cart would become their king. Moments later, Gorgias parked his cart in the town square. In the right place at the right time. 😉

So fortuitous was this event and Gorgias’ reign that his son, named Midas, dedicated the ox cart. He did so by tying the cart — presumably by the yoke sticking out from it — to a post.

And he made the knot special. How, we do not know. But Plutarch in his Life of Alexander tells us that it was tied

with cords made of the rind of the cornel-tree … the ends of which were secretly twisted round and folded up within it.

It was a very complicated knot, in other words, and seemed to have no ends by which to untie it.

Lots of people did try to untie it, because the oracle made a second prophesy. As Plutarch said,

Whosoever should untie [the knot], for him was reserved the empire of the world.

II) Alexander, 333 BCE

Alexander, aged 23 and rather ahead of me at that age, arrived in (Persian) Phrygia in 333 BCE. The knot was still there, un-untied.

Alexander had already subdued or co-opted the Greeks, and had already crossed the Hellespont. But he had not yet become divine or conquered Egypt and Persia. All that was to come in the ten remaining years of his short life. And it began with the knot, since he knew the oracle’s prophesy.

Here he his, his sword drawn, approaching the knot:

Did he slash?

No, says Plutarch (ibid,. Vol. II, p. 152, Dryden translation):

Most authors tell the story that Alexander finding himself unable to untie the knot, … cut it asunder with his sword. But … it was easy for him to undo it, by only pulling the pin out of the pole, to which the yoke was tied, and afterwards drawing off the yoke itself from below.

III) Interpretation

I leave it to the engineering wizards among you to re-create the knot as it might have been. But what we seem to have here is a complex pattern that was nonetheless held together by only one thing: the beam.

It was, Einstein might say, like quantum physics and gravity: intimidatingly complex and yet almost certainly reducible to one simple reality.

Alexander, being Great, understood this. He saw through the complexity to the simple elegance of its solution, and pulled the peg.

This is how I understand “the Alexandrian Solution.” I intend to look for it in all of my pursuits. 😉

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Arjuna, our inner hero

Here I am playing with Arjuna, the greatest hero of the East, in the form of a wayang puppet I bought in Solo, Java.

Wayang is an ancient Indonesian theater tradition in which the shadows of puppets are cast onto a screen. Solo is its historical center, so a few years ago I went there to watch. Here is what a play looks like from the audience side:

And what story do the Javanese, nominally Muslim today, most like to perform?

The story of Arjuna and his brothers, the five Pandavas, pictured above. It doesn’t matter that this epic, the Mahabharata, is what we would consider a “Hindu” story. It is for Asia what the Iliad and Odyssey and other Greek myths are for us in the West.

This makes Arjuna the Achilles, the Hercules, the Odysseus, the Theseus, the Jason and the Aeneas of the East.

And what does that say about the East’s view of heroism, which I have been exploring in this thread?

1) Arjuna as warrior

At first blush (and deceptively, as you will see), Arjuna’s heroism looks familiar to us in the West.

He was a great fighter, an ambidextrous and precise archer, indeed an Indian Apollo with arrows. He practiced in the dark, the better to hit his victims during the day time. He won the hand of his wife, Draupadi, in an archery contest remarkably similar to the one Odysseus won against the suitors at Ithaca to regain his wife Penelope.

Arjuna was also the biggest hero in the biggest war of mythological India. What Achilles was to the Greeks at Troy, Arjuna was to the Pandavas at Kurukshetra (Kuru’s Field) in northern India.

The Pandavas were leading a huge army in a righteous cause against their own cousins, the Kauravas, also with a huge army. The Kauravas had stolen a kingdom from the Pandavas in a rigged game of dice, humiliating Draupadi in the process. The Pandavas went into exile, but then came back, seeing their duty as fighting to reclaim their kingdom and honor.

For eighteen days, battle raged. Millions died and fewer than a dozen men survived. Blood turned the field of Kuru into red mud. Arjuna and his brothers shot so many arrows into one of their enemies that the man fell from his chariot and landed not on the ground but on the arrows sticking out from his body like the quills on a porcupine.

But Arjuna also lost his own loved ones. His sons and nephews died in the battle, just as the Greek and Trojan heroes lost their friends and family.

2) Arjuna’s fear and duty

But the part of the story that is most famous — rather as the brief episode of Achilles’ wrath in Homer’s Iliad is the best known part of the story of the Trojan War — is a poem embedded into the Mahabharata just before the fighting began. And that is the Bhagavad Gita, or song of God. (Try one of these translations.)

On the eve of the battle, with the two armies already lined up against each other, Arjuna and his charioteer steered their war chariot into the space between the two armies to contemplate what was about to happen. The charioteer was Arjuna’s friend and adviser, Krishna.

As Arjuna gazed from his chariot at the two armies, he suddenly lost his will to fight. He was afraid. Afraid not only of losing his own life, but also for the lives of his “fathers, grandfathers, teachers, uncles, brothers, sons, grandsons, fathers-in-law, and friends.” Because this was a war within a family. He had loved ones in both armies.

Compare Arjuna’s fear to Aeneas’ despair in Virgil’s Aeneid:

As I see my own kinsmen, gathered here, eager to fight, my legs weaken, my mouth dries, my body trembles, my hair stands on end, my skin burns.

Arjuna dropped his bow and arrows and collapsed on the floor of his chariot, sobbing.


And now Krishna began to talk to Arjuna. Gently but firmly, he reminded Arjuna of his duty. The Sanskrit term here is dharma, and it seems (in this context) pretty close to Aeneas’ Roman virtue of pietas (“piety” derives from it but has come to mean something different).

3) Arjuna’s mind

What follows in the Gita is history’s most fascinating dialogue about how to yoke (as in yoga) the human mind into harmony with its situation.

Arjuna tells Krishna (as we all might say every day about our own minds) that his mind is

restless, unsteady, turbulent, wild, stubborn; truly, it seems to me as hard to master as the wind.

Krishna in turn teaches Arjuna how to make his mind calm, as a coach might try to get an athlete into “the zone”. (As it happens, Krishna’s advice is the same as Patanjali’s, which is why those two texts together are considered the foundation of Yoga.)

What, in a nutshell, does Krishna tell Arjuna?

To “let go”. To let go his fears of what might happen the next day, to let go the worries, the anxiety, and also the hopes and anger, and all the rest of it. In fact, Krishna wants Arjuna to

let go of all results, whether good or bad, and [to be] focused on the action alone… [to] act without any thought of results, open to success or failure. This equanimity is yoga.

4) Arjuna in your mind, my mind

And this is the essence of Arjuna’s heroism: He shows us, with the help of his divine “inner voice” of Krishna, how to make our minds calm so that we can go on with life whenever it seems to overwhelm us.

Arjuna’s heroism is, like Aeneas’ but more so, an inner victory.

In fact, this applies at an even higher level. Here is how Mohandas Gandhi explained why he, a proponent of non-violence, saw truth in this story of war:

Under the guise of physical warfare it described the duel that perpetually went on in the hearts of mankind, and that physical warfare was brought in merely to make the description of the internal duel more alluring.

Arjuna, it turns out, is meant to be a part of my mind and your mind and everybody’s mind. It is the clearest and best state of mind, called buddhi (as in: Buddha).

His brothers correspond to other positive states of mind (the ancient Indians were very precise on the subject), And all five were married to Draupadi, whom yogis understand to be Kundalini, the coiled feminine energy at the base of the spine. Freud called it libido, the Greeks called it Eros.

The Kauravas, the evil cousins, are the negative states of mind — anger, hatred, greed, vanity, envy, arrogance, fear and so forth.

So there it is:

  • Kurukshetra is the battlefield of our own minds, every day.
  • Arjuna’s struggle is our daily struggle to let the noble in us prevail over the base, the serene over the angry, the courageous over the fearful.
  • Arjuna is the hero in us.
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Alexander meets a yogi: Who’s the hero?

Alexander the Great was busy conquering the known world once, when he saw, on the banks of the Indus river in today’s Pakistan, a naked guy sitting in the Lotus position and contemplating the dirt.

“Gymnosophists” (gumnos = naked, sophistes = philosopher) the Greeks called these men. We would call them yogis — as in: Patanjali, say.

“What are you doing?”, asked Alexander.

“Experiencing nothingness,” answered the yogi. “What are you doing?”

“Conquering the world,” said Alexander.

Then both men laughed, each thinking that the other must be a fool.

“Why is he conquering the world?”, thought the yogi. “It’s pointless.”

“Why is he sitting around doing nothing?”, thought Alexander. “What a waste of a life.”

Devdutt Pattanaik

Thus Devdutt Pattanaik tells the story in the TED talk at the end of this post. (Thank you to Thomas for the link. Was it Thomas?)

Devdutt used to be successful and bored (the two can go together) in the pharma industry until he decided instead to make a living out of his passion, which is comparative mythology, by applying myths and storytelling to business. Wow. That’s exactly what The Hannibal Blog (at least in part) tries to do.

But let’s get back to this specific little anecdote (which echoes another such encounter Alexander was said to have had). It makes a perfect transition in my thread on heroes and heroism from the Greek and Roman heroes of antiquity to the Eastern heroes of antiquity.

As Devdutt says, Alexander grew up with the stories of Hercules, Theseus and Jason, which told him:

  • you live only once, so make it count, and
  • make it count by being spectacular!

The yogi grew up on up on different stories — the Mahabharata (which I love) and Ramayana and so forth. His heroes, such as Krishna and Rama, were not distinct individuals who lived once and made it count, but different lifetimes of the same hero.

The yogi’s stories told him that:

  • you get to live — nay, must live — infinite lives, until you get the point, so
  • stop wasting your time by conquering things that have been and will be conquered countless times, and try to see the point.

To approach this in a slightly different way:

In my last post on Aeneas, I argued that he was “the first western hero whose internal journey is as important as his external journey.” Well, I put the word western in there for a reason: Because I was already thinking of Arjuna, to whom I must turn in a separate post.

Now watch Devdutt:

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Orpheus: First romantic hero

Today, a story about trust — the need for it, and the horrible consequences of losing it. The lesson comes wrapped in the myth of Orpheus.

So far in this evolving thread on heroes and heroism, I’ve looked at the brute archetype of a hero (Hercules), the more refined classical archetype (Theseus), and a more complex and ambiguous hero (Jason). They were all not only Greeks but also Argonauts — ie, they boarded the ship Argo to accompany Jason on his quest to get the Golden Fleece. The main purpose of that ship, besides conveying Jason on his quest, seems to have been precisely that: to establish who did and did not count as a hero.

Therefore it is clear that the Greeks considered Orpheus, also on board, a hero as well. And thereby the pattern of increasing complexity in the idea of heroism continues. Orpheus, I would say, was the first “romantic hero” in the history of storytelling.

Not strong but gifted

Who was Orpheus? A Wunderkind. He had the best singing voice in the world, the best musical ear, the most sublime talent for moving humans (and even animals and trees and rocks) with sound. He may have been the son of Apollo, the god of (among other things) music, and Apollo personally taught Orpheus to play the lyre. Whenever Orpheus filled the air with sound, nature relented and sighed and swooned.

That’s the first sign that he was a romantic hero — he was not known for his strength, as Hercules was, but for a talent.

Nonetheless, he was also brave, or at least bold. But his heroism had a different motivation. Orpheus did something heroic not because he could (Hercules) or because he had a public duty (Theseus) or because he wanted to reclaim a throne and power (Jason) but because he … loved.

He loved a woman named Eurydice and they married and lived in bliss. But one day (her wedding day, in some versions), Eurydice was walking through a meadow when a venomous snake bit her. She died and went to Hades, the underworld of shadows.

Orpheus was inconsolable. He decided that he could not live without Eurydice, so he set out to do something very bold: He went down to Hades, as a living human visiting the dead, to plead with Hades to give Eurydice back.

To get down there, he used his talent. When Cerberus, the huge three-headed dog who guarded the underworld, blocked his path, Orpheus sang so sweetly that Cerberus wagged his tail and let him pass. When Orpheus reached the dark and stinking river Styx, he sang again and Charon, the ferryman, was moved to bring him across.

And so he arrived among the ghosts and shadows of the dead, keeping fear at bay by thinking only of his beloved. He appeared before King Hades and his queen, Persephone, and there sang and played his lyre more beautifully than he ever had before (pictured above).

Persephone in particular was moved that a man could love a woman so much, and Hades, also touched, relented. He would give Eurydice back to Orpheus — ie, make her alive again — on one condition.

The difficulty of trusting

That condition was simple: Eurydice would follow behind Orpheus up to the world of the living, but Orpheus was not to turn around to look at her.

So she was called and Orpheus began the long way upwards toward the surface of the earth. He could not hear footsteps behind him, but of course he knew that Eurydice was still a shadow and had no weight yet.

Orpheus kept climbing and looking forward with determination and focus. At last, he saw the first rays of light at the top.

But doubt seized him. What if Eurydice was no longer there? What if she had never been behind him to begin with?

Orpheus forgot himself and … turned.

And as he turned, he got one last glimpse of his beloved. Eurydice had indeed been behind him all this time, just as Hades had promised. But now, because Orpheus had turned, she dissolved back into the darkness. With a look of unbearable sadness in her eyes, she returned to Hades — this time forever.

So Orpheus returned to the world of the living alone. But who calls this living? He was a broken man. His songs and music were henceforth desperate and made animals and plants cry.

Eventually, a group of women (or nymphs or beasts) who could not bear it anymore tore him to pieces and threw his lyre and body parts into a river.

Nymphs (above) saw Orpheus’ head floating downstream, still singing its mournful song of love bereft and trust betrayed. Perhaps his shadow, when it arrived in Hades, found Eurydice’s at last.

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Jason and Medea: Noir hero & heroine

You may know it as the story of the Golden Fleece, or of the Argonauts, but it is really the story of Jason and Medea, arguably the most haunting couple of all time.

With that story (even though it appears to be as old as those of Hercules and Theseus), the Greeks, in my opinion, took a leap into complexity, subtlety and even modernity in their depictions of heroes and heroism.

In this thread on heroes so far, I called Hercules the brute and primal archetype of a hero and Theseus the more sophisticated classical archetype. And Jason? He would have to be the first “anti-hero” as you might find him in Film Noir.

Film Noir is that film genre in which a morally ambiguous and complex hero struggles against — and almost fails in — a corrupt world before he encounters a seductive and dangerous femme fatale who simultaneously challenges and saves him. (One convention in Film Noir is that the femme fatale wears a white or blue dress the first time you see her.)

As you read my (admittedly editorialized) re-telling of Jason and Medea’s story below, see if you recognize those noir-ish aspects, and reflect on some of the other issues that have come up in the comments to this thread so far, such as whether heroes have to be “good” or “altruistic” to be heroic.

I. The quest

As usual in the Greek myths (see Theseus), our hero is the son of a king. And as usual, there is some tension surrounding the throne. In this case, Jason’s evil uncle, Pelias, has usurped the throne from his brother and killed all of his nephews so that none can contest the throne in future. He is nervous because an oracle has warned him about a man with one sandal.

Jason is the only nephew who has survived. His mother has smuggled him into the wilderness, where the wise centaur Chiron educates him.

So we have a cast of archetypal characters: the evil oppressor, the young hero, and even the archetypal mentor, in the form of Chiron, who was also the tutor of Achilles and many other heroes.

Chiron and Achilles

Jason grows up to be a handsome young man. It is time for the young hero to set off on his quest, which is to reclaim his father’s throne. (Again, very similar to Hercules’ and Theseus’ quests.)

And we again meet the goddess Hera, whom we last saw when she tormented Hercules because she hated him so much. This time Hera hates Pelias, the evil uncle, and wants to help Jason. She tests him by appearing to him as an old woman, asking to be carried over a gushing stream. (An early appearance of chivalry as a heroic concept in history?) Jason carries her across, but loses one sandal in the river mud.

Jason arrives in Iolcus, the city where Pelias now reigns. Pelias sees that the stranger is wearing only one sandal and knows what’s up.

Pelias throws a banquet for Jason and — in one of these scenes that are so often implausible in the Greek myths — offers to give up his throne if Jason succeeds in stealing the famously valuable hide of a supernatural ram: the Golden Fleece.

Pelias considers the task impossible, and yet, we wonder why he does not simply kill Jason on the spot. In any case, Jason now knows what he must do.

II. The Argo

Jason is in Greece but the Golden Fleece is in barbarian Colchis (modern Georgia), on the other side of the Black Sea. So he must sail treacherous waters and needs an unusual boat. The Argo is built. The goddess Athena herself (in league with Hera, who wants to support this quest) donates for its prow a wooden plank that can foretell the future.

Jason now has to assemble a crew, and not only Hercules and Theseus but all the great Greek heroes become his shipmates. (If you’ve been reading my posts on Hercules and Theseus carefully, you might already have noticed that the implied chronology is impossible. But the Greeks were not worried about technicalities.) The point of this gathering, I believe, is to prove to us that Jason is indeed a hero — that he can assemble the other heroes, that he is their equal by association.

Off they sail, these Argonauts, and encounter the usual heroic adventures and dangers — rocks in the sea bashing passing ships to pieces, and so forth (compare Odysseus). I will skip over these, except for one subplot that may amuse those of you who share my opinion of Hercules.

Hercules is, of course, the strongest Argonaut — the best rower and all that. This means he cannot stay in this story because he would eclipse Jason and take over the whole plot. So we must get rid of him. How, in terms of storytelling, might we narrate him out?

Easy: Hera will drive him mad once again. Here is how: Along the way, the Argo pulls into port and Hercules’ lover (yes, indeed) Hylas goes to fetch water from a spring. Hera makes the nymphs in that spring seduce Hylas by drawing him down, never to be seen again (picture below). Hercules goes mad and runs around the forest smashing things and people (in other words, staying in character), and the Argo is forced — regrettably, you see — to depart without him.


III. Medea

So the Argo arrives in Colchis where Jason demands that its king, Aeetes, hand over the Golden Fleece. Aeetes would not dream of it, of course.

But Aeetes has a daughter named Medea. And just as Ariadne, King Minos’ daughter, fell in love with Theseus and helped him to achieve his quest, so Medea now falls in love with Jason (Hera asked Aphrodite to help). Madly in love. So in love that it will get creepy.

Aeetes, like Pelias, gives Jason a dare. He will hand over the fleece provided that Jason harness two fire-breathing bulls to plow a field.

The bulls would kill Jason (whom we may infer to be somewhat hapless and not altogether heroic sui generis). But Medea, who is a sorceress, mixes a salve for Jason (pictured at the very top) so that he becomes invulnerable.

Jason thus succeeds in harnessing the bulls and does plow the field. But when he begins sowing, it turns out that Aeetes has given him dragon teeth instead of seed. Out of each tooth a warrior sprouts, and this impromptu army is about to kill Jason. Again, Medea comes to his rescue, suggesting that he lob a rock at one of them. The newly-sprouted soldiers do not know who threw the rock, and fight and kill one another.

Jason has survived again, but Medea, who is now wholly on his side rather than on her father’s, finds out that Aeetes will renege on on his pledge and refuse to hand over the Fleece. So, at night, she leads Jason to the sacred grove where the fleece is nailed to a tree, guarded by a dragon. Again, it is Medea, not Jason, who overcomes the dragon — she bewitches it and puts it to sleep.

The two of them and the other Argonauts at once set sail and flee. Aeetes, when he wakes up, sets off in hot pursuit.

IV. The first transgression

If you ask me, the story only begins to get interesting from this point onward. For Medea, and later Jason, will now begin to make bad choices. They will transgress, take things too far, become corrupt.

Medea has taken her younger brother Absyrtus with her on the Argo. She now sees Aeetes’ fleet catching up. She has an idea. If she kills Absyrtus and throws him overboard, her father must stop to pick up the body, give his son a decent burial and mourn. She does exactly that. She murders her own brother so that she and her lover can escape.

This is too much, even for the gods and goddesses who were on Jason’s side. The gods send storms to punish the Argo. Athena’s speaking prow tells Jason that they must find the sorceress Circe to be purified of their sin (the same Circe whom Odysseus will later meet).

Circe, as it happens, is Medea’s aunt. She sacrifices to the gods so that Medea and Jason can be forgiven for their sin. Absolved, the Argonauts continue their journey (past the same Sirens and Scylla and Charybdis that Odysseus will have to pass).

V. The second transgression

They finally arrive at Iolcus, where King Pelias is already waiting with a plan to kill Jason. Again, Medea takes charge to save her lover.

She goes alone to Iolcus and claims that she is a witch who can make old people young again. King Pelias hears about this and asks her for a demonstration. Medea requests the oldest ram in the king’s herd, puts it into a caldron, mixes some herbs together and out comes a young lamb. The king is thrilled and wants the same treatment.

Medea tells him that only his own daughters can administer the rejuvenation. So the king’s daughters — Jason’s cousins — boil water in the caldron. Medea gives them herbs, but makes sure they have no magic power. The king enters the caldron, in which his own daughters unwittingly boil him to death.

Once again, this is simply too much. The gods and goddesses are outraged at the gratuitous cruelty of the murder. It would have been one thing for Jason to kill Pelias in open battle. But for Medea to make the king’s own daughters kill their father?!

The people of Iolcus do not want to be ruled by such a king and queen as Jason and Medea. The couple leave Iolcus and go to Corinth.

VI. The relationship turns sour

Medea murders her children

Perhaps because of Medea’s dark side, Jason has fallen out of love with her. And now he wants to marry a different woman, a Greek and the princess of Corinth, Glauce, so that he can become king of Corinth one day.

This is not unheard of — Theseus also dumped Ariadne after she helped him slay the Minotaur. Nor, however, is it heroic. Jason is fickle. He is alive only thanks to Medea, even if she has gone crazy. Our hero gets more complex, more recognizable, more human.

Medea now becomes the archetype for “hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.” She sends a beautiful gown to Glauce as a wedding present, but when Glauce puts it on she goes up in flames. Again, Medea has murdered an innocent.

But Medea is not yet done. She wants to punish Jason by erasing everything he loves. So she kills their two boys, her own children with Jason. In Euripides’ Medea, she rushes offstage with a knife and the children are heard emitting their final, terrifying scream.

Having become vengeance, Medea mounts a chariot and rides off into the clouds.

VII. Death of an anti-hero

And so Jason’s triumphs, above all his capture of the Golden Fleece, were impostors. He was led astray (the literal meaning of se-duced) by the wrong woman. Then he made things worse by breaking his vow to her, thus losing the respect of the gods and goddesses, even of Hera.

He grows old, lonely and bitter. His old ship, the Argo, is rotting on a beach in Corinth. Jason goes there to think about old times. One day, he falls asleep in its shade. The magic prow, put there by Athena, breaks off and kills Jason. So it goes.

Was Socrates an atheist?

Toward the end of my three-page article about “Socrates in America” in the Christmas issue of The Economist, there are these two lines:

Socrates almost certainly was an atheist. As was his wont, however, he cared more about debating, with a man named Euthrypho on the steps of the courthouse before his preliminary hearing, what piety even meant.

(This refers to one of the two charges against Socrates at his trial, which was disbelief in/disrespect for “the gods of the city.”)

By the placement of these lines, and by the word count I devoted to them (1% of the total words in the article), readers should be able to tell how interested I, as the writer, was in this particular point.

Ie, not very.

To quote I.F. Stone in The Trial of Socrates on the matter:

It was the political, not the philosophical or theological, views of Socrates which finally got him into trouble. The discussion of his religious views diverts attention from the real issues….

But I should have known better. After all, the word atheism appears!

It is a word that makes many people, but Americans in particular, go ballistic. Indeed, it is something of a Rorschach test: Mention it, and people immediately project their ideas, fears, and beliefs into the conversation. Whatever the conversation was about, it is now about something else.

Readers react

One of the online commenters, somebody named “RPB2”, tries to refute the possibility that Socrates was atheist by quoting him (presumably from English translations). Thus Socrates says in the Apology:

For I do believe that there are gods and in a far higher sense than any of my accusers believe in them. And to you and to God I commit my cause, to be determined by you as is best for you and me.

And in the Phaedo, he says:

In this present life I believe that we most nearly approach knowledge when we have the least possible bodily concerns and are not saturated with the bodily nature, but keep ourselves pure until the hour when God himself is pleased to release us.

In the Republic, he says:

[Society’s leaders] must be able to see the one in the many, to appreciate and realize the great truth of the unity of all virtues, have a genuine knowledge of God and the ways of God, and must not be content to rest on faith in traditions, but must really understand. Only in this way can they order all things for the benefit of all

From this RPB2 concludes:

You really have to work to find an atheist here; and thus, sadly, one can see that this article indicates that erudition often does not equate to understanding.

Another commenter, Michael  Bessette, offers RPB2 his support:

… Socrates repeatedly invokes not only gods, but “the god”, as in this famous passage from the Apology: “Athenians, I honor and love you, but I shall obey the god rather than you” (29d). Socrates further asserts that he has been specially chosen by “the god” to persuade the people of Athens of their ignorance (23b) and that abandoning this mission would mean also abandoning his god (30a)…

And a reader named Robert J. Farrell from Fort Mitchell, Kentucky, wrote in a letter:
… the most extraordinary statement in the piece is its labeling Socrates an atheist.  No one can read the accounts given by Xenophon or Plato without recognizing the philosopher’s piety.  His own pilgrimage to Delphi attests to this; and many, many statements exceptionlessly confirm it.  Indeed, he comes across as being very close to monotheism; for, as my tutor remarked years ago, whenever in the Memorabilia he is most earnestly referring to the divine , he speaks of “the god” (ho theos) rather than of “the gods” (hoi theoi).  To call Socrates an atheist for his coolness towards the conventional polytheism of the state is as misleading as it would be to so label Jesus because of his confrontation with the priesthood of the Temple…


Let’s examine some of these points.

First, what does it prove if Socrates uses, in the writings of Plato or Xenophon, the word “gods”? Not a whole lot, I submit.

All sorts of atheists today scream Goddammit every time they hit the rush hour, and atheist starlets stammer Ohmigawd, ohmigawd when accepting their Oscars. We have to distinguish between a word as figure of speech, as familiar trope to facilitate communication, and as intended content.

What I find curious in the quotes above is the capitalization of the word God. It’s a loaded capital letter, to say the least. In fact, let’s use this occasion to parse some terms:

1) Monotheism:

Is it possible that Socrates believed that there was only one god? I believe we can rule this out. The Greeks did not have that concept. (Even the Jews, who invented it, were just developing at this time, in the century following the Babylonian captivity, as Robert Wright’s The Evolution of God explains quite well.)

2) Atheism:

Admittedly, the same is true for our modern concept of atheism–ie, the Greeks did not have that concept. If somebody was “godless”, that meant he had been abandoned by one god or goddess or another. It did not meant that he denied their existence.

3) Polytheism


Polytheism is how the Greeks (and most of the world at the time) understood divinity. Alas, this is a concept that has become quite alien to us (unless you happen to be, say, Hindu), so we are the ones struggling to understand it.

Polytheism was an infinitely stretchable and flexible spiritual instinct. A polytheist had mental room not just for many gods and goddesses but for new gods and for other people’s gods. Even the Greek pantheon included many gods and goddesses (Aphrodite, eg) “imported” from Mesopotamia and thereabouts, for instance.

4) Pantheism

So polytheists were also, by implication, pantheists. They had an expandable pantheon of gods, and divinity was to be found everywhere and in everything.


Put differently, gods and goddesses were often personifications of things. Zeus/Jupiter/Thor/Baal of thunder, for example. Hermes of humble door-thresholds, among other things. Hestia of the hearth. Helios/Apollo of the sun. Kronos of time (→ Chrono-logy). And so on.

Names of things in effect became potential divinities. Sophia could be thought of as a goddess of wisdom, tyche (Roman fortuna) could not just mean luck but be the goddess of fortune, and so forth.

(In fact, I.F. Stone, believes that Socrates’ indictment for “impiety” referred specifically to two such personifications/divinities: The “gods of the city” of Athens may have been understood to be Peitho, a personification of “democracy” and thus a political concept, and Agora, which meant not only marketplace but also assembly, and thus dovetailed with Peitho.)

It was, in other words, a rich and metaphorical way of expressing ideas and telling stories. Eloquent people at the time were as unlikely to avoid using tropes of divinity as we are today to avoid metaphors.


Having said all that, there was something interesting that happened in the Greek world at around this time, and we might think of it as the beginnings of “science”.

The Greeks traditionally relied on their religion (their “myths” to us) to explain the world. And they relied in particular on the corpus of stories in Homer and Hesiod.

Thus, if summer turned to winter (a perplexing process, if you think about it) it was because Persephone returned to her husband Hades, thus making her mother Demeter, the goddess of fertility and grain, so sad that she turned the earth barren for half a year. If somebody went into a rage and killed innocent people, it was because a jealous god or goddess possessed him temporarily (eg, Hera possessing Hercules). And so on.


But, starting about 200 years before Socrates’ trial, some (mainly Ionian) Greeks rejected these mythological explanations and tried to use direct observation of nature (physis in Greek, as in physics) and reason (logos) to explain the world.

These were the so-called “pre-Socratics”, such as Thales, Anaximander, Pythagoras and Heraclitus. They wanted to know what things were ultimately made of (fire, earth, water, etc) and how they changed. They wanted to understand the world better and differently.

So they ignored the gods. I don’t think they boycotted temples and sacrifices and other fun cultural activities, just as even Richard Dawkins today might sing along to Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. But the gods ceased, for them, to explain anything. In that sense, you might say, using a modern term, that they were atheists.

Pre-Socratic Socrates

Now let’s talk about Socrates. The first thing to know about him, as silly as it sounds, was that he spent the first half of his career as a pre-Socratic philosopher. (Obviously, “pre-Socratic” is a term we invented, not the Greeks). This is to say that he also tried to do “science”, to inquire into the nature and causes of the physical world and its phenomena.


This is the Socrates, aged about 40, whom Aristophanes mocked in his comedy The Clouds. In that play, Socrates runs a “thinkery” where he examines how far flies jump and how they fart–presumably, with the Athenian audience, including Socrates, in stitches.

And Aristophanes has the Socrates in that thinkery argue that “Zeus does not exist.” “If no Zeus, then whence comes the rain?” he is asked by Strepsiades, a country bumpkin. Socrates offers another explanation for rain, and Strepsiades admits that he had always thought it was “Zeus pissing down upon earth through a sieve.” But at the end of the play, he burns down Socrates’ Thinkery, saying “strike, smite them, spare them not, for many reasons, But most because they have blasphemed the gods.”

Now, folks, this is humor. I get that. But there is more to it. Aristophanes was describing a new (proto-atheistic) worldview in a hilarious way. Socrates would, twenty-four years hence, at his own trial, say that this (ie, The Clouds) is where the charge of impiety originated.

The Socratic “turn”

At about the time of The Clouds Socrates had a wrenching midlife crisis. Apparently, he came to believe that he was not very good at being a philosopher–ie, he became frustrated by his inability to explain nature satisfactorily.

So he made his famous “turn”: away from questions about nature and toward the humanistic subjects of ethics, politics and meta-physics (literally: “beyond nature”). It is not much of an exaggeration to say that he invented all three as subjects.

Hades and Cerberus

But he brought with him his pre-Socratic proto-atheism, by which I mean his tendency to ignore myth and gods as explanations for anything.

For example, on his own deathbed he gives a moving (but confusing) speech about death and the immortality of the soul. As it happens, this should not have been necessary: Greek religion gave detailed information about what happened after death. You took a gold coin with you, went down to Hades, past Cerberus, the three-headed guard dog. Then you gave your coin to Charon, the boatman, who ferried you across the river Styx, where you would henceforth hang around as a shadow. Lots and lots of heros (Hercules, Odysseus….) had already been down there and come back to tell us about it.

But no, Socrates had none of that. No Thanatos, no Hades, no Charon. He used his reason alone. Again, I consider that proto-atheist.

Theism, Deism …

Did Socrates ever go one step further and deny spirituality or divinity? No. I doubt he was interested in that.

Did he really believe, as he claimed when addressing his jury, that his own personal daimonion (“little divine thing,” whence our daemon) talked to him to warn him of danger? Perhaps, perhaps not.

Did he consider himself a proto-atheist? Perhaps, perhaps not. The one time he could have spoken about the matter explicitly, during his trial, he reverted to form (ie, Socratic irony and dialectic) and maneuvered his accuser, Meletus, into defining atheism as both believing in unorthodox gods and no gods at all, which is impossible at the same time. He was a wise ass, in short.

So we do not know, and we will not know.

What we can agree on, I believe, is that Socrates was a highly unusual man with unusual opinions and extremely unorthodox views about everything, including religion. Whatever he believed, neither atheists nor theists today can claim his support to wage their ongoing battle.

In this respect, in fact, Socrates reminds me of another non-conformist I admire: Albert Einstein. Einstein also studied physis and inadvertantly ended up “beyond” it, in meta-physis. And Einstein also had notions about religion that still divide lesser minds today. Was he an atheist? A believer? Everybody wanted to know. So Einstein penned an answer, which concludes (page 387 in this biography):

The most beautiful emotion we can experience is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead, a snuffed-out candle. To sense that behind anything that can be experienced there is something that our minds cannot grasp, whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirectly: this is religiousness. In this sense, and in this sense only, I am a devoutly religious man.

I believe Socrates might have said the same exact thing.

The Procrustean Bed, again

And so, I have spent as many words again on that one little sentence as I wrote in that entire article. Would I change the little sentence?

I’ve posted before about the Procrustean Bed that page layouts represent to writers: you must either stretch or, more often, amputate your text in order to fit the space an editor gives you. Socrates in America: Arguing about Death was not an article about religion. It was about how we talk to one another and the tension between individualism and democracy. Religion only came up en passant, and so I was forced to commit a journalist drive-by shooting.

When I said

Socrates almost certainly was an atheist

I had all this and more on my mind. Given another chance, I would say

Socrates may have been an atheist

or perhaps

Socrates’ views on religion were unorthodox to say the least.

And then I would have done just what I did: I would have moved on.