Aphrodite, Plato, Venus: Eros and Logos entwined in the mind.
The only time I was close to being sent to the principal’s office at school was when, at 14, in the middle of fifth-period typing class, during a droll and somnolent hour following lunch when Florida afternoons roared brilliant high tides of light against the dirty windows of Winter Haven High School, that Katie Poole, surely one of the sexiest girls in school and who, for fateful reasons I only discern now, was assigned to sit to my left at those long tables by which we learned to QWERTY the Word, and who, one afternoon, bored beyond tears of such sterile and noisome approximations of Nous, decided, for earthy and malicious reasons of her own, followed me to to the pencil sharpener at the back of the room and there, for a pregnant lasting moment, leaned up close to me, blue eyes laughing, blonde hair in perfect silvery light-maddened abandon, more- than-ample 17-year-old’s breasts (in fresh, just-off-the-wave yummy heavyhigh perfection, like grapefruit aching to be harvested in a grove outside of town) jamming perilously close to my scrawny 14-year old chest (I a sophomore and a year ahead of my class, she a junior), demanded impishly that she be allowed to see my belly button–something of which I had, at our typing station, been joking about, my snickering sex-talk empurpled by the uncorked effervescence of my flooding puberty I guess–and tried to lift my t-shirt up there next to the pencil sharpener, amid my giggling, near-shrieking protestations, the least of which had anything to do with her advances as my own fear of getting caught in flagrante delectio in the middle of a some droll memo drill, goggle-eyed at the Penthouse letter-perfect predicament I was sliding, no swooning down into the moist chasm of, hell-bent and loving it. I was an easy tease, a virgin soph of declared pentacostal Christian bent, so corruptible in my rickety talk of high heaven, talk which was fundamentally undermined by a wide-eyed and slack-jawed jones for every and any display of femininity — a votive, you might way. I loved to hear the news from the other side of sex, news of infatuations and couplings, dirty talk, snide innuendo, heated banter: this was the Word for me in its Venusian beginnings: pure sexual verb, fecund, I believe of more nuanced and hefty words to come …
There was a moment there next to the pencil sharpener where something passed through me which rivets even now my recollection of the moment, even though I knew then that she was just having some fun at my expense, even though it was crazy and dangerous what was transpiring, that I felt overcome, subsumed, drenched by a silkysweet desire which made everything else disappear. An epiphany of desire, a summation, a beach where something stepped off a wave and washed right through me. There in the middle of fifth period typing. I had been baptized in the Atlantic Ocean a few months before in my pentacostal abandonment, and had felt when put down into the water a wave pass not over but decidedly though me — cleansing me of all past sin, yes, certainly washing away the childhood I was so ready to be rid of. But was it Nous, or Eros, that had anointed me there in the salt wilderness of an early morning in June?
Katie Poole was amply arguing for the former in that heated silly strange molten moment; our eyes locked for just a second and the play evaporated and I felt myself leaping into her, or being smashed and washed by some wave hurling out from her, her breasts within a micron’s gasp of smashing me forever on shores I would never return from…
But it was just a moment. The whole spell was shattered with the irritated sound of Mrs. Harris’ voice at the other end of the room, resonant with the sound of my first-grade teacher Mrs. Gilbert who had found out about me and Alan Fausel hiding in the bushes during recess and inviting girls to play Show Me Yours and I’ll Show Me Mine. At least, I felt a terror at that moment akin to what I felt that day when Mrs. Gilbert threatened to tell my mother if I ever tried such a thing again. Mrs. Harris adulted-up the drama by sending me to the principal’s office for “discipline,” which back then meant licks from one of the coaches with a Cypress Gardens Dick Pope Sr. waterski that had holes drilled into it to give it some turbo whammy against an errant boy’s ass. I was not noble in the courts of Eros; fearing the judgement of that ass-whacker, I hung around outside the class for ten minutes and then bargained my way back in without having to face the music. I apologized, made every promise to be diligent, applied my every good boy’s wile and ruse to persuade Mrs. Harris to relent me back into class where I sat down, cheeks burning with shame, and proceeded to type my memo while Katie Poole just smiled and clattered dreamily away on her manual typewriter. Sitting on the other side of me in that typing class was Ranae Looney, another 17-year old beauty who was a cheerleader and member of the school newspaper and yearbook staff. Quiet, much more thoughtful, infinitely purer in my eyes, bemused at the erotic antics that went on from the other side of my typewriter but having none of it herself, I loved Ranae even more than I lusted after Katie (note the archetypal prioritizing of unrequited love over indulged lust). I was caught in a hopeless helpless infatuation that I knew I had no hope of bridging either way, and these two girl-women knew that well. They were happy to taunt and tease and instruct a wide-eyed votive boy in all the ways of sexual and emotional maturity, offering me alternate readings on the whole matter of sex and love, telling me about boyfriends and making out in cars, going all the way and saving oneself for marriage.
Now I’m sure my years have mythologized the event, but I can see now how my education in the Word was worked out between Katie Poole and Ranae Looney in a sort of divine drama where desire and knowledge twined their serpentine bodies around my hands that were tap tap tapping on the keyboard back then and are still tapping it out here. It was on a path that didn’t seem to have much to do with literature at all during much of it. I read all sorts of stuff as a rather isolated and poorly-adjusted child — Tom Swift, James Bond novels — I loved My Side of the Mountain — even wrote a few stories, mostly rehashes of lame TV spy shows like “The Man from Uncle” — But all of it was verbal masturbation, saving the world, getting the girl, not much unlike my early first fantasies of saving some girl from drowning in a lake. The Word for me was seductive and powerful, a sort of mojo for liberating lovelies from their gossamer restraint: seducer’s booze. I was a virgin til I was seventeen, and not much of a profligate until my 20’s; but my head was always deep in conversation with desire, and starry in its soliloquies above Love. I didn’t read Shakespeare until I sobered up after age 30, but those words in my head certainly foregrounded everything I later found he had said so long long before.
The Word that I came to revere as a writer was the same product of my vulgar, pagan years: it grew up, or grew into, the rhetoric and poetic which lamps my way through this post. As much as I babble, I struggle to shape and refine the flow of these words into a tangible mind, a corporeal presence which the reader can identify as Brendan Thinking, expressing his Nous to a far-flung audience in the thin vastness of cyberspace. It’s work, yes; but it has sources in a deep joy. Without the fundamental pleasures of the text, why work so hard to say something well?
It is here that the two temperamentally opposed goddesses Athena and Aphrodite come richly into the dialogue.
Robert Graves identifies Athena as a culture goddess, attributing to her these innovations: “The flute, the trumpet, the earthenware pot, the plough, the rake, the ox-yoke, the horse-bridle, the chariot, and the ship. She first taught the science of numbers, and all women’s art, such as cooking, weaving, and spinning.”
Aphrodite’s inventions are hardly cultural, though where would we be without desire, desire, desire, each in exponential amplitude to the previous. What other inventions are attributed to her in the mythological record? Missionary, doggie, sixty-nine. In-out, up-down, round-n-round. Ululation, mooning, sighs. Anywhere and everywhere the possibility of triple helpings of ungirdled delight. Athena unleashes the mind’s creative plenitude; Aphrodite enraptures our creative inclinations further down the brainstem, rendering us heedless, maddened and reckless, abandoning the wisdom of the tribe for a personal dive into the moony depths.
Athena is the high-minded, productive choice, a no-brainer for any thoughtful person; yet Aphrodite’s seductions are ancient and sea-powerful, excreting a wildly intoxicating perfume over the mind’s olfactories in a way which few even classical men could successfully resist.
Athena’s clout comes from the persuasiveness of her rhetoric, again, according to Graves: she takes no pleasure in war, but rather from settling disputes and upholding the law by pacific means; if it does come to blows, she does a good job of trumping them, her gift for strategy always sucking off the battle-rage of Ares. According to her archetype, intellect trumps passion every time. Aphrodite is the low choice, the inevitable one for the purely biological man. She arms herself in nakedness, with a callipygean girdle and a wicked smile of disastrous assent. Jealous of her powers, Aphrodite rarely leant her girdle out to the other goddesses; I read this to mean that her primacy in the tidals of sex has no equal.
All in a man’s mind, you ask? Perhaps. Much in this man’s windings through the harrows of his history. I came to the higher (or deeper) mindings of the word through the latter’s curves. First the noose of sexual Necessity, then the textual cessations of persuasive Nous.
Jung theorized that human development in the individual roughly parallels the grander sweep of human history. I am a microcosmic egg of the human race: my infancy primate, my childhood Neolithic, my puberty Paleolithic, adolescence blossoming out of the Fertile Crescent, my slow adulthood the gestation of a modern, tempered, to some degree articulated calibration of what human consciousness has evolved to. I also agree with Erich Neumann that mythology tells the entire story of human consciousness. The primacy of matriarchies for the overwhelming length of our cultural story shows how mother-bound consciousness is, how great the unconscious world rules us. Aphrodite belongs to this early order of millennials, a sea-goddess who arose from the imaginal froth of the ur-daddy’s crushingly wanton libido. Her magic girdle gets its power from the moon-cults which occupy the lower hundred floors of the human ziggaraut.
(There is an astronomic parallel which somehow fits into this: the moon was once much closer to the earth, causing tides to roll hundreds of miles inland and back every day. Over eons, the moon has drifted further from earth’s orbit, causing its influence to slowly wane in the physical. Did the moon-cults lose their power accordingly? Does the biological thrall of Aphrodite also wane, ever so slowly, from human consciousness?)
Then comes Zeus, shining, heavenly, phallocentric, sun-drenched. His visage is so brilliant that no woman can look him directly and not get burnt to a cinders. Such was the fate of the moon-goddess Selene, who pled to see his lover in his full glory. Zeus rescued Dionysos from Selene’s immolated womb and brought the boy to term in his own thigh. This is just my reading, but to me this says something about how consciousness slowly weaned itself from dependency upon its mother.
Zeus is faced with the challenge of asserting his authority over all the goddesses who ruled every valley and river and mount in Greece. How can he accomplish this? Through sexual conquest and marriage, which are both a form of subversion, of “eating” their powers for his own employment.
Here’s Campbell on an early instance of this takeover:
“Zeus … had taken as first wife, the goddess Metis, daughter of the primal water-couple Oceanus and Tethys … Metis (was) infinitely wise. She, in fact, knew more than all the gods. She knew, moreover, the art of changing shape, which she put to use whenever Zeus approached, until, finally by device, he made her his own and conceived. But then Zeus learned that her second child, if born, would be the end of him; and so, inducing her to his couch (she pregnant still), he swallowed (Metis) at a gulp. And it was only some time later, while walking by a lake, that he began to feel an increasing headache. This grew until he howled; and as some declare, Hephaestus, others say Prometheus, arrived with a double axe and gave his head a splitting blow; whereupon Athena, fully armed sprang forth with a battle shout — and Zeus thereafter, continued to claim that Metis, still sitting in his stomach, was giving him the benefit of her wisdom.” (Occidental Mythology, 150-1)
Some migraine, huh.
So here now, at a later stage of the myth of the divine feminine, comes Athena, daughter of a the devoured wise Metis, born from Zeus’s head the way that Dionysos was born from his thigh. Athena is the wise virgin of an internalized (subjugated, in a sense, but also sublimated) feminine; her sooth serves Zeus in his councils and wars; she is an animated functionary of the great sea goddess who lives in the belly of Zeus. His anima; mine, too, ours perhaps, though I’m sure its a more complicated reading from a woman’s point of view.
Question is, how does Athena stack up next to stacked Aphrodite? In a man’s eyes, in a woman’s? Can she help anyone resists the ungirdled persuasions of Miss Primo Primavera? Athena’s strategies easily defeat Ares on the battlefield, she decides all manner o legal disputes: Can she also help the inflamed libido get real? Can Athena’s ship successfully navigate the Aprhroditean sea? Is Athena’s virginity stronger than Aprhodite’s profligacy?
Athena’s epithet Pallas suggests this. According to Carl Kerenyi,
“`Pallas’ can be variously accented and inflected so as to have either a masculine or a feminine meaning. In the masculine it means a strong young man, in the feminine a strong virgin, a `virago,’ as she would be called in Latin. The male Pallas was always the same figure, although given various geneologies, a wilder and even more warlikemale version of Pallas the goddess. It is said of Pallas, the father of Pallas Athene, that he sought to do violence ot his own daughter. The goddess overcame him, took his skin as booty, and herself wore the skin.” (The Gods of the Greeks).
Tough broad. Tough-minded, certainly. In the Oresteia, Orestes is put on trial for matricide, a crime he committed at the bidding of Apollo, who in turn represents Zeus. The Eumenides (or Furies) are hot on his heels, demanding revenge (it’s never good to fuck with mother nature!). They demand the Orestes be put on trial. The balloting over his fate is equal. Athena then intervenes to argue in his favor. There is a climactic argument between the Eumenides and Athena, and it is Athena who wins the case, thanks to the force of her argument.
Athena (left) saves Orestes from the wrath of the primal Erinyes — the rule of natural law — with her higher argument.
James Hillman comments, “The key word is persuasion, peitho, the word translated in our language as `rhetoric.’ Rhetoric persuades necessity. The greatest trilogy of all mythological drama ends with the reconciliation of Zeus and Destiny.” (From his excellent essay, “On the Necessity of Abnormal Psychology: Ananke and Athene,” anthologized in Facing The Gods)
The Aphrodite-Athena split is an archetype that tries us all, regardless of our gender (though it is plain our reading of this is infinitely varied). There is a struggle between Necessity (the urges of Aphrodite) and Nous or Mind (the wisdom of Athena); between Compulsion and Reason, between Bia, violent force, and Peitho, persuasive argument. It is that chasm between indulged and sublimated passions which so define our character, for better and worse.
Just in the writing both these goddesses are at play (in earnest) in the mind. Aphrodite is in saucy-sounding words productive of urgent conclusions; she delights in randy profusion, in wit, in bucolic escapades in the immediate greenwood vicinity; she loves dirty talk, loves saying it every way up and down in the pure relish of fricatives and labials. Aphrodite’s words result in innumerable couplings, yes, and all those difficult offspring. Athena would have us “eat” all that gooey rumpy naughty slick hard effusiveness for straight talk, penetrating insights, and useful, productive creations. Forget the fluff, get to the point, we’re not here to entertain, simply propound.
Aphroditean constructions rollick and roll off the tongue; Athenean logic levvies a heavy toll on the same linguistic appendage.
For most of us, I think, the struggle between Aphrodite and Athena for our souls is never over. Always there’s the temptation to indulge a present sweetness, yet its always paired to strong reasons for resisting. Sometimes attraction becomes obsessive, even a jones for salt and honey; sometimes purity becomes airtight and sterile. Drafts slip and slosh either way.
Temperance, I think, is the balancing function we learn from living long enough with both goddesses. It teaches us that moderation is best, it cuts a smaller piece of pie yet allows us to feel free to indulge when we wish. It is a third product, it comes after Aphrodite steps off the wave and Athena shouts forth from Zeus’ head. It can only be practiced with great humility, `cause there is no mastery of such a profoundly complex common ground. For one as devoted the Aphroditean swell of the surf, my year have transferred most of it to the page. Ever eager to find Aphrodite’s first shore, I yet proceed mostly on a ship fashioned by Athena, careful in the combing of the sentences, attentive to the wisdom in my gut. Does temperance allow us to go overboard with the one in a style completely devoted to the other?
If so, I’ve learned about it the hard way, the wrong way. The greater half of my bildungsroman is seaweedy, surgent, tossed: not a passage to master as to be mastered by. I learned the saving words way late, perhaps when I was past saving in all the ways I thought important. Or maybe I had to go down joyfully in the first words, so the later ones could arise at all.
I think it’s interesting that the myth of Athena is so wrapped up with the cultural history of Athens, itself the flower of Hellenic civilization. She is queen of the Acropolis and empress of the mind which wrote dramas, explored the realms of science and mathematics, and celebrated a ritual calendar. It is said that she and Poseidon struggled with each other for dominance of the town; near the Acropolis there’s a stone inscribed with the sea-god’s trident, a well of salt water, and from the heights you can still hear the sea.
Athena and Hepheastus prepare for the nuptial nasty in the divine forges.
Her eminence in Athens, oddly, comes from the only story of her violation. Hephaestus, having midwifed the birth of Athena by splitting open the skull of Zeus with a huge hammer, demands Athena as his wife for repayment. Zeus agrees and Hephaestus leads her to the marriage bed. However, she disappears just as the lame smith-god starts to penetrate her, keeping her virginity intact. His seed falls on the earth where it is received by Mother Earth and grows to fullness. She however does not wish to bear a child that is the actual fruit of Hephaestus and Athena and says that she will have nothing to do with the child; so Athena takes responsibility and has the boy Erechthonius, born with snakelike appendages, be hidden in a chest that is stored beneath Athens where he rules. Athens grows to glory and Athena becomes its tuletary goddess with dark Erechthonius ruling from below.
Athena and Erechthonius.
Lots of ways to read this story, but to me it’s so rich in psychological truth. In Hephaestus is crossed by sublimated desire: his very creations all arise out of the emulated furnace heat of lust: he is the cuckolded husband of Aphrodite (she secretly mates with Ares until they are caught in a cunning net wrought by Hephaestus) and is the failed yet fertile groom of Athena, producing in his fantasy fuck (she disappears when he comes) the underground ruler of Athens, Athena’s own dark rudder. Hephaestus first unites with Aphrodite and meets his emotional ruination there, being the god of sublimation, his physical attributes not beautiful, his productions more rounded and whole than callipygean Aphrodite herself. The fruit of his later, imaginal coupling with Athena is Athens itself. Desire lifts his hammer, but his productions are pure culture itself, the inside truth of Aphrodite which belongs to and is ruled by Athena. They are indispensible to each other, sharing the same spine, the same hinges, the same former and latter-day history in the odyssey of soul.
To finish, when I think now of that primal scene in fifth period typing, awash with superheated Florida sunlight and metronomed by the mechanical clatter of the Word, I am eternally grateful that both of those figures, Katie Poole and Ranae Looney, Aphrodite of the heaving pink sweater and ultramarine blue eyes, Athena with the wide, moony face and serious aloof gaze, attended my initiation into that magic process which gets world in words. Poet and scholar both tributary back into those figures. So too the addictive slaker and consciential vestal holding my fate in her scales. And ultimately, this isn’t about my desire for knowledge of a woman’s body and the ways of God at all, but rather the desire of words to be said in fullness, wildly yet wisely, tempered by a shared shore no wider than a thong, no sweeter than what is strongly, aptly, deeply said.