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Archive for the tag “Ancient Greece”

The Psyche of Eros

http://img14.deviantart.net/f580/i/2009/128/8/6/cupid_and_psyche_master_copy_by_phomax.jpgThere is a fact we all soon come to acknowledge: that there can be no love if not felt deep inside the soul. There is a lovely Ancient Greek myth that centers on this – the fable of Eros (Love) and Psyche (Soul):

Once upon a time, there was a king who had three wonderful daughters. The youngest, Psyche, was much more beautiful than her two sisters and looked like a goddess among mere mortals. People throughout the land worship her beauty so deeply that they forget about the goddess Aphrodite. Aphrodite becomes angry that her temples are falling to ruin, so she plots to ruin Psyche. She instructs her son, Eros, to pierce the girl with an arrow and make her fall in love with the most vile, hideous man alive. But when Eros sees Psyche in her radiant glory, he shoots himself with the arrow instead.

Meanwhile, Psyche and her family become worried that she will never find a husband, for although men admire her beauty, they always seem content to marry someone else. Psyche’s father prays to Apollo for help, and Apollo instructs her to go to the top of a hill, where she will marry not a man but a serpent. Psyche bravely follows the instructions and falls asleep on the hill. When she wakes up, she discovers a stunning mansion. Going inside, she relaxes and enjoys fine food and luxurious treatment. At night, in the dark, she meets and falls in love with her husband.

She lives happily with him, never seeing him, until one day he tells her that her sisters have been crying for her. She begs to see them, but her husband replies that it would not be wise to do so. Psyche insists that they visit, and when they do, they become extremely jealous of Psyche’s beautiful mansion and lush quarters. They deduce that Psyche has never seen her husband, and they convince her that she must sneak a look. Confused and conflicted, Psyche turns on a lamp one night as her husband lies next to her.

When she sees the beautiful Eros asleep on her bed, she weeps for her lack of faith. Eros awakens and deserts her because Love cannot live where there is no trust. Cupid returns to his mother, Aphrodite, who again decides to enact revenge on the beautiful girl.

Psyche, meanwhile, journeys all over the land to find Eros. She decides to go to Aphrodite herself in a plea for love and forgiveness, and when she finally sees Aphrodite, the great goddess laughs aloud. Aphrodite shows her a heap of seeds and tells her that she must sort them all in one night’s time if she wants to see Eros again. This task is impossible for one person alone, but ants pity Psyche and sort the seeds for her. Shocked, Aphrodite then orders Psyche to sleep on the cold ground and eat only a piece of bread for dinner. But Psyche survives the night easily. Finally, Aphrodite commands her to retrieve a golden fleece from the river. She almost drowns herself in the river because of her sorrow, but a reed speaks to her and suggests that she collect the golden pieces of fleece from the thorny briar that catches it. Psyche follows these instructions and returns a sizable quantity to Aphrodite. The amazed goddess, still at it, now orders Psyche to fill a flask from the mouth of the River Styx. When Psyche reaches the head of the river, she realizes that this task seems impossible because the rocks are so dangerous. This time, an eagle helps her and fills the flask. Aphrodite still does not give in. She challenges Psyche to go into the underworld and have Persephone put some of her beauty in a box. Miraculously, Psyche succeeds.

When she gave Aphrodite the box, the goddess got extremely angry. She yelled the poor girl that she would never let her go and she would always be her servant. At this crucial moment, the Gods, who were watching this wrongdoing all this time, decided to take up action. They sent Hermes, the messenger God, to narrate Eros all the misfortunes that his wife was going through. Eros was touched and this healed the wound of betrayal. He left his room and found Psyche exhausted in his mother’s garden. From that moment on, Eros and Psyche lived happily together in their lovely palace, which was always full of roses and other flowers. Psyche persuaded Eros to forgive his mother for what she had made her suffer. As a wedding gift, Zeus made Psyche immortal and allowed her to taste ambrosia, the drink of the Gods. Even Aphrodite was happy because, now that Psyche was living in the sky with her husband, men on earth had forgotten all about her and were again worshiping the true goddess of beauty. Eros and Psyche then had a daughter named Hedone (Pleasure).

The story centres on the power of true love and the strength it finds in overcoming all the obstacles thrown before it. But most importantly it reveals that in the union between love and soul, trust is essential. For love is an act of faith for the other and it must remain surrounded by a small veil of mystery. It is what keeps the feeling alive. Living each moment with deep emotion, without trying to understand the magic that lies behind it. If we cling too much, we will end up strangling love itself.

Love is something we often don’t fully understand. It comes abruptly and touches our heart and soul. If it persists, if it prevails despite the challenges it may face, that is when you know it is true and worth having.

 

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The Origins of Health

1_imgsize.aspThere is nothing better in life than good health,” wrote the poet Menander (4th century BC) and rhetorician Lucian (2nd century AD) agreed that “there is no benefit in possessing every good if health is absent”. Ever since the dawn of its existence, humanity has strived to achieve and maintain good health, while seeking to understand the causes of illnesses and searching for solutions to treat them. This remains one of mankind’s primary concerns – just consider the most common drinking toast (“to good health”). In an exquisite archaeological exhibition entitled HYGIEIA: Health, Illness and Treatment from Homer to Galen, The Museum of Cycladic Art in Athens, Greece, offers an unrivalled journey through the evolution of medical practices from 1200 BC to the 3rd century AD, with the aid of 282 artefacts from 41 museums in 7 European countries. But it is not just the artefacts that matter here, it is the knowledge residing behind them.

2_AsklipiosIn his epics, Homer refers to Asklepios as a mortal King of Trikke in Thessaly and a peerless physician. However, according to ancient myth, Asklepios was the son of god Apollo. He is later referred to as a demi-god, one who possessed the unique ability to grant health. From the 5th century BC onwards, his cult as the foremost healing god spread rapidly and endured even past the advent of Christianity to approximately 500 BC. Asklepios was that tall, mature, bearded man often figured clad in a long robe, leaning on a snake-entwined staff. A snake is a “chthonic” element, it crawls on the ground and is well aware of the herbs and nutrients the earth breeds; thus, also capable of distinguishing between the good and bad – in fact, in Greek the word for medicine (φάρμακο) is just an intonation away from the word for poison (φαρμάκι). The snake, however, is also the symbol of renewal because of its ability to shed its skin. It therefore became the sacred animal of the healing god and today is the international symbol of medical doctors.

Such symbolism is abundant: in the Ancient era, the trademark for physicians was an ancient medical cupping vessel, named “Sikya” because of its resemblance to the tubular fruits of the sikya plant. Trefoil juglets that stored opium resembled inverted poppy capsules (the ones that when slit leak out opium-bearing latex), while they also featured a snake on their handle, cautioning that opium may be used in small doses as an anaesthetic and for soothing pain, but in larger doses can cause damage due to its hallucinatory effect.

4_AsklepieioIn the ancient healing sanctuaries dedicated to the healing god and thus known as Asklipieia, patients seeking divine cure would be bathed and aromatized (a purgatory ritual to ensure good health and ethical purity). They would then sleep in the sanctuary (incubation), experiencing a divinely-inspired dream, where Asklepios would appear and offer advice. In the morning this would be interpreted by the sanctuary’s priests and the illness would be physically treated.5_ Hygieia

The incubation process was inspired by another symbol: one that depicts Sleep – the brother of Death – as a winged child at the feet of Hygieia found at the very entrance of this exhibition. Hygieia (Health) is one of the daughters of Asklepios and the goddess of good health. It is from her name that the name (and concept) of “hygiene” arises. Asklepios’ entire family was related to the health-treatment process: his wife Epione was the comforter of pain; his two sons Machaon and Podaleirios took care of injured Achaeans in the Trojan War; while there were also the daughters Acesó (goddess of the healing process); Iasó (goddess of healing); Panacea (the all-healing goddess); and a younger son Telesphóros (he who brings fulfillment and protected coalescing patients).

This “theurgic medicine” was so widespread because prevalent belief had it that the gods inflicted illnesses upon humans as a punishment for impious acts. 6_Anathima STATUE-570And since the cure of every illness was similarly godsent, people tried to appease the gods with prayers, magnificent sacrifices, and purifications. These also included votive offerings either before or after treatment, which took the form of objects (or ailing body parts) as a supplication to the gods. Centuries would pass before the divine provenance of disease was challenged and treatment dissociated from divine intervention. This occurred with the teachings of the Pre-Socratic philosophers (6th c. BC), which served as the foundation for rational scientific medicine. However, votive offerings still remain an integral part of Christian belief, especially in Greek Orthodox Churches.

Hippocrates (460 BC – 370 BC), today considered as the Father of Scientific Medicine, recorded about 60 ancient treatises in what is known as the Hippocratic Corpus. The medicinal use of healing herbs still used today, originated from thousands of years ago. For example, laurel as an antiseptic, emollient and cathartic; Crocus (or saffron) used for eye inflammation; Lykion (or Goji Berry) extremely well-known for its healing properties; Mandrake used as anaesthetic in surgeries (today is the emblem of the Hellenic Society of Anaesthesiology); and Mastic used, among others, to clean teeth and as a regenerative factor for a radiant complexion.7_ Iasis 1

Hippocratic physicians also emphasized the importance of diet in maintaining health as well as in treating disease. In antiquity, the word diet was not limited strictly to food, as it is nowadays; it expressed a broader concept, which also encompassed – and always in moderation – drink, physical exercise, baths, massages, sleep, sexuality, and a person’s habits and way of life in general.

According to Hippocrates, the human body encompasses four fluids or humours (blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile). The balanced proportion of all four fluids, known as Eukrasia (good mix), is a main characteristic of good health, while the disruption of this balance (Dyskrasia) leads to the onset of various diseases.

Galen (129-216 AD), a prolific Physician from Pergamon whose theories dominated and influenced Western medicine up to the 17thcentury, tried to explain human behavior according to the fluid that prevailed in each human being. So, for example, a Sanguine person, in whom blood prevails, is sociable; a Phlegmatic person, in whom phlegm prevails, is relaxed and quiet; a Choleric person, in whom yellow bile prevails, is tense and aggressive; and a Melancholic person, in whom black bile (melaina cholé in Greek) prevails, is moody and introverted.

9_760374_Iasis_Installation_3In the ancient era, physicians were seen as the “healers of evil” and were greatly respected in society. They enjoyed an elevated status because of their specific skills. They were considered craftsmen, as well as “demiourgoi”, i.e. workers who labored for deme, the public good. Physicians were considered servants of mankind in general and travelled from place to place to practice their craft and offer their services to community. This is also what today’s doctors vow to do through their Hippocratic Oath. To continue practicing medicine, whose origins, as is evident, stem from centuries ago. And despite the fact that people – in their majority – no longer believe diseases are godsent punishes for irreverent human actions – deep down we all hope that someone can find a way to reverse them, to treat even the most incurable ones, and soothe the suffering for all.

 

* The exhibition “HYGIEIA. Health, Illness, Treatment from Homer to Galen” runs from 19/11/2014 until 31/5/2015 and a short video can be found here.

An ancient insult as a way of life

you-idiot - rabbits photo 2“Why should I go to the Agora tonight? I would much rather go and have a drink at the Stoa. It would certainly be more enjoyable!”

“Cleisthenes, you are an idiot!” humphed Anaxagoras and marched angrily away.

In Ancient Greece, being called a “private citizen”, i.e. an “idiot” was considered an utmost insult. To proclaim that you did not care about public life was dishonoring to say the least, for the very basis of democracy was the unity of decisions for the good of all, taken by the people themselves. Only caring for the good of yourself was selfish, to say the least, and above all…idiotic.

In the present day, an idiot has evolved to mean an imbecile, an utterly foolish or senseless person. But it also retains its initial meaning of a self-centered being. And truth be told, we live in a world surrounded by idiots. Multiplying by the day, especially as the ascent of technology simply enables people to isolate themselves all the more from any social contact. Even Albert Einstein had expressed his certainty about the infinite nature of human stupidity, yet he too feared “the day technology will surpass our human interaction, [as then] the world will have a generation of idiots.”

Today, there are so frequent instances in our daily lives where you at one point or other find yourself agreeing with Bertrand Russell and acknowledging that “the trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt”.

Indeed all these idiots out there, they all behave so arrogantly, certain that they are so sleek, and can do nothing wrong. They are geniuses who can’t even write or speak in their own language, let alone a foreign one; who proclaim fluency in English, for example, and can’t even write a decent sentence or understand half an elaborate one. They are people who think they are the only ones who have something important to do and expect you to be on stand-by, ready to server their every whim or praise their every effort and minor “achievement”. People who have no shame, no conscience, and no knowledge.

They are the people who can’t do their job properly – like ensure a steady Internet connection or promptly inform you of changes that affect you – and this influences your own life (and very often your very sanity). We can’t change all the stupid people in this world. Even if we do take on them one idiot at a time. But when their poor performance encroaches on your livelihood, then it does become your problem too. And the worst of all: no matter how much you twist and shout, there is absolutely nothing you can do about them. If they can’t see the need to change themselves, no one can shine a light on them either. All you can do is hope for the world to change. But then you’ll be the fool expecting an improvement, in a world that is slowly devouring itself and everyone is simply awaiting that the other will be the one to act.

“The world is a dangerous place to live, not because of the people who are evil, but because of the people who don’t do anything about it.”
― Albert Einstein

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