Thursday, September 2, 2010

Burnt Offerings

I have been ireading Mary Renault's retelling of the Theseus legend, The King Must Die and The Bull From The Sea.  I am not a classicist of either the historical or literary kind, but I'm enjoying these books a lot.  For one thing, it's fun meeting again, in different circumstances, characters I remember from 16th and 17th French literature (that girl, Ariadne's little sister, must be Phaedra, Theseus's future wife, who is going to fall in love with her stepson...).Also, Renault weaves the light, the smells, the landscape, the flora and fauna so tightly into her story, that there is never that moment when you know you're in for an injection of "local color," as happens with many historical novels.

I am struck by the interactive quality of the human characters' relationship with the gods. Like a college student texting his parents at the drop of a hat, Theseus constantly begs favors of Neptune, asks his advice, complains that he is being badly treated.  And he knows how to get on the god's good side, something he and his fellow Hellenes do by offering sacrifices. 

The sacrifices are of living beings, and the best ones are highly valued living beings.  If a Hellene was feeling guilty, he might kill a chicken--or if he was very guilty, a goat--and feel much better.  If he was grateful for a military victory, a bull would be the thing to slaughter.  To save the harvest he might offer a favorite wolfhound, or the best stallion of the herd.  For luck in battle, a virgin princess.  And just on general principles, some tribes annually sacrificed their king.

As our drought persists, and no rain is forecast, I realize that to the Ancients this situation would have had an obvious answer:  I should sacrifice something--rather, someone--to appease the gods and save my garden.  If I were a 4th century BCE Hellene, I would be looking around right now, thinking, a hen?  Maybe one of the older ones that aren't laying much?  But the gods would turn up their noses at that.  They know a spent layer when they see one.

For the Olympians, a chicken is small change.  If I really want rain, I should get serious.  So, who else is there?  Other than my husband (who should be saved for something like a Martian invasion, in which case I'd sacrifice myself right along with him), that leaves the dogs.  Which one could I stand to part with, and most importantly, which one would appease the gods, and bring rain?  Would Lexi be too old, or would she please the Goddess in her Crone aspect?  Artemis, I know, would like swift-footed Wolfie, but Bisou would have to go to Aphrodite (not that I would trust Aphrodite to remember to send rain).

Where am I going with this, besides getting myself upset?  I am not a 4th century BCE Hellene.  I am not sacrificing my dogs.  And if the garden fails, there is always the supermarket. 

Even so, I do envy those old Hellenes their familiar day-to-day relationship with the gods.  How nice to have somebody who would send you signs, who would get angry but then forgive you, and whom you could ask for stuff.  Somebody to give you permission to go into battle with  no second thoughts ("If God be with us," as another tribe put it, "who can be against us?").

Yes, I know, it's dangerous, listening to gods.  That's why we don't listen to them anymore.  Now instead we listen to Reason, that other dicey voice.  But at least I get to keep my dogs.

3 comments :

  1. Sometimes you are way over my head. Which one do you suggest I start with that will "suck me in" to reading them?

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  2. There are only two about the Theseus legend, The King Must Die, and The Bull From The Sea. They'll make more sense if you read them in order.

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  3. far too many people actually do listen to those gods. and i love the texting comparison.

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