Mother of Mercy

This is the fourteenth in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume XIV: Æneid

DISCLAIMER: This blog post treats Greek and Roman mythology as interchangeable. There are, of course, reasons to differentiate between the two traditions. However, at least part of Virgil’s project was to co-opt Greek mythology for Roman purposes. So for the present blog post there is no need to differentiate between the Roman gods of his Æneid and the Greek gods of Homer.

Mothers are remarkable beings. Not least because even those who regard motherhood as primary to their identity are never merely mothers. Mothering requires a wide range of skills and tasks. Keeping a child alive (to say nothing of keeping it happy, healthy, well-fed, safe, etc.) is a tremendous feat which deserves special recognition.

The idea of mothers as multi-taskers is nothing new. Consider the goddess Venus. Venus is primarily thought of as a lover. But, like any mother who’s ever kissed a boo-boo, comforted a crying babe, or taken marriage vows, Venus is also a healer, a nurturer, and a wife. (And, like every mortal wife, she has not always been a perfect helpmate. But that is another post for another time.)

The Romans regarded the goddess as Venus Genetrix, “Venus the Mother.” Her son was the Trojan hero Aeneas. Aeneas escaped the fall of Ilium and led the remnants of his people to Italy. When the Trojans established themselves in that new land, the groundwork was laid for the eventual rise of Rome.

This great project, however, would not have succeeded without the love and attention of Aeneas’ mother. In his final battle against the native Italians, Aeneas is badly wounded. Although he has an arrowhead lodged deep in his flesh, Venus will not let his injury prevent him from fulfilling his destiny:

“But now the goddess mother, mov’d with grief,
And pierc’d with pity, hastens her relief.”

She goes to work healing him with herbal medicine and divine skill.

“Stanch’d is the blood, and in the bottom stands:
The steel, but scarcely touch’d with tender hands,
Moves up, and follows of its own accord,
And health and vigor are at once restor’d.”

Aeneas’ recovery allows him to return to the fray, slay the Italian foe, and establish the colony that is to become Rome.

And this is not the first time that Venus came to the aid of her beloved son. During the battle for Troy, Aeneas was nearly killed by Diomedes, son of Tydeus. Again the goddess came to his rescue.

“Aeneas sprang from his chariot armed with shield and spear, fearing lest the Achaeans should carry off the body. He bestrode it as a lion in the pride of strength, with shield and on spear before him and a cry of battle on his lips resolute to kill the first that should dare face him. But the son of Tydeus caught up a mighty stone, so huge and great that as men now are it would take two to lift it; nevertheless he bore it aloft with ease unaided, and with this he struck Aeneas on the groin where the hip turns in the joint that is called the “cup-bone.” The stone crushed this joint, and broke both the sinews, while its jagged edges tore away all the flesh. The hero fell on his knees, and propped himself with his hand resting on the ground till the darkness of night fell upon his eyes. And now Aeneas, king of men, would have perished then and there, had not his mother, Jove’s daughter Venus, who had conceived him by Anchises when he was herding cattle, been quick to mark, and thrown her two white arms about the body of her dear son. She protected him by covering him with a fold of her own fair garment, lest some Danaan should drive a spear into his breast and kill him.”

Although Venus is not a warrior like Minerva or Mars, she descended to the field of battle and was even wounded by Diomedes for the sake of her child. So great is the goddess’s love for her son. And to whom did Venus turn to heal her own wound? Her mother, of course.

“Venus flung herself on to the lap of her mother Dione, who threw her arms about her and caressed her.”

So cheers to the comforters, healers, lovers, and heroes whom we call “mother” for short.

Beer of the week: Two Hats Pineapple – To trot out a tired metaphor, mothers wear many hats. And so, this reading is paired with the new Two Hats beer. This is advertised as a “crisp light beer with natural pineapple flavor.” The marketing for Two Hats is aimed at young drinkers. The tag-line is “Good, cheap beer. Wait, what?” Advertising copy also includes “Quit wine-ing!” and “Beer for people who are ‘meh’ about beer.” Clearly, they are trying to recapture early twenty-somethings who have turned to wine and spirits over beer. And, although the name “Miller” does not appear on the can, this is a product of the MillerCoors family, brewed by the Plank Road Brewery division of Miller.

As much as I hate the advertising and transparent attempt to appeal to “millennials,” I think it is actually a decent alternative to flavored seltzer. Two Hats is very, very pale in color and smells of pineapple. The amount of pineapple flavor is actually about right, but the beer itself is too light. This tastes more like a flavored seltzer than a beer. There is a bit of malt in the finish, but not quite enough to balance out the pineapple. Basically, this comes across as an alcoholic La Croix, which is fine if you want alcoholic flavored seltzer rather than a beer.

Reading of the week: The Æneid by Virgil – At the end of this excerpt, Aeneas has a moment with his own son Ascanius. “Thou, when thy riper years shall send thee forth / To toils of war, be mindful of my worth;” / he tells him, “Assert thy birthright, and in arms be known, / For Hector’s nephew, and Æneas’ son.” Aeneas doesn’t bother to mention Ascanius’ mother or grandmother. Typical.

Question for the week: What have you done for your mother lately?

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List Your Blessings

A popular Thanksgiving tradition is to go around the table, listing the things for which those present are thankful. It can be a very powerful exercise to actually compose such a list. Lists create a sense of scale and the cumulative effect of each item listed tends to compound the others.

Take, for example, the catalog of ships in The Iliad. Several pages of that text are dedicated to listing all of the ships, along with the numbers of their fighting men, that came to the Trojan shores. The seemingly ceaseless recital of the Greeks emphasizes the scale of the conflict. During the battles, the narrative follows individuals as they engage in one-on-one combat. And this is why the catalogue of ships is so important. Without that list to establish the scale of the armies, one could be mislead into thinking of the war as a series of encounters between a handful of individuals rather than between mighty hosts. The knowledge that the Greek and Trojan armies are quite large gives a sense of scale to the dramatic face-offs between the individual heroes.

So this Thanksgiving, give some thought to the vast number of the world’s blessings and how that great list gives context to each individual blessing.

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Beer of the week: Saranac Pale Ale – Saranac, New York is about 300 miles from the site of the fabled first Thanksgiving. In American terms, that’s rather close enough to count as local. This beer has a solid malt body with just a bit of hops bitterness to back it up. Saranac Pale Ale makes for a really good beer for a casual drink.

Reading for the week: The Fourth Book by François Rabelais, Chapter 4.LIX – Some would argue that there is virtually no way to stay awake through the entire catalogue of ships, especially in the drowsy afterglow a large meal. This list is probably more appropriate for Thanksgiving. Rabelais was a master of writing lists, and this particular excerpt is the menu of the Gastrolaters, a people whose god is the stomach and whose religion is eating.

Question for the holiday: In certain cases, shorter lists arguably indicate greater importance. A short list of experts in a field may indicate a higher level of expertise. A short list of friends may indicate more intense or close friendship than a longer list. Are there certain sorts of blessings for which this is also true?


Proofs of Prophesy

It seems that primitive peoples had a god for practically every natural phenomenon. Even the culturally and academically advanced Greeks and Romans had a literal pantheon of gods to explain everything from the daily rising of the sun to the changes of the seasons. (To be sure, there were certainly ancient philosophers who did not believe in the literal existence of the Olympians. But one of the charges against Socrates was refusal to recognize the official gods of the city, so they still took that stuff seriously.) It may well be that the eventual predominance of monotheism in the western world was in part due to advances in natural philosophy.

As we humans came to understand the world better, fewer and fewer gods were needed to explain all of the individual aspects of our reality. The more we learn about the nature of our universe, the less we need myths to explain the world around us. Inevitably, some people take this line of thought to its logical limit: as human understanding increases, we find that there is no need for any theistic explanations at all.

A counter argument that has been advanced is that our growing understanding of the world is itself proof of God’s assistance. The eighth century theologian Abu Hatim al-Razi asserts that all of the great thinkers throughout time were actually prophets. Divine inspiration, he argues, is the only way to explain the genius that created Euclid’s geometry or Ptolemy’s astronomy. Knowing his own intellectual powers, he cannot believe that such tremendously insightful works can be the work of unaided humans. There is some serious appeal to that argument; I don’t see how I could ever produce something as great as Ptolemy’s Almagest.

Still, we are constantly learning more and coming to greater and greater understandings. Consequently, all great geniuses in natural philosophy are doomed to be overtaken. In the face of non-Euclidean geometry and modern astronomy, Euclid and Ptolemy look like poor prophets indeed. What good are is the prophets Newton or Darwin if their systems are sure to be found defective down the line? Can it really be divine inspiration if it invariably comes up short of later human understanding?

The final rejoinder must be that prophets never tell the whole truth or explain everything clearly. Each generation must have its own sages and prophets to build upon the divine revelations of their predecessors.  So who can say that Lobachevsky or Stephen Hawking are not also divinely inspired?

  

Beer of the Week: Odyssey Imperial IPA – Throughout Homer’s Odyssey, storms, shipwrecks, deaths, and other events are attributed to the wills of the gods. So a beer called Odyssey seems like a good choice for this post. This Imperial IPA from Sly Fox Brewing Company is delicious. The lighting in this photo is a bit off; the beer is actually more amber in color. It has a nice thick head that leaves plenty of lacing on the glass. Odyssey is quite bold, with strong, flavorful hops that totally dominate the flavor. And the hops has to be strong to cover the 8.4% alcohol. Anybody who drinks enough of this beer is surely in for an adventure.

Reading for the Week: The Madman by Friedrich Nietzsche – The famous quote “God is dead” comes from this reading. This parable(?) from The Gay Science hints at the problems of a post-religious society. The atheists in the story do not understand the ramifications of the death of God, hence the messenger of God’s death is called “the madman.”

Question for the week: Is there anything compelling about Abu Hatim al-Razi argument that all of our geniuses are divinely inspired? Or is he just moving the goalposts?


Body Shaker

It is easy, though incredibly naive, to reduce the effects of alcohol to the intellectual plane. It is clear as day that drinking affects the way that we think. Our inhibitions are lowered; our capacity for reason is retarded; all at the same time, our ideas become unreasonably clear and inextricably confused. Alcohol’s greatest virtue and greatest danger is its ability to affect our mental processes.

But we recognize the effects of alcohol most markedly in their physical manifestations. Our cheeks flush. We stagger. We slur our words. Our physical coordination fails us. Even as alcohol robs the mind of its greatest power (reason), it robs the body of it’s purely animal capabilities.

Descartes wrote “I think, therefore I am.” But by reducing existence to the intellectual plane, he initiated an entire line of thought dedicated to the idea that physical existence is completely ancillary to “real” existence. Humans, however, are both corporeal and spiritual. Recognition of this essential duality is evident in Plato’s scheme to educate leaders both physically and intellectually in The Republic. It is also evident in Homer’s casting of Odysseus as both athletic and cunning.

Because man’s greatness stems from both intellect and physique, the “beer gut” is all the greater shame. Moderate consumption of alcohol may have beneficial effects, both physical and psychological. But excess is dangerous in both directions.

Bone Shaker

Beer of the week: Bone Shaker Brown Ale – This New Hampshire brew from Moat Mountain is orange-brown with a quickly fading head. The aroma is somewhat musty and is a bit reminiscent of Triscuit crackers. The flavor carries on with the cracker notes from the smell. The body of this ale is fairly thin. I don’t think that this is a great beer, but I will certainly drink it again.

Reading of the week: Iliad by Homer, Book XXIII, 653-749 – At the funeral games for Patroclus, “Odysseus of many wiles, he of guileful mind” wrestled to a draw with Ajax, the strongest of the Greeks (except for Achilles.)

Question of the week: To what extent is alcohol consumed for its physical, rather than its psychological effects? Can the two even be distinguished?


Man Up!

“Man up!” I was told when I was out on the town with some friends and we were obliged to finish our beers before moving on to the next tavern. “Be a man and chug that beer!”

The first time that I had Cooper’s, an Australian teetotaler hassled me for drinking my beer too slowly. I was shocked and perplexed. Assuming (quite accurately) that this gentleman had quit drinking because he was unable to live with his habit, I was confused as to why he would insist upon perpetuating the very notion that drinking beer can only be done immoderately. It was an impossible and fruitless effort to explain to him that some people drink beer because they like the way that it tastes.

Nobody would dream of saying, “a real man skulls his Riesling!” or “only a pussy wouldn’t chug that Cabernet Sauvignon!” So why does this culture surround beer?

When I was out with my friends and they insisted that I “man up”, I was drinking an IPA. And a good one at that. What a dreadful way to take the fun out of drinking a good beer: pressuring somebody to skull a delicious, high-alcohol beer as fast as possible. I know that some people cannot drink beer for medical or personal reasons, and I would not dream of pressuring them into doing so. I also would not try to bully somebody into chugging can after can of a beautiful, well-crafted beer, just for the sake of getting drunk.

Peer pressure is a problem among young adults. But it is also a problem for grown men who understand that drinking beer and getting drunk are different activities with different aims.

So for everybody who enjoys a nice beer at the end of the day, and only one, don’t be afraid to tell everybody else that you drink what you want, when you want, in the quantity that you want. Anybody who tries to make you chug a finely crafted ale is a barbarian, and their opinion is worth naught.

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Beer of the week: Hinterland Maple Bock – This Wisconsin stout is exactly the kind of beer that is meant to be savored rather than chugged. It is brewed with real maple syrup. It pours quite dark, but what light does filter through is deep red. The head is made up of large tan bubbles that lace the glass nicely. The maple really shows in the aroma. The smoky, dark roasted malt with the sugary maple calls to mind maple smoked bacon. The beer is almost shockingly smooth. The mouthfeel is almost velvety. The dark malt really is the heart of the flavor. The smokiness leaves a tingle in the back of the throat that encourages the next sip. This is a very nice beer.

Reading of the week: Ajax by Sophocles, Lines 1-133 – The son of Telamon is manliness personified. He was the strongest of the Greeks at Troy. He single-handedly prevented Hector from burning the Argive ships, leaping from prow to prow with a gigantic spear. But eventually, Ajax met a disgraceful end. As Odysseus observed, even the greatest among us are “mere fleeting shadows.”

Question for the week: Who’s the man?


How Odd

Only a block from my apartment is Odyssey, a self-proclaimed “Western Bar.”  How I lived in the neighborhood for four months without darkening their door, I do not know.  The Olde English sign alone should have been enough to draw me in.  (As it turns out, they do not serve OE.)

I assumed that a “Western Bar” meant an American style bar, where I could sit alone on a bar-stool and maybe watch some sort of sport on the television.  Feeling somewhat lonely and homesick, this behavior was exactly what I was looking for.  However, the “Westernness” of Odyssey consisted primarily of a few small cowboy statuettes and a Betty Boop poster.  So I sat alone at a table, watching the news without any sound.  With the help of a young lady at the next table, I ordered fried chicken and a Beck’s Dark.  I am sure I looked particularly lonely at a table set for four with a huge pile of fried chicken (and the side of fries that came with it) in front of me.  I was several people short of a Homeric ideal: “There is nothing better or more delightful than when a whole people make merry together, with the guests sitting orderly to listen, while the table is loaded with bread and meats, and the cup-bearer draws wine and fills his cup for every man.”

Beer of the week: Beck’s Dark – Perhaps my own bad mood flavored the beer.  I had remembered Beck’s Dark fondly for its crisp, dark malt flavor combined with a light body.  On this night however, the beer seemed somewhat bland and watery.  For the price, I was happy to move on to domestic draughts to wash down my chicken.  Also, in Korea, the neck of the chicken is fried and served with the rest.  I assume this is done as a joke.

Reading for the week:  The Odyssey by Homer, Book IX, Lines 1-38 – Ulysses begins his emotional narrative to the Phaeacians with the claim that there is nothing more delightful than merry-making with plenty of wine and food.  But he goes on to show that even in such a pleasant atmosphere, the weary traveler longs for his home.

Question for the week:  If “there is nothing dearer to a man than his own country,” what sort of force is it that makes men leave their homes and seek adventure in the first place?