April 12th, 2012

Divine Women

Bettany Hughes is careful not to tread on any toes, but it's difficult not to tell the story of the development of religion without making the Abrahamic gods- with their tantrums and lace-curtain twitching- seem a little provincial, tribal and Johnny-come-lately. Once upon a time there was a Goddess with huge breasts and buttocks who sat between two lions and presided over the settlement of the land.  According to the latest thought, which is based on the latest archaeology, her shrines predate the earliest cities. Later her uppity children- like the deeply unattractive Zeus-  pushed her back into the shadows, from which she was wont to emerge when their flashier powers proved insufficient. Thunderbolts are one thing, the gifts of birth and death quite another. When Rome was up against it in the form of Carthage her people- in response to a Sibylline oracle- preserved the city by fetching the image of Kybele from its home in Asia Minor and installing it on the site of what is now (harumph) St. Peter's in Rome. In India, of course, she has never been relegated. Hughes dedicated her last quarter of an hour or so to the Durga Puja in Kolkata- all drumming and face-painting and the throwing of statues in the river. It looked a lot more fun than Easter or Eid.



        They sell the Lassithi tour with pictures

         Of miniature Don Quixote windmills-

         Hundreds of windmills, one to a plot

         A few yards square.  But- disappointment-

         Ride the coach to the high plateau,

         And you’ll find the fields have been cleared of them

         And in their place there are donkey engines

         Shifting water round the canals-

         Chug, chug, chug- to sustain the apples.

         Most of Crete is maquis and olives;

         Here they  grow apples.

                                                      The Goddess Dicte,

         Goddess and mountain, protects the plain,

         Old as gods get, as old at least

         As the knapped stone axes found in the cave

         You’re climbing to by a zig-zag path

         Through woods. You enter its wide mouth

         And teeter down the vertiginous stairs

         Through slick, striated, flesh-coloured rock,

         Through overlaid mythologies,

         To a cavern swagged with calcium curtains,

         Lightless, cold, where it’s said that Rhea

         Gave birth to Zeus.


                                            Now Rhea is Earth

          And really much the same person as Dicte.

          Out of her springs- a Darwinian sport-

           A god who can think.

                                               Kourites danced,

          Banging weapons and shields- bronze shields-

          To mask his crying.  His father Kronos,

          Stupid, elemental ogre,

          Prowled on by, and the baby lived.


          Zeus:  the keenest idea of the bronze age-

          God as enlightenment, conscious mind.

          Inventive, conniving, he swived the girls

          In a shower of coins, as a black-billed swan,

          And seeded Europe with arts and war.

          Here in Crete there was also his tomb.

          "Here lies Zeus, the magnificent dead."

          Mainland Greeks who found this offensive 

          Levelled the site.  As Paul remarked,

          Cutting up rough in his letter to Titus,

          "Cretans are liars".  We all still live

          In the lifetime of Zeus, the breaker of women,

          Inventor of orchards...                                                           

                                                    ... but dream of Dicte

          The hoyden Goddess, all elbows and hips,

          Unbroken, smelling of bitter herbs.