Another in a series of stories I’m writing for liberal religious kids. As always, your comments and criticisms are welcome.
Once upon a time, the immortal god Prometheus stole fire from the other immortal gods and goddesses, and gave it to mortal human beings.
Zeus, who had just become the new ruler over all the other gods and goddesses, was very angry. To punish Prometheus, Zeus commanded him to be nailed to a cliff in Scythia, a distant place at the end of the world. Zeus told two of his henchmen, a demon named Might and another demon named Violence, to take Prometheus to Scythia. Prometheus had taken the fire from Hephaestus, who was the god who made things out of metal for the other gods and goddesses at his forge, so Hephaestus had to go along to make shackles of bronze to hold Prometheus tightly against the rocks.
After traveling many miles, at last they came at last to a high and lonely cliff. Hephaestus began working while Might and Violence watched to make sure Prometheus didn’t get away.
“I don’t have the heart to bind another god in this desolate place,” said Hephaestus to Prometheus, as he hammered bronze nails into the cliff face. “Yet I have to do it because it’s dangerous to ignore the commands of Zeus. Prometheus, I don’t want to do this to you. The sun will scorch you during the day, and the cold will freeze you at night. This is what has happened because you opposed the will of Zeus. This is what you get for giving fire to the human beings.” Hephaestus paused to wipe the sweat from his forehead. “Zeus is a new ruler, and new rulers are harsh.”
“Why are you delaying?” said the demon named Might. “Why do you pity this god who has betrayed all other gods and goddesses by giving such power to mortal beings?” Continue reading
I’ve been trying to write up the story of Demeter and Persephone for a Sunday school class. It has a very dark side to it, as do so many religious stories; the dark side is one of the things children like best about these stories. They are like Grimm’s fairy tales, filled with all the horrible things that children know exist in the real world but can’t talk about: Hansel and Gretel’s parents deliberately lose them in the woods; Siddartha Gautama abandons his wife and young child; Lot throws his daughters out to the crowd to be ravaged; Jesus is sentenced to a bloody death on trumped-up political charges; Persephone is abducted by the god of death, and in retribution her mother makes innocent human beings die in a massive famine. Sometimes I think that even though we adults try to put some kind of moral gloss on them, what children learn from these stories is that life is essentially amoral.
In any case, as I sat here today sorting through the details of the Persephone story, as presented in the Homeric hymns and in Ovid’s Metapmorphoses, I realized that many of the main characters in the story are closely related. Persephone is the child of Zeus and Demeter; Hades, Demeter, and Zeus are all children of Cronos and Rhea, and grandchildren of Gaia, mother earth. Not only that, but the Homeric hymn makes it clear that Zeus and Gaia (Persephone’s father and grandmother) set up the situation where Hades can abduct Persephone. Talk about a dysfunctional family!
I don’t want to emphasize this aspect of the story in the version for children, and the only way I can get it out of my head is to inflict it on you. So below you will find the dysfunctional family version of the Persephone story….
This is from a translation of the Homeric hymns that I just got today:
Sing to me, Muse, clear-voiced daughter of great Zeus,
about the Mother of all gods and all people.
Clash of castanets and kettledrums, the trill of reed pipes
please her, as do the howl of wolves, roar of fierce lions,
echoing mountains and wooded valleys.
You and all the goddesses, rejoice in my song.
Now that’s what I call a hymn: vivid images and sounds, excitement, and the sense that you’re invoking something that’s really out of human control.
Good translation, too. Trans. Diane J. Raynor, Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 2004.
We hosted our third chant workshop tonight; Chandra Alexander of Sharanya led us in Hindu Goddess chants. She gave us a handout with the words of the chants (in Sanskrit, with transliterations), and asked us which chants we’d like to try.
I asked for a chant titled “God Is Mother and Father”; the title alone reminded me of the mid-19th C. prayers of Theodore Parker, in which he often referred to his God as both Mother and Father. (The 1862 edition of Parker’s prayers, edited by Rufus Leighton and Matilda Goddard, is now online at Google Books.) Not that there is a precise congruence between the two. The Hindu chant can be translated as: “You are Mother and Father, you alone are friend and relation. you are wisdom and prosperity, O God of Gods you are everything.” Parker does not tend this far towards pantheism; his God is personal, God as persona: “O Lord, our Father and our Mother too, we know that we need not ask any good thing from thee, nor in our prayer beseech thee to remember us, for thou lovest us more than we can love ourselves…” (July 25, 1858, p. 185).
Either way, while I can appreciate the beauty of both chant and prayer, I can’t say that I a parental god-image does much for me. But that’s the way art works, isn’t it? I don’t have to believe in the reality of a thunder-god to feel awe and reverence in the presence of a Greek sculpture of Zeus.