Ariadne and Hermes have collectively been making noises at me about “The Mysteries of Apotheosis.” For Ariadne, obviously, the topic has deep personal significance, and is essential to understanding her story. Hermes is more interested in it from the “understand the mechanism” sort of angle.
To even begin to tackle this begs a huge number of questions about the anatomy of the soul. We can’t begin to understand what it means to be transformed from a human being into a deity until we understand, in a spiritual way, what the difference might be between human beings and deities.
Obviously, we can’t know. The whole reason there are multiple religions on Earth is because we can never know. However, what I can do is to examine my experiences, examine the mythology of those who underwent apotheosis in Greek mythology, and see what my operating hypothesis is.
If my hypothesis proves more or less correct, we can expect that any techniques based on it will work well.
What I plan to do first is to explore four stories of apotheosis, and a story of failed apotheosis. I will look at the various factors which lead to a human becoming a deity. Hopefully, through this exploration, I’ll begin to understand what Ariadne wants out of the ritual widget(s) she has requested me to write, and what Hermes means when he says, “And this is clutch, if you want to do a Hellenic initiation of the mystical sort.”
A Facet of Nature or Circumstances?
Now the first thing I asked myself, when looking into the idea that a perfectly human person could become a deity is this:
Didn’t all these deified individuals have divine ancestry? Maybe they were gods all along, really. Maybe they were better suited for divinity than mortality because of their many god-like qualities, obtained through heredity.
Actually, no. Psyche had no divine ancestors at all.
“In a certain city there lived a king and with three notably beautiful daughters. The two elder ones were very attractive, yet praise appropriate to humans was thought sufficient for their fame. But the beauty of the youngest girl [Psyche, Psykhe] was so special and distinguished that our poverty of human language could not describe or even adequately praise it.” — Apuleius, The Golden Ass 4. 28 – 6. 24 (C2nd A.D.)
There’s only one text, so far as I know, serving as the definitive source for her mythology. If the ancients had seen divine ancestry as a true pre-requisite for deification, this would have been included in the story. Instead, she had an independent and innate value. Excuse the 2nd century misogyny, which states that the only reason Cupid took an interest in Psyche was because of her physical beauty. This beauty, we are told, was well outside of the human range of beauty.
The rest, as it happened, did have divine ancestry of some sort. Herakles was a son of Zeus, Asklepios was a son of Apollon, and Ariadne a granddaughter of Helios. Semele, if we would like to consider Semele as a deified human, was the daughter of Harmonia.
There are many who choose to interpret the “divine parent” in each of these cases, yet in the case of Ariadne’s parentage, I tend to think not. There is no record of any sort of direct interaction between Helios and Ariadne.
More than that, we can think of an infinitude of people who should have been deities, if divine ancestry was a real consideration. As a counter example, let’s take a look at Niobe, who challenged Leto.
“Amphion took in marriage Niobe, daughter of Tantalus and Dione, by whom he had seven sons and as many daughters.” HYGINUS, FABULAE, 9: Niobe
Let’s examine the ancestry, here. We’ll start with Tantalus.
There is naught so terrible to describe, be it physical pain or heaven-sent affliction, that man’s nature may not have to bear the burden of it. Tantalus, they say, once so prosperous,-and I am not now taunting him with his misfortunes,-Tantalus, the reputed son of Zeus, hangs suspended in mid air, quailing at the crag which looms above his head; paying this penalty, they say, for the shameful weakness he displayed in failing to keep a bridle on his lips, when admitted by gods, though he was but mortal, to share the honours of their feasts like one of them.” — Orestes, Euripides, Lines 1-5
Father is Zeus. As an interesting aside:
“ CLV. SONS OF JOVE
Liber by Proserpine, whom the Titans dismembered. Hercules, by Alcumena. Liber by Semele, daughter of Cadmus and Harmonia. Castor and Pollux by Leda, daughter of Thestius. Argus by Nioba, daughter of Phoroneus. Epaphus by Io, daughter of Inachus. Perseus by Danae, daughter of Acrisius. Zethus and Amphion, by Antiopa, daughter of Nycteus. Minos, Sarpedon, and Rhadamanthus by Europa, daughter of Agenor. Helen by Pyrrha, daughter of Epimetheus. Aethlius by Protogenie, daughter of Deucalion. Dardanus by Electra, daughter of Atlas. Lacedaemon by Taygete, daughter of Atlas. Tantalus by Pluto, daughter of Himas. Aeacus by Aegina, daughter of Asopus. Aegipan by the she-goat *Boetis. Arcas by Callisto, daughter of Lycaon. [Etolus by Protogenia, daughter of Deucalion.] Pirithous by Dia, daughter of Deioneus.” — Hyginus, Fabulae
And Himas? No clue who she is, but she was worthy of mention. Tantalus is between half and three-quarters deity, is my guess. That puts him on equal footing, ancestry-wise, with, say, Dionysos.
“…but fair Aphrodite flung herself upon the knees of her mother Dione.” — From Book 5 of the Iliad, Line 370.
Etymologically, “Dione” basically means, “Goddess.” The “Dio” that starts it is related to the “Dio” at the beginning of the name of Dionysos, which language scholars consider to come from the same root word from which the name “Zeus” (pronounced something like Zdeh-oos in a more archaic form of Greek and something more like “Zdoos” in Athenian dialect) is derived, causing some to posit that Zeus and Dionysos may have evolved from a single, more ancient deity. Side point.
So… 3/4 up until 7/8 divine. Niobe. Latona, by contrast, is just straight up Titaness, daughter of two Titans, Coeus and Phoebe.
So, is Niobe a deity? Ovid certainly seems to think so, when he pens Latona/Leto shouting back, “I shall yield no prestige to any goddess save Juno.” (Metamorphoses, Ovid, Line 205)
Yet, like the heroes, who were only partially divine and not actual deities, Niobe’s story follows the trope of a sad downfall owing to Hubris. So, according to one (Roman) writer, yes. According to Greek mythological template? No, not so much. So it seems that even one drop of mortal blood, actually, calls one’s divinity into question. Or perhaps it has more to do with where a person is born, whether on Earth, like Niobe (presumably) or amongst gods, as in the case of Insewn Dionysos.
As we will see later, being brought to Olympos, generally, or being brought before Zeus, is a recurring theme in stories of apotheosis.
Conclusion: Being 0% – 87% deity can leave a person with no actual divine status. Having no divine ancestry does not disqualify a mortal from apotheosis. Divine ancestry is not a consideration unless a person is born 100% divine with no ambiguous ancestry.
So, if you are going to say that a deity is to a human like a human is to an animal, or if you are going to argue that we can never be equal to the gods, because that would be similar to being equal to a volcano, you are going to have to explain away one basic fact: humans interbreed with deities, and that doesn’t necessarily make them gods. Or, they can cross over that line without any divine blood at all. If you aren’t following me, let’s get some help from Miriam Webster.
noun \ˈspē-(ˌ)shēz, -(ˌ)sēz\
biology : a group of animals or plants that are similar and can produce young animals or plants : a group of related animals or plants that is smaller than a genus
So, actually, Greek mythology is telling us that gods and humans are a single species. Oh, wait, I read something like that somewhere else. Hang on.
“Or if you will, I will sum you up another tale well and skilfully — and do you lay it up in your heart, — how the gods and mortal men sprang from one source.” — Works and Days, Hesiod, lines 106-108
And indeed, if gods and humans were so fundamentally different from us as some people would like to suppose, apotheosis, which is a thing that happens in many mythologies, would be impossible.
So, how does it happen?
Let’s look at some case studies, and see what patterns we can find.
“And golden-haired Dionysos made brown-haired Ariadne, the daughter of Minos, his buxom wife: and [Zeus] the son of Kronos made her deathless and unageing for him.” — Hesiod, Theogony 947 ff (trans. Evelyn-White) (Greek epic C8th or C7th B.C.)
“Dionysos led Ariadne away by night to the mountain which is know as Drios; and first of all the god disappeared, and later Ariadne also was never seen again.” — Diodorus Siculus, Library of History 5. 51. 4 (trans. Oldfather) (Greek historian C1st B.C.)
The first quote implies that she was brought up to Zeus. The second dexribes her ascending a mountain — you know, one of those places where heaven touches Earth. The qualities here which Zeus gave to her upon her deification, and this is important, are immortality (not dying) and eternal youth (not aging). He did not give her wisdom, or strength, or power of any kind. He didn’t even change her hair color.
Yet, immortality is important. The longer one lives, the more mistakes they might make, and thereby, the more wisdom they might attain. Perhaps, being exceptional does not make one a deity. Perhaps, becoming a deity will, just owing to the length of time a deity has to learn things, make a person exceptional. I’ll get more into my ideas about what immortality is and how it might work, later.
Keywords: #becausefuckyouthatswhy #apollonsaidso #zeuskilledhimdeadandhumansworshiphimanyway #voteasklepios #religioninherentlybelongstotheproletariat #noextantmyths
Seriously, Asklepios is a weird case. We know for a fact that the was worshipped as a god. Yet here are the myths:
“But a man’s blood, once it has first fallen by murder to earth in a dark tide—who by magic spell shall call it back? Even he [Asklepios] who possessed the skill to raise from the dead—did not Zeus make an end of him as warning?” — Aeschylus, Agamemnon 1017 ff (trans. Weir Smyth) (Greek tragedy C5th B.C.)
Ok, so Zeus kills him, because he got to big for his britches. Specifically, he wanted to kill the guy so that mortals wouldn’t get any smart ideas about trying to horn in on the uniquely deity-thing of not dying.
“Zeus killed Asklepios (Asclepius) with his thunderbolt, according to the author of the Naupactica [Greek epic C6th-5th B.C.] and Telestes in his Asklepios [Greek poet C5th B.C.] and Kinesias (Cinesias) the lyric poet [C5th B.C.], because he raised Hippolytos from the dead at Artemis’ request; according to Stesikhoros [lyric poet C6th-5th B.C.] in his Eriphyle, it was because he raised Kapaneos (Capaneus) and Lykourgos (Lycurgus).” — Philodemus, On Piety (trans. Campbell, Vol. Greek Lyric IV Stesichorus Frag 147 & Cinesias Frag 774) (C7th to 6th B.C.)
Yup, I get it. Very dead.
“[Asklepios] a healer for mankind of all their maladies and ills . . . And yet to profit even the skills of wisdom yield themselves captive. For a lordly bribe, gold flashing in the hand, even this man [Asklepios] was tempted to bring back to life one whom the jaws of death had seized already. With fierce hands swiftly the son of Kronos [Zeus] loosed his anger on these two; his blazing bolt stripped from them both their breath of life, and hurled them to their fate.” — Pindar, Pythian Ode 3. 54 ff (trans. Conway) (Greek lyric C5th B.C.)
Again, challenging Zeus is bad. You die. Asklepios is super dead. Super. Super. Dead. For really good reasons.
“As a surgeon Asklepios (Asclepius) became so skilled in his profession that he not only saved lives but even revived the dead; for he had received from Athena the blood that had coursed though the Gorgon’s veins, the left-side portion of which he used to destroy people, but that on the right he used for their preservation, which is how he could revive those who had died. Zeus was afraid that men might learn the art of medicine from Asklepios and help each other out, so he hit him with a thunderbolt. This angered Apollon, who slew the Kyklopes (Cyclopes), for they designed the thunderbolt for Zeus.” — Pseudo-Apollodorus, Bibliotheca 3. 121 (trans. Aldrich) (Greek mythographer C2nd A.D.)
So, Apollo was super upset that his father killed his son, and he retaliated by killing someone who wasn’t even responsible for this decision, because there was nothing he could do after his father killed his son. Nothing he could do, because Asklepios was the deadest. So dead. So very, very dead.
If you only read the myths about Asklepios from the Greeks, you’d really genuinely get the idea that Asklepios was a straight up mortal and nothing more. He has a mortal mother and a divine father, but as explored earlier, that doesn’t guarantee immortality, and yet, eight bajillion clay statues of peoples feet and penises and livers that Asklepios healed in his capacity as a god of healing, and even the Phaedo dialogue, by Plato, let us know that Asklepios was worshipped in Athens. If you are confused, well, so was Pausanias.
“[In the temple of Asklepios at Epidauros] is an old slab, which declares that Hippolytos dedicated twenty horses to the god. The Arikians tell a tale that agrees with the inscription on this slab, that when Hippolytos was killed, owing to the curses of Theseus, Asklepios (Asclepius) raised him from the dead. On coming to life again he refused to forgive his father; rejecting his prayers, he want to the Arikians in Italia.That Asklepios was considered a god from the first, and did not receive the title only in the course of time. I infer from several signs, including the evidence of Homer, who makes Agamemnon say about Makhaon:–‘Talthybios, with all speed go summon me hither Makhaon, mortal son of Asklepios.’ As who should say, ‘human son of a god.’” — Pausanias, Description of Greece 2. 26. 1 (trans. Jones) (Greek travelogue C2nd A.D.)
Note: “I infer.” So, really, Pausinias is a bit confused as to how Asklepios became a deity. Cicero has some ideas, though.
“Human experience moreover and general custom have made it a practise to confer the deification of renown and gratitude upon distinguished benefactors. This is the origin of Hercules [Herakles], of Castor and Pollux [the Dioskouroi], of Aesculapius [Asklepios] . . . And these benefactors were duly deemed divine, as being both supremely good and immortal, because their souls survived and enjoyed eternal life.” — Cicero, De Natura Deorum 2. 24 (trans. Rackham) (Roman rhetorician C1st B.C.)
We can infer that Apollon, who had zero tolerance for Zeus’s crap, went and deified the boy himself. Anyway, who wants to make do without a god like Asklepios? Ultimately? I rule that the cause of his deification is being awesome. Or, put in more ‘cosmology’ sort of terms, he was deified according to his merit, or because of his attributes. More interestingly, he was deified after his death, and without Zeus’s help. So, in my opinion, this makes a case for deification by popular demand.
Possibly, like Ariadne, he was a deity from an earlier culture who the new myth makers wanted to kill, but they just couldn’t pull it off.
People in charge: “Challenge Zeus will you? YOU DIE!”
People not in charge: “YAY ASKLEPIOS WE WILL BUILD ALL THE TEMPLES”
Apollon: Dad. It would be the worst if no one answered those prayers.
Zeus: DAMNIT! Fine! Hermes, go haul his ass up here… :: grumbles ::
“The Pythian priestess then first called him Hercules, for hitherto he was called Alcides. And she told him to dwell in Tiryns, serving Eurystheus for twelve years and to perform the ten labours imposed on him, and so, she said, when the tasks were accomplished, he would be immortal.” — Library, Apollodorus, 2.4.12
Well, that is pretty straightforward, but we find that, in this narrative anyway, the completion of the labors isn’t enough. Heracles goes on to be sold as a slave and fight in more battles, until….
And having put in at Cenaeum, a headland of Euboea, he built an altar of Cenaean Zeus. Intending to offer sacrifice, he sent the herald Lichas to Trachis to fetch fine raiment. From him Deianira learned about Iole, and fearing that Hercules might love that damsel more than herself, she supposed that the spilt blood of Nessus was in truth a love-charm, and with it she smeared the tunic. So Hercules put it on and proceeded to offer sacrifice. But no sooner was the tunic warmed than the poison of the hydra began to corrode his skin; and on that he lifted Lichas by the feet, hurled him down from the headland, and tore off the tunic, which clung to his body, so that his flesh was torn away with it. In such a sad plight he was carried on shipboard to Trachis: and Deianira, on learning what had happened, hanged herself. But Hercules, after charging Hyllus his elder son by Deianira, to marry Iole when he came of age, proceeded to Mount Oeta, in the Trachinian territory, and there constructed a pyre, mounted it, and gave orders to kindle it. When no one would do so, Poeas, passing by to look for his flocks, set a light to it. On him Hercules bestowed his bow. While the pyre was burning, it is said that a cloud passed under Hercules and with a peal of thunder wafted him up to heaven. Thereafter he obtained immortality, and being reconciled to Hera he married her daughter Hebe, by whom he had sons, Alexiares and Anicetus. — Ibid. 2.7.7
Burning himself alive? Sounds like an awfully dramatic way to commit suicide, right? I have a sneaking suspicion, however, that suicide wasn’t what he had in mind.
In other places in Greek mythology, semi-divine figures, especially those nursed by a goddess, can be deified by placing them in a fire to burn away their mortality. In fact, in one case, this was attempted on a child who had, so far as I know, no divine heritage at all. We’ll come back to that.
“There and then [Jove] ordered that Psyche be detained and brought up to heaven through Mercurius’s agency. He gave her a cup of ambrosia, and said : ‘Take this, Psyche, and become immortal. Cupidos will never part from your embrace; this marriage of yours shall be eternal.’” — Apuleius, The Golden Ass 4. 28 – 6. 24 (Roman novel C2nd A.D.)
Here, Psyche is transformed into a divinity by drinking ambrosia.
Before this, however, like Heracles, Psyche was made to do a series of labors by Aphrodite, including a trip to the underworld. While she was not subjected directly to the blazing heat of a funerary pyre, I’m not sure that it can be said that Psyche suffered less. I’ll spare Aphrodite’s dignity and not recount any part of this out of context. Rather, if you require the details, go and read the whole story here.
All the same, I am going to stick The Labors of Psyche on my to do list. It is an exegesis for another time.
Does Apotheosis Require Death?
It is certainly tempting to conclude that it does. Each of these figures was dead, in the underworld, or very near to death at the time of their apotheosis.
Yet, if this was the universal belief of the Greeks (and the Romans who were copy cats of a sort), then two oddities stand out: firstly, that Psyche was considered eligible for worship before death…
“But the beauty of the youngest girl [Psyche, Psykhe] was so special and distinguished that our poverty of human language could not describe or even adequately praise it. In consequence, many of her fellow-citizens and hordes of foreigners, on hearing the report of this matchless prodigy, gathered in ecstatic crowds. They were dumbstruck with admiration at her peerless beauty. They would press their hands to their lips with the forefinger resting on the upright thumb, and revere her with devoted worship as if she were none other than Venus [Aphrodite] herself.” — Apuleius, The Golden Ass
…and secondly, that Demeter tried to secretly and gradually deify Demophon under his mother’s nose, and that she did so by sticking the baby in the fire night after night.
“‘…Take this little boy of mine and nourish him. He is late-born, and it was beyond my expectations that the immortals could have given him to me. I prayed many times to have him. If you nourish him to grow till he reaches the crossing-point of life, coming of age, I can predict that you will be the envy of any woman who lays eyes on you. That is how much compensation I [Metaneira] would give you in return for raising him.’
Then Demeter, with the beautiful garlands in her hair, addressed her:
‘Woman, I wish you kharis back, and then some. May the gods give you good things. With positive intentions, I will take your little boy as you tell me to. I will nourish him, and I do not expect that, through the inadvertence of her nursemaid, he would perish from a pestilence or from the Undercutter. I know an antidote that is far more powerful than the Woodcutter; I know a genuine remedy for the painful pestilence.’
Having so spoken, she took the child to her fragrant bosom, in her immortal hands. And the mother [Metaneira] rejoiced in her mind. And thus it came to pass that the splendid son of bright-minded Keleos, Dêmophôn, who was born to well-girded Metaneira, was nourished in the palace, and he grew up like a daimôn not eating grain, not sucking from the breast. But Demeter used to anoint him with ambrosia, as if he had been born of the goddess, and she would breathe down her sweet breath on him as she held him to her bosom. At nights she would conceal him within the menos of fire, as if he were a smoldering log, and his philoi parents were kept unaware. But they marveled at how full in bloom he came to be, and to look at him was like looking at the gods.
Now Demeter would have made him ageless and immortal if it had not been for the heedlessness of well-girded Metaneira […]
[Demeter] had taken him out of the fire, very angry in her thûmos, and straightaway she spoke to well-girded Metaneira:
‘Ignorant humans! Heedless, unable to recognize in advance the difference between future good fortune [aisa] and future bad. In your heedlessness, you have made a big mistake, a mistake without remedy. I swear by the Styx, the witness of oaths that gods make, as I say this: immortal and ageless for all days would I have made your philos little boy, and I would have given him tîmê that is unwilting [a-phthi-tos]. But now there is no way for him to avoid death and doom.'” — Hymn to Demeter, Translated by Gregory Nagy, 219-262
While the baby was in the fire, undergoing what would have killed any other child, through Demeter’s intercession, the fire became a tool for apotheosis. It, together with ambrosia, would have made Demophon immortal. Yet somehow, being caught in the act prevented Demeter from sealing the deal. Suffice to say, Demophon did not die, nor did he ascend to Olympos, and it was neither of these things which prevented him from becoming a deity — only Metaneira’s interference, or, perhaps, her violation of Demeter’s secrecy.
Both of these illustrate that deification can happen while a person lives, and that death is not required. It also illustrates how, while a deity may require a trial for a mortal to prove their worthiness, the trial itself is not one of the mechanisms of apotheosis, it is merely a common feature.
By Earth, By Fire, By Water, By Air or by Spirit
By Earth: Dionysos went into the underworld to get Ariadne and Semele, and deified then upon their return. Psyche descended at the behest of Aphrodite. Heracles descended during his quest for Kerberos. Asklepios died and presumably dwelt in the underworld before his deification. Whether alive or dead, descent seems to be a common feature in those mortals who attain godhood.
By Fire: Demophon, who might have been a deity, would have required no descent. Yet, he was placed in the fire. Likewise, Herakles was not deified upon his return from the underworld. Rather, he was deified on the pyre.
By Water: Herakles and Demophon were also both nursed by goddesses. Demophon was nursed by Demeter (not with milk, but with Ambrosia), as I have mentioned, but Herakles was nursed by Hera. Psyche was made to drink a cup of ambrosia.
By Air: Psyche, Ariadne and Semele were deified by being brought up to Olympos, or brought before Zeus.
By Spirit: Each and every one of these deified figures had a deity who loved them exceedingly. Whether that deity called them spouse, or child, or parent, it was because they had a divine sponsor advocating for them that they ultimately underwent whatever process they underwent to become gods.