One feature of apotheosis narratives which is common, though by no means universal, is the divine antagonist. Herakles, as I mentioned in an earlier article, was set on his apotheosis journey by the machinations of Hera, for whom he is named:
“Now it came to pass that after the battle with the Minyans Hercules was driven mad through the jealousy of Hera and flung his own children, whom he had by Megara, and two children of Iphicles into the fire; wherefore he condemned himself to exile, and was purified by Thespius, and repairing to Delphi he inquired of the god where he should dwell. The Pythian priestess then first called him Herakles, 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
In no apotheosis narrative is the role of the antagonist made more painfully obvious, though in case the case of Asklepios, Psyche, Semele and Ariadne, this feature is nonetheless present. It is absent from the (failed) apotheosis narrative of Demophon.
Psyche’s Antagonist: Aphrodite
In the case of Psyche, too, it is Aphrodite’s wrath which ultimately causes Psyche’s apotheosis:
“Since divine honours were being diverted in this excessive way to the worship of a mortal girl, the anger of the true Venus [Aphrodite] was fiercely kindled. She could not control her irritation. She tossed her head, let out a deep growl, and spoke in soliloquy:
‘Here am I, the ancient mother of the universe, the founding creator of the elements, the Venus that tends the entire world, compelled to share the glory of my majesty with a mortal maiden, so that my name which has its niche in heaven is degraded by the foulness of the earth below! Am I then to share with another the supplications to my divine power, am I to endure vague adoration by proxy, allowing a mortal girl to strut around posing as my double? What a waste of effort it was for the shepherd [Paris] whose justice and honesty won the approval of great Jupiter [Zeus] to reckon my matchless beauty superior to that of those great goddesses! But this girl, whoever she is, is not going to enjoy appropriating the honours that are mine; I shall soon ensure that she rues the beauty which is not hers by rights!’
She at once summoned her son [Eros], that winged, most indiscreet youth, whose own bad habits show his disregard for public morality. He goes rampaging through people’s houses at night armed with his torch and arrows, undermining the marriages of all. He gets away scot-free with this disgraceful behaviour, and nothing that he does is worthwhile. His own nature made him excessively wanton, but he was further roused by his mother’s words. She took him along to that city, and showed him Psyche in the flesh (that was the girl’s name). She told him the whole story of their rivalry in beauty, and grumbling and growling with displeasure added: ‘I beg you by the bond of a mother’s affection, by the sweet wounds which your darts inflict and the honeyed blisters left by this torch of yours: ensure that your mother gets her full revenge, and punish harshly this girl’s arrogant beauty. Be willing to perform this single service which will compensate for all that has gone before. See that the girl is seized with consuming passion for the lowest possible specimen of humanity, for one who as the victim of Fortuna (Fortune) [Tykhe] has lost status, inheritance and security, a man so disreputable that nowhere in the world can he find an equal in wretchedness.’ — From Apuleius, The Golden Ass (Latin Epic C2nd A.D.)
That story which begins with Aphrodite sending her son, Eros, to do something horrific to Psyche, also ends with Psyche marrying Eros, and as a part of that, being made immortal.
It should be pointed out that the “arrogance” in the case of Psyche, was not in any attitude or action that Psyche, herself, expressed or even possessed. Rather, what was “arrogant” was simply having been born with a certain appearance. I call to mind Apollon’s words about Niobe, and how those who might become deities through worship but who are yet unready for that in a spiritual way, may need to be struck down for the good of humanity.
I think I have stated, in the past, my disdain for this story because it makes Aphrodite look like a squalling brat with low self-esteem. I reject the notion that a petty being who would throw a tantrum over someone being prettier than her is worthy of worship, and I reject the notion that Aphrodite’s beauty is so much more important than her power over the elements, understanding of love and desire, her wiliness, her cunning, or her deep understanding of psychology that her whole existence is somehow dimmed by anyone outshining her beauty. Indeed, Hera’s beauty is greater. Arguably, she is no more physically beautiful than Athena. That was what the whole bribing Paris thing was about, and why there was a Trojan War.
While society does enjoy reducing a woman’s worth to her physical beauty, Aphrodite, like Freya or other love goddesses, exists not to be the most physically perfect, but to define beauty inclusively and expansively. She is a goddess of making whatever physical appearance beautiful in its own way, and further, seduction, which elevates sexiness and charm above sheer physical appearance.
This story is the best extant text describing Psyche’s apotheosis, and we know (from other sources) that Psyche was indeed a figure who attained Apotheosis, however, the story related here was written as fiction, not as a faithful account of the ancient goings and doings of deities. While I think the general outline of the story (based on its adherence to many tropes of the apotheosis narrative) is useful to study, I do not think it is fair that we should infer anything about the specific nature of Aphrodite from it.
Asklepios’ (Paeëon’s) Antagonist: Zeus
Asklepios, too, had a divine antagonist. But was Zeus ultimately, in some way, responsible for the apotheosis of Asklepios?
“Consequently, the myth goes on to say, Haides brought accusation against Asklepios, charging him before Zeus of acting to the detriment of his own province, for, he said, the number of the dead was steadily diminishing, now that men were being healed by Asklepios. So Zeus, in indignation, slew Asklepios with his thunderbolt, but Apollon, indignant at the slaying of Asklepios, murdered the Kyklopes (Cyclopes) who had forged the thunderbolt for Zeus; but at the death of the Kyklopes Zeus was again indignant and laid a command upon Apollon that he should serve as a labourer for a human being and that this should be the punishment he should receive from him for his crimes.” — Diodorus Siculus, Library of History 4. 71. 3 (trans. Oldfather) (Greek historian C1st B.C.)
Zeus’s response here was not eternal torment, but a summary execution. His divine ally, Apollon, responds with furious grief. Unable or unwilling to kill his own father, he takes revenge indirectly on the thunderbolt by killing its makers.
The tale of Asklepios is perplexing because no one is really sure how he became a deity after this. We are only certain that he was ever mortal in the first place because he got killed, and only certain that he was a deity after that because of his cults. While this facet is present in the myth, it is poorly fleshed out.
Ariadne’s Antagonist: Artemis… or possibly Dionysos.
“[Odysseus in the Underworld:] ‘I saw lovely Ariadne, that daughter of subtle Minos whom Theseus bore off from Krete towards the hill of sacred Athens; yet he had no joy of her, since, before that could be, she was slain by Artemis in the isle of Dia [Naxos] because of the (subpoena) of Dionysos.’” Homer, Odyssey 11. 320 ff (trans. Shewring, with one minor edit from Thenea) (Greek epic C8th B.C.)
Now, this is not the only version of the story. We also have Ariadne being abandoned by Theseus and then married to Dionysos, either because Dionysos demanded her, or else because Theseus is a douchebag.
The interesting implication in two of these versions is that Dionysos is Ariadne’s antagonist, as well as being her divine ally.
This brings up an interesting issue: if a single deity is the only deity interested in the apotheosis of a particular person, might they need to fill in as both ally and antagonist? Certainly, this is one possibility.
Semele’s Antagonist: Hera
If I wanted to make the case that a person’s divine antagonist is really just some deity or other helping us to recognize and burn away the negative parts of ourselves with their corresponding light, I could bring no better proof than the relationship between Hera and Semele.
It is also an example of divine antagonism badly managed.
The dark reflection of Hera’s virtue, fidelity, is the negative trait of jealousy. The desire to devote one’s self to one’s beloved, and the desire to be the first in their mind’s and hearts are two sides of a single coin.
We also see the “threat to my divinity” motif which is seen in the Psyche narrative as well, and arguable also with Asklepios and Hades.
Hera says to Deceit, of Semele:
“I am afraid Cronides, who is called my husband and brother, will banish me from heaven for a woman’s bed, afraid he may make Semele queen of his Olympos! If you favour Zeus Cronion more than Hera, if you will not give me your all-bewitching girdle to bring back again to Olympos my wandering son, I will leave heaven because of their earthly marriage, I will go to the uttermost bounds of Oceanos and share the hearth of primeval Tethys; thence I will pass to the house of Harmonia and abide with Ophion. Come then, honour the mother of all, the bride of Zeus, and lend me the help of your girdle, that I may charm my runaway son furious Ares, to make heaven once more his home.” Dionysiaca, Nonnus, Book 8, lines 152-164
The girdle, in short, is a girdle of Super-Persuasion. Hera is apparently all about borrowing magic girdles, and we see a very similar incident in the Iliad.
Hera then wears the girdle to bewitch the mind of Semele, stoking her desire to be acknowledged by Zeus and known by everyone to be a bride of Zeus.
“As treacherous Hera sat, a simulated palsy passed over her false body, and the old neck bowed downwards, nodding over the bent shoulders. Scarce finding an excuse, she groaned aloud and wiped the well-feigned tear from her face, as she spoke her false words in heart-enchanting tone:
 ‘Tell me, my queen, why are your cheeks so pale? where is your beauty? Who has grudged that loveliness and dimmed the red sparkling colours of your face, changed the roses to quickfading anemones? Why are you downcast and languishing? Have you heard yourself those insults which the people are shouting? Curse the tongue of women, from which all troubles come! Tell me who laid rough hands on your girdle – hide it not! Which of the gods has besmirched you, which has ravished your maidenhood?
 ‘If Ares has wedded my girl in secret, if he has slept with Semele and neglected Aphrodite, let him come to your bed grasping his spear as a marriage-gift – your mother knows her begetter, the terrible warrior! If quickshoe Hermes has made merry bridal with you, if he has forgotten his own Peitho23 for Semele’s beauty, let him bring you his rod to herald your wedding, or let him fit you with his own golden shoes as a gift worthy of your bed, that you too may be goldshod24 like Hera the bedfellow of Zeus! If handsome Apollo has come from heaven to be your husband, if he has forgotten Daphne because of his love for Semele, let him away with furtive guile, and come to your through the air drawn in his car by singing swans, and dancing delicately let him offer his harp as a gift for your favours, to show a trusty proof of the wedding! Cadmos will know that heavenly harp at sight, for he saw it, and heard the melodious tones, when it made music at his festal board for the wedding of Harmonia with a mortal.
‘Or if as you say, Cronion is your bridegroom, let him come to your bed with amorous thunders, armed with bridal lightning, that people may say – `Hera and Semele both have thunders in waiting for the bedchamber!’ The consort of Zeus may be jealous, but she will not hurt you, for Ares your mother’s father will not allow it.
Europa is more happy than Semele, for a horned Zeus carried her on his back; the hoof of the lovestricken bull ran unwetted on the top of the water, and one so mighty was Love’s boat. O what a great miracle! A maiden held the reins of him who holds the reins of heaven! I call Danaë happier than Semele, for into her bosom Zeus poured a shower of gold from the roof, torrents of mad love in abundant showers! But that most blessed bride asked no gifts of gold; her lovegift was her whole husband. But let us be quiet, or your father Cadmos will hear.’
With these words Hera left the house, and the girl still in her grief, jealous of the inimitable state of Hera’s marriage and unsatisfied with Cronion.”
Hera awakens the jealousy within Semele.
This is really a picture of a mortal with a lot of emotions to work through: we learn later in the text that Semele is being taunted and sneered at by women who do not believe that she is married to Zeus (not an uncommon experience for a godspouse). She is devoted to Zeus, and desperately wants not only his recognition, but the recognition of her peers for the relationship that she has with him.
Acknowledging and working through that jealousy might have made for a very different ending to this story. Like Herakles, Semele is not so much being confronted by Hera, but rather, it is the jealousy which is the dross of an incomplete relationship with Hera destroys her.
Facing the ugliness which is the warped reflection of deity within the self is sometimes, though not always, a necessary part of the journey of apotheosis. If the plan is to become immortal, turning a blind eye to some particular corner of the soul is not an option. If the plan is to become a deity, defects in one’s character cannot go unacknowledged. Even a lesser sort of greatness will force one to confront these things within themselves.
Identifying Your Allies and Antagonists
Generally, no matter what your work with deities might be, it is useful to identify your relationships with deities, acknowledging the good (no matter who might shoot you down for it) and honestly owning up to the bad (even if the piety police have a freak out).
Positive relationships can give you strength and comfort, negative ones show you what you need to work on, and where your personal failings are.
To simplify this, I created some tables that can be filled out to help visualize and simplify divine relationships. I’ll provide an empty one for allies and for antagonists, show you how I filled them out, and then give you some basic interpretations of my results, as an example of how you might go about making sense of this exercise.
Most of this should be fairly self-explanatory. For each row, you fill out the deity’s name, what their role is with respect to you (mentor, parent, lover, distant divinity, self, etc). For ideas about what is possible in terms of roles that deities can play with respect to you, some options are presented here.
“How Positive” is the first measure on the chart. We are assuming that all of the possible allies in this table have at least a mildly positive relationship with you, so 1 would be “fairly nice, maybe some friction” and 5 would be “Consistently affirming and awesome to the extreme.”
“How Frequent” just means how often you interact with the deity, whether through gnostic means or ritual. We assume that you are in contact with these deities already, so 1 would be “I see them every now and again” and a 5 would be “I am constantly aware of their presence.”
“How Intense” is a measure that is even more subjective than the other two. It can be experienced in a plethora of ways. Also, intensity naturally waxes and wanes. 1 would be, “I’m aware of them, we talk.” 5 would be at least occasional orgasmic intensity, or feeling moved to powerful emotion, or a sense of flying while with them. This metric is measured by the peaks, or the most intense experiences that you tend to have with some frequency (once a month, three times a year, etc). The frequency of peak intensity, I think, says a lot more about a person’s spiritual stamina than the intensity of their relationship with the deity.
Here is how I filled mine out:
This settles all the, “Yeah, I dunno, I have a really strong relationship with Hermes, but my relationship with Ariadne is really intense. Also, I have been working with Ares for longer, and in some ways, that relationship has less friction, and, and, and…” kind of rigamarole. Hermes clearly emerges as the deity with whom I have the most well-developed relationship.
There are other relationships that I have with deities, ones that are positive, but that I have not yet successfully explored. Aphrodite, for example, is a deity that I clearly have some sort of connection to, or should. Ares frequently uses phrases like “Your mother and I,” when referring to her (especially when he’s making a point that she agrees with). Hephaestos makes the occasional cameo, and certainly enjoys my pottery, but I don’t work with him a whole lot. These are not counted, because, as they are undeveloped, I cannot rely on them as sources of strength. Not yet anyway.
Let’s move on to potential antagonists.
Again, an antagonist deity is not a deity who is out to get you or who wants to destroy you. They are a deity with whom you have a reasonably strong connection befuddled by various factors. An antagonist deity represents a part of yourself that needs refinement and work. Not all deities with whom you have a negative relationship qualify. You might, instead, be harassed by a negative manifestation that looks like the deity and isn’t, or you might be “psyched” into perceiving a deity a certain way because everyone around you tends to.
This is not to say that I support worshipping vain and petty beings who are out to get humans for their own vainglory. I would never worship such a being. Genuine antagonist deities are facing off not with you, but with a dark facet of your nature which in some way relates to what they stand for. For more information on how this works, mechanically speaking, see this article. Being similar to the deity in certain respects increases the likelihood of this, and so this is included as a metric.
“How Similar” is short hand for “How much do you have in common with this deity, personality-wise? How many of their negative or positive attributes do you have?” We assume at least some similarity, if only because it is possible for a given human to find something in common with any deity at all. 1 is “one or two traits in common” and 5 is something more like, “Sharing more traits in common with the deity than you would think possible, considering that we don’t get along.” The higher this number, the greater the likelihood that you are experiencing the deity negatively because of issues you need to work through. Again, this is not punishment, but more like spiritual alchemy.
“How Negative” is really a measure of how upsetting you find the interactions with the deity. It isn’t a measure of how badly they treat you. 1 is “I feel annoyed when they show up.” or “They say annoying stuff.” 5 is, “I literally cannot read their name in print without having a visceral, near-physical reaction.” Again, this is sort of a measure of intensity, so it is representative of the worst experience/feeling that you commonly have with/about this deity. The higher this number is, the more spiritual issues you probably have to work through with respect to what the deity in question stands for.
“How Frequently” is how often interactions with the deity come upon their own, without you bidding them. This could be in the form of omens, dreams, other people mentioning them, or what have you. Frequency can be a stand-in for the intensity of the negative experiences. The higher this number is, the more spiritual issues you probably have to work through with respect to what the deity in question stands for.
Her is how I filled out mine:
As you can see, the list of deities with whom I have vaguely unpleasant relationships are relatively few, and my interactions with them are fairly minimal. Each of those cases used to have higher scores than they presently do, and the list is shorter than it used to be. This is partly because I have worked through issues with deities, but also because, when it comes to deities acting in negative ways toward me, my response is to fairly well immediately shut them out. I understand that negative actions can be a metaphor, but it isn’t a metaphor that works terribly well for me, and so it inevitably boils down to: “Find a different way to say that, or don’t say it.” This missive is directed far more to my unconscious mind than to the deity, of course.
I admit, however that clarifying connections with these deities in particular might be a way to not only experience them more positively, but also to improve myself, spiritually. An equally valid option, preferable to me, and probably preferable to many other people as well, is to simply identify what aspects of my personality need to be worked on (as illuminated the the relationship I have with these deities), and to do that in a very non-religious, non-magical, atheistic sort of way. That requires a bit of intestinal fortitude, and the ability to take a hard look at oneself, but I find it easier to work on my personal characteristics by myself.
Ultimately, the deity who best counters my darkest aspects is Athena. That makes sense. She represents a certain restraint to counter my temper. What does this mean I should do? Probably learn more about her, and looks for ways in which she represents afflicted, incomplete or flawed aspects of my nature.
All three deities, in their own way, represent a kind of freedom, too, and all three have admonished me about my approach to religion, saying that it leans too heavily on stricture. If Athena is saying that, you know it’s bad. The intelligent pruning of restrictive religious observances has been my work over the last three years, and it has, unsurprisingly, improved my relationships with all three.
Next up, I’ll be looking at the faces of divinity. Finally.