Motherhood in Greco-Roman Myths
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It is hard to find examples of motherhood in the myths of Greece and Rome, but when one does find them, one sees that a mother will do anything for her children. The Greco-Roman myths are dominated by males. It seems there is no room for strong and loving mothers within the culture where children spring forth from male body parts, unaided by any mother goddess. If one looks closely enough, however, one is able to find several myths where loving mothers prevail. The Greek creation myth shows two strong and powerful goddesses who save their children by helping them to overthrow their fathers. There is also “The Myth of Cupid and Psyche” in which Venus plays a role of a protective mother trying to prevent further injury of her dearest son, even when it means that she has to separate him from his beloved. And there is Demeter who will let the earth perish, if her kidnapped daughter is not returned to her.
In the Greek creation myths, as told by Hesoid in Theogony, the first two goddesses are shown as caring and clever mothers. Gaia , the Earth, creates Uranus, the Sky. She later marries him and has children in order to populate the heaven with gods. Once Uranus marries the all-powerful Mother-Earth, he becomes the ruler of the universe. Uranus fathers three sons, with a hundred arms each, who are called Hecatoncheires, and three Cyclops, one-eyed creatures. They are ugly and huge, so “being the most fearsome of sons, their father [Uranus] was driven to hate them from the beginning. So he hid them away, each one, as they came into being, and let them not rise to the light from down in the hollow of earth.” (Hesoid 35). Their mother, “Gaia was groaning within and feeling constrained.”(Ibid) Because Gaia is in a lot of physical pain, she decides to free her children. She calls her sons within her to rebellion. And one of the sons answers his mother's call. It is the youngest, Cronus. So, Gaia gives him a sickle to castrate and overthrow his father.
The mother is overjoyed because now her children will be free; however, she is deeply disappointed by the outcome. Cronus becomes the ruler of the universe, marries Rhea, creates mankind, but refuses to let his brothers out. Gaia is furious. She has helped her son to overthrow her husband, Uranus, so all her children will be free, but she is not even thanked by Cronus. Once Cronus becomes the ruler, he thinks there is no need bring forth his brothers. Gaia then thinks of how she can free her other children. So, she foretells that Cronus will, too, be overthrown by his son as he once overthrew his father. Afraid of the prediction, he swallows all his children when they are born. His wife, Rhea, cannot stand to see her children being devoured by their power-hungry father. She asks her parents, Gaia and Uranus “that they should tell her how she might secretly bear her dear baby, / and how her father's Erinys might be an avenger against/great Cronos, the clever deviser, in payment for swallowing her children.”(57) Her parents help her, and Rhea tricks Cronus into swallowing a stone wrapped in a child's cloth, instead of the son whom she hides. Rhea's hidden son, Zeus, grows up on the island of Crete and comes forth to fulfill the Earth's wish. Gaia gives him a drug so that Cronus gorges up all his siblings. Gaia , who still wants her children freed, tells Zeus to free them from the Tartars so they can help him overthrow Cronus and the Titans. As Zeus frees Gaia's children and overthrows Cronus , Gaia triumphs because she has helped her children to gain freedom.
Gaia and Rhea, when they free their children prove that they play an active role in their children's lives and show their husbands that their motherly trait would not be suppressed or denied. Gaia and Rhea become the supreme goddesses when they marry Uranus and Cronus, respectively. They are honored and revered by everyone and they have a lot of power since their husbands rule the universe. Both are not happy, however. Their husbands do not let them nurture or care for their children. They either hide the children in their mother, preventing them from coming to earth, or swallow them. Consequently, the mothers do not see their children. This brings them a lot of sorrow. The motherly instincts of love for their children prevail in each mother as they plan to free them. Once their children are freed, each mother is free to nurture, love and care for them. These mothers refused to be denied, by their all-powerful husbands, the basic need of mothers to nurture and care for their children.
In “The Myth of Cupid and Psyche,” by Apuleius, Venus tries to prevent further injury to her son, Cupid , even though he has disobeyed her. Psyche is Cupid's wife, but she has never seen him because he comes only under the shadow of the night. She gets curious and suspicious about her spouse, so one night she shines a lamp on her husband. She sees a beautiful and charming god instead of the monster that she has been predicted to wed. She wants a closer look, but the hot oil spills on Cupid's shoulder, causing him to wake up and leave. As he leaves he tells Psyche that he has disobeyed his mother's wishes in marrying her, a mortal. Psyche then laments her lost love, and decides to go and seek him.
Poor Psyche wanders day and night without food or drink, in the hope of finding her love. She wanders into Ceres'(Demeter) temple where the goddess gives her advice to “voluntarily surrender yourself to your lady and sovereign, and try by modesty and submission to win her forgiveness” (Apuleius 373). If mother's child is injured, it is likely she will want revenge. Venus' son has been injured by Psyche, so it is only natural for Venus to protect him and not to let Psyche near him.
“Do you at last remember that you really have a mistress?”(374) are Venus' words when she first sees Psyche. Nancy Demand comments, in her book Birth, Death, and Motherhood in Classical Greece“in order to establish her position in her new family, the bride had to produce a child.”(17) Therefore, it is not surprising that Venus meets Psyche with the above words. The new wife is “welcomed with mixed feelings,” therefore, it is very likely that in ancient Greece, until the wife produced a child she was not considered a true member of the family, and her opinion, even with regard to household tasks, could be disregarded. (4) The mother-in-law, then, would be the one whom the servants would listen to and come to for orders. Therefore it would be wise for the young bride too, to come and ask her mother-in-law’s opinion and approval. Because Psyche did not know who her mother-in-law was, she did not come to her for approval. So, when Venus sees Psyche she Venus wants to know whether or not the girl is suitable to be a wife, in the ancient world. Therefore, Venus decides to put a trial to Psyche’s housewifery. Girls were expected to be able to perform all the duties around the house because they had to run the household. Venus gives Psyche three unimaginable tasks to accomplish. The tasks are not suitable for a mortal but Venus is an angry mother whose son has been injured by this girl. She wants to see to what lengths Psyche will go to regain her beloved. Psyche completes all tasks with the help from the gods. Venus then is persuaded by Jupiter to give Psyche back her beloved. Cupid and Psyche are united forever, because Psyche is granted immortality, and they have a child whom they name "Pleasure."
“The Myth of Cupid and Psyche” portrays a protective mother who will not let anything or anyone hurt her son, “The Myth of Demeter and Persephone” from the Homeric Hymns, reveals Demeter an equally protective mother who will stop at nothing to her kidnapped daughter back from the dark underworld. When Demeter first hears the cry of her daughter, who is being carried away against her will, a “sharp pain [catches] at her heart and with her hand she [tears] the wimple about her ambrosial hair” (Lang 6). Right away one sees a mother who is devastated with grief when she hears her daughter's cry. Demeter might just have accepted the fact that her daughter has been taken from her to be married and try to console herself but she refuses. She puts on a veil and goes to seek Persephone with “great yearning.” She wanders around the earth without food, drink or rest and seeks a person who can tell her who has stolen beloved daughter. Finally Hyperionides (Helios) tells her that Hades, the god of underworld, has taken her daughter for his wife. Helios tries to sooth Demeter anger and sorrow, “No unseemly lord for thy daughter among the Immortals is Aidoneus[Hades].”(Ibid) But what consolation is it for a mother to know that her son-in-law is worthy when she will never see her child anymore? Especially when she is reprimanded for her grief and anger, “it behooves not thee vainly to cherish anger un assuaged.”(Ibid) Helios is right, from the standpoint of the ancient culture, in reproaching Demeter about her useless anger and in pointing out that Hades is a very good husband.
In an age where women were considered property and had no voice in the lives of their children, Demeter's duty is to obey her husband, Zeus, and accept the marriage of her daughter. Women were not active participants in the world outside of home. Women were just passive objects that were used as property and to bear children. Demeter has no right to be angry with her husband, Zeus, Persephone's father, for deciding that she should marry his brother, her uncle, Hades because women had no right or claim to their offspring, and no say in their marriage. It was not uncommon, in Greece to marry your relatives; therefore, Persephone's and Hades' marriage was not surprising. The father decides the fate of his children, and since marriage was an especially important part of Greek life, it is only natural that Zeus decides to give away his daughter without her mother's consent, or even knowledge. Marriage was seen as a political and economic transaction in which the power and wealth of the suitor were usually the deciding factors in favoring one over the other. Hades, being the god of the underworld, is a very acceptable suitor; he is both wealthy and powerful. Therefore, it is not surprising that Zeus has arranged this marriage for his daughter.
Demeter is too strong and proud to submit to Zeus and accept the role of a submissive wife that the ancient world has prescribed for women. Instead, by avoiding mount Olympus, she lets the gods of Olympus know that she is angered and grieved with them. She refuses to be consoled and accept the fact that she will never see her daughter again.
In her sorrow, Demeter descends and roams the earth in the form of an older woman. In her roaming she comes to a well to which the daughters of Celeus come to get their water. The maidens see her and realize that she looks like someone who could be a nurse for their baby brother. They then proceed to ask her to come inside with them. Demeter follows and sits on a high seat with a veil covering her eyes, without a smile, not talking to anyone, not tasting food or drink and just “wasting with long desire for her deep-bosomed daughter.”(8) Finally the mother of the newborn speaks to her, and Demeter agrees to nurse her baby. She then nurses Demophon, as if he is her child. She gives him gods' food and drink and tries to make him immortal by laying him in the fire every night. Even though she is grieving for her daughter, she remains strong enough to nurture another child. This shows that Demeter is caring, nurturing and kind. She wants to make someone else's child, whom she has, no connection with, immortal. Demeter has no one to love and nurture, after Persephone is taken from her. So she becomes a nurse to Demophon in order to transfer her motherly feelings of love, nurture and affection that she cannot bestow on her daughter anymore. Demeter is not able to make Demophon immortal, however; his mother notices that her son is placed in the fire, and afraid for his life, snatches him from the goddess. Demophon begins to cry and cannot be soothed because “meaner nurses now and handmaids held him.”(10) The quotation, again, proves that Demeter is a kind nurturing mother who can pacify a crying baby. The goddess, however, becomes enraged and disappointed because she is prevented from finishing her task. The goddess, disappointed and angered, leaves the house of Celeus.
Demeter orders a temple to be built in her honor “below the town, and steep wall, above Callichorus on the jutting rock,” where she will prescribe the rites herself so “that in time to come ye may pay them duly and appease my power.”(Ibid) This temple was built in a little town called Eleusis and the worship that went on in there was called the Eleusinian Mysteries.Very little is known about the worship because its participants were sworn to silence about the worship and initiation process.What little that is known about the Eleusinian Mysteries can be found in E. O. James' book The Cult of the Mother-Goddess. Demeter “would teach her votaries [how the rites] should be performed for the purpose of bestowing immortality on all who henceforth would be initiated into her mysteries.”(155) The ritual at first served as a “fertility festival to promote the growth of the crops” but later “were given a more personal application as an esoteric mystery cult to secure blissful immortality for those who underwent the elaborate process of initiation.”(156) The ritual was performed every spring when earth become fertile again. It is held in the spring to symbolize Persephone's return to her mother who allows earth to bear fruit once again because she is happy to have her daughter with her for two-thirds of the year. The blossoming earth showed Demeter's happiness for her daughter's return. The ritual also symbolizes rebirth and resurrection from the cold and barren winter (from the dark and gloomy underworld where Persephone resided) the green and blossoming earth.
Once Demeter hears of her daughter's kidnapping, she lets the earth become barren. While she dwells in her temple mourning, for her lost daughter, the famine becomes worse. The earth and men on it are about to perish from starvation. The gods of the Olympus are not receiving gifts, offerings or sacrifices from men because nothing on the earth grows. The gods become angry and restless because men are about to perish from famine and they would lose their worshipers, renown and power. However, Demeter is not afraid of the gods' anger. Zeus, therefore, sends a messenger to to appease her into bringing fertility into the world. Demeter will not yield. So Zeus sends all the immortal gods down to the goddess, one by one. But it is to no avail. Demeter refuses to yield. She tells the gods that “she deemed no more forever to enter fragrant Olympus, and no more to allow the earth to bear her fruit, until her eyes should behold her fair-faced daughter.”(11) It is not customary for women to disobey authority, but Demeter does. She shows her strong motherly will by going against all the gods' wishes and not fearing their wrath. Zeus, realizing that he will not succeed unless he lets Persephone see her mother, sends a messenger down to Hades to let his brother know of his decision. Hades abides by Zeus' law. Afraid to break it, he lets his wife go and see her mother. Once Demeter embraces Persephone, everything flowers on the earth once more. Persephone is full of joy when she sees her mother. The joy becomes even greater when she learns that she will not have to spend the rest of her days in the gloomy and dark underworld; but she will stay with her mother for two thirds of the year on the beautiful earth and only one third in the underworld. Everything becomes fertile, and sacrifices are once more being offered to the gods.
These myths show that there are strong mothers within the Greco-Roman tradition who will assert their motherhood in order to help their children. The mothers in these myths are strong, loving, caring, protecting and nurturing of their children. All these motherly traits, however, are not apparent at first because the male dominant society wants to suppress them. Gaia's and Rhea's husbands hide their children so the mothers would not be able to care for them. The protective Venus has to be persuaded by Jupiter to let her son to be finally reunited with his wife, who hurts him at first. Demeter lets the earth perish until the gods bring her kidnapped daughter from the underworld. The wrath and pleadings of all the gods of the Olympus leave her decision unchanged. The male dominant society of the day tried to prevent mothers from exercising their rights as mothers in nurturing, caring, loving and protecting their children. However, it did not stop these mothers that everyone was against them; they all asserted their strong motherly instincts, by helping their children, by overcoming all the obstacles put on their path.
I think that the myths in which mothers are shown to be strong and positive characters are so hard to find is because the male dominant society was afraid of the strong bond between a mother and her child. The society tried to isolate mothers from their children as much as possible, but it did not succeed. Especially in the extreme situations, like the myths showed, the sacred bond between mother and child that calls the mother to her child's rescue allows these mothers to help their children.