The Darkness Below Greece

Occasionally you read something that throws your preconceived notions for a loop. This happened to me yesterday as I was reading Plutarch’s Life of Themistokles. Themistokles, for those too lazy to Wikipedia, was the Athenian general who led the Greeks against the Persians in the naval campaign that happened the same time the movie 300 did. He might even be in the sequel; I didn’t see it.  Anyway, I read something in the Life of Themistokles that totally shocked me.

A step back. When I was a kid I had a book about the Trojan War. It was pretty sweet actually, and one section was on whether or not the "historical Achilles" dates to the era of the other heroes. The author suggested that maybe Achilles was a hero from an older layer of myth that had been incorporated into the Mycenean/Dark Age mish mash that is the Iliad. There were three pieces of evidence. The first was his reddish blonde hair. The second was the similarity of his armor to the Dendra panoply. The third and final piece of evidence that Achilles could not have been a Greek was that he sacrificed twelve Trojans on Patrokles’ pyre. Greeks, that book said, didn’t commit human sacrifice.

So yesterday I’m reading the Life of Themistokles, and I come across this:  

“Themistocles was sacrificing alongside the admiral's trireme. There three prisoners of war were brought to him, of visage most beautiful to behold, conspicuously adorned with raiment and with gold. They were said to be the sons of Sandaucé, the King's sister, and Artaÿctus. When Euphrantides the seer caught sight of them, since at one and the same moment a great and glaring flame shot up from the sacrificial victims and a sneeze gave forth its good omen on the right, he clasped Themistocles by the hand and bade him consecrate the youths, and sacrifice them all to Dionysus Carnivorous, with prayers of supplication; for on this wise would the Hellenes have a saving victory. Themistocles was terrified, feeling that the word of the seer was monstrous and shocking; but the multitude, who, as is wont to be the case in great struggles and severe crises, looked for safety rather from unreasonable than from reasonable measures, invoked the god with one voice, dragged the prisoners to the altar, and compelled the fulfilment of the sacrifice, as the seer commanded.” (Plut., Themistokles, 13.2-4, trans. from the Loeb edition). 

Anyway, Plutarch goes on to sort of qualify it and maybe it isn’t true, but it shocked me that I had never heard anything—literally anything, in all my years of studying this stuff—that even hinted that there was a possibility that the Athenians sacrificed Persian prisoners on the morning of the Battle of Salamis. I mean really, I would have thought it would have come up at least once. 

But it’s not that I somehow feel cheated by not having heard this rumor, or that I somehow hold the Greeks in contempt for it being a possibility (NB: I’m not saying it’s true, Plutarch does include stuff of dubious veracity pretty regularly). Instead, I feel like it’s another instance of something I’ve been noticing more and more of: that below the shiny temples of the Greeks with their bright marble finishes, and behind the ranks of gleaming hoplites with the bouncing plumes, there’s a darker substratum of the culture that keeps poking its head out.

I noticed this substratum when I read about Diotima’s ladder. I noticed it again when I thought, for the first time since I’d read it as a freshman, before I seriously started studying the Greeks, about the Bakkhai (I’m re-reading it now). And I thought about it again when I read this strange story of a human sacrifice, at the greatest moment of Greece’s triumph, to Dionysus Carnivorous. 

What it might be was suggested to me by an eminently non-scholarly work, Joseph Campbell’s Masks of God. He argues that there is a primordial chthonic-mother-serpent deity who runs throughout most Western mythology and who was overthrown by the sky-father-YHWH/Zeus god of the Iron Ages. The original mother deity and her consort were pushed down and away, to surface as Eve and the serpent or Medusa and her hair.* Somehow, Dionysus plays in here. 

I’m not sure if I buy it. It seems too pat. But there’s something about Dionysus, about revelry, about the darkness of passion that stirs below the surface of the Greek mind. And I’m going to find out what it is.

*Also, in Plutarch, right before the Athenians flee the city for Salamis, the sacred snake of Athena leaves her temple. Just sayin'.

© Henry Gruber 2013