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The Birth of Comedy

August 25th, 2023 | 68 min read

By Susannah Black Roberts

God guards, as in a treasury, things far more glorious than any yet seen by sun, moon, or angels, and he will bring these things to light when all creation has been freed from bondage to the enemy, and brought into the liberty of the brightness of the children of God.

–Origen

The Road to Hades

Several months ago John Ehrett published an absolutely spectacular piece: an imaginative dive into the appeal of pagan vitalism for a post-Christian people.

Of course it was about BAP - Bronze Age Pervert. But it wasn’t just about BAP. It was about how that appeal is dealt with by others as well - The Secret History, Donna Tartt’s novel of undergraduate classicists-turned-maenads, is about as far from Bronze Age Mindset as you can get in terms of audience, but it’s at least in part “about” the same thing. It is about a question.

You might ask the question this way: In our post-Christian age, disenchanted and flattened and sapped of life, what if we reached back not to Christianity but to what was before? What if Christianity itself was the thing that began the sapping of our powers, the loosening of our sinews, the worship of weakness and all that is vile?

That’s the Nietzschean critique, of course. Ehrett highlights one rejection: "We are past the milestone of the Cross,” he seems to be saying, “and we can look back on the glory that was Greece and the grandeur that was Rome, and, for that matter, the hypothetical Bronze Age mannerbunds riding the plains of Troy, but we can't return there.” He understands, as he says, the logic and ferocious appeal of the call of that world - and the pathos of its passing.

This is not his final word on the subject. He is, after all, a Christian. And he goes on in his piece to argue for the impossibility of a return, and the superiority of Christianity. However... his piece misses something, I think, about classical paganism, and something about Christianity.

This essay is my attempt to describe that something, and the first thing that needs to be described is that paganism.

It’s often pointed out that Judaism, and Christianity, brought into the minds of men this very idea of an arrow to history, that they were what gave us the idea that there is a past to which one can’t return, a future which will be different - a world which began, and which will come to an end. But this isn’t quite right.

The aeons cycle. The years turn. But there was one thing that the Greeks were very clear about, those men who loved life, and that was death.

You die. You go down to Hades. You are a shade, a Ψυχη, a psyche, without a body. And that is how we all end. Life loses. And no one is at peace with that. They loved life too much to find that good. To live, for Homer, was to have ζῆν, zoe, and that simply meant, as Homer says, “to behold the light of the Sun.” ζῆν καὶ ὁρᾶν φάος ἠελίοιo. In Hades, there is no sun, and thus no life that can be called life. Do you insist on pretending that they were at peace with that? They were not. It was the Great Unacceptability.

2. Gavin Hamilton, Achilles Lamenting the Death of Patroclus, 1763

The purpose of doing heroic deeds was to have an “undying name” - the only kind of immortality that might be available. But it was not real. They were under no illusions about that. Those men with their undying names would end as wraiths, fallen out of the fullness of being, remembering, painfully, that which once was and would never be again: the feel of the speed of a chariot, the breath of a woman’s mouth, the love of comrades, the moment when the wind catches the sail and you sense the boat alive, suddenly, the rudder an extension of your body.

All that gone. Thirsty for a drink of water or of wine. Hungry for a glimpse of the sun. Hungry forever.

And that’s why key rites of that culture were the Eleusinian mysteries. Because something else dies, every year, with the waning of the sun, and that something manages, every year, to come back. And that something is the world.

Spring comes every year, as Persephone returns. And – there’s something strange about that hope, in the poems of those bards, those mantics; the hearts of those men. It was always almost victorious - it seems to be saying, maybe this year. And the story that’s connected most closely with those mysteries is one of that hope working at the level not just of the world, but of one human life: the life of a girl, dancing on her wedding day, who dies, and whose husband will not let that be the last word.

Maybe this year, it will be different. But it never quite was. And after all, he fails, that poet. He turns around to look back, and his bride tumbles back down to death.

There was a railroad line on the road to Hell

There was a young man down on bended knee

And that was the ending of the tale

Of Orpheus and Eurydice

It's a sad song

It's a sad tale, it's a tragedy

It's a sad song

But we sing it anyway

Cause here's the thing, to know how it ends

And still begin to sing it again

As if it might turn out this time

I learned that from a friend of mine.[1]

3 - Edward Poynter, Orpheus and Eurydice, 1862

What does this have to do with us - us Christians? That’s myth, that was in another world - that’s the Marvel franchise and we’re DC. To put it more respectfully, it is the Jews' hope, not the Pagans' hopelessness, that we are heir to.

Well, yes and no.

The thing is, the Gospels were written in Greek. The world that Jesus came to was a thoroughly Hellenized world, the world of Greek myth as received by Romans, where this was a living religion; where there were celebrated, every Spring, remnants of those very Bronze Age rites in the conducting of which BAP and our modern vitalists would, if they were truly to return to that age, place their hope. That’s not really what BAP is into, but I'm sure somewhere in Silicon Valley someone celebrated the Eleusinian Mysteries at some point this Lent. Possibly he got ChatGPT to write up some kind of chant for him.

The year that Jesus was born, people were still celebrating, every Spring, the Mystery of Ascent, when the Maiden, pledged to death, came back... for a while. They had for centuries, millennia. They’d gritted their teeth and done vitalism since the Mycenaeans.

It’s chock full of brides and mothers, that cycle; they are crucial to the vitality that those vitalists sought, though they are all but absent from BAP’s retooled vision. Persephone, tempted to queenship, eats the fruit, and is, for half of each year, doomed to rule with Hades: Our Lady of the Underground. Her mother, weeping for her child, refusing to be comforted. Eurydice, dancing on her wedding day, bitten on the heel by the serpent, descending into death.

It wasn’t that their worshipers, if that is what they should be called, hoped for immortality. Immortality in the sense that we mean it did not exist in the mysteries. Initiates believed that, maybe, they would have a better fate in Hades, in some way. Who knew? Persephone herself seemed to have a problem that she couldn’t solve.

Death remained a reality, but at the same time a new beginning like the plant which grows from the buried seed... Who knew? Part of the thing about a mystery religion is that its mysteries are not divulged. Plato, an initiate, coyly said more than he probably should have in the Phaedo: “our mysteries had a very real meaning: he that has been purified and initiated shall dwell with the gods.”

This is a new idea, appearing in the Orphic rites in the 6th century, linked to the possibility - it’s all very iffy - of metempsychosis, reincarnation. Perhaps what happens after all is that the soul, liberated from the body, chooses its next companion and, having drunk from Lethe, is reborn. If so, it is reborn free of memory, free of self.

The hope involved in the rites had, from what we can tell, emerged from the Greek dark ages of 1200 to 900 BC somewhat changed. Plato was no Bronze Age warrior; he was born eight hundred years too late, and was far too much of a moralist to be appealing to BAP, who regards him as a disgusting proto-Christian, no better than a Jew, teaching men that they have souls, that there is a Good.

It wasn’t just Plato who had gone off-piste by Athens’ golden age: Euripedes has Herakles himself chide Theseus for not being a classical theist:

I think not of the gods, as having committed

adultery, which is not right, nor as oppressed with chains:

I have never thought this worthy, nor ever will

believe that one lords it over the others.

The god, who is indeed a god, needs nothing:

These are the wretched stories of the bards.[2]

If Troy is True…

This is all very distasteful to BAP. It is not the God of the philosophers that he hopes in, but the will of the warriors.  

Where does the will of the warriors take them? Homer is a touchstone for BAP, as he has been for so many vitalists. You can hear him reciting the first section of the Iliad in Greek on a recent episode of his podcast, if you have a subscription. If you don’t, you can listen to Boris Johnson reciting it here.

Homer and, particularly, Achilles. These glorious men! Unconstrained not just by the Geneva Convention but by the knowledge of good and evil, caring only for the noble, shunning only the base! Drinking life to its lees! Finding immortality in a great name, at the bottom of that cup! This is the purpose, the telos, of those men. Achilles shunned a long and peaceful life for a short one and a death of glory, in obedience to Athena. You have your aristeia, your moment of excellence; to die in that moment or to live and claim booty are both glorious. And if you die? Your bronze armor clatters to the ground, and a mist passes over your eyes. And so be it.

And your ψυχή? Your psyche? That goes chattering down to Hades. Your soul is the last thing you should be concerned about, according to Homer, says BAP - it is not you, it is only your shade. To Homer’s first audience it was above all lightweight: the word is the same as the word for butterfly. To BAP, it seems to be actively disgusting, as disgusting as the body was to the Cathars. BAP is some kind of materialist who hopes, while not believing, in an organizing force, in zoë; he does not after all believe even in such attenuated personal survival, the survival of the self, probably. In any case he is not worried about it. His project is not to get contemporary people to embrace Greek religion, but to encourage his followers to become a generation of men like Alcibiades - committed to the life of glory, committed to the proposition that might makes right, contemptuous of the claims of the Good. It’s very clearly the Calliclean Alcibiades who is BAP’s ideal, not Alcibiades as he might have been.

This is BAP’s voice, if it were transposed into his lolcats Nietzsche idiom:

By the rule of nature, to suffer injustice is the greater disgrace because the greater evil; but conventionally, to do evil is the more disgraceful. For the suffering of injustice is not the part of a man, but of a slave, who indeed had better die than live; since when he is wronged and trampled upon, he is unable to help himself, or any other about whom he cares. The reason, as I conceive, is that the makers of laws are the majority who are weak; and they make laws and distribute praises and censures with a view to themselves and to their own interests; and they terrify the stronger sort of men, and those who are able to get the better of them, in order that they may not get the better of them; and they say, that dishonesty is shameful and unjust; meaning, by the word injustice, the desire of a man to have more than his neighbours; for knowing their own inferiority, I suspect that they are too glad of equality.

And therefore the endeavour to have more than the many, is conventionally said to be shameful and unjust, and is called injustice, whereas nature herself intimates that it is just for the better to have more than the worse, the more powerful than the weaker; and in many ways she shows, among men as well as among animals, and indeed among whole cities and races, that justice consists in the superior ruling over and having more than the inferior.[3] 

It is because Plato first articulates and then shreds this Calliclean philosophy that Nietzsche and BAP both hate him.

BAP didn’t read Homer until he was eighteen, by his own account, two years after he started reading Nietzsche.[4] And so the only Homer he ever read was Nietzsche’s Homer - Homer as an escape from post-Christianity, Homer as an anti-Christian polemicist, rather than Homer as an 8th century Ionian poet. One might call this the Straussian Homer, a Homer who above all does not believe in the gods of which he writes, as Nietzsche did not believe in them. As BAP most certainly does not believe in them. There is no metempsychosis here, any more than there was for Swinburne:

For no man under the sky lives twice, outliving his day.

And grief is a grievous thing, and a man hath enough of his tears:

Why should he labour, and bring fresh grief to blacken his years?

Thou hast conquered, O pale Galilean; the world has grown grey from thy breath;

We have drunken of things Lethean, and fed on the fullness of death.

Laurel is green for a season, and love is sweet for a day;

But love grows bitter with treason, and laurel outlives not May.

Sleep, shall we sleep after all? for the world is not sweet in the end;

For the old faiths loosen and fall, the new years ruin and rend.

Fate is a sea without shore, and the soul is a rock that abides;

But her ears are vexed with the roar and her face with the foam of the tides.

O lips that the live blood faints in, the leavings of racks and rods!

O ghastly glories of saints, dead limbs of gibbeted Gods!

Though all men abase them before you in spirit, and all knees bend,

I kneel not neither adore you, but standing, look to the end.

Though the feet of thine high priests tread where thy lords and our forefathers trod,

Though these that were Gods are dead, and thou being dead art a God,

Though before thee the throned Cytherean be fallen, and hidden her head,

Yet thy kingdom shall pass, Galilean, thy dead shall go down to thee dead.

Of the maiden thy mother men sing as a goddess with grace clad around;

Thou art throned where another was king; where another was queen she is crowned.

Yea, once we had sight of another: but now she is queen, say these.

Not as thine, not as thine was our mother, a blossom of flowering seas,

Clothed round with the world's desire as with raiment, and fair as the foam,

And fleeter than kindled fire, and a goddess, and mother of Rome.

For thine came pale and a maiden, and sister to sorrow; but ours,

Her deep hair heavily laden with odour and colour of flowers,

White rose of the rose-white water, a silver splendour, a flame,

Bent down unto us that besought her, and earth grew sweet with her name.

For thine came weeping, a slave among slaves, and rejected; but she

Came flushed from the full-flushed wave, and imperial, her foot on the sea.

This is Persephone, whom Swinburne honored, without either hope or belief.

And the wonderful waters knew her, the winds and the viewless ways,

And the roses grew rosier, and bluer the sea-blue stream of the bays.

Ye are fallen, our lords, by what token? we wise that ye should not fall.

Ye were all so fair that are broken; and one more fair than ye all.

But I turn to her still, having seen she shall surely abide in the end;

Goddess and maiden and queen, be near me now and befriend.

O daughter of earth, of my mother, her crown and blossom of birth,

I am also, I also, thy brother; I go as I came unto earth.

In the sweet low light of thy face, under heavens untrod by the sun,

Let my soul with their souls find place, and forget what is done and undone.

Thou art more than the Gods who number the days of our temporal breath;

Let these give labour and slumber; but thou, Proserpina, death.

Therefore now at thy feet I abide for a season in silence. I know

I shall die as my fathers died, and sleep as they sleep; even so.

For the glass of the years is brittle wherein we gaze for a span;

A little soul for a little bears up thiscorpse which is man.

So long I endure, no longer; and laugh not again, neither weep.

For there is no God found stronger than death; and death is a sleep.

Nietzsche didn’t believe in the gods, any more than Swinburne believed in Persephone. But then Nietzsche didn’t really believe in Homer, either. Freidrich August Wolfe, the founder of philology as a discipline, had begun to gesture towards the idea that the poems had been built up over time, the seminal example of oral tradition. This allowed Homer to be an idea for Nietzche, a zeitgeist, rather than a man. And of course he didn’t believe in Troy.

And then Schliemann found it.

4- Sophia Schliemann Wearing Priam_s Treasure, 1873

It was a blow for that generation. “We can no longer see the heroic age as the writers of the literary period in Greece beheld it,” wrote Andrew Lang, wistfully, in 1875, two years after it had happened “-- a golden distance in the history of their race, a beautiful mysterious background of their law and religion.” Lang saw beautiful golden mystery; Nietzche found there the subject of what James Porter has called his “abyssal attraction.” Both men were uneasy, though, about the unwelcome intrusion of archeology into philology, and into the dark romance that they were making of the discipline.

The problem was that Heinrich Schliemann had started actually digging, and in 1873, Troy, which had been safely available as whatever anyone needed it to be (for Nietzsche, the place where blond beasts without consciences strode about with no more thought for their own souls than a healthy man might give to his appendix) turned out to be uncomfortably… there. Right where, and when, it should be. Ilion: the city which had fallen in that war in the 13th century BC, uncovered at an archeological site in Hisarlik in Turkey.

If Troy was real, what else might be? You can sense the apprehension in all that generation; we are no longer shocked by the discovery, but we should be. What else might be real?

What Troy and the Achaeans were for Nietzsche was primarily a nerve tonic. If you read Nietzsche - and also Lothrop Stoddard or any of the 19th and early 20th century racialists and eugenicists, or, for that matter, H.P. Lovecraft - the main thing that you find lurking under their desire for vitality is a deep sense of malaise, a fear of the “higher breeds” of men dying out, with themselves as the first to wither away.

The philosophers of vitalism were not speaking from a fullness of life but from a knowledge that they were lacking it. They looked back to the Achaeans as though Achilles himself was a libation, a sacrifice which they could use to feed themselves.

They were starving, those men. Nietzsche was too sickly to handle the noise of the modern world. Stoddard was too peevish to handle the energy of the Italians and Irish flooding through the streets of Boston, who seemed above all to be alive, as though they had a food of their own they were living on.

It is a difficult aspect of Nietzsche’s, and BAP’s, reading of Homer that Homer himself does not seem to share it. These Argives of a half-millennium before the poet’s time were, after all, intensely concerned with their souls. There was just nothing they could do about them. This was, remember, pre-metempsychosis, pre-Plato. They could do nothing except make a name for themselves that would, with the cooperation of a bard, last, and so perpetuate their memory - and to do something else, something very practical: to encourage their descendants and those who remembered them to slake their thirst.

This was the cult of the ancestors, as Fustel de Coulanges describes in The Ancient City - this was the religion that braided itself in with the later religion of the Olympians. These ancestors, your household gods, were the lares of Rome, the teraphim that Rachel stole from her father Laban.

The key thing to remember about them is that they were, of course, dead.

Agamemnon’s Tears

Achilles, you will remember, does not die in the Iliad. But, in the moment of his aristeia, the moment that he finally faces Hector and strikes the killing blow, as that mist begins to pass over Hector’s eyes, he prophesies:

“Thy rage, implacable! too well I knew:

The Furies that relentless breast have steel’d,

And cursed thee with a heart that cannot yield.

Yet think, a day will come, when fate's decree

And angry gods shall wreak this wrong on thee;

Phoebus and Paris shall avenge my fate,

And stretch thee here before the Scaean gate.” [5]

Paris, with the help of Apollo, will send an arrow, poisoned like a serpent’s tooth, which will strike Achilles in his heel - that one still-mortal spot where his mother, the nymph Thetis, held him as she dipped him in the Styx, burning away almost all his mortality with death.

Almost all. Struck, Achilles will die.

When Odysseus and his men set off in their ship from the island of the nymph, or possibly witch, Circe, and

The sail stretched taut as she cut the sea all day

and the sun sank and the roads of the world grew dark,[6]

Then:

They came to that place to which she had directed them,

the outer limits, the Ocean River’s bounds

where Cimmerian people have their homes—their realm and city

shrouded in mist and cloud.

They beached their craft. Near to the entrance to Hades, these people live where

The eye of the Sun can never

flash his rays through the dark and bring them light,

not when he climbs the starry skies or when he wheels

back down from the heights to touch the earth once more—

an endless, deadly night overhangs those wretched men.

…Here at the spot

Perimedes and Eurylochus held the victims fast,

and I, drawing my sharp sword from beside my hip,

dug a trench of about a forearm’s depth and length

and around it poured libations out to all the dead,

first with milk and honey, and then with mellow wine,

then water third and last, and sprinkled glistening barley

over it all.

The shades are beginning to pay attention. Odysseus vows to

all the dead, to the drifting, listless spirits of their ghosts,

that when he gets home he will give them more libations, that he will kill for the dead blind prophet Tieresias the best ram of his own herd. His vows and prayers “invoke the nations of the dead,” and then, over the other offerings, he cuts the throats of the sheep.

and the dark blood flowed in—and up out of Erebus they came,

flocking toward me now, the ghosts of the dead and gone …

Brides and unwed youths and old men who had suffered much

and girls with their tender hearts freshly scarred by sorrow

and great armies of battle dead, stabbed by bronze spears,

men of war still wrapped in bloody armor—thousands

swarming around the trench from every side—

unearthly cries—blanching terror gripped me!

The one thing that Homer knows for sure about the dead is that, lifeless, they crave life. More, they crave blood.

It was to Persephone, primarily, that Odysseus prayed, as he waited there, fending off the hungry ghosts. It was often thought that she was the one who would allow the shades this respite, these nibbles of grain, these sips of wine and blood.

I don’t know about you, boys

But if you’re like me then hanging around

This old manhole is bringing you down

Six-feet-under getting under your skin

Cabin fever is a-setting in

You're stir crazy, stuck in a rut

You could use a little pick-me-up

I can give you what it is you crave

A little something from the good old days…[7]

One of these is the ghost of his companion Elpinor, just killed in Circe’s house. Elpinor begs him to not forget him, but to

Perform my rites, and plant on my tomb that oar

I swung with mates when I rowed among the living.[8]

Odysseus promises, and they sit and grieve together,

Trading our bleak parting words,

I on my side, holding my sword above the blood,

he across from me there, my comrade’s phantom,

dragging out his story.

And finally Tieresias appears: the shade of a prophet brought up from his death by the rites performed by a king on instruction from a witch.

Saul, disguised, had gone to the witch of Endor and said to her, “Divine for me by a spirit and bring up for me whomever I shall name to you.” What she literally is, what a witch is, in this case, is a א֖וֹב, the owner of a ritual pit, an ‘ov. What Saul says is “Use your ritual pit to conjure up for me the one I tell you.” And, after some persuasion, she does so. And Samuel’s shade appears. “Why have you disturbed me by bringing me up?” he asks Saul.[9]

Tieresias’ shade arrives. He asks Odysseus,

“What brings you here, forsaking the light of day

to see this joyless kingdom of the dead?

Stand back from the trench—put up your sharp sword

so I can drink the blood and tell you all the truth.”[10] 

5- Odysseus Questions the Seer Tiresias, Alessandro Allori, 1580

He drinks the dark blood. And, refreshed, he prophesies. If Odysseus cannot rule himself and his men, curb their wild desire and curb your own, a prospect about which Tieresias seems (one might add, prophetically) to be skeptical, then he will indeed come at last to Ithaka, but

you will find a world of pain at home,

crude, arrogant men devouring all your goods,

courting your noble wife, offering gifts to win her.

No doubt you will pay them back in blood when you come home!

And Tieresias departs, telling him that if he permits any other shade to drink the blood it too will be able, for the moment, to have the breath to speak.

And his mother’s shade approaches. And she drinks.

And I, my mind in turmoil, how I longed

to embrace my mother’s spirit, dead as she was!

Three times I rushed toward her, desperate to hold her,

three times she fluttered through my fingers, sifting away

like a shadow, dissolving like a dream, and each time

the grief cut to the heart, sharper, yes, and I,

I cried out to her, words winging into the darkness:

‘Mother—why not wait for me? How I long to hold you!—

so even here, in the House of Death, we can fling

our loving arms around each other, take some joy

in the tears that numb the heart. Or is this just

some wraith that great Persephone sends my way

to make me ache with sorrow all the more?’

My noble mother answered me at once:

‘My son, my son, the unluckiest man alive!

This is no deception sent by Queen Persephone,

this is just the way of mortals when we die.

Sinews no longer bind the flesh and bones together—

the fire in all its fury burns the body down to ashes

once life slips from the white bones, and the spirit,

rustling, flitters away … flown like a dream.

But you must long for the daylight. Go, quickly.

Remember all these things.

And she goes.

Then the shades of the great ladies of the earth parade before him, those daughters of men who, because they were beautiful, were desired by the sons of God, and who gave birth to heroes half-divine as a result of these couplings: Tyro, Antiope, Alcmene, Leda, Iphimedeia, and many others. Neither their divine lovers nor their sons, those mighty men of renown, can change their fate. This is just the way of mortals when we die.

But they, after all, are women. What of those men who proved themselves in battle, who made names for themselves so great that these years later lesser men than they use them as Twitter handles, their faces as their avis, with laser eyes added? What of that greatness and that strength of will?

Agamemnon’s shade approaches.

He knew me at once, soon as he drank the blood,

and wailed out, shrilly; tears sprang to his eyes,

he thrust his arms toward me, keen to embrace me there—

no use—the great force was gone, the strength lost forever, now,

that filled his rippling limbs in the old days.

And he’s not alone. There is one greater still, and when he drinks he hails the one who’s called him up:

‘Royal son of Laertes, Odysseus, man of tactics,

reckless friend, what next?

What greater feat can that cunning head contrive?

What daring brought you down to the House of Death?

— where the senseless, burnt-out wraiths of mortals make their home.’

Odysseus, appalled, addresses his old companion:

But you, Achilles,

There is not a man in the world more blest than you–

There never has been, never will be one.

Time was, when you were alive, we Argives

honored you as a god, and now down here, I see

You lord it over the dead in all your power.

So grieve no more at dying, great Achilles.’

I reassured the ghost, but he broke out protesting,

‘No winning words about death to me, shining Odysseus!

By God, I’d rather slave on earth for another man–

Some dirt-poor tenant farmer who scrapes to keep alive—

than rule down here over all the breathless dead.”

It is the choice which, 2500 years later, in London, another poet would invert:

Is this the Region, this the Soil, the Clime,
Said then the lost Arch-Angel, this the seat
That we must change for Heav’n, this mournful gloom
For that celestial light? Be it so, since he
Who now is Sovran can dispose and bid
What shall be right: fardest from him is best
Whom reason hath equald, force hath made supream
Above his equals. Farewel happy Fields
Where Joy for ever dwells: Hail horrours, hail
Infernal world, and thou profoundest Hell
Receive thy new Possessor: One who brings
A mind not to be chang’d by Place or Time.
The mind is its own place, and in it self
Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav'n.
What matter where, if I be still the same,
And what I should be, all but less then he
Whom Thunder hath made greater? Here at least
We shall be free; th’ Almighty hath not built
Here for his envy, will not drive us hence:
Here we may reign secure, and in my choyce
To reign is worth ambition though in Hell:
Better to reign in Hell, then serve in Heav’n.
[11]

Christian men who are drawn to these visions of Hellenic splendor, that vitality, who find themselves falling for the propaganda, and who even now are thinking that if Achilles cannot be their model, Milton’s Satan may be: all I ask is that if they will not believe Moses or the Apostles, they at least believe Homer. At least take Achilles at his word; he is a better Christian than those Christians. He would not scorn to serve a King so great. More, he would not spurn his own joy, and play false with his own life. He had more of a taste for life, an appetite for it, than Satan ever did.

All Good Adventure

I am a woman, and I am a sailor: it will probably come as no surprise that it is the Odyssey rather than the Iliad which grabs my heart - the sheer joy of the mast stepped, the running gear rattling through the blocks as the wind bellies out the white sail and snaps it taut and the black prow of the hollow ship cuts through the wine-dark sea.

But there’s something impossible at the center of the Odyssey: a circle that must be squared if our hearts are to be satisfied. It is this: it is Odysseus’ yearning for home that gives him the adventure, and it is only in having the noble purpose of going home to take up his rule in Ithaka, to love Penelope and raise Telemachus, that he has the adventures with his men. It is this paradox that is the heart of Odysseus’ situation, which is the human situation.

To reject the quest for home, with all its overtones of honor, wife, son and goods and land, and taking up the responsibilities of manhood, in favor of a mere roving out in search of adventure, is to be only half a man.

But to have nothing in your heart that, at home, longs for the sea - this too is to be lessened. We yearn, and we are made to yearn: we are made to be at our truest when we are at our hungriest, and we are made to be satisfied. How is this possible, and what could be its consummation? Is it the sea we yearn for? Or something beyond the sea?

6- Odysseus and the Sirens, Anon, c 475 BC,

How dull it is to pause, to make an end,

To rust unburnish’d, not to shine in use!

As tho’ to breathe were life! Life piled on life

Were all too little, and of one to me

Little remains: but every hour is saved

From that eternal silence, something more,

A bringer of new things; and vile it were

For some three suns to store and hoard myself,

And this gray spirit yearning in desire…

         There lies the port; the vessel puffs her sail:

There gloom the dark, broad seas. My mariners,

Souls that have toil’d, and wrought, and thought with me—

That ever with a frolic welcome took

The thunder and the sunshine, and opposed

Free hearts, free foreheads—you and I are old;

Old age hath yet his honour and his toil;

Death closes all: but something ere the end,

Some work of noble note, may yet be done,

Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.

The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks:

The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs: the deep

Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends,

’T is not too late to seek a newer world.

Push off, and sitting well in order smite

The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds

To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths

Of all the western stars, until I die.

It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:

It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,

And see the great Achilles, whom we knew…[12]

But there again, we know that there is something more, something that this desire implies about a goal worth striving for, a race worth running. This place where Achilles may be - it is not the place where they last saw him. Hades was the end of all adventure - not as in its goal, but as in its cessation. What these men sought, what we seek, is the end of adventure in a different sense:

Be glad thou sleeper and thy sorrow offcast; I am the gate to all good adventure.

This is adventure’s purpose, its telos, which contains in it all that adventure itself is, as well as all that is home; all that is arete as well as all that is goodness.

It is not enough after all just to head out as a mercenary, any more than it is enough to just have a vacation. Not any more. One must have a fight that is worthy, a cause that is just. The vitalists tell men that they should be unashamed and straightforward in their desire for fame for fame’s sake - that they should shun milksop ideas of service and the good. But those in whose hearts are not just the Iliad but the Romances, the Matters of Britain and of France, cannot be satisfied with this. They must have the joy of fighting back to back with comrades on behalf of a just Lord. Their splendor must be more than splendor, because it must be glory. Their fame must be more than fame, because it must be honor.

And Roland, fearless as a lion or leopard brought

To bay at last, called to the men of France

With words inspiriting. Then once more replied

To Oliver: “Friend, of this no more! for here

In Ronceval are twenty thousand Franks,

But not one coward. It is Frankish law

That every man must suffer for liege lord

Or good or ill, or fire or wintry blast,

Ay, truly, must not reck of life or limb.

Bestir you, comrade! Grasp your lance, and I

My Durendal, bestowed by the King’s hand.

Whoever wears it after me shall say:  

‘This was the sword of one who fought till death.’[13]

It’s not that an aristeia is nothing. It is that an aristeia, in Nietzche’s sense, is not enough. Christ, through his chivalry, has spoiled our taste for the pure booty-getting adventure leading to a striking death, not because we want less, but because we want more. An aristeia that is merely a moment of greatness, the solipsistic reflection of the noble action for the sake of the perpetuation of one’s own memory, forever weakening, will not satisfy. Having a hint of a far city, a treasure hidden in a field, a quest that is worthwhile, we can’t any more be content with mere tourism. Having had word of the God who strove with Jacob, you can’t be content to seek the blessing of another. Having heard tell of a King who is worth your pledge of life and limb, you can’t any more be content with the life of a sellsword.

A while back it was fashionable to talk, in a warning that rang to some like a hope, about the “return of the strong gods.” Chesterton reminds us of where this hope leads:

What have the strong gods given?

Where have the glad gods led?

When Guthrum sits on a hero’s throne

And asks if he is dead?[14]

There is no life in vitalism. There is no joy in Hades. The pagan world was sad. It was a world where finally everything ran out of energy and all vitality ended in the world beneath, which was above all hopeless. The best you could hope for was that you would be remembered for a while, that your descendants would remember to feed your shade sips of wine and a handful of grain occasionally. Life, above all things, for those first vitalists, was something that ran down.

The Bronze Age

Hesiod, writing around 700 BC, and more or less a contemporary of Homer, had his own things to say about the men of what he too called the Bronze Age. He called them this to show their falling away in goodness and peace from those who lived in the silver age and above all the age of gold, the rule of Kronos. They were

terrible and strong. They loved the lamentable works of Ares and deeds of violence; they ate no bread, but were hard of heart like adamant, fearful men. Great was their strength and unconquerable the arms which grew from their shoulders on their strong limbs.[15] 

But he meant as well exactly the same thing that contemporary anthropologists mean: “Their armour was of bronze… and of bronze were their implements: there was no black iron.” They were not the generation of Achilles, but the one before, and

these were destroyed by their own hands and passed to the dank house of chill Hades, and left no name: terrible though they were, black Death seized them, and they left the bright light of the sun.

This was the age that ended in the Flood: their violence climaxed when one of their kings, Lycaon, sacrificed a boy in Zeus’ name, and Zeus, appalled at this which he had not dreamed of demanding, began the rains, to cleanse the earth from the wrongs of men. Deucalion and his wife Pyrrha survived in the vessel that he built on instruction from Prometheus.

The Age of Heroes came next, Odysseus and Achilles and all their crew, born when the gods slept with human women. The chronology may seem off to readers of Genesis, because we are used to thinking of all the Nephilim as dying in the flood, but this is not what the text says:

The Nephilim were on the earth in those days—and also afterward—when the sons of God went in to the daughters of humans, who bore children to them. These were the heroes that were of old, warriors of renown.[16] 

7-Perseus and Medusa, Cellini, 1545

This gods-and-human women cohabitation problem was clearly not solved by the flood, as both Hesiod and the scripture attest: Goliath of Gath was one of the Nephilim, and when the advance scouts of the Israelites, post-Exodus, came back to Moses and Aaron,

they brought to the Israelites an unfavorable report of the land that they had spied out, saying, “The land that we have gone through as spies is a land that devours its inhabitants; and all the people that we saw in it are of great size. There we saw the Nephilim (the Anakites come from the Nephilim); and to ourselves we seemed like grasshoppers, and so we seemed to them.”[17] 

Hesiod took himself to be of the generation, broadly speaking, after those heroes - he lived around 500 years after them, after the fall of Troy as both Schleimann’s trowel and Heroditous’ tradition tells us, but there had been an intervening dark age, and so to him, as to Homer, that time seemed storied, as the time of Arthur does to us. Of his and Homer’s own age, he says “Would that I were not among the men of the fifth generation, but either had died before or been born afterwards! For now truly is a race of iron…”

And it’s going, he says, to get worse.

Zeus will destroy this race of mortal men also when they come to have grey hair on the temples at their birth. The father will not agree with his children, nor the children with their father, nor guest with his host, nor comrade with comrade; nor will brother be dear to brother as aforetime. Men will dishonour their parents as they grow quickly old, and will carp at them, chiding them with bitter words, hard-hearted they, not knowing the fear of the gods. They will not repay their aged parents the cost of their nurture, for might shall be their right: and one man will sack another's city. There will be no favour for the man who keeps his oath or for the just or for the good; but rather men will praise the evil-doer and his violent dealing. Might will be right and reverence will cease to be; and the wicked will hurt the worthy man, speaking false words against him, and will swear an oath upon them.[18]

This is not Plato’s age, but Homer’s. Look far as you can back and you will see no time when the law of God, written on their hearts, did not tell men that might does not make right. There is no amoral past of heroes: those men who act according to that maxim never were held innocent: not by Homer’s age or their own, not by gods or men. And generation by generation, life waned along with goodness. The world was running down.  

Far Too Easily Pleased

Or could there be something else? That was the question that returned. Pandora had opened a jar, and out of it had flown every evil of the world. And at the very end, Hesiod says, “only Hope remained there in an unbreakable home within under the rim of the great jar, and did not fly out at the door.”

That hope, by Plato’s time, was beginning to take on a particular shape. Callicles, in the Gorgias, represents a more civilized, or at least citified, version of what Hesiod would call the men of the Bronze Age, and what BAP assigns to the Heroes: he is a disguised version of Alcibiades, and he claims the approbation of Pindar for his approach, in a half-remembered quote; this argument

“makes might to be right, doing violence with highest hand; as I infer from the deeds of Heracles, for without buying them—” I do not remember the exact words, but the meaning is, that without buying them, and without their being given to him, he carried off the oxen of Geryon, according to the law of natural right, and that the oxen and other possessions of the weaker and inferior properly belong to the stronger and superior.[19]

This is the idea of natural law that many on the dissident right, notably Nick Land and the original crew of Neoreactionaries, have embraced: gnon. But Socrates won’t leave him alone with this belief. A man must not just have the arete of Achilles, but the other kind of arete as well: something much closer to what we know as virtue. A man may think that what he loves is his own strength or success, but these are, Plato shows, not enough.

Lewis describes this: our desires are not “too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”[20]

8- Nicolas-Andre Monsiau, Aspasia Conversing with Socrates and Alcibiades, 1801

“To be always thirsty and always drinking, always hungry and always eating -” this is the aim of life, says Callicles, laughing at those fools, the temperate men. Would you say the same of being always itchy and always scratching, asks Socrates? Is there really nothing above appetite by which to judge it? Surely this is not so. And Callicles agrees - “Do you really suppose that I or any other human being denies that some pleasures are good and others bad?”[21]

But if not pure will, then what? The desire and satisfaction of the desire for renown, for a name sung by the poets - even that is not the thing-in-itself, not the thing you really want.

SOCRATES: Because, if you remember, Polus and I have agreed that all our actions are to be done for the sake of the good;—and will you agree with us in saying, that the good is the end of all our actions, and that all our actions are to be done for the sake of the good, and not the good for the sake of them?—will you add a third vote to our two?

CALLICLES: I will.

SOCRATES: Then pleasure, like everything else, is to be sought for the sake of that which is good, and not that which is good for the sake of pleasure?

CALLICLES: To be sure.

Socrates goes on to extract from Callicles the admission that the proper job of the orator is to draw his assembled hearers to the good of their souls, and to the true political good, rather than to flatter them or simply tell them what they want to hear.

SOCRATES: I am contented with the admission that rhetoric is of two sorts; one, which is mere flattery and disgraceful declamation; the other, which is noble and aims at the training and improvement of the souls of the citizens, and strives to say what is best, whether welcome or unwelcome, to the audience; but have you ever known such a rhetoric; or if you have, and can point out any rhetorician who is of this stamp, who is he?

CALLICLES: But, indeed, I am afraid that I cannot tell you of any such among the orators who are at present living.

SOCRATES: Yet, surely, Callicles, if you look you will find such a one. Suppose that we just calmly consider whether any of these was such as I have described. Will not the good man, who says whatever he says with a view to the best, speak with a reference to some standard and not at random; just as all other artists, whether the painter, the builder, the shipwright, or any other look all of them to their own work, and do not select and apply at random what they apply, but strive to give a definite form to it? The artist disposes all things in order, and compels the one part to harmonize and accord with the other part, until he has constructed a regular and systematic whole; and this is true of all artists, and in the same way the trainers and physicians, of whom we spoke before, give order and regularity to the body: do you deny this?

CALLICLES: No; I am ready to admit it.

SOCRATES: Then the house in which order and regularity prevail is good; that in which there is disorder, evil?

CALLICLES: Yes.

SOCRATES: And the same is true of a ship?

CALLICLES: Yes.

SOCRATES: And the same may be said of the human body?

CALLICLES: Yes.

SOCRATES: And what would you say of the soul? Will the good soul be that in which disorder is prevalent, or that in which there is harmony and order?

CALLICLES: The latter follows from our previous admissions.

SOCRATES: What is the name which is given to the effect of harmony and order in the body?

CALLICLES: I suppose that you mean health and strength?

SOCRATES: Yes, I do; and what is the name which you would give to the effect of harmony and order in the soul? Try and discover a name for this as well as for the other.

CALLICLES: Why not give the name yourself, Socrates?

SOCRATES: Well, if you had rather that I should, I will; and you shall say whether you agree with me, and if not, you shall refute and answer me. “Healthy,” as I conceive, is the name which is given to the regular order of the body, whence comes health and every other bodily excellence: is that true or not?

CALLICLES: True.

SOCRATES: And “lawful” and “law” are the names which are given to the regular order and action of the soul, and these make men lawful and orderly:—and so we have temperance and justice: have we not?

CALLICLES: Granted.

SOCRATES: And will not the true rhetorician who is honest and understands his art have his eye fixed upon these, in all the words which he addresses to the souls of men, and in all his actions, both in what he gives and in what he takes away? Will not his aim be to implant justice in the souls of his citizens and take away injustice, to implant temperance and take away intemperance, to implant every virtue and take away every vice? Do you not agree?

SOCRATES: For in my opinion there is no profit in a man’s life if his body is in an evil plight—in that case his life also is evil: am I not right?

CALLICLES: Yes.

SOCRATES: When a man is in health the physicians will generally allow him to eat when he is hungry and drink when he is thirsty, and to satisfy his desires as he likes, but when he is sick they hardly suffer him to satisfy his desires at all: even you will admit that?

CALLICLES: Yes.

SOCRATES: And does not the same argument hold of the soul, my good sir? While she is in a bad state and is senseless and intemperate and unjust and unholy, her desires ought to be controlled, and she ought to be prevented from doing anything which does not tend to her own improvement.

CALLICLES: Yes.

SOCRATES: Such treatment will be better for the soul herself?

CALLICLES: To be sure.

SOCRATES: And to restrain her from her appetites is to chastise her?

CALLICLES: Yes.

SOCRATES: Then restraint or chastisement is better for the soul than intemperance or the absence of control, which you were just now preferring?

CALLICLES: I do not understand you, Socrates, and I wish that you would ask some one who does.

What Socrates is getting at is that desire itself, to be itself, to be satisfiable in a way that is not ultimately ashes, must be desire for the good - that is what desire is for, and one must temper and guide desire towards that which is truly desirable, truly noble, truly the fullness of joy.

Plato’s project to show that all that men do in fact love is only the Good in its various disguises. What is it? The thing which lovers love, the thing which men desire, the thing that seems to always be just beyond description. And our souls matter, our selves matter, because they must not make a mistake in their desire— they must throw off all falsehood and break through to wisdom and their own true delight, and to attain it, they must have justice in their souls, or they will not be able to steer their craft to that far shore.

With this idea of the Good, with this increased concern for the state of the psyche, the soul, came a different kind of hope.

It was a strange kind of hope. It wasn’t just the philosophers who were beginning to take hold of new ideas. The poets, too, who after all are something like seers, seemed to be beginning to describe something else.

They were retelling the old stories, the stories Homer knew - but they were retelling them differently. You see it in Pindar and in Hesiod. The general consensus seemed to be that Persephone was the one who governed the passage over the river Lethe to the realm of Elysium. The dead there still were dead, were shades. But there was a kind of… I can only describe it as a stirring, in the realm of the dead, in those later days that approached the turning of the age.

Owen Barfield describes this unease, in his Orpheus. Persephone is attempting to claim Eurydice for Elysium, for that area of the world of the dead under her direct command, and Hades resists. “Tell me,” asks Persephone, “why do you strive to bar the entrance to Elysium?”

Hades: There is a plant which prospers far too well

In that mild air — Disloyalty to Hell!

Above they call it “Goodness.” Underground

We strip away that high falutin’ sound

And call it — faugh! the thing’s a poison tree —

The very core of all disloyalty — [22]

He praises a servant-spy, explaining to her that

Twas through his eyes

I pierced the dangerous ferment of that Scum

Of Hell — the spirits in Elysium!

Their stubborn stand against our corporate death

Amazed me: I enquired what lay beneath,

And learned from him the truth — the Blest up there

Somehow keep contact with the Upper Air!

Persephone: What do you fear?

Hades: I will not let my act

Facilitate some vague subversive pact —

The little leak that ends a cataract!

 

But this possibility of such a danger, such subversion of the rule of death, was not known to Homer; it was only discerned perhaps beginning in 500 BC. As though the dead were beginning to raise their heads, and watch for something coming.

Around the same time as Pindar, far across the Mediterranean, another inspired poet wrote, almost in direct response to Hesiod’s prophecy that the father will not agree with his children, nor the children with their father, nor guest with his host, nor comrade with comrade; nor will brother be dear to brother as aforetime. Men will dishonour their parents as they grow quickly old, and will carp at them, chiding them with bitter words, hard-hearted they, not knowing the fear of the gods. They will not repay their aged parents the cost of their nurture, for might shall be their right. 

“Behold,” this other poet-seer wrote, speaking in the voice of the god,

I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction.[23]

Every spring, beginning with the Mycenceans whom their descendents called Achaeans and Argives, through Homer’s time and Plato’s, until the rise of the city on the seven hills, some version of the rites continued.  They drank the cup. The “ear of grain was reaped in silence.”

The Trojan Horse

And then, one Spring, something else happened.

We lose this because we think of something exclusively Christian when we think about where Jesus descended, on Holy Saturday, if we think about it at all, or maybe something Jewish. And when we hear Jesus’ words to Peter, we think that the Gates of Hell will not prevail because ... what? They won’t be able to keep Jesus from rising? Or maybe just, Satan will lose? Well, of course these are not wrong. And of course Sheol is a Jewish word and idea.

But what Jesus said to Peter was this: ἐπὶ ταύτῃ τῇ πέτρᾳ οἰκοδομήσω μου τὴν ἐκκλησίαν, καὶ πύλαι ᾅδου οὐ κατισχύσουσιν αὐτῆς. Upon this Rock I will build my Church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.

Jesus went into Hades. He broke down the gates, from the outside.

9- Anastasis, orThe Harrowing of Hell, Anon, 1351

They weren’t primarily gates to keep prisoners in at all. They never had been, though they were that too.

They were a stronghold. They were defensive gates. And God was on the offensive, now.

Jesus goes to the cross as a young knight to a joust, in Piers Ploughman, and in the Dream of the Rood, and in so many of those earliest of English poems: he is “mankindes yonge king.” “What is he, this lordling, that cometh from the fight?”[24] ask the angels witnessing Christ’s descent on Holy Saturday in William Herebert’s 1333 poem. It is a translation, more or less, of Isaiah 63:

Who is this who comes from Edom,

    in crimsoned garments from Bozrah,

he who is splendid in his apparel,

    marching in the greatness of his strength?

“It is I speaking in righteousness,

    mighty to save.”

and it is in his apparent defeat that he is victorious. “None of the archons of this aeon understood this,” St. Paul writes to the Corinthians, “for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.” Death swallowed him up, and in the abundance of his life, it was death that died.

It was something like a trick. You might even say it was something like a Trojan horse.

It was his Mother who had first seen the shape of this jailbreak, that topsy-turvy reversal of the arrow of entropy, that wild infusion of the eternal kind of life into the death-doomed world early on. It called out of her, the first to receive life into herself, a cry of absolute joy:

Magnificat anima mea Dominum

Et exultavit spiritus meus in Deo salutari meo…

And she’s the one who goes on to foretell the Carnival nature of God’s rule, the overturning of the merely humorlessly strong. It is of course disconcerting for the worshipers of sheer strength to contemplate a God who became a baby, and then, when he grew up, ran afoul of the authorities, and was killed. But there is something in that which, once it is tasted, does not allow us to go back to the simpler story. It is Christianity that gave us the taste not just for Arthur but for Robin Hood. “That a good man may have his back to the wall is no more than we knew already,” Chesterton reminds us,

but that God could have His back to the wall is a boast for all insurgents forever. Christianity is the only religion on earth that has felt that omnipotence made God incomplete. Christianity alone felt that God, to be wholly God, must have been a rebel as well as a king. Alone of all creeds, Christianity has added courage to the virtues of the Creator. For the only courage worth calling courage must necessarily mean that the soul passes a breaking point -- and does not break.[25] 

Only a God who became a man, in other words, could have his own aristeia.

And that made a difference to what it meant to be a hero. Any pagan Anglo-Saxon thane could, rising in his might, be a warlord who brought his men to heel. But it took a Christian to be a king like David: a king who was an outlaw at the same time.

Stiff, strange, and quaintly coloured

As the broidery of Bayeux

The England of that dawn remains,

And this of Alfred and the Danes

Seems like the tales a whole tribe feigns

Too English to be true.[26]

But it isn’t only an English thing, nor even only a European or Western thing, this aspect of Christianity that has a kind of hilarity at the heart of it. You can see this in every culture that the gospel has touched, and compared to this, the thing that the pagans seem to do is to cling to power like Saul to his spear, while David was away up in the hills with his men.

david and orpheus

And it is the outlaw shepherd king, the king who was a bard, uniquely gifted at the lyre, who was the type of our Lord.

Christ walks the world again, His lute upon His back,
His red robe rent to tatters, His riches gone to rack,
The wind that wakes the morning blows His hair about His face,
His hands and feet are ragged with the ragged briar’s embrace,
For the hunt is up behind Him and His sword is at His side, . . .
Christ the bonny outlaw walks the whole world wide,

Singing: “Lady, lady, will you come away with Me,
Lie among the bracken and break the barley bread?
We will see new suns arise in golden, far-off skies,
For the Son of God and Woman hath not where to lay His head.”

Christ walks the world again, a prince of fairy-tale,
He roams, a rascal fiddler, over mountain and down dale,
Cast forth to seek His fortune in a bitter world and grim,
For the stepsons of His Father’s house would steal His Bride from Him;
They have weirded Him to wander till He bring within His hands
The water of eternal youth from black-enchanted lands,

Singing: “Lady, lady, will you come away with Me,
Or sleep on silken cushions in the bower of wicked men?
For if we walk together through the wet and windy weather,
When I ride back home triumphant you will ride beside Me then.”

Christ walks the world again, new-bound on high emprise,
With music in His golden mouth and laughter in His eyes;
The primrose springs before Him as He treads the dusty way,
His singer’s crown of thorn has burst in blossom like the may,
He heedeth not the morrow and He never looks behind,
Singing: “Glory to the open skies and peace to all mankind.”

Singing: “Lady, lady, will you come away with Me?
Was never man lived longer for the hoarding of his breath;
Here be dragons to be slain, here be rich rewards to gain . . .
If we perish in the seeking, . . . why, how small a thing is death!”
[27]

What happened, when Christ was crucified?

Langland describes it:

One like to the Samaritan · and somewhat to Piers Plowman.
Bare-foot on an ass’s back · boot-less came riding,
Without spurs or spear · lively he looked,
As is the way with a knight · that cometh to be dubbed,
To get him gilt spurs · or shoes slashed.
Then was Faith in a window · and cried ‘a! fili David!’
As doth a herald at arms · when the adventurous come to joust.
Old Jews of Jerusalem · for joy they sang,

Benedictus qui venit in nomine Domini.

Then I asked of Faith · what all that affair meant,
And who should joust in Jerusalem · ‘Jesus,’ he said,
‘And fetch what the Fiend claimeth · Piers' fruit the Plowman.’
‘Is Piers in this place?’ quoth I · and he looked on me,
‘This Jesus of his nobility · will joust in Piers’ arms,
In his helm and in his hauberk · humana natura;
That Christ be not known here · for consummatus Deus,
In Piers’ garment the Plowman · this pricker shall ride;
For no dint shall him hurt · as in deitate Patris.’

Christ jousts with death and Satan on the cross, his human nature half disguise and half armor, on behalf of the poem’s Everyman: Piers Ploughman is Adam, is you, is me. He fights and he wins.

The prize yet hath he gained · for all his great wound.

For your champion of chivalry · chief knight of you all,

Yields him defeated in the running · right to Jesus’ will.

For be this darkness done · his death will be avenged,

And ye, lordlings, have lost · for Life shall have the mastery.

As the author of Hebrews describes it:  “We see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels for the suffering of death, crowned with glory and honour; that he by the grace of God should taste death for every man. Forasmuch then as the children are partakers of flesh and blood, he also himself likewise took part of the same; that through death he might destroy him that had the power of death, that is, the devil.”

Langland describes what happened next:

Again the light bade unlock · and Lucifer answered,
‘What lord art thou?'’quoth Lucifer · ‘quis est iste?’
‘Rex gloriae’ · the light soon said,
‘And lord of might and of main · and all manner of virtues;
dominus virtutum;
Dukes of this dim place · anon undo these gates!
That Christ may come in · the King’s Son of heaven.’
And with that breath Hell broke · and Belial’s bars,
Inspite of wight or ward · wide open the gates.

“He broke the everlasting bolts,” says Firmicus Maternus,

and the gates of brass were shattered at his command… See, after three days there rises a more glorious dawn, the sun has the beauty of his earlier light restored to him. Christ, the almighty God, stands forth illuminated by yet brighter rays. The redeeming Godhead is full of joy and the multitudes of the just and the holy accompany his triumphal chariot.[28]

It is the coming of this One that we remember when we sing at Easter, O, gladsome Light…

Phôs hilaròn hagías dóxēs, athanátou Patrós,

ouraníou, hagíou, mákaros, Iēsoû Christé…

Or at Christmas, as Charles Wesley translated Malachi, Hail, the Sun of Righteousness / Hail the Heav’n-born Prince of Peace!

Jesus did what Orpheus did not. That Spring, two thousand years ago, the cyclical nature of the world of the Greeks, such as it was, was definitively interrupted. Persephone, having eaten the fruit, having paid for it, having paid for it for millennia, had that debt paid. Eurydice was rescued. Demeter’s tears were dried. He set all those captives free:

Brides and unwed youths and old men who had suffered much

and girls with their tender hearts freshly scarred by sorrow

and great armies of battle dead…

Barfield, because of this, can send Orpheus back after his first failure. The regime of death has been struck a death blow. It is losing its grip:

Hades

Back! Back! You shall not pass!

Orpheus

Hades, our time is come! We pass, my lady leading, to Elysium.

Hades

Think you I shall cease fighting?

Eurydice

Nay, fight on Hades!

Farewell, I cannot see thee now for clouds of bees.

Fight on, fight, hate, devour — and so, even so, shall sweet

Out of the strong come forth, out of the eater meat.

In Barfield’s account, Persephone herself had been a plant: it had been a plot all along, from the maiden’s first eating of the fruit.

Persephone

Have I done well, oh Mother, promising much in a sign?

Demeter

Thou hast done well, oh Maid, and I hold thy promise as mine.

Persephone

Shall his agony profit at all? Shall Man at the last be whole?

Demeter

He shall ascend Parnassus, awake, and find his soul:

Proteus shall work unsleeping for ever, and forms shall flow

As the meanings of words a poet has mastered. It shall be so

That Zeus shall abandon to Cronos the antique starry crown,

And softly out of Olympus the high gods shall come down

Shedding ambrosial fragrance in clouds that for ever abide,

And earth shall be covered with blushes and make herself sweet as a bride.

And her light shall be liquid as honey, her air taste good like bread

In the mouths of them that dwell upon earth, and all shall be fed.

Demeter is speaking as Mary, here, the Mother whose cooperation with the intent of heaven effects the rescue of her daughter Eve, and whose obedience and joyful good will makes possible the strange and complex plan that had been the intention of the Most High from before the Fall, the plan of which the healing of the breach with God was only one aspect: the human race inheriting the kingdom, the full inclusion of the children of men in the council of the Lord, the marriage of heaven and earth.

Mary indeed “came weeping, a slave among slaves, and rejected,” and it was because of that that she, and all her daughters whose souls are willing to magnify the Lord, has now “come flushed from the full-flushed wave, and imperial, her foot on the sea.”

11 - Jean_Jouvenet_-_Magnificat 1716

This is the Mother who is also a Bride:

Who is she that looketh forth as the morning, fair as the moon, clear as the sun, and terrible as an army with banners?

Take, Eat

It’s absurd to look to the pagan world nostalgically, for the life, the vitality, that we think was there, which is missing from our own drab modern lives. It was itself waiting, and hoping. You crave life? So did the Eleusinian initiates.

Many in the online right advocate a return to paganism because Christianity has shown itself to be either too weak to withstand the modern world or itself the source of the weakness of the modern world; it is lily-livered and in any case it is dying, and “western man” must look to his own older gods to equip him for survival.

I would never say that it is foolish to look back, to ‘RETVRN’.  It’s not that we can’t go back because one must “go with the current of history” or anything like that. We must do no such thing. But Chesterton reminds us of the folly of believing with too-great credulity the undertakers of Christianity.

All that world of Guizot and Macaulay and the commercial and scientific liberality was perhaps more certain than any men before or since about the direction in which the world is going. People were so certain about the direction that they only differed about the pace.

[But] the whole world being divided about whether the stream was going slower or faster, became conscious of something vague but vast that was going against the stream. Both in fact and figure there is something deeply disturbing about this, and that for an essential reason. A dead thing can go with the stream, but only a living thing can go against it. …

The world is still puzzled by that movement; but most of all because it still moves…

Again and again, before our time, men have grown content with a diluted doctrine. And again and again there has followed on that dilution, coming as out of the darkness in a crimson cataract, the strength of the red original wine. And we only say once more to-day as has been said many times by our fathers: ‘Long years and centuries ago our fathers or the founders of our people drank, as they dreamed, of the blood of God. Long years and centuries have passed since the strength of that giant vintage has been anything but a legend of the age of giants… We have grown used to dilution, to dissolution, to a watering down and went on forever. But Thou hast kept the good wine until now.’

The problem isn’t that we can’t escape our post-Christian state by cosplaying the Dionysiads in the woods of New Hampshire, or by slonking eggs, or by pacing the streets of Manila at four in the morning, looking for an aristeia.

It’s rather that if we could get back there, it would not be enough.

It’s rather that the vitalists themselves, the Bronze Age men themselves, and their remote Roman descendants, were trapped in the reality, and in the knowledge of the reality, of death. They loved vitality because they had none - not the kind they needed.

We can’t go back not because we are too Christianized to re-enter that world, to drink that cup and witness that ear of corn reaped in silence. Rather, we can’t go back because what that world was waiting for, what it was hoping for, has already happened. Christ came for this: to “deliver them who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage.”

The dead want life. They are hungry and thirsty. What that means is that they want grain and wine and above all blood. What slakes their thirst, for a few moments, is the blood of lambs.

Odysseus offered lambs as a sacrifice, there on the shore in the land of the Cimmerians, where the sun did not shine. He promises Tiereisas a ram, a male lamb, the very best of his flock, unblemished, when he returns to Ithaka.

Jesus didn’t just break down the gates of Hades. He gave the dead his body to eat, his blood to drink. He gave them life. He gives his body and blood to us too, for us to eat and drink. And he told us exactly what he was doing.

Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day. For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven. Your ancestors ate manna and died, but whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.

Nietzscheans tend, in their dislike of Christianity, to not understand it very well. They tend to think that the Christian promise is something like the promise of Elysium: a place for your soul, your psyche, that immaterial part of yourself which they take us to believe is the whole of the self that we should be concerned with, to find rest.

But that is not what Christianity promises. Most certainly one should be concerned with one’s psyche. But it is the destiny of the psyche and the soma to be reunited. Christianity tells of a time when the dead will be brought out of their graves, when their sinews will reknit and flesh renewed, made into a new kind which does not wither, that is flush with the eternal kind of life.  When they will once again come out from the shadows and see the sun dawning for them, into the light of an eternal day.

It is death that is the problem. And it is death that was by God’s own death undone.

“Ἐγὼ ἦλθον ἵνα ζωὴν ἔχωσιν, καὶ περισσὸν ἔχωσιν,” he says to his disciples.  Ζωὴν, that is: zoë.

He came that we might have life, and have it abundantly.

Beloved, now are we the sons of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that, when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is.

12- The Resurrection, School of Raphael, Jean-Pol Grandmont

Footnotes

[1] Road to Hell II, Hadestown, Anais Mitchell

[2] Euripides, Herakles, Line 1340ff

[3] Callicles, in Plato’s Gorgias,

[4] BAP, Caribbean Rhythms, Eps. 135-135

[6] This and the following selections are from Homer, Odyssey, Book 12, Robert Fagles, trans.

[7] Anaïs Mitchell, “Our Lady of the Underground,” Hadestown

[8] This and the following are once again Homer, Odyssey, Book 12, Robert Fagles, trans.

[11] John Milton, Paradise Lost, Book 1, Ln 242ff

[12] Alfred, Lord Tennyson, “Ulysses

[13] Anon., The Song of Roland, XCI

[14] G.K. Chesterton, “Ballad of the White Horse

[15] Hesiod, Works and Days, lines 106-201

[16] Genesis 6:4

[17] Numbers 13:32-33

[18] Hesiod, Works & Days, line 106ff

[19] Plato, Gorgias

[20] C.S. Lewis, “The Weight of Glory

[21] Plato, Gorgias

[22] Owen Barfield, Orpheus

[23] Malachi 4:5-6

[24] William Herebert, “Who is this that cometh from Edom?”

[25] G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, Chapter VIII

[26] G.K. Chesterton, Ballad of the White Horse

[27] Dorothy Sayers, “Desdichado,” Catholic Tales and Christian Songs

[28] Quoted in Karl Rahner, Greek Myths and Christian Mystery, p. 120-121

Susannah Black Roberts

Susannah Black Roberts is senior editor at Plough. She is a native Manhattanite. She and her husband, the theologian Alastair Roberts, split their time between Manhattan and the West Midlands of the UK.