|"Nott" (Germanic Goddess of Night) by Arbo (19th century)|
When misery comes at first one struggles against it. One tries to make things right, shake it off, force a smile, rise above it all and be kind and open hearted. Then hour by hour and day by day one somehow forgets how to be happy. Dull resentment, a sense of isolation and a sort of hopeless surrender to melancholia entrenches itself. One stops trying … and one stops crying. At this point one is lost in misery – yes, Gods of darkness and depression, it is easy to have faith in you.
But who are these Gods? To start off with we acknowledge that any God that can give a blessing can take that same blessing away – thus, for example, Apollo is the God of both healing and disease. In a similar vein, Ovid tells us that ancient Roman farmers made offerings to the God of wheat leaf rust, Robigo, not because they wanted Robigo to visit their crops, but to persuade her to stay away from them. It follows then that if we honour the Gods of misery, perhaps we can placate them, perhaps they will leave our sides sooner, though some of us, let’s be honest, take some kind of enjoyment in their company, lugubrious though it is.
Miseria and her extended family
The first deity of Misery is surely the Goddess Miseria herself, numen (spirit) of misery and wretchedness, Cicero refers to her as a child of Night, alongside some other unhappy siblings, including Dolus (Deceit), Metus (Anxiety), Invidentia (Envy), Mors (Death), Tenebrae (Darkness), Querella (Lamentation), Fraus (Fraud/Delusion) and Pertinacia (Obstinacy). Another deity of misery, said by Hesiod to also be a child of Night, is Discordia – numen of discord (Eris to the Greeks). A very famous myth relating to her is perhaps a parable explaining her origins, namely wounded pride/ego. The story goes that, incensed at not being invited to the wedding of Peleus and Thetis, Discordia threw a golden apple, inscribed with the words “for the most beautiful”, amongst the divine wedding guests. Paris, prince of Troy, was given the task of deciding for whom the apple was intended. He decided in favour of Venus, but in doing so he insulted Minerva and Juno, who each claimed the apple as their own – consequently, thereafter they were said to be enemies of Troy. Meanwhile, Venus rewarded Paris by uniting him with Helen of Troy – the face that launch'd a thousand ships – and thereby the Trojan war began.
Mars and Bellona
Which brings us to that other great God who has a hand in misery, sometimes described in myth as Discordia’s brother – Mars, God of war. On the upside he is the God of bravery in battle and military success* – “twas the sword that won for a fierce race empire and glory” (Ovid) – but there is no getting away from his role as the lord of violence. In Rome he was also known, inter alia, as Mars Ultor (Mars the Avenger), which hints at deep anger, another aspect of fierce Mars. For Mars is surely not just the God of violence, but also the emotions from which violence arise. Delighting in it all is the Goddess of war, Bellona. If we consider the words belligerent and bellicose, which derive from her name, we get an idea of her nature. She readies us for the fight and her minions are aggression and confrontation – sometimes this is what we need, this is how we protect ourselves as freeborn men and women, but sometimes we also hurt ourselves this way. Ancient priests are said to have ritually gashed their arms with knives during sacrifices to her (Shelton at 70), and there are some among us who understand that urge, deranged though it is.
|"Melencolia I" by Dürer (1514)|
Moving away from the force and energy of Mars and Bellona, Melancholia (alternately, Melancholica) is surely a deity, though not one normally associated with the ancient world. When I was a depressive teenager I had a copy of Dürer’s Melencolia I on my wall. I recently had the opportunity to see an authentic print of this beautiful engraving at an exhibition and I was struck by the power of it. It sucks you in, like a miserable and heavy mist. The child that happily plays beside her is no match for her apathetic majesty. And she is beautiful – strangely and miserably beautiful.
“Ah, what can ail thee, wretched wight, alone and palely loitering; the sedge is wither'd from the lake, and no birds sing [Keats, La Belle Dame sans Merci]”.
Depression is seductive, it is lonely, it is sombre, but somehow alluring. Eventually though, one grows weary of weariness itself and looks for a cure. Thus we come to the Gods of what we call mental illness. Bacchus is the foremost God of madness, but of the manic and psychotic kind more than the melancholic kind. If we seek a remedy for madness we look to Bacchus but we also look to Apollo, God of healing, and to Apollo’s kin, Aesculapius, God of medicine, and Salus, Goddess of good health and well being. We might also look to Minerva, Goddess of skillful thought and action, and, no matter what kind of misery we experience, we should definitely look to gentle Venus, Goddess of healing love, and Concordia (Concord), said to be Venus’ child by Mars.** Pax (Peace), who Ovid tells us was traditionally worshipped alongside Janus (God of beginnings), Salus and Concordia (on 30 March), is also worthy of reverence, as is Fides (Trust/Faith) and Spes (Hope), and no doubt so many others … but this is a blogpost on misery, not joy, so as I will proceed no further with this optimistic tone, except to note that there is a salve which I know always works well, but it requires patience – time. Time heals all wounds as they say. Time sweeps away misery, in my experience, only to usher her back again. All things are transient, including states of mind. The trick, I suppose, is not to get lost in what is essentially temporary.
* Mars also has an important agricultural aspect, for he protects farmland from invasions of disease, insects and animal predators, including human (Shelton at 372).
** While we do not often associate Mars with love, concord and peace it is fair to say he has a role in promoting such things. Ancient Romans were true children of Mars and yet the Pax Romana was certainly one of their greatest achievements, with war being one of its antecedents.
Written mostly ab lib with facts checked at:
- Cicero, De Natura Deorum @ www.thelatinlibrary.com
- Cicero, The Nature of the Gods, Oxford World's Classics
- Ovid, Fasti @ www.theoi.com
- Shelton, As the Romans Did: A Sourcebook in Roman Social History (2nd ed), Oxford University Press
- Traupman, The New College Latin and English Dictionary (3rd ed), Bantam Books