Friday, May 27, 2011

Book Review: Cult of Divine Birth In Ancient Greece've finally finished reading this book by Marguerite Rigoglioso. As usual, she outdoes herself as far as research is concerned. The author draws the picture, from ancient evidence, that Parthenogenesis, and those Goddesses called Parthenos, were not simply "virgins" but singular generative forces. She posits the theory that even Hieros Gamos, union with a god, was forbidden. The Hero was born of woman alone, the way drones are born of a Queen Bee.

There was too much, and yet somehow not enough: The book touches on Delphi, Delos, Dodona, and other sites. There is some discussion of Delphi and the oracle before Apollo came to be associated with it. It went on about the Pleadies as the divine source of humanity, about Athena, Artemis, Hera and others as Parthenogenic Goddesses and their cults. There were in-depth treatments of the concept of Hieros Gamos. She skillfully connected the dots of parthenogenic iconography and wrapped it up neatly with this excerpt from Homer, who I will never read in the same way again:

High at the head a branching olive grows
And crowns the pointed cliffs with shady boughs.
A cavern pleasant, though involved in night,
Beneath it lies, the Naiades delight:
Where bowls and urns of workmanship divine
And massy beams in native marble shine;
On which the Nymphs amazing webs display,
Of purple hue and exquisite array,
The busy bees within the urns secure
Honey delicious, and like nectar pure.
Perpetual waters through the grotto glide, 
A lofty gate unfolds on either side;
That to the north is pervious to mankind:
The sacred south t'immortals is consign'd.

This one passage sums up the entire body of evidence presented in the book for Parthenogenic cults in Greece. In the book, each of the following is discussed as a symbol for parthenogenesis:

Olive tree (sacred to Athena and Neith)
Cave, bowls, urns: womb, hi.
Weaving: Athena and Neith again
Queen Bees are parthnogenic
The "wind," particularly the North Wind as an instigator of parthenogenesis
Naiades and Nymphs as titles of a parthenogenic Priestess.

All that's missing is a bear, which is discussed in great detail along with cross-cultural references.

Was I impressed by this book? Meh. Not really. I think I've hit on why: There is talk of Greece, there is talk of Egypt, there is talk of Lybia and the rest of northern Africa. But why is there nothing about Italy? It's not like she didn't talk about the other neighbors. I was annoyed that she just plain syncretized Diana and Artemis, treated Greece as one whole unified country with one unified religion, and otherwise didn't look towards Sicily and bring her paper on Demeter and Proserpina and Lake Enna into the fold, so to speak, especially when evidence from the site supports her current work. There was nothing on the Romans or pre-romans to speak of either. You write a book about divine birth groups but don't include Vestal Virgins? Even if they were a pale shadow of what the other cults were, why not continue to syncretize with Hestia and investigate her cult?

I often point out how Italy was not one unified country until recently; Well neither was Greece. However, she seems to treat it as if it was. I do appreciate that she uses the lore about deities and sacred sites as clues to the earlier mythology and at least skims the surface of it in relation to the point of the book.

How can I read a book that proposes an awesome alternate theory for Daphne and Apollo and still leave it feeling unsatisfied? What was that, you say? An alternate Daphne theory? Well, not so much alternate as seen in a new light. Daphne is called a Nymph in all of the tales. Right there we have her, as per the author's theory, endowed with the title of priestess of parthenogenesis. She is, in some stories, related to a river god, in others an actual mortal king. The typical story is that she and her sister nymphs kill a man who dressed as a women to gain access to them and pretended to be one of them. They used spears, which was a secondary weapon of Artemis. So now we have Her title, her dedication to a Parthenogenic Goddess, and now enter her flight from Apollo. This echoes the flight of Syrinx from Pan. Daphne runs from Apollo and turns into a laurel tree to avoid hieros gamos to keep her (inferred) vows. The author briefly gets into shape shifting and trance and actual men as vessels for divine seed, but it's skimmed over in favor of the single payer system. Why no reference to the shape shifting of Italian Witches? Where is Actaeon? Why am I disappointed that this reads like a research paper and less like a narrative? I know it needs to be academic to avoid being fluff, but it still bothered me. When you have references to divine birth, the scientific reality of parthenogenesis, references to Atlantis, Amazons, oracles and shape-shifting, your research has to be top notch to be taken seriously at all.

But still... I hope her other book, Virgin Mother Goddesses of Antiquity, is a better ride.

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