Monday, October 29, 2018

Small Gods

For the past month or so, I have been reading ancient Greek poetry in translation -- mostly poems from The Greek Anthology, but other lyric poetry as well.  I recently came across these lovely lines by Hesiod:

To spirits thrice ten thousand by God's will 'tis assigned
Through all the fruitful earth to watch o'er humankind.
Deathless, hidden in darkness, wandering everywhere,
They watch all judgments given, all evil that men dare.

Hesiod (translated by F. L. Lucas), from Works and Days (lines 252-255), in F. L. Lucas, Greek Poetry for Everyman (J. M. Dent 1951), page 205.

The lines brought to mind a passage from Giacomo Leopardi's Zibaldone, the collection of thoughts that Leopardi entered in notebooks between 1817 and 1832:

"What a marvelous time it was when everything was alive, according to human imagination, and humanly alive, in other words inhabited or formed by beings like ourselves; when it was taken as certain that in the deserted woods lived the beautiful Hamadryads and fauns and woodland deities and Pan, etc., and, on entering and seeing everything as solitude, you still believed that everything was inhabited and that Naiads lived in the springs, etc., and embracing a tree you felt it almost palpitating between your hands and believed it was a man or a woman like Cyparissus, etc., and the same with flowers, etc., just as children do."

Giacomo Leopardi, Zibaldone (translated by Kathleen Baldwin, Richard Dixon, David Gibbons, Ann Goldstein, Gerard Slowey, Martin Thom, and Pamela Williams) (Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2013), page 69.

Leopardi is perhaps best known for his dire and unremitting pessimism about the nature of human existence.  His philosophical pessimism has an important historical element.  He believes that the modern world (for Leopardi, who lived from 1798 to 1837, the modern world was the first three decades of the nineteenth century) is a shadow of its ancient former self -- to wit, the world of Greece and the world of Rome.  Leopardi held this view at the tail end of the so-called Age of Enlightenment.  Where, then, does that leave us?

I turn to Hesiod again:

Earth bare the long-ridged mountains, within whose fair depths dwell
The Nymphs divine, in the valleys that run 'neath peak and fell.

Hesiod (translated by F. L. Lucas), from Theogony (lines 129-130), in F. L. Lucas, Greek Poetry for Everyman, page 206.  "Bare" is used in the sense of "bore," or "gave birth to."

Leopold Rothaug (1868-1959), "Classical Landscape" (1939)

I can hear, faintly, the cry of enlightened moderns (which, dear readers, may include some (most?) of you):  "But we have progressed beyond such fanciful fairy tales!  Get with the program."  Ah, yes, I am well aware of the "progress" humanity has made in the intervening centuries.  I can look around and see all that we have wrought.  Which is why I do my best to look for Immanence in the beautiful particulars of the World.  Which is why I am open to the possibility of small gods dwelling in vales, meadows, groves, springs, and rills.

I am the god of the little things,
     In whom you will surely find,
If you call upon me in season,
     A little god who is kind.
You must not ask of me great things,
     But what is in my control,
I, Tychon, god of the humble,
     May grant to a simple soul.

Perses (4th century B.C.) (translated by Rennell Rodd), in Rennell Rodd, Love, Worship and Death: Some Renderings from The Greek Anthology (Edward Arnold 1919), page 23.

Here is an alternative translation:

Little am I among lesser gods; but call in season
     Even on me, and I hearken.  Yet ask me for nothing grand.
Things that a god of the people may look to give in reason,
     When a poor labourer prays him -- these lie in Tychon's hand.

Perses (translated by F. L. Lucas), in F. L. Lucas, Greek Poetry for Everyman, page 280.

The humble, nature-dwelling gods who appear in the poems of The Greek Anthology generally wish us well, and have no hidden agendas.  Is this simply a human attempt to put a benign face upon nature, to construct a comforting fiction?  Perhaps.  Mortality is, after all, the thread that runs through the Anthology, and through most of ancient Greek verse.  But it seems to me that Leopardi's observation is beautifully correct:  the Greeks viewed -- and inhabited -- the World in a way that we can never fully comprehend.

Here at the three-ways, near the foam-white strand,
I, Hermes, by the breezy orchard stand.
Rest from the road to weary men I bring:
Beneath me wells a cool, untroubled spring.

Anyte (3rd century B.C.) (translated by Robert Furness), in Robert Furness, Translations from The Greek Anthology (Jonathan Cape 1931), page 39.

Another translation of the same poem:

Beside the grey sea-shingle, here at the cross-roads' meeting,
     I, Hermes, stand and wait, where the windswept orchard grows.
I give, to wanderers weary, rest from the road and greeting:
     Cool and unpolluted from my spring the water flows.

Anyte (translated by F. L. Lucas), in F. L. Lucas, Greek Poetry for Everyman, page 319.

This much is certain:  we are not entitled to think of the ancient Greeks as "naive" or "quaint," nor are we in a position to patronize them.  Look around you.

I, Pan the Shoreman, on this foreland wet,
Pan, warden of this good anchorage, was set
By fishermen.  Anon I mind the creel;
Anon I watch these long-shore netters' weal.
But sail you on; and I shall send behind,
For this beneficence, a gentle wind.

Archias (1st to 2nd century A.D.) (translated by Robert Furness), in Robert Furness, Translations from The Greek Anthology, page 43.

Friedrich König (1857-1941), "The Silent Pond" (1910)

Have I taken leave of my senses?  That is entirely possible.  Or perhaps I am not willing to foreclose any possibilities.  Think of it as a pantheistic variation on Pascal's Wager.  Or let's just say that I am persuaded by this poem, of which I am quite fond, and which has appeared here in the past.


That we've broken their statues,
that we've driven them out of their temples,
doesn't mean at all that the gods are dead.
O land of Ionia, they're still in love with you,
their souls still keep your memory.
When an August dawn wakes over you,
your atmosphere is potent with their life,
and sometimes a young ethereal figure
indistinct, in rapid flight,
wings across your hills.

C. P. Cavafy (translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard), Collected Poems (Princeton University Press 1975), page 63.

Leopold Rothaug, "Far Away" (1945)

Hesiod's phrase "spirits thrice ten thousand," in addition to bringing to mind the passage from Leopardi, prompted me to think of this as well:


When sorrow lays us low
for a second we are saved
by humble windfalls
of mindfulness or memory:
the taste of a fruit, the taste of water,
that face given back to us by a dream,
the first jasmine of November,
the endless yearning of the compass,
a book we thought was lost,
the throb of a hexameter,
the slight key that opens a house to us,
the smell of a library, or of sandalwood,
the former name of a street,
the colors of a map,
an unforeseen etymology,
the smoothness of a filed fingernail,
the date we were looking for,
the twelve dark bell-strokes, tolling as we count,
a sudden physical pain.

Eight million Shinto deities
travel secretly throughout the earth.
Those modest gods touch us --
touch us and move on.

Jorge Luis Borges (translated by Hoyt Rogers), in Jorge Luis Borges, Selected Poems (edited by Alexander Coleman) (Viking 1999), page 451.

As I walked down an avenue of emptying trees recently, it occurred to me that our life unfolds between the dry leaves scattered on the ground and the limitless sky overheard (on that day, blue, streaked with long wispy lines of white cloud feathers).  This is where the small gods may dwell.  "Thrice ten thousand" or "eight million," who can say?

Ferdinand Brunner (1870-1945), "The Summer Morning" (1913)


hart said...

I am a frequent reader, though I rarely comment, but this was a lovely, well put-together group, I had to tell you how much I appreciated it. The paintings go perfectly.

Spottydog said...

Thank you for such a beautiful post.
The small gods inhabit the glorious woods where the spotted dog and I walk daily. On a logical level - maybe not,but on that intuitive,feel it in your gut level - they are most certainly there.

Wurmbrand said...

This posting reminded me of a passage in a letter C. S. Lewis wrote after his late-in-life visit, with his wife, to Greece. "I had some ado to prevent Joy (and myself) from relapsing into Paganism in Attica! At Daphni it was hard not to pray to Apollo the healer [Joy was dying of cancer]. But somehow one didn't feel it wd. have been very wrong -- wd. have only been addressing Christ sub specie Apollinis. We witnessed a beautiful Christian village ceremony in Rhodes and hardly felt a discrepancy."

Dal;e Nelson

Unknown said...

Besutiful, thank you.

Mary said...

Thank you for this! When I was in grade school (way back in the Pleistocene, it seems), I was enchanted by the Greek gods and myths and all the things in nature that the gods personified or represented. I loved the idea of Eos getting up in the morning and opening the gates for the sun to rise through, for example, Your post makes me think I should reacquaint myself with the gods I used to read about, and also discover some of the smaller ones I never knew. To start with, I think I may need to make a modest altar to the god Tychon.

Thank you also for the last poem in your post, Shinto. I know those humble windfalls well, but I couldn't have described them so beautifully. Maybe it was one of those small kindly gods who sent a broad-winged hawk to my front yard for a few minutes last week when I needed to be taken out of myself; I like the idea, anyway.

I hope you're well.

Stephen Pentz said...

hart: Thank you very much for your kind thoughts. I'm pleased you liked the poems and the paintings. The Greek verses about gods have been lingering in my mind, so I was happy to find an opportunity to bring them together with the other poems and the paintings.

I greatly appreciate your long-term presence here. Thank you for visiting again.

Stephen Pentz said...

Spottydog: Thank you very much for the kind words about the post.

I agree: the presence of the small gods is not a matter of "logic" -- it is, as you say, a matter of feeling and intuition. And, as you also say, it helps to spend time out where they are likely to dwell. "Proof" in the modern sense is not forthcoming.

Thank you again.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr. Nelson: Thank you very much for sharing that lovely and touching passage, which is new to me. It fits perfectly here. The sentences about praying to "Apollo the healer" are wonderful, moving, and exactly right.

Thank you, as always, for sharing your knowledge of Lewis (and all else): you continually remind me that I need to remedy my ignorance of his work. Thank you for stopping by again, and for sharing this.

Stephen Pentz said...

Unknown: You're welcome. Thank you very much. And thank you for visiting.

John Maruskin said...

A true animist I know and feel everything you've described in this post. Thank you. When my dog and I walk through the meadows and woods around our home each day, I experience everything Leopardi wrote. The quotation from Perses reminded me of this wonderful poem by Evelyn Underhill. One of my favorites.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mary: I'm pleased you liked the post. It is wonderful how, after millennia, humans are still drawn to the Greek gods and goddesses, isn't it? We each have our own reasons. But it does say something about the constancy of human nature, and/or about reality itself. Who knows?

Yes, Tychon is an attractive god, isn't he? Reminiscent of the Shinto gods. These "small kindly gods" -- to use your phrase -- seem sufficient to me. Such as the hawk that appeared for you.

I'm doing well. Thank you for asking. As always, thank you very much for visiting, and for sharing your thoughts. I hope you have been enjoying autumn.

John Ashton said...

Stephen, I like the words of Leopardi.

The poems and paintings too, particularly The Silent Pond, which reminds me of a pond discovered on a walk in Northumberland a few years ago. It was a damp, overcast day and we had become lost on a walk, despite having a map. We came upon a small plantation of trees and discovered a large pond, almost hidden from view among the trees that grew almost to the water’s edge. The water was black, still and eerily silent. As we turned from the pond to try and find the path we’d lost we were suddenly aware that the ground underfoot was swarming with baby toads, most no bigger than my thumbnail. It was difficult to know where to step without treading on them. The contrast between the silent pond, the gloom under the trees and the ground swarming with bright new lives gave both moment and the place an almost tangible sense of being present to presences beyond ourselves.

Such moments, I think, leave us open to the possibility of belief. Perhaps there are small gods, and even though it may be contradictory, it is certainly healthier, in my opinion, than to take a position of absolute certainty which fundamentally excludes any form of thinking that would acknowledge the possibility.

Your post reminded me of this passage from E M Forster’s, The Longest Journey.

“The great elms were motionless, and seemed still in the glory of midsummer, for the darkness hid the yellow blotches on their leaves, and their outlines were still rounded against the tender sky. Those elms were Dryads – so Rickie believed or pretended and the line between the two is subtler than we admit”.

Thank you for another delightful and thought provoking post.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr. Maruskin: Thank you very much for sharing those thoughts. I'm pleased you liked the post.

It's nice to hear about these shared experiences and feelings. We are each unique souls, but the underlying human experience of the World is something that can be shared. (Although it may be difficult -- or impossible -- to put into words. Which is to be expected, and not necessarily regretted.)

On a lighter note, I'm pleased to find both you and Spottydog mentioning your canine companions as participants in your experiences. As a dog lover, I can attest to the wondrous presence and power of those souls as we make our way through the World. But that's a whole other topic.

Thank you as well for the poem by Evelyn Underhill: both she and the poem are new to me. The poem fits very well with the poems in the post. "I come in the little things" is a lovely phrase, as is: "Pass the low lintel of the human heart." I've now done a bit of preliminary research about her, and I am intrigued: mysticism has been of interest to me since (long ago as a sophomore in college) I encountered William James's discussion of it in The Varieties of Religious Experience.

Thank you for visiting, and for taking the time to share your thoughts.

Stephen Pentz said...

John: First, please accept my apologies for the delay in responding to your comment: I am on a road-trip down the Pacific coast, and had been driving 6 to 7 hours a day since last Friday -- in the evening, I have been too tired to prepare a fitting response to your thoughts. I have now arrived, and am looking out onto the blue Pacific, which ends in Japan (or so I am wont to imagine as I read haiku -- I brought a volume of R. H. Blyth's Haiku along).

Second, thank you very much for your thoughts. Your description of the surprise discovery of the pond is wonderful. It is fitting that you found it when you were "lost" on your walk, isn't it? It is often the case that we come across the wondrous when we are "lost." I am also reminded of the discussions you and I have had over the years about the beauty of the "commonplace": the pond, the gloomy light under the trees, and the baby toads might seem to be "commonplace," but they are in fact miraculous.

Your thought about "such moments . . . leav[ing] us open to the possibility of belief" is perfect. I'm pleased you liked the passage from Leopardi: it embodies this approach to the World, doesn't it? Although I think that Leopardi is mourning the irrevocable loss of "the possibility of belief" (to use your phrase again), rather than holding out hope that such belief is still possible.

I completely agree with your statement that leaving open this possibility is "certainly healthier . . . than tak[ing] a position of absolute certainty" which excludes such possibilities. As we have also discussed in the past, the modern belief that humanity has reached the pinnacle of "progress" and "enlightenment" is, to say the least, mistaken.

Finally, thank you very much for the passage by Forster, which is new to me, and which is beautiful and true: both the description of the elms and the sky, and the thought of the elms as Dryads -- a marvelous thought. "The line between the two is subtler than we admit." Perfect!

As ever, it is a pleasure to hear from you. Thank you for visiting, and for sharing your thoughts. I hope you have had, and are having, a delightful autumn.

John Ashton said...


There is no need to apologise. Your response is very much appreciated.
I hope you are enjoying your trip, looking out onto the blue Pacific reading haiku sounds wonderful.

Reading your reply led me to think about the countless factors that result in our being present at special moments and how easily they can be missed. Not getting lost on that day, retracing our steps a little sooner, being an hour earlier or later and that moment would never have happened in the way it did, things would not have been seen in the same way. This, to me is what makes these glimpses of commonplace so miraculous.

I think such moments can themselves open our minds. Often, when walking in woodland local to where I live, I have a sense of worlds so close, yet sometimes elusive too, because my own thinking can sometimes become fixed, and consequently closed to the possibility that there are dimensions which we can recognise without necessarily having to understand.

Let us be content with mystery. I’ve always liked these words of Wendell Berry, “The world is whole beyond human knowing… untouched by the little clockwork of explanation”.

Stephen Pentz said...

John: Thank you very much for those follow-up thoughts. Yes, how we happen upon these "special moments" (to use your phrase) is, as you say, "miraculous." It is the possibility of their occurrence that keeps me going out on my daily walks, even during the gloomy, wet days (months!) that are approaching. We never know what we will happen.

For some reason, Caspar David Friedrich's painting "Wanderer above the Sea of Fog" (as its title is often translated) came to mind as I was reading your observations: these "special moments" are rarely (if ever) like the moment depicted in that painting, are they? (Although it is a painting I am fond of.) As we have often discussed, beauty usually resides in the "commonplace" (which is never commonplace).

I have been reading Philippe Jaccottet's notebooks again, and I came upon this thought by him: "Mown fields, bordered by a semicircle of trees; it suddenly arrests your glance. It is a site. The invisible is hidden in its centre." Philippe Jaccottet (translated by Tess Lewis), Seedtime: Notebooks, 1954-1979 (Seagull Books 2013), page 93. I think that Jaccottet's "the invisible is hidden in its centre" goes well with the lovely thought by Wendell Berry that you have provided.

I wholeheartedly agree with your observations that "such moments can themselves open our minds," and that we have to be wary of the danger that "[our] own thinking can sometimes become fixed." But, as you suggest, we cannot consciously search for (or create) these moments. It is all chance and serendipity. One encounters this again and again in Jaccottet's notebooks. But this is true of much of the poetry and art that moves us: the smallest thing presents itself to a poet or an artist, and reveals beauty, truth, and mystery we could never anticipate or imagine.

Well, we should get out there and enjoy these waning days of autumn, shouldn't we? And put ourselves in the way of such moments. Thank you, as always, for sharing your thoughts, and for stopping by.

Wurmbrand said...

That Hesiod poem -- To spirits thrice ten thousand by God's will 'tis assigned
Through all the fruitful earth to watch o'er humankind.
Deathless, hidden in darkness, wandering everywhere,
They watch all judgments given, all evil that men dare -- is striking, in its combination of monotheism and polytheism. That's actually something like what we see in the Old Testament -- one creator God, but hosts of created gods too. I'll mention just chapter 2, verse 5, of 2 Chronicles.This turns out to be important in the argument of a book that's influenced my thinking ever since I read it inthe spring of 2000 -- Gregory Boyd's God at War.

Wurmbrand said...

A Cliché Came Out of Its Cage, by C. S. Lewis (1950)

You said ‘The world is going back to Paganism’. Oh bright
vision! I saw our dynasty in the bar of the House
spill from their tumblers a libation to the Erinyes,
and Leavis with Lord Russell wreathed in flowers, heralded with flutes,
leading white bulls to the cathedral of the solemn Muses
to pay where due the glory of their latest theorem.
Hestia’s fire in every flat, rekindled, burned before
the Lardergods. Unmarried daughters with obedient hands
tended it. By the hearth the white-arm’d venerable mother
domum servabat, lanam faciebat. Duly at the hour
of sacrifice their brothers came, silent, corrected, grave
before their elders; on their downy cheeks easily the blush
arose (it is the mark of freemen’s children) as they trooped,
gleaming with oil, demurely home from the palaestra or the dance.
Walk carefully, do not wake the envy of the happy gods,
shun Hubris. The middle of the road, the middle sort of men,
are best. Aidos surpasses gold. Reverence for the aged
is wholesome as seasonable rain, and for a man to die
defending the city in battle is a harmonious thing.
Thus with magistral hand the puritan sophrosyne
cooled and schooled and tempered our uneasy motions;
heathendom came again, the circumspection and the holy fears …
you said it. Did you mean it? Oh inordinate liar, stop.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr. Nelson: Thank you very much for your follow-up comments. Regarding the presence of polytheism in the Old Testament: this is an interesting subject, which I am not qualified to opine on. (My Lutheran upbringing in Minnesota is lost in the proverbial mists of time, save for fond memories of, for instance, Christmas pageants on snowy Christmas Eves.) I note that the verse you reference from Second Chronicles states (King James Version): "for great is our God above all gods." This is another subject that I am not qualified to opine on, except to say that I am fond of the "spirits thrice ten thousand" of Hesiod, and of the eight million Shinto gods (when I lived in Japan, I loved coming across sacred trees and rocks -- the dwelling places of gods/spirits ("kami")).

Thank you for sharing Lewis's poem, which is new to me. (I take it that he was not fond of Leavis or Russell!) Yes, there is an element of farce and/or unreality in contemplating a return to past "golden ages," isn't there? (Having now looked up the poem on the Internet, I see that Lewis also took a swipe at a wish to return to the world of Norse myth in the second section of the poem.) My (no doubt simplistic) view is that it has always been one World of mystery with different names placed on the mystery. As I'm sure you have noticed, I lean toward pantheism ("a pretty piece of paganism," I suppose), Buddhism, and Taoism. This is personal predilection, not a claim to wisdom or to knowledge of "truth." The paths are many.

As always, it is a pleasure to hear from you. Thank you again for sharing these further thoughts. I hope you had a wonderful Thanksgiving.