Ask the Greeks: Love Hurts
Perhaps the most famous aspect of the Ancient Greek view of love is that it is personified by a goddess: Aphrodite. To be sure, Aphrodite’s enduring appeal has much to do with the fact that love is an important part of human existence. It seems fitting that a divinely beautiful goddess should remain, across the ages and across cultures, a symbol of the power of love.
But is Love a god, or goddess? From a modern secular perspective, polytheism is an old way of representing the forces of the universe and of human nature: thus each god in the Greek pantheon represents an important aspect of life, and culture: Zeus, the sky- and thunder-god, principle of cosmic order; Hera, goddess of marriage and family; Poseidon, god of seas and earthquakes; Demeter, goddess of fertility, agriculture, and the seasons; Apollo, god of light, knowledge, healing and sickness; Ares, god of war; Athena, goddess of wisdom; Hermes, god of commerce and emissary of the gods, etc. In the annals of Greek literature, there exists an authoritative account of the relationship of man and god in epic poetry. Hesiod’s Theogony recounts the origins of all things and the rise of the Olympian pantheon. Homer’s epic poems, the Iliad and the Odyssey, provide vivid accounts of the gods meddling in human affairs, and holding sway over individual and collective destinies.
Thus, as with other gods, Aphrodite’s fame can be credited not only to the domain over which she held sway – one of permanent relevance and interest – but also for the astonishing stories Ancient Greek mythmakers and thinkers have given us of her power over human lives. Modern readers who are looking for romantic inspiration in Ancient sources, however, are bound to be disappointed – or rather, surprised – by an overwhelmingly negative picture of love, cutting across all major genres: epic, lyric, tragic, and philosophic. For even in songs of praise of love, whether a personal confession or a choral ode, Ancient Greek voices can be heard paying respect to a deity they held in awe, in a tone of trembling and respect. For should they bear the brunt of Aphrodite’s designs…
In this article, I will review literary excerpts from the widely-used college textbook – the Norton Anthology of Classical Literature – that dramatize the controversy of love, covering three major genres from early Greek literature: epic, lyric and tragic poetry. As these excerpts are culled from “canonical” sources, I will make the claim – some would say it’s a bit of a bold leap – that these canonical sources, on account of their spread as cultural “currency” of the period, can come to represent of a general outlook and convey popular attitudes about love across the Ancient Greek world.
My program is as follows: I will begin this exploration with literary expressions of love that are closest to our modern sensibility, those of lyric poetry, to then dissect the more “foreign” expressions of love in Greek sensibility, in epic and tragic poetry. It is my overall aim to show that Ancient Greek literature, in its expression of common feelings or exceptional fates, held a religious view of love; Love was seen as a force that overpowered individuals much like a sickness, and thus to be held in respect, and be wary of.
Love begins with the self and the other, and a feeling about this other that is at once quite definite but also extremely difficult to describe. As humankind began to develop a written record, it also saw the birth of a new voice develop as a cultural norm: the private individual. This emergence of a private self, conscious as being separate from the gods and the supernatural, is especially evident in Greek lyric poetry.
Modern readers, accustomed to individualism, can readily find affinities with the accounts of love expressed by Greek lyric poets. Perhaps the most famous poet – or poetess – of the lyric canon is Sappho. Sappho’s poems were critically acclaimed in antiquity, and have remained objects of study by lovers of literature through the ages. Sappho’s appeal has much to do with her originality as with the affects she gives voice to, namely those of love.
Indeed, because of her constant treatment of this theme, Sappho’s name is on par with Aphrodite when we speak of Greek love poetry. The first poem we will cite exposes, in a highly original fashion, one of the most common tropes of Aphrodite’s reign: the power of love.
Some there are who say that the fairest thing seen
on the black earth is an array of horsemen;
some, men marching; some would say ships; but I say
she whom one loves best
is the loveliest. Light were to work makes this
plain to all, since she, who surpassed in beauty
all mortality, Helen, once forsaking
her lordly husband,
fled away to Troy-land across the water.
Not the thought of child nor beloved parents
was remembered, after the Queen of Cyprus
won her at first sight.
Since yound brides have hearts that can be persuaded
easily, light things, palpitant to passion
as am I, remembering Anaktoria
who has gone from me
and whose lovely walk and the shining pallor
of her face I would rather see before my
eyes than Lydia’s chariots in all their glory
armored for battle.
Here Sappho is celebrating the beauty of a girl whom she has loved. Power and beauty stand on equal grounds: after all, the beauty of Helen was the mover of spectacular armies. Such a legendary passion as that of Helen and Paris, all do remember, were at the origins of the Trojan War. The queen of Cyprus (Aphrodite) easily persuades, and all worldly cares are forgotten for the object of one’s love. Sappho thus acknowledges that amorous sentiment is a powerful driver of human passions, and a soul subjugated by beauty can never really recover: the memory of Anaktoria is too bittersweet to forget, and outshines the glory of armies.
As we will see, this theme of power and subjugation to love is constant in Greek verse, not only with Sappho. In describing the effects of love, however, Sappho’s acuity of vision remains unsurpassed:
Like the very gods in my sight is he who
sits where he can look in your eyes, who listens
close to you, to hear your soft voice, its sweetness
murmur in love and
laughter, all for him. But it breaks my spirit;
underneath my breast all the heart is shaken.
Let me only glance where you are, the voice dies,
I can say nothing.
but my lips are stricken to silence, under-
neath my skin the tenuous flame suffuses;
nothing shows in front of my eyes, my ears are
muted in thunder.
And the sweat breaks running upon me, fever
shakes my body, paler I turn than grass is;
I can feel that I have been changed, I feel that
death has come near me.
Had the subject of love been omitted, we could have easily read this poem as an account of physical illness! Sappho’s verse painstakingly describes the physical symptoms of lovesickness: the muting of the voice, the hot flashes and cold chills of fever, the pallor of the skin. Being love-struck literally brings one closer to death. Hardly the warm fuzzy feeling of a valentine’s date, or walk in the park with one’s love, hand in hand.
Of course, in Sappho’s poem, love goes unrequited. The object of her love is captive to another being, and Sappho feels the sharp pain of her love being out of reach. But this is precisely the situation that brings one to appreciate the power of love: a feeling of helplessness, of loss of control, of obsession. In Sappho’s poem, nothing else exists outside her passion. The object of love no longer in reach, her existence is reduced to pure passion without an object, the hell of pure subjectivity. Love here, is a sickness.
This extreme subjectivity, of course, came to characterize romanticism in the modern period. But we find proof of its origins in Greek lyric poetry wherever we look at the subject of love. In fragment 13, Sappho again, evokes the presence of Eros as both spiritual and physical:
Eros makes me shiver again
Strengthless in the knees,
Eros gall and honey,
Again, the bittersweet aspect of love, and one’s powerlessness to its effects. Ibycus, composing in the same period but standing worlds apart, also sings his subjugation to Eros. In his second fragment, we witness the same type of physical trembling and extreme helplessness described by Sappho:
from under dark eyelids, and casts me spellbound
into Aphrodite’s news where I lie caught
for I swear his mere approach makes me tremble
like an old champion chariot horse, as he
draws a swift cart unwillingly to the race.
Ibycus is even more “fatalistic”: Aphrodite here is a spellbinder, and no one can resist her spell. His perspective is that of an older man, who, despite his life experience – that “old champion” – can just as easily fall under Aphrodite’s designs, and thus remain a “chariot horse”. Under the reign of Aphrodite, he must forever remain in the race.
The theme of restlessness is taken to the grander scheme of things in Ibycus’ first fragment. Just as life is reborn is spring, so comes love, forever renewed. However, this bustling, joyous and boisterous renewal of nature is also accompanied by a dreadful “Thracian wind”:
In the spring time the Kydonian
quinces, watered by running streams,
there where maiden nymphs have
their secret garden, and grapes that grow
round in the shade of the tendriled vine,
Now in this season for me
there is no rest from love.
Out of the hard bright sky,
A Thracian north wind blowing
with searing rages and hurt – dark
pitiless, sent by Aphrodite – Love
rocks and tosses my heart.
To a modern reader, these two images of spring seem contradictory, even inappropriate. Spring come after the dead of winter, and is the season of happy renewal. But we would be well to remember again that this is a romantic vision of spring. Ibycus’ imagery works because it echoes real natural phenomenon: spring makes nature come to life, including harsh, “inexorable” northern winds. And both ancient and moderns will concur that nature can be at once both awesome and pitiless: Ibycus’ language shows that one cannot be a supplicant to Aphrodite!
From this quick survey of lyric works, we can surmise that the Greek attitude toward “love possession” was realistic, not romantic. Love is worshipped and feared as a goddess, and it seems no ordinary mortal can resist it. But what about heroes, can they resist the spell of Aphrodite?
To answer this question, we should turn to the master stories of Greek epic poetry to look for clues. Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey contain countless passages of heroes as playthings of the gods. And the theme of love is, it should be of no surprise, presented on an even playing field with all the other forces and passions that sway humans.
In fact, epic poetry allows us to formulate a simple definition of heroes, as exceptional humans living in favour and disfavour of the gods. Every significant challenge is caused by direct or indirect intervention of a god, and so is its successful resolution. Both epics have gods rooting for and against the heroes, including Aphrodite. Heroes then are great men (typically they are male) who live by the credo of their calling, often in reaction to the scheming of the gods.
Even if Aphrodite has a notable stage presence in the Iliad, it is not surprising to find more “aphroditic” themes at work throughout the Odyssey, because of the nature of the hero’s quest. Odysseus’ quest is to come home, and he is hampered by the god Poseidon in various ways. Indeed, Odysseus’ main challenge is to return home and win his wife back, not only from the suitors, but also from the effects of his long leave of absence. From the storyteller’s perspective, it makes sense that the obstacles he faces are not just physical ordeals, but also moral dilemmas.
Odysseus’ encounters with notable women represent this type of challenge. Early on in the epic, he decides to leave Calypso after living with her for nine years. Deep down, he is simply unhappy and yearns to be reunited with his wife. He is struggling to break free of the charms of a beautiful nymph, and fulfill his destiny, that of a mortal. In a later encounter with Phaeacian princess Nausicaa, Odysseus experiences extreme vulnerability of the physical and moral kind. Being a master of words, Odysseus can respond to the spellbinding beauty of these nymphs with his honeyed tongue, and thus remain unwavering in his quest.
But what happens when a goddess uses the means of a goddess? How can a mortal man resist? In Odysseus’ encounter with Circe, Homer provides us with another piece of the puzzle of love: no hero can resist the spells of a goddess unless aided by another god. In book X of the Odyssey, Odysseus attempts to rescue his companions from the clutches of Circe. Aided by Hermes, he is able to circumvent the effects of Circe’s potion, and thus be immune to her spells. As he lurches forward to kill her, Circe responds in a supplication (pp. 148-149):
“What man are you, and whence? Where are your city and parents?
The wonder is one me that you drank my drugs and have not been
enchanted, for no other man beside could have stood up
under my drugs, once he drank and they passed the barrier
of his teeth. There is a mind in you no magic will work on.
You are then resourceful Odysseus. Argeïphontes
of the golden staff was forever telling me you would come
to me, on your way back from Troy with your fast black ship.
Come then, put away your sword in its sheath, and let us
two go up into my bed so that, lying together
in the bed of love, we may then have faith and trust in each other.”
So she spoke, and I answered her again and said to her:
“Circe, how can you ask me to be gentle with you, when it
is you who turned my companions into pigs in your place?
And now you have me here myself, you treacherously
ask me to go into your chamber, and go to bed with you,
so that when I am naked you can make me a weakling, unmanned.
I would not be willing to go to bed with you unless
you can bring yourself, O goddess, to swear me a great oath
that there is no other evil hurt you devise against me.”
So I spoke, and she at once swore and oath, as I asked her,
But after she had sworn me an oath, and made an end of it,
I mounted the surpassingly beautiful bed of Circe.
As Odysseus “mounts Circe’s bed”, the reader is struck by a distinction, which must have been much sharper to Homer’s contemporary audience than it is to us: the act of sexual union vs. the thrall of passion. Thus, Odysseus the hero remains faithful to his wife by not succumbing to Eros, even as he beds a goddess!
Should we have missed the “nuance” of his act of resistance, the encounter with the Sirens should lay aside any further hesitation. In this famous episode of the Odyssey, Odysseus’ knows he is to be confronted with forces of seduction that are beyond his means to resist. How will he remain steadfast (pp. 164-165)?
One after another, I stopped the ears of all my companions,
and they then bound me hand and foot in the fast ship, standing
upright against the mast with the ropes’ ends lashed around it,
and sitting then to row they dashed their oars in the gray sea.
But when we were as far from the land as a voice shouting
carries, lightly plying, the swift ship as it drew nearer
was seen by the Sirens, and they directed their sweet song toward us:
‘Come this way, honored Odysseus, great glory of the Achaians,
and stay your ship, so that you can listen here to our singing;
for no one else has ever sailed past this place in his black ship
until he has listened to the sweet-honeyed voice that issues
from our lips; then goes on, well pleased, knowing more tnam ever
he did; for we know everything that the Argives and Torjans
did and suffered in wide Troy through the gods’ despite.
Over all the generous earth we know everything that happens.’
So they sang, in sweet utterance, and the heart within me
desired to listen, and I signaled my companions to set me
free, nodding with my brows, but they leaned on and rowed hard,
and Perimedes and Eurylochos, rising up, straightway
fastened me with even more lashings and squeezed me tighter.
But when they had rowed on past the Sirens, and we could no
hear their voices and lost the sound of their sining, presently
my eager companions took away from their ears the beeswax
with which I had stopped them. They then set me free from my
If we are not dealing directly with the workings of Aphrodite, we have selected this passage because it deals unequivocally with the superhuman qualities required to resist any spell from divine or semi-divine creatures. Odysseus can only resist beauty, charms, spells and potions, with the aid of the gods, or by constraining himself against his own nature. Here is a hero who knows he is human, all too human. And like his heroic successors in the tragic genre, he is ultimately fully conscious of his plight, and acknowledges that only divine assistance can put him on the right, or wrong track.
Thus we turn to the final part of our discussion, the controversy of love in Greek tragic poetry. Though entire tragic plots expose the effects of love identified above, we only wish to focus our attention on the salient facts of the tragic outlook: love is often seen as a curse. A single choral hymn taken from Euripides’ Hippolytus will summarize the core message of the “cursed blessing” of love (pp. 417-418):
Love, O Love, you that make well to the eyes
drops of desire, you that bring sweet delight
into the hearts that you with your force invade,
never to me appear in catastrophe,
never in discord come!
Since there exists no bolts of the fire and no
weightier bolt of the stars than that
arrow of Aphrodite hurled
out of the hands of Love,
Love, the child of the Highest.
Useless it is that still by Alpheus’ stream,
Useless it is by Phoebus’ Pythian shrines
for the land of Hellas to sacrifice more and more
blood of oxen, when we neglect to give
the honour that’s due to Love,
Love, the ruler of men, he who keeps the keys
of Aphrodite’s pleasantest dwelling-place,
he who ravages on his way,
bringing to mortals all
catastrophes at his coming.
O holy fortress of Thebes,
O fountain of Dirce, you
well could witness the force of Cypris’ coming.
For with thunder and lightning flash
she brought to her bed the mother of Bacchus, the Zeus-born,
and gave her a wedding
with death for a fate. She breathes
in terror on all
and flies on her way like a bee.
The image of Love in the chorus is at once as breathtakingly beautiful as it is terrifying; Love preys on us as she deems, and moves on carefree to the next flower after we have been pollinated… by its curse! We should dearly hope for its blessing, all the while dread its destructive force. Is this song of Love a celebration, a prayer, a complaint, a dirge? How should we hear this song, in light of our modern views of love? To be sure, the choral verse reminds us that we are in the register of religious language, and consciousness. It is difficult to grasp the precise meaning it may have had to Greek audiences, or find a common cultural point of reference. I would like to suggest instead that we could relate to the sentiment expressed in its universal appeal. To use the language of the chorus: who has not been “thunderstruck” with love? Do we not still today use the expression “falling in love”, to describe a spell-like state of infatuation, and its running amok our lives?
The description of this “curse” given by Phaedra’s nurse in Hippolytus makes the Greek view plainer:
Cypris is irresistible when in full force,
But gently visits those whose spirits yield to her;
And when she finds a man who’s proud and arrogant,
Of course she seizes him and makes a mock of him.
She ranges through the air, and in the surge of the sea
There Cypris is, and everything proceeds from her.
And she it is who plants in us and gives desire
From which all we inhabitants of earth are born.
The Dance of Eros and Thanatos
This account of the creative and destructive “justice” of love may well give moral justification the horrible ends of tragic heroines such as Medea or Phaedra, but it does tell us much why we find such strange familiarity in the accounts of love’s destructive path. I would like to suggest, in closing, that we might better understand this echoing of sensibility if we tried to take the Greek view of love as a whole. Based on a review of excerpts from three major genres of Greek literature, we can conclude that the Greeks were apprehensive of love. No romantic view of love existed in the modern sense of the word. Even in Plato’s world, physical and non-physical or ideal love was separate entities, or states of being.
We must conclude, based on the above-cited passages, that:
- Love was seen as a divine force that subjugated the wits of human beings.
- As with sickness, in the face of love, humans are but passive subjects, worthy of pity or solicitude.
- Humans who are subjugated by love tend to lose control of their lives because of the “will of Aphrodite”. In this way, one could say that passionate love is a curse.
Whether this tendency of dread is a realist or a fatalist attitude will vary with literary genres, and individual personality. What is certain is that Greek literature gives a fairly consistent picture of love as both a powerful, potentially destructive force and a generative principle of life, worthy of celebration, with all due dread and awe.