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On Angels: Myth and Belief East and West, Part 4

by April 20, 2021

Written by Stefan Sencerz, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Part 1 and part 2 of this series focus on angels in the Western tradition. Part 3 focuses on the Eastern tradition as does the following article, the final installment in the series.

There are, of course, some dissimilarities between devas and angels. For one thing, angels are not born and seem to be everlasting. Devas are born (or reborn) (Rg Veda i.143.2 and x.129.6) and do not remain in their heavens eternally. Although their life-spans are very long, eventually they exhaust their karma and are reborn in a different realm.

Artist unknown

There are, however, some interesting similarities between them. Both devas and angels are purely spiritual (i.e., immaterial) beings. Devas seem to lack perfect knowledge or wisdom and generally do not interact with devas occupying plans of existence higher than their own.

They can also lack spiritual wisdom. For example, according to Kaushitaki Upanishad (Book 4), Indra was weaker than his adversaries, Asuras, before he come to know his own Atman (soul), suggesting a kind of spiritual awakening.

Indra and Sachi Riding the Divine Elephant Airavata, from a Panchakalyanaka (Five Auspicious Events in the Life of Jina Rishabhanatha ([Adinatha]), India

Perhaps most interestingly, both angels and devas display moral flaws. Some angels are excessively proud or jealous of humans. This leads to their rebellion against God and eventual fall. Similarly, many devas are too preoccupied with pleasures, failing to give proper respect to Buddha and his fully awakened disciples, who represent the perfect wisdom. Thus, they show a similar lack of humility.

Do angels and humans have more in common than we know? Could we, in fact, have been angels or devas in another life? The fact is, most of us do not remember our previous lives—should these exist. I surely do not. Maybe there is nothing to remember.

Maybe I have never been an angel and I have never fallen. Maybe I have always been just a bear, or a wolf, or a ghost, or a hungry spirit, or a human, or something. Maybe I am all of these at each and every moment. Maybe this is my one and only life. I dont know. This is perhaps why I myself lean towards a metaphorical interpretation of the Six Realms.

Seeing With Many Eyes by Greg Calise

When my mother took me on a tour of Auschwitz, where she had been imprisoned, it was obvious to me that she had endured and survived hell. What we do to animals, especially on factory farms, looks to me like condemning them to hell, too. When I observe politicians clinging to power, they apparently act like asuras. When I do something on the first instinct and only later think about it, I seem to be acting like an animal. And when I give in to my insatiate appetites, it seems like I am a hungry ghost (preta).

Thus, perhaps, I do simultaneously occupy all planes of existence implied by the Wheel of Life and Death. I am both a human and an animal, both a hungry ghost and a heavenly dweller, both a deva preoccupied by pleasure and an asura driven by anger and hate. The ultimate meaning of the myth may be that various dispositions and aspirations coexist in each and every one of us.

A great haiku master Kobayashi Issa (1763-1827), a devout Buddhist in Jōdo Shinshū or Amidist tradition, offers a poetic rendition of the myth of the Wheel of Life and Death. 

Traditional bhavachakra wall mural of Yama holding the wheel of life, Buddha pointing the way out, photo by Ms Sarah Welch, Seattle, Washington

His six-part poem (translated here by Robert Haas) is entitled The Six Ways”:

Hell

bright autumn moon –
pond snails crying
in the saucepan

The Hungry Ghosts

flowers scattering –
the water we thirst for
far off, in the mist

Animals

in the falling of petals–
they see no Buddha
no *Law

*“Law” is the translation of the Buddhist term Dharma” which could be also translated as the Truth”
Malignant Spirits (asuras)

in the shadow of blossoms,
voice against voice,
the gamblers

Men

we humans —
squirming around
among the blossoming flowers

The Heaven Dwellers

a hazy day —
even the gods
must feel listless

End of Part 4 of 4

On Angels: Myth and Belief East and West, Part 3

by April 13, 2021

Written by Stefan Sencerz, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Parts 1 and 2 of this series focus on angels in the Western tradition. To read them, click here and here, respectively.
Angels in the Eastern Tradition

According to the Buddhist and Hindu scriptures, humanity has been migrating in the Grand Wheel of Life and Death, driven by our own karma that we have accumulated since time immemorial.

The Grand Wheel of Life and Death

Our own deeds determine a position, or a form of rebirth, in one of the Six Realms of Existence”, defined as: humans, devas (heavenly dwellers, or as we might say in the West, angels), asuras (demi-gods or titans), animals, pretas (hungry and thirsty ghosts), or as beings tormented in one of numerous hells. What moves us from one realm to the other are emotions, dispositions, and blind desires, such as anger and hatred, cravings for pleasure, clinging to power and control. At the core of all of this is ignorance and lack of wisdom.

But no matter what drives us through the Wheel, no matter what obstacles and temptations we may encounter, and no matter what we are inclined to do, ultimately the decision is ours. Sometimes we yield to our cravings and attachments, and—driven by the winds of karma—continue being reborn.

However, we have an ability to transcend these desires, inclinations, cravings, and attachments and freely choose to follow the path of wisdom-compassion.

The realm of humans is considered the most auspicious in terms of spiritual awakening. In fact, some sources claim that it is the only condition allowing for such awakening or enlightenment.

Devas sporting in Heaven, mural in Wat Bowonniwet, Bangkok

Devas, or god-like beings, are frequently too preoccupied with pleasure to care about spiritual needs. Asuras, or demigods, are obsessed with power and jealousy. Animals lack intellectual abilities and their minds are not sophisticated enough to reach liberation. There is too much hunger and thirst in the lives of pretas, i.e., hungry and thirsty ghosts. And the enormous suffering in the realms of various hells makes spiritual practice borderline impossible.

Sometimes this myth is interpreted in two different ways. One view implies that the six realms denote real places where various beings are reborn; we might call this a “realist” interpretation. Yet another sees it as a symbolic representation of various modes” of existence (e.g., of our various mental states and dispositions).

In this interpretation, its conceivable that various states sometimes coexist in one person, possibly even at the very same time. We might call this a “metaphorical” interpretation. These two interpretations are compatible; leaning towards one is frequently a matter of emphasis rather than accepting it exclusively and rejecting the other.

There is some textual evidence, both in Hindu and Buddhist writings, supporting the metaphorical interpretation of the myth. For example, early Vedas did not distinguish the realm of devas from the realm of asuras, they sort of lumped these beings together as if they were two aspects of the same mode of existence.

Consequently, in his commentary on the Vedic mythology, Ceylonese Tamil philosopher Ananda Coomaraswamy observed that devas and asuras exemplify different orientations and inclinations, rather than separate kinds of beings. Devas represent the powers of light while asuras represent the powers of darkness. Both kinds of powers exist in each and every human being. Consequently, our choices can be influenced by varying dispositions and intentions:

[T]he Titan is potentially an Angel, the Angel still by nature a Titan; the Darkness in actu is Light, the Light in potentia Darkness; whence the designations Asura and Deva may be applied to one and the same Person according to the mode of operation, as in Rigveda 1.163.3, “Trita art thou (Agni) by interior operation” (Ananda Coomaraswamy, Angel and Titan: An Essay in Vedic Ontology,” Journal of the American Oriental Society, volume 55 (1935), pp. 373-374).

Similarly, according to the sixteenth chapter of Bhagavad Gita, all beings in the universe have both the divine and demonic qualities (daivi sampad and asuri sampad). Pure god-like saints are as rare as pure demons, and most humans exemplify both characters in varying degrees.

Statues of asuras at the gates of Angkor Thom, Siem Reap, Cambodia

A broadly analogous interpretation is suggested by some canonical Buddhist scriptures and Buddhist teachers. Indeed, the Buddha himself maintained that it is a mistake to think of hell as a place: When the average ignorant person makes an assertion to the effect that there is a Hell (patala) under the ocean he is making a statement which is false and without basis. The word ‘Hell’ is a term for painful emotions”, he once said.

Consequently, preeminent Buddhist scholar and Theravada monk Sri Dhammananda Maha Thera, observes the following:

The idea of one particular ready-made place or a place created by god as heaven and hell is not acceptable to the Buddhist concept. The fire of hell in this world is hotter than that of the hell in the world-beyond. There is no fire equal to anger, lust or greed and ignorance. According to the Buddha, we are burning from eleven kinds of physical pain and mental agony: lust, hatred, illusion sickness, decay, death, worry, lamentation, pain (physical and mental), melancholy and grief. … [Where] there is more suffering, either in this world or any other plane, that place is a hell to those who suffer. And where there is more pleasure or happiness, either in this world or any other worldly existence, that place is a heaven to those who enjoy their worldly life in that particular place. (BuddhaSasana, The Buddhist Concept of Heaven and Hell”).

This may be a somewhat unorthodox view of Ch’an and Zen approaches to Buddhism, but there are examples of famous Patriarchs supporting this metaphorical-humanistic interpretation of the Six Realms of Existence, thus shedding quite interesting light on how Buddhists think about paradise and hell.

The Buddha Descending from Tavatimsa Heaven

For example, the 12th century Chinese Master Tai Hui:

Heaven and hell are nowhere else but in the heart of the person while he’s half awake and half asleep before he’s gotten out of bed—they don’t come from outside. (Cleary, J.C., Swampland Flowers: the letters and lectures of Zen Master Ta Hui, Shambhala, 2006)

The same spirit is expressed in the following famous story involving the great Japanese Zen Patriarch, Hakuin Ekaku (1686-1769):

A samurai came to the Zen Master Hakuin and asked Is there really a paradise and a hell?”

Who are you?” inquired Hakuin.

I am a samurai,” the warrior replied.

You, a samurai!” exclaimed Hakuin. What kind of ruler would have you as his guard? Your face looks like that of a beggar!”

The soldier became so angry that he began to draw his sword, but Hakuin continued. So, you have a sword! Your weapon is probably as dull as your head!”

As the soldier drew his sword Hakuin remarked Here open the gates of hell!”

At these words, the samurai, perceiving the discipline of the master, sheathed his sword and bowed.

Here open the gates of paradise,” said Hakuin.

(A version of this story appears in Zen Flesh, Zen Bones: A Collection of Zen and Pre-Zen Writings compiled by Paul Reps and Nyogen Senzaki, Tuttle Publishing 1998, p. 80.  A search for this story in Japanese returns many slightly rephrased results but no one cites a source. It seems like it is an oral teaching. For generation, people have been retelling it with slight alterations before it was written down.)

End of Part 3 of 4

From Roman Sarcophagi Comes The Gospel of Bacchus

by April 9, 2021

Written by Barry Ferst, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom

Serving as a “billboard” for the faithful, images sculpted on Roman-era marble coffins offer a visualization of the Gospel of Bacchus, a graphic stone bible especially meaningful to devotees contemplating death’s doorway. Since much about the cult of Bacchus remains a mystery, a beautifully-carved frieze on a sarcophagus can go a long way to prying open some of the cult’s secrets.

By 100 C.E. the Bacchus mythos (known alternatively as Dionysus or Liber) had become standardized, i.e., made socially acceptable (the earlier Greek version could instill terror).  The story begins with a double birth, first from Semele whom Jupiter has inseminated, and then from Jupiter’s thigh where the infant has been hidden from Jupiter’s jealous wife Juno. The babe is brought by Hermes to woodland creatures to be tended by them.

There, the young Bacchus is taught by a centaur and recognized as a god. As a young adult he rides in a chariot pulled by panthers or centaurs. He travels to India, which he and his troupe conquer (known as the Indian Triumph). On return, he is given an emperor’s adventus, the circus-like processional proceeded by dancing maenads. When he totters, wine-intoxicated, he is held upright by one or more of his troupe. He marries Ariadne, and he retrieves his mother Semele from the land of the dead. His friends are satyrs, pans, and centaurs.

What is known of the Bacchic rituals are the manic dances of his followers, the bacchants and maenads who play cymbals, castanets, foot clappers, bells, tambourines, and pipes. There is the sacrifice of a goat’s head, and the viewing of a snake rising from a winnowing basket. Devotees carry the thyrsus (a staff decorated with ribbons and topped with a pine cone) and hand out honey-dipped hot cakes. Ritual symbols included the laurel tree, the grape vine, and the ivy leaf. The cult was easily absorbed into Christianity.

Here, then, is a small selection from the seventy-five Bacchus sarcophagi I have personally photographed (excluding the first), each displaying a part of the Gospel of Bacchus.

THE BIRTH OF BACCHUS

Bacchus sarcophagi, Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore, photo by Anya Leonard

This sarcophagus lid pictures the birth and early years of Bacchus. The twice-born Bacchus (first from Semele) is being taken from Jupiter’s thigh. A Homeric hymn refers to Bacchus as “insewn”:

“Be favorable, O Insewn, Inspirer of frenzied women! We singers sing of you as we begin and as we end a strain, and none forgetting you may call holy song to mind.”

THE INFANCY OF BACCHUS

Sarcophagus, Capitoline Museum, Rome

This frieze on this sarcophagus depicts moments in the infancy of Bacchus. At far left the infant Bacchus stands on a small hill and holds a fennel stalk in his left hand. He looks at seated Silenus, and he is being admired by three woodland divinities. At center left Silenus, a wine skin at his feet, has a hold on a young satyr. In the right half of the frieze nymphs are tending to the care of Bacchus. They are preparing him for his bath, filling the tub with water, and bringing food.

THE RELOCATION OF INFANT BACCHUS BY SAILORS

Frieze, Basilica St. Paul beyond the Walls, Rome

This frieze shows five sailors on a boat accepting the infant Bacchus from a centaur. One sailor has outstretched arms ready to receive the babe, while a second gestures with upraised forefinger. At the rear of the boat a third sailor is holding the handle of the steering rudder. Given the small size of the casket, it may have been for a child, parents imaging their child being carried far away to the Isles of the Blest. The boat carries Bacchus to a distant land where Juno cannot find him.

THE RECOGNITION OF BACCHUS AS A GOD

Sarcophagus, Princeton University Art Museum

The sarcophagus depicts the preparation for the celebration of or the Roman Bacchanalia. At left the aged Bacchus in the form of a herm statue is being raised by four young men. At far right a statue of a young Bacchus, a symbol of youthful male virility is being decorated.

THE EDUCATION OF BACCHUS

Frieze, Terme, National Museum of Rome

In this frieze, twenty-four figures — both human and divine — sweep across the scene. At left sits an adolescent Bacchus, listening to the music played by his teacher, the centaur Chiron. Chiron is holding a lyre in his left hand and a plectrum in his right. According to the Byzantine writer Ptolemaeus Chennus of Alexandria, “Dionysius was loved by Chiron, from whom he learned chants and dances, the bacchic rites and initiations.” Between Chiron and Bacchus is a bacchante holding a thyrsus. At far right two female devotees watch his lesson.

THE WORSHIP OF BACCHUS

Frieze, Cathedral, Cosenza, Italy

This frieze depicts a processional honoring of Bacchus.  A youthful Bacchus with feminine breasts and his hair in curls — an androgynous portrayal — receives devotees while slouching royally on a chair. Euripides called him “This effeminate stranger”. Silenus kneels before Bacchus.

BACCHUS DISCOVERS ARIADNE

Sarcophagus, Glyptothek, Munich

This masterfully-carved panel of a sarcophagus shows Bacchus stepping from his chariot to gaze at the sleeping Ariadne. In this depiction, Bacchas is an old, bearded man dressed like a woman, again indicating the androgynous character of Bacchus.

ARIADNE, WIFE OF BACCHUS

Sarcophagus, Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen

By the time this sarcophagus was carved in the second half of the second century C.E., Dionysian rituals and mythos had softened. Hence this exquisite frieze, referring to when Bacchus “fell in love with Ariadne, and kidnapped her, taking her off to Lemnos where he had sex with her, and begat Thoas. Straphylos, Oinopio, and Peparethos” (Pseudo-Apollodorus), shows no kidnapping or raw sexual contact, but rather the happy wedding of Bacchus and Ariadne.

BACCHUS IN HADES

Frieze, Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore

This “Bacchus in Hades” cinematic frieze creatively embellishes the story of Bacchus retrieving Semele from the Underworld.

BACCHUS TRAVELS TO INDIA

Frieze, Walters Museum, Baltimore

This frieze has quite the story. In 1885, a cemetery was excavated just north of Rome on the Via Saleria. During the excavation, the tomb of the family of Calpurnii Pisones was uncovered and found to contain ten large sarcophagi. One large coffin entitled the “Indian Triumph”, presents a grand procession marking Bacchus’s victory over the Indians. The scene mimics a Roman emperor’s adventus after a victory.

A BACCHUS PROCESSIONAL

Frieze, Terme, National Museum of Rome

This sarcophagus frieze presents a parade in which devotees would have dressed in costumes to imitate their god and his companions. Could it not also be viewed as a scene of victory over death?

RITES AND RITUALS

Sarcophagus, Allard Pierson Museum, Amsterdam

The frieze of this large linos sarcophagus completely covers all four sides, showing a raucous Bacchic religious ceremony and Dionysian sacrificial ritual.

VINEYARD

Sarcophagus, Capitoline Museum, Rome

The scene on this lenos sarcophagus displays a rapturous gathering of men and women in a vineyard. Symbols like vineyards, vines and wine form a key part of the intoxication-driven ecstasy of the Bacchus gospel.

A GOD FOR ALL SEASONS

Frieze, Terme Museum, Rome

This frieze shows a drunken Bacchus standing with the help of a satyr at center. Called the “Seasons Sarcophagus”, Spring is represented by the two figures to Bacchus’ immediate left: one holds a rabbit and the second holds a cornucopia above which, on the figure’s shoulder, sits is a baby. With a sheaf of wheat in his left hand and basket of fruit in the other, Summer stands at Bacchus’ right. Fall is represented by the next two figures. One holds a basket of grapes in his left hand while in his right he has a grape vine. An erote (winged god representative of love) is collecting grapes from the vine. The second figure is in the “good shepherd” pose with a sheep on his shoulder. At the far left is a man in a heavy tunic and hood, symbolizing Winter. He holds a brace of geese.

FINAL REMARKS

Taken together, these sarcophagi are a veritable gospel carved in marble. Tracing the miraculous double birth, infancy, education, early and late travels of Bacchus, his love affair, marriage, rites and rituals, they point to the recognition of a “world-wide” and “for-all-seasons” divinity.

Only jubilant stories are found on sarcophagi. The sheer number of Bacchus sarcophagi is proof of the great number of adherents to the cult. Its popularity shouldn’t surprise us — like any deity, Bacchus was believed to have divine powers. He shifts attention away from problems, work and worries and towards the simple act of enjoyment — be it wine, song or passion — reminding us that we, too, have the capacity to surrender to joy.

 

On Angels: Myth and Belief East and West, Part 2

by April 6, 2021

Written by Stefan Sencerz, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom

Part 1 of this series can be found here.

In Wim Wendersmovie, Wings of Desire”, Peter Falk is credited as himself” but really represents a fallen angel, the angel who had rejected his angelic nature, ceased to be but a spirit, and acquired a human body with all that it entails. In the film, angels see” the world in black and white instead of in color like humans, a beautiful poetic device first adopted by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger in their romantic fantasy A Matter of Life and Death”.

Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire

To me, my sensations are what make me feel human. The first sip of hot coffee in the morning, a gentle kiss of a breeze on my neck, feeling the taut strings of a stunt kite tugging on my arms. Or falling in love: holding hands, a dance late into night, the smell of her hair, the magical moment right before our lips meet, the soft alabaster of her skin under my touch. This is how we, mortals, perceive and relate to reality.

To angels, all that could be but a set of highly abstract mathematical equations and complex geometrical figures. We surely feel their calm, soothing love but we humans are also creatures of passion. And passion is what they seem to lack.  In turn, maybe sometimes angels need our passion, too. Thats what the character played by Falk seems to imply. Let me explain.

One of the biggest problems for a theist, the so-called problem of evil”, concerns an apparent tension between Gods perfections (i.e., that God is all-good, all-powerful, and all-knowing) and the fact that bad things happen even to good people.

Detail of angels from Giotto’s Crying Angels, Lamentation of Christ fresco, Padua, Scrovegni Chapel, 1305-13

One of the most important responses to this problem, originally put forth by the second century Greek theologian Irenaeus, is known as the virtue or soul-making defense”. The gist of this defense is to postulate that bad things happen to us because they are necessary to build up our character. We need pain to develop empathy and compassion, obstacles are necessary to build up fortitude, those less fortunate to perfect generosity and the sense of justice and fear to become truly courageous.

This relatively simple response has some obvious problems. Namely, why do we have to struggle before fully realizing our potential? Why are we not created with already fully-developed characters? Isnt it all some kind of cruel test or, even worse, a bad joke? Thus, the original form of virtue defense seems to require additional explanations.

Detail of Jan van Eyck’s The Annunciation, 1434

The 20th century philosopher, theologian, and exponent of the virtue defense, John Hick, attempts to provide some answers in his seminal book Evil and the God of Love” (1966). Hick postulates that developing virtues is more valuable than being created as already a fully developed being. To use a metaphor, the journey to reach the mountain top is more valuable than being magically transported there just to see magnificent sights. He also postulates that character growth must be based on genuinely free choices, choices that involve free will.

Now, free will seems incompatible with coercion. Force and even a reliable threat of using it seem to undermine our freedom. Thus, Hick postulates, God has to be somehow hidden from us; there must be some epistemic distance” between God and his creation. Otherwise, we would be motivated by fear of Gods retribution rather than by a genuine desire for good. Consequently, our choices would be coerced and not truly free.

The Inspiration of Saint Matthew, by Caravaggio, Rome, 1571-1610

In order to preserve this epistemic distance”, God cannot intervene into human affairs too much, too obviously, and too openly. Too much help and too many miracles could give us certainty about Gods existence and plans. Remember, a dissolution of the epistemic distance” from God would seriously undercut our free will. This is why God cannot remove every problem or obstacle that we may encounter. This is why, sometimes, we encounter difficulties that seem insurmountable.

Now, to return to angels, perhaps— like us— they are not yet fully realized, completed” or perfect beings. Maybe they still have some work to do to actualize their potential, maybe they still have some mountains to climb. As paradoxical as it may seem, perhaps God maintains some epistemic distance” from them, too. Otherwise, if they were fully in the presence of the Divine with the full understanding of Gods immense powers as well as his plans, could we really make sense of their fall? Could we really understand how they are able to make choices? Could we really comprehend how angels, too, seem to have free will?

Fallen angel painting, author unknown

Well, you could respond, can angels truly evolve if they are disembodied? Dont they need pain, obstacles, doubts, and fear to fully develop their natures? Angels seem to lack all of this.

Thus, perhaps, something about them needs to thaw and open up too, so they can transcend their sophisticated yet sterile mathematical ideas and ethical imperatives and start using their senses and hearts.

Maybe, to be truly happy, to truly flourish, to fully realize their potential, angels too have to learn how to feel and not just how to reason. Perhaps this is the only way to transcend the world of black-and-white”.

Still from Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire

In Wenders film, angels sometimes climb up high towers of churches and hang out on roofs of the tallest buildings as if waiting for the gift of a dawn. But there is always a price to be paid for not having senses. No matter how high they climb, no matter how high they fly, they’ll never see the flaming, crimson-orange rays of the setting sun.

End of Part 2 of 4

Flora, Goddess of Spring, and Her Festival Floralia

by April 2, 2021

Written by Ed Whalen, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom

Many ancient civilizations had fertility goddesses that played a crucial role in their religion. Rome was no exception. Perhaps the best-known fertility goddess in ancient Italy was Flora. She was an exceedingly popular goddess and every year a major festival, the Floralia, was held in her honor.

The Goddess Flora

Flora from a fresco in Pompeii

The name Flora ultimately derives from the Indo-European word for flower. It appears that the name Flora was a combination of ancient Latin and Oscan, a tongue native to southern Italy. There is also clear Greek influence in the development of this fertility deity. Some scholars believe that Flora’s true origin is a very ancient Italian fertility goddess.

There is some evidence that the Romans incorporated the worship of the goddess prior the foundation of the Republic. This was quite common, as the Romans tended to adopt gods and deities whom they believed would be useful.

There was a magnificent temple dedicated to Flora in the Circus Maximus, testifying to her importance and influence in the Roman world. She was regarded as one of the fourteen most important gods and goddesses and one of the few with her own flamen (priests or priestesses). 

Flora was associated with vegetation and flowering plants. The Romans honored her in order to ensure her continued blessing on their lands. This was crucial for an ancient people dependent on agriculture. The goddess was worshipped throughout the Roman Republic and into the Roman Empire, until the coming of Christianity. 

The Greek equivalent of Flora was Chloris. Her importance to the Romans can be seen in the many coins that bear her image. The goddess’ name has been used as the botanical term flora and is also a popular girl’s name.

Myths About Flora

Flora and Zephyr, by Jan Brueghel the Elder and Peter Paul Rubens, 1617

There are a number of myths about Flora. Most are recorded in the work of the first-century poet Ovid, who wrote that originally the goddess was a nymph who transformed into Flora after being kissed by Zephyrus, the God of the West Wind. She was depicted as having the power to make both nature and humans more fertile.

In one account, she helped Juno to become pregnant with a child in revenge for Jupiter giving birth to Minerva from his head. Flora did this with a magical plant. In some myths, the goddess Flora was associated with Aphrodite, the goddess of desire and love.

The Floralia

Floralia, by Hobbe Smith, 1898

The festival of Floralia was established around 250 BC and soon became one of the most popular in the Roman calendar. The festival was a five-day affair that fell, in our calendar, in late April and lasted until May.

According to legend, the festival was first instituted on the advice of the Sibylline Books, which were considered prophetic. For the Romans, the festival symbolized the cycle of life, birth, and death. It honored Flora and was a time of dancing, gathering of flowers and the wearing of colorful clothes.

The festival was also an occasion to hold Public Games, which were paid for from fines levied throughout the year. These Games lasted six days. The Games and the festival were both administered by the Roman magistrate, the aedile.

Generally, the Floralia opened with theatrical performances, often mimes that could even include a naked actress. Then came the first day of the Games and at night, a ceremonial sacrifice to Flora. There were great efforts made to make the theatrical events around the festivities enjoyable and in 69 AD a tightrope-walking elephant was part of the celebrations!

The festival gained popularity, prompting Julius Caesar to proclaim the Floralia an official holiday. It is considered an important social event in ancient Roman society, as it fostered a sense of community and allowed people to enjoy themselves after the hardships of winter. 

Some scholars believe that the Floralia was the inspiration for the May Day Festival, which is still popular in many Northern European countries. The goddess Flora was also reverenced by humanists in Renaissance Europe, who featured her in paintings, sculptures, and poetry.

The figure of Flora has been painted by some of the greatest painters in the Western tradition, such as Botticelli and Poussin.

Detail of Flora from Primavera by Botticelli, c. 1482

Conclusion

Flora was an important Roman goddess. The worship and cult of Flora are testament to the importance of the natural life cycle for the ancient Romans. The festival of Floralia help unite ancient Roman society as they came together to celebrate the magnificent of nature and the joy of Spring through art and sport.

References:

Berrens, D., 2019. The meaning of flora. Humanistica Lovaniensia. Journal of Neo-Latin Studies, 68(1), pp.237-249.

On Angels: Myth and Belief East and West, Part 1

by March 31, 2021

Written by Stefan Sencerz, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom

Part 1: Angels in the Western Tradition

When Michelangelo accepted a commission to paint frescoes in the Sistine Chapel, he stepped right into it. And by it” I do not mean just an exquisite work of a breathtaking scope; that much is obvious. Rather, I mean the centuries-old debate concerning angels and the nature creation. You can see his input right there, on the ceiling of the chapel, painted into his frescoes for posterity. Both the first human, Adam, and all Michelangelos angels are endowed with navels.

Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel (detail)

Perhaps its not a surprise at all for someone adopting the 21st century perspective on arts. After all, the greatest artist of his era, Michelangelo (1475 – 1564) has established many artistic conventions. But the matters were much less clear during the times of High Renaissance. For example, there are no angelic navels at all in paintings of Leonardo. And there are but few of them in works by Raphael and none of these is very pronounced. And yet, interestingly enough, not only Adam and angels but also even God the Father himself are portrayed as endowed with navels.

The Annunciation by Leonardo da Vinci, c. 1472–1475

Taken literally, this approach makes no sense. God is supposed to be a pure spirit not having any bodily parts. The first human is supposed to be created by God and not born from others. And even if angels have bodies, surely, they are not born from other beings, they are not flesh of other flesh. If they exist at all, either they are everlasting like God, in which case they have never come into existence, or else they are like Adam, brought into existence by a direct divine act of the Creator. One way or another, why would they need to have navels and be portrayed as having them?

Now, to put Michelangelos choice in its historical and philosophical contexts, since time immemorial angels have been considered to be benevolent celestial beings mediating between Heaven and earth, sacred and profane, the world of the Divine and the world of mortals. That much has been constant. And just as consistently, philosophers and theologians have debated issues concerning their nature.

Some conceived angels to be mere messages from God or, perhaps, the divine tasks rather than real beings carrying those tasks. A radical position, indeed, but one that has some textual support at least in the context of the Scriptures.

For example, in the Book of Genesis, three angels visit Abraham (18:2) but only two meet Lot (19:1). The first one appears to inform Abraham about his coming child (18:10) and, after this task is completed, this angel is never mentioned again. The job of the other two was to protect Lot and to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah; so, they stayed with mortals quite a bit longer.

Lot Fleeing from Sodom, 1810, by Benjamin West

Pointing to passages like these, some esoteric teachings of Kabbalah suggest that, after the message is delivered or the task is completed, the angel literally ceases to exist.

This is not, however, the view that emerged as prevalent in Western and Middle Eastern circles. A more popular approach postulates that angels are not just messages but rather messengers, not just tasks but rather beings who carry those tasks, not just aspects of divine actions but rather independently existing substances”.

If this is so, however, what kinds of beings are they? What are they made of? Do they have physical bodies like ordinary mortals or are they pure spirits unattached to anything physical?

Angel detail, The Pistoia Santa Trinità Altarpiece by Francesco Pesellino, 15th century, National Gallery of Art

Again, let us turn to Scripture. Almost all encounters with angels begin with humans trembling in their presence and an angel saying fear not” or do not be afraid”. It seems obvious that angels were thought of as having not only immense powers but also a rather terrifying aspect or presence.

As Rainier Maria Rilke observed in both in the 1st and the 2nd Duino Elegy, Ein jeder Engel is schrecklich” – “every angel is terrifying”.

Jacob wrestling with the angel, Italian School, 17th century

A far cry from representing them as sweet-looking babies with golden locks and delicate fairy wings or good-looking young ladies and lads painted by Michelangelo and Raphael! But whatever their looks might be, what does their physical aspect hide? Or what does it reveal?

Some thought angels to be essentially like humans in terms of having real physical bodies, eating real physical food, wearing real physical clothes, using real physical tools and, perhaps, even being able to mate with us.

Thus, to use but few examples, the cherub guarding the Garden of Eden is wielding a flaming sword” (Genesis 3: 24); Abraham slaughters a calf and treats his visitors to a fine meal”; and fallen angels have children with daughters of men (Genesis 6: 1-4).

Abraham Serving the Three Angels, by Rembrandt, 1646

The view that angels are, in part, made of physical stuff found its expression in their typical visual representations. The archangel Michael leading the forces of good in the heavenly war against the dragon” (Revelation 12: 7-12). He is usually portrayed as a warrior wearing an armor and carrying a shield. (Below, on the left Saint Michael Overthrowing the Demon” by Raphael and, on the right, Saint Michael expelling Lucifer and the Rebellious Angels” by Peter Paul Rubens.)

Gabriel, described by Daniel (8:15) as appearing in the likeness of man”, is frequently depicted as carrying a white lily or a cross. Eventually, depictions of angels were routinely seen as possessing not only heads, torsos, arms, legs, and wings but also even navels, as in Michelangelos frescoes.

Other theologians argued, however, that no matter how we might choose to represent angels, these images are but visual metaphors rather than the real thing. For, in reality, angels are pure spirits, disembodied intellects, bundles of mental energies unattached to anything physical.

However, this approach raises some fundamental philosophical questions. Having no bodies at all and thus no senses, how can angels see, hear, feel, smell, or taste? How do they perceive the world? How can they relate to us? What mediates between their surroundings and their subjectivity? If not senses and sensations, what anchors them to our “reality”?

End of Part 1 of 4