August 16, 2008


I went to the Garden of Love,
And saw what I never had seen;
A Chapel was built in the midst,
Where I used to play on the green.

The gates of this Chapel were shut,
And 'Thou shalt not' writ over the door;
So I turned to the Garden of Love
That so many sweet flowers bore.

And I saw it was filled with graves,
And tombstones where flowers should be;
And priests in black gowns were walking their rounds,
And binding with briars my joys and desires.

William Blake, Songs of Experience

August 15, 2008


Raphael's School of Athens, courtesy of wikipedia.

(Note for first time visitors: The theme here lately is the Odyssey of Homer, along with links and comments about current events. If you like this kind of thing, please click on earlier posts.)

The American writer H.L. Mencken defined puritanism as "The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy." Puritanism as a turn of mind has been around a lot longer than the dissenters from the Church of England in the 1600s.

It was a major factor in some schools of Greek philosophy, especially that of Socrates and Plato (judging by what we know of the former from the latter). Along with some other killjoys, these people criticized Homer and other poets and purveyors of Greek myth and tragedy for teaching immorality by portraying the gods as behaving badly.

They just didn't get it. As noted previously, several of these gods were at least in part personifications of natural forces: storms, the sea, wild animals, sexual desire, earthquakes, etc. And nature is not known for being moralistic. For that matter, the whole point of many myths is that humans should not try to overreach or act like gods lest they bring about their own destruction.

Socrates liked to torment lovers of myths and poetry by asking them logic-chopping questions and dismissing them if they had trouble if the whole point of art, song and story was not to speak to the conscious and unconscious and rational and irrational parts of the human psyche. And as if it was all taken literally.

Plato went farther than his teacher. In the Republic, he wanted to ban poets and only teach edifying state-approved stories to its citizens, something that has been the dream of tyrants through the ages.

Goat Rope verdict: there is arguably more enduring and useful wisdom in the Greek tragedies than the whole of Plato's corpus. Get over it, dudes, or drink the hemlock.

For many Greeks, however, there was little room for doubt. To experience awe over storms or fear over breaking oaths and mistreating hosts or guests was to experience Zeus. To experience desire was to experience Aphrodite. To cultivate the land was to honor Demeter and receive her gifts. To drink wine was to experience Dionysus. And so on.

Some of the other gods were derived from and represented human experiences, such as marriage, sickness and healing, exchanges, music and poetry, metal-working etc.

Athena, the main divine character of the Odyssey, is a special case. In that story (and to a lesser extent in the Iliad), she is experienced either openly or, more often, in disguise. Directly or indirectly, she is who/what restrains people from taking rash actions and who/what brings hope, stength and wisdom to people who were tired, forlorn or hopeless. Next time you get a boost when you need it, consider that an Athena moment.

All these examples are derived just from daily life, not counting sacred festivals or holidays. All religions make sense from the inside, and Greek religion was no exception.

ILLUSIONS OF WAR. Here's Krugman on what the war in Georgia might mean.

WAL-MART: EVERYDAY WORKER INTIMIDATION. Labor groups are urging the Federal Election Commission to investigate whether the retail giant broke any laws by telling employees the world would come to an end if they voted the wrong way.

HOME FORECLOSURES are up 55 percent from this time last year.

BAD BALLOON. Meanwhile, inflation is at its highest rate in 17 years.

VERY COOL HOT IDEA. Researchers think they've found a way to turn roads and parking lots into solar energy collectors.

IT'S OFFICIAL. Joggers live longer than people who don't exercise (most of the time).

IS THAT A BIGFOOT IN YOUR FREEZER or are you just happy to be here? Two searchers in Georgia claim to have found a dead one.


August 14, 2008


Athena, courtesy of wikipedia. She can make a really good friend, but don't get on her bad side.

The theme at Goat Rope lately is the Odyssey of Homer, along with news and comments about current events. The series started Aug. 4. If you like this kind of thing, please click on earlier posts.

Yesterday we met some of the older generation of Olympic gods and the children of the "royal family" of Zeus and Hera. Below are the rest of the gang.

Several gods are the result of Zeus' various liaisons. He fathered Apollo and Artemis from the titan Leto. Apollo is a youthful archer god associated with healing, sudden death, music, poetry, and prophecy while Artemis is the virgin goddess of wild things, the hunt and women in childbirth. Later Apollo would be associated with reason, moderation and individuation.

Hermes was the son of Zeus and the earth goddess Maia (several goddesses were manifestations of an earth divinity). An interesting character, he is a divine messenger and is associated with borders, exchanges, merchants and thieves. He also guides the spirits of the dead to the underworld. Over time, Hermes became associated with the art of interpretation, hence the term hermeneutics.

The main goddess of the Odyssey is the virgin warrior goddess Athena, who was conceived by Metis (goddess of cunning or wisdom). Fearing that her offspring would overthrow his rule, Zeus swallowed Metis. Later he got a bad headache, which Hephaestus cured by striking him in the head with an axe. Athena was born full grown from the head of Zeus and is daddy's little girl. She is associated with wisdom, courage, strategy, and weaving.

(Saftey tip: don't tell her you can weave better than she can unless you want to get turned into a spider like Arachne.)

The wine god Dionysus came from another part of Zeus' anatomy and was the result of a liaison between Zeus and the human Semele. When she asked to see Zeus in his natural form she was incinerated, but Hermes sewed the fetus into Zeus' thigh, from which he was eventually born. He is the god of the vine, of wine and his worship is associated with ecstasy, frenzy and collective joy. In later times, he even seems to have displaced the elder goddess Demeter as a patron of fertility. Nietzsche would later contrast the Apollonian or rational with the Dionysian or wild.

There were other minor players but that's the main lineup.


Most corporations, including a large majority of foreign companies doing business in the United States, pay no income taxes, according to a report released today.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) reported that two-thirds of both American and foreign companies doing business here end up avoiding all income tax obligations to the federal government, despite corporate sales totaling $2.5 trillion.

There's more with sources and links here.

CHANGING TRENDS. Most (admittedly feeble) anti-poverty efforts in recent years have focused on women and children. Now more voices are calling for directing more attention to men.

WHAT'S LOVE GOT TO DO WITH IT? According to this NY Times article, more and more Americans are marrying to gain health benefits. (In terms of the Greek gods discussed this week, this could lead to a jurisdictional dispute between Hera, Aphrodite and Apollo.If they ask you to settle it, run.)

MOST READERS ALREADY KNEW THIS, but research suggests a good book can be just as thrilling and stimulating to the brain as watching a movie.


August 13, 2008


Zeus and Hera in a less rocky moment, courtesy of wikipedia.

The theme lately is the Odyssey of Homer, but you'll also find links and comments about current events.

Several Olympic gods are major characters in this story so it might be time to meet the family, starting with the older generation and the "royal family."

At the pinnacle of power is the sky god Zeus, who is associated with the thunderbolt and also the guardian of oaths and the laws of hospitality. He is married to his sister Hera, who gets the credit (or blame) for having invented that institution. The marriage is a bit rocky given Zeus' many infidelities with other goddesses and humans.

Zeus and Hera have two children, Ares, the despised god of war and Hephaestus, the lame god of the forge. He got that way after his parents flicked him off Olympus and he fell to earth. A master craftsman, he is known to use the tools of technology to even the score.

Hephaestus is married to "laughter loving Aphrodite," goddess of love and sexual desire, who has an ongoing fling with Ares (love and war--what can you say?) In Homer, she is referred to as Zeus' daughter although according to Hesiod she is older than the Olympic gods, having arise from the foam of the sea where the titan Kronos threw testicles of Uranus after castrating him. Kronos was in time overthrown by Zeus.

Intergenerational conflict seems to be an issue in this family...

Zeus shares dominion with two of his brothers. Poseidon is the god of the sea and is associated with earthquakes. He is extremely quarrelsome and unpredictable and is known to hold grudges--such as the one against Odysseus after the latter blinds his son Polyphemus the cyclops. Hades is god of the dead and the underworld. Theoretically, Zeus, Poseidon and Hades share the earth in common but Zeus is clearly the main dude.

Hades doesn't get out much, although he famously kidnapped the goddess Persephone, daughter of the earth and grain goddess Demeter, which led to the seasons of the year. Persephone divides her time between the underworld (winter) and Olympus.

You don't hear much about Hestia, sister of Zeus and virgin goddess of the hearth and domestic life, but she was central to private religious life in the home.

Some of the more interesting gods were the children of Zeus from his extramarital wanderings. More on them tomorrow.

A BLUNT INSTRUMENT. Here's more commentary on the RAND Corporation report that says military force is not a solution to terrorism:

"Military force usually has the opposite effect from what is intended: It is often overused, alienates the local population by its heavy-handed nature and provides a window of opportunity for terrorist-group recruitment."

SWIPE THIS. Is credit card debt the next economic bubble?

POWER OF PRIDE/SHAME ON YOU. Some researchers believe that human gestures of pride and shame or victory and defeat may be universal and inherited. At Goat Rope Farm, you could pick them up by copying the roosters...



August 12, 2008


Dionysus and friends, courtesy of wikipedia.

The series on the Odyssey continues, although you'll also find links and comments about current events. If you like an occasional ancient Greek fix, please click on earlier posts. The series started Aug. 4.

As noted yesterday, the Greek gods who were such major characters in the Iliad and the Odyssey were a lot different from what we're used to these days.

Here's a striking contrast. In a monotheistic framework, it is idolatrous and impious to worship more than one god. In the Greek religious system, it would be just as impious to worship only one at the expense of the whole. That was one theme in the Greek tragedy Hippolytus by Euripides, in which the title character worshiped only Artemis the hunter goddess and neglected the love goddess Aphrodite to his own destruction. Like the letters of the alphabet or chess pieces or a deck of cards, the gods only made sense as part of a system.

Greek religion had no creeds or scriptures and didn't place an emphasis on personal piety or beliefs. Nor did it have as elaborate a system of priests and religious officials as many other societies.

The Greek gods weren't all that interested in micromanaging human morality either, although they did have some standards. Zeus, for instance, was the patron of oaths and the laws of hospitality which protected guests and hosts. Hera was the goddess of marriage (not entirely successfully). The gods tended to punish human excess and arrogance to protect the rights of supplicants and sanctuary.

If they didn't crave personal piety, they wanted respect. In a way, the gods couldn't exist without people to worship them and they enjoyed the aroma of sacrifices.

Aside from that, they didn't care too much about people. Some had their favorites, such as Odysseus' patron Athena, but in general they probably cared less for people than some people care for their pets.

On the positive side, it probably would occur to the Olympians to punish the majority of mankind in eternal fire, although they did reserve special punishments for people who personally ticked them off.

Next time: the lineup.

THE GOOD SAMARITAN should be welcomed back to the public sphere like the Prodigal Son, as this piece argues.

TIMETABLE? McClatchy reports that the US and Iraq are approaching an agreement on the withdrawal of US troops.

LEAVING WAR TO THE PRIVATE SECTOR. The US has spent $100 billion on private contractors in Iraq since the 2003 invasion.

CREDIT CARD DEBT is a serious issue for college students. In one survey, typical respondents will graduate with more than $2,600 of it. That's not counting student loans.

BIG BOXES GO SOLAR. A number of retail giants are installing solar panels on their roofs to capture energy.

ALMOST UFO HEAVEN. El Cabrero's beloved state of West Virginia has yet another distinction, as the Beckley Register Herald suggest:

West Virginia prides itself as a land of majestic mountains, sparkling streams, coal to feed hungry power plants, a unique place in American history and a fiercely independent people accustomed to overcoming hard times with a resiliency unrivaled by anyone else.

Now add another chapter to the 35th state’s storied history — more documented UFO activity than any other place in America.

Even eclipsing Roswell.


August 11, 2008


The Olympians, courtesy of wikipedia.

The theme at Goat Rope these days is The Odyssey of Homer, although you will also find links and comments about current events. The series began Aug. 4. If this is your first visit and if you find the subject congenial, please click on earlier posts.

A few years back, I was excited to hear that someone was making a movie about the Trojan War. Fool that I was, I thought they might actually stick a little to the Iliad. It was terrible! AND there weren't even any gods in it. I was mortified.

Talking about Homer without gods is kind of like playing a guitar without notes or chords. They are as much a part of the story as the people.

Still, Greek gods seem a little strange to people brought up on a legacy of monotheism. When many people today hear the word god, they imagine some kind of solitary being that is eternal, all good, all powerful and all knowing. None of these apply to the Greek version. Let's run down that list.

Solitary? Nope. There were a bunch of them. Aside from the Big Twelve (or Thirteen, depending on who you count) on Olympus, there were several dark, scary chthonic gods of the underworld, an older generation of imprisoned Titans, and any number of lesser divinities. It was a pluralistic view of the universe. Sometimes there were even different versions of the same god.

Eternal? Nope, at least not in the sense of always existing. The gods of Olympus were a few generations removed from the primal Chaos that Hesiod says was there "in the beginning." They are immortal and free from aging and sickness however. That's the main difference between us and them.

All good? Hardly. They could be petty, spiteful, lusty and vindictive. The philosopher Xenophanes wrote that

Homer and Hesiod have attributed to the gods everything that is a shame and disgrace among men, stealing and committing adultery and deceiving one another.

It's probably more to the point to say that Greek gods were beyond good and evil. Many were related to, if not personifications of, natural forces. And, as you may have noticed, nature isn't very moralistic or puritanical.

All powerful? Not quite, although they are very powerful. As Apollo warns the warrior Diomedes in the Iliad,

Gods are to humans what humans are to crawling bugs.

Still, one nice thing about polytheism is that the power of one god can be checked or influenced by others. A kind of divine coalition politics sometimes prevailed. Although the most powerful god by far is Zeus, even his power is limited by Fate.

All knowing? Not exactly. They know a lot and eventually find out a lot more but they can be fooled and tricked. They sleep and take trips and don't know what goes on at such times. At one point in the Iliad, the goddess Hera tricks Zeus into a zesty bout of lovemaking so that she can work mischief while he sleeps afterward. In the Odyssey, the sea god Poseidon takes a trip to visit the Ethiopians and nearly lets Odysseus get home early in his absence.

All these things made Greek religion a lot different from what we're used to. More on this tomorrow.

LET'S GET DIPLOMATIC. This NY Times op-ed by Nicholas Kristof talks sense about America's undervalued and underfunded system of diplomacy. He notes that Defense Secretary Robert Gates has been one of the most forceful advocates of a greater investment in this kind of "soft power." You can't bomb your way out of everything.

EVERYTHING IN MODERATION--INCLUDING MODERATION. This item argues that voters are often more attracted by extreme opinions than by reason and moderation. That would explain a lot.

LOOKING FOR SOLUTIONS to our economic mess? Here are some solid recommendations from the Economic Policy Institute.

OLYMPIC QUESTION. Who would win in a competition between modern and early humans?