In Search of Withdrawing Gods

| October 4, 2010

I was at the library today, playing detective, tracking down a lead. And I found myself musing on the layers of what I was doing.

Someone wrote a book, it was translated, printed, then photographed and copied to microfiche, which I in turn was scanning as digital images, converting to PDF’s, saving to the cloud, and then printed at home, where I now write about it back into the cloud. Perhaps it’s because this particular book, and several other books I have been reading, are classic books of scholarship: dutifully laying out their own provenance, warning of the coming itinerary, and taking great pleasure in the difficult question of their ancient sources.

Whence and whither.

I was put on the trail by a dinner conversation with René Arcilla and Robbie McClintock, who suggested I take a look at the work of Karl Kerényi. And it turns out his excellent work, Athene: Virgin and Mother, through the onion layers of technology, is now in my hands. Or rather, next to my keyboard…

And the epigraph is from Rilke: “Now would be the time for Gods to step forth…” it begins. And ends with the following:

…I grasp nothing in the life of the Gods (which in the spirit most probably ever renews itself and runs its course and has its truth) so much as the moment in which they withdraw themselves: what would be a God without the cloud which preserves him? what would be a worn-out God?

Bam! Is this not the tension of the gods? They must step forward and recede, be everywhere and nowhere. Athena’s rank, Kerényi points out, was so self-evident that it did not have to be brought up.

Could it be that Athena, who Kerényi situates at the very heart of Greek religion, has not so much worn-out—we moderns having neglected her, relegated to the realm of curious mythologies, the place gods go to die—as much as perhaps she continues to be so self-evident that we do not bother to give it any thought? Just as powerful as ever, preserved by a cloud.

What would this mean? And how could one tell?

Kerényi’s title is telling. Athene: Virgin and Mother. This is the paradox. The birth of Athena on the one hand echoes back through even older stories, passing them on. And on the other, it amounts to a pivotal, virginal moment. The foundational event of Greek religion. The Greeks were always trying to be born for the first time. Proper Greeks. Thus Athena supplants the mother, emerging instead from the forehead of Zeus. Both continuation and beginning. First of a line. And first in line! It is she who not only supplants the wife, but also the son, Apollo, to sit as equals with Zeus. It is she who knows where the lightning bolts are kept, and is licensed to use them.

All of the rights that accord with being born of a line, from one’s parents, and yet fully grown and wise. Of a line, and yet first in line. It is under the shadow of Athena that education takes its cues.

Is not the danger of education the same, that it will be worn-out, over-used? And yet, its power relies on being essential, everywhere. How does one tell the story of education without wearing it out? And how does one evoke it when it seems to have gone missing? In which library does it reside? On which microfiche?