Saturday, 12 January 2013

The Age of Hades

The typical school day for Victorian children consisted of Classics, followed by Classics, then Classics, and then, just to mix things up a bit, Classics. Of course there were other classes too, but much of a student’s school day was devoted to the Classics. As late as the 1920’s, a person was not deemed educated unless he spoke Latin. Today, the Classics are the ghost towns of academia. It’s a pity really.

When I was a boy I studied Greek mythology for fun and much of my adult knowledge on the subject stems from this period, however I have lately been dipping my intellectual toes into these Greek waters once again and I had a rather fascinating realisation.

The word zeitgeist means “the spirit of the age”. It is not a literal spirit; rather it refers to the General Will of the people manifested. Yet, looking over certain periods of history, and taking into consideration the human tendency to see patterns, it is easy to assign a guiding force over the ages of humanity and the Olympians make ideal metaphors for the spirits of the ages.

For example, looking at the Romantic Period (1776-1929) we see a surge in invention, commerce, human understanding, and above all freedom. These are all under the auspices of the Greek goddess Athena. Her image is found in countless works of art and sculptures of the period (including the Statue of Liberty), not to mention federal and local government buildings and seals. Even Britannia and Columbia, the symbolic representations of Britain and America, are based on her. The Romantic Era was the Age of Athena.

This got me thinking. Which Olympian is the spirit of our post-modern age? Apollo? No, he is more suited for The Enlightenment. Dionysius? No, the social chaos is not as widespread as one might expect from the ultimate party god. We supposedly had a sexual revolution and we are obsessed with love, but this is not the Age of Aphrodite. Ares? We’re not so medieval. Hermes? It is the communicate age after all, but that did not seem right either. It’s difficult to truly recognise your age when you’re in the middle of it let alone identify the driving “spirit of the age”. Then it hit me. This is the age of Hades.

After the Olympians defeated the Titans, the three sons of Kronos divided the spoils of earth, sea, and sky between them. Zeus got the sky, Poseidon the sea, and Hades the earth, well, not the earth exactly. The surface of the earth was neutral territory. Hades got the hidden earth underneath. He is the Lord of the Underworld which includes the mineral riches as well as the bodies we bury. He is the ruler of the dead, their judge, and the god of wealth. His name means “the Hidden One”, but he is also known as Pluton in Greek and Pluto in Latin – the Lord of Riches.

Many scholars argue that the Romantic Period ended with World War I. I see the war as part of the beginning of the end, but not the end itself. The true end came with the collapse of the stock market in 1929, financial mismanagement that exacerbated the Great Depression, and the fear that drove the world towards government central planning. It seems fitting to begin the age of Hades with the word depression, a loss of faith and hope.

The spirit of an age is its driving force. For example, some may smirk at labelling the Romantic Period as the age of freedom because of the existence of slavery, but what they fail to consider is that it was a century that saw an active movement to free slaves and it succeeded. The driving force was the process of liberation and not necessarily the absence of slavery.

Likewise when looking at the age of Hades we are looking for the general thrust of the age, the movements of events towards a conclusion. The Romantic Period saw the birth of the Modern and the apex of Western Civilization while our post-modern age is the movement towards its death. Many cultural historians have observed that the patterns of Western Civilization over the past near century indicate a death wish leaving them to conclude that we are a suicidal culture.

Of course this view may be an example of apocalypse porn. The term apocalypse porn was coined to describe the phenomenon in which people derive a perverted pleasure in reading about or theorizing on the end of the world. The fear began in earnest in the 1950’s with the Cold War nuclear scare, then predications of environmental disaster starting in the 1960’s till today, and now its economic collapse we fear or government tyranny. This is not an overt fear, but a lingering one as if it is slowly consuming us from the inside making us numb.

We live in the deadliest age with an estimated 231 million people dying in military or civil conflict during the 20th Century. The irony is that as a culture we seem to place more value on human life than ever before, and yet our attempts to preserve human life are overshadowed by a massive death toll.

Hades is the god of riches. Traditionally this meant the mineral wealth hidden underground like gems and precious metals. Contrast this with Athena as the goddess of invention and commerce, the creation and exchange of values, therefore Athena is the goddess of capitalism. Hades on the other hand governs existential wealth. It is not created but found wherever it is hidden and once found it is hoarded, for Hades is a greedy god.

In the age of Hades money is still created, but the focus is in moving existential wealth around rather than commerce. Where the Athenian Victorians demanded commerce flow for the sake of prosperity, today the children of Hades demand invisible wealth is transferred from rich to poor with only a sparse choir calling for an increase in production to alleviate financial woes. Even so, the poor are not that poor. The average standard of living far exceeds that of medieval nobility.

Pluto, the Roman name for Hades, gives us the word Plutocracy, rule by the wealthy. There has always been a symbiotic relationship between government and the rich. Politicians want the wealth and the wealthy want the power of force. It is when this relationship becomes a bit too cozy and rulers govern not to defend the rights of the people but to legislate the interests of the rich that we see the hand of Hades at work. Today this is called corporatism or crony capitalism, while some erroneously call it capitalism from their occupying tents.

The Age of Hades has also brought us the death of the family. Should we be surprised by declining birth rates in the West, after all the god of the dead is infertile? Liberated women are now free from life-long familial responsibilities and many men and women now choose to opt out of the family game altogether.

Neo-pagan orientated feminists indulge themselves in Olympian fantasy, but the truth is that Athena hated other women, Hera is the goddess of marriage and family, and Aphrodite is the sexy beauty queen. None of these fit the feminist ideal. A flimsy case could be made for Demeter the goddess of fertility and farming and more so for Artemis, the lesbian huntress, but the best goddess to represent feminism is Persephone, the wife of Hades.

Hades adored his wife and would often acquiesce to her demands to such an extent that she could be rightly considered the co-ruler of the Underworld. In a similar vein, feminists like to believe that they took the power they now have, but the fact is that men gave it to them just like Hades relinquished power to Persephone. The thing is that she hated him for it.

As the judge for the dead, Hades divided new arrivals into three groups: the good, the bad, and the average. Seriously offending the gods resulted in eternal torment. A life un-extraordinary meant being reduced to mere post-mortem sheeple grazing the Asphodel Meadows. Only those who really stood-out from the crowd got the good stuff and this meant being heroic, but very few gained the special rewards or the special torments. The bulk of the deceased were sentenced to a blissful limbo where they forget who they were in life and mechanically pursue routine monotonous activities of no consequence. Film maker George Romero portrayed this metaphorically in his zombie films with people shuffling about in constant consumption continuing their routines long past their sell by date. The state of humanity in the Age of Hades is the walking dead.

Athena loved heroes. She counselled or sponsored Asclepius, Bellerophon, Hercules, Odysseus and Perseus. Likewise during the Age of Athena young boys were inspired to live heroic lives through the body in strength of arms, or through the mind in creation or invention. The greatest challenge for any hero involved a journey into the Underworld to match wits with Hades. Of those who ventured into that dark realm, only Hercules and Orpheus returned (and he left empty handed). Heroes may have been rewarded after death, but in life Hades was not a fan of heroes.

After the Age of Athena ended, the pervasive social mood was to tear down the ideological statues that had been erected to honour Victorian heroes. Individualism gave way to collectivism as the dominant social philosophy. Victims replaced heroes as models for action. Social status went to whichever group could argue themselves as the greatest victims while the heroes of old were repainted as villains. For the first time in history, the losing teams were awarded the trophies.

The thing is that human beings need heroes. The concept is engraved into our DNA. So we quarantine them. Heroes get relegated to works of fiction to be outgrown. We indulge our need vicariously through narratives in television and cinema or in video games, but frown on those who make them legitimate role models for life. Sure, some men might strut around thinking themselves the tough guy, but never have the opportunity to test their imagined mettle, and this makes them arrogant. Rather than lead us to extraordinary lives worthy of the Isle of the Blessed, heroes subjugated by either this dismissive attitude or arrogance lead us deeper into mental limbo as slaves to Hades.

The Age of Hades is one of fear, sorrow, and hopelessness, despite great wealth, in a life without conscious direction, subjugated by the corrupt, and without heroes to save or inspire us. Of course, what I have written here is no more than an interesting observation, a flight of fancy. Yet, one feels obliged when pointing something out to follow with a prescription.

The Age of Athena ended with a general loss of faith. Sure, we lost faith in heroism and the nation-state after World War I and we lost faith in capitalism with the Great Depression. Since then, we have been abandoning many of the virtues of Western Civilization (those being competition, science, medicine, property rights, consumer society, and the work ethic with competition, property rights, and the work ethic being the big losses).

That being so, we need a traumatic event to shake us from our slumber and bring about a great awakening. Not some fanciful “Age of Aquarius” nonsense, but a real fundamental shift in the collective consciousness of the zeitgeist. For thirty years before the end of the Romantic Era people in academia were laying the foundations for this hell on Earth. So it seems reasonable to assume that the best way forward is to lay some new foundations. If we fail, then we may well see the end of Western Civilization as a worst case scenario and the best case, should we fail, will come the Age of Ares.

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