Aphrodite and Apollo
An expanse of heavenly blue rises up to softly approach a region of white with pink, yellow, and green undertones. It could be sea meeting the sky, or sky meeting the heavens; the fluctuating tones of blue create a sense of gentle rolling waves or wisps of drifting featherweight clouds. The indeterminate nature of the subject is intended: space, horizon, merging aspects of the universe, a floating sensation, a light airiness that uplifts with its lack of a ground pulling it down, the sea and sky both mutable, flexible, and in constant motion. Both are permeable by human form, unlike the earth. We swim through water and walk through air, and if we are lucky, our spirits fly unbound.
The painting is really two paintings; a diptych by commission, no subject, topic, or style suggested or ordered, simply the freedom to create a work with the sensibility being both harmonious and quietly joyful. Initiated after the completion of the series Time Flies, the piece was actualized using the same principle of allowing the colors and images to arise from the subconscious. However, rather than dividing the painting into defined areas of flat space, the visual structure shifted to a creation of a sense of endless space, with forms 'floating' in front of that space. The greatest challenge was to create two paintings that worked compositionally as individual pieces, but became one when placed together.
The initial form was the abstract golden semi-circular shape on the right side of the diptych. The butterfly at the top of the left side of the diptych was the next image to appear, followed by a second butterfly, translucent, hovering in front of the sea or sky. I felt that something was missing from this left side of the diptych, perhaps a fairy like creature flying toward the right. At this point thoughts of Greek gods and goddesses entered my mind, perhaps because of the blue and white background, and the abstract form that I found to be evocative of a chariot wheel, ancient ruins, or a sailing vessel.
Somewhat unsure of whether or not to pursue this tangent of inquiry, I met with my client who, coincidentally, had just returned from a voyage to Greece, during which she visited many temples of the gods and goddesses. Satisfied that my intuition was correct, I began an exploration of Greek Mythology, while at the same time ascertaining the possible symbolism of the images in the diptych, and giving life to my imagined fairy. This fairy quickly transformed into a mermaid with wings, a fantastical life form, equally comfortable in both sea and sky, a graceful diaphanous lady of the sea rising up to fly through the sky to the heavens.
If we examine the possible symbolism of the various elements on this side of the diptych, we find the butterfly, a representation in itself of metamorphosis: from a chrysalis emerges a celestial winged creature, symbolizing rebirth, resurrection, and the powers of regeneration. The butterfly is also known to represent the soul, freedom, joy, love, the unconscious attraction toward light (God), and conjugal bliss. In Pima myth the butterfly is a form of the Creator. The Graeco-Roman Horae, spirits of the seasons, were sometimes portrayed with butterfly wings, and Psyche, the soul, was at times represented by a butterfly in Greek art, and was a symbol of immortality.
The translucent mermaid with wings in the painting holds a jar in one hand and a bouquet of roses in the other. Roses signify beauty and love, and are traditionally perceived as the gift of lovers. Her fairy like wings indicate supra-normal powers of the human soul, or latent possibilities. The jar, or vessel, is a feminine symbol of containment, an earthen pot connected with fertility, the Great Mother, and the womb. In Angels and Archetypes, Carmen Boulter relates Hera, the "guardian of sacred marriage", who represents the "union of masculine and feminine", to the vessel, or pythoi jar, describing it as her environmental archetype or ancient symbol:
|[The vessel] exemplifies her capacity for the psychological containment of another. It represents her ability to understand and to emotionally receive another without judgment, as well as her ability to measure and appreciate life, love, and truth.|
The mermaid represents sensual pleasure, the unconscious, the power of seduction, is a divinity of the waters, and is seen to be a protector of women. Many of the great mother goddesses, such as the Egyptian Isis, were described as being born from, or actually being the sea. The link between the tides and the moon has led many cultures to ascribe lunar goddesses with power of the ocean. Atargis was a moon goddess of the Sirians who had the form of a mermaid, as did Dercato, the moon goddess of the Philistines. The first mermaids may have been images of a fishtailed Aphrodite, known as the Greek goddess of love, but who is a survivor from an earlier tradition. Originally, she was a Near Eastern goddess, possibly an aspect of the Ugaritic Asherah, 'Lady of the Sea'. She was also known as Kypris and as Kythereia after the main shrines in her honor on Cyprus and Kythera.
Many of the sea goddesses from cultures of Oceania who were depicted as having human faces and fish like bodies, were seen to live in the Underworld, and as such, receive the souls of the dead. This is perhaps why mermaids are said to draw men from land and take them to their underwater kingdom. The fairy like mermaid of the painting is somewhat evocative of Persephone, rising in the spring from the Underworld, bringing her flowers and beauty to the world above. However, the lady of the sea flying up to the heavens is ultimately Aphrodite, with aspects of both Hera and Persephone.
Edith Hamilton describes the Roman adulation of Venus (Aphrodite): "With her, beauty comes. The winds flee before her and the storm clouds; sweet flowers embroider the earth; the waves of the sea laugh; she moves in radiant light. Without her there is no joy or loveliness anywhere." Aphrodite is the laughter loving goddess, irresistible to all. She is also a protector of women, while being the epitome of love; a graceful transcendent creature of sea and sky who revels in her own sexuality, knowing that her femininity strengthens her connection to the sacred, rather than being afraid that it weakens her spiritual power. Carmen Boulter postulates that Aphrodite, "[…] represents an internal marriage, the unity of contra sexual aspects." The merging required in a sexual union, "[…] motivates a dissolution of ego boundaries and opens us to the experience of ecstasy."
The second Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite, that calls her "Beautiful, golden goddess," provided the choice of text for this image:
|The breath of the west wind bore her|
|Over the sounding sea,|
These incredibly lovely, evocative third and fourth lines of the hymn are so apropos to the left side of the diptych, they perfectly reveal the feeling manifested in the painting. The hymn continues thus:
|Up from the delicate foam,|
|To wave-ringed Cyprus, her isle.|
|And the Hours golden-wreathed|
|Welcomed her joyously.|
|They clad her in raiment immortal.|
|And brought her to the Gods.|
While these hymns were initially ascribed to Homer, the Alexandrian grammarians and critics decided that Homer did not compose the hymns, and that they may, in fact, be much older than the Iliad and the Odyssey. According to Apostolos N. Athanassakis: "Greek tradition has preserved the names of hymnists such as Orpheus, Linos, and Mousaios, who may have preceded Homer by hundreds of years." Poets of the Homeric period used the hymns as preludes, prooimia, to epic narratives; however, many were not sung as preludes as they were longer than the narratives themselves.
The choice of text for the right side of the diptych comes from a play of Aristophanes, Birds. The Greeks saw the beginning of the universe as Chaos, formless confusion, and Night was the child of Chaos, as was Erebus, the depth where death dwells. While Aristophanes is considered a great comedic playwright of Ancient Greece, he had his moments of unexpected beautiful lyricism, poetic passages that stirred the heart. In the play Birds, Aristophanes describes the beginning of creation thus:
. . . Black-winged Night
|Into the bosom of Erebus dark and deep|
|Laid a wind-born egg, and as the seasons rolled|
|Forth sprang Love, the longed-for, shining, with|
wings of gold.
The last line, beginning with 'Forth sprang Love,' is an exquisite counterpart to the lines chosen from the Homeric Hymn for the right side of the diptych. As Aphrodite is the Goddess of Love, it seems only fitting that her 'birth' be entwined with the birth of Love. Edith Hamilton, whose translations were used for both diptychs, writes: "From darkness and from death Love was born, and with its birth, order and beauty began to banish blind confusion. Love created Light with its companion, radiant Day." Love itself, being an abstract, seems to be represented by the golden abstract form, the 'wings of gold'.
There are three elements on both sides of the diptych that warrant an exploration of possible symbolism. The color blue represents harmony, love, courage, glory, contemplation, intuition, eternity, devotion, and heavenly truth. The sea can be seen as a symbol of the mother, woman, primordial creation, universal life, sexual desire, the collective unconscious, spiritual exploration, untamable wildness, eternity, and the separation of the nether world and heaven. The sky is another symbol of eternity, as well as infinity, transcendence, the residence of the gods, and order in the universe.
On the right side of the diptych there is the triangle with apex up, signifying the male principle, fire, the sun, the active, the godhead, the number three, and aspiration of all things toward unity. As the triangle floats above a vertical line, and looks somewhat like an arrow, it can also be seen as a symbol of the light of divine power. The three curved vertical lines in the area of the painting are similar to a trident, representing the sea, the unconscious and the male as creator.
The trident is also a symbol of Poseidon, the God of the Sea. It is perhaps interesting to examine another symbol of Poseidon's: the bull. As previously mentioned, many oceanic cultures have attributed power over the sea to moon goddesses. The crescent horned cow-goddess is a symbol of the moon in most Indo-European cultures, and is usually married to a bull. The odd choice of a bull for a sea god, Poseidon, may be an archaic remnant in Greek myth of an earlier cosmogony, in which a goddess ruled the sea.
Poseidon was the ruler of the sea, and had a lavish palace beneath the sea, but was often to be found in Olympus. The horizon line on this side of the diptych is such that the meeting between the areas of blue and white create a form that could be perceived as a mountain, especially when this side of the diptych is viewed by itself. While Poseidon was known to create storms, when he rode his golden chariot over the waters, the waves subsided into calm and stillness.
Although there is an aspect of Poseidon in this painting, the god who takes precedence on this side of the diptych, is Phoebus Apollo. Phoebus means 'the bright or pure one, brilliant or shining'. He is the Healer, who first taught men the healing arts, who delights Olympus with music he plays on his golden lyre, and who is the Archer-god, the lord of the silver bow. He is the God of Light, "in whom there is no darkness at all", and so he is the God of Truth. Often, he is the Sun God. He is the god from whom oracles are sought, his most famous oracular shrines being Delphi and Delos, the island where he was born.
The Greeks thought of Delphi as the omphalos, the navel of the world. It was where the world came into being, where earth and sky, human and divine came together. It was originally a sacred site with a temple for the earth mother Gaia; the oracle was hers, before it became Apollo's. Therefore, Delphi itself is a meeting point of the feminine and masculine aspects of the universe. With its Castelian spring, and Cephissus its river, pilgrims traveled from far to seek the Truth, which was delivered by a priestess who sat on a three-legged stool placed over a cleft in the rock. From this cleft rose a vapor which induced a trance, and then she would speak. Edith Hamilton states that Apollo's presence at Delphi was a pure and beneficent power, "[…] a direct link between gods and men, guiding men to know the divine will, showing them how to make peace with the gods; […]."
The 'mount' on the right side of the diptych could be perceived as Mount Olympus, or as Parnassus, rising up behind Delphi. The triangle with its vertical line is an arrow shooting from his silver bow. The abstract form is the shining brilliance of Apollo's golden lyre, the purity of his joyous song, an iridescent emblem to truth and goodness, shimmering isles that connect to the divine, and the wings of Love itself.
Aphrodite and Apollo, while not united as lovers in Greek Mythology, unite in the diptych, two divinities that express the unification of male and female aspects of the self. Both connect to the dolphin, the Greek words delphis (dolphin) and delphys (womb) connecting the symbolism of the masculine, solar Sun God, to the feminine, watery power of the womb as the center of life, the omphalos. The dolphin is also a savior, a guide to souls in the underworld, like many of the sea-goddesses. Both sides of the diptych have aspects of the underworld meeting the heavens, the unification of male and the female, the blue of the painting itself a mutable region being sea or sky, the intangible being an expression of what is actually whole and not separate. The erudite Carmen Boulter proclaims: "In Truth, the Self is indivisible, simultaneously containing anima, or feminine qualities, and animus, or masculine qualities."
The diptych is truly about the unification of male and female, both metaphorically and in the physical realm, as well as the power of the self to voyage above from below and vice versa, travelling through different planes of existence, which are essentially one. Plato defined Eros, love, as 'the desire and pursuit of the whole'. With Love, unification becomes both desirable and possible, both within the individual, and in the outer world. One could even dare to say that without love, we no longer exist: we must love in order to remain human; love is the great creator and unifying power of the universe.