Jan van der Straet, ‘Ulysses and the cattle of the Sun god’,1590. Rotterdam, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen.
Today’s sharing from the Blue House of HYGEIA is a commentary from Homer’s ‘Odyssey’, chapter XII, ‘the Cattle of the Sun’ by Roger Sworder in his ‘Science and Religion in Archaic Greece’. Sophia Perenis. 2008.
Helios, who in Greek mythology is the Titan of the Sun, is said to have had seven herds of oxen and seven flocks of sheep, each numbering fifty head. In the Odyssey, Homer describes these immortal cattle as handsome (ἄριστος), wide-browed, fat (εὐρυμέτωπος) and straight-horned (ὀρθόκραιρος). The cattle were guarded by Helios’ daughters, Phaëthusa and Lampetië, and it was known by all that any harm to any single animal was sure to bring down the wrath of the god. Ulysses and his companions land on the island of the sun god, Helios. Since the provisions given to them by Circe are running out, the men disobey their orders while Odysseus sleeps, and slaughter the sacred cattle of Helios. This act of sacrilege is revealed when the skins of the beasts crawl around and the meat on the roasting spit bellows. The punishment of the gods comes upon them in the shape of a storm that destroys their ship. Odysseus is the only survivor.
…/…Odysseus’ last adventure on this penultimate journey is with the Cattle of the Sun on the island of Thrinacie. He has been advised in some detail on how to conduct himself there by both Teiresias and Circe. I have suggested that the seven herds of fifty cattle and the seven herds of fifty sheep represent the days and nights of the year arranged in weeks and rounded off to the nearest decad. This interpretation places Homer’s Cattle of the Sun in the same category as other early accounts of the days of the year. For example, the Greek poet Cleobulus of Lindos, who lived in the sixth century B.C. And was accounted one of the seven wise men of Greece, propounded the following riddle:
‘One sire there is, he has twelve sons, and each of these has twice thirty daughters different in feature; some of the daughters are white, the others again are black; they are immortal and yet they all die.’
Who is the father? The answer is the year. Cleobulus counts 360 days and nights, not the 350 of Homer, and his days and nights are girls, not cows and sheep. But both girls and animals are immortal; and they are all animation, as it were, of the days and nights of the year which are thereby given an immediate reality.
The second account comparable to Homer’s Cattle of the Sun comes in the story told about Hermes in the Homeric ‘Hymn to Hermes’. This is also from the sixth century B.C. in the story, Hermes as soon as he is born gets up and with a clever trick steals fifty of Apollo’s cattle. Eventually, Hermes and Apollo strike a deal over these cattle. Hermes gives Apollo in exchange his tortoise shell lyre which he made as soon as he got up. If we remember the French word for Wednesday, Mercredi, we may guess that these fifty cattle which Hermes steals are the fifty Wednesdays of the year. His theft of them explains how they became sacred to him. On this reading we have much more exact correspondence with Homer’s Cattle of the Sun, both in number and kind. Taking these three accounts together we can see how the early Greeks reified what has become for us the abstract notions of the calendar days. According to the Greek understanding these days were realities, equivalent to living creatures on the earth but superior to them in being immortal. Their immortality clearly consisted in their reappearing every year for as long as the sun kept to his course. The Greeks were not alone in thinking that the days were determinate and reverent realities of this kind. The Egyptians revered the thirty-six gods of the decans, the ten-day period into which their year was divided, and the Christian calendar likewise animated the days of the year by appointing them to saints.
The Cattle of the Sun are immortal, yet Odysseus’s companions kill and cook some of them. The effects are bizarre. The hides of the slaughtered cattle creep along the ground and the meat, raw and cooked, continues to groan. What must have been the effects of eating this immortal beef on the human digestive system? Very little, directly. The companions are on the island another seven days, sail away when the wind changes, their ship is destroyed by a thunderbolt and they all drown. At this point the story has much in common with a story told about the infant Dionysus, child of Zeus and posthumously of Semele, who used to play with the Titans. The Titans decided to cut him up and eat him, so they put the pot on the stove and got to work. The meat was cooking and the Titans had tasted the flesh of the god when Zeus smelt the savor rising to heaven and pulverized the Titans with a thunderbolt. The child was miraculously put back together again and from the dust of the Titans the human race was made. Because we are made of the dust of the Titans who had tasted the flesh of Dionysus, there is in us an element of the god. In the same way the companions tasted the immortal cattle. I have suggested already that the corpses on the island of the Sirens and the victims of Scylla correspond to the souls in Plato’s ‘Myth of Er’ who voluntarily re-enter the planetary realm on their way to another mortal life and death. As much is true of this last remnant of Odysseus’ company who are destroyed for eating the Cattle of the Sun. For this crime they are precipitated into a mortal life, a life which is really the immortal life of the Sun god’s cattle. Every creature on earth has his natal day; they are all the divine energy of their birthday, released in partial, mortal forms on earth.
This is a difficult notion to grasp. We are to imagine the deaths of Odysseus’ companions as being births into mortal life, and that the days of the year are more real and actual than we are ourselves. Our characters as creatures on earth are really their characters as members of the annual cycle. To escape the power of the planets, to refuse to return to a mortal life on their terms, it is as necessary to leave unharmed the Cattle of the Sun as it is to escape the Sirens, Scylla and Charybdis. To kill and eat of the cattle or sheep binds one irrevocably to a day or night of the year, so that one’s own power is overcome and wholly submerged by immortal power of the god in mutilated form. Odysseus does not taste the meat and so he alone is able to swim away to safety. But still we ask: How can we ourselves be considered less real than the calendar periods, such that our lives are more than the remnants of theirs? In the context of interpretation, we have given of the Sirens, Scylla and Charybdis, this reading of the Cattle of the Sun provides more detail of our submission to the heavenly powers, in this case in consequence of an act of sacrilege against them. The frightful power of Scylla and Charybdis is modified here and the adventure is a seduction in the manner of the Sirens rather than a violent assault. But the weird result of killing the immortal cattle, the crawling hides and lowing meat, show a new grimness in our relations to the solar system, of a kind which the other adventures only suggest. …/…
Full text here
of Homer’s Odyssey,