Mythology for Queer Futures and Potentiality of Athena-Dionysian Justice

  Marble head of Dionysos (from Piraeus, late 4th c. BC) / Marble head of Athena with Corinthian helmet (reign of Hadrian) 

Marble head of Dionysos (from Piraeus, late 4th c. BC) / Marble head of Athena with Corinthian helmet (reign of Hadrian) 

I therefore claim to show, not how men think in myths, but how myths operate in men’s minds without their being aware of the fact” [1] - claimed Claud Live-Strauss in the introduction to “Mythologiques”. Myths play fundamental role in constructing the compass of ethical and moral orienteers in culture. Mythographies and theogonies are the original source materials of the early utopias, although the concept itself was introduced in particular form more than two millennia later. In contemporaneity, the pastiche of the remnants of the ancient theogonies forms the present grand narratives, that were mistakenly pronounced dead by Jean-François Lyotard. Lyotard was however paradoxically right and wrong in his statement: the narratives “…we tell to justify a single set of laws and stakes [that] are inherently unjust…”[2], indeed, however we are not able to outgrow them. The denial of existence of the grand narratives creates an illusion of freedom from biased judgements, while they are continuously performed on the basis of convictions that are driven deeper into subconscious. Carl Schmitt highlighted in “Political Theology”: “All significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularized theological concepts not only because of their historical development - in which they were transferred from theology to the theory of the state, whereby, for example, the omnipotent god became the omnipotent lawgiver - but also because of their systematic structure, the recognition of which is necessary for a sociological consideration of these concepts” [9]. Moreover, since the last decade of 20th century “…facts [are] uncertain, values in dispute, stakes high and decisions urgent” [15]. This condition is referred to in futures and transdisciplinary studies as post-normal and requires reassessment of the very foundations of epistemological heritage, such as the relevance of the questions concerning the universal “truths”. Critical reading of the archived as historical texts allows to discover the contemporary thingness within them and the disruptive potentiality of unearthing alternative futures.

Our moral ontological terminology of “right” and “wrong”, basic understanding of the ethical concepts of “Love”, “Discord”, “Quarrel”, “Justice” “Social Peace”, “Bad Governance”, “Good Governance” etc.; our biases and prejudices - originate from myths. Nietzsche, Freud, Jung, Deleuze and others used mythological basis for constructing cultural, psychoanalytic, philosophical, etc understanding of culture and its dynamics [3]. The potentiality of mythology as a source of alternative shared concepts, archetypes [17], in academia is dimmed by the rise of the dominance of analytical school, pursuing enclosed paradigmatic approach while seemingly embracing interdisciplinary ideas. Just like for a racing horse with blindfolds, the only possible track of movement is still forward at higher speed to a finish line. But who designed the track and why the finish line is where it is?

Theogonies and cosmogonies are numerous and include texts and remnants written down from spoken narratives all around the world: African (incl. Egyptian), Middle and Central Eastern (Babylonian, Assyrian, Persian, Phoenician, etc), Classical Mediterranean European (Minoan-Cretan, Archaic and Classical Greek, etc), Northern and Central European (Celtic, Finnish, Germanic, etc), pluralities of Indian, Native American and among more sources all demonstrate common traits and recurrent stories. The comparative analysis of the narratives and symbolic references within those sources reveals a lot of interesting connections [4; 12] and similarities.

One of them is Hesiod’s “Theogony”, “…an intensely political poem” [3]. Hesiod “…has selected, compiled, systematized, and transformed into a widely disseminated written document… fully surviving example of a Greek tradition of written theogonies and cosmogonies…” [5]. Muses, he claimed, gave him “the awareness within himself of a new ability to compose poetry about matters past and future” [5]. Interestingly, the researchers of Hesiod’s work indicate petering end of “Theogony”, as if it was cut abruptly by the editor of some sort [5]. Whether it could have been an accident, like burning the essential scrolls in the fire caused by Caesarian troops in Alexandrian Library in August 48 BC, or deliberate destruction by censors at the time of decline of polytheism and monotheistic radicalisation (for example, by early Christian radical extremists), or neither of those options - we are gifted with a fruitful soil for productive speculation. Searching for clues about possible futures in the genealogy of fundamental ethical concepts disguised as various forms of divinities presented in the text is a promising exercise.

“Theogony” is the genealogy of fundamental ethical concepts disguised as various forms of divinities presented in the text, including the concepts of justice, power and sovereignty, which are fundamental for political theory and utopian writing. Paul Morgenthau defined “…the Political… to be understood as a force that exists within the individual and is necessarily directed towards other people in the form of “desire for power” [8], while mentioned earlier Carl Schmitt spoke of a sovereign as “…he who decides on the exception” [9]A sovereign through the imposed legitimised domination and mechanisms of the exercise of power is the source of definitions of “justice”, “righteousness”, which are all etymologically coming from Proto-Indo-European religious cults.

 Andrea Brocca.  Hera brings image of Eris in the mind of Zeus after his quarrel with Athena ( from illustrations for Mythology for Queer Futures),  London, 2017

Andrea Brocca. Hera brings image of Eris in the mind of Zeus after his quarrel with Athena(from illustrations for Mythology for Queer Futures), London, 2017

The figure of patriarchal Zeus in Hesiod’s “Theogony” is an embodiment of the order of justice and enjoyed some attention from researchers [3, 5]. The myths about his deeds, his involvement in the conflicts among gods and men, his path to power on the Olympus as well as his relation with children, whose generation is the last of those consecutively described in “Theogony”, carve the concept of Zeusian justice as a sort of everlasting ideal. Zeus cements his sovereignty after the battle with the monster Typhon - the last challenge to his authority. After victory he seems to have established timeless control in a form of patriarchal harmony. The archetypes within Zeusian justice form the socio-political and cultural order we inhabit: with the dynamic hierarchy of virtues being presented in regularly refreshed new aesthetic forms, but however retaining its essential structure. Critical deconstruction of the genealogy of ordinary virtues in “Theogony”, willing ostracisation from the totality of political power in Zeusian justice is paramount for the alternative thinking towards otherness as praxis.Zeus was prophesied to be challenged by the child of his first wife Metis, the mother of wisdom, deep thought and cunning. He supposedly overcome it by outsmarting the solution of his father Kronos, who used to swallow his children to avoid any of them posing the challenge to his rule. Zeus devoured the pregnant wife instead. Later on, Athena “…pealed to the broad sky her clarion cry of war…” [10] from his head after Zeus’s skull was cleaved open following the intolerable headache. He therefore became mother and father to Athena, who never married or mothered a child and was the only Olympian to be entrusted with the ultimate ‘godly nuclear weaponry’, thunderbolts. Athena embodied the continuity and at the best refinement of the concept of everlasting Zeusian justice, according to the most interpretations. But richness and controversial to ‘normality’ character of the goddess [11; 12], her multiplicity in representation of plasmatic in the political, polis, citizenry above nationality, to name the few and potentiality of opposition to Zeusian patriarchy offers a strong foundation for the possibility of alternative futures.

Another peculiar character, Dionysus, the son of the patriarch and mortal woman, who was resurrected twice from the thigh of Zeus and is therefore, like in Athena’s case, count the patriarch as both mother and father. One of the resurrections was possible because Athena saved Dionysus heart after he was torn apart by Titans sent to kill him by the jealous second wife of Zeus, Hera. Dionysus remarkably showed outstanding mercy and saved Hera from imprisonment by Hephaestus, her own unwanted son. Dionysus also notably turned the object of mocking into the weapon and the symbol of power: given him by Titans pine cone stick became thyrsus, his Olympian stuff. He arguably became a model [13, 14] from which ‘the simplified’ figure of suffering gods, including Jesus, emerged in monotheisms. In the Orphic tradition [4] Dionysus has a central role in the pantheon of deities. He is the representation of “zoe”, the authentic, unobstructed by convention and oppression of the mundane existence energy of life, as well as the artistic aura and creativity. His sacrifices and uncompromising nature of personal morality is both a radical opposite and an ideal counter-balancer to Athena in possible duality of alternative archetypes for futures.

“Theogony” contains the potentiality of another of order of justice, perhaps identified beyond the term ‘justice’ itself - namely Athena-Dionysian tandem. Athena is female, yet masculine, while Dionysus is male, yet feminine - they are queer, ‘the Other’ among the Olympians. “Queer is…whatever is at odds with the normal, the legitimate, the dominant… It is an identity without an essence. ‘Queer’… demarcates not a positivity but a positionality vis-à-vis the normative…” [16].

 Andrea Brocca.  The “Other” Olympians before the storm: Athena, Dionysus & Hephaestus (from illustrations for Mythology for Queer Futures),  London, 2017

Andrea Brocca. The “Other” Olympians before the storm: Athena, Dionysus & Hephaestus (from illustrations for Mythology for Queer Futures), London, 2017

They share special relation to their father-mother and played special roles in impacting the build-up of the European cultural and political archetypes. Athena became the personification of the model of concious, critical and reflective citizenship in relation to polis and representation of “public”, while Dionysus ‘cultivated’ model of ‘authentic life’ and vitality of experience. What would be the legitimate story for construction of the basis in creation of other archetypes, that would challenge the monopoly of current justice - based on union of patriarchal Zeus and jealous, revengeful Hera? And why is it urgent for futures?

The pertaining question and deadlock of critical theory is negative methodology that appear to be not capable of alternative thinking about socio-political order. In conversation with Christian Delacampagne, Michel Foucault highlighted “I can’t help but dream about a criticism that would try not to judge but to bring an oeuvre, a book, a sentence, an idea to life; it would light fires, watch the grass grow, listen to the wind, and catch the sea foam in the breeze and scatter it. It would multiply not judgments but signs of existence; it would summon them, drag them from their sleep. Perhaps it would invent them sometimes – all the better. All the better. Criticism that hands down sentences sends me to sleep; I’d like a criticism of scintillating leaps of the imagination. It would not be sovereign or dressed in red. It would bear the lightning of possible storms.” [6]

Critical reading of classic texts embody the possibility of opening the vortex for alternative meanings of the very fundamental presuppositions - and therefore undermining silent and invisible ethical and moral monopoly of patriarchal justice, disguised as eternal and universal. #notsurprised about ‘Harvey Weinsteins’ is just a drop in the ocean of examples of the appearances and forms of the embedded order in the DNA of socio-political and cultural ideology, hidden by the layer of seemingly different and competing, but in reality fundamentalising it discourses. On the other level we face, for example, the European Union desperate and so far unsuccessful search for ‘new narratives’ to legitimise its vision of united future(s). Neoliberal marketing-disguised forms of engagement with the citizens of the EU fails, especially facing of economic and political crises. The sense of belonging to one culture, one people and sharing common futures is far from being formed - insistence of ‘Christian tradition of Europe’ was arguably one of the key reasons of failure of the European constitutional project. Friedrich Nietzsche wrote: “Every culture that has lost myth has lost, by the same token, its natural power of creativity. Only a horizon ringed about with myths can unify a culture. The forces of imagination… are saved only by myth” [7].

Myth is a fundamental active agent of storytelling and narrative-building: lifelessness resulting in disempowering it through aestheticisation closes its potentiality and rejects possibility of alternative futures. “Mankind today, stripped of myth, stands famished among all his pasts and must dig frantically for roots… What does our great historical hunger signify, our clutching about us of countless other cultures, our consuming desire for knowledge, if not the loss of myth, of a mythic home, the mythic womb?.. And who would care to offer further nourishment to a culture which, no matter how much it consumes, remains insatiable and which converts the strongest and most wholesome food into “history” and “criticism”?” [7] - wrote Nietzsche more than a century ago, however ‘today’ commenced long before him and continues now. The real alternative to the thickening totality of everlasting present comes not from flying cars and autonomous robots - but from the depth of mythological archetypes and our courage to re-think and develop them.

 Andrea Brocca.  Nike emerges from the clash of thunderbolts (from illustrations for Mythology for Queer Futures),  London, 2017

Andrea Brocca. Nike emerges from the clash of thunderbolts (from illustrations for Mythology for Queer Futures), London, 2017

Onward! Towards defining the lightnings for an upcoming storm.

by Denis Maksimov (November 19, 2017)


[1] Marcel Hénaff. Claude Lévi-Strauss and the Making of Structural Anthropology. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, London, 1998. p. 108.

[2] Williams, James. “Jean-Francois Lyotard” in Key Contemporary Social Theorists by Anthony Elliott and Larry Ray. Oxford, Blackwell Publishers, 2002, pp. 210-214.

[3] Stephen Scully. Hesiod’s Theogony: from Near Eastern Creation Myths to Paradise Lost. Oxford University Press, 2015

[4] Gladys M. N. Davis. The Asiatic Dionysos. G. Bell and Sons, ltd., 1914.

[5] Glenn W. Most (ed.). Hesiod: Theogony, Work and Days, Testimonia. Harvard University Press, London, 2006.

[6] Michel Foucault. “The Masked Philosopher” in J. Faubion (ed.). Tr. Robert Hurley and others Ethics: Subjectivity and Truth. The Essential Works of Michel Foucault 1954-1984. Volume One, Penguin, 1997.

[7] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy, trans. Kaufmann, Random House, 1967, sec. 23

[8] Kate Schick. Gillian Rose: A Good Enough Justice. Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh, 2012

[9] George Schwab. Political Theology: Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty, trans. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1985.

[10] C.D. Warner, et al., comp. Seventh Olympian Ode by Pindar. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.An Anthology in Thirty Volumes, 1917.

[11] Rebecca Futo Kennedy. Athena’s Justice. Athena, Athens and the Concept of Justice in Greek Tragedy. Peter Lang Publishing, NY, 2009.

[12] Susan Deacy and Alexandra Villing. Athena in the Classical World. Brill, 2001

[13] James Rendel Harris. The Origin of the Cult of Dionysos. Reprinted from the Bulletin of John Rylands Library. April, 1915.

[14] Rene Girard. Dionysus versus the Crucified. MLN, Vol. 99, No. 4, French issue, Sep. 1984, p. 820.  

[15] Funtowicz, S. and Ravetz, J.. Science for the post-normal age, Futures, 31(7), 1993, pp. 735-755

[16] David Halperin. “Queer Politics” in The New Social Theory Reader by Steven Seidman and Jeffrey C. Alexander. Routledge, 2001.

[17] Carl G. Jung. The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious. Princeton University Press, 1968.