Beauty and the Beast
by Tala Bar
The goddess Eurynome rose dancing from the waters of the archaic chaos; in her dance she created Boreas, the North Wind, turned it into the serpent Ophion and coupled with it. Then she turned into a dove and laid the World Egg, which broke open and the Earth with all its inhabitants poured out from.
The title of this article presents as its ideological basis the existence of ancient relations between a female entity called Beauty and a male entity in the form of a Beast; these relations, taking shape in the story of Eurynome and the serpent and featuring in many myths and legends, present the connection which had once existed between the human race and the natural world around it.
Eurynome’s story is one of the oldest creation tales known to exist in writing. She was a goddess of the Pelasgians, who inhabited Greece before it was invaded by the Ionic and Doric tribes; she was not only an ancient Water goddess but also an Earth goddess. She herself creates her male mate through dancing.
The first male, appearing in the character of the wind, turns while dancing into the first Beast, the serpent. It is considered in many legends to be the earliest animal on earth and a basic phallic symbol. Also, living in holes in the ground, the snake has a strong connection both with Earth and with the Underground realm. It often acts as a mediator between humans and Nature.
A figure similar to that of the Greek Boreas is that of the Mexican figure of Quetzalcoatl, who is known as the Feathered Serpent, and considered to be a spirit bringing rain. The Mexican myth tells how Quetzalcoatl was seduced by the Water goddess to have sexual relations with her; she is, then, a parallel figure to the Pelasgian Eurynome who rose from the archaic waters. It is significant that two such parallel stories exist on both sides of the world; it emphasizes the unity of ancient myths, and of human thought about its relation with Nature.
Various traditions also tell that in the Biblical Garden of Eden, Eve mated with the serpent when reaching for the Fruit of Knowledge. The serpent, as a creature of the Underworld, is called there The most cunning of all creatures. Wisdom in pagan traditions belonged to the realm of the Underworld, and the wisdom of the ancient snake was famous in myths of many cultures.
So, the serpent is connected both with wisdom and with sex. One Toppi myth tells that in the old days women mated with snakes, because at that time men had no penises. Such a story means, perhaps, that a man cannot perform the act properly unless he is turned into a Beast by the Nature goddess as Beauty.
Such animal mating was a seasonal ritualistic act, but it must be remembered that every myth talks in symbols. The people taking part in the ritual took animals’ shape to symbolize the various forces of Nature, but it was a dress-up appearance: no woman actually mated with an animal but with its human representative. But it is quite possible that during the act, the people involved would identify deeply with the symbols they represented. This coupling of humans with Nature was not only physical or sexual, but also a spiritual mating, expressing humans’ mental intercourse with Nature.
One of the most prominent beasts taking part in such rituals was the bull, which was the most important domestic animal among the farming communities of Europe and the Middle East. It was known for its great strength and had appeared as many figures of gods and heroes as the son, lover and sacrifice of the Goddess as a cow. The bull appears in primeval times as the bison, or buffalo, as is shown in many ancient paintings around the world.
A well-known story concerning the bull is connected with the island of Crete. It is told that Zeus took the shape of a white bull when he kidnapped the Tyran princess Europa; he carried her from the town of Tyre on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean through many lands until they reached the island of Crete. The kidnapping of a Middle Eastern princess, whose name was given to a whole continent, expresses the spread of the bull’s worship from the eastern coast of the Mediterranean to southern Europe.
The princess gave birth to Minos, who later married the Moon goddess Pasiphae and became king of Knossos in Crete. It is told about Pasiphae that she fell in love with a white bull and gave birth to the Minotaur, who was a man with the head of a bull; but it is possible that the white bull was Minos himself, son of Zeus as a bull, who would take the form of that animal during mating rituals.
The white bull, like the Egyptian Apis, was sacred to the sun, and its mating with the Moon goddess would bring enormous fertility to land and people. The cow as a representative of the Moon goddess is characterized in many ancient myths, from western Europe to the Far East.
However, in lands of mountains and forests, the Mother goddess appears many times not as a cow but as a bear. This animal is known for its fierceness when protecting its young and is considered very dangerous.
The Huntress goddess Artemis, whose function was to protect children, took the shape of a bear called Callisto; her form appears in the sky in the two Bear groups, the Big Dipper and the Little Dipper, which move in endless circles around the pole star. But in some places, notably among the Scandinavians in northern Europe and the Navajos on the other side of the world, the bear is said to appear as a male animal that married young maidens.
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The disconnection with Nature occurred in human society together with the diminishing of the power of women and of the status of goddesses, as happened in classical Greece, for instance. Men ceased to accept as natural their appearance as the Beast, who was under the tutelage of the Great Goddess of Nature as Beauty. That Nature goddess, who used to control all its phenomena and was called Lady of the Beasts, turned now into a witch, and her connection with water and land, with the moon, fire and the underworld, turned into a connection with darkness and evil.
A famous witch of that kind is Circe, who mated with men and turned them into beasts, as told in Homer’s Odyssey. The poem’s hero, Odysseus, is considered the first man to force his wife Penelope (meaning ‘duck’, which would be a form of a water goddess) to belong to him alone, forbidding her to choose other men to mate with and turn into beasts, according to the ancient fertility rites. It was Odysseus who returned Circe’s victims to their human shape, thus breaking the ritualistic system of the Fertility goddess, disconnecting the ties between humans and Nature.
From now on, all stories based on the mating of Beauty and the Beast would include the element of witchcraft, which turns a man into a beast against his will. One of the early stories of this kind is The Golden Ass, where Lucius is turned into an ass because of his improper behavior toward a woman. The ass was an ancient divinity in the Middle East, and there was a tradition that King Herod worshiped it at the Temple in Jerusalem. It was one of the Fertility animals, sacred to Dionysus as the phallic symbol Priapos.
In The Golden Ass, a woman performs sexual act with the donkey by her own will; but in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Titania, Queen of the fairies, does that under the spell cast by her jealous husband Oberon a state of things which clearly shows male’s domination of the female. The ass is a man bewitched by Oberon, and his name, Bottom, shows him as the lowest form of life possible. He does not understand Nature and has no affinity to it: all his will is to resume his human form as quickly as possible. This is a far cry from the days when humans took willing part in Nature’s rituals according to the old myths.
Medieval legends and fairy tales are full of wicked witches turning humans into animals against their will, based on the idea of the mating of Beauty and the Beast. The most prominent of them is the story by that name, told by the Brothers Grimm. In this tale, the Beast is a wicked prince turned into a beastly monster to teach him a lesson. Here appears an indication of the affinity between ugly and evil, which had never existed in Nature but was initially drawn from the ancient Persian separation between the god of Light as Good, and the god of Darkness as Evil. Goodness in the shape of a pretty girl manages to affect the Beast’s heart, and through her human love turns him back into human. All this has nothing to do with the connection with Nature and with the old rituals, which had no ideas of good and evil.
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In modern times, humanity has removed itself more and more away from Nature; but it is significant that some connection with animals is appearing more and more in the fantasy literature, which is in many cases based on old mythological ideas. One way of keeping this connection in literature is the phenomena of shapeshifting creatures; it seems to point out how easy and natural it is for some humans to change themselves into various kinds of animals.
One of the most famous modern shapeshifting fiction characters is Spiderman. The spider appears in old myths, prominently as a female. In a classical Greek story, Arachne was a young girl with great talent for weaving; in a competition with the Wisdom goddess Athena, mistress of all skills, Arachne won, raised the goddess’s wrath and was turned by her into a spider which is the meaning of the girl’s name.
In nature, it is mostly the female spider who cleverly weaves her beautiful web, which she uses to catch her prey; she also, according to ancient myths, devours her mate after coupling. A spider goddess was known in some islands of the Pacific, where she had come out of the primeval waters to create the world with its land, moon, sea and sun.
In the modern fairy tale, Spiderman is a male Beast, who is completely disconnected from Nature. He creates nothing, living among the city skyscrapers, using his thread not to make beautiful rags but to leap from roof to roof, saving humans from their human troubles. He is obviously unable to resume Man’s ancient ties with Nature; being too involved in human affairs, he is even unable to make real connection with the Beauty of his choice. It is a sad comment on human affairs and on their future life on this planet.
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Author’s note about the website from which the article was translated: “The name of the site is Ha-Ayal Ha-Kore, which is the name of the moose in Hebrew; but kore — with the stress on the last e — also means ‘calls’ (“the deer that calls”) or “reads,” so there is a pun here (Ha is “the” in Hebrew).
Copyright © 2005 by Tala Bar
[Editor’s note: many spiders actually do devour the male; some after, some even during copulation.]