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Zeus, Caves, a Goat, and another Bull: The Beast and the Sovereign, Pt. 2

I just returned to Heraklion from several days driving around Crete.  I’m particularly impressed by how little the Olympian gods are on display here.  The Minoans, as we learned at the Heraklion Archaeological Museum, worshipped the snake goddess.  The same snake goddess who is defeated by Apollo to establish himself at Delphi.  And yet, Zeus nonetheless is part of the story on Crete, particularly as situating himself as the beast and the sovereign, a theme I keep returning to in light of my summer reading of Derrida.  For Derrida, the relation of the beast and the sovereign is peculiar because the sovereign is both what is most separated, other than, the beast and what becomes beastly in order to maintain, enforce or display sovereignty.  Hobbes’ Leviathan is the sovereign who must be a beast to maintain power.  Rousseau’s sovereign must be a wolf.  Machiavelli’s a lion and a fox.  For Derrida, the effort to drive out the beastly appears to produce the beastly in what attempts to drive it out.  Thus, at the heart of the logic of sovereignty, even in human sovereign rationality, there lurks a beast.  I can’t help but see this beastly sovereign in all the stories on Crete where Zeus, the sovereign Olympian appears.

Hesiod tells us that Rhea, the mother of Zeus, hid Zeus in a cave on Crete, to protect him from his child-swallowing father, Kronos (hey, that’s the name of the hotel I’m staying at).  Kronos’ mother and father, Gaia and Ouranos, told Kronos that one of his children would overtake him and rule over him.  I think Ouranos told Kronos to get back at Kronos who had overpowered him.  So the cycle continued.  But not before Kronos tried to stop it by eating all his children as they were born.  Rhea asked Gaia and Ouranos for some help here, and they recommended that Rhea give Kronos a stone wrapped in swaddling clothes and whisk Zeus away some far off, so she did.  To this cave that I was at today.   Legend has it, though not from Hesiod as far as I can tell, that Zeus was suckled by a she-goat in the cave.  The future king of gods feeding from a goat.  The future gods of gods needs an animal for sustenance.  Perhaps that isn’t the most shocking part of this story.  Perhaps more shocking to us is that the king of the gods was born and needed suckling at all.


When Kronos finally vomits up the stone that stood in for Zeus, Zeus sets it up at Delphi as a sign of his power, and a sign of the Olympians’ power come to replace the gods who preceded them — the gods, it turns out, have a past.


At the entrance to the cave at Diktaeon, the place where Zeus was raised.

Today, in Agios Nikolaos, I saw this statue of Europa on the bull, the bull who is Zeus.  Zeus takes Europa, the daughter of a Phoenician king–that is, from the East–and brings her to Crete.  Ok, brings…that’s a nice way to put it, and everyone has their own euphemism for what happens here: abducts, makes her his wife.  Makes her his wife?  Zeus forces himself upon her.  Forcing himself upon her is what we call rape.  One could write a whole series of books on efforts to justify Zeus in the “it-wasn’t-really-rape” fashion, but don’t you believe it.  That’s what it is to be the sovereign.  The sovereign’s force is the law.   If patriarchy is the sovereignty of men, then of course men would say that force was lawful, she wanted it, it wasn’t that bad.  She got to be with Zeus!  She got to be with a man-god!  She was with power!

Sovereignty, it seems, always ends up in this place between enforcing the law, and as such, outside the law (as Rousseau says, the general will — the aggregate wishes of the people — cannot be restrained by the law because it is the law), and becoming that which cannot be contained by the law, that which is beastly in its desires, excessive.  In this zone of indistinction, as Giorgio Agamben calls it, the sovereign works.  It is thus striking that Zeus the rapey-god kidnaps and rapes Europa as a beast.  Zeus the bull.  Zeus the god.  It isn’t one or the other — to be Zeus the god is to be Zeus the bull.

DSCN2832Europa was the mother of Minos, who reigned at Knossos, and of Rhadamanthys, who reigned at Phaistos.  The rape of Europa, the move that confiscates from the East what belongs to it and brings it to the West and insists no wrong was done, is the foundational action of Minoan civilization, the ur-civilization of the Western tradition.

Just several miles south of Knossos is Archanes, near the top of Mount Juktas, Zeus, the god who appears as a bull, the same god who defeats monsters to establish himself as the sovereign god, is buried.  Local legend is that Zeus was raised in the caves at Diktaion, then later on Mount Ida, and buried in Mount Juktas.  Heidegger, I’m told, bemoans that it takes a long time for a god to die.  He seems to mean that we need them to hurry up and die so that we can usher in new gods, gods who will do the gods the old ones did before, but that they don’t do anymore, though they haven’t entirely disappeared so they cannot be replaced.  What would it mean to memorialize, to mourn, to bury the god who died before he had–in this Heideggerian sense–died?  For it seems that to say that Zeus is buried in the mountain is to say, we remember and memorialize and care about Zeus, so we buried him and continue to remember that he is buried.

As a philosopher, I am tempted to suppose that Socrates killed Zeus.  It struck me that Socrates’ argument that we must give accounts for ourselves is in fact saying not that the gods do not exist, but that the gods are not sufficient for explaining and justifying how we act.  I’ve been listening to Ian McKellen read Robert Fagles’ translation of Homer’s Odyssey on this trip, and I’m struck at the constancy with which some mortal action is explained by what the gods do.  Socrates’ brilliance, and his undoing, is to question whether such an explanation stands.  He raises the human outside the gods and beyond the beasts by asking for some rationale.  To be asked and to offer the rationale is to be human, mortal.  To live wholly and freely without the rationale–to refer to gods or to instinct, as the beasts do–no longer counts as being human.

In On the Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche complains that it is no longer the strong men of empire that who we bow down in Rome, but the pope (another strong man of empire?  Perhaps).  It seems fitting to ask who we bow down to now–not Zeus, but the philosopher, the scientist, whoever can make the strongest and best case that they give a rationale rather than an appeal to a god.  Beware that such sovereignty of reason is not immune to the beastly sovereign problems that plague Zeus.

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