PUSHING EXTREMES -- Chastity vs. Desire
Opposites are fundamental for our understanding of reality. We perceive them outside of us, in the natural phenomena such as the sun and the moon, summer and winter, or darkness and light. But we also perceive them inside of us. Those polarizations are often called inner conflicts.
In order for us to grow spiritually, we need to integrate opposites. The Spiritual : The Material is one of those pairs most of us struggle with.
The Spirit vs. the Body
At the beginning of their spiritual journey, many people attach the highest value to the spiritual. At the same time they despise or shun the material, including the body. They believe that this makes them more ‘spiritually evolved’.
No wonder, as in many religious traditions ‘desires of the flesh’ are considered dirty and sinful, and are often perceived as enemies of faith and spirituality.
Medieval Christianity is no exception. This tendency is taken to the extreme in early Christian female saints, whose defining virtue is chastity.
A good example of this is Thekla, the first Christian female martyr.
Thekla is 18 years old and betrothed to a young man when she hears Saint Paul preach. Deeply touched, particularly by his call to chastity, she converts to Christianity.
This enrages her mother and fiancé. Thekla is threatened by death at the stake unless she renounces Christianity.
She stays true to her faith. The fire is lit, but as the flames approach her, a thunderstorm arises out of nowhere and rain extinguishes the fire. Thekla is released but commanded to leave the city.
Several similar episodes follow – and they mostly have these three things in common: 1) Thekla’s chastity gets her in trouble; 2) she is threatened with death but remains true to her ideals 3) on the verge of death, she is always miraculously saved.
As they were entering the city a young nobleman named Alexander saw Thekla. Being entranced by her beauty he rushed forward and tried to seduce her, but Thekla fought him off, thus disgracing him in front of his crowd of friends.
As you have probably figured out, Thekla did not lack suitors. It seems however that these guys were no match for her faith: all she needed to do to get super-strength and beat them black-and-blue was to cross herself.
So what is Thekla’s recipe for resolving inner conflict between chastity and desire? Well there is no recipe, as there is no conflict.
Chastity is her virtue of choice and she does not care in the least for romantic love or domestic bliss. The marriage she chooses is spiritual. She only has eyes for her ‘Heavenly Bridegroom’, and none of the men of flesh and blood stand a chance.
She pushes the ‘chastity pole’ to the extreme, absolutely neglecting and ignoring its opposite, the desire.
Her temptations and trials are formal and superficial. The act of adopting a new faith seems to have erased every trace of sexual/romantic desire in her. This rigid, robotic attachment to chastity is used as a proof of her saintliness.
But in some of the ‘ordinary’ women of the middle ages we clearly see this inner conflict between faith and desire. A beautiful example is In Trutina, one of the 24 songs in Orff’s Carmina Burana.
Though I am interested in the lyrics here, the music is sublime and the song only about two minutes long, so if you’re interested, you can find it online.
In Trutina (In the Balance)
In my mind's wavering balance
Wanton love and chastity sway in opposite scales.
But I choose what I see, I offer my neck to the yoke;
to a yoke so sweet I cross.
Though in the end the lady in question seems to choose monastic life (that is what ‘sweet yoke’ most likely means), the song is about her dilemma. Before she decides, she is torn between faith/chastity and desire.
What happened after she became a nun and if she regretted her decision no one knows. But unless the warring polarities were finally balanced out in her mind, the act of deliberately choosing one of the two did not resolve her inner conflict.
Suppressing one of the poles is never the solution, especially not when that pole is sexual desire/romantic love, which are some of our strongest instincts. And no one has better described the consequences of suppressing desire on account of chastity than Euripides, one of the three famous tragic dramatists of Ancient Greece.
A Tragic Misfit
Hippolytus, the protagonist of Euripides’ tragedy with the same name, is a poster child for chastity. And chastity, for the ancient Greeks, is symbolized by Artemis, the virgin goddess.
Her opposite is Aphrodite, the goddess of love, beauty and procreation.
These are the same opposites that played a major role in the life of the Christian martyr Thekla – chastity and desire. Only in Hippolytus they are symbolized by the two goddesses.
Hippolytus, just like Thekla, is obsessively chaste. He reveres only the pure Artemis and refuses to worship the seductive Aphrodite.
A Terrible Death
Greek gods are anthropomorphic. They look like humans, but they also act like humans. They are friendly and supportive if they get the respect they believe they are entitled to, but turn nasty when faced with rejection or slight.
Aphrodite is no exception--Hippolytus refuses to worship her and as retribution, she has his step-mother Phaedra fall madly in love with him.
- The young man rejects Phaedra’s advances.
- Phaedra falsely accuses Hippolytus of raping her, then hangs herself.
- Enraged, his father sends him to his death.
“"While he, poor youth, entangled in the reins was dragged along, bound by a stubborn knot, his poor head dashed against the rocks, his flesh all torn the while he cried out piteously, "… O luckless curse of a father! Will no one come and save me for all my virtue?"”
A terrible death. Terrible and … well, unfair. Remember, he is falsely accused by his stepmother.
But why doesn’t Aphrodite just make Hippolytus fall madly in love with his stepmother? Why does she go for such a complex revenge instead?
Because she knows the chaste Hippolytus will reject Phaedra. Aphrodite lets him keep his chastity, and puts in motion a series of events to ensure that this very chastity (‘virtue’, as he calls it) will become his downfall.
“For All My Virtue”
Now this story does not smell or taste like its Christian counterpart – Thekla is saved from her every trial by her God, while Hippolytus is destroyed by a vengeful goddess.
Hippolytus’ storyline is derived from a myth and certain motives, such as the vengeful goddess, old king and evil stepmother, seem melodramatic.
But which storyline is more realistic? The Christian one, where the heroine is rewarded for her fanaticism, or the Greek one, where the hero is punished for the same thing?
There is no doubt that in the Christian version chastity is the positive pole. Erotic love is the negative pole – not only should we avoid it, we should deny its very existence.
This is the exact opposite of what Euripides seems to be telling us:
We should not be excessive in anything, no matter how ‘good’ it seems. Cultivating one tendency to the point of completely neglecting its opposite is a mistake, which will in time prove disastrous for the one who makes it.
“… Will no one come and save me for all my virtue?"
Says the dying Hippolytus, shocked at the injustice he is forced to suffer. But the painful truth he is not yet ready to see is, he was not destroyed in spite of “all his virtue”, but because of it.
This is Law Amongst Us Gods
Aphrodite’s revenge just symbolizes the consequences of living in an extreme. It is the law of the material universe, and whether it seems ‘just’ or ‘fair’ is beside the point.
This is why Artemis, the goddess Hippolytus worships unconditionally, is powerless to protect him. In her own words:
“It was Aphrodite that would have it so, sating the fury of her soul. For this is law amongst us gods: none of us will thwart his neighbor's will, but ever we stand aloof.”
Chastity is not superior to desire. The two need to exist in balance.
As H.D.F. Kitto notices in his work The Greeks, Euripides…
“… makes of Hippolytus a tragic misfit;… Man must worship both these goddesses, antagonistic though they may seem.”