So in the middle ages Temperance was seen as total abstinence from the ‘bad’ pole. In other words, from sin.
But complete abstinence, being an extreme, inevitably creates its opposite—overindulgence.
We can see this with ex-alcoholics. When they quit drinking, they really QUIT. They don’t drink at all anymore.
But if they fall off the wagon, they never stop at one or two drinks.
No, they get dead drunk.
The same goes for diets: after a strict eating regimen, you’ll typically get not only your ‘old’ weight back, but a few extra pounds/kilos as well.
So just like ex-alcoholics, who drink uncontrollably when some stressful event triggers their addiction again, after diets people usually overindulge in food.
Total abstinence will sooner or later bring about its own opposite—overindulgence.
Most of us spend our lives oscillating between the two.
So total abstinence, the approach to temperance popular in the middle ages, simply does not work for most people.
Neutralizing the negative pole with the positive pole—the solution that the archaic world offers us—is certainly more healthy and effective.
The Angel Lady
After the middle ages, the idea of mixing the positive and negative pole has come into vogue again. But in the new tarot images the dominant influence seems to be Indian, not ancient Greek.
More about that in the next Temperance post.
In the archaic world, Temperance was a symbol of balance and harmony.
As seen in my previous posts about ancient Greece and China (see Temperance as Harmony of the Soul), a temperate person deals with an extreme by balancing it out—by introducing its opposite.
But in the medieval period a new idea of Temperance emerged.
And this new idea is at times pretty bizarre.
In two out of three Eteilla’s tarot decks, Temperance is depicted as a girl with a bridle in her hand.
The bridle is normally part of the horse’s gear. It is used to restrain or guide the animal.
The ‘bit’ of the bridle is placed in the horse’s mouth. It is through the discomfort and/or pain caused by even the gentlest bit, that the animal is controlled.
So Eteilla wants us to know that the 'Temperance girl' has to restrain her appetites or desires by force. And the pain is an unpleasant but inevitable consequence.
Temperance and Rage
In the ancient world Temperance was connected to violent passions, such as sexual desire, rage or fear.
Connection with anger/rage/wrath was especially strong. This is obvious even today, from words and phrases such as “temperament” and “keep (or lose) one's temper”.
Put Your Sword in Its Place
Giotto’s fresco cycle, Seven Vices and Virtues, decorates the walls of the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua.
Temperance, one of the virtues, stands in her niche, binding up the straps around the hilt of her sword.
She is next to Wrath, the third vice, because she needs to ‘temper’ it.
More interestingly, she is placed below the fresco of the Betrayal.
The betrayal in question is Judas’ betrayal of Christ.
According to the gospels, Judas leads a crowd to arrest Jesus. Among the crowd is the high priest’s servant.
Judas kisses Jesus to point him out to the crowd. It is this kiss that Giotto portrays.
But he uses what happens next as inspiration for the Temperance fresco: one of Jesus’ disciples ‘loses his temper’—draws his sword and cuts off the servant’s ear.
Jesus then commands him: ‘Put your sword in its place, for all who take the sword will perish by the sword.’(Matthew 26:52)
What’s That in Her Mouth?
Giotto’s Temperance, unlike Jesus’ apostle, is binding the straps on the hilt of her sword so that it cannot be drawn.
She seems to have overcome her rage, her wrath.
Thanks to the bridle she is biting on.
The Brownie Experiment
“The cookies just came out of the oven, smelling deliciously and oozing with chocolate chips. On the table next to the cookies was a bowl of radishes.”
This is how Charles Duhigg, the author of The Power of Habit, begins the chapter on (what I call) ‘the brownie experiment’.
Mark Muraven, a psychology PhD candidate, conducted this experiment with his colleagues. Their ‘guinea pigs’ were hungry students; the point of the experiment was to force the students to exercise their willpower:
They were to eat ONLY the food that was assigned to them: chocolate brownies OR radishes.
Impossible to Solve
The radish eaters were miserable.
One took a brownie, smelled it, then put it back. Another grabbed a few brownies, then put them down.
And then he licked his fingers.
After 5 minutes they were given a puzzle ‘to kill the time’ and told it was easy.
In truth the puzzle was impossible to solve. And so it took enormous will power to keep working on it.
Unlike the brownie eaters, the radish eaters muttered, complained, snapped at the researchers … They worked more than two times shorter on the puzzle than the cookie eaters before giving up.
Fighting off temptation is difficult.
The fact that girls and women who represent Temperance in the middle ages often wear or carry a bridle proves just how difficult fighting off temptation is.
“Ask people to name their greatest personal strengths, and they’ll often credit themselves with honesty, kindness, humor, creativity, bravery, and other virtues— even modesty. But not self-control. It came in dead last among the virtues being studied by researchers who have surveyed more than one million people around the world.” (Baumeister & Tierney, Willpower)
Will Over Instinct …
… is an expression used to show what Temperance was considered to be in the middle ages.
It is in this period that she suddenly found herself set against appetites and passions. The latter were considered not only the negative pole, but vices—the work of the devil.
So they had to be extinguished without mercy.
Yet when Will and Instinct clash, Will is almost always defeated.
So the solution the Middle Ages came up with was to use force. Temperance was seen as a forceful and absolute abstinence from vices.
And so Temperance came to signify its own opposite: harmony, inclusiveness and compromise transformed into fanaticism, intolerance and puritanism.
Temperance is about dealing with our appetites and desires, passions and impulses.
Most often it is mentioned in connection to alcohol, food, sex, and anger.
The iconography of Temperance, the tarot card, is rooted in philosophy and religion. I’ll discuss those roots in the following posts, starting with
The Ancient Greeks …
… who used ‘sophrosyne’ for temperance. But ‘sophrosyne’ is a complex word, which seems to have no one and true translation in English:
"the quality of wise moderation; ... prudence, moderation in desires, discretion, temperance," …
A Sound Mind
“At your late age it is bitter to be taught temperance you should already practice.”
… states Aegishus in Agamemnon, Aeschylus’ tragedy. It seems that in ancient Greece, temperance was seen as a quality every adult should possess.
Another definition of ‘sophrosyne’ supports this view: ‘sound-mindedness’ or ‘healthy-mindedness’.
So temperance is the foundation of a normal, healthy human being.
There’s just one problem: most of us are not very healthy-minded.
We overindulge in food, alcohol, sex, social media… We lash out in anger…
Then we try to fix things with strict diets, or with total abstinence from alcohol, sex or romantic relationships. Or by withdrawing from all conflicts and burying our emotions deep down inside of us.
That’s why, although the ancient Greeks consider temperance as a mandatory trait of a sound mind, they are also aware of how rare it is:
Temperance is the noblest gift of the gods,
states Euripides, another great tragic poet.
Heraclitus, a philosopher, makes a similar claim:
Sophrosyne is the greatest virtue…
He also gives one of the simplest and most beautiful statements on temperance and polarities:
It is not good for all your wishes to be fulfilled: through sickness you recognize the value of health, through evil the value of good, through hunger satisfaction, through exertion, the value of rest.
It is believed that these ideas of Heraclitus deeply impacted Plato. And Plato was the most influential figure in the Western world when it comes to the concept of temperance.
Plato discusses temperance in two of his dialogues.
In the first one, Charmides, he does not give us the definition of temperance.
But he uses other ways to show what temperance is.
An Upsetting of the Soul
Amazement and confusion reigned when he (Charmides) entered; and a troop of lovers followed him.
The above quote describes the entrance of Charmides and his admirers. Charmides is the title character of the dialogue, and a strikingly handsome young man.
But the Greek word translated here as “amazement and confusion” seems to have much stronger implications: “the loss of normal self-control on account of some shocking incident arousing violent passion …”
An “upsetting of the soul”, which ‘dislocates’ the normal sense of self.
And though the “violent passion” in question is most often fear, it can also be sexual desire, as in our example.
In practical terms, the scene comes down to this:
Charmides’ appearance arouses such strong sexual desire in people around him, that they lose their heads.
It is interesting to compare Charmides’ entrance to the judgment of the 51st hexagram of the I Ching. The hexagram is called Shock or Thunder, and we immediately see why:
…When the movement like a crash of thunder terrifies all within a hundred miles, he will be like the sincere worshiper who is not startled into dropping his ladle and cup of sacrificial spirits.
Here, “he” refers to the ‘superior man’, or a person of noble character.
he ‘jun zi’ in Chinese.
The above scene, just like the Charmides scene, depicts a shocking incident. But the difference lies in the subjects’ reactions.
Surely He Feels No Fear?
The image of Thunder, being repeated, forms Shock. The superior man, in accordance with this, is fearful and apprehensive, cultivates his virtue, and examines his faults.
So does the superior man feel fear in a shocking situation?
The one in the I Ching does.
But the ‘jun zi’ “remains confident and self-possessed—so much so that he can calmly perform his religious duties during the prevailing chaos.”
The two seem mutually exclusive: how can he feel fear, yet remain calm?
What I believe the Book of Changes is telling us is:
The jun zi uses the sudden change and the fear it rouses for self-examination.
He responds to the shock by tempering (mixing) fear with introspection.
Fear and Introspection
Fear is a centrifugal force. It dislocates our sense of self, pulling us “out of ourselves”.
Introspection (literally, “looking inside”) is a centripetal force – it draws us back in, anchoring us in our sense of self.
So the jun zi of the I Ching neutralizes fear with its opposite—introspection.
The Measure of Temperance
Both in Charmides and in Shock, the subjects’ reactions to a distressing incident are used to measure how temperate they are.
And while Charmides’ admirers fail the test, the jun zi passes it with flying colors.
Now, what the jun zi is to the I Ching, Socrates is to Plato’s dialogues.
The whole point of Charmides is for Socrates to establish how temperate Charmides—a handsome youth with whom he discusses temperance—is.
In simple terms: Socrates needs to examine if Charmides’ soul is as beautiful as his body.
“For when… he looked at me with his eyes in such an irresistible way and was drawing himself up to ask a question, … then indeed … I saw inside his cloak, I was inflamed, I was no longer in myself,…”
So Socrates is overwhelmed by the young man’s physique and charm. Yet he is well aware of what is taking place inside of him.
In fact, his attention is immediately redirected to the words of another Greek sage:
“I thought how well Cydias understood the nature of love, when, in speaking of a fair youth, he warns someone ‘not to bring the fawn in the sight of the lion to be devoured by him,’ for I felt that I had been overcome by a sort of wild-beast appetite.”
By means of remembering Cydias’ words, Socrates distances himself from his desire.
He then continues his talk with Charmides …
~ * ~ * ~ *
The jun zi balances out his fear with introspection.
Socrates balances out his desire for a physical connection with Charmides with the desire for a metaphysical connection with him – with the need to know Charmides’ soul.
In Charmides, Socrates speaks to one more person about temperance.
That’s Critias, Charmides’ cousin.
By the time Plato wrote this dialogue, Charmides and Critias were dead.
They died protecting Athenian ‘Thirty’, the most notorious government in the history of ancient Athens.
Charmides and Critias are both among the Thirty’s ranks, with Critias playing an especially important role.
The Thirty’s actions quickly earn them the name Thirty Tyrants:
- They murder Athenian citizens they don’t approve of;
- They make rules about killing innocent foreigners living in Athens in order to confiscate their property;
- Critias has his former friend Theramenes, who openly objects to the murders, killed.
So Critias is the embodiment of tyranny. And tyranny is the ‘political’ opposite of temperance.
Is Critias already such a monster in Plato’s dialogue?
But in his vanity, inflexibility, and love of honor we can see appetites he is working hard to repress.
A Tyrant vs. a Philosophic Soul
Once Critias comes to rule in Athens, these repressed appetites explode in acts of radical cruelty.
He embodies the tyrant, the wild reign of unhealthy appetites.
In contrast, Socrates personifies the ‘philosophic soul’: desires, while still there, are neutralized by their opposites and harmonized with the whole.
Plato also speaks of temperance in another of his dialogues, Republic.
In it, temperance is mentioned as one of the four core virtues of the ideal city:
“My notion is, that our State being perfect will contain all the four virtues--wisdom, courage, temperance, justice.”
He describes temperance as the virtue that binds his citizens together.
Although they may differ in wisdom, strength or wealth, temperance harmonizes them, making them to be of one mind.
But for Plato temperance is also one of the four parts of the soul, one that harmonizes all other parts.
And when all its parts are harmonized, “the soul acts as one”.
For Aristotle, Plato’s disciple, virtue is a state between opposite vices.
So the virtue of courage, for example, is set between cowardice and recklessness.
This means that Aristotle finds recklessness, or too much courage, just as bad as cowardice.
The virtue of temperance is placed between excess and asceticism. In other words, between overindulgence in sensual pleasures and the total avoidance of them.
A Cardinal Virtue
The four virtues of Plato’s ideal city were taken over and immortalized by church men like Thomas Aquinas and St. Augustine.
And so Plato’s wisdom, courage, justice and temperance became ‘cardinal’, or most important, virtues for Christianity.
Three of the four made their way to the tarot. Today they are known as the Strength, the Justice, and Temperance.
And all three have numerous representations in art and architecture.
Today, however, the most famous of all is the Justice. The statue of a woman with a blindfold, scales, and a sword can be seen in courthouses throughout the world.
- The blindfold means that Justice is impartial;
- The scales, that She weighs both sides of a case before a decision;
- The sword, that the guilty party will be punished and the innocent party protected.
What about Temperance?
What are its symbols on the first tarot cards, and what do those symbols mean?
But What Is She Mixing?
On most its old depictions—the icons, statues and tarot cards— Temperance is a woman pouring liquid from one pitcher into another.
But what exactly is she pouring and why?
This is where opinions differ.
Some believe that she is mixing hot and cold water, others claim that she is combining subconscious and super-conscious minds …
I believe that the simplest interpretation is the best:
She’s pouring water into wine.
A Lawless Brute
In Homer’s Odyssey, Odysseus pays a visit to Polyphemus’ cave with his comrades.
Polyphemus is a cyclops—a giant with a single eye in the center of his forehead.
The things turn ugly when Polyphemus, “a lawless brute”, starts eating Odysseus’ companions.
So how does Odysseus outwise this fearsome opponent?
By getting him drunk.
Tempering Wine with Water
Thinning wine with water is an ancient custom.
In the ancient Greek epic literature, heroes always drink their wine mixed with water. The characters who drink undiluted wine are portrayed as cowardly and reckless if not downright stupid.
Like the cyclops Polyphemus.
Homer goes out of his way to tell us that the wine Odysseus gives the cyclops is very strong and unmixed with water.
Polyphemus drinks one bowl after another.
"I poured him another fiery bowl— three bowls I brimmed and three he drank to the last drop, the fool, and then, when the wine was swirling round his brain …"
… Odysseus gouges the giant’s eye out, enabling himself and his comrades to escape.
Calling someone a drunk was one of the worst insults. So when Achilles showers Agamemnon with bitterness in Homer’s Iliad, the first name he calls him is “drunkard” (winebibber):
“"Winebibber," he cried, "with the face of a dog and the heart of a hind" …”
Drunkenness, for ancient Greeks, is dangerous and shameful.
Yet drinking wine with measure was considered a staple of the Greek civilization.
The Homeric epics show a new "civilized" world, characterized by wine use with the closely regulated social norms.
The preferred drinking condition was a moderate intoxication where one’s decorum was maintained—a condition that Theognis later called being ‘neither sober nor too drunk.’
This is only possible if wine is diluted with water.
Temper Your Wine with Water
That mixing water with wine has served as a symbol of moderation in general, can be seen from expression to temper one's wine with water.
The idiom is still used in some European languages. In French, they say mettre de l'eau dans son vin, in Dutch water in zijn wijn doen.
Used metaphorically, it means “to moderate one's eagerness; to cool one's heat or spirits”.
Wine and Water as opposites
Wine, on its own, can be dangerous; it often leads to conflicts and violence.
Water, on its own, does not really get the party going.
Together, blended, they create the perfect, “civilized” mood, where people are open and communicative, but not aggressive.
Wine needs water, water needs wine. Combined, they’re just right.
Ben-Dov, Y.: The Marseille Tarot Reveiled
Sheratt, S.: “Feasting in Homeric Epic”
Papakonstantinou, Z.: “Wine and Wine Drinking in the Homeric World”
Sewel, W.: A Large Dictionary English and Dutch, Part II
No tarot card embodies balance and reconciling of opposites as deeply and obviously as Temperance.
The meanings of the card in divination are balancing things out, moderation and patience.
But how exactly do we balance ourselves and/or a specific pair of opposites?
The answer to this question transformed as the idea of what it means to be temperate changed. The pictures on the cards illustrate this change.
In the older tarot decks, the card shows a woman pouring liquid from one pitcher to another. Sometimes the woman is depicted with wings.
In many modern versions, the woman is not a woman at all: it is a hermaphrodite, a person that is both a man and a woman.
In the following posts I want to explore the main points in the visual and philosophic history of Temperance and their connection to the integration of opposites.
This tarot card depicts a regal, imposing man in a chariot. The vehicle is typically pulled by two horses, but the charioteer holds no reins.
The card tends to turn up in a reading when you have a goal. It suggests that you will achieve it.
But the victory is not guaranteed—if you want to succeed, you have to behave in a certain way.
Take the driver’s seat—take action. Actually, you need to take a series of actions. The chariot’s journey is a gradual victory. The horses are steered persistently toward the aim.
The Problem with Horses
The chariot is drawn by two horses. The left one and the right one.
The problem with horses is, they tend to pull to their side. The left horse to the left, the right one to the right. So unless the horses are tame and well trained, the chariot will not stay on the path and you will not reach your destination.
So how do you tame the horses?
You pull them both toward the middle and keep them there. You train them to stay in the center, on the path.
In the spiritual sense, both the chariot and the horses are part of you. The chariot symbolizes your inner potential—the ability to accomplish your goal.
The horses symbolize opposing tendencies inside of you. Your inner conflicts.
This is often shown by the contrasting colors of the horses: one is black, the other white. In some tarot decks, it is black and white sphinxes that draw the chariot. The sphinx is a mythological being—part human, part lion—which highlights the opposition.
Steering Without Reins
If we try to take action in the outside world while inner conflicts are raging inside of us, we’ll lose control of the chariot.
Best case scenario: we’ll veer off the road. Worst case scenario: the chariot will overturn.
In the picture the charioteer holds no reins. He doesn’t need them because he has mastered his inner conflicts. His two horses run like one, in the middle of the road.
The Chariot speaks of the inner work we need to do to reach our goals.
So next time you set a goal, integrate the opposites that stand in your way first.
Tame your horses.
The Myth of Daedalus and Icarus
According to this Greek myth, to break free from the labyrinth, where he and his son Icarus are kept imprisoned, the ingenious Daedalus makes two pairs of wings. He fashions them out of feathers and wax.
The father and the son are on an island, so in order to escape, they need to fly over water.
Daedalus warns his son not to fly too high.
But after a while, the boy becomes so overwhelmed by the excitement of flying, that he forgets the warning. He soars higher and higher.
The sun melts the wax off his wings …
And Icarus falls to his death.
… Or Too Low
Seth Godin speaks of this myth in his The Icarus Deception: How High Will You Fly?
He argues that the older versions of this story contain a second point: Daedalus warns his son not to fly too low either, as the sea spray would ruin the lift in the boy’s wings.
To paraphrase Godin freely, by omitting this second ‘half’ of the myth, those in power have tried to protect themselves and control others: if flying too high is dangerous, then people will follow the rules blindly.
But Godin believes that playing safe doesn’t work anymore. To get ahead in today’s world, you have to embrace what is special about you—stand out and take risks.
In other words, you gotta fly high.
Both Are Dangerous
Godin is right in the sense that Icarus’ fate has been used as a metaphor for the dangers of forgetting one’s limitations, one’s “place”.
But if it’s wrong to ignore one part of the warning—‘don’t fly too low’, surely it is equally wrong to ignore the other—‘‘don’t fly too high’.
So what is the myth telling us, if we consider it as a whole?
Don’t fly too high.
Or too low.
Both are dangerous.
The Golden Mean
The Chariot warns us not to stray too far to the left or to the right if we want to reach our destination.
The Icarus myth tells us the same thing, only in a different dimension: don’t go too high or too low.
Both are allegories for avoiding extremes, for staying on the middle course. Aristotle calls this the golden mean, Buddha the middle path.
Ovid expresses this plainly in his, most widely accepted, version of the Icarus myth:
‘Let me warn you, Icarus, to take the middle way, in case the moisture weighs down your wings, if you fly too low, or if you go too high, the sun scorches them. Travel between the extremes.’
But the Icarus myth also gives us profound insights into the nature of the extremes.
The Hypnotic Sun
As we've seen, one half of Daedalus’ warning to his son—‘Don’t fly too high’—has been emphasized throughout history. This makes perfect sense: Icarus doesn’t die because he flies too low, but because he flies too high.
He is drawn to the sun. He can’t help it.
No wonder. The sun is mesmerizing. Hot and bright, it is the perfect symbol of a positive pole. The perfect Yang.
Icarus is never tempted to fly too low. The dark, cold sea below him is the pure Yin, the negative pole.
Infatuated by the sun, Icarus forgets his father’s warning to stay on the middle course.
That he ‘forgets’ simply means that he unconsciously starts gravitating toward the positive pole. The youth represents spiritual immaturity—lack of true awareness of opposites and their traps.
He gets carried away.
That happens to all of us when we are blinded by the desire to have the positive pole, whatever that means to us at that moment—a certain person, object, or outcome.
And all the warnings and wise advice of our family, friends, and well-meaning passers-by are unable to save us.
Icarus is attracted to the positive pole, repulsed by the negative, just like we all are in so many combinations and so many lifetimes in this universe of ours.
Regarding the Chariot, I’ve mentioned that the vehicle itself can be seen as our inner potential. We have a beautiful chariot each, but can we steer it?
If we learn how to, we’ll achieve our goal, the card is telling us.
The wings Daedalus created also represent our inner potential. We all have wings, but can we fly?
However, in the Icarus allegory much more is at stake than just achieving a specific goal.
Every healthy human being can learn to steer a chariot. But how many of us can fly with man-made wings?
None, no matter how cleverly designed the wings are.
Yet when all our opposites are integrated, the impossible becomes possible.
We escape the prison of the material universe, just like Daedalus escaped his labyrinth prison by staying on the middle course.
The reward is the Consciousness of One -- the Absolute Freedom.
The 6 of Pentacles
One of the Tarot cards, the Six of Pentacles, portrays a rich man giving money to beggars.
This card talks about giving and receiving. The wealthy man is tossing coins with one hand, while in the other he is holding a balanced scale.
The most clear interpretation is that the person who has too much gives to the ones who have too little, thus creating balance in society.
Whereas in a relationship reading, the Six of Pentacles urges us to take a closer look at how much we give and receive. This applies to money and tangible things, but also to love, attention, and communication.
Opposites Giving : Receiving are crucial for relationships. They are even more important for romantic connections, the success of which depends on an unhindered flow of attention, love, money, communication and sexual energy between partners.
This is why Giving : Receiving, as a karmic pattern, rules love lives of many. At the deepest level, all their ‘love games’ revolve around these opposites.
Until they integrate Giving and Receiving, they tend to give too little or too much to their partners.
An Unfair Game
In many cultures, including ours, giving is considered noble and spiritually evolved. Whereas receiving is frowned on and often brings with it shame and guilt.
This is why some people, who are eager to make their relationship work, sacrifice everything for their partner. But they often get nothing in return.
Even worse: their partner may betray them, steal from them, or cheat on them. So the ‘extreme givers’ are left in shock: how is it possible that they were treated so unfairly?
I wrote about a similar phenomenon in my previous post: Hippolytus, the protagonist of Euripides’ tragedy with the same name, is shocked at being punished 'for all his virtue.'
Euripides lets us see through Hippolytus’ fate that too much of a good thing leads to trouble.
At the spiritual level, relationships are games. If you give too little, the game will be too difficult for your partner, and sooner or later they will collapse under its burden.
But if you give too much--if you do all the work--they will become bored.
Contrary to what one might expect, you’re not doing any favors to those to whom you give too much. We value the things we have to work for—as working for something entails making an effort and overcoming obstacles to achieve it.
Which is how we evolve spiritually.
So when we give too much, we are robbing our partner of the chance to truly experience the giving pole.
In the words of Rabbi Dessler: “We don't do for the people we love so much as we love those for whom we do.”
For relationships to function well, there needs to be an equal balance of give and take.
Three pentacles on each side of the scale.
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.”