Ancient Greek Theophanies, Ghosts And Hallucinations

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Death of Semele, caused by the Theophany of Zeus without a mortal disguise, by Peter Paul Rubens (1640) (Public Domain)

Ancient Greek Theophanies, Ghosts And Hallucinations

Gods and goddesses revealed themselves rather remarkably often to the privileged and chosen ancient Greeks, even if it was in disguise to hide their blinding brilliance. Like English, Greek did not make a linguistic distinction between the optical faculty and the appearance of a divine being or ghost, as indicated by the range of meanings conveyed by the word ‘vision’. Similarly, doxa, can either mean, ‘that which is seen’ or ‘an apparition’. This overlap or ambivalence may reflect an unconscious awareness that seeing the phenomenal world and seeing something in what is called the mind’s eye, are not distinct but closely related experiences. Humans are capable of visualizing events both in the past and in the imagination – when writing the word ‘elephant’ the image of an elephant magically appears before the author conjured up by the imagination and by memory of what an elephant looks like. Humans are also capable of visualising events as they are taking place in front of their eyes. Moreover, an image that was implanted in the brain in childhood can remain alive and be recalled with all the clarity and distinctiveness of an image that was implanted in the brain only yesterday. 

Theophanies

At the beginning of Homer’s Iliad, Athena manifested herself to Achilles in the war council that Agamemnon had summoned, just when Achilles, mortally insulted, was about to draw his sword and kill his commander-in-chief. At that precise moment, however, Athena swooped down and snatched him by the hair, whereupon he turned around “and she appeared to him alone.” Mortal and immortal then proceeded to hold a private conversation that goes on for 20 lines. No-one else heard the conversation, nor did anyone realize that Achilles was otherwise engaged. It is as if time had gone into the freezer for those 20 lines. The exclusivity of this encounter indicates the favour which Achilles enjoyed in the goddess’ eyes. But how did she effect this intimate theophany? Did she obscure the vision of the other members of the war council or did she enhance Achilles’ eyesight? Either way, she seems momentarily to have turned them to stone.

The Rage of Achilles, Athena grabbing him by the hair to prevent him from slaying Agamemnon, by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (1757) Villa Valmarana ai Nani  (Public Domain)

The Rage of Achilles, Athena grabbing him by the hair to prevent him from slaying Agamemnon, by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (1757) Villa Valmarana ai Nani  (Public Domain)


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