Minerva and Apollo - the Siblings of Civilisation


"Pallas Athene Visting Apollo on the Parnassus", Arnold Hourbaken (1660 - 1719), Dutch

Countless books have been written on what is civilisation and what does it mean to construct one. Just as many books have been written on when or at what point does a simple society turn into what we call a civilisation. Over the time, however, within the same social sciences that study civilization, the word civilisation itself has become a dirty word. It has become dirty word because it is often assumed that by labeling something as civilisation, something else must be labeled as "not civilisation". There is also the typical notion that the very definition and the idea of civilisation is Eurocentric and that it has been used as a justification for the violence committed during the Colonial Age against the people whom the European colonisers considered "uncivilised". And while there have been certain prejudices in the past, it is naive and blind to simply reject the whole term. For, with expansion of our knowledge, we can also expand our conception of the term "civilisation". Civilisation is normally defined as a stage of social and cultural development that includes development of cities and with them more complex politics and economy, social organisation as well as sciences and arts. And if we take it like this, without any ideological tinting, we can clearly admit that these standards can be applied to many non-Western and non-European societies - such as Middle Eastern civilisations, Indian and Chinese civilisations, civilisations of South America, Southeast Asia and many others. In the Western cultural heritage, the personifications of civilisation may be seen in many deities, but those that have stood out and that have been most studied are Athena or Minerva and Apollo. These two siblings from Greco-Roman mythology stand as archetypes of everything that civilisation entails.

Athena / Minerva - The Gift of Intellect

"Triumph of the Virtues", Andrea Mantegna (1431 - 1506), Italian

Minerva or Athena is Roman and Greek goddess of wisdom, strategic warfare, handicraft, philosophy, commerce and in Roman cults also goddess of poetry and sciences. She is a fierce protectress of cities and as such of civilsation itself. The beloved daughter of Zeus or Jupiter, often carries a spear and shield, especially in her Pallas form. She is also often a patroness of heroic acts and the goddess who with her wisdom, guides warriors. In Roman pantheon she was part of the Capitoline Triad, a group of three major deities of Romans worshiped in the temple of the Capitoline Hill. She stood there along with Jupiter and Hera. Minerva is however, different from her brother Mars (Ares in Greek mythology). She does not fight for the sake of the battle. She is the patroness and guide of those who fight for a cause and those who fight defensive wars. She is not the brute power of Mars, rather she is the conscious, directed effort and battle. Athena even fights Mars in order to bring peace. It could be argued then, that Athena, representing wisdom and intellect, is simply pacifying the Mars, that she represents the advent of feminine war patron rather than a typically masculine one and that in doing so the idea of offensive war or war for war's sake has been defeated. A philosopher of Nitzschean or Evolian perspective could possibly say that through Athena, one aspect of what is seen as masculine virtue has been defeated by the female deity. However, Athena is not simply a pacifier, as Athena stands by many warriors who are offensive. What she represents though is warfare embellished with the gift of reason and knowledge. Once Athena comes into a society or among people, the war or the battle, stops being aimless portrayal of power without strategy or thought put into it. Minerva in Roman pantheon is specifically the goddess of strategic war. What Athena reminds us of is that, the civilisation or the gifts of it have to be protected, and sometimes they have to be protected with a force that is equally powerful to that of the brutish Ares. However, gifted with reason and strategy, her devotees (in symbolic sense) can defeat the greatest of the enemies by combining the knowledge of the sage and the power of the warriror.

"Minerva and Saturn Protecting Art and Science from Envy and Lies", Joachim von Sandrart (1606 - 1688), German

While she wears military equpiment, she is also known for her animal companion - an owl. An owl is almost a universal symbol of wisdom, existing in cultures across the world. As the goddess of wisdom, with development of Greek philosophy, she also became goddess of philosophy in Greece. "The owl of Minerva" as such became the symbol of knowledge itself. However, Minerva or Athena was not loved only by the ancients. During the Renaissance and its revival of the ancient ideals but also its integration in the already existing Christian tradition, Minerva once again became the beloved symbol, but this time also, symbol of virtue. The painting shown above, "Triumph of the Virtues", shows goddess Minerva while she is banishing vices from the city. Vices are represented as hideous and ugly creatures, she also banishes lust, represented by Centaur. Right behind her, there is a tree with human virtues - Justice, Temperance and Fortitude. Botticelli's "Pallas and Centaur" embodies similar ideas and symbolism. As a both virgin goddess and goddess who represents triumph of intellect over the instinct, she became a symbol of virtue. The whole symbol or archetype of Minerva Athena points at one very important aspect of civilisation and that is the reign of Intellect over the instinct. By this, of course, one does not mean intellect in terms of IQ or simply scientific method, but in sense of virtues and human's rulership over his own instincts. Plato's Philosopher King would most probably be Athena's devotee, for he'd have strength of a warrior but wisdom of a philosopher.

Apollo - The Light of Consciousness and Musica Universalis

Apollo Statue, Campanile of St. Mark's, Venice, Italy

Athena's brother, Apollo is the handsome youth of luminous beauty. Being the embodiment of Light and Consciousness, his Divine Beauty is a reflection of the Divine Light. He is often portrayed with his lyre, playing music and reciting poems and singing hymns. He is the inventor of string-music. When he does that, he is often surrounded by his muses, ladies who inspire the pursuit of knowledge and arts. He is the god of arts, music, dance, poetry and also herds and flocks. While his sister is the reason and intellect, Apollo is the gift of consciousness and awareness. He is also the god of prophecy, the one capable of seeing beyond the senses. While poesy, music, arts and sciences exist even in the earliest of human societies, once Apollo reigns, they become a conscious pursuit. The simple folk art is elevated to the level of "high art" and while it never looks down on the Dionysian and folk, it finds a way to make it beautiful, artistic and organised in order to deliver the profound artistic experience. Apollo's music is made of melody so harmonious that it heals the pains of those who listen to him, embodying his attribute of a healer. As the mathematics and music were closely related for the ancients, Pythagoreans, who worshiped Apollo as their principal deity, highly regarded the music. The harmony that created beautiful and healing music was the same mathematical harmony that operates as the mechanics of the cosmos. This idea came to be known as "the music of the spheres" or "musica universalis."

"Apollo Among the Shepherds", Christian Gottlieb Schick (1776 - 1812), German

But there is yet another pattern that could be observed when it comes to Apollo's association and that is the pattern of Beauty. Apollo has long been the synonym of a perfectly handsome young man. Not only his music which is in perfect harmony and which is reflection of the much higher, cosmic harmony is full of Beauty but it is Apollo himself who embodies Beauty. Apollo appears only at the moment when there is enough prosperity in a place for humans to forget about the worries of their primal needs. The conscious pursuit of art for the sake of art can only be then when human does not worry about his daily bread. Of course, people have created outstanding works of art even in the worst of circumstances, but that was the case of individuals who found a way of salvation through creation, but for art to flourish within a collective, as a part of its heritage, humans must enjoy a degree of peace and prosperity. Apollo as a symbol also stands for harmony, reason and order. He is the Greek ideal of the "Golden Mean", the ideal of moderation or the middle way, a way in which we avoid extremes but find equilibrium between the opposites. The harmony that presides in his music and the light of his vision deliver the humanity from the uncertainty of chaos. Apollo as the symbol of civilisation represents human's arrival at the gate of creation, as opposed to the one of survival. When visited by one of his muses, be it one of astronomoy or music or other disciplines, a human being is ready to create something that may not feed the hungry mouths or clothe those without the clothes but will create that which will bring a different kind of food and a different kind of garment. The food and clothes provided by the Apollonian principle are the food and clothes of the human soul.

The Union

"Athena Scorning the Advances of Hephaestus", Paris Bordone (1500 - 1571), Italian

As a conclusion, it can be said that the unity of intellect, wisdom, strategy, harmony, order and beauty are the principles that are to exist for a human realm to come close to the ideal of civilisation. While in our age, in many parts of the world, we may have the prosperity and many material comforts, we seem to have forgotten many of the principles represented by the two famous deities. The union of their principles is a holistic and organic human realm that supports and allows flourishing of the best and not the worst within the human, which can hardly be said with our cult of mindless consumerism and constant dopamine shots through various means. The support of the best in human, can hardly be said for a world that is guided by no virtue or ideal, but rather stomachs and loins. However, despair is never the way, Apollo and Athena exist as ideals and ideals represent that to which humans are capable of getting close to. The principles that stand behind these two deities are eternal and almost universally human, for rare is a human society that did not value wisdom, knowledge, harmony and beauty. We, each of us, can do something to allow Minerva to banish the vice out of our own selves and then our communities, and we, each of us, can do something to allow Apollo to play his healing, divine melody.

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