Saturday, March 5, 2011

Eros the Torchbearer

Passion was associated with fire, just as it still is today. The poet Oenomaus writes of a drinking cup decorated with a figure of Eros, and asks, “Why should Love be on the bowl? Surely it is enough for the heart to be set on fire by wine!” The image of Eros inspiring love by firing his arrows into his victim’s heart—Meleager of Gadara (1. century B.C.) writes of “murderous Love” shooting “arrows that breathe fire”—has remained popular, but Eros’s other main attribute (and weapon), his torch, is less immediately familiar to us, although common enough in post-Renaissance art. Here, for instance, in a detail from Veronese’s Rape of Europa (c.1575), one of the numerous Cupids assisting in the seduction is shown accompanying Jove (in the form of a bull) and his victim on their journey and brandishing a rather phallic torch.

The Hellenistic poet Moschus of Syracuse has Aphrodite describe her son as follows (here in the translation by Andrew Lang): 
The body of Love is naked, but well is his spirit hidden, and winged like a bird he flits and descends, now here, now there, upon men and women, and nestles in their inmost hearts. He hath a little bow, and an arrow always on the string, tiny is the shaft, but it carries as high as heaven. A golden quiver on his back he bears, and within it his bitter arrows, wherewith full many a time he wounds even me. Cruel are all these instruments of his, but more cruel by far the little torch, his very own, wherewith he lights up the sun himself.
The torch of passion is wielded both by Eros personified and by the person for whom you become inflamed. Meleager, many (though not all) of whose poems are homosexual in theme, mourns the passing of the attractiveness of Apollodotus, “once gleaming like fire, but now already a burnt-out torch”, and in another poem declares, “Unhappy he who has received a torch from the eyes of [Heraclitus].” Overwhelmed, the poet tells Eros: “if thou set thy torch to my heart, thou shalt no longer burn it; already it is all ash.” But there is no respite from Love. One of Meleager’s most charming poems is about a girl, Phanion, whose name means “little torch”: 
I made haste to escape from Love; but he, lighting a little torch from the ashes, found me in hiding. He bent not his bow, but the tips of his thumb and finger, and breaking off a pinch of fire secretly threw it at me. And from thence the flames rose about me on all sides. O Phanion, little light that set ablaze in my heart a great fire.
More straightforwardly, torches were naturally also there to light the way, and were associated with feasting and revelry. Flushed with wine and still wearing the wreaths they had worn at dinner, young men might go in a rowdy torch-lit procession (kōmos) to the house of a mistress (or of a beautiful boy) to serenade or otherwise disturb the object of their passion. Torches were an essential part of wedding festivities, too: Dioscorides, a poet of the late third century B.C., has “Hymen, God of Weddings, holding his bright torch”. Eros was often linked with the Dionysiac (for obvious reasons). Anacreon (sixth century B.C.) offers a prayer to Dionysus, who plays with “Love the subduer… and radiant Aphrodite”, and Meleager addresses the god of wine: “Lead on, begin the revel; thou art a god; govern a mortal heart. Born in the flame, thou lovest the flame love hath, and again leadest me, thy suppliant, in bonds.” 

The torch lights the way in a more special sense, too—Eros carries a torch to guide your heart. Meleager describes how, newly landed from a sea voyage, “Love drags me here by force, and as if bearing a torch in front of me, turns me to look on the loveliness of a boy”, and an anonymous poet of the Greek Anthology writes that “it is the dead of night and dark, but for me Themison is a great torch”. 

Eros on these coins is on his way somewhere, and with business of his mother’s to take care of.

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