A friend of mine recently challenged me to identify one piece of classic literature that has influenced my Paganism. This conversation was part of a larger conversation: this friend is a Classicist and a teacher of Greek and Latin, and she was bewailing the fact that her profession is a dying one. I was trying to cheer her up by saying that so long as there are those interested in Western religions, she’ll always have a job. She countered with the point that Churches tend to educate their own, and I retorted that Paganism isn’t near that organized. She scoffed and said something to the effect that most neo-Pagans are about as educated as a corn cob and vastly prefer superstition to literature. Of course, we know that isn’t the case and I said as much. Then came her challenge to identify a piece outside mythology that has substantially influenced my modern practices.
Well, to be honest, she almost had me. My literary interests predominantly lie in post-Enlightenment English, and outside of an occasional perusal of Homer, I really can’t say I’ve spent too much time with the true Classics. But then my ace answer came to me: Aristophanes’s Speech from Plato’s Symposium. Thanks to the 2001 rock opera film Hedwig and the Angry Inch, I’ve been singing this story to myself in the shower almost every morning for the past decade.
If you’ve never spent much time with the Symposium, I highly recommend it. It’s not really a high-brow work if you think about it. Really, it’s just a group of men hanging out at a drinking party, getting progressively sloshed whilst trying to discuss the purpose and nature of Love. Eventually, each party member is tasked to deliver an encomium, or a speech in praise of Love. I think that if we modern Pagans read it with an eye to our own beliefs, we would come up with plenty of analogies. For instance, I’ve been spending lots of time lately thinking about the concept of Dryghtyn, and I’m starting to understand it more thanks to Phaedrus’s encomium that posits that Eros is the oldest of the gods and had no parents. It’s my belief that Dryghtyn is like Eros in this, and to understand its nature better it divided itself into the two poles of male and female, God and Goddess.
But, really, it’s Aristophanes’s speech that completely takes the cake. Plato has him so drunk and hiccuping that he has to skip his turn at first. When he finally gets enough control over himself, he has to disclaim that his encomium will be most absurd, and then he goes on to spin a tale about how ancient peoples were essentially two persons held back to back and they came in three sexes: all males descended from the sun, all females descended from the earth, and androgynous couples descended from the moon. They dared to plot to set upon the Gods, so Zeus crippled them by separating their two bodies. He then commanded Apollo to turn their faces around and pull the gaping wound to form the navel, which was not healed so that humanity would constantly be reminded of their loss. And so, we humans spend the bulk of our lives trying to chase down our missing half, and when we find that half, we never want to be separated from them again.
Now, I wish I could say I was precocious enough to have read Symposium on my own, but my first introduction to it was–as I mentioned–through Hedwig and the Angry Inch, which I highly recommend viewing. John Mitchell Cameron turned Aristophanes’s speech into a lovely, highly sing-able tune, and his delivery of it is masterful. I think it was seeing Cameron’s bittersweet smile as his Hedwig sings “we called it love” when describing the deep pain of its loss that sold it to me. There’s nothing more amazing then recognizing that spark with another and then that temporary re-union into one body with them. And we wouldn’t understand how amazing it was if we didn’t understand its absence so keenly.
That is one of the keystones of how I view my faith. We have to understand loss to know the pleasure of gain. There’s been so many other pieces of literature that have brought me back to this truism–Keats’s Ode to Melancholy being one of them–but nothing really hits it quite like Aristophanes.
Should you wish to view Hedwig in its entirety, you can now do so via YouTube for $1.99 per viewing.