As I approach the statue the automatic lighting comes on and it springs out of the darkness. He stands before me, with that unmistakable wavy hair, curly beard and majestic frame. His confident bearing is that of a man who enjoys ruling the world. The eagle which is his symbol of power is with him as always. On the plinth I read the words: Zeus, marble, Roman period, 2nd century AD, Perge. Inventory number 3729, Antalya Museum. Zeus, father of the gods and mankind, is naturally not alone. He is accompanied by other members of the divine dynasty who are seated on the summit of snowy Olympus: Apollo, Artemis, Aphrodite, Hermes, Athena, the Dioscuri, and the Kharites or Three Beauties. A statue of a Roman emperor. His name is Marcus Ulpinus Trajanus, or Trajan for short, and he lived in the 2nd century AD. At his feet crouches a slave who is diminished in size. The statue was made to commemorate the victory over Dacia (Romania). On the emper’sr armour is depicted the snake-haired Medusa.That fearsome severed head, the sight of which turned people to stone, was believed to protect wearers from their enemies. In fact Medusa was an unfortunate mortal who lived with her immortal sisters on the boundary between night and day. She was a descendant of the earth goddess Gaia, the infinite force which created the skies and seas and by being constantly pregnant renewed and transformed life. But the bosom of the mother goddess did not offer comfort since every new generation of offspring sought to destroy that which came before them. ‘Zeus could no longer contain his rage… He shot lightning from the heavens and Olympus… On every side Mother Earth who gave animation to living creatures was burning.’ So wrote Hesiod in 700 BC, in his description of the war of the gods, which ended only when Zeus defeated Gaia’s youngest child Typhon, half-man half-snake, who was descended from the Titans. In this way Zeus won sovereignty over the heavens.
Most scholars believe that this battle symbolises the victory of the patriarchal gods over the Titans born of the mother goddess; in other words the defeat of the matriarchal system. Similarly it symbolises the seizure of the lands of the matriarchal settled farmers by nomads. Others have interpreted it as a conflict between dynasties. What is certain, however, is that life is constantly changing, like the snake which corresponds to the earth shedding its skin. Inevitably, the snake-haired woman Medusa is identified with this force. That is why her head was severed and became a decoration on the shield of Athena. Medusa is a healing force by way of the blood which pours from her veins, but becomes evil by transforming living things to stone. Like the earth mother, she simultaneously represents life and death. Having established the new order, the gods turn to the belligerent mortals that they have created. The poet Hesiod puts these words into the mouths of the gods as they address the human race: ‘What need has the man who has not filled his granary with the wheat of Demeter to pick quarrels with other men? First fill your belly before coveting the property of another. But come and let us resolve this cause with you, using true judgments given by Zeus. We have shared out the legacy, and you have taken your birthright.’ Then he goes on to describe perfect and divine justice: ‘Farsighted Zeus punishes those who go astray. Sometimes an entire city is destroyed for the crime of a single man. Affliction, plague and famine descend from the heavens… As for those who keep to the path of righteousness, their realms are blessed with peace, and they live their lives in abundance.’ It is interesting how the gods and goddesses, who look down from their glittering palaces on Olympus in judgment, think and behave just like ordinary mortals.Their anger, ambition, deceit, ruthlessness, compassion, love and joy make them no different from men of flesh and blood, so the sometimes tragic, sometimes amusing stories in which they figure reflect the human condition like mirrors.
The most compelling of these stories is one of the earliest, in which Zeus swallows his first wife, the goddess Metis, who symbolises reason and wisdom. By swallowing her he acquires her wisdom, and according to this interpretation the story represents the appropriation of the role of sage by the male from the female. Then Zeus himself gives birth to Metis’s clever daughter, who is armed from head to toe: ‘One day Zeus plucked from his own head the awesome Athena with her blazing blue eyes. The goddess who sets the world in turmoil, who tirelessly leads armies, who delights in the cries of battle and war, who is high upon high.’ But of all his children Zeus best loved Apollo and Artemis, who were born of Leto. Apollo symbolises light, but also poetry, music and the pure emotions. His essence is the search for light through reason and beauty. This light teaches understanding of nature, and in this role as mentor, Apollo is also an oracle. Yet his jealousy of his lyre knows no bounds, and so Marsyas finds himself immortalised in a tragic tale.
Marsyas is one of the satyrs, half man and half goat, who symbolise nature. One day he finds the flute dropped by Athena, and plays it so well that he enters a contest against Apollo to see who is the finest musician. When he is defeated the god shows no compassion, but lashes him to a tree and flays him alive. Artemis, goddess of the forests, hunters and wild animals, and sometimes also of the moon, helps fruits to ripen and plants to grow. Her most distinctive mark is the quiver she carries over her shoulder. She remains forever a virgin and forever young, and her body seems to have been made for running swiftly. The god Hermes, son of Zeus and a rain nymph, who is the messenger of the gods, Castor and Pollux, the twins born of Leda who was seduced by Zeus in the form of a swan, the Kharites or Three Beauties who represent grace, beauty, compassion and gratitude, and Aphrodite created from sea foam are among the best loved gods and goddesses on Mount Olympus.
*Nermin Bayçin is an archaeologist