Tuesday, April 12, 2022

Cunning Intelligence, Chapter 7

Review of Chapter 7: The Live Bit

The character of Athena, and her relation to metis, are explored further in this chapter, this time in relation to Poseidon and their shared control over horses, as represented in numerous myths and rituals, and in the mythology of the horse-bit. What makes this chapter most interesting is that it describes an agonistic relationship between humans and the animal power of horses which they are harnessing by means of technology: this involves a fear of that very power, and of the potential for loss of control.

An interesting part of the argument has to do with the ancient Greek fear of horses, on account of the monstrous strength and ultimate uncontrollability – not quite emphasized here, the fact that the charioteer or rider has put themselves under the control of an animal, who they in turn are seeking to control. The part that is not emphasized is the idea that this control is two-way; instead, D and V (following their ancient sources) depict this as a contest between the wild strength represented by the animal (and the power of Poseidon), and the cunning intelligence and technology used by the human rider (represented by Athena primarily, though Poseidon also has some relation to this technological aspect of horse mastery).

The adjective gorgos, meaning terrible or alarming, and the root of “Gorgon,” is often used of horses,, e.g. the gorgos flashing of their eyes (190). The Gorgon thus summarizes a frightening aspect of horses, their power; in turn, being possessed is like being ridden by a power that bridles you; the same goes for epileptics. Poseidon Taraxippos is the frightener of horses, in legends someone dies in a horse accident and becomes a frightener of horses, like a ghost at the bend in the track where they died, or their tomb frightens passing horses; there is an important fear of losing control of a team of horses, which can be deadly (191-2). There are also stories in which someone feeds wild horses with human flesh, and the horses then eat him (192-3).

The horse bit seen as a magical thing, because it is forged of metal (requiring metis) and because it controls the power of the horse. A new, improved horse bit (chalinos) was invented in Corinth, and this is linked to their worship of Athena Hippia; it is referred to as "pharmakon prau"; [so interestingly, this is also a kind of pharmakon]; examples of these bits being given as gifts by Jason to kings he visits, or as an offering to Athena before a battle; in Corinth the horse is important for the ruling class of knights (197). The bit is "a technical object which makes it possible to control a beast of unpredictable reactions" (197).

Horses are associated with Poseidon because they are [fluid], unpredictable, powerful; Athena represents controlling this force with human cleverness and technology. However (the authors argue), it would be simplistic to think that in this example Poseidon represents nature and Athena technology in control of nature (because Poseidon is also associated with aspects of chariot tech, and Athena is not just about tech); or that they represent successive stages in historical development of horse tech [they are probably insisting on this because their argument is that it comes down to kinds or subkinds of metis]. "There can be no doubt of the fact that religious thought does not simply reflect a history of technology in which the respective roles of Poseidon and Athena were to represent successive developments." (199)

They discuss three cases that help distinguish between the roles of Athena and Poseidon re the horse; "the ritual of Onchestus, the legend of Arion, and the story of the race between Erechtheus and Skelmis" (199). The first is a ritual in which newly trained horses are made to pull a chariot through Poseidon's sacred grove without a charioteer; if they crash the chariot, it is left in the grove. This is a test of their trainedness. The next example is the perfectly fast horse Arion, representing the Poseidonian horse; Adrastus has chariot pulled by Arion and Kairos, reprsenting the Poseidonian and Athenian aspects of horses (202-3). In an example from Mnaseas, Poseidon represents the chariot itself, and the art of harnessing it, while Athena taught the art of driving the team (204).

These different situations involving horses in which Athena and Poseidon appear as powers in competition provide us with examples of the various ways in which religious thought seeks to express the opposition and complementarity of two powers intervening within the same domain but each with a distinctive mode of operation. (204)

In the example of the chariot race between Erechtheus (favored by Athena and representing cunning) and Skelmis (favored by Poseidon and representing strength); Erechtheus cheats and wins, thereby demonstrating the superiority of cunning over strength.

In sum, Athena and Poseidon have separate roles re the horse: the Horse is ultimately Poseidon's domain, but Athena represents control of the horse, either directly or through tech (but primarily the latter: through wit and cleverness, over the strength of the horse (206).  Poseidon and Athena also are joint powers helping with navigation on the sea (213n95).

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