It seems incredible to most of us that people used to believe strange things about how the world works. For instance, the very idea that the sun was Apollo, dashing through the sky in his golden chariot, is unseemly and fantastical. I mean, does it in any way look like that? Do you see a handsome Greek god with a whip in his hand, urging his chargers on? No, I don’t either.
Then again, we are all so busy these days, how many of us would notice? We expect it to be light at certain times, dark at other times, with those times lengthening and shortening with the course of the seasons. If it’s dark when we drive home from work we turn on the car headlights. If it’s light, we don’t. That’s about the extent of our interaction with the sun.
I’ve never been good at photography, though it is an art form I very much appreciate. A while back I decided that I could practice enough to at least bring my skills up to rudimentary. So for a while I was stepping out every Sunday morning, before the rest of the family was awake, camera in hand, to find subjects longing to be immortalized in passable photos. I had noticed that sunrises over the barn and woods and pasture were picturesque, so I thought I’d capture one. This particular morning was already light, but the sun had not begun to clear the trees on the eastern horizon. I stood and waited. Then sat and waited. Then walked around the property, coming at it from different angles, waiting for the Brilliant Solar Orb, the Chariot of Apollo, to appear. It finally came up, and yes there were nice colors in the clouds, and sunbeams streaked across grasses and fence posts, but I didn’t get any good pictures. I just don’t know how to stage a photograph, how to frame the subject matter.
But the one lesson the exercise left me with was that if we take the time, we can watch the sun move (yes, I know, watch the earth move relative to the sun). And I guess in times long ago, when people were closer to nature, when its patterns truly dictated so much of everyone’s daily lives, they could see things like a benevolent deity rolling out each morning to bring them the warmth of the sun. They saw the chariot racing through the sky. The Greek gods, like so many ‘pagan’ deities, shared this world with us, even if they did operate on a higher plane of existence. They were beside us, around us, tending to the many details of life and nature.
I can’t help but feel that something was lost when monotheism replaced the old religions. Lost was the sense of personal deities, of gods dedicated to the things that mattered most to this person or that person. Lost were all the great stories. In their place we got a simple formula: God–the one, omnipotent God–created everything and set it in motion. Done. Needless to say it was a strict, necessarily male God. So no more goddesses, sorry. We still have many holiday observances that evoke these old deities, which descend down to us through the ages from their worship, though we usually don’t acknowledge that fact. But there is still something missing in not being able to ask Persephone to arise from the Underworld and bring on the reluctant spring, to weep for Adonis and beseech his blessings on our summertime crops, or to cast a glance skyward and ask great Apollo to please becalm himself on this already too hot day.
It’s all in how we stage the shot, how we frame the subject matter. When my daughter was about seven or eight years old she began to ask me if Santa Claus was real. I answered her question with a question: Do you think Christmas would be more fun or less fun if there was no Santa Claus? Yeah, I know, a little too sophist for a second grader. But I hope you see my point. Any fool can ‘learn’ things, such as what really exists or doesn’t exist, and what are the true explanations for natural phenomena. It takes an open intelligence and a willing heart to see the universe in terms of daily wonder: and it takes a force of will, at least it does for me, to be that open and willing.
So to say that I understand and respect those who created the old myths understates what I feel about them. I envy them, I miss what they had, and I think that in a larger sense, the world may be missing it too. I may have given up on the camera, but I intend to keep watching for Apollo.