Eternal youth?

Our present age, with the ability to record virtually every instant of life in photos that can subsequently be altered to improve the appearance – adjust the modellling of the face, refresh the colour of the skin, remove any bothersome blemishes and wrinkles, and while we are at it, touch up the tones of the sunset in the background, because we deserve the best, whatever nature might offer – appears to place a great emphasis on the value of youth and beauty. It is natural to appreciate the early, vigorous stages of life, but there is, of course, a danger in it, as we can see from an ancient Greek legend.

Long, long ago, we are told, the goddess Aphrodite had a daughter, Harmonia, and when the girl grew up she was betrothed to Cadmus, the first Greek hero and the founder of the city of Thebes. (This establishes the myth as something near the very roots of Greek belief.) Upon Harmonia’s betrothal, Hephaestus, the smith of the gods, offered her a gift which carried with it a dreadful fate. Hephaestus was the husband of Aphrodite, but – dysfunctional families being a well established aspect of Greek mythology – he was not the father of Harmonia, and because of his jealousy over Aphrodite’s extramarital affair with another god, he chose the moment of Harmonia’s betrothal to wreak vengeance. The necklace he gave was exquisitely fashioned, for he was a divine craftsman, but it was also cursed with his rage: it would ruin the life of whoever wore it. The evil was concealed under a fair appearance, though, for it also conferred on the wearer eternal youth and beauty. Women, therefore, seeing only the appearance and unaware of the consequences, were eager to put it on, and generation after generation suffered calamity. In spite of her fine name, Harmonia was destroyed – she and Cadmus were both turned into serpents, according to one version of the story – and when the necklace eventually passed to Iocasta, it was her resulting unnatural youth and beauty that induced her son Oedipus to unknowingly marry her.

The lesson is clear. The ancient Greeks of course did not have the digital facility that we do, but they understood very well the human impulse that has driven the evolution of the modified selfie. We may think we have evolved since the late neolithic age, but that is not really so. Only the technology has changed.

If we wish to apply the lesson of the necklace of Harmonia, we might find good counsel in this saying from Gayan, Alapas : Give all you have, and take all that is given to you. In other words, endeavour, without reservation, to accept the good and the bad of life on earth, while devoting all our efforts, all our attention, not to our own image, but to the Divine ideal.

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