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A Mythological Sketch

8408: Terracotta group of two seated women, perhaps Demeter and Persephone. Myrina c. 100 BC. British Museum, London.

Excerpts from:


Reported by Caroline W. Healey Dall

In the Spring of 1841, Margaret Fuller (1810-50) assembled a circle of friends to converse on the subject of mythology (although the original intent of these conversations had been to answer the questions "What were we born to do?" and "How shall we do it?").

Among those who attended these talks (c. 25 persons) were RALPH WALDO EMERSON (philosopher), WILLIAM W. STORY (sculptor, poet, and lawyer), GEORGE RIPLEY (clergyman), ELIZABETH PALMER PEABODY (teacher), JAMES FREEMAN CLARKE (pastor), CHARLES WHEELER (Greek scholar), and CAROLINE W. HEALEY, who wrote the reports of Margaret's Conversations.

The excerpts below have been taken from the 1895 edition (Roberts Brothers, Boston) of Margaret and her Friends.

Introduction to the first conversation 

Monday Evening, March 1, 1841.

MARGARET opened the conversation by a beautiful sketch of the origin of Mythology. The Greeks she thought borrowed their Gods from the Hindus and Egyptians, but they idealized their personifications to a far greater extent. The Hindus dwelt in the All, the infinite, which the Greeks analyzed and to some degree humanized. All things sprang from Coelus and Terra—that is, from Heaven and Earth, or spirit and matter. Rhea, or the Productive Energy, and Saturn, or Time, were the children of Coelus and Terra. The progress of any people is marked by its mythi. Mythology is only the history of the development of the infinite in the Finite. Saturn devoured his own children until the disappointed Rhea put a stone (or obstacle) in his way, and she succeeded in raising Jupiter. The development of human faculties was slow, therefore Time seemed to absorb all that Productive Energy brought forth, until Energy itself created obstacles; and of these was born the indomitable Will. Jupiter represented that Will, and usurped the rule of Time, fighting with the low and sensual passions, represented by the Titans and the Giants, until he seated himself securely on the Olympian Throne, the Father of the Gods. This Will was not in itself the highest development of either Beauty, Genius, Wisdom, or Thought; but such developments were subject to it, were its children.

Juno is only the feminine form of this indomitable Will. By herself she is inferior to it, and whenever she opposes it, loses the game. Vulcan, her child, is Mechanic Art, great in itself to be sure, but not comparable to the Perfect Wisdom, or Minerva, which sprang ready armed from the masculine Will. She was greater than her Father, but still his child.

Neptune, who raises always a "placid head above the waves," represents the flow of thought,—all-embracing, girdling in the world, Diana and Apollo, or Purity and Genius.

Mercury is Genius in the extrinsic, of eloquence, human understanding, and expression. All were the embodiments of Absolute ideas, of ideas that had no origin,—that were eternal. Love brooded over Chaos; and the perfect Beauty and Love, represented among the Greeks by Venus and her son, rose from the turbid elements. It is singular that even the ancients should have maintained the pre-existence of Love. It was before Order, Men, or the Gods men worshipped. The fable suggests the truth,—Infinite Love and Beauty always was. It is only with their development in finite beings that History has to do.

Here MARGARET recapitulated. The indomitable Will had dethroned Time, and, acting with Productive Energy,—variously represented at different times by Isis, Rhea, Ceres, Persephone, and so on,—had driven back the sensual passions to the bowels of the earth, while it produced Perfect Wisdom, Genius, Beauty, and Love, results which were more excellent if not more powerful than their Cause.

To understand this Mythology, we must denationalize ourselves, and throw the mind back to the consideration of Greek Art, Literature, and Poesy. It is only scanty justice that my pen can render to Margaret's eloquent talk [...]

Selected passages 

March 1, 1841.

Margaret Fuller (1810-50)

James F. Clarke (1810-88)

MARGARET said that there were many proofs in Plato that the philosophers understood the personifications of the mythi ...
JAMES F. CLARKE said Platos were impossible now.
MARGARET agreed, and said that the pride of knowledge which he would find in the world should he appear, would be a greater obstacle than superstition once was.

It was acknowledged as a matter of course, that only a few preserved any consciousness of the original significance of the Mythology.

I cannot recall the words, but at some time this evening Margaret distinguished three mythological dynasties. The first was the reign of the Natural Powers. The second, represented by Jupiter, Pluto, and Neptune, stood for the height, the depth, and the surface or flow of things, the first manifestations of human consciousness. The third was the Bacchic, Bacchus not being yet, in her estimation, the vulgar God of the wine-vat and the festival, but the inspired Genius,—being to Apollo, as she said, what the nectar is to the grape.

March 8, 1841.

Diana is the same as Dione, also one of the names of Juno.
E. P. P. asked if Homer ever confounded the last two? MARGARET thought not. Homer was purely objective. He knew little and cared less about the primitive creation of the myths.

MARGARET said ... The age of the Greeks was the age of Poetry; ours was the age of Analysis. We could not create a Mythology.
EMERSON said ... we might have mythology as beautiful as the Greek.
MARGARET thought each age of the world had its own work to do.

Ralph W. Emerson

Elizabeth Palmer Peabody

[MARGARET said] Coleridge once said that certain people were continually saying of Shakespeare, that he did not mean to impart certain spiritual meanings to some of his sketches of life and character; but if Shakespeare did not mean it his Genius did: so if the Greeks meant not this or that, the Greek genius meant it.
MRS. RUSSELL asked why Miss Fuller found so much fault with the present.
MARGARET had no fault to find with it. She took facts as they were. Every age did something toward fulfilling the cycle of mind. The work of the Greeks was not ours.

GEORGE RIPLEY remarked that ...the world sometimes forsook a quest and returned to it. We had forsaken Beauty, but we might return to it.
Certainly, MARGARET assented. A perfect mind would detect all beauty in the hearth-rug at her feet: the meanest part of creation contained the whole; but the labor we were now at to appreciate the Greek proved conclusively that we were not Greek. A simple plastic nature would take it all in with delight, without doubt or question.
Or rather, amended EMERSON, would take it up and go forward with it.
It makes no difference, said MARGARET, for we live in a circle.

March 19, 1841.

Some one asked about the connection between Diana and Apollo.
MARGARET said that Genius needed a sister to console him.

WILLIAM STORY thought no statue could bear comparison with the Apollo Belvedere.

In regard to the story that Apollo never saw a shadow, CAROLINE STURGIS asked how Apollo could destroy an alien nature if he never met it.
There was quite an unsatisfactory talk about this, which would have ended had anybody remembered how the sun solves the enigma every day. The sun never sees a shadow it destroys. When its rays fall, light is. It annihilates the alien by merely being. So Truth annihilates Falsehood, yet cannot meet it. The two are never in one presence.

April 2, 1841.

[JAMES F. said] ... that in seeking for beauty we lose it, but in aiming at utility through hard labor we find perfect proportion—and consequently perfect beauty ... Posterity might find the proof of our search after beauty in the graceful prow and swelling hold and tall, tapering mast or shrouds of shredded jet; in the bellying canvas and the patron saint which watches the wake from the stern. But we know that the ship, the most beautiful object in our modern world, was the product of labour ... To bring its form into a natural relation to wind and wave, was to find perfect harmony and beauty.
WILLIAM WHITE said that id did not tally well with James Clarke's theory that the ugly steamer had succeeded the beautiful clipper.

April 22, 1841.

Caroline Wells Healey Dall (1822-1912), Boston, 1841

[MARGARET said] ... Among the Greeks, Ceres, Persephone, and Juno represent the productive faculties, Jupiter and Apollo the divine, and Mercury simply the human understanding, the God of eloquence and of thieves.
MARIANNE JACKSON thought it strange that he should be at once the God of persuasion and the Deity of theft!
MARGARET said eloquence was a kind of thieving!

E. P. P. said Plutarch had written something about Hermes in his "Morals."
MARGARET said, Perhaps so, but she did n't know, as she never could read them. Plutarch went round and round a story; presented all the corners of it, told all the pretty bits of gossip he could find, instead of penetrating to its secret. So she preferred his anecdotes of Heroes to his Parallels or Essays.
I said in surprise, how much I liked the "Morals."
"Yes," MARGARET said, "even Emerson paid the book the high compliment of calling it his tuning-key, when he was about to write."

April 29, 1841.

I said that Bode placed Homer in the tenth century before Christ, and Orpheus in the age just preceding, say the thirteenth century before.

CHARLES WHEELER said that late discoveries proved that there was a complete knowledge of electricity among the ancients. There were lightning-rods on the temple at Jerusalem, and they are described by Josephus, who however does not know what they are.