The Sex God

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Sept. 5 1998 3:30 AM

The Sex God

Or, Flytrap, as observed from Mount Olympus.

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On Mount Olympus they must be laughing at Bill Clinton's pleas for privacy, and at our attempts to explain his impulses. For about 3,000 years, since the Greek gods first appeared in mythology, they've been dropping their tunics, because that's what gods do. In fact, the parallels among the inhabitants of Olympus and the participants in the drama playing out at the White House are striking.

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Bill: Zeus. The king of the gods, Zeus is the most powerful in the pantheon. He wields the thunderbolt, which is useful both as a weapon and as a way of extracting himself from the sticky situations he often finds himself in. For all his power and brilliance, he has a few overwhelming character flaws. At times his "pride and petulance" became intolerable, writes classicist Robert Graves in The Greek Myths. In Mythology, Edith Hamilton writes, "He is represented as falling in love with one woman after another and descending to all manner of tricks to hide his infidelity from his wife." Graves even reports that the god's mother, "foreseeing what trouble his lust would cause, forbade him to marry." But what young god ever listens to his mother?

Hillary: Hera. When Hera first appeared in mythology as Zeus' wife, she was also his co-sovereign, writes Graves, but as the millenniums marched on, she became subservient to him. Think of starting out heading health care reform and ending up supervising the Millennium Project. As Ovid wrote in Metamorphoses in the first century, Hera says of herself, "Great indeed are my achievements, and mighty my strength." So she was incensed at finding herself humiliated repeatedly by Zeus' philandering and reduced to being his sexual parole officer. Hera is--Lord have mercy--the goddess of marriage. As for her own, writes Graves, she and Zeus "bickered constantly," mostly over his infidelities. "Though he would confide his secrets to her, and sometimes accept her advice, he never fully trusted Hera." The feeling was mutual.

Monica: Io. According to Ovid, when Zeus first saw this nymph, he said, "Maiden, you are fit for [Zeus] himself to love, and will make someone divinely happy when you share his couch." (Ovid does not say if the couch was in Zeus' private study.) Zeus spread a cloud over the Earth to conceal the dalliance, which had the unintended consequence of alerting Hera. According to Ovid, "When she could not find him in the sky, 'Unless I am mistaken,' she said, 'he is doing me some wrong.' " She was right. When she confronts him, in Graves' telling, he simply lies: "I have never touched Io." It's clear now that a better translation from the Greek would have read, "I have never touched that nymph, Miss Io." Never one to confess voluntarily, Zeus then silences Io by turning her into a cow.

Kathleen Willey: Semele. One clear lesson from the Greeks is that mortals pay a heavy price for being desired by a god. After the mortal Semele had an affair with Zeus, Hera, consumed by jealousy, encouraged her to ask Zeus to display to her all the power he possessed. He did--and Semele was burned to ashes by the flame from his thunderbolt.

Emily Yoffe Emily Yoffe
Emily Yoffe writes Slate's "Keeping Tabs" column. Elizabeth Yoffe provided research for this piece. You can e-mail the author at eyoffe@hotmail.com.

Paula Jones: Nemesis. This goddess's name means, according to Hamilton, "Righteous Anger." Graves writes that she became the embodiment of "divine vengeance on proud kings." In his telling, Zeus pursued the goddess, who fled from him. To keep him at bay, she "constantly changed her shape," apparently the Hellenic equivalent of a makeover and nose job.

Linda Tripp: Eris. Tripp is not just like you, but she is just like Eris, a minor goddess who helped spark a huge conflagration. Eris, as Graves writes, "is always stirring up occasions for war by the spread of rumour and the inculcation of jealousy." Hamilton describes her as the "evil goddess of Discord." She was hugely unpopular and always being left out of things. "Resenting this deeply, she determined to make trouble--and she succeeded very well indeed," writes Hamilton. When she was not included at an important wedding banquet, she threw into the hall a golden apple marked "For the Fairest." The scramble for possession of the apple was the event that ignited the Trojan War.

Mike McCurry: Hermes. This god got the job of Zeus' messenger after Zeus heard of his clever escapades. As Graves writes of the job interview, Zeus said, "You seem to be a very ingenious, eloquent, and persuasive godling." "Then make me your herald, Father," the young Hermes answered, adding that he would "never tell lies, though I cannot promise always to tell the whole truth." "That would not be expected of you," said Zeus, with a smile.

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K en Starr: Typhon. Typhon is, according to Graves, "the largest monster ever born. ... His brutish ass-head touched the stars, his vast wings darkened the sun, fire flashed from his eyes, and flaming rocks hurtled from his mouth." When he appeared, the gods fled Mount Olympus to hide. Finally, though, Zeus overcame his cowardice and grappled with the monster. It did not go well. Typhon cut the sinews in Zeus' hands and feet. As Graves writes, "Now he could not move a finger." But Zeus, like the presidency, if not individual presidents, has immortality. Eventually his power was restored, and he threw Mount Aetna on top of the independent counsel, ah, monster.

Finally, the only deities possibly more powerful than the Olympians--the three goddesses who literally measure out the course and length of a person's life--are the Fates. Zeus, not surprisingly, fancies himself their leader. That's always a dangerous fancy. As Aeschylus wrote of Zeus in Prometheus Bound, "He cannot fly from Fate."