INTERVENTION OF THE GODS
By Uthman Shodipe
IN the cosmology of ancient Hellene, there was a uniform cultural guidance which graced every nuance of life with the hovering presence of the immortal gods. The Greeks were nurtured beneath the watchful firmament of the unerring Olympian symbols, rooted in the belief that the gods were everywhere, observing the unceasing quests of man, affecting the will of power, rectifying wrong, humbling the wicked, ultimately affirming an invincible majesty.
Everywhere, there was a suggestive fatidical pronouncement, the subtle intimation of an augurial content, the astute stripping of the veil of heaven. Here, every action was subjected to some spiritual, interpretative bearing. There was always a cause, some providential rationale for the grand constituents of the human confrontations. The gods were permanent signposts, visible in the measure of harvests, salient in the fortunes of war, apparent in the dramatic sway of electoral contests, obvious in the mercantilist temperament and in the tenor of peace.
This cultural idealism, which the Romans later appropriated and called deux ex machina (the intervention of the gods), could be seen in poignant, comprehensive expressiveness in the mystical largeness of the Homeric Iliad and the Odyssey, where the gods jostled in partisan discretion, rescuing a fallen hero from the mortal blight, exposing treachery and the conclave of treason, strengthening the weak, enervating the cruel, sweeping across the fields of combat and the tempestuous seas, imposing victories and defeats with divine liberalism.
This thematic illustration of the divine judgment would invariably course through the subsequent tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, heightening the arbitrating permanence of heaven, invoking a normative moral about the transience of monarchs, the inevitability of the passage of warriors, the uncertainties of the lowly tribe; the patent insignificance of the human frame.
It is in these verities that the conceptual anchor of the old Hellenistic principle reposes in instructive awareness, rousing the wise to the consciousness of his own finitude, mocking the foolishness of the unwary, revealing both the benign and the harsh contents of our fated universe.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the inspirational bard of Devonshire, invokes a powerful mastery of the Hellenistic leitmotif in the vivid evocative flourishes of his narrative poem, Kublai Khan. In an imaginative canvas of luxuriant, expositional imagery, Coleridge gracefully conjures the historical Kublai Khan from the depths of the Mongol dynasty, illustrating the barbarian monarch in a prodigal, festal theatre, wandering in the rich, verdant, epicurean expanses, consumed by the chimerical filigrees of a manufactured paradise.
Sprang from a primitive nomadic tribe which had no notion of governance, save the howling rabble of a loose, expeditional hunting, Kublai founded the Mongol dynasty in China, imposed the ruthless will of an untutored race upon an enlightened people, subjected an higher civilization to the absolute fetters of an illiterate horde.
The greatest successor to Ghenghis Khan — through guile, bravura and sudden shocks of cruelty — Kublai swept across the vast steppes of Asia in obsessional conquests, decimated the fiefdoms of contending princes, whirled about in imperial hugeness, yoked almost every tract of earth from China to Russia and far into the distant extremities of Persia and Mesopotamia.
And yet Kublai was unsatisfied. He harassed the wide frontiers of Japan in blind, acquisitive compulsions, flung his armies everywhere in relentless campaigns. He was indifferent to human losses. He could not rest. He would not rest. He was ensnared by an inner greed. Kublai perceived himself as the monarch of the world, the invincible symbol of a vaunted deity. And while the soldiers perished in endless imperial marches, Kublai reposed in a loud bacchanalian revelry of personal engrossment.
At the fabled seat of imperial power, he built an enchanting, scented paradise whence he lolled in total sybaritic majesty, eclipsed from the worries of the world, festooned in the consuming tinsel of oriental splendour; feasting, hunting, wrapped in an impulsive, festal liberty.
Quote the poet:
“In Xanadu did Kublai Khan
A stately pleasure dome decree
Where Alph the sacred river ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea
So twice five miles of fertile ground
With walls and towers were girdled round
And here were gardens bright with sinuous rills
And here were forests ancient as the hills
Enfolding sunny spots of greenery
But here beneath that romantic chasm
That lies athwart a cedarn cover…
Kublai heard from afar
Ancestral voices prophesying war.”
It is the old Hellenistic trap again. The barbarian monarch, vaulted to the startling height of imperial glory, who ruled with arbitrary consciousness, favoured the unlettered Mongolian hordes who immersed themselves in leisure while the conquered tribes engaged in productive labours. Steeped in unchallenged grandeur, Kublai flaunted his own divinity, until the gods stirred from their watchful firmament and affirmed their imperative denouement in the revolting spectacle of the Mongolian theatre. Kublai could not evade his own mortal passage. He yielded to the final arbitrating cudgel of the gods.
Even here, in the fortress of splendour, the gods could still reach down and smite the errant monarch. The Hellenistic cultural idee fixe about the intervening ubiquity of the gods does not signify the helplessness of man, nor does it invoke the inherent fettering of the human aspirations. No.
The Hellenistic philosophical summation is about the full accounting of the human *action, the fated ineludity of the judgment of heaven, the sovereigns and the subjects, the swaggering generalissimo and the tripled captives are all invariably leveled, united in an insignificant delineation amid the intervening rupture of the gods. But this much is never obvious until the sovereign is confronted with his own frailties, until the mighty perceives his own ruptured armour.
There is this testimony in the stricken power once poised on a vengeful tyrannical permanence, emboldened in invincible pretences. No more. He is now enfeebled in wobbly, piteous portrait; a victim of his own fetters, a captive of the intervening gods. He is now destined for a barren fate; a moral to those who would palter with the immortal gods for eminence.
First published Tuesday, 16 September, 1997.