Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Iconotropy

The subject arose—these things happen seemingly by chance, like seeing a cardinal appear on a snow-covered branch in January—why it was that God forbade the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge to a certain pair in Paradise…and how come it was the woman who reached for the fruit and not the man—whereas it is only too well known that in such cases the woman would have been more passively cautious whereas the man, typically of  men, would have grabbed the apple first, even priding himself of able to climb the tree if so required.

Well, never mind. The discussion, as it evolved, brought back memories of Robert Graves’ call it essentially unreadable book, unreadable to an amateur, like me, who knows no Latin and even less Greek really—The White Goddess. In that book Graves coins the word used in my title, a word that the Wiktionary (here) defines as follows:

The accidental or deliberate misinterpretation by one culture of the icons or myths of an earlier one, especially so as to bring them into accord with those of the later one.

Graves held that images, usually carved or rendered as mosaics, created in the Age of Matriarchy were later reinterpreted in such a manner as to conform to the ideology of the Age of Patriarchy that rose to dominance later. Literally, the word means “image-turning” in English.

Graves provides many examples of such reinterpretation, but one of these will do. Take the tale of Paris, the Trojan, who, given an apple by Hermes at Zeus’ institagion, was to decide which of three goddesses (Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite) was the most beautiful. Paris chose Aphrodite and, by this decision, caused the later eruption of the Trojan war as the slighted goddesses decided to retaliate. This tale, of course, is an extreme abbreviation.

Graves argued that the tale was formed from icon created in the matriarchal age in which the Tripple Goddess is shown; and one of them is handing an apple, sacred to the Goddess, to a shepherd. Graves emphasizes that the three are not competitors but persons of a single being. Obviously the image shows the hand-off of an apple: a man’s hand, a woman’s, both touching the apple in the act—but nothing showing who is giving to whom. In one tradition the power of blessing—with the sacred apple—is that of the feminine. In the other, the power is with the male.

Similarly, the same icon is the source of the tale in Genesis in which woman (Graves calls Eve “the Mother of all Living”) gives an apple to Adam. But here the female’s action is interpreted as disobedience of the male figure of God the Father. And Graves saw this as an instance of iconotropy.

Quite amazing things turn up when the rare bird lands. And sometimes the answer is very obscure indeed if one’s rather random walk through literature, sacred and heretical, produces words no one ever uses anymore.

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