The ancients had a very real spiritual life, and called upon the gods for help
in various ways, but actual contact with a god was terrible to human beings,
and often fatal (or worse). Mainstream Greco-Roman religion
contained no notion of unconditional love of humanity by the gods. At best the
relationship was either a quid-pro-quo bargain or
maybe, if you were sufficiently excellent, you might earn the approval, even
"love," in a sense, of a god. Look at Athena: she loves Odysseus
because he is smart like her, but you and I would be toast.
Apollo and the Sibyl.
The most terrifying example of divine contact I can think of is the possession
of the Cumaean Sibyl by Apollo in Vergil's Aeneid. Vergil fans
will recall that Aeneas, having finally reached Italy (where he's been promised
a kingdom) but at a loss about what to do, consults the oracular god Apollo
through the latter's vehicle/interpreter the Sibyl. The god inspires his oracle
and fills her with his presence (just as he does at the more famous Delphi),
and she then more or less coherently utters his prophecies.
Here are the relevant passages from Aeneid,
Book 6; Aeneas has just reached the cavern in which the Sibyl prophesies:
The giant flank of that Euboean crag has been dug out into a cave; a hundred
broad ways lead to that place, a hundred gates; as many voices rush from these--the
Sibyl's replies. Just as the Trojans reached the threshold, the
virgin cried: "Now call upon the fates for oracles! The god is here!
The god!" As she says this before the doors, her face and colors alter
suddenly; her hair is disarrayed; her breast heaves, and her wild heart swells
with frenzy; she is taller now; her voice is more than human, for the power
of god is closing in, he breathes upon her. . . .
But she has not yet given way to Phoebus: she rages, savage, in her cavern,
tries to drive the great god from her breast. So much the more, he tires out
her raving mouth; he tames her wild heart, shapes by crushing force. And now
the hundred gates of the house swing open of their own accord. They bear the
answers of the priestess through the air . . . .
(The Sibyl speaks the god's prophecy.)
These are the words that from her shrine the Sibyl of Cumae chants; and
these hard oracles come roaring from her cavern, mingling true sayings with
darkness. So Apollo urges the reins as she raves on; he plies the spurs beneath
The scene is frightening, and has inexplicably never found its way onto film.
Taken at face value, it depicts a human being being possessed by a force so
much greater than herself that it strains her merely human resources nearly
to breaking. She raves because a person cannot rationally take within herself
the presence of a god.
The imagery, however, suggests sexual possession; or perhaps Vergil, seeking
a way to help the reader comprehend the action, draws upon sexual aggression
as a model for divine penetration of a human spirit. The cavern, threshold,
doors, and gates all suggest the sexual entrance to a woman's body, and the
swinging open of the gates of the cavern (her "house") just at the
point Apollo "tames her wild heart, shapes by crushing force" only
makes the metaphor clearer.
Another sexual metaphor is the image of riding: Apollo urges the reins; he
plies the spurs. Riding (a horse) was a common ancient metaphor for sex, derived,
of course, from a male-behind sexual position. (See the male rider in the Roman fresco with his hand raised as though to "ply the
reins" in the URL given below.) For me the most frightening (and cinematic)
part is the approach of the god: "The god is here! The god! . . . "
Vergil often seems staid in comparison with Homer, but one thing Vergil constantly
seeks to do is to emphasize the mixture of pain with duty, and here he has pulled
out a deadly serious metaphor to convey the pain (and, we might infer, fear
and pleasure) of the Sibyl as she is possessed by something beyond her control.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Image:Pompeii_brothel_2.jpg (Male "riding"
a female partner, Pompeii, Lupanar.)
The translation is from Allen Mandelbaum's 1981 The Aeneid of Vergil.