February 28, 2014, by Helen Lovatt
(Ancient) Advice Column 1: The Football Fan
Esther Eidinow begins a new advice column: what should you do if your team has offended the gods?
The subject line read ‘Question About Removing a Curse’. I teach a module on Ancient Greek magic and religion—but the sender was not one of my students. If this was a phishing attempt, it was novel.
I opened it gingerly: no badly misspelled promises to lengthen parts of the anatomy; no exclamation-infested pleas for urgent bank transfers. Instead, it contained an anxious (but grammatical) inquiry from a fearful (American) football fan.
Apparently, ‘A member of the superbowl champion Seattle Seahawks (Michael Bennett), in the waning minutes of a game they decisively won, stated out loud (and it was caught on mic) that “we’ll beat the greek gods.”’ (Uh-oh!)
The writer knew the risks. He continued: ‘He’s obviously unfamiliar with the history of challenging Greek gods or he wouldn’t have uttered something so foolish.’ (How refreshing to find such a clear appreciation of this ancient problem!)
The question was what could be done: ‘Is there anything I can do as a fan of the Seahawks to avoid the inevitable retribution? Should the Seahawks release Bennett to play for another team? Is that good enough? What if they re-sign him?’
Now, my knowledge of American football is sketchy. Any game I’ve watched, I’ve never been able to stop wincing long enough to appreciate its finer points. But on the ancient side of things, the advice was much more obvious: doom.
In the world of Greek myth, by the time a mortal has reached the point of pride that he is comparing himself to the gods, let alone assuming he can beat them, all is pretty much lost.
As an example, think of Prometheus who tried to outwit Zeus, first by tricking the King of the gods into accepting the nastier bits of a sacrifice, rather than the delicious meat; and then, when Zeus in his anger at this deception took fire away from mankind, by stealing it back. Prometheus ended up tied to a rock while an eagle ate his liver. Each night his liver grew back, and each day the eagle returned. And mortal men in general were also punished—with the creation of woman. (Yes, that’s Pandora, she of the storage jar full of evils…. and hope.)
Things were not looking terrific for Mr. Bennett—or the Seahawks.
But we do what we can in this blog… There was, after all, the advice that Amasis King of Egypt gave to the tyrant of Samos, Polycrates. Hearing of Polycrates’ continued, astounding good fortune, Amasis became worried for his friend and ally and wrote him a letter, advising him to remember that the gods are jealous of success. To try to save himself, Polycrates should think of whatever it was he valued most—and then throw it away. Perhaps Mr Bennett could try to make amends by surrendering or destroying something he owned that he really treasured.
However, it has to be said, it didn’t work for Polycrates: he threw away a signet-ring but it turned up in a fish he’d been given as a present. As Amasis observed when he heard about the fish: it’s impossible for one man to save another from his fate.
And so, we offer this final thought: Mr Bennett should avoid seafood; and the Seahawks should beware beautiful women carrying large storage jars…
Watch this space for further tips on avoiding ancient (mis)fortune. And if you have any questions of your own do write in, and we’ll do our best to help you: firstname.lastname@example.org
The moment it happened (at 20:45).
Image: Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald catches a touchdown pass from New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees during the fourth quarter of the National Football League Pro Bowl Feb. 8, 2009, at Aloha Stadium in Honolulu. VIRIN: 090208-N-9758L-854
(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Larry_Fitzgerald_catches_TD_at_2009_Pro_Bowl.jpg; Wikimedia Commons.)