Purpose and Porpoise

Purpose and Porpoise

Pentecost 47

Many of us would consider a walk along a sandy beach at sunset to be something close to a perfect setting. One year on my birthday I had spent the day visiting with family. We found ourselves walking along the ocean’s edge, the setting sun a beautiful backdrop as the day neared its end. Looking out on the ocean we realized there were animals swimming close to the kids who were splashing about less than three feet from the shoreline. Getting to within two feet of the kids, mimicking their movements, was a school of dolphins. Or were they porpoises? After all, for most of us, they are the same thing, right?

Much of what we know about Greek mythology is the result of one man’s writings. The poet Homer believed that man held his fate in his own hands. Man was not simply a creature to whom life happened, according to Homer. Man had the ability to make a life, to act and not just react. Homer used the myths of his ancestry to create a foundation of excellence for which one should strive. Because of Homer, the Greeks developed a culture for and of excellence and were possibly the first ancient culture to think outside the box of simply living to get by, to attempt to achieve lasting greatness.

Greek gods and goddesses looked amazingly like humans. Made in the image of mankind, these deities often masqueraded as humans. Think about the psychological undertones of this. The Greeks were satisfied with themselves so they had no need of creating deities that were better looking. Unlike the Judeo-Christian God who is said to have made man in His image, the Greeks made their gods in their image. Of course, being gods and goddesses, they could do more than mortals. The Greeks built temples for the worship of their deities but the deities came to them, not the other way around.

Ancient man first conceived the concept of a deity, a god, in the form of a woman. The greatest power early man had was that of reproduction. It was in fact the only part of any creation that man knew anything about and could replicate. A mere mortal could do nothing to create a flower except take care of the flower in its current generation. Mortals did nothing to cause the sunlight or the rain and they had no idea at all where the air they breathed originated or how it continued to be present. They only knew, slowly, that these things were necessary. Human reproduction was the only thing over which they seemed to have any control and so, it was something they could not only understand but also worship with clarity. Human reproduction was also the only way that the species known as mortals could continue and so, reproduction was considered sacred. The first deities were, in fact, of the female variety since women were vessels necessary to the creation of mankind.

The mind of a human being is a mind that evolves and is, in itself, a magnificent storytelling machine. We operate based upon identification and comparison. The first thought when we see something is “Do I have a point of reference for this?” Our mind identifies a bed because of the shape and assumed function. That is why a bed looks like a bed and a box of similar proportions as the bed looks like a box and not a bed. The Greeks were able to have a polytheistic culture because their gods and goddesses were created in their image and therefore had points of reference that could be easily understood.

Like a story that expands with each telling, the forms and powers of the Greek deities began to go beyond the physical image of mankind. A prominent female deity in the Greek culture was the Sphinx. With the head of a woman, the Sphinx had the body of a lion and the wings of an eagle. She posed a question to those seeking to enter the city of Thebes and, in keeping with Greek mythology, punished the visitor if she received a wrong answer. “What being in one lifetime goes on four legs, at another time on two, and yet when it is old, goes on three?” Legend states the any travelers not knowing the correct response would find themselves crushed in the lion paws of the Sphinx, strangled and asphyxiated.

The name Sphinx is from the Greek word “sphingo”, meaning to bind tightly. Perched high upon the rocks, the Sphinx posed her question which led to the inevitable death of all travelers on the road. Oedipus was the only one to correctly answer the Sphinx’s question. Arguing with a companion over who should go first, Oedipus kills the companion and then proceeds to give the Sphinx a one-word answer – man. He explains that as an infant, humans crawl around on four appendages; as adults, they walk upright on two legs; as older people, men and women often employed the use of a stick or cane, thus going about with three limbs to hold them upright. Upon receiving the correct answer, the Sphinx hurls herself down the roads to her death and Oedipus is made king of Thebes.

The Greeks used their stories to explain how life could be shaped by man. Just as the Romans would later appropriate their deities, the Greeks used those of older cultures. The Sphinx is one such example. The Egyptian Sphinx is much older although it was renamed with the Greek named due to the similarities in description – another example of relating to what is known. The Sphinx itself is both a Greek deity and an Egyptian one. The Egyptian Sphinx was a male deity of more ancient times than the Greek one and resided outside the city of Giza. It was forgotten by the world until it was rediscovered by the armies of Napoleon in 1798. Other Sphinx statues have been erected all over the world and can be found today in Paris, Russia, Scotland, and even in the USA in Las Vegas.

The Greeks used mythology to illustrate what could and did happen to mankind in daily living. They compared to what was known in order to dream about the unknown, make assumptions, and then proceed to discover new things. They were not so concerned with what happened after one’s death, as in older cultures, but in what happened in the here and now. That had no point of reference for the unknown after life but they could easily relate to daily living that we all conduct.

Standing on the shores of the ocean that day, I was at peace with the here and now. Watching the sea animals mimic the human children was delightful. After all, dolphins are known to be gentle creatures and very friendly. It’s not like they were swimming with whales, a more threatening creature due to its own legends. The playful dolphins or porpoises (Who can tell them apart?) seemed to be the perfect addition to a beautiful scene. Thing is, though, I did not know whether they were dolphins or porpoises and porpoises…well, they aren’t the same as dolphins. They are not the same species. Porpoises are, in fact, whales.

It is important that we examine and explore that which we hold in reverence. Not every person in a cult or radical group is fully aware of the intentions of their leaders. Blindly following because it is fashionable can lead to one’s own destruction as well as the deaths of many. Religion get a bad rap not because worship is wrong but because of how we do it, or how we don’t think about what we are doing. We need to make certain what we are, in fact, worshipping. We need to know whether we have a purpose or are simply following a case of mistaken identity, like the porpoise. We need to make sure that which we revere is worth the journey of our life.