The Abduction of Europa

10 April 2012

The abduction of Europa (National Museum, Beyrut)

I am currently in Tyre, in the deep south of Lebanon. From my hotel room, I can see the sea and hear the surf, and if I turn my head a bit to the right, I can see the remains of the former ‘Egyptian port’ and the place where Alexander’s battering ram, built on three ships, managed to breach Tyre’s sea wall.

If I look to the left, I can see the beach from where the supreme god Zeus, in the shape of a bull, abducted the Phoenician princess Europe. There’s nothing special to be seen, but for one reason or another, I like the contrast between the ancient tale and the fact that the hills beyond the mythological beach are, in our own, modern world, controlled by Hezbollah.

Mercury in Amsterdam

30 April 2011


Between 1600 and 1800, somewhere around ten thousand European ships sailed around the Cape of Good Hope to Persia, the Indies, China, and Japan. Half of these came from Holland. Of the vessels that sailed from the North Sea to the Baltic Sea, two-thirds flew the red, white and blue flag. Another ‘triumph’ for the Dutch entrepreneurship was the 45 per cent market share they had in the slave trade.

At that moment in time, Holland owned seventeen hundred ships, more than the fleets of France and England put together. It should also be borne in mind that the Holland flute ship could be manned by fewer sailors than ships from other countries, making for a much higher profit per ship.

Holland was responsible for sixty per cent of the Gross National Product of the Republic of the Seven United Netherlands and within Holland, Amsterdam produced the lion’s share. So, it comes as no suprise that if there is an ancient god who is almost omnipresent in Amsterdam, it is Mercury.

I put some photos here.

Clytaemnestra Bed and Bath

7 October 2009
Bellerophon never arrived on his destination

Bellerophon never arrived on his destination

Many years ago, I spotted a hotel in Mycenae that tried to attract visitors with the slogan “Clytaemnestra Bed & Bath”. I am quite sure that the owner meant it as a joke. But I am less certain that the owner of the shoeshop named Oedipus in Antwerp, which I noticed on the Groenplaats as long ago as 1982, realized that the name of the Greek hero meant “swollen foot”. Calling a restaurant “Saint Simon”, or travel agencies “Odysseus” or “Xenophon”, is pretty infelicitous too, while a Chimera – well, it is a fantasy shop.

No fellow-traveller of Odysseus returned home 

No one travelling with Odysseus survived

Its front part was a lion, its tail a snake, and in between a goat. 

“A lion, its waist a goat, its tail a snake”


Saint Simon fasted more frequently than anyone else 

Saint Simon fasted very often


14.000 mercenaries joined Xenophon; 6.000 returned





Counting gods

3 August 2009
The Aufanian Mothers (Rheinisches Landesmuseum, Bonn)

The Aufanian Mothers (Rheinisches Landesmuseum, Bonn)

In 1981, Ramsay MacMullen published his Paganism in the Roman Empire, a great book on, well, paganism in the Roman Empire. What I have never forgotten, is how the American scholar tried to investigate which gods were really popular. He used the indices of the Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum, counted the deities to which people had dedicated inscriptions, and discovered that people in, for example, North Africa venerated other gods than the people in Gaul and the German provinces.

This tedious labor must have taken lots of time. Today, we have digital archives and can do the same job in one evening, for example with this nice databank. I know this, because I checked some thirty deities, trying to zoom in a bit more than MacMullen has been able to. One of his categories was “Gaul & Germany”, and I needed to know whether there were differences between Germania Inferior and Gallia Belgica. I compared my results to Latium (minus Rome). Here are the results; the popularity of the deities is relative to Jupiter (=100).

Latium Germania Inf. Belgica
1 Mars 194 Matres 168 Mercurius 139
2 Venus 101 Jupiter 100 Mars 136
3 Jupiter 100 Nehalennia 67 Jupiter 100
4 Fortuna 92 Mercurius 43 Liber Pater 84
5 Hercules 71 Mars 37 Apollo 52
6 Silvanus 45 Hercules 34 Hercules 41
7 Diana 44 Fortuna 21 Sol/Mithras 37
8 Sol/Mithras 43 Juno 16 Matres 30
9 Victoria 40 Diana 16 Minerva 19
10 Cybele 36 Sol/Mithras 16 Diana 13
11 Juno 30 Apollo 11 Juno 13
12 Ceres 28 Minerva 11 Fortuna 8
13 Isis 25 Isis 8 Victoria 8
14 Mercurius 25 Silvanus 8 Venus 5
15 Apollo 24 Victoria 7 Silvanus 3

I had expected that Jupiter and Mars would be the only gods to make it to the top-5 everywhere, but there were a few surprises. In the first place, the relative unpopularity of Isis, Minerva, and Neptune. In the second place, the popularity of Mercurius and Liber Pater in Belgica, who must be “romanized” local gods. In the third place, I had not expected that Silvanus -extremely popular in Italy- was also pretty well-known in the north. In the fourth place, I had expected Cybele to rank high in Germania Inferior and Belgica, because she is well-known from representations (statuettes can be seen in any museum); but this popularity is not matched in the epigraphical record.

Finally, the people of Latium were “wide” polytheists, venerating many gods, while the people of the north concentrated on a few deities. This was the greatest surprise – I had never realized that there might have been various degrees of polytheism.

And of course, what MacMullen already knew remains valid when we zoom in on smaller geographical units: that book on ancient mythology you have, you can throw it away. Those twelve Olympic Gods were completely irrelevant.


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