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AURORA

Goddess of the Dawn

 

Like the pink and golden bands of this sandstone, Aurora (Greek Eos) is best known for her soft colours.

"Dawn's saffron-wheeled chariot" (Ovid, Metamorphosis 3).

Shyly blushing, like Arachne when worshipped by the nymphs and women of Lydia: "Yet she blushed; a sudden flush stole over her face in spite of herself and as suddenly faded, like the red glow of the sky when Dawn first glows just before the heavens begin to whiten with the sun's rising." (Ovid 6)

The "rosy-fingered dawn leaving the stream of Ocean makes her way up into the sky" (Hesiod, Theogony).

As Cephalus describes her, "She was fair to see, with her rosy lips, she was the queen of the borderland of night and day, she was nurtured on draughts of nectar." (Ovid 7)

aurora

sandstone

35 x 25 x 45cm

the myths of thwarted love

Like the dawn, whom this goddess personifies, Aurora, also known as Eos, lives her life in brief encounters, outshone and obliterated by the majestic Helios, whose golden chariot she heralds each morning.

Her fleeting, but eternally recurring beauty, is expressed through her sad and ill-fated love affairs. Her most famous tragic affair of the heart is with her own husband, Tithonous. Tithonous was a mortal, one of the leaders of the Ethiopians in the Trojan War. Falling hopelessly in love with him, Aurora begged Zeus to make him immortal. Her wish was granted, and for a time the lovers were deliriously happy, bearing a son, Memnon. But soon Aurora recognised her fatal mistake. She had pleaded for immortality, but not for eternal youth. Poor Tithonous, as a lesson to us all perhaps, inexorably ages. When his first grey hairs appear, Aurora rejects his caresses, and as he ages more and more, she confines him to a single, closed room until his cries diminish, but never cease. The myth writers eventually took pity on him and turned him into a grasshopper. The sad story of Aurora and Tithonous is beautifully told in Tennyson's poem "Tithonous", and the message best conveyed by the single line, "And after many a summer dies the swan."

Aurora's unrequited lovers include Cephalus, whose love she seeks through implanting doubt of his wife's fidelity. In this myth, she is a kind of female Iago, but for love, not the mere jealous will to destroy. The plot backfires on Aurora, and while she succeeds in a brief tryst, bearing a son, Phaëthon, the instigation of jealousy eventuates in Cephalus killing his wife, as did Othello. Cephalus laments his infidelity, "I should have never bedded with Eos!" (Graves, Greek Myths 89.j).

Aurora's other lost loves include Ganymede. This affair was brief and ended abruptly when Zeus took Ganymede for his own. She was mistress of Ares, God of War. But with Ares being the partner of jealous Aphrodite, this affair could not have lasted long. Aphrodite, perhaps to avenge this adultery, stole Aurora's infant son by Cephalus. Aurora fell in love with Orion, but the encounter was brief, and "Dawn still daily blushes to remember this indiscretion" (Myth of Orion as told by Robert Graves, Greek Myths 41.d.).

Not only did Aurora lose Phaëthon to Aphrodite, her son by Tithonous, Memnon, was killed in the Trojan War. Aurora shed tears of dew for her son, and she begged Zeus to alleviate her grief and grant honour to her dead son. He gave Memnon a kind of immortality as well as an annual festival. As the smoke from Memnon's funeral pyre obliterated the sun, sparks flew up to become two flocks of fighting birds, called the Memnonides. These birds fight and die eternally, as the sun moves through the zodiac, in honour of their father's festival. Aurora, "even now she weeps affectionate tears, and sprinkles them over the whole world" (Ovid 8).

the plight of a celestial goddess

In Ovid's account of Memnon's funeral and Aurora's grief, Aurora pleads with Zeus/Jupiter, declaring that although she is the least of the gods, having no temples of her own, she is still a goddess.

The myths characterise Aurora as a fleeting beauty, whose life is destined to be lived in the transient moments between the night's dark and the appearance of the sun. She lies with Orion, in the brief time in which this constellation appears at dawn. She brings the dew, tears for her many sorrows and losses. Her attempts to create a lasting and satisfying life for herself are doomed, for whatever stars or gods she shares her ephemeral space and time with, are stolen, die, or move on to longer-lasting relationships. She either heralds the sun god who eclipses her or gives birth to a sun-god, Phaëthon, who is at once the son of Helios and of Cephalus. But the greater gods take him away, and he is eventually destroyed by Zeus as he careers his father's chariot out of control. She is constantly thwarted by the sun, who arrives to bleach out her delicate, rosy beauty. The next day, the stars she shared her short time with, no longer appear in the early morning sky, and new ones take their place. Even when she succeeds in immortalising Tithonous, the fleeting nature of her existence becomes Tithonous' fleeting youth.

Like Buddhism, in its reverence for the briefly full moon and the short-lived cherry blossoms, Greek religion acknowledged the eternal passing away, best expressed by the myths surrounding Aurora. Unlike Buddhism, the Greeks pitted the ephemeral against the eternal, and in so doing, tortured rather than exalted life's fleeting, yet eternally recurring, loveliness.

the sculpture

Perhaps the more appropriate material for a sculpture commemorating Aurora would be ice, which melts with the heat of the risen sun. However, the sculpture would not survive to reappear again, so delicately coloured pink and golden sandstone, with its undulating waves of colour here grace the winged face of the eternally born dawn.

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23/06/03 jr