Not long ago my friend Mario took me for a drive on his stupendous vintage Lancia Flavia 1500. Although now living in Rome Mario is from Naples, one of the biggest towns of the Italian Mezzogiorno, and he is so proud of his gioiello (jewel) which he seems to care for more than he does for his wife and children.

The trip had been great, the green and smiling countryside north of Rome had shown so sunny and refreshing, and our glowing Lancia had well behaved so far despite its age (1960).

On the way back to Rome along the via Flaminia I exclaimed merrily:

Diavolo, this car is a gem, it has rolled as smoothly as olive oil and we didn’t have any problem during the whole drive.”

Mario snapped with a worried look:

Zitto zitto non lo dire! (hush! hush! don’t you say that!).” He didn’t add much but I knew what he meant:

“Oh you shut the hell up! Do you want the car to break down? Do you want anything bad to happen to us?” as if the mere utterance of happiness would attract us ill luck or the envy from someone.

Well, the envy from whom?

Ψ

A good answer is provided by the modern Greek writer Nikos Kazantzakis. When he was very young he once went travelling all over Italy. When he got to Florence (see image above) he felt so happy in front of all those palaces, statues and paintings that he felt that the rights of the humans were somewhat overstepped. As a young and superstitious provincial – he writes in his autobiography – he was terror-stricken for “as I well knew, the gods are envious creatures, and it is hubris to be happy and to know that you are happy.”

So, in order to counterbalance such blissful state of mind, he bought a pair of narrow shoes he wore in the morning and which made him miserable and “hopping about like a crow.” He then changed shoes in the afternoon so he could walk weightlessly and thus vent all his joy. He strode along the banks of the Arno river, he went up to San Miniato etc. but the next morning he went back to his narrow shoes (and to his misery again).

Ψ

More than 23 centuries before Kazantzakis’s trip to Italy, the Greek Herodotus, the first historian of the Western world, wrote about a man extremely fortunate who got everything from life and who was tyrant of Samos, a beautiful island of the Greek archipelago (see a picture by Nasa above). His name was Polycrates and he was so fortunate and his wealth and power so great that one day his friend Amasis, pharaoh of Egypt, wrote him a letter saying:

“Beware Polycrates: such fortune being not allowed to humans, get rid of whatever is most precious and dear to you in order to escape from gods’ wrath.”

Hit by fear and understanding that the pharaoh’s suggestion was wise Polycrates began reflecting on the things he possessed that were the most beautiful, precious and dear to him and among them he chose a stupendous ring with an emerald set in gold he was always wearing day and night. He then went on board of a ship and ordered the sailors put out into the open sea. Once far away from his island he took the ring from his finger and threw it away into the deep.

What happened is that some time afterwards a fisherman caught such a big fish he thought it deserved to be given as a present to the Lord of Samos. He thus brought the fish to the palace and when the servants cut the fish open they saw it contained a beautiful ring and brought it to the tyrant.

Polycrates much to his horror recognizing the ring finally understood that the envious gods had something in store for him.

After a few years he was captured with guile by the Persian governor of Sardis, Oroetes.

His life had been happy and glorious. Ignominious and horrible happened to be his death. Oroetes had him impaled and then crucified.

PS
The next post, Knowing Thyself, connects the three episodes and provides the reader with some explanation regarding Greek gods’ envy.

21 thoughts on “Gods are Watching with an Envious Eye

  1. @man of Roma

    A very well written post… extremely descriptive..(even by ur standards- and that’s a compliment)
    but since most of ur post are highly educating….I fail to understand the purpose of the post!

    What does it mean…That even if we are having a good life which is more often than not, we should add misery to it…Won’t that be an insult to so called GoD who has chosen to bestow us the pleasures..even though it may be for a short while…

    And even if we assume that this is the best way to keep us from wrath of God..Is something Who is so envious worth being cared for and much lesser prayed or revered?

    What does this philosopher who is among the greatest thinkers…wish to imply by such theories?

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  2. @Falcon
    I fail to understand the purpose of the post!
    I can understand that to a person from the Far East… plus I do not always provide clues. I will try tomorrow to explain this … Greek thing of the envious gods. Ciao and thanks for popping in.

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  3. I find it strange how Italians, for all their religion, are so superstitious. And your post shows how not much has changed in all these years.

    Now, why would the God(s) not want men to be happy? Surely that is the reason for living? And, if you achieve happiness and, especially if you have worked for it, then you deserve it.

    p.s. I’m sure it’s not just Italians. I know of some English people who are superstitious too, but not so many nor quite SO superstitious. Maybe the Spanish and Greeks are the same?

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  4. For my part, I believe this to be an illustration of human behaviour. Superstition…

    For it illustrates the fact that humans in general are never content with what they have, and if by some chance they do get what they want, they aren’t happy for fear of losing it. Having is “too much” so rather than enjoy it, they fear for something to take it away from them, Not having is “too less”… in which rather than be happy with what you have, you rue that you do not have what you want.

    But I would really be interested to hear the “Greek thing of the envious gods.” 🙂

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  5. @Falcon
    @Andy
    @Ashish

    I won’t be brief I’m afraid. Hope it will make sense to you.

    All three episodes contain an example of the Greek fear in gods’ envy. They also show that in some parts of Italy, especially in the south, people’s minds can still contain elements of the antique Greek and Roman mind. This happens also in modern Greece, of course (episode of Kazantzakis). I have presented a survival of the Greek fear in gods’ envy only, but other elements and traces also survive: in behaviours, funerals, traditions, philosophical conceptions, artifacts still used etc.

    (Btw, is this fear a superstition? Probably, but superstition after all is an irrational belief, so I wouldn’t oppose religion and superstition, they appearing to me to be the same)

    Falcon: “Is something Who is so envious worth being cared for..”.
    Andy: “why would the God(s) not want men to be happy?”.
    Ashish: “I would really be interested to hear the Greek thing…”.

    I know this envy seems only negative. Men shouldn’t be too happy – the Greeks believed – since gods only are always happy hence they humble men who are too fortunate. The positive thing underlying all this was it lead to a common people’s wisdom, kind of a tendency towards a moderate life (in a good way). For the upper classes, it was also a matter of style, of behaving without ostentation, vulgarity or arrogance. There was some arrogance in Polycrates’ life. So he died a terrible death. This is somewhat a lesson. When Greece began its decadence someone wrote: “modesty and virtue are now powerless, lawlessness rules and men do not strive any more against god’s envy”.

    In other words, this fear of gods’ envy was like a regulation valve. It helped, together with other elements, to develop temperance and the good style in life. Classic Greece was a civilization based on an admirable equilibrium. The golden mean. Here we are again.

    Another point is that Greek ancient gods were amoral and whimsical. They didn’t care much about good and evil. Weirdly enough this had a good effect as well. Men couldn’t count on gods’ help so they made their own destiny and had to believe in their worth, while modern Western man thinks he is corrupted and a sinner from the beginning (Eve’s apple etc.) and he needs God’s help.

    One last point is that men were not striving to be good because they expected a reward from god(s). Given these amoral gods, when they were good it was because they believed in humanity.

    PS
    If I understood what Ashish says, he talks of this sort of regulation 🙂 (I’ll reply to you better, your reasoning is complex)
    Andy: I find it strange how Italians, for all their religion, are so superstitious.
    It’s because they were civilized long before Christianity arrived. So they are still pagan a bit even though they captained the spread of the Christian religion. Hard to understand, I know, but it is true. Not sure the switch to Christianity was such a big progress. Think only of the intolerance, sexphobia and fanaticism …the Greco-Romans were much more open-minded.

    PPS
    The Italian South is still developing. Hence it contains more than elsewhere precious elements of our ancient culture. In short it is like a museum. I would add every man’s mind, no matter where it comes from, is like a museum, since it contains almost infinite traces of past conceptions – from Stone Age onwards – though without an inventory. Magister said we should make such an inventory. To criticise our mind – he said – is to make such an inventory, and knowing thyself, a Socratic principle, is still valid today.

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  6. If I understood what Ashish says, he talks of this sort of regulation
    If I understood what I said I’d already have conquered the world. 😛 Although the gist of my comment was generally “Man is unhappy with what he has.” Sorta… 😀

    Oh and like the commentator, my brother who’s sitting beside me says “What a Car!”. He’s nuts about cars. 😉

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  7. @Ashish
    Ah ah ah, well, if India continues with this trend and conquers the world, maybe they’ll make you WMRM, World Ministry of Rock Music… 🙂

    PS
    The real good old Lancias were miracles. And yes, it is difficult for man to accept what he has…

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  8. Yes, I pathetically dabble in fiction. I don’t promote the site. Incidentally, I am slowly starting a blog dedicated to all things Italian. I would love some input. Not sure how I want to approach it!

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  9. @exporsip
    I am slowly starting a blog dedicated to all things Italian.

    It seems a great idea, provided you are motivated. Dunno ..one might start trying to define a target. Explaining all things Italian to American Italians? To anybody interested? All things American-Italian (Canada and US, and maybe, why not, Argentina etc.) to Italians from Italy who thru you & common ethnicity could gain a better grasp of the New World? I’d be interested in this last thing, plus you’d start from your direct experience, which is always good, but since I am one of the few people in this country to have a good-enough knowledge of English lol, your blog should be in Italian. And so on.
    We can continue to talk about this in my and your blog(s), if you like.

    Like

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