In my family, freckles were called ‘angel kisses.’ A fairy took your discharged baby tooth and left a prize in its place (we got a coin.) Uncle’s hair turns gray overnight: he’d seen a ghost. Birth marks were signs of deity contagion. At the same time, we were practicing Catholics, so we were touched by God during communion…actually, we ate that God, a god who denied the legitimacy of the other, folksy pagan gods (of course), but we included them in our milieu anyway. It was fun. It made us feel important, connected to the unseen, and to traditions.
And, the more powerful the god, the more potent were the consequences of contact. Finding a tooth underneath your pillowcase while you slept, the tooth fairy only bestowed a small reward; connecting with the devil brought you earthly power and material benefit, but would cost you your soul. The eating of Jesus’s body cleansed you of all sin, in time leading to your eternal salvation. An angel’s visit brought consolation and guidance; a succubus or incubus’s visit (sex while you dreamed) brought madness or consumption. On and on goes the duality, good being and bad, each with their corresponding consequence.
When a metaphysical force comes into direct contact with a physical being, things happen. What happens may perhaps be a discrete mystical encounter—such as an epiphany—that changes one’s outlook pointedly. It could be suggested that that encounter doesn’t end really, and isn’t isolated, because the remaining alteration of the recipient’s perspective on all phenomena doesn’t return to its previous state. The rapture subsides, the perspective lingers. The consequence, then, can be, more or less, enduring. Then too it might not be positive. In certain mental modalities, such an encounter could cause a schizophrenic split, and trigger a series of negative turns in that person’s life.
What changes when a mortal human comes into direct contact with a deity? It’s a commonly recurring theme in myth and religion. In fact, mythology traced as far back as ancient Mesopotamia contains numerous episodes of such human/divine contact. Generally speaking, both parties benefit from it. However, sometimes there are negative effects, and when there are, they attend to the human being. The quality of the effects of the encounter is generally determined by the quality of the encounter itself; ie: good intentions = good outcome, selfish/devious intentions = bad outcome (for the human). However, in Ancient Greece the gods are human-like and enjoy playing with mortals, so innocents are not infrequently victimized by them. Sometimes, similar to a blood curse, the doom may sustain for a long time, capturing descendants and even generations in its net.
In Esoteric circles there is a potent method for humans to come crashing into contact with the divine; it is reached during the approach and climax of sexual union. Yeats himself practiced this with his spiritualist wife, and used it in developing their other mystical theories. In this manner a prepared adept may experience an enveloping rapture and, using the power of sensual/mystical synthesis, expand and ‘know’ the mind of the universe. This is important when studying Yeats because he hints at it often in the later poems.
So the question arises: what if the moment of physical/metaphysical climax comes not during intimate voluntary coupling, but rather, amidst a negative encounter: say, during violent force and sexual abandon. And further, for the sake of intensity: what if one of the parties was, himself, a deity? Such an example is provided, of course, by the ancient Greeks. And Yeats uses that very myth to express many things, including the mystery of erotic epiphany.
There are numerous approaches to analyzing Yeats’s Leda and the Swan. It is one of the poet’s most famous and critically admired works. I won’t be going through all of the myriad interpretations it provokes; a google search will bring pages and pages of wonderful scholarly analysis. Instead, I urge you to read the poem with my introductory paragraphs in mind; note especially the concluding two lines. First though, a brief synopsis for those who are unfamiliar with the myth:
The principal God of the Greek pantheon, Zeus, assuming the form of a swan, sexually assaults the beautiful Queen, Leda, wife of King Tyndareus of Sparta. The children produced from that rape are four: the boys Castor and Pollux, and the girls Helen and Clytemnestra. Clytemnestra marries King Agamemnon of Mycenae, whom she then murders upon his return from the Trojan War. Helen marries Menelaus, Agamemnon’s brother, and through the marriage he later becomes King of Sparta after the death of Tyndareus. Helen soon abandons her husband to accompany Paris back to his home of Troy, and so lights the fuse of the Trojan War. Thus the two sisters would play major roles impacting the history and culture of Ancient Greece and the West, but their roles would encompass the deaths of warriors and innocents alike, the rape of a great city, and the murder of kings.
Here then is the 1923 Petrarchan sonnet by W.B. Yeats:
Leda and the Swan
A sudden blow: the great wings beating still
above the staggering girl, her thighs caressed
by the dark webs, her nape caught in his bill,
he holds her helpless breast upon his breast.
How can those terrified vague fingers push
the feathered glory from her loosening thighs?
And how can body, laid in that white rush,
but feel the strange heart beating where it lies?
A shudder in the loins engenders there
the broken wall, the burning roof and tower
and Agamemnon dead.
Being so caught up,
so mastered by the brute blood of the air,
did she put on his knowledge with his power
before the indifferent beak could let her drop?