Denny's of the Godsbyunpredictablebijou©
Directly off the Broadway exit on I-35 in downtown Kansas City is a dilapidated Denny's restaurant which sits in the middle of the highrise business district like a bewildered tourist.
The phenomenon that sets this Denny's apart from its pedestrian counterparts is not readily apparent. Only the keen-eyed and classically educated are truly aware of the nature of this amazing shrine. For this Denny's is staffed mainly by deities, those unemployed and obsolete gods who can no longer get jobs in their chosen profession.
It would be well to insert a short theoretical exposition before going any further. Deities have always been, above all, functional. Though powerful when provided with the momentum of a societal belief, deities can become obsolete when the society finds a less mystical explanation for the phenomena with which these gods have been associated. A society, for example, which develops a system of dams and lees to control yearly flooding has little need then for its former devotion to the river's patron deity.
The injustice of creating an immortal being who must because of human evolution find Him- or Herself obsolete and unemployed after only a few hundred years has never been lost on this writer. Most deities are barely past relative childhood when They discover that the societies which once held Them sacred are moving on to new gods. These expatriate immortals are then faced with an eternal life of agonizing boredom. For this reason, it was encouraging to have discovered one place (and let us devoutly hope that this is not the only place) where superfluous deities are again able to function as useful members of society.
Mere mortals who work for wages like those paid at most Denny's are understandably unhappy in their jobs. However, immortals, who have no worries about living expenses, are free to pursue the careers which please them, without thought for practicality. It is not pay, then, but function which makes this new, liberal hiring practice so commendable.
Our waitress for example, an enormous, coal-black woman with a perfectly circular face and a bosom so ample one is tempted to rest one's head there as She takes your order, was clearly having a wonderful time as She balanced plates along both arms, brought us extra mayonnaise and pressed us lovingly to have cup after cup of Her seemingly endless supply of coffee.
Actually, the enormous abundance of coffee was our first indication that this was no mere mortal who refilled our mugs. Grimal's Dictionary of Classical Mythology describes Cybele, the Magna Mater, as the embodiment of plenty and abundance: "governing the whole of nature...the personification of growth itself". (Grimal, p. 118) We recognized Her immediately.
Cybele has also been known as Rheia and Ops, (Hamilton, p. 65) and (Virgil, Glossary). Rheia, an ancient Roman earth and fertility divinity (Grimal, p. 403), is described in Hesiod's Theogony as the daughter of Gaia, the Earth, and Ouranos. (Hesiod, line 470) Married to Kronos (Saturn), she bore him several children, which he immediately swallowed, having been informed that he was to be conquered by his son. (Hesiod, lines 463-64) However, Rheia saved Her youngest son, Zeus, by giving Kronos a stone wrapped in swaddling clothes and hiding Zeus in a cave on Mount Aigaion (Ibid, 482-87).
Rhea was worshipped in Rome as Ops, consort of Saturn, and Her festival was held two days after the Saturnalia. (Morford - Lenardon, p.472) Ops, an agrarian goddess of plenty, was an important figure in the Roman pantheon, and had a temple on the Capitol (Grimal, p. 328).
As Cybele, known as the Magna Mater, Her worship was brought to Rome from Phrygia through a prophecy of the Sibylline Books during the time of the Second Punic Wars, around 205 B.C. (Morford-Lenardon, p. 485). It is conjectured that Cybele and Rheia may have become synonymous because both forms of worship involved a great deal of noisemaking and clashing of cymbals and drums. (Morford-_ _Lenardon, p. 122) Lucretius compares the two in De Rerum Natura, when in his discussion of Cybele's noisy worshippers, he remarks:
They remind us of the storied ones in Crete
Who hid the crying of the infant Jove
Under their uproar, boys around a boy
Swift dancing, clashing arms in shock and beat
So father Saturn could not catch and eat him
Wounding his mother's heart.
De Rerum Natura , lns. 633-38
Perhaps the clashing of plates, pots and pans and the blaring radio in the back kitchen were the closest Rheia could come to finding worshippers like those of ancient Rome. As Corybantes, the hairnetted and concert-T-shirted young men in the dish crew lacked devotion, but their love of sheer noise may have encouraged her to believe that they could be retrained and replace their soup pots and dinner plates with cymbals and drums.
Rheia's rites are also compared with those of the Bacchantes (Euripides, ln. 78), because Rheia's devotees, the Corybantes, danced as the Bacchantes did, with wild abandon and accompanied by a drum and cymbal. In fact, Rheia's drum was later taken by satyrs and used at the Bacchanalia. (Euripides, lines 120-130)
The fact that The Great Mother herself poured the coffee was enough to send us back for a second visit. That night we encountered a young, handsome blond waiter who seemed to take a particular interest in any customer who looked even vaguely female. He served behind the counter, and often looked longingly toward the bottles of Miller and Miller Lite displayed in the pie case. This was our first clue to His identity. Bacchus, the god of wine, also known as Lyaeus, Liber, and Dionysus (Virgil, Glossary) seemed an obvious choice for work in the food service industry.
Euripides also gives Bacchus the names Bromius and Evius and he is described as being "of soft, even effeminate, appearance. His face is beardless...his long blond curls ripple down over his shoulders." (Euripides, from Act I setting).
We wondered how it was He managed to disguise His renowned debauchery and alcoholic tendencies long enough to get the job, and were curious about the absence of His famous horns; however, Ovid describes Bacchus in a similar form in the Metamorphoses:
He is young, this god,
A boy forever, fairest in the Heaven,
Virginal, when he comes before the people
With the horns laid off his forehead
Ovid, IV, 15-19
A virginal Bacchus was the last thing any of us expected, but the gods -- even mundanely employed ones -- may certainly take any form they wish.
Bacchus' history certainly leads one to believe that He would be ultimately happy in food service, since His primary association has been with feasting and celebrations, and particularly with wine. Brewer suggests that Bacchus' association with the Greek god of wine, Dionysus, stems from the fact that the name is a corruption of the Greek word Iacchus, from Iache, "a shout", and was originally merely an epithet of Dionysus as a "noisy and rowdy god". (Brewer, p. 64) The two deities are essentially identical, and some indication of Bacchus' rather vengeful character is given in two of the main legends told of Him.
In His encounter with Pentheus, for example, told in Euripides' tragedy, The Bacchae, he severely punishes his birthplace, Thebes, which will not accept him as a deity. Pentheus, Thebes' young King, is the most irreverent of the citizens; he jails the worshipping Bacchantes and even attempts to jail Dionysus himself. For this, he is ultimately torn to pieces by his own mother and sisters, who are deep in a Dionysian frenzy and do not recognize him.
In the Iliad, another example is given of Bacchus' frequent run-ins with mortals who refuse to accept his divinity. Lykourgos, a rather vicious unbeliever, drove the Bacchantes off of the sacred hill where they were holding their Bacchic rites, and Dionysus himself was driven to jump into the sea, where Thetis received and comforted him. For this, Lykourgos was blinded by Zeus, and, as Homer states rather tersely, "did not live long after that." (VI, 130-140) These frequent conflicts regarding Bacchus' legitimacy symbolized much more than a warning against fighting with the gods, as the story is introduced in the Iliad.
Bacchus in particular was a controversial deity because his worship seemed entirely too debauched to be truly pious. This was especially a problem when his cult reached the conservative culture of early Rome. The Bacchanalia involved "tumultuous processions in which the spirits of earth and of fecundity appeared, their likenesses evoked by masks" (Grimal, p. 140). Obviously, this sort of debauchery did not go over well with staid and moral Romans, and when Dionysian worship took hold in Italy in the second century B.C., many of the more conservative Romans were quite alarmed.
In 186 B.C., the Roman Senate forbade the Bacchanalia; however, secret Dionysian cults continued to exist, and it is speculated that "Caesar authorized the Bacchic ceremonies once and Dionysus still played an important part in the religion of the Imperial Age" (Ibid., p. 140).
While Bacchus may have been portrayed as rather vengeful, his role was also one of reconciliation and friendship. It is he who empowers wine to make dear friends out of those who, sober, would be enemies:
Bacchus (Dionysus), the god of wine... represents not only the intoxicating power of wine, but its social and benificent influences likewise, so that he is viewed as the promoter of civilization.
Bulfinch, p. 38
It was in this role and in the role of a releaser of inhibitions that Bacchus was worshipped in Rome, in the Bacchanalia.
Keeping in mind Bacchus' vengeful and easily insulted side, we made sure to drink a great deal of Miller Lite that evening and left an especially large tip.
As we suspected, our next visit found us face to face with yet another deity. Pomona, goddess of orchards and fertility, was six months pregnant (one wonders - by man or god?) and cheerfully apple-cheeked. She upheld Her reputation for a fondness for "amorous adventures" (Grimal, 387) by making a decisive pass at my companion.
One does not turn down a goddess' advances casually. According to Ovid, a certain King Picus once turned down the advances of the witch Circe and was for his choice turned into a woodpecker. (Book 14, lines 383-93) I worried lest Pomona become embittered by a rejection and remember the examples of numerous spurned goddesses and sorceresses, but She seemed content with mere flirtation and we were released in our original forms. There is, we realized, a certain risk in associating this closely with deities, obsolete or no. Woe be to the impatient mortal manager who chides Bacchus for dallying too long at the table of an attractive customer, or urges Rheia to be less plentiful with the free refills of coffee!
As we left, Pomona pressed into our hands two red lollipops; modern talismans from a goddess who has obviously adjusted well to modern life.
Since then we have returned to the restaurant several times, encountering several other seemingly content deities. At our most recent visit we were waited on by a soft-spoken, gentle Being who looked to be in his early 30's. He seemed so very happy to serve us that we suspected that any minute he would kneel down and wash our feet. Our suspicions were confirmed when, as He placed our french toast on the table, He smiled and mumbled something very softly under his breath. He wouldn't repeat Himself when asked, but later we agreed that it sounded very much like "this is my body..."
Brewer, E. Cobham. Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. New York: Harper and Row, 1959.
Bulfinch, Thomas. The Age of Fable. New York: New American Library, 1962
Euripides. The Bacchae. Trans. William Arrowsmith, Editors David Grene and Richmond Lattimore. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1959.
Grimal, Pierre. The Dictionary of Classical Mythology. Paris: Presses Universitaire de France, 1951.
Hamilton, Edith. Mythology. New York: New American Library, 1942.
Hesiod. Theogony. Trans. Richmond Lattimore. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1959.
Homer. The Homeric Hymns. Trans. Charles Boer. Chicago: The Swallow Press, 1970.
Homer. The Iliad. Trans. Richmond Lattimore. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951.
Lucretius. De Rerum Natura. Trans. Rolfe Humphries. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1968.
Ovid. Metamorphoses. Trans. Rolfe Humphries. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1958.
Morford, Mark and Lenardon, Robert. Classical Mythology. (Third Edition) New York: Longman, Inc., 1985.
Seznec, Jean. The Survival of the Pagan Gods. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1961.
Virgil. The Aeneid. Trans. Allen Mandelbaum. New York: Bantam Books, 1985.