Fame, defamation, infamy … Gossip and Rumor
I’m preparing once again to travel to Prague, to explore the Dark Goddesses. It struck me, that as women, we often like to reclaim the power of the great dark goddess, the ones who stand at the gates of life and death. That is indeed the focus on my workshop. This year, Kali, Lillith, Hecate, and Erishkegal all have a place. But what of the lesser goddesses or daemons or spirits, who may not be as easy to own or to reclaim? What of those whose actions seem mean and small-hearted? Do we want to acknowledge their energy? Can we learn from them too?
A friend of mine (who I’ll refer to as Ann) told me recently of an experience she has had with another woman, a professional in the same field as she works. When they meet, the interactions are courteous if a little distant. Ann has given up attempting to befriend this person as all overtures have been ignored or misconstrued in some way. But they occasionally meet, as people in the same field do, and maintain a professional relationship, or so Ann believed.
Recently, it came to Ann’s attention that the other woman has been subtly undermining her and her work. She doesn’t do it obviously but in side conversations and with people who this woman seemingly believes will not tell Ann what is being said. Of course, secrets don’t stay secret and descriptions of what has been said have filtered back. Rumor, it seems, works in both directions.
The situation above is indeed one with which many of us are somewhat familiar. We may know a person like that, who seems to feel threatened by another and whose recourse is to defame the person they feel threatened by. I know of another friend who lost her job because of such machinations: a subtle campaign of discontent and undermining by a person in her office led to her dismissal. Indeed, we may also know that place in ourselves where something negative seems easier to say or pass on, rather than holding quiet and wondering about the injury which fuels the emotions that drive us and encourages us to speak in this way.
We worship the (god)desses by embodying their behaviors and Fama, the Roman goddess of rumor and gossip seems to have many worshippers. It is from her name that words like infamy, defamation as well as fame and famous have their roots.
Virgil in his Aeneid describes Fama as being initially small and fearful, but then she grows larger and stronger until she fills the sky, standing with her head hidden by storm clouds. He calls her a “dreadful monster” who never sleeps, and who has swift feet and great wings on which she flies, spreading rumor and malice. Virgil’s description of her is impressive: at the base of every feather is an eye, an ear, and a mouth, which Fama uses to see, hear, and then disperse her rumors, slander, and outright lies.
This imagery seems apt as a description of the damage that gossip can do. It may begin small, but it can grow and take up much more space (and do more damage) than originally intended. The imagery also draws our attention to what might fuel negative words i.e. feeling small and fearful. Fama stands with her head in the storm clouds, presumably blinded and deafened to what is happening on the earth below. Her head is literally in the clouds, disconnected from the harm she is doing. Or, perhaps, she is delighting in her power, absorbed in and thrilled by the storm she has created. It must feel better than being small and fearful.
Virgil’s description of her is similar to Homer’s description of Eris, the goddess of strife and discontent, in the Illiad. In Greek myth, Pheme or Ossa (Rumor) is the most common Greek goddess equated with Fama. But I think it is worth paying attention to the similarity in visual imagery between Eris and Fama, as a way to remind us of the destruction that can result from the simple act of gossip, and the spreading of verbal discontent:
Homer, Iliad 4. 441 ff (trans. Lattimore) (Greek epic C8th B.C.) :
“…. and Eris (Hate) whose wrath is relentless, she is the sister and companion of murderous Ares, she who is only a little thing at the first, but thereafter grows until she strides on the earth with her head striking heaven. She then hurled down bitterness equally between both sides as she walked through the onslaught making men’s pain heavier.”
Perhaps the similarity in description speaks to the idea that both of these negative impulses, to gossip or spread rumor, and to cause bitterness and destruction, are rooted in the places we feel small, belittled or fearful. Eris was the instigator of the actions that led to the Trojan War because she wasn’t invited to a wedding. The stories can be read as a warning to pay attention to those places in ourselves and to heal them before we, too, increase bitterness and make human pain heavier!
Ovid also gives us some apt imagery in connection with Fama. According to Ovid in his Metamorphoses, Fama lives at the center of the world, where earth, sea, and sky meet; from there she can see and hear everything that goes on in the world. Her home is built on a tall peak and has no doors. Instead, her house has a thousand windows and is made entirely of bronze, so that the slightest noise or whisper echoes and reverberates throughout the world.
How accurate all this imagery remains today, especially in the world of the internet and troll farms. The slightest piece of gossip flies around the world with an ease never previously encountered. Indeed, in these days of cloud servers, it could be said that Fama’s cloud has taken on a substance like never before. What is said or recorded or written lives on to be repeated over and over again.
As a final note, I’ll return to the Greeks and to Hesiod, whose words on Pheme, the Greek equivalent of Fama, are worth heeding today, 2700 years after they were first written:
“Do as I tell you and keep away from the gossip of people. For Pheme (Rumor) is an evil thing, by nature, she’s a lightweight to lift up, oh very easy, but heavy to carry, and hard to put down again. Pheme (Rumour) never disappears entirely once many people have talked her big. In fact, she really is some sort of goddess.”
Hesiod, Works and Days 760 ff (trans. Evelyn-White) (Greek epic C8th or C7th B.C.)