Neal Stephenson

This passage comes toward the end of the novel. It is somewhat long so I recommend that you print it out. The set up: Randy Waterhouse and Enoch Root discuss Greek mythology. In particular why Enoch's amulet for the Societas Eruditorium has Athena on it.

   "So what's your explanation of how I recognized you?"

   "I would argue that inside your mind was some pattern of neurological activity that was not there before you exchanged e-mail with me. The Root Representation. It is not me. I'm this big slug of carbon and oxygen and some other stuff on this cot right next to you. The Root Rep, by contrast, is the think that you'll carry around in your brain for the rest of your life, barring some kind of major neurological insult, that your mind uses to represent me. When you think about me, in other words, you're not thinking about me qua this big slug of carbon, you are thinking about the Root Rep. Indeed, some day you might get released from jail and run into someone who would say, 'You know, I was in the Philippines once, running around in boondocks, and I ran into this old fart who started talking to me about Root Reps.' And by exchanging notes (as it were) with this fellow you would be able to establish beyond a reasonable doubt that the Root Rep in your brain and the Root Rep in his brain were generated by the same actual slug of carbon and oxygen and so on: me."

   "And this has something to do, again, with Athena?"

   "If you think of the Greek gods as real supernatural beings who lived on Mount Olympus, no. But if you think of them as being in the same class of entities as the Root Rep, which is to say, patterns of neurological activity that the mind uses to represent things that it sees, or thinks it sees, in the outside world, then yes. Suddenly, Greek gods can be just as interesting and relevant as real people. Why? Because, in the same way that you might one day encounter another person with his own Root Rep so, if you were to have a conversation with an ancient Greek person, and he started talking about Zeus, you might - once you got over your initial feelings of superiority -discover that you had some mental representations inside your own mind that, though you didn't name them Zeus and didn't think of them as a big hairy thunderbolt-hurdling son of a Titan, nonetheless had been generated as a result of your interaction with entities in the outside world that are the same as the ones that cause the Zeus Representation to appear in the Greek's mind. And here we could talk about the Plato Cave thing for a while - the Veg-O-Matic of metaphors - it slices! It dices!"

   "In which," Randy says, "the actual entities in the real world are the three-dimensional, real things that are casting the shadows, this Greek dude and I are the wretches chained up looking as the shadows of those things on the walls, and it's just the shape of the wall in from of me is different from the shape of the wall in front of the Grecian -"

   "- so that given a shadow projected on your wall is going to adopt a different shape from the same shadow projected on his wall, where the different wall-shapes here correspond to let's say your modern scientific worldview versus his ancient pagan worldview."

    "Yeah. That Plato's Cave metaphor."

   At this very moment some wag of a prison guard, out in the corridor, throws a switch that shuts off all the lights. The only illumination now comes from the screensaver on Randy's laptop, which is running animation of colliding galaxies.

   "I think we can stipulate that the wall in front of you, Randy, is considerably flatter and smoother, i.e. it generally gives you a much more accurate shadow than his wall, and yet it's clear he's capable of seeing the same shadows and probably drawing some useful conclusions about the shapes of the things that cast them."

   "Okay. So the Athena that you honor on your medallion isn't a supernatural being -"

   "-who lives on a mountain in Greece, et cetera, but rather whatever entity, pattern, trend, what-have-you that, when perceived by ancient Greek people, and filtered through their perceptual machinery and their pagan worldview, produced the internal mental representation that they dubbed Athena. The distinction being important because Athena-the supernatural-chick-with-the-helmet is of course nonexistent, but 'Athena' the external-generator-of-the-internal-representation-dubbed-Athena-by-the-ancient-Greeks must have existed back then, or if she existed back then, the chances are excellent that she exists now, and if all that is the case, then whatever ideas the ancient Greeks (who, though utter shitheads in many ways, were terrifyingly intelligent people) had about her are probably quite valid."

   "Okay, but why Athena and not Demeter or someone?"

   "Well, it's a truism that you can't understand a person without knowing something about her family background, and so we have to do kind of a quick Cliff's Notes number on the ancient Greek Theogony here. We start out with Chaos, which is where all theogonies start, and which I like to think of as a sea of white noise - totally random broadband static. And for reasons that we don't really understand, certain polarities begin to coalesce from this - Day, Night, Darkness, Light, Earth, Sea,. Personally, I like to think of these as crystals - not in the hippy-dippy California sense, but in the hardass technical sense of resonators, that received certain channels buried in the static of Chaos. At some point, out of certain incestuous couplings among such entities, you get Titans. And it's arguably kind of interesting to note that the Titans provide really the full compliment of basic gods - you've got the sun god, Hyperion, and the ocean god, Oceanus, and so on. But they all get overthrown in a power struggle called the Titanmachia and replaced with new gods like Apollo and Poseidon, who end up filling the same slots in the organizational chart, as it were. Which is kind of interesting in that it seems to tie in with the what I was saying about the same entities or patterns persisting through time, but casting slightly different shaped shadows for different people. Anyway, so now we have the Gods of Olympus as we normally think of them: Zeus, Hera and so on.
   "A couple of basic observations about these: first, they all, with one exception I'll get to soon, were produced by some kind of sexual coupling, either Titan-Titaness or God-Goddess or God-Nymph or God-Woman or basically Zeus and whom- or whatever Zeus was fucking on any particular day. Which brings me to the second basic observation, which is that the Gods of Olympus are the most squalid and dysfunctional family imaginable. And yet there is something about the motley asymmetry of this pantheon that makes it more credible. Like the Periodic Table of the Elements or the family tree of the elementary particles, or just about any anatomical structure that you might pull up out of a cadaver, it has enough pattern to give our minds something to work on and yet irregularity that indicates some kind of organic providence - you have a sun god and a moon goddess, for example, which is all clean and symmetrical , and yet over here you have Hera, who has no role whatsoever except to be a literal bitch goddess, and then there is Dionysus who isn't even fully a god - he's half human - but he gets to be in the Pantheon anyway and sit on Olympus with the Gods, as if you went to the Supreme Court and found Bozo the Clown planted among the justices.
   "Now what I am getting to here is that Athena was exceptional in every way. To begin with she wasn't created through sexual reproduction in any kind of normal sense; she sprang fully-formed from the head of Zeus. According to some versions of the story, this happened after Zeus fucked Metis, about whom we'll hear more in due course. Then he was warned that Metis would later give birth to a son who would dethrone him, and so he ate her, and later Athena came out of his head. Whether you buy into Metis story or not, I think we still agree that something peculiar was going on with the nativity of Athena. She was also exceptional in that she did not participate in the moral squalor of Olympus; she was a virgin."

   "Aha! I knew that was a picture of a virgin on your medallion."

"Yes, Randy, you do habea keen eye for virgins. Hephaestus leg-fucked her once but did not achieve penetration. She's quite important in the Odyssey, but there are really few myths, in the usual sense of that term, that involve her. The one exception really proves the rule: the story of Artachne. Arachne was a superb weaver who became arrogant and began taking credit herself, instead of attributing her talent to the gods. Arachne went so far as to issue an open challenge to Athena, who was the goddess of weaving, among other things.
   "Now keep in mind that the typical Greek myth goes something like this: innocent shepherd boy is minding his own business, an overflying god spies him and gets a hard-on, swoops down and rapes him silly; while the victim is still staggering around in a daze, that god's wife or lover, in a jealous rage, turns him - the helpless, innocent victim, that is - into let's say an immortal turtle and e.g. power-staples him to a sheet of plywood with a dish of turtle food just out of his reach and leaves him out inthe sun forever to be repeatedly disemboweled by army ants and stung by hornets or something. So if Arachne had dissed anyone else in the Pantheon, she would have been just a smoking hole in the ground before she knew what hit her.
   "But in this case, Athena appeared to her in the guise of an old-woman and recommended that she display the proper humility. Arachne declined her advice. Finally Athena revbealed herself as such an challenged Arachne to a weaving contest, which you'll have to admit was uncommonly fair-minded of her. And the interesting thing is that the contest turned out to be a draw - Arachne really was just as good as Athena! Only problem was that her weaving depicted the gods of Olympus at their shepherd-raping, interspecies-fucking worst. This weaving was simply a literal and accurate illustration of all those other myths, which makes this into a sort of meta-myth. Athena flew off the handle and whacked Arachne with her distaff, which might seem kind of like a poor anger management until you consider that during the struggle with the Giants, she wasted Enceladus by dropping Sicily on him! The only effect was to cause Arachne to recognize her own hubris, at which she became so ashamed that she hanged herself. Athena then brought her back to life in the form of a spider.
   "So anyway, you probably learned in elementary school that Athena wears a helmet, carries a shield called Aegis, and is the goddess of war and of wisdom, as well as crafts - such as the aforementioned weaving. Kind of an odd combination, to say the least! Especially since Ares was supposed to be the god of war and Hestia the goddess of home economics - why the redundancy? But a lot's been screwed up in the translation. See, the kind of wisdom we associate with old farts like yours truly, and which I'm trying to impart to you here, Randy Waterhouse, was called dike by the Greeks. That's not what Athena was the goddess of! She was the goddess of metis, which means cunning or craftiness, and which you'll recall was the name of her mother in one version of the story. Interstingly Metis (the personage, not the attribute) provided young Zeus withthe potion that caused Cronus to vomit up all of the baby gods he'd swallowed, setting the stage for the whole Titanomachia. So now the connectionto crafts becomes obvious - crafts are just the practical application of metis."

   "I associate the word 'crafts' ith making crappy belts and ashtrays in summer camp," Randy says. "I mean, who wants to be the fucking goddess of macrame?"

   "It's all bad translation. The word that we use today, to mean the same thing, is really technology."

   "Okay. Now we're getting somewhere."

   "Instead of calling Athena the goddess of war, wisdom, and macrame, then, we should say war and technology. And here again, we have the problem of an overlap with the jurisdiction of Ares, who's supposed to be the god of war. And let's just say that Ares is a complete asshole. His personal aides are Fear and Terror and sometimes Strife. He is constantly at odds with Athena even though - mabe because - they are nominally the god and goddess of the same thing - war. Heracles, who is one of Athena's human proteges, physically wounds Ares on two occasions, and even strips him of his weapons at one point! You see the fascinating thing about Ares is that he's completely incompetent. He's chained up by a couple of giants and imprisoned ina bronze vessel for thirteen months. He's wounded by one of Odysseus's drinking buddies during the Iliad. Athena knocks him out with a rock at one point. When he's not making a complete idiot of himself in battle, he's screwing every human female he can get his hands on, and - get this - his sons are all what we would today call serial killers. And so it seems very clear to me that Ares really was the god of war as such an entity would be recognized by people who were involved in wars all the time, and had a really clear idea of just how stupid and ugly wars are.
   "Whereas Athena is famous for beingt he backer if Odysseus, who, let's not forget, is the guy who comes up with the idea for the Trojan Horse. Athena guides both Odysseus and Heracles through their struggles, and although both of these guys are excellent fighters, they win most of their battles through cunning or (less prejoratively) metis. And although both of them engage in violence pretty freely (Odysseus likes to call himself "sacker of cities") it's clear that they are being held up in opposition to the kind of mindless, raging violence associated with Ares and his offspring - Heracles even personally rids the world of a few of Ares's psychopathic sons. I mean, the records aren't totally clear - it's not like you can go to the Thebes County Courthouse and look up the death certificates on these guys - but it appears that Heracles, backed up by Athena all the way, personally murders at least half of the Hannibal Lecterish offspring of Ares.
   "So insofar as Athena is a goddess of war, what really do we mean by that? Note that her most famous weapon is not her sword but her shield Aegis, and Aegis has a gorgon's head on it, so that anyone who attacks her is in serious danger of being turned to stone. She's always described as being calm and majestic, neither of which adjectives anyone ever applied to Ares."

   "I don't know, Enoch. Defensive versus offensive war, maybe?"

   "The distinction is overrated. Remember when I said that Athena got leg-fucked by Hephaestus?"

   "It generated a clear internal representation in my mind."

   "As a myth should! Athena/Hephaestus is sort of an interesting coupling in that he is another technology god. Metals, metallurgy, and fire were his specialties - the old fashioned Rust Belt stuff. So, no wonder Athena gave him a hard-on! After he ejaculated on Athena's thigh, she's all eeeeeyew! and she wipes it off and throws the rag on the ground, where it somehow combines with the earth and generates Erichthonius. You know who Erichthonius was?"


   "One of the first kings of Athens. You know what he was famous for?"

   "Tell me."

   "Invented the chariot - and introduced the use of silver as a currency."

   "Oh, Jesus!" Randy clamps his head between his hands and makes moaning noises, only for a little while.

   "Now in many other mythologies you can find gods that have parallels with Athena. The Sumerian had Enki, the Norse had Loki. Loki was an inventor-god, but psychologically he had more in common with Ares; he was not only the god of technology but also the god of evil too,the closest thing they had to the devil. Native Americans had tricksters - creatures full of cunning - like Coyote and Raven in their mythologies, but they didn't have technolgy yet, and so they hadn't coupled the Trickster with Crafts to generate this hybrid Technolgist-god."

   "Okay," Randy says, "so obviously where you're going with this is that there must be some universal pattern of events that when filtered through the sensory aparatus and the neural rigs of primitive, superstitious people always gives rise to internal mental representations that they identify as gods, heroes, etc."

   "Yes. And these can be recognized across cultures, in the same way that two persons with Root Reps in their mind might 'recognize' me by comparing notes."

   "So, Enoch, you want me to believe that these gods - which aren't really gods, but it's a nice concise word - all share certain things in common precisely because the external reality normally generated them is consistent and universal across cultures."

   "That is right. And in the case of the Trickster gods the pattern is that cunning people tend to attain power that un-cunning people don't. And all cultures are fascinated by this. Some of them, like many Native Amercians, bascically admire it, but never couple it with technological development. Others, like the Norse, hate it and identify it with the devil."

   "Hence the strange love-hate relationship that Americans have with hackers."

   "That's right."

   "Hackers are always complaining about that journalists cast them as bad guys. But do you think that this ambivalence is deeper-seated."

   "In some cultures. The Vikings - to judge from their mythology - would instinctively hate hackers. But something different happened with the Greeks. The Greeks liked their geeks. That's how we get Athena."

   "I'll buy that - but where does the war-goddess thing comein?"

   "Let's face it, Randy, we've all known guys like Ares. The pattern of human behavior that caused the internal mental representation known as Areas to appear in the minds of the ancient Greeks is very much with us today, in the form of terrorists, serial killers, riots, pogroms, and aggressive tinhorn dictators who turn out to be military incompetents. And yet for all their stupidity and incompetence, people like that can conquer and control large hunks of the world if they are not resisted."

   "You must meet my friend Avi."

   "Who is going to fight them off, Randy?"

   "I am afraid you are going to say we are."

   "Sometimes it might be other Ares-worshippers, as when Iran and Iraq went to war and no one cared who won. But if Ares-worhippers aren't going to end up running the whole world, someone needs to do violence to them. That isn't very nice, but it's a fact: civilization requires an Aegis. And the only way to fight the bastards off inthe end is through intelligence. Cunning. Metis."

   "Tactical cunning, like Odysseus and the Trojan Horse, or -"

   "Both that, and technological cunning. From time to time there is a battle that is out-and-out won by new technology - like longbows at Crecy. For most of history those battles happen only every few centuries - you have the chariot, the compound bow, gunpoweder, ironclad ships, adn so on. But something happens around, say, the time that the Monitor, which the Northerners believed to be the only ironclad warship on earth, just happens to run into the Merrimack, of which the Southerners believe excatly the same thing, and they pound the hell out of each other for hours and hours. That's as good a point as any to identify as the moment when a spectacular rise in military technology takes off - it's the elbow of the exponential curve. Now it takes the world's essentially conservative military establishments a few decades to really comprehend what has happened, but by the time we're thick in the Second World War, it's accepted byeveryone who doesn't have his head completely up his ass that the war's going to be won by whichever side has the best technology. So on the German side alone we've got rockets, jet aircraft, nerve gas, wire-guided missiles. And on the Ally side we've got three vast efforts that put basically every top-level hacker, nerd, and geek to work: the Manhattan Project, which gave us nuclear weapons; and the Radiation Lab, which gave us the modern electronics industry. Do you know why we won the Second World War, Randy?"

   "I think you just told me."

   "Because we built better stuff than the Germans?"

   "Isn't that what you said?"

   "But why did we build better stuff, Randy?"

   "I guess I'm not competent to answer, Enoch, I haven't studied that period well enough."

   "Well the short answer is that we won because the Germans worshipped Ares and we worshipped Athena."

   "And am I suppose to gatehr that you, or your organization, had something to do with that?"

   "Oh, come now, Randy! Let's not allow this to degenerate into conspiracy theories."

   "Sorry, I am tired."

   "So am I. Goodnight."

   And then Enoch goes to sleep. Just like that.


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