The First Fortnight Mental Health Art and Culture Festival takes place this month in Ireland. In an article in the Irish Times about the events Composer Amanda Feery pointed out that among their Gods the Greeks had Oizys, the Goddess of Anxiety, Grief and Depression, meaning that they were discussing mental health all the way back then …
Some deities have it tougher than others.
At the very highest level Gods and Goddesses are worshipped – this, indeed, being their primary role. Others, lower in rank but still revered, have spaceships named after them, or planets, or get played by Brad Pitt in films. At the very least most of them get petitioned for the gifts within their purview – people pray to Aphrodite if they want love, to Athena if they want wisdom, to Demeter if they want agriculture.
But then there are the others, the Gods and Goddesses of the stuff that nobody wants. No-one has ever prayed for anxiety, fear or depression, so being Goddess of these is a difficult and lonely gig, like it would be if you were Goddess of Rabies.
So over time Oizys became the avatar of the very emotions she was responsible for. Lack of worship from humans (other than Goths, and Emily Dickinson) caused her to become depressed. This engendered guilt, since she was after all still a goddess and so had things better than most, and this guilt worsened the depression and so on, in an ever deepening vortex of gloom. This gloom increased her fear and anxiety, and, as so often happens, she froze. Then hid.
So the emotions under her charge hid too. The Greeks’ open discussion of mental health gave way to the silence and denial of following generations. Humankind took to valuing the non-crying male, the un-“hysterical” female, the stiff upper lip. We coped by not coping. This didn’t work.
For her part, Oizys took to spending each night in the Wingèd Horse, the bar on Mount Olympus, staring into her drink and into deep, soul-aching blackness.
Then one evening a voice said “cheer up, it might never happen.”
Oizys turned. A beautiful young Goddess sat beside her, a cheery, cheeky smile on her lips. Oizys was going to ignore her, but something about her good humour opened a small gap in her tightly-wrapped blanket of woe.
“It already has,” she found herself replying.
“Well, things could always be worse,” said the Goddess. “What’s up?”
And Oizys found herself opening up, telling everything about her self-loathing, her loneliness, her sense of worthlessness. It came out in a torrent of words that led to a torrent of tears, tears that she had kept inside for aeons.
Her companion said nothing, just listened, then when the weeping ended in a final sniff and a most ungodlike burble of snot, she placed her hand upon Oizys’s and said “you’re too hard on yourself, love. Most people are.”
She stood up to leave. “I didn’t get your name,” said Oizys.
“I’m Lyssa,” said the girl, “Goddess of Rabies.”
After she left Oizys sat thinking for a long time.
The following evening she came to the bar again. This time, though, she didn’t sit defensively behind a thousand-yard stare. She started to talk to the others, and also to listen. Hera told her of her embarrassment at being Goddess of Marriage while married to Zeus, the Weinstein of the Heavens. Chronos spoke of his irrational fear that time-travel would one day put him out of a job. Eros said he was just exhausted. Oizys learned, or rather remembered, that everyone has hopes but also fears, good days but also bad days, self-belief but also insecurities. That no-one is alone in the way that they feel.
Emboldened, she has returned to the affairs of man. She encourages discussion and openness about depression. She has made people aware that mental well-being is as important as physical. She is promoting a culture of self-kindness.
She is creating an environment in which a group in Ireland is giving their time to run a festival to challenge mental health stigma through creative arts.
She has a huge amount of work still to do. But then, she is immortal.