Have you ever made a decision that was not only completely out of character but completely brain-dead? Like the time you were offered a genuine Rothko for a song but declined to buy it because it didn’t go with the color you had chosen for the living room? Yes, one of those. They happen. Afterwards we cringe and tell ourselves, or others as the case may be, that we had suffered from an acute case of brain cramp, and if you would be so kind, now would be a good time to change the subject. Please?
Actually, humanity has a rather extensive history of such occurrences stretching back to the dawn of history. Ancient Greece thought them divinely orchestrated. They used a single word to describe those insanities from which one might conclude that such bizarre decisions were frequent. How else could one be so stupid but by divine intervention? Perhaps, they had something there.
The Greeks called such moments: ate (pronounced ahhhteee).
According to Homer, it is ate that convinced Agamemnon to arbitrarily take Achilles’ mistress when he was forced to give up his own, thus creating the friction between him and Achilles that led to the death of thousands and impeded the Greeks taking Troy for years. At the end of the Iliad, Agamemnon apologizes for his error of judgement and makes restitution. He says he was blinded by ate, and that Zeus had taken away his understanding. It seems that from the very beginning, leaders have had the occasional bad day at the office.
So what was this ate according to the Greeks?
Ate was not exactly a goddess but more a personified spirit (a daimona) the maker of delusion, mischief, ruin, and folly. According to Hesiod, Ate tricked Zeus into making an ill-conceived oath at the urging of Hera, Zeus’ wife. When Zeus realized that he had been fooled and who was responsible, he grabbed Ate by her shining hair and flung her from Olympus telling her never to return. I suppose he could have done the same to Hera, but lucky for Zeus he had gotten rid of Ate first and was therefore spared a second ate moment. Ate has wandered amongst us mortals ever since causing problems and ruin.
Like most of Greek thought, there is more to it than simple tales.
Ate was pictured as a young mischievous girl who could use the heads of men and women as stepping stones, creating havoc as she went. Following in her wake were the Litae, the lame and wrinkled daughters of Zeus. Because of their age and attendant infirmities, the Litae were always late to the party. They were the personification of prayers of repentance. It is interesting to note that it is not Ate that we find in modern English, but rather those old maids that were destined to follow her. It is from Litae that we get the word liturgy.
And lest one thinks they were impotent, if a man or woman venerated them through regret for the rash decision or action they made, the Litae might intercede for him or her. Perhaps Zeus might listen and mitigate what had been done, but if one was filled with pride and shunned them, then they had the power to ask Zeus to invoke that Ate overtake that person once again.
That power they had and more. If a person should make a rash decision, realize it, genuinely seek forgiveness from those affected while offering fair recompense for what they had done, and the offended party should spurn the offer, the ladies were particularly incensed. They would demand that Ate do her worst and in egregious cases, the one who cast aside such a heartfelt offering of contrition be visited by madness (the Erinyes).
To the Greeks it was the act that counted, not how it came about. What was done was done, whether by divine intervention, or not. The truth is we all have our moments of complete insanity. We are mortal. They happen. The point is to repent for having done them, fix what can be fixed, and then move on. Perhaps the odd prayer that Ate go visit someone else might also be added to that. What else can we do? Those pesky Greeks were onto something. I’m sure of it.