Daily Archives: January 1, 2010

Peitho, goddess of Persuasion

At the start of new year, let’s look back to the beginning and Peithos (πειθός).

Peitho, pronounced “pie-THO” by classicists and those who know how to use Google, is identified by scholars at the goddess of Persuasion (Roman: Suadela).  Here’s her picture.

Peithos Standing

According to Helen North in her essay, Emblems of Eloquence, Peitho is associated with Aphrodite and shows up in the Fall of Troy with Menelaus chasing his wife, Helen, after a successful Horse Ride.  Peitho demonstrates her aversion to violence by turning her back on Helen, the face that launched a thousand ships.  Apparently, Peitho believed that Menelaus was beyond persuasion and given my read of Helen and Paris, I’d tend to agree.  The seduction of one’s spouse is not open for discussion.

Peitho plays not only in myth, but in Athenian politics proving that persuasion matters in more than love.  The comedic playwright, Eupolis, claimed that Peitho sat upon the lips of Pericles.  Pericles is esteemed as one of the greatest leaders of the ancient Greek democracy and some attribute the failure of Athens in the Peloponnesian War to Pericles’ death.  Not only was Pericles the best and brightest, he was the original Great Communicator.

Note Peitho’s arm position in that pottery fragment.  It is the outstretched right arm terminating with an open hand at or just above shoulder level, almost a salute, but perhaps a warning.  That particular gesture of public oratory is identified as “adlocutio.”  It is the source’s production of embodied persuasion where the body literally manifests the attitude.

Thus, Peitho is deeply involved in the affairs of the heart and the affairs of state, an interesting combination worthy of further reflection.

The entry at Wikipedia provides a nice summary.

In Greek mythology, Peitho (Ancient Greek: Πειθώ; English translation: “persuasion”) is the goddess who personifies persuasion and seduction. Her Roman name is Suadela. Although this goddess did not have much power, she is a figure of some significance in Classical Greece. Peitho, in her role as an attendant or companion of Aphrodite, was intimately connected to the goddess of love and beauty. Ancient artists and poets explored this connection in their works. The connection is even deeper in the context of Ancient Greek marriage because a suitor had to negotiate with the father of a young woman for her hand in marriage and offer a bridal price in return for her. The most desirable women drew many prospective suitors, and persuasive skill often determined their success. Aphrodite and Peitho were sometimes conflated to a certain extent, with the name Peitho appearing in conjunction with, or as an epithet of, Aphrodite’s name. This helps to demonstrate how the relationship between persuasion and love (or desire) was important in Greek culture.

It is worth pondering how ancient Greeks decided that persuasion sprang from the intersection of attraction, love, courtship, dowry and bridal prices, and marriage.  A shallow consideration rates persuasion as the flowery talk of lovers, but when you then realize the critical importance of marriage to family success, status, and survival in ancient Greece, the light should dawn on persuasion’s deeper value.  If family is the bedrock of civilization and persuasion is how you start, build, and strengthen your family, then persuasion is a skill you should master.

Interestingly, peitho shows up in the common parlance of the New Testament, particularly with Paul.  Consider this representative fragment:

1 Corinthians 2:4  My speech and my preaching were not in persuasive words of human wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power . . .

Note that Paul contrasts persuasion, an activity embedded in human nature, with “demonstration of the Spirit,” something clearly beyond human nature.  Peitho and its grammatical derivatives pepper the New Testament as these entries (over 50 citations) from Strong’s Concordance prove.

My reading of these scriptural quotes always sees the root term, peitho, in our standard definition of persuasion as communication that changes freely choosing people.  It’s also interesting to note that frequently human persuasion is contrasted with Heavenly Spirit or the Word that operates with a different force.  Peitho is what people in the New Testament do.  It is never used to describe the activity of the Father, Son, or Holy Spirit.

In summary, then, our look back at peitho reveals both god and God.  Peitho may be a god, but is never God, and always human.  And as the activity of humans, peitho rises from the intersection of love and politics.  It is how we attain our place in the heart and in the state without violence.