Biophilia

Biophilia is a term first used by philosopher-psychologist Erich Fromm to describe the sense of vital connection and attraction human beings feel toward all other living things. Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson developed the concept further by suggesting biophilia is “hardwired”  in all living things—including humans—and is what ultimately drives us toward a deeper interconnection with nature.

The novel Perdita details the mythological origins of biophilia, a concept that originated in Western Antiquity.  The child Perdita (Latin for the “lost one”) is the keeper of biophilia and her role in Greek mythology is outlined below.

The three Fates spinning
Perdita is an orphaned child once hidden among the Fates—the three sisters in Ancient mythology who determine how long a mortal will live. The metaphor connecting the sisters is “the thread of life.”
Clotho (pictured on the right) is the youngest sister: she spins the “thread of life” from her distaff.
Her sister, Lachesis (on the left) begins gathering a person’s lifetime, winding it on her spindle.
It is the third sister, Atropos (seated in the background) who will eventually cut the thread, and thus end a person’s life. Atropos is said to determine both the timing and manner of a mortal’s death.
In many accounts, the Fates are those who ensure that the immutable laws of destiny unfold without interference. In the novel’s account, however, the Fates occasionally become distracted in their work and make “mistakes.” (The painting above by John Strudwick seems to capture a sense of this: Atropos looks rather bored!) The results of their distraction are pieces of “thread” that cannot be accounted for—or in other words, “loose ends.”
The extra pieces of thread are hidden under Lachesis’s robe and it is the lost child, Perdita, who gathers these up and makes bundles out of them.

Loose ends

Perdita is an abandoned child in William Shakespeare's
The Perdita character in William Shakespeare’s play “The Winter’s Tale” is also an abandoned child. King Leontes thinks that his wife (Queen Hermione) has had a child  by her lover. The King orders the child’s death but Perdita (the lost one) is rescued by shepherds. (Detail of a painting by A. F. Sandys 1829-1904.)
Gathered in Perdita’s bundle, then, are the “loose ends” associated with all the different forms of love: friendship (philia), erotic love (eros), unselfish love (agape), and biophilia, the love connecting humans and the natural world.
What are particularly important to Perdita are the loose ends of love relationships—romances foiled by circumstance, love that isn’t returned, or love that isn’t acknowledged or even “seen.” Perdita keeps these loose ends (“lost threads”) because they are never completely dormant. Loose ends are important to mortals because they always offer the possibility of redemption, reconciliation and greater understanding.  So Perdita’s gift to humans is an extraordinary one—the possibility of love. It is therefore just as remarkable as Prometheus’s gift of fire (see below).

Perdita’s birth in Greek mythology

Perdita appears in a very ancient but lost version of Hesiod’s epic poem, The Theogony or “Birth of the Gods.” (In the novel it is Garth and Clare who discover it).
Hephaestus in his forge (detail of painting by Diego Valesquez, 1640)
Hephaestus in his forge (detail of painting by Diego Valesquez, 1640)
Both the standard and the lost version depict Zeus as very angry with Prometheus for his many tricks, as well as jealous of his friendship with mortals.
Zeus orders his son Hephaestus to make a “beautiful maiden”—a female human (Pandora) who will become the vehicle of Zeus’ revenge. She is intended as a bride for Prometheus’s brother, Epimetheus—the one in charge of distributing different traits to all earth animals (fur, feathers, claws, etc.). Pandora’s extraordinary beauty is meant to hide what she is really bringing in her wedding “box”: the spirits of pestilence, disease, jealousy, and greed.  In marrying her, Epimetheus will unleash these nasty spirits upon mortals and Zeus will have his revenge.

In the lost version of the poem, however, Hephaestus falls in love with Pandora. Perdita, is the result of their secret union.

Pandora (painting by J. W. Waterhouse, 1896, private collection)
Pandora peeping in her box—J. W. Waterhouse, 1896.
Prometheus steals fire from Zeus (Christian Griepenkerl, 1839-1916)
Prometheus steals fire from Zeus (Christian Griepenkerl, 1839-1916)
Hephaestus and Pandora conceal their “love-child,” but Zeus eventually hears about Perdita and demands that she be handed over to him. The two lovers initially hide her among the Fates and it is here that Perdita is given the task of saving all the “loose ends” of existence. But Perdita is not safe among the Fates: Zeus plans to steal her and so the Fates give her to Prometheus.
Prometheus agrees to hide the child among mortals. Taking her with him while he steals fire from the gods, he ends up giving both Perdita and fire to humans. Humans seize upon fire and begin to use it‚ but they forget about Perdita (and her gift of the fourth love biophilia), and eventually abandon her. She therefore becomes lost to humanity—but the “loves” of her bundle, including biophilia, are always potentially discoverable.

© Hilary Scharper

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