Labelled variously as a gathering of fat cats in the snow to an ‘annualbunfight’ (Robots rub up with Davos delegates, Guardian), the Davos show is one of the grandest displays of power by the world’s wealthiest, most famous and most influential leaders. It is a show of clout by some of the most powerful people in the world. In this it compares favourably with the large power gatherings of mythic times.
On Mt Olympus, for instance, Zeus, as the god of kings and princes, presided over various assemblies, dispensing his wisdom or dismissing insubordinate gods or, more often than not, thwarting his wife Hera’s devious plans. The TheoiAgoraioi (the marketplace and people’s assembly) was one such Davos-like congregation where Zeus presided alongside Athena, as goddess of wise counsel. The gods of the marketplace were led by Hermes, the god of commerce. Interestingly, Athenaspoke for both sides. As goddess of wise counsel, she stood alongside Zeus and as patron goddess of artisans, along with Hephaestus; she weighed in for the people too.
At the gathering at the swish ski resort, there are not one, but many claimants to Zeus’s crown. And the Geneva-based non-profit, the World Economic Forum that organises the annual high powered pilgrimage, will presumably bear Athena’s burden. This year, the talks acquired even more significance as they took place against the backdrop of a report by Oxfam that the world’s richest 62 people are as wealthy as half of the world’s population.
Much of what transpires at Davos reflects a tussle for resources. Just as it did, in the Vedic times, when the gods and the demons churned the ocean in the amrita manthan myth or when Indra fought Vritra for the waters of the world. The churning of the ocean was one of those unique confluences where devas and asuras came together unified by a single goal, both wanted amrita, or the nectar of immortality that lay at the bottom of the ocean. That the asuras were tricked out of their share goes to show how even the gods were plutocratic — anything to keep the upper hand and deny others the same privileges. Power is not always won in a fair fight.
Today wealth brings power but it was not always thus. In ancient civilisations, power belonged to the mighty and to the virile.For example, the PersianMithra(and the Roman Mithras) was an embodiment of power. Mithraism was particularly popular with the Roman legions, and mithraea were the shrines where he was worshipped. In all mithraea, there was a central cult image of the god. He was presented in a ritual bull-killing form, kneeling on the back of a bull pulling back its head and stabbing it in the neck with a sword. A scorpion attacked the bull’s testicles, while a dog and a snake were stretching up to drink the blood dripping from the wound. For the people of that time, power had to be snatched and the gorier the battle, the grander the victory.
Bulls were a popular symbol of virility. To fight one and emerge victorious was believed to transfer power from beast to man, making him a god. Gods were also referred to as bulls. Indra is known as the bull among gods while Yama, the god of death, rides one.
Archaeologist Jacques Cauvinsees the bull representing the male spirit’s darker side in the Levant and the Near East. Cauvin believed that the people of the region saw the bull as a male god that sometimes took a human form and sometimes that of an animal. He saw bull fights and attempts to tame the bull as a way for a new agricultural society to exercise its power over natural forces. Bull fighting rituals and the hugely controversial jallikattu in Tamil Nadu are a result of such belief systems.
Over time knowledge replaced brute force as a source of power. In the Indian context, this gave rise to the abominable caste system where one section of society strove to deny knowledge and thereby power to another. Both forms of power are now redundant, making the rituals and practices stand out like ugly sores in an evolving social landscape.
Power, throughout myth, has served as a powerful aphrodisiac. And while it has been assiduously wooed by gods, men and demons, it has also led to the downfall of many. Especially for those who wielded power with whimsy and a cruel hand. Mithras, for instance, is no longer worshipped and his shrines have mostly disappeared. Perhaps the power barons at Davos could keep that in mind when they sit across the table.