The three Charities (Χαριτες) have a fundamentally ambivalent status in the greek pantheon. Associated with both the Sirens and the Muses, they are often seen in opposition to the Erinynes. At times working for the benefit and bliss of gods and men, at other times used for the purposes of deceit, manipulation, and oblivion. In this regard they are like all Greek gods, defying any overly or overtly simplistic conceptualization.
The first recorded mention of the Charities is in Homer, who in the Iliad describes them in reference to the beauty indicative of blossoms of flower in one instance and as granted or offered favor in another. Charis, the name given to the wife of Hephaestus– blacksmith, craftsman, artisan, sculptor, metallurgist– in the Iliad, is the first given a name, although she is alternatively called Aglaea (Αγλαια Brightness, Splendor), and Kale (Καλη Beauty). They are further differentiated by later figures as sisters which would include Euphrosyne (Ευφροσυνη Joyfulness), and Thalia (Θαλια Blooming / Luxuriant). Collectively, the Charites were here reputed to be the representatives or goddesses of charm, beauty, nature, human creativity, and fertility; they were patronesses of amusement and festivities. While in the Homeric landscape they seem to be associated with the Nine Muses, who inspired arts and sciences, elsewhere, as in Olympia, Athens, Mycenae and Amyklae, we see them placed in equal prominence and in direct work with the Horai.
Eteokles, the mythical king of Orkhomenos, Boiotia, gave the number of Charities as three, sacrificed to them, a ritual and adulation of which allowed for the preservation of their tripartite nature, in direct contrast to the Lakedaimonians and Athenians who placed them as two (Kleta & Phaenna or Auxo and Hegemone respectively). There in Orkhomenos, the Kharites would have been seen as dancing. Perhaps because dance is symbolic of grace, a being-for the benefit and beauty/joy of the shared moment; or the being in the shared-presence of the graceful king for whom they bestowed fortune.
In one regard, the character and nature of the Charites are expressed through the names they bear: they were viewed as goddesses who gave festive joy and enhanced the enjoyments of life. The variation of actual characters and characteristics however seems to be contextualized to the particular cultural variations they become embodied in via narratives of epic and lyric poetry/storytelling.
They are mostly described as being in the service or attendance of other divinities, as real joy exists only in circles where the individual gives up self-focused pleasure and makes it his main object to afford pleasure for a common (shared or other-centric but non-exclusivisable) experience. They share their grace and beauty upon all that delight and elevate gods and men. This association is likely due to Charis being called the wife of Hephaestus, the divine artist. The greatest works of art are thus called the works of the Charites, because virtuosity is granted through them. The greatest artists are their favorites. Thus the ordinary pleasures of man (or man’s relationship with Eros and Aphrodite) are capable of achieving a level of grace (Hom. Od. viii. 364, xviii. 194; Paus. vi. 24. § 5.), the communicative connections and acts of man (via Hermes) are capable of achieving eloquence and persuasion (Hesiod. Op. 63), or the feats of wisdom or truth that we can muster might be swallowed more easily with a bit of charm (hence their closeness to the Muses)(Hes. Theog. 64; Eurip. Herc. fur. 673; Theocrit. xvi. in fin.).
While a poet or philosopher may be inspired by the Muses, the application of their songs to the embellishment of life and festivities are the work of the Charites.
They all pertain to the quality of gift and receipt, of circulation. Specifically, it is a quality in excess of the limited sense of a transaction. They pointed specifically towards those qualities that bound the experience of circulation and co-existence together in something beyond the limits of oneself. A superceding of the self through charis. A joy, beauty and a fertility of experience.
The Roman reception of the Charities comes via the Stoics who likely received the allegory from the great Stoic consolidator Chryssipus. In the Roman interpretation of Charity, the Charities become the Gratie, and take on slighly reworked significations in this new world.
As Denis Vidal exposes in his “The Three Graces, or the Allegory of the Gift”, the nature of this reworking seems to be an “innocent” but significant shift and limiting of focus towards particular kinds of exchange and the specific qualities of being. Seneca, unable to comprehend the thinking of that leads Chryssipus to of allegory, or to write admirably of the nature and question of the Kharites, takes up what is in the Roman world could reasonably consider — the logic of gift giving. As Vidal lays out, Seneca’s intervention, and more importantly, its historical preservation, seems to have played a significant role for the return to prominence of the discussion of gifts and exchange in the 20th century with the work of Mauss.
Gratia expressed the idea of ‘giving or serving without expectation of reward’ but also receiving the debt of recognition of the favor done for you. Gratiousness and gratefulness expressed in the three as the act, the sentiment and the sentiment inspiring reciprocal action, or alternatively as giving, receiving and returning. Beauty and fertility are still there, as evidenced in a surviving murals from the House of Apollo in Pompeii depicting iconography of plantlife, but in the written record of the early Hellenistic period, it is largely absent from discussion. The big picture, was on the exchange of gift specifically. And not for the material benefit or expectation of return as one would see in the later Hellenistic period, but rather for a larger social benefit –as that which helps hold a society together.
It seems however that the Senecan presentation of the Graces was not the only spoken of. In the work of Servius Danielis we are presented with a different interpretation of the same allegory with different interpretations of what is important in it and its significance for society. Here the implicit understanding of benefiting from benefaction is made explicit. Gratuitousness is no longer associated with any presentation of “disinterest”. The Graces are explicitly desired, not for an immaterial good, but because a two-way interaction between Graces, gift and receipt, was a promise for future gain. These ideas co-existed and likely competed with each other in much the same way as schools of altruism and pragmatism compete for dominance in contemporary discussion.
Already, one sees in the Septuagint the use of the word charis (χάρις) to translate the Hebrew chen (חֵ֖ן) to describe gracious deeds, or acts of grace. The root word chanan (חָנַן) – to bend or stoop in kindness to another as a superior to an inferior; to favor, bestow; causatively to implore (i.e. Move to favor by petition) — beseech, (be, find, shew) favour(-able), be (deal, give, grant (gracious(-ly), intreat, (be) merciful, have (shew) mercy (on, upon), have pity upon, pray, make supplication (Strongs 2603). This is the origin of the common act today in the christian world of saying grace –the recited act of recognizing God’s grace/favor in what we have or have received.
Charis was alternately translated as grace, favor, but occasionally even as gift. It is contrasted with the idea of works/deeds ἔργων (ergōn) –implying an acting from a state of social expectation and need e.g. ROM 4:4, and law νόμον (nomon)–tied to what one is commanded by law –by obgligation– to fulfill e.g. ROM. 6:14.
While the common usage of translation between chen and charis (of God bestowing grace/favor or to be bestowed with the grace/favor/mercy of God) seems to be a genuinely Abrahamic conception of charity, it is the latter idea of grace being a force identified with God that we act in agency of, that appears strikingly similar to the ancient Greek quality of charis as exemplified in the power of the deities, the Kharites. We do not know the source of inspiration for St. Paul’s theology of Grace, but with an education that included Stoic Philosophy, and being in a largely Hellenistic cultural environment, one can speculate about the possible cross-polination of ideas between the Hellenic and Jewish thought that surrounded him and which would ultimately have a pivotal role in the development of the Medieval and Modern eras of European (Western) thought.
Whereas in the former, rituals of sacrifice to the Kharites one established a relationship mutual favors and graces from the Gods (cf Vernant), in the latter the early Christian rituals were a sacrifice of a different type which bestowed those made the sacrifice of faith, works, renunciation etc for the gift of a type of transcendent interpretation of grace tied to the larger theological apparatus that had developed.
Who Are The Three Graces (Kharites)?
Why are there three Graces and why are they sisters? Why do they hold hands? Why are they smiling, youthful, virginal, wearing a loose and transparent dress?
-Seneca, On benefits
When we talk about the origins of the modern concept of charity, a vague and oddly confusing scene emerges. The practice of charity can be said to originate in many distinct parts of the world, for motives all unique to themselves. We have its overt advocacy in Vedic and Ancient Hebrew texts. But even writings of Ancient Egypt (e.g. the Book of the Dead) and Babylonia (e.g. Gilgamesh, or The Pious Sufferer (Ludlul bēl nēmeqi)) appear to either promote or extol charitability as means of maintaining social order favorable to the gods. Given the largely ubiquitous presence of things that at least on the surface appear to be acts of charity by modern terms in ethnographic studies of peoples outside the modern world cultures, one might additionally infer that its’ proximity to human collective innovations of exchange leads to a variety of forms of it appearing wherever inter-group cohabitation becomes a necessity.
All of this is worth noting because it paints the picture of an significational chaos, where what we come to refer to today as charity or charitability today, is met with the same types of conflicts of sense as one might have had since it’s concept became an issue of discussion.
Today, we have the benefit of generations of codification and over-codification –dictionarization– giving the impression that concepts are somehow reducible to definitions, when the reality is always that they are multiplicitous from the beginning and always into the future.
The three Graces that we reference as fixed significational entities were always multiplicitous, changing feature, accessory, motive and method depending on the mortal they were invoked by. Much as charity was and is. They were a force that had a range of possible utilities in the mortal world, somewhere between the effective use of pleasure (Eros/Aphrodite), effective message/communicative acts (Hermes/Peitho) and skillfull informed creation (Muses/Hephaestus).
While this is not what is brought to mind when one thinks of “charity” today, this ancient, more complex significational universe is important for future investigations of the possibilities of charitable activity. In other words, the historical origins of the concepts we use today in our western world are at worst, too complex to nail down in the simple fashion we’ve summarized above, and thus the result of an unproductive question. At best, they provide slight traces of insight into not only who we are as people, but also what we are capable of, and thus future concepts of “charitability”.
Aaron J. Atsma, “Charities” http://www.theoi.com/Ouranios/Kharites.html
“Grace”, Strong’s Concordance: Greek Lexicon, http://www.eliyah.com
Vernant, Jean-Pierre, Mythe et pensée chez les Grecs: Etudes de psychologie historique (Paris), 1965
Vidal, Denis, “The three Graces, or the allegory of the Gift: A contribution to the history of an idea in anthropology”, Hau: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 4 (2) (2014): 339-368.