Month: March 2012

Myth of the Week: Nisus and Euryalus

Monday, March 26th, 2012

As those of you who are regular readers know, I love the Aeneid.  Encountering Vergil’s great epic poem in high school was an absolute revelation to me—and it has never stopped being a revelation, no matter how many times I read it.  With Vergil, there is always a greater depth, another subtlety, a further shining moment of poetry.

Mosaic of the poet Vergil, flanked by the muses of tragedy and history

Within the Aeneid, one of the saddest episodes (and one of my favorites) is the story of the lovers Nisus and Euryalus. Both are Trojans, refugees from their burned and fallen city, who are following the Trojan noble Aeneas to a new home.  Euryalus is described as surpassingly beautiful, and also very young—still in the time of “green youth,” beardless, and tenderly connected to his mother.  Nisus is a bit older, but still young himself, and deeply in love with Euryalus.  When we meet them, it is in a rare moment of leisure: they have both signed up as contestants in a footrace.

Initially, Nisus flashes ahead of the other runners, but then disaster strikes: he slips on the grass, blood-soaked from the sacrifice, and tumbles to the ground.  Salius, the Trojan in second place, surges into the lead; Euryalus is close behind.  But Nisus knows how much it would mean to his beloved to triumph.  He trips Salius, and Euryalus finishes first.  Understandably, Salius complains about Nisus’ cheating, and the good Aeneas ends up awarding all three of them prizes.  It’s a slight scene—sweet and almost comic.  But given what comes later, it also carries strains of darkness.  We see already how deep Nisus and Euryalus’ bond runs—and we see that Nisus will do anything for his lover.

Ancient footrace, in armor. Photo by Matthias Kabel

When we see them next in book IX, games have been replaced by bloody war. The Trojans have arrived in Italy, only to find themselves opposed by a native Latin force.  Aeneas has gone off to look for allies, leaving the Trojan forces besieged by the Latins.  Nisus bravely proposes a night raid, which Euryalus insists on joining.  Vergil again emphasizes the depth of feeling they have for each other, the “single love between them.”  Nisus tries to convince Euryalus to stay behind, fearing for his safety, but Euryalus won’t let his beloved go alone.

The scene that follows is a brutal one: the two young men venture into the sleeping camp, and begin killing all the men they can find.  It’s a strange mix—as if Achilles and Patroclus had been possessed by the spirits of Odysseus and Diomedes.  Nisus is like “a hungry lion” as he tears through the sheep-like, helpless Latins;  Euryalus is no less vicious.  Vergil, always sensitive to the cost of war, lingers a moment over the victims, who are themselves beautiful young men with their own stories, and their own families who will mourn them.

Euryalus, photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen

As dawn creeps near, Nisus urges Euryalus to leave off slaughter and make their escape.  Euryalus agrees, stopping to gather a few pieces of armor as his spoils, including a beautiful helmet.  But as they flee the camp, the polished metal of the helm catches the moonlight, alerting a group of Latin horsemen, who immediately give chase.  Nisus and Euryalus plunge through the woods.  Nisus, who grew up in the mountains, escapes; Euryalus does not.  When Nisus realizes he has lost his friend he immediately races back, only to see Euryalus being taken captive.  Hurling his javelin, he kills one guard, then another.  The Latins, enraged, prepare to stab Euryalus.

It is a terrifying moment.  Vergil keeps us with the desperate Nisus, who bursts from the woods screaming that they should attack him instead, that Euryalus is blameless.  But it is too late.  The Latins stab Euryalus, whose slumps forward like “a blood-red flower, cut by a plow.” Nisus flings himself among them, desperate to kill the man who killed his lover, before he himself is slain.  With his last breath, he falls upon his beloved’s body.

Nisus, over the fallen Euryalus. Photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen

Vergil does not stop the story there.  The angry Latins take their revenge, cutting off the heads of the young men, and sticking them on spikes. For all their bravery and tragic love, we can’t help but see that Nisus and Euryalus’ night-raid has single-handedly escalated the war’s brutalities.  Vergil also does not forget Euryalus’ mother, whose grief-stricken lament for her lost son is perhaps the most heart-breaking of all.

One of the things I love most about Vergil is his profound sympathy for human nature.  Nisus and Euryalus aren’t idealized heroes, but flawed, and very real young men, with maybe more courage than good sense.  Vergil’s great heart mourns for their lost youth and honors their love, even stepping outside the bounds of his narrative to deliver a moving epitaph:

“If my song has any power, no day shall ever remove you from memory.”

Myth of the Week: Centaurs

Monday, March 19th, 2012

If ancient Greek mythology had a consistent villain, it would definitely be centaurs.  With the exception of the wise and kind Chiron, these half-horse half-man creatures were depicted as  bestial, drunken, lecherous bullies strewing chaos and strife wherever they went.

The goddess Athena with a centaur

The origins of Centaurs (or Kentauroi) are obscure.  The most common story seems to involve the wicked king Ixion, who tried to rape the goddess Hera.  At the last minute, however, Zeus substituted a cloud/nymph (depending on the story) named Nephele.  She bore him a monstrous child, Kentaurus, who was either the first centaur, or who mated with horses and produced the first centaur.  Ixion, meanwhile, was bound to a flaming wheel, and banished to the pit of Tartarus to suffer alongside Tantalus and Sisyphus.

One of the most famous stories of centaur misbehavior is at the wedding of the Lapith king Perithoos, best friend of Theseus.  Perithoos invites the centaurs to the wedding, but after consuming alcohol, they become feral, attempting to carry off the bride and the other women.  A huge battle ensued, one that was quite popular in art—the Parthenon metopes (large marble friezes on the outside of the building) take this battle as their subject.  Such depictions with centaurs became so popular that they actually had their own name—“Centauromachies” (literally, centaur fights).

The fight between the Lapiths and the centaurs

A fascinating side-story about the Lapith/centaur battle involves the unusual hero Caeneus, who was born a beautiful woman, named Caenis.  She was raped by the god Poseidon, who after offered to grant her any wish.  She wished to be transformed into a man, to escape further persecution.  She–now he–became one of the greatest warriors of the Lapiths, and couldn’t be killed by normal means.  In order to defeat him, the centaurs were forced to pile giant fir trees and rocks on top of him, until he was literally forced into the earth by their weight.

Maybe the most famous centaur story is the one about Heracles and his wife Deianeira.  The two arrive at the river Evenus, where the centaur Nessus has set himself up as the ferryman.  Heracles boosts Deianeira only Nessus’ back, but rather than taking her over the river, the centaur starts to run off with her.  Heracles pulls out one of his hydra-poisoned arrows and shoots Nessus, who collapses, thankfully not on Deianeira.  He whispers to her his apologies and says that she should gather up a bit of his blood.  Then, if she ever doubts her husband’s faithfulness, she can give him some of it, and it will make him love her again.

A warrior conquering a centaur

Unfortunately, the next part of the myth doesn’t exactly cover Deianeira in glory.  Why she thinks it’s a good idea to listen to anything her would-be rapist would say is beyond me.  But she does indeed gather some of his blood—which by this point (unbeknownst to her, but knownst to Nessus) has mixed with the poison from the hydra-arrow.  And, of course, a little while later Deianeira does become jealous that Heracles isn’t paying enough attention to her, and does indeed slip him some of the blood.  The poison causes Heracles agony so extreme that all he wants is to die.  He builds himself his own funeral pyre (tough to the end), and climbs on it.  None of his friends will light it, except for the loyal Philoctetes.  Heracles is at last released from his pain, and Nessus, in death, has his revenge.

A vicious human/centaur fight

A final tale of centaur-menace concerns the swift-footed hero Atalanta.  She is hunting in the woods one day when she is accosted by two centaurs.  Single-handedly, she dispatches both of them, and later goes on to participate in the Calydonian Boar Hunt.   She’s definitely going to be an upcoming Myth of the Week.

Mosaic with two female centaurs (surrounding the goddess Venus)

Although I never think of centaurs as female, they did appear in some later art (see above).  In fact, they were renowned for their beauty.  Can I help it if I think of Leslie Knope’s centaur likeness in Parks and Recreation?  I don’t watch much TV so this doesn’t mean much, but that show is one of my absolute favorites.

I wish you all a very happy, sunny week.  I’m breaking out the shorts!

New York Times Bestseller!

I am thrilled to announce that The Song of Achilles debuted in the US at #31 on the New York Times Bestseller list!  I am so grateful to all of you who have supported this book–thank you for making this author’s dream come true!

Myth of the Week: Callisto

Monday, March 12th, 2012

Today’s Myth of the Week is in honor of Latin teacher extraordinaire Walter, and his delightful students. Good luck on the upcoming National Latin exam!

Galileo knew his mythology.  After discovering the four largest moons of Jupiter, he decided to name them, fittingly, after four famous loves of Zeus (Jupiter, to Romans): Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto. Of these four, Callisto’s story is the least well known, but maybe the most fascinating. Callisto (Kallisto in the Greek) was an Arcadian nymph, whose name literally means “most beautiful.”   Her father was the infamous and cruel Lycaon, whom Jupiter changed into a wolf as punishment for his savage and “wolfish” behavior.  He is often cited as a mythological precursor of the werewolf.

Lycaeon and Zeus

Zeus transforming Lycaeon to a wolf

Callisto preferred the woods to her father’s house.  She loved to hunt and became a favorite of the goddess Artemis, joining her band of nymphs and swearing to remain a virgin eternally.  Although today we might regard this as overly stringent, in the world of ancient mythology virginity meant freedom.  As one of Artemis’ virgins, she would never have to marry a man of her father’s choosing, and could remain without domestic responsibilities in the woods her entire life.

Unfortunately, like many beautiful nymphs, she caught the eye of Zeus.  By this point in myth history Zeus was getting cannier in his disguises.  Rather than transforming into a bull, or swan, Zeus decided to appear to the girl as Artemis herself.  Ovid describes the two women talking intimately, then “Artemis” begins kissing Callisto.


Artemis, goddess of the hunt, photo by Steffen Heilfort

It’s an electrifying moment, and an unusual one; there are very few surviving mentions of women loving women from the ancient world, simply because nearly all of the ancient writers were men.  The references that do survive are generally dismissive or disgusted.  But that is not that case here: Callisto welcomes her mistress’ passionate embrace.  For a moment it almost seems like we have stumbled upon a wonderful secret history.

But the audience knows better, because it isn’t Artemis at all–it’s Zeus.  The story gave its ancient readers just enough time to be intrigued, or titillated, or shocked before setting the world “right” again.  Callisto’s error is played for laughs: she thinks it’s Artemis who she likes, but fake out!  It’s really Zeus, who she doesn’t!

Zeus disguised as Artemis, with Callisto

Call me humorless, but I’m not laughing.  Zeus reveals himself, rapes Callisto, then vanishes.  The girl is doubly distraught—not only about the assault, but about the breaking of her oath of virginity to Artemis.  (This being the ancient world, it doesn’t matter that it was unwilling—the oath is broken all the same). She is all the more distressed when she learns that she is pregnant, and must hide the pregnancy from her sharp-eyed mistress as long as possible.

A suspicious Callisto, with Zeus-as-Artemis. By Rubens

We can see where this is going.  Artemis is notoriously unsympathetic and uncompromising about transgressions—witness her punishment of poor Actaeon for accidentally glimpsing her in the bath: he’s torn apart by his own dogs.  When Callisto takes off her dress to bathe, Artemis notices her belly.  She flies into a rage, and is joined by Hera, who is herself angry at Callisto for having slept with her husband. As usual, Hera doesn’t care whether it was consensual.  She turns the girl into a bear and Artemis kills her.  Zeus (where were you five minutes ago?) swoops down to rescue Callisto’s unborn child, a boy named Arcas.  And, in homage to the boy’s mother takes Callisto’s body and sets it in the sky as the “Great Bear”—Ursa Major. Her son, when he dies, joins her, becoming Ursa Minor.

Artemis discovers that Callisto is pregnant

That’s one version of the story—in another, Callisto flees into the woods in her new ursine form, living out her days as an animal.  Fast forward fifteen years or so.  Callisto’s son, Arcas, has grown up a gifted hunter, just like his mother.  He is wandering in the woods one day, and spots a bear.  Hoisting his javelin, he prepares to kill it with a single blow.  But as he is about to hurl the spear, Zeus stops him, not wanting him to be guilty of the sin of killing his own mother.  He whisks the two of them up to the heavens, transforming them into constellations.

Ursa Major

Ursa Major, the Great Bear

In later generations, Zeus’ embrace of Callisto while disguised as Artemis was the part of the story that really seemed to grab people’s imaginations.  Partially that’s because it was Ovid’s version, but surely also because of its frisson of transgression.  But for me the most moving and tragic part of the story is the moment after, when Callisto realizes what is really happening.  That she’s been tricked by Zeus, and is about to lose everything she holds dear—Artemis’ favor, her fidelity to her oath, her place in the world, even her humanity.  Becoming a constellation just doesn’t seem like recompense enough.

A final, completely different, thought.  Artemis seems to have been particularly associated with bears, and at her sanctuary at Brauron young girls would serve as “little bears” in a ritual to honor the goddess.  It’s a much nicer face of the goddess than Callisto sees.

I’m excited to announce that tomorrow (March 13th) is the kick-off of my US book tour.  If you’re in the area and interested, please join me!

My Trip to Troy

I recently wrote a “Traveler’s Tale” for the Wall Street Journal about the first time I visited the archaeological site of Troy.  The experience was absolutely amazing.  You can also see a slideshow of the trip here.

Orange Prize Longlist

I was delighted, and very honored, to find out that The Song of Achilles had been longlisted for the Orange Prize.  It is especially exciting to be in such amazing company:  fellow long-listees include Ann Patchett, for State of Wonder, Emma Donoghue for The Sealed Letter, Jane Harris for Gillespie and I, and Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan.  Here is the Guardian’s article about the entire longlist.


US Publication News

In just a handful of hours, The Song of Achilles will be officially released in the US!  Thrillingly, it has been chosen as a Best Book of the Month by Amazon, and a March Indie Next pick.  There are also some early reviews out, including O Magazine, The Bryn Mawr Classical Review, and the Historical Novels Society.  Here’s a taste of what they said:

“You don’t need to be familiar with Homer’s The Iliad (or Brad Pitt’s Troy, for that matter) to find Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles spellbinding. While classics scholar Miller meticulously follows Greek mythology, her explorations of ego, grief, and love’s many permutations are both familiar and new. —O Magazine, Liza Nelson

“Miller’s debut novel…is a tour de force of history, mythology, politics, and devotion… Readers may suffer from withdrawal as they reluctantly finish this book, and this reviewer hopes to see more soon from this talented author.” The Historical Novels Society, Editor’s Choice Review

“With this novel, we can fall in love again: for Madeline Miller has made blind Homer sing to her… It has the magnificence of myth; it has the passions of humanity.”  Bryn Mawr Classical Review, Catherine Conybeare

If you’re interested in reading more, visit my reviews page.  Meanwhile, I am counting down those hours!

Myth of the Week: Orpheus

Monday, March 5th, 2012

Most of the heroes in ancient Greek myth were known either for their exploits in war or their victories over terrifying monsters.  But two of the most famous ancient figures made their mark in other ways—Daedalus, the master craftsman, and Orpheus the great musician.  I love the stories of both of these men, but thanks to the excellent suggestion of reader Simon, I’m going to start with Orpheus.

Orpheus’ origins are obscure.  He was associated with the region of Thrace, north and east of Greece, and was most often said to be the child of the muse Calliope.  In some versions of the story his father is a king of Thrace, in others it’s Apollo, god of music himself.

Mosaic of Orpheus taming wild animals with his music

Orpheus was born with a god-like gift for music, able to sing and play the lyre so beautifully that even the rocks themselves wept. It was a popular trope in art, both ancient and modern, to show the great musician surrounded by formerly savage animals made tame by the sweetness of his music.

Orpheus was also a favorite subject of poets, especially since in the ancient world poems and songs synonymous.  That’s why Homer asks the muse to “sing of the rage of Achilles,” and why Vergil tells us he is going to “sing of arms and a man.”  The Iliad literally means “the song of Troy” (“Ili” means Troy, and “ad” here is the ancestor of our modern word “ode”).  Orpheus was the incarnation of a writer’s power, proof that you don’t need a club, or magic sandals–you could change the world with your words alone.

Orpheus enchanting the wild beasts, including a unicorn

Of course, any author who did take on Orpheus’ story had a true artistic challenge—were they going to try to create an example of one of Orpheus’ legendary songs?  I always find this a fascinating moment in art, when a character who is meant to be a genius at something must finally reveal their work.  Characteristically, Ovid dares to write for Orpheus—Vergil, ever modest, does not.  I love both of those ancient poets, but I have to say that if I were forced to pick one of them for the voice of Orpheus it would be Vergil.  I would believe it that he made the stones weep.

Orpheus falls in love with the beautiful nymph Eurydice, and the two make plans to wed. But on their wedding day, Eurydice steps on a snake, which bites her.  In some versions of the story, she doesn’t see the snake because she is dancing with her handmaidens; in Vergil’s version, she is fleeing Aristaeus, a young demi-god attempting to rape her.  Either way she is killed, and Orpheus is stricken with terrible and all-consuming grief.

Eurydice bitten by the snake

Vergil’s description of the mourning Orpheus is hauntingly beautiful, as he sits alone on the shore singing to his lost wife.  Part of what makes it so arresting is that Vergil addresses Eurydice herself, “he was singing to you, sweet wife” making the reader, Orpheus and Vergil all one.  He also echoes the sound of the “you” (“te,” in Latin) throughout the line, mirroring the repetitive nature of Orpheus’ longing.  It’s the type of effect that is nearly impossible to capture in translation, so here are the lines, in Latin, with the “te” sounds highlighted:

te, dulcis coniunx, te solo in litore secum,
te veniente die, te decedente canebat.

You, sweet wife, he was singing of you, by himself on the lonely shore,
you as day was coming, you as day was departing.

Orpheus decides on a desperate course of action—he will go into death itself to try to retrieve Eurydice.  Armed only with his lyre and his beautiful voice, Orpheus makes his way past every terrifying danger the underworld holds, from Cerberus to the crossing of the river Styx.  Finally he arrives at the court of Hades and Persephone, and begins to sing.  Ovid has an amazing description of the whole underworld stopping to listen—even those eternally tormented souls in the pit of Tartarus.  Tantalus no longer reaches for food and water, and Sisyphus sits upon his rock.  Moved to tears, the king and queen agree to release Eurydice on their one, famous condition: that as he leads Eurydice up to life again, he not turn to look at her.

Orpheus losing Eurydice to death a second time

As a child, I always found this part inexplicable—why couldn’t he look at her?  Were they just being cruel?  But as I got older I began to appreciate its allegorical resonance, like the story of Psyche, about human nature, and doubt, and trust.  It’s easy to say I would not have looked.  But if I really think about it, I can name half a dozen times in my life when I did, metaphorically, look back. Fortunately, I have never had to suffer the consequences Orpheus did for my fears.

Just as they are almost safely away, Orpheus is overcome with doubt about whether she is truly behind him.  Without thinking, he turns to look.  Her faithful shade immediately vanishes, and the devastated Orpheus attempts to return to Hades and rescue her again.  But this time the boatman Charon refuses to carry him across the river.  He sits on the shore starving, hoping for death, so that he may join Eurydice.  But the gods will not let him die. Reluctantly, he returns to the upper world, finding solace only in his music.  I am no musician myself, but I know how often I have turned to songs for comfort and understanding.  I love that this has been a part of humanity for as long as our myths go back.

A maenad attacks Orpheus, who clutches his lyre

Ovid adds an interesting twist to the story at this point.  He says that many women sought to replace Eurydice in Orpheus’ affections, but that Orpheus spurned them all, and turned instead to men, which was the origin of homosexuality in Thrace.  A fascinating detail, that he doesn’t delve into further.  But it does give him a transition to Orpheus’ unfortunate, grisly end.  A group of Maenads, female followers of Bacchus, are enraged by Orpheus’ rejection of women, and in their wine-sodden frenzy decide to tear him to pieces–a version of “if we can’t have him, no one can!”

As they approach him, Orpheus doesn’t run, only keeps playing his beautiful, mournful songs.  The Maenads throw rocks at him, but even the rocks are in love with Orpheus, and fall far short.  It is only when the Maenads begin to scream and beat their drums, drowning out Orpheus’ song, that they are able to attack him—and literally tear him apart.  Ovid, never one to spare a gruesome image, has Orpheus’ head float down the river, still singing.

Nymphs find the head of Orpheus

Eventually, all ends well.  Orpheus is reunited with his Eurydice in the underworld where, Ovid says, they may walk together, leading or following, and looking back as they please.  In framing the story this way, Ovid doesn’t use the allegorical resonance of looking back as a failure of trust.  Instead, he makes the story about the cruelty of life that can keep lovers apart.  Here, in the underworld, there is no bar to love.

The story of Orpheus and Eurydice has inspired numerous artists working in film, on the stage, and in print.  Most recently, I enjoyed Sarah Ruhl’s play “Eurydice” which takes the perspective of the story’s heroine, and adds the character of Eurydice’s dead father. Eurydice is poignantly torn between life and her lover, and staying with her beloved father.

I wish you all a very happy start to March, whichever direction you happen to be looking.