Myth of the Week: The Danaids

UPDATE: February 2018

I wrote this series of myth-and-classics posts several years ago, and finally decided to collect them all in one place. I have plans to add to these sometime in the near future. If you have characters you’d like to see me write about, drop me a line!

Monday, August 27th, 2012

It’s great to be back!  Lots of news to share, including the US paperback release (tomorrow!), and upcoming events in both the US and UK.  But first, the story of the Danaids, or Fifty Brides for Fifty Brothers.

The Greeks didn’t have a hell the way we think of it, but they did have Tartarus, a region of the underworld where ancient bad eggs were sent to suffer eternal torments.  It had several famous inhabitants, including Tantalus, Sisyphus and Ixion, each condemned for heinous crimes against the gods: Tantalus killed his son, cooked him into a meal, and then tried to trick the gods into eating it.  Sisyphus likewise mocked and deceived the gods, and Ixion attempted to rape the goddess Hera.  For his offense, Tantalus was condemned to raging thirst and hunger, with food and drink eternally just out of reach (the origin of our word, tantalize).  Ixion was suspended on a flaming wheel.  Sisyphus had to push a huge rock up a hill, which would inevitably roll back down just as he reached the top.

Sisyphus and his rock










But it wasn’t only men who ended up in Tartarus.  In Roman legends, there were also 49 women there, the daughters of a man called Danaus (hence their name, the Danaids, daughters of Danaus).  Their crime wasn’t against the gods but men: they murdered their husbands on their wedding night.  In order to wash the blood from their hands and be absolved they must fill a tub with water–a tub with holes in its bottom.   Forgiveness, in other words, is impossible.

The Danaids trying to fill their tub











The Danaids didn’t start out murderers.  Their father, Danaus, was a prince of Egypt, son of the great king Belus, who was in turn descended from Io—the Io who was turned into a cow and chased by a gadfly to Egypt.  One of the things that I find interesting about this story is how the ancient Greeks casually grafted their own mythology onto Egypt’s, claiming that the throne of mythological Egypt was ruled by Greeks.

Io as a cow, with Hermes on the left








Danaus and his twin brother Aegyptus were heirs to the Egyptian throne.  Danaus had fifty daughters, and Aegyptus fifty sons.  The two brothers fought incessantly over who was to rule, and eventually Aegyptus threatened Danaus, demanding that he marry off his daughters to Aegyptus’ sons.

Angry and frightened, Danaus fled with his daughters to Greece, with the fifty sons in hot pursuit.  Once there, Danaus seemed to have a change of heart, and agreed to the marriage.  How they decided which daughter would marry which son is unfortunately not in any version I could find.  Perhaps the method of distribution didn’t make the record because it was far less juicy than what followed: Danaus had only agreed in order to revenge himself upon his brother.  In secret, he gave each of his daughters a knife and commanded them, on their collective wedding night, to kill their husbands.  Forty-nine of his daughters obeyed, and dispatched their new spouses.  But the fiftieth, Hypermnestra, had fallen in love with her husband, Lynceus, and instead helped him escape.

A melancholy Hypermnestra, courtesy of Indiana University











Danaus was enraged by his daughter’s betrayal and imprisoned Hypermnestra—and this is where the story starts to fragment.  In some version Lynceus kills Danaus to free her and avenge his brothers.  In other versions, Danaus agrees to free Hypermnestra, and gives her to Lynceus (a bit less dramatic).  Either way, I am fascinated by this story—what was it about Hypermnestra that she couldn’t go through with it?  Or, maybe, what was it about Lynceus?  Answering that question would make for a great novel.  As would the fate of the other 49 sisters who aren’t whisked directly to Tartarus, but rather offered again in marriage. Their father, recognizing that potential suitors might not exactly be lining up, holds a foot race and unloads his tainted daughters as prizes.

A Danaid with her urn. Photo by Yair Haklai











The story’s overall message is clear: don’t murder your husband.  But more interesting to me is the way it dramatizes the conflict that many women must have felt between allegiance to their family and allegiance to their husbands.  How do you balance the demands of being a daughter and being a wife?  Where should your greatest loyalty lie, and how far should you go to honor it?  In the ancient world, this question would have had frighteningly high stakes: disobeying your father wasn’t just bad—it could be a killing offense, since the patriarch’s word was law.  Once a woman married, that power was supposed to transfer to her husband.  Yet the Danaids had been married against their will, and for less than a day.  Shouldn’t their father’s interests still prevail?  Forty-nine of the Danaids thought so.  Or perhaps that doesn’t give them enough credit for independent thought—perhaps they were cleverly striking a blow for their own power.  With Aegyptus’ sons gone, Danaus and his daughters would inherit the Egyptian throne uncontested.

Either way, it seems monstrously unfair that Danaus escaped the whole affair Tartarus-free.  No filling leaky tubs for him, even though the plan and weapons were his idea.  Unfair too, when we compare the Danaids’ crime with Tantalus and Sisyphus and Ixion: if you’re a man, you have to flout the gods to get condemned; if you’re a woman, killing your husband will do it.

In closing, I have to include the link to these amazing ancient punishment games, where you can try your hand at the Danaids’ task for yourself.  I hope that your week turns out to be better than theirs!

Atoms, Agony and Gallimimi

Monday, May 28th, 2012

I’m sitting in the Boston airport as I type this, waiting for my flight to London to attend the Orange Prize shortlist reception and start my UK paperback tour.  Very exciting!  It seemed like the perfect time to post something on etymologies (isn’t it always a good time for etymology?)  And hopefully next week I’ll be back with a myth as well.

Those of you who follow this blog know my feelings about snakes, but this is such a great etymology that I couldn’t resist.  Herpetology, or the study of reptiles, snakes and amphibians, comes from the ancient Greek “herpo” which means to creep, crawl or slither.  In other words, Herpetology is “the study of creepers.”  Interestingly enough, in the ancient world, this didn’t just mean snakes and their ilk.  The Greek noun herpuster could refer to a reptile or a crawling child. Hmmm.

A creeping salamander. Photo by Patrick Coin

What really makes this etymology cool is the fact that the “h” sound in Greek very often became “s” in its Latin counterpart.  So “herpo” became “serpo,” also meaning to slither.  And from there we, of course, get our English word serpent.  Other examples of the “h” to “s” change include hept- (Greek root for seven) and Latin sept-, as well as “hals” which is the Greek for salt, which becomes Latin “sal.”

Thersitical.  This one isn’t really etymology, but eponym. Thersitical, which means loud-mouthed, rude, and foul, is named after Thersites who was a loud-mouthed, rude and foul character in the Iliad.  He’s the only common soldier who dares to stand up to the kings and tell them what he really thinks; in return, Odysseus beats him savagely.   He also plays an amazing role in Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida, where he steals every scene he’s in with his bitter, angry and hilarious diatribes against the hypocrisy he sees around him.  Among many other acid observation he notes that “Agamemnon is an honest fellow enough…but he has not so much brain as earwax” and that Achilles has “too much blood and too little brain.”  In his most famous line, he sums up the Trojans and Greeks alike: “lechery, lechery, still wars and lechery.  Nothing else holds fashion!”

Two fighters in an all-out agon. Photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen

In its modern English usage, agony has come to be an exclusively negative word, but in its original Greek sense, it simply meant “contest”—most often in the physical sense.  A boxing match, for instance, was an agon, as was a race—any situation in which contestants strove to beat each other.   From this we also get the word “antagonist” which originally just meant opponent—the person against you in the agon.  So, although agony is something you suffer in English, I prefer the Greek, where it seems like something you can fight, and maybe win.

Atom.  This is a very old word, used by Greek and Roman philosophers to refer to the smallest particles imaginable—the foundation stones that built everything else, and so were themselves “unsplittable”—from “a” (not) and “tomos” (cut).  Of course, nowadays we know that atoms can be split.  But I like that the name remains anyway—in homage to the amazing ancient philosophers who had the foresight to imagine that the world was made up of things they couldn’t see.

Epicurus, an ancient Greek philosopher who taught about atoms.

Gallimimus is a ostrich-like dinosaur, whose name is actually Latin, from gallus, meaning chicken, and mimus, meaning mimic—but Latin mimus is itself derived from the Greek mimos, which means an actor or mimic, so I felt like it still counted.  And, of course, our word “mime” also comes from it.  For all you Jurassic Park fans out there, Gallimimus makes a brief cameo in the first movie: “they’re flocking this way!”

A young gallimimus skeleton. Photo credit, Eduard Solà

I wish you all a wonderful week and (those in the US) a great Memorial Day weekend!

Greek Etymology for the Week

Monday, May 6th, 2012

Happy May!  Here are five more etymologies to kick off the week.

Cacophony.  This word, meaning terrible, dissonant noise, is literally just the Greek for “bad sounding” or “bad speaking”—kakos means bad, and phon– speaking.  Phon- shows up elsewhere in English, most notable in telephone (far speaking), and in cacophony’s opposite, euphony (good speaking/sounding).  By the way, those of you who are Buffy the Vampire Slayer fans can rest assured that Joss Whedon knows his Greek: one of the show’s Big Bads is an old vampire named Kakistos—the superlative of kakos—which literally means the worst.

The vampire Kakistos, from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Portrayed by Jeremy Roberts

Rhinoceros. A favorite zoo animal from my childhood was the great, saggy-armored rhinoceros, whose name comes right from ancient Greek. Rhinos is the word for nose and ceros means horn.  So, a rhinoceros is appropriately named for its most distinctive feature, its “nose-horn.”  Rhino- also shows up in several other English compounds, most commonly in rhinoplasty, or nose job.

A White Rhino mother and her baby. Photo credit, Zigomar

Rhapsody.  This lovely word has an equally lovely origin.  In ancient Greece, a “rhapsode” was a bard who traveled from town to town performing epic poetry, most often stories from Homer.  The word rhapsode itself has a further etymology, from the Greek “rhapt-” which means to stitch or sew, and “oid-” meaning song.  The job of the bards was to stitch together different pieces of verse to create a whole piece that would go over well with that night’s particular audience.

An ancient performer, with lyre. Photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen

Moron.  It has always tickled me that this petty playground insult is right out of the ancient world.  It’s from the Greek moros, meaning stupid or foolish.

Pterodactyl.  The dinosaur of the week is pterodactyl, whose name derives from the ancient Greek word for wing or feather, “pteron,“ and “dactyl” which means finger.   Put together, the two make the “winged finger” dinosaur we’ve come to know and love.  As a very young child I had trouble pronouncing this word, usually turning it into “petrodactyl.”  Stone finger?  Certainly would make it harder to fly….A pterodactyl skeleton.  Photo by Liné1

I wish you all a happy and high-flying week!

Greek Etymologies II

Monday, April 30th, 2012

Hello California!  I’m excited to be starting the CA leg of my tour, and if you’re in LA, San Francisco or San Diego and want to hear me speak here are the details of the events.

Rather than a Myth of the Week, I thought I would do another post on modern words with ancient roots.  Below are five more of my favorites.


The Liberty Bell, a Philadelphia symbol

Philadelphia.  When I moved to Philadelphia from New York City, I was thirteen and deeply reluctant. For one thing, I was leaving all my friends behind.  For another, the city seemed spookily deserted to me after the bustle of Manhattan.  In my terrible teenage way, I was particularly irritated by Philadelphia’s cheery, ever-present slogan: The City of Brotherly Love!

But then I started taking Greek, and realized that the phrase isn’t some pollyanna PR line, it’s the literal translation of Philadephia. Phil—is the Greek root for love, and adelphos is the word for brother.  Well.  That shut me up.  The moral of the story?  All sulky teens need is a little ancient Greek.

Psychopomp/Psychopompos.  This word doesn’t get very much airtime nowadays, but I think it should.  A psychopomp is a being whose job it is to guide the souls of the dead to the afterlife, and in ancient Greece this was the messenger god Hermes, whose epithet was Psychopompos.  It comes from the Greek word psyche, meaning soul, which has found its way into English in all sorts of compounds, including psychiatrist—a word which literally means “soul doctor” (iatros is Greek for doctor).  In a lovely bit of metaphor, psyche is also the Greek word for butterfly.

Hermes (at left) on a vase-painting

The pomp– part comes from the Greek for escort, or guide, and can refer to either a single escort, or an entire cohort, making it the root of our “pomp” in pomp and circumstance.  So, psychopomp literally means soul-guide. By the way, this word frequently provokes hilarity among my Greek students: “Dude, that guy was psycho pompous!”

Apocalypse.  This word comes from the Greek roots apo (away from, or un-), and calypto (cover, conceal).  So it literally means an uncovering, or, in the biblical sense, revelation.  The “calyps” part of apocalypse is the exact same root as the name Calpyso, the nymph from the Odyssey who holds Odysseus (sort of) against his will for seven years.  She is the opposite of revelation—a being who uses obfuscation and wiles to keep Odysseus with her, rather than helping him on his journey home.

The nymph Calypso offering Odysseus immortality if he will stay and be her love

Pachycephalosaurus.  What could be better than giant lizards that bonk each other in the head?  If you answered “nothing,” then pachycephalosaurus is the dinosaur for you.  Pachy- means thick, or stout; cephal- means head and saurus is our old friend lizard.  Which makes pachycephalosaurus one hard-headed lizard.  These dinosaurs had a domed, extra-thick skull plate that, according to some scientists, they would use to batter each other with, kind of the way rams do.

Both pachy– and cephal– show up elsewhere in English.  Pachy- is part of “pachyderm” literally, thick-skin, another word for elephant.  Cephal– goes into all sorts of medical diagnoses like “encephalitis.”  But the important thing to remember, I think, is that there were dinosaurs who developed extra-thick heads because they liked to whack into things.

The skull of a pachycephalosaurus. Photo credit to user Ballista from English wikipedia

Gubernatorial, “relating to a governor,” is one of my favorite words, because its context is almost always serious, yet you’re still saying the word “goober.”  As a child it was classed in my mind with avuncular—another intimidating word that turned out to have a really easy meaning (uncle-ish).

Gubernatorial comes from the Greek kubernetes (koo-ber-nay-tays), which originally meant captain of a ship.  Over time, the “k” blurred with its close cousin “g” (both sounds made against the palate), and produced the goober sound that we all know and love.  Linguistically the “b” in the middle of the word is closely associated with “v” so it was just an easy step to “governor” from there.

By the way, if you’re looking for a factoid for your next cocktail party, try this: the honors society “phi beta kappa” is actually a Greek acronym for the following phrase: philosophia biou kubernetes—“Love of learning is the guide (captain) of life.”

Have a great week!

Myth of the Week: Atalanta

Monday, April 23rd, 2012

As a child reading myth-books, I found heroines to be thin on the ground.  I’ve written before about how much I loved the goddess Athena, but I also yearned for powerful female mortals as well.  Unfortunately, my early myth books contained only one such woman.  The good news?  It was Atalanta, and she was straight-up amazing.

Atalanta the huntress

Atalanta was born the daughter of a king, but her father, who had wanted a son, exposed her to die in the wilderness. Instead, she was adopted by a mother-bear, who nursed and raised her.  Atalanta grew up to be a master hunter and athlete, particularly known for her fleetness of foot.  She was supposed to be so simultaneously beautiful and terrifying that all who saw her were struck dumb. She could hold her own against any man, and her name itself is the perfect retort to her father’s prejudice: it means “of equal weight.”

I didn’t have much in common with Atalanta–I was horribly slow when we ran laps in gym class, and the thought of hunting animals horrified me–but that didn’t stop me from loving her.  I especially appreciated the fact that she never went begging back to her ungrateful father, but chose to go off and make her fortune as a free hero. The first proof of her mettle came when she was attacked by two brutal centaurs, and single-handedly killed them both.

A golden Atalanta, with the Calydonian boar's head at her side.

Next she joined the Calydonian Boar hunt, organized for all the greatest heroes of the day.  Atalanta didn’t strike the fatal blow against the monstrous animal, but she was the first to wound it, and in honor of her courage, the hero Meleager awarded her the boar-skin.  Not everyone was pleased with this decision, and it ended up leading to Meleager’s death.  A story for another time!

Thanks to her prowess with arms, Atalanta was also invited to join Jason and his Argonauts in their quest for the Golden Fleece.  Sadly, after being listed as one of the heroes involved, she doesn’t really figure in any of the rest of the adventures.  It would be interesting to read an account of the whole myth from her perspective—there’s a novel in that, for sure!

Atalanta wrestles Peleus, Achilles' father

One of my favorite stories about Atalanta is her famous wrestling match with Peleus, Achilles’ father.  As some of you may know from my book, Peleus was quite the wrestler—strong enough to have beaten the goddess Thetis.  But when Atalanta challenged him?  She defeated him thoroughly, and their bout became a popular scene in art.

Thanks to her growing fame, Atalanta’s father decided that, actually, he wanted his daughter after all.  He formally acknowledged her, then exercised his paternal right to marry her off.  Atalanta, enraged, said that first her suitors would have to beat her in a footrace.  If they lost, they would be put to death.  Atalanta’s ruthless father thought that that sounded just fine—he’d still get to keep their courting gifts, after all.

Several (I can’t help but think foolish) young men decided to try their feet against Atalanta’s.  All of them lost until a young man named Hippomenes (or Melanion in other versions), prayed to the goddess of love, Aphrodite, to aid him.   She gave him three magical, golden apples from the Garden of the Hesperides, and told him that if he threw them to the side during the race, Atalanta would be sure to go after them, allowing him to beat her.

Atalanta, stooping to pick up the golden apple, as Hippomenes runs ahead

When I was really young, this part of the story baffled me, because it seemed so out of character for Atalanta to care about gold.  After all, this is the same woman who grew up roughing it and drinking bear milk, with no need for princess-comforts.  It wasn’t until I got older that I understood that the apples were the ultimate symbol of heroic distinction—retrieving one is even one of the labors of Hercules—and they would have tempted any serious fame-hungry hero.  Her desire to have them is of a kind with her desire to display the Calydonian boar-skin she won.

Aphrodite’s cheat works, and Hippomenes wins the race.  For some reasons, Atalanta doesn’t seem to hold it against him—perhaps she approves of his cleverness, as well as his athleticism.  Further, he seems to appreciate her: rather than trying to turn her into a traditional ancient wife, the two become comrades in hunting together.

In my childhood myth-books, this was where the story always ended, which gave me the impression that Atalanta’s life concluded happily.  Some years later, I was startled to discover that there’s more to the tale—a bizarre and racy ending that goes like this: Atalanta and Hippomenes are out hunting one day when they are overcome by intense desire for each other.  In some versions this is because Hippomenes didn’t properly thank Aphrodite for her help with the golden apples, and the goddess is getting her revenge.  In others it’s simply because they are in love.  They begin coupling, and are so distracted by pleasure that they don’t notice that they are lying together within the bounds of a god’s temple (depending on the version, the god could be Aphrodite, Zeus, or even the Eastern goddess Cybele).  Sex in a sanctuary was considered blasphemous pollution, or miasma, as the Greeks called it, and punishment was swift.  The angry god/goddess turns the two of them into lions as punishment.  The End.

A lion. Photo by Wwelles14

Strange, right?  And hard to parse, I think, beyond the obvious message: don’t have sex in a temple.  The only consolation is that at least the god/goddess picked an appropriate animal–I think the punishment would have been a lot worse if the famous, beloved huntress had been turned into, say, a chicken.

I just can’t close this myth without mentioning Marlo Thomas’ “Princess Atalanta” story from Free to Be You and Me.  I don’t know about you, but I listened to that tape over and over and over again as a child.  Here’s the animated version with Marlo Thomas and Alan Alda (!) doing the voices.

By the way, thanks to everyone for their comments about last week’s Greek etymology post.  I promise there are more like that coming!

Myth of the Week: Atlas

Monday, April 9th, 2012

As a child in New York City, I had numerous opportunities to walk past the huge statue of Atlas holding up the world in front of Rockefeller center.  I would always wonder: “But what is Atlas standing on?”

Statue of Atlas, at Rockefeller center. Photo by Sami Cetinkaya

Though I didn’t know it at the time, it was an age-old question.  If Atlas, or four elephants, or a turtle (all in various mythologies) are holding up the world, what’s holding them up?  In a possibly apocryphal story from modern physics, a scientist has just finished delivering a lecture about the nature of the cosmos, and an old woman raises her hand and says that he’s wrong, the world is really balanced on the back of a giant turtle. The scientist asks, “Then what’s the turtle balanced on?”  The old lady famously retorts, “It’s turtles all the way down.”  Except in this case, I guess the answer is: “Atlases all the way down.”

As I got older, and read more of the mythology, I realized that the ancient Greek version of this story is a lot more clear than that.  In the original Greek, Atlas isn’t holding up the world at all, he’s holding up the sky.  Ah-ha!  Now that made sense.

Statue of Atlas with the World

Atlas was a second-generation Titan, the race of gods that ruled before Zeus and his Olympian kin took over.  His father was Iapetus, which makes him the brother to one of my favorite mythological figures of all time, Prometheus. From birth Atlas was exceptionally strong, and when war broke out between the Titans and Olympians, Atlas took vigorous part on the Titan side.  Too vigorous, as it turns out, because after the Titans were defeated, Zeus felt threatened by Atlas’ mighty strength, and sentenced him to hold up the vault of the sky for all eternity. No wonder his name is derived from the Greek word for “enduring.”

For aeons, Atlas stood in the garden of the Hesperides, at the far edge of the world, holding up the sky.  He wasn’t entirely alone: there were the nymphs of the garden (the Hesperides), who tended to a golden apple tree, which was also guarded by a fearsome dragon.  And sometime during all of this (probably before the whole holding up the sky thing) Atlas managed to have children, including the goddess Calypso, who would later seduce Odysseus on her enchanted island, and Maia, who was the mother of Hermes.

Hercules holding up the World, with Atlas beside him

Atlas had visitors too, including Heracles, who needed the golden apples to fulfill one of his famous labors.  Heracles managed to slay the dragon guarding the tree, but needed a god to do the actual picking for him.  He offered to take the great weight of Heaven off of Atlas’ shoulders for a few moments, in return for the god retrieving the apple for him.  Atlas gratefully agreed.  But after picking the apples, Atlas realized that he didn’t want to go back to literally carrying the weight of the world.

No problem, Heracles said.  He was happy to keep holding up the heavens, but would Atlas mind taking it back for just one second so he can make a pad for his shoulders with his lionskin?

Oh, Atlas.  The brains of the family definitely went to Prometheus, because the Titan agreed.  I always feel sorry for Atlas at this moment, because his actions, however, foolish, come from empathy.  After all, who understands better the crushing and terrible weight of the sky?  He’s one of those people about which great movies are made—they commit a crime out of desperation, but don’t really have what it takes to follow through.  Heracles picks up the apples, and leaves the Titan to his suffering.

NASA photo of the Atlas Mountains

In a later story,  Perseus uses Medusa’s head to turn the Titan into stone, creating the Atlas mountains.  In many of the retellings this is meant to be Perseus retaliating (Atlas won’t let him pass), but it seems like a kindness to me.  I know if I had to hold up the sky, I’d definitely rather be a mountain than a person.

Because of his association with holding up the sky, Atlas also became linked to the poles and the constellations.  In fact, in some versions of the myth he’s an expert astronomer and map-maker, which is what gives us our word atlas today.  For a modern interpretation of the Atlas story, check out Jeanette Winterson’s “Weight” which is part of the wonderful Canongate Myth series.

I wish you all a good week, without too much extra weight on your shoulders!

Myth of the Week: Arachne

Monday, April 2nd, 2012

One of the earliest Greeks myths I remember is the story of the artist Arachne, whose name means “spider” in Greek.  Back then, it seemed fairly standard: hubris, a confrontation with a god, transformation as punishment (to, unsurprisingly, a spider), with some natural explanation thrown in (this is why spiders spin webs!)

A spider's web, with raindrops on it. Photo by Wusel007

But when I got a bit older, and read Ovid’s full version of the myth, Arachne quickly became one of my favorite heroines.  First of all, she’s one of the few ancient females who isn’t a princess or beautiful nymph.  She’s the daughter of a tradesman, a Lydian dye-merchant, with no noble connections, nor extraordinary looks.  She is famous, Ovid tells us, for her skill in weaving alone.  I particularly love his description of her at her loom—how gracefully and deftly she handles the threads, how the nymphs abandon their fields and forests to come stare in awe.  I have always found it so pleasurable to watch someone do something that they are truly gifted at, and Ovid captures that feeling perfectly.

Arachne is relentlessly proud of her excellence, and defiant in the face of attempts to cow her into modesty.  She is, she says, as skilled as Athena in her work.  Why should she lie and say she is not?  There aren’t too many heroines in ancient literature who are so single-minded and proud–usually those characteristics are identified with men like Achilles and Ajax.  In fact, that comparison does her a bit of a disservice, since her rebelliousness and pride are actually much more deliberate and intellectual than either of those two heroes (much as I love them).  A better comparison might be another favorite of mine, Pentheus, the ill-fated King of Thebes, who loses his life standing up to Dionysus.  Like him, Arachne dares to criticize the gods, and doesn’t back down even when threatened.  Foolish?  Maybe.  But also principled and courageous.

Athena vanquishing the giant Enceladus

The gods, of course, never like to be challenged, and Athena is known for being particularly vicious towards rivals. She decides to pay a visit to Arachne, disguised as an old woman, warning the girl that she must learn to acknowledge the goddess’ superiority.  But Arachne dismisses her–why should she acknowledge Athena?  She hasn’t met the goddess, nor seen her weaving.  And she has supreme faith in her own powers.  “Let her come!” she says.  And Athena (the gods do love their dramatic revelations) throws off her disguise declaring “She is here!”

The contest is on.  And it’s a testament to Ovid’s skill as a poet that what should be exceedingly boring (a long, lingering description of the two women weaving) becomes an edge-of-the-seat fireworks display.  Ovid spends every bit of his prodigious skill evoking the vivid colors and beauty of the materials, before moving on to the astonishing pictures taking shape on the rival tapestries.  Because, of course, this isn’t just about beauty: it’s an intellectual debate about whether humans have the right to challenge gods.

Athena attacking Arachne, after the contest

Athena’s cloth is a gorgeous depiction of the gods in their full glory, looking on at the scene of her triumph over Poseidon in the contest for Athens.  In the four corners of the tapestry, she weaves four admonitory scenes of humans who dared to compare themselves with gods, and the bad ends that each came to.  But Arachne’s cloth shows something else entirely: not the gods in triumph, but the gods as clowns.  Each part reveals the gods behaving badly.  There are several episodes of Zeus in goatish pursuit of nymphs, along with other undignified affairs of the immortals.  Her message is clear: the gods are not all they say they are; they are ignoble, embarrassing, childish. More flawed, in fact, than humans. Arachne had guts.

When it comes time to judge the quality of the two works, it would have been easy for Ovid to simply have Arachne lose. She is human, after all, and so it would be expected that her work would be lesser. But Ovid doesn’t do that.  Arachne’s work, he says, is utterly flawless.  Not even Athena’s envy can find a single error in it.  The girl, if she hasn’t won, has at the very least tied. Athena is utterly enraged–both by the work’s perfection, and by its blasphemous content.   One might think that as the goddess of reason and intelligence, Athena would find a way to teach the girl a lesson, to argue her into submission.  But instead, she only proves Arachne’s point that the gods are imperfect and irrational: she tears Arachne’s beautiful weaving all to pieces.  Can there be a greater testament to Arachne’s intellectual triumph?  The great Athena is speechless, reduced to a tantrum-throwing child.

Arachne as a spider (a particularly creepy depiction, I think)

In the version of the story that I read when I was young, Athena turns the girl into a spider at this point, as punishment.  But the full version is much darker, and more interesting.  Athena, after tearing apart the tapestry, seizes the spindle and beats the girl with it.  Arachne is now herself enraged, and decides to hang herself.  It’s a moment that doesn’t read very well in our modern world, where suicide is often equated with giving up.  But in the context of the ancient world, suicide was what warriors did, when they refused to accept defeat.  It said, in effect: only I can defeat myself.  And in that sense, it is a perfect fit for bold, uncompromising Arachne.

But Athena is a god, so she gets the last word.   She pities the dying girl (I like to think that she finally recognizes the toughness of a kindred spirit), and saves Arachne’s life, transforming her to a spider.  Arachne is allowed to keep her extraordinary skill at weaving–or maybe Athena lacks the power to take it from her.  What Arachne thinks of this we never find out, but Arachne and her descendants continue to spin their beautiful, miraculous creations to this day.

Another famous weaver: Odysseus' wife Penelope at her loom

I recognize that there is, of course, another way to read this story–as a tale of immoderate hubris, of foolish, reckless arrogance.  But even read that way, I still can’t help rooting for Arachne–the ordinary girl with the soul of a warrior, who was able to beat a goddess.

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!

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!