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.

Myth of the Week: Athena

Monday, February 27th, 2012

Like a lot of bookish, myth-reading girls, Athena was my hero.  After all, what wasn’t to love about this goddess?  She was brilliant, bold, wore amazing armor, and could hold her own against even the greatest Olympian gods.  Her powers—of strategy, craftsmanship and wisdom—were all things I wanted to be good at too.

One of my favorite stories is the one about her birth—bursting, full-grown, from her father’s head.  Her mother, Metis, was the goddess of wisdom and cunning, and Zeus’ first wife (before Hera).  Unfortunately, a prophecy revealed that she would give birth to two children—one a daughter, and the second a son, who would grow up to be greater than Zeus himself. The ever-insecure Zeus decided to diffuse the problem by swallowing Metis whole, with the side benefit of taking her wisdom for himself.

Athena bursting fully armed from Zeus' head

But nine months later Zeus was struck down with an agonizing headache.  Ever-helpful son Hephaestus seized his ax, and split open Zeus’ head. From the cleft leapt his daughter Athena, gray-eyed goddess of wisdom.  Like her half-sister Artemis, she announced that she would be remaining a virgin, and unmarried. Quickly, she became one of her father’s most trusted counselors, often sitting on his right hand to offer advice.  She never rebelled against her father, so we don’t know if she was in fact greater than he was—but there was a legend that her aegis (breastplate), was so strong that even Zeus’ thunderbolt couldn’t pierce it.  The dreaded son never manifests.

Athena armed and wearing her aegis

Athena also proved her mettle during the war against the Giants and Titans, where she was one of the most powerful warriors on the Olympian side. According to some myths, she battled the fire-breathing giant Enceladus, at last hurling the island of Sicily upon him, beneath which he still vents his smoky breath (Mount Etna).  She also battled the giant Pallas, and in one myth, skinned him alive to make her powerful aegis—the same breastplate that she would later affix with the head of the Gorgon Medusa.  She also added the giant’s name to her own as a trophy, which is why she’s often referred to as “Pallas” or “Pallas Athena.”

Pallas Athena

One of the most famous legends about Athena is how she came to be patron of the great city of Athens.  Both she and her uncle Poseidon wanted the city for themselves, and they decided to hold a contest: whoever could give the city the most useful gift would get to have it.  Poseidon struck the ground with his trident, and a spring of salt water bubbled up.  Impressive yes, but useful?  No.

When it was her turn, the ever-wise Athena gave the city an olive tree, which not only provided food, but also olive oil, wood, and (very important in Greece) shade.  The decision went unanimously in her favor.  Did Poseidon really think he had a chance?  Also, Athens sounds a lot better than “Poseidons.”

Statue of Athena

Athena was also known for being a great champion of heroes—aside from her favorite of favorites, Odysseus, she lent a hand to Perseus, Diomedes, Hercules, Bellerophon, Orestes, the master craftsman Daedalus (surely a hero after her own heart), and many more.

Her most famous epithet is “grey-eyed” (glaucopis).  But she was also known by other names—daughter of Zeus, craftswoman, and interestingly, horsewoman (hippia).  Her uncle Poseidon may have been the god of horses, but Athena was the god of horse-taming.  Among her many other accomplishments, she helped inspire the bridle.

Athena with Pegasus, who was tamed thanks to a golden bridle

For all my Athena-love, as I got older, I started to recognize other sides to the goddess.  Yes, she could be a hero’s best support, but she could also be terrifyingly ruthless, as in her treatment of Medusa, or Arachne, or how she impales Ajax the lesser on a rock (though, frankly, he had it coming—more on that later).  It’s also interesting to note that nearly all of those she favored were men, Odysseus’ clever wife Penelope excepted. One thing is clear; she isn’t a goddess of wisdom in the mold of Prometheus, who sees himself as a universal protector of human kind.  Instead, she is a strict mistress who favors only those who have earned—and who work to keep—her good will.

Athena also figures prominently in the story of the golden apple, being one of the three goddesses in competition for the prize of “most beautiful.”  I’ve always been vaguely disappointed in Athena that she cared about this—it seems beneath her dignity, somehow.  Maybe she should have taken her cue from her little sister Artemis, and left it to Hera and Aphrodite to battle out.

Athena dressing, with her armor on the floor.

Each of the goddesses offers the judge, the Trojan prince Paris, a bribe to convince him to choose them.  Hera offers power (she’s queen of the gods, after all), Aphrodite offers the most beautiful woman in the world to be his wife (Helen, who’s—whoops!—already married), and Athena offers to make him the wisest man in the world. Paris chooses Aphrodite, of course, but as one of my middle school students pointed out: “That was really dumb.  He should have taken wisdom.  If you’re smart enough, you could figure out how to get everything else.”  No one ever accused Paris of being an intellectual giant.

In vengeance for the slight, Athena becomes a fierce defender of the Greek army, and is involved in one of my favorite minor episodes in the Iliad.  With Achilles on the bench, Athena decides to invest the clever Diomedes with divine strength and send him out to kill Trojans.  But, she warns him, he should be very careful whom he’s stabbing—there are gods fighting in the fray, and he wouldn’t want to accidentally attack a god.  Unless, that is, he sees Aphrodite.  He can go ahead and stab her.  (Yet again: don’t get on Athena’s bad side).

Paris awarding the golden apple to Aphrodite (Athena's on the far right, looking annoyed)

Diomedes wades into battle, suffused with the goddess’ power, and finds himself facing the Trojan hero Aeneas, son of Aphrodite.  He beats Aeneas badly, hurling a rock at him that crushes the Trojan’s hip.  When Aphrodite swoops down to bear him away to safety, Diomedes sees his chance and stabs her in the wrist.  Aphrodite screams and abandons her son, fleeing off to Mount Olympus (luckily for Aeneas, Apollo comes to his rescue).  Aphrodite sobs in her mother Dione’s lap, while Hera and Athena look on scornfully. Athena taunts her by asking if she scratched herself with a pin.  I kind of have to go with Athena on this one—Aphrodite shows herself to be pretty wimpy, given that the wound heals almost instantly.

A little later in the fight, Athena aids Diomedes again, tossing his charioteer out in order to take the reins herself.  She leads him against Ares, using her power to help him stab the god of war–who goes up to Olympus to complain to Zeus that he lets Athena get away with anything.  (Zeus retorts that Ares is his least favorite child, and should stop whining).

Bust of Athena, photo by Vitold Muratov

Athena makes some wonderful appearances in Zachary Mason’s “Lost Books of the Odyssey,” but sadly I don’t know of any other modern novels that feature her.  Let me know if you do!

I wish you all a very wise week!

Myth of the Week: Psyche and Eros

Monday, February 20th, 2012

Maybe it’s just the dark and cold of February getting to me, but it seems like a good time of the year for love stories.  This one comes at the suggestion of the lovely Kayleigh and Sam: the story of Psyche and Eros.

Eros and Psyche has proved one of most enduring and beloved Greek myths.  Partially, I think its popularity stems from the combination of its specific, romantic story, and its allegorical implications— the two main characters have names that literally mean “Soul” and “Desire.” So you can see why those interested in myth and psychology, like Carl Jung, loved it.

Eros and Psyche, by a favorite painter of mine, William-Adolphe Bouguereau

For me the story has always felt more fairy-tale than Greek myth. There are jealous sisters, quests of penance, helpful animals, and a supposedly-hideous monster who turns out to be a handsome god.  And, as I noted last week, it is one of the few love stories in mythology with a happy ending.  The first extant version of it is by a Roman author, Apuleius, but I’m going to use the Greek names throughout (Eros, rather than Cupid, and Aphrodite, rather than Venus).

The story begins with Psyche, a girl so surpassingly beautiful that the neighbors mistake her for Aphrodite and begin to worship her.  This only makes Psyche miserable.  Not only is she worried that Aphrodite will be angry with her, she’s desperately lonely—her beauty is so intimidating, no one will speak to her.  She envies her plainer sisters, who each have husbands and families already.

Aphrodite, goddess of love, and her winged son Eros

This doesn’t, of course, stop Aphrodite from being enraged when she hears that her rightful worship is being diverted to a mere mortal.  She orders her son, Eros, to go and punish the girl by—a touch of Midsummer Night’s Dream—making her fall in love with the most hideous creature imaginable. One of the creepiest details of the story is that, after asking him this, Aphrodite kisses her son “with open mouth for a long time.”  I guess this is what it’s like if your mother is the goddess of love?

Meanwhile, back on earth, Psyche’s father has consulted Apollo’s oracle about what he should do with his beautiful, but apparently unmarriagable daughter.  The oracle tells him that Psyche is destined to marry a hideous, flying snake-creature, and the only way to appease the angry gods is to tie her to a mountain crag and let the creature carry her off. The father obeys, dressing his daughter in bridal finery, and sending her to the mountain.

Eros and an enraptured Psyche

Up on the rock, it turns out that there isn’t a snake-creature after all, only the (invisible) god Eros, waiting to avenge his mother.  But instead of punishing Psyche, he falls madly in love with her.  He tells the west wind, Zephyr, to waft her to his palace—a beautiful place of gold, marble and jewels, filled with luxuries and helpful invisible servants.  Definitely some strains of this filtered into the story of Beauty and the Beast.  The servants feed and bathe the girl, then lead her to her bedroom and let her know that their master, her new husband, will come to visit her that evening.  Which, if this were a realistic story, would be a frightening announcement.

Cupid and Psyche as husband and wife

But this is a fairy-tale, and we know that the husband is Eros, and that Psyche will of course fall in love with him–he is the god of desire, after all.  The two consummate their love that night, though in total darkness because Eros has forbidden her to look at him.   An interesting moment that could be taken a lot of different ways, the most appealing of which is that love is about trust: having faith in your feelings for the other person, rather than obsessing about appearances.  But (maybe it’s the cynic in me) I can’t ever completely ignore the other interpretation—that Psyche, as a woman, is supposed to blindly trust her husband, and obey him without question.

Eros, with sleeping Psyche. I find this painting hilarious. The adolescent expression on Eros' face is amazing.

And so it goes.  Psyche spends her nights with her beloved but unseen husband, and her days alone (except for the invisible servants).  After a time, she asks her husband if she may invite her sisters for a visit.  He warns her to be careful of them, but innocent, trusting Psyche doesn’t believe him.  Already envious of their sister’s greater beauty, the two are enraged by her further good fortune.  They decide to try to destroy her relationship with her new husband, by implying that he’s a hideous monster. They convince her that she must get a look at him, so she can know for sure.

Psyche and Eros

Of course, on some level, Psyche does already know—after all, she’s been sleeping with him at night and it’s difficult to mistake a handsome human body for a hideous snake creature when everybody’s naked.  But the moment still resonates.  It speaks to a universal human experience—struggling to trust our own understanding, in the face of familial or societal pressure.  It is always harder to do than we think it will be.  If I had been Psyche, I probably would have looked.

That night, Psyche waits until her husband has fallen asleep, and lights the oil lamp.  She finds not a hideous monster, but a divinely beautiful young man.  She is so entranced that she doesn’t notice the hot oil begin to spill from the lamp.  It falls on Eros, waking him.  He leaps from the bed, tells her that she has ruined everything, and flies away.  Without faith there can be no love.

Psyche, lifting the lamp to see her lover, and waking him with the spill of hot oil

Poor Psyche wanders from place to place, searching in vain for her husband.  Her sisters are delighted by her misfortune, and both rush to the crag where Psyche had been carried off. They leap from it, expecting to be wafted to the god’s bedchamber to take her place.  Instead, they smash on the stones below.  Of all the ends of evil sisters in fairy-tales, that’s definitely one of the more decisive.

Psyche decides to pray to Aphrodite, hoping that she will intervene with her son.  But Aphrodite is still angry about the girl’s beauty, and jealous of her son’s love for her.  She says that she will help the girl, as long as Psyche performs several tasks as penance.  Here is where the fairy-tale really takes hold: the first task is to sort a huge pile of mixed grain over night, an impossible task for one girl.  But not for some valiant, friendly ants!  They sort the entire pile for her.

Eros, leaving Psyche's bed

Aphrodite is angry and tells Psyche that she will next have to collect the fleeces from a special flock of vicious sheep (I’ll take your word for it, Apuleius.  But I do think that another animal would have been more convincing.).  Bravely, Psyche sets off to do so, but is stopped by a helpful reed (yes, a reed) who whispers to her that the sheep are too dangerous to be approached, but if she waits a little, she can collect the fleece that they leave behind on bushes. She does so, and once again, Aphrodite is angry.

The quests continue, culminating in Aphrodite sending Psyche down to the underworld to fetch some of Persephone’s beauty.  Psyche, in despair, knows that she cannot succeed, and goes to a high tower to throw herself off—but the tower prevents her, and gives her valuable advice about how to slip into the underworld past Cerberus (feed him a seed-cake), and then slip out again.  Most importantly, the tower warns, she is not to look in the box of “beauty” under any circumstances.

Psyche traveling through the underworld

I think we can see where this is going.  Psyche, wanting her husband to love her again, does indeed look in the box of beauty, hoping to take a little for herself.  But instead of beauty, what she finds is deathly sleep—and she falls, unconscious, to the ground.

Eros rushing to the aid of his fallen Psyche

At last, Eros takes pity on his poor Psyche.  He appeals to Zeus, who uses his power to wake her from her sleep, and to make her immortal.  She and Eros are reunited, and even Aphrodite is reconciled to her new daughter-in-law, acknowledging that while Psyche is imperfect, her dedication to her husband cannot be doubted, since she was willing to go into death itself to win him back. The two live happily every after, and have a daughter, whose name is Hedone (pleasure).

As you can see from above, the story made a wildly popular subject for artists.  C. S. Lewis also wrote a fascinating version of this story from the point of view of one of the evil sisters.  It has the great title Till We Have Faces. 

Finally, the loveliest bit of linguistic trivia I know: in Greek, the word for soul—psyche—also means butterfly.

Myth of the Week: Baucis and Philemon

Monday, February 13th, 2012

In honor of Valentine’s, a love story.

There are two problems with looking for romance in Greek mythology. The first is that many of the so-called “love” myths are anything but.  For instance, I’ve often seen Daphne and Apollo classed as a love story.  But, of course, Daphne is fleeing from Apollo, and only narrowly escapes being raped by him.  So, there’s that.

The second problem is that the stories which are about genuine love are almost uniformly tragic.  The list of these is quite long: Hector and his beloved Andromache, Achilles and Patroclus, Pyramus and Thisbe, Orpheus and Eurydice, Hero and Leander, Apollo and Hyacinthus, Atalanta and Meleager, and on, and on.

Hector, Andromache, and their infant son, Astyanax

But there are a few—a very few—stories that are both romantic and happy. The best known ones are Psyche and Eros (more on that soon), and my favorite: the story of Baucis and Philemon.

At first glance, Baucis and Philemon make non-traditional romantic leads.  For one thing, when the story begins they are bent over with age.  For another, they are poor commoners, while the lovers in Greek myths tend towards aristocrats or divinities.  Thirdly, there is no question of “will they or won’t they?” Baucis and Philemon have been married for years, living happily together in the same humble, straw-roofed dwelling.

Their rustic routine is interrupted by two weary strangers, knocking at the door looking for food and shelter—they have been turned away, they say, by all the finer houses in the neighborhood.  Baucis, the wife, and Philemon, the husband, welcome the two men warmly.  Even though their resources are scant, they set about cheerfully making the best of what they have.  One of my favorite parts of this story is the elaborate preparations: Baucis scrubbing the dinner table with mint to make it smell fresh (good idea!), and Philemon carving the meat.

Baucis and Philemon prepare a humble welcome for their guests

We also get a lovely description of their rustic dinner, which sounds much more appetizing than many of the absurd Greco-Roman dishes that have come down to us (larks’ tongues, eel pastries, jellyfish).  Instead there are:

“olives, and cherries preserved in wine…, endive and radish, cheese, eggs roasted in the hearth-embers… nuts, and figs scattered among wrinkly dates, plums and apples fragrant in their broad baskets, grapes collected from their purple vines, and a gleaming honeycomb.”

Baucis and Philemon at dinner with their mysterious guests

YUM.  But even more important than the food is the care that the old couple uses in preparing it, the generous goodwill they show in laying out the best they have.  Hospitality was a virtue in the ancient Greek world—guests were sacred to Zeus himself.  Myth texts often note that this is because you never knew when a stranger might prove to be a god.  But Baucis and Philemon aren’t so calculating.  They are reflexively kind, not fearfully so.   There are also some lovely descriptions of the couple working together in practiced synchronicity—carrying the wood, putting a wedge under the wobbly leg of the table, setting out the earthenware plates. Ovid beautifully captures the house’s domestic harmony and contentment—these are people at peace with themselves.

The four sit down to the meal.  But as they eat and drink, they notice that the wine bowl, filled with the best humble vintage the couple has, never seems to empty.  No matter how often Baucis and Philemon pour for their guests, the bowl is always brimming.  Beginning to suspect that their guests may be gods, they are fearful that they haven’t done enough to please them, and decide to kill their beloved pet goose to add to the dinner spread.  However, slow with age as they are, they cannot catch him, and end up pursuing him around and around the house.

Baucis chasing the troublesome goose, while Zeus looks on.

Many people have seen a sort of humor in this moment—the old couple stumbling after their nimble goose.  But to be honest, I have always found it sad.  This good old couple is afraid for their lives, and are desperately trying to offer the only thing they have left to appease the gods.

Luckily, all ends well.  The goose runs to the two travelers for sanctuary, and they stand to reveal themselves as, yes, gods: Zeus and Hermes himself.  They tell the old couple to forget about the goose, and to come with them up the mountain to its top.  The couple obeys (Ovid offers a nice detail about them leaning on their walking sticks), and  when they reach the top and turn around they see that their old neighborhood, with all its houses and people, has been swept away. Only Baucis and Philemon’s house remains, which—even as they look—is transformed into a beautiful, marble-and-gold temple.

It is a miraculous and upsetting moment.  Yes, Baucis and Philemon have been saved but all their neighbors are dead. For the sake of the happy ending, Ovid does not dwell on this, beyond mentioning that the couple grieves for those who have been lost.  But it is hard to forget the swift and unforgiving punishment—there is no second chance, if you displease the gods.

Zeus and Hermes lead the old couple up the hill and out of danger.

Fortunately, the gods are pleased with Baucis and Philemon.  Zeus offers to grant the pious, good-hearted pair whatever they wish.  The two whisper together for a moment, and then Philemon announces that they would like to live out their lives as servants of the gods in the new temple.  Further, because of their great love for each other, they do not wish to have to live alone, without the other.  They ask the gods to let them die at the same moment:

“Let the same hour bear us both off; let me never see the tomb of my wife, nor be buried by her.”

Zeus agrees, and the couple spend many joyful years together in their new home.  Then, one day, as they stand outside their temple talking of their lives, they notice something strange—branches are beginning to grow from their heads, their hair is transforming into leaves.  With their last breaths, they call out their farewells to each other.  A moment later, two trees, an oak and a linden tree, stand where the old couple was.  And, just as  in life, the two are bound together, sprung from the same trunk, their branches entwining into eternity.

A sweet story.  May we all be as lucky in love as Baucis and Philemon.

Myth of the Week: Pyrrhus, part II

Wednesday, February 8th, 2012

In my last post, I talked about Vergil’s Pyrrhus as the epitome of the very worst of human behavior.  Happily, Sophocles’ Pyrrhus is the opposite: a celebration of our most conscientious, best selves.

The play in which he co-stars, Philoctetes, is cleverly set before Troy falls, before the death of Priam. This allows Sophocles to avoid the entire second half of Pyrrhus’ life—almost as if he is offering a “reboot” of the young man’s story, an alternate line of destiny. Certainly, by the play’s end, it is difficult to imagine Pyrrhus killing Priam as he does in the Aeneid.

The play begins with a prophecy that Troy won’t fall unless Heracles’ bow fights on the Greek side. Unfortunately, Heracles’ bow is with Philoctetes, whom Odysseus had abandoned on an island with a festering wound ten years earlier. Odysseus must go get the old soldier and persuade him to put aside his resentment and aid the Greek cause. He cleverly decides to bring Pyrrhus with him: as Pyrrhus was the only man who didn’t come with them to Troy originally, he is also the only man not implicated in Philoctetes’ abandonment—so Philoctetes may be persuaded to listen to him.

The wounded hero Philoctetes, with his bow and quiver of poisoned arrows from Heracles. Photo by Rufus46

Odysseus tells Pyrrhus that he is to pretend that he hates the Greeks, in order to gain Philoctetes’ trust. If the old soldier will not co-operate, Pyrrhus is supposed to wait until he falls into a festering-wound fit, and then either steal the bow and arrows, or carry him off to the boat while unconscious.

Given what we know of Pyrrhus from Vergil, we would assume that he happily agreed, pausing only to club Philoctetes with somebody’s child first. But Sophocles’ Pyrrhus is a different man. He is appalled by Odysseus’ treachery, and reproaches him for using deceit.  Such tricks, he says, are not in his nature, just as they were not in his father’s. He refers here to Achilles’ reputation for honesty, demonstrated by his famous line in the Iliad that he “hates like death the man who says one thing, and hides another in his heart.”  Such a man, of course, is Odysseus. He and Achilles are perfect foils—youthful honesty-to-a-fault balanced against practiced, shades-of-grey pragmatism. Sophocles here has Pyrrhus take his father’s place as Odysseus’ opposite.

Yet, because he is young, and impressionable—and because Odysseus is a master at persuasion—Pyrrhus reluctantly agrees to the plan. This is the genius, I think, of Sophocles’ characterization: Pyrrhus is a young man looking to find his way in the world, without a father’s guidance. Although his instinct is to spurn Odysseus’ methods, he has no other model to adopt, besides a vague rumor about his father’s values—a father he has never met. Maybe Odysseus is right, after all. I think it perfectly captures those first, unsure steps into adult identity.

The embassy to persuade Philoctetes. To the left is Odysseus, and the right is Diomedes (who, in some versions, accompanies Odysseus in Pyrrhus' place)

But Pyrrhus is in luck, because for a young man looking for a role model, it is hard to do better than Philoctetes. The two meet, and Pyrrhus finds himself instantly drawn to the older man’s plight, character and dignity. When the moment comes to defraud Philoctetes, Pyrrhus hesitates, torn between his duty to the Greeks and his own instincts. Movingly, he exclaims, “I wish I were back in Scyros!” He feels tainted by the moral compromises of the adult world, and longs to return to the simplicity of childhood. Yet, he cannot return, and is pressed hard on both sides by Odysseus and Philoctetes.

Sophocles stacks the deck against Odysseus a bit here—for although we see Pyrrhus’ dilemma, the right choice seems obvious—if he is to keep his soul, he must help Philoctetes, and reject Odysseus. But playing devil’s advocate, let’s examine Odysseus’ motive, which is, always, to serve the army’s greater good, and to get himself home again safely. If Pyrrhus forces Philoctetes to come to Troy, Philoctetes will be miserable—but an entire army’s worth of soldiers will be able to return home again. In the Iliad, we see the dire consequences of Achilles setting the personal over public good—what does it mean to save a single person at the expense of an entire nation?

Sophocles, however, doesn’t make Pyrrhus suffer the consequences of his choice: as soon as he has agreed to help Philoctetes, the god Heracles appears to pacify his old companion, and order him to Troy. It is almost as if the entire episode were an elaborate test, a moral gymnasium designed to help an young man practice his path.

Sarah Bernhardt as Hamlet. Photo by James Lafayette

Pyrrhus—both Pyrrhuses—had an interesting afterlife, including a notable cameo in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. When the players arrive, Hamlet recites a speech about Pyrrhus’ killing of Priam, where Pyrrhus stands over Priam with his sword raised and, for a moment, “does nothing.” Here Pyrrhus becomes a stand-in not only for Claudius—killer of the old King—but for Hamlet himself, stuck in his own inaction.

For a more recent portrait of Pyrrhus, I would recommend Mark Merlis’ audacious novel, An Arrow’s Flight, which tells the story of Pyrrhus’ struggle to separate himself from the reputation of his bloody and distant father. I admire this novel not just for its storytelling, but its flat-out daring: Merlis takes the story of Pyrrhus (drawn mostly from Sophocles’ play), and puts it straight into the modern world, while still retaining all the ancient Greek structures, the gods included.

And, by the way, Pyrrhus also makes an appearance in The Song of Achilles. My take on him is decidedly Vergilian.

Thanks so much to myth-lover Susanne for the terrific suggestion!  Next week: Ancient Greek romance, just in time for Valentine’s Day….


Myth of the Week: Pyrrhus, Part I

Monday, February 6th, 2012

It is one of the oldest stories: a famous and powerful man has a son.  The son grows up.  How will he interact with his father’s reputation?  How will he define himself as his own man?  It was an even more fraught question in ancient Greece, where no matter how famous a man became, he was called not by his own name, but by his patronymic (his father’s name plus an ending that meant “son of”).  So, even though Achilles’ fame far surpassed his father’s, he was still referred to as “Pelides” (son of Peleus).  Comparison was inescapable, stitched into one’s identity.

In the stories of the Trojan War, there is a trinity of sons who grow up in the shadow of intimidating paternal legacies: Telemachus, son of Odysseus; Orestes, son of Agamemnon; and Neoptolemus, son of Achilles.  All of their stories are worth telling, but I thought I’d start with Neoptolemus (also called Pyrrhus).

Pyrrhus/Neoptolemus, the son of Achilles. Photo credit: Zafky

One of the strangest things about Neoptolemus is the fact that there seem, in the myths, to be two of him: two mutually exclusive versions of his story, each championed by a master poet, Vergil and Sophocles.  In one, Neoptolemus is a sadistic perversion of his father’s legacy, heir to his strength and capacity for violence, but not his humanity; in the other, he is a heroic young man, struggling to do the right thing.  Generally, Vergil’s portrait, from book II of the Aeneid, has proved the more lasting, so that is where I will start.

Achilles’ sea-nymph mother, Thetis, desperate to keep her son from an early death at Troy, dressed him as a woman and hid him on the island of Scyros, in the court of King Lycomedes.  But Lycomedes’ daughter, Deidameia, discovered the fraud, and she and Achilles conceived a child—Neoptolemus.  Shortly thereafter, Achilles was found out, and sailed for Troy, leaving his wife and unborn child behind, for good.

Achilles being discovered in a dress on Scyros, as he seizes a shield. From a fresco at Pompeii

Neoptolemus grew up with a head of red-gold hair, and so earned the nickname Pyrrhus (fiery, the same root as the word pyre).  Of his childhood, we know little other than that he was raised on Scyros by his mother and grandfather, with help from Thetis.  Like his father, he was named in a prophecy: Troy would never fall unless Pyrrhus came to fight for the Greeks.  When his father was killed in the tenth year of the Trojan War, Pyrrhus sailed for Troy.  If the timing seems off to you, it is—even if we give Achilles a few years to get to Troy, Pyrrhus should still only be around twelve, absolute maximum.

All I can say is: that is one creepy twelve-year-old.  When he gets to Troy, Pyrrhus takes his father’s place as one of the most terrifying and reckless warriors of the Greeks.  He is among those in the Trojan Horse, and according to the Odyssey, the only one who isn’t afraid of being caught.  Once inside the city of Troy, he uses an ax—Shining style—to tear his way into Priam’s palace, leaving a bloody trail behind him.

Pyrrhus attacking King Priam, on the altars

One of the things that I love about Vergil as an author is his profound humanism.  Even his so-called villains are worthy of sympathy and understanding—all, that is, except for Pyrrhus.  With Pyrrhus, Vergil seems to be doing something else entirely: creating a person with no ability to pity or empathize with others. It is, as far as I can tell, the first depiction of a sociopath in Western literature.

Once inside the palace, Pyrrhus chases down the Trojan prince Polites, killing him in front of his father, the aged King Priam, who has taken shelter at the household alters.  The old king, in one of the most moving moments in the Aeneid, rises, trembling with grief and age, to deliver a ringing speech that calls down the wrath of the gods upon Pyrrhus for his double blasphemy: killing a son in front of his father, and defiling a sanctuary.  As a further reproach, he compares him to his father, unfavorably: “Not even Achilles behaved so to me.  He knew how to respect the laws of the suppliant; he returned my son’s body to me, and sent me safely home again.”  This is a reference to the famous scene in the Iliad where Priam goes to Achilles’ tent to beg for Hector’s body, and Achilles relents–a shining moment of mercy and hope in an otherwise bloody work.

Priam begs Achilles for Hector's body

But you cannot shame a man like Pyrrhus.  His response is sneering contempt:  “You can go tell my father about my disgraceful deeds yourself. Now, die!”

He seizes the old man by his hair, and drags him, slipping in the blood of his son, to the altar to dispatch him.  Later we hear that Priam’s body has been left on the shore, missing its head, for the animals to eat.  It is not enough for Pyrrhus to have killed him, he must also dishonor him—mutilating his body and depriving his soul of its eternal peace.  The hope kindled in the meeting between Achilles and Priam is snuffed, utterly, by the son.

Pyrrhus killing Priam on the altars, with Hector's baby son, Astyanax, as a club.

Sadly, that is only the beginning.  After killing Priam, Pyrrhus goes in search of Andromache, Hector’s wife.  When he finds her, he seizes from her arms her infant son, Astyanax, and smashes his brains out against the wall.  (In fact, in some lurid versions of the story, he uses the baby’s body to club the grandfather Priam before killing him.) Andromache herself he takes captive, as his slave-wife.  It is a horrifying cruelty: forcing her to share the bed of the man who murdered her son, and whose father murdered her husband.  Then, before returning to Greece, Pyrrhus sacrifices the princess Polyxena on his father’s tomb.

Perhaps it will be no surprise to hear that such a violent man comes to a violent end.  Pyrrhus, upon returning to Greece, decides that no bride is worthy of him except for the daughter of Helen herself, Hermione—even though she is already betrothed to Orestes.  Rather than wooing her, or trying to negotiate with her father, Pyrrhus presses forward with his usual method: force.  He abducts the girl, and rapes her.

Pyrrhus sacrificing the Trojan princess Polyxena. Photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen

One of the things that is most disturbing about Pyrrhus’ story is that his victims are not, as his father’s were, fellow warriors.  There is no Memnon here, no Hector, no Penthesilea.  Instead we have people who are powerless: infants, the elderly, women not trained in combat.  Vergil’s point isn’t, I think, that Pyrrhus is a coward–we see his fearlessness and ferocity in the sack of Troy– but that he’s unnatural.  The things which would normally arouse pity in us mean nothing to him.   This makes him a very different kind of villain from someone like Agamemnon, whose faults we recognize: selfishness, cowardice, pride, petty brutality.   To me, Pyrrhus is a far more  frightening figure, a man who is moved by no boundaries or bonds of affection, who acknowledges no limitation on his behavior.  The world is made up only of his own strength and everyone else’s weakness.

So who, then, finally stops this unstoppable force?  In some versions of the story it takes the god Apollo himself.  But in Vergil’s version, it’s Orestes, Agamemnon’s son, enraged at the violence done to his fiance.  Pyrrhus has finally crossed the wrong person, and Orestes cuts him down.  A satisfying end, and an interesting one too: Agamemnon and Achilles’ feud has repeated itself in the next generation–only this time, at least for me–with the sympathies reversed.

By the way, at Pyrrhus’ death Andromache is freed and, with her brother-in-law Helenus, able to found a new city in Troy’s image, and live out her life in peace.

Coming on Wednesday: Pyrrhus, part II, the son Achilles would have been proud of.

Myth of the Week: Penthesilea

Monday, January 30th, 2012

My students often tease me that every mythological character is “one of my favorites.”  But, really, this week’s character is: Penthesilea, Queen of the Amazons.

The Amazons were a legendary race of warrior women who lived somewhere in the region of the Black Sea (sources differ as to exactly where).  There were a number of popular stories about them—that they were daughters of Ares, that no men were allowed in their camp.  But the most famous of all is the one about their chest: that, in order to be able to wield a bow better, they would cut off one of one of their breasts.  The story gained traction from some ancient etymologists, who claimed that the word Amazon derived from “a” (without) and “mazon” (breast, the same root as the “maste” in mastectomy).

An Amazon

As I child, I remember goggling at the breast story with horrified admiration.  Those Amazons sure were committed to their archery!  Now, of course, it seems absurd.  As Olympic-level female archers the world over can testify, breasts do not interfere with shooting a bow.  Surely the Greeks would have known that?  But perhaps not—perhaps there simply weren’t enough female archers in the ancient world to disprove it.  And part of me can’t help but wonder if the story wasn’t on some level meant to discourage women from taking it up—sorry, you’ll have to cut off your breast first.

Penthesilea, Amazon Queen

The Amazons had a number of famous Queens, but Penthesilea is perhaps the most storied. She was a daughter of the war-god Ares, and Pliny credits her with the invention of the battle-ax.  She was also sister to Hippolyta, who married the hero Theseus, after being defeated by him in battle.  Penthesilea ruled the Amazons during the years of the Trojan war—and for most of that time stayed away from the conflict.  However, after Achilles killed Hector, Penthesilea decided it was time for her Amazons to intervene, and the group rode to the rescue of the Trojans—who were, after all, fellow Anatolians.  Fearless, she blazed through the Greek ranks, laying waste to their soldiers.  I love Vergil’s glorious description of her in battle:

“The ferocious Penthesilea, gold belt fastened beneath her exposed breast, leads her battle-lines of Amazons with their crescent light-shields…a warrioress, a maiden who dares to fight with men.”

(By the way, the word that Vergil uses for warrioress is bellatrix, the inspiration for Bellatrix Lestrange’s name in Harry Potter.)

A Renaissance representation of Penthesilea

I can still remember the moment in my high school Latin class when I first translated those lines.  I had heard of Penthesilea and the Amazons before, but this was the first time I really understand just how impressive and unusual it was in the ancient world to be a woman who “fights with men.”  The heroines of Greek mythology tend towards thoughtfulness, fidelity and modesty (Andromache, Penelope), while the daring and headstrong personalities generally go to the antagonists–Medea, Clytemnestra, Hera.  But Penthesilea is something else entirely: a woman who meets men on her own terms, as their equal.  Perhaps in honor of this, Vergil doesn’t give her the standard heroine epithet of “beautiful.”  For him, it is her majesty and obvious power that make her notable, not her looks.

Sadly, Penthesilea’s story ends in tragedy, at the hands of none other than Achilles himself.   The most popular version of it is quite strange–that Achilles falls in love with her as he stabs her, catching her tenderly, even as she collapses to the ground.  I have never been sure how to take this–is it a compliment to her spirit?  Or is it an indignity–Achilles turning the warrior back into a woman?  It all depends upon the telling, of course.  But I like to think that maybe Achilles sees in her a sort of kindred spirit–another fierce and flashing youth, proud and driven towards honor.  But he is so absorbed in his own drama that he realizes it, alas, a moment too late.

Achilles, love-struck, catches the dying Penthesilea


A broken statue of Achilles catching Penthesilea. I took this picture myself at the Aphrodisias museum, in Turkey.

Contrary to popular belief, Penthesilea’s story isn’t actually told in the Iliad (which ends with Hector’s funeral, before the Amazons arrive), but in a lost ancient epic called  Aethiopis.  This poem continued the story of Achilles’ great deeds, which included the killing of several famous warriors—Memnon, King of Aethiopia, and Penthesilea most prominent among them.

It is unsurprising that such a vivid character had a long legacy in art and literature–first and foremost as the inspiration for Vergil’s great female warrior, Camilla, in the Aeneid.   Penthesilea’s name became synonymous with female strength; when Eleanor of Aquitaine accompanied her husband on the second crusade, she is rumored to have attired herself as the famous Amazon.  As far as I can find, there aren’t any novels focused on Penthesilea’s story, but she does appear in several poems (including one by Robert Graves, author of I, Claudius and Hercules My Shipmate).  If any one knows a story centered on her, drop me a line!

Achilles and Penthesilea ride into combat with each other.

A final story about Amazons.  When I was in college, I volunteered to teach mythology to fifth graders.  One day, I told the students a number of myths, the Amazons included, and then had them pick one story and draw a picture of it.  Going around the room, I saw lots of Pegasuses, Heracleses, and Minotaurs.  So I was excited when I noticed that one boy had drawn a very buff looking Amazon, wielding a bow.  At her feet was a round object.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“That’s the breast she just cut off,” he answered.
“Oh!” I think I said.  “Very vivid!”

On that note, have a wonderful, and mythological, week!

Myth of the Week: Pegasus and Bellerophon

Monday, January 22nd, 2012

Last week I talked about Medusa, from whose neck the winged horse Pegasus was born.  This week, I thought it would be only fitting to return to Pegasus’ story, along with his most famous rider, Bellerophon.  As I sat down to write, my significant other Nathaniel (a fellow myth-lover) told me that Pegasus and Bellerophon was one of his favorite myths, and offered to do a guest post for the week.  I happily accepted–though you see I couldn’t resist adding a few of my own thoughts at the end.  Take it away, Nathaniel!

“As a child, there was no one in Greek myth I envied more than Bellerophon. You may not have heard of him—he doesn’t have the name recognition of a Heracles or a Theseus. But you’ve heard of the reason I envied him: Pegasus.

Pegasus Vase-Painting, image from

To befriend a horse, to tame him, and to ride: this is the fantasy that countless novels and movies are made of.  So what could be more thrilling than a horse that could go even further, bear you beyond the bounds of gravity itself? Perseus may have had winged sandals, but they were nothing compared to the visceral pleasure of a living, breathing companion that could lift you into the sky.

Bellerophon came to Pegasus from a typically nasty Greek myth situation.  Born in Corinth to King Glaucus (or sometimes the god Poseidon), Bellerophon accidentally killed a man, and found himself exiled to the court of King Proitos—where he was then falsely accused of rape by the Queen. Proitos packed him off to his father-in-law, King Iobates in Lycia, bearing a sealed message with instructions that he should murder Bellerophon immediately upon arrival.  But Iobates was reluctant to do the deed himself, fearing the wrath of Zeus, and so sent Bellerophon off to fight, and be killed by, the local rampaging monster: the Chimera.


The fearsome Chimera

One of the wonderful things about Greek myth is that the monsters tend to combine primal terror with a touch of total absurdity.  Take Medusa: a woman whose gaze turns you to stone.  In this we can see ancient fears about female power and sexuality—the ability of a woman to rob a man of his will with a glance.  Snakes too, are primal horrors.  But snakes for hair? This seems to invite all sorts of overly literal question like: Does she have to give them haircuts?  Do they bite her?  Does she have to feed them separately?

Similarly, the Chimera: a fearsome lion-headed creature that breathes fire, with a snake for a tail.  If the ancients had stopped there it would have been all right.  But they didn’t.  For along with its lion-head and snake-tail, the Chimera has a goat head sprouting from its middle (see above).  Yes, a goat, that fearful predator that haunted the sleep of dawn age humanity. The Oxford Classical Dictionary notes that the goat “may be made less risible by allowing it to perform the fire-breathing.” Fear the now less-risible goat!  But I suppose the very improbability of this combination is part of what makes the Chimera frightening: it’s a loathsome hybrid, a perversion of all logic and natural order.

In despair at ever defeating such a thing, Bellerophon went to sleep in Athena’s temple, hoping for the goddess’ advice and aid.  She appeared to him in a dream, and told him where he might find the horse Pegasus. When he woke, there was a golden bridle waiting at his side.

If ever a horse deserved gilded tack, it’s Pegasus.  With it, Bellerophon was able to successfully tame him, and the two flew off to do battle with the Chimera.  But because of the fire-breathing, Bellerophon and Pegasus couldn’t get close enough to the monster to stab it.  So Bellerophon attached a piece of lead to his spear, then rammed it into the Chimera’s mouth on his next fly-by.

Bellerophon Killing the Chimera

The lead melted and filled the beast’s throat, suffocating it. I’m not sure why it suffocated, with two other apparent windpipes to draw on, but let’s not look too closely. The lesson is clear: clever thinking and a flying horse are tough to beat.

This is Greek myth, and there are no happy endings. Not content with his status as a great hero and rider of the most wondrous horse ever to live, Bellerophon yearned for more: to see Olympus itself, the home of the gods. So Bellerophon urged Pegasus to fly higher and higher still, all the way up to Olympus’ gleaming gates.  Just as he was about to reach them, Pegasus bucked, and Bellerophon fell back to earth.  His death, at this point, would have been merely tragic.  But the gods, in punishment for his hubris, devised something far worse.  Bellerophon lived, but crippled and blinded, stumbling over the earth for the rest of his days in search of his beloved Pegasus–who never appeared to him again.  It always seemed far worse to me than Heracles’ fate, or Achilles’ or Icarus’.  The once-great hero forced to live the rest of his life with his regrets, “devouring his own soul,” as Homer puts it.  And Pegasus?  He goes to live in Olympus with the gods.

Hi, Madeline again.  I agree, I’ve always found the story so sad.  And Bellerophon’s love for Pegasus reminds me of the ancient appreciation of horses in general, even ones that couldn’t fly: Alexander the Great named cities after his steed Bucephalus, while Caligula made his horse a senator.  In the Iliad, Achilles’ immortal horses weep for the death of Patroclus, and later try, in vain, to warn Achilles about his fate.  Flying or not, horses were magic in the ancient world.

Bellerophon’s story also plays an important role in the history of literacy. In the Iliad, Glaucus of Lycia tells us that his grandfather Bellerophon was sent to King Iobates from King Proitus with a message scratched on a tablet.

As scholars have long noted, this is Homer’s only mention of writing, and the first reference to it in the history of Greece letters.  It’s also tantalizingly vague: Homer doesn’t say that the tablet has words on it—rather, he says that it contains semata lugra “sad signs.”  The sad part refers to the note’s murderous content, but the semata is fascinating.  Does it imply some earlier, more rudimentary form of writing, like pictographs?  Or is it merely that written messages were so new in Homer’s age that there wasn’t a more elegant way to describe them?  It’s unclear.   Scripts did exist in the Greek world before Homer’s time (like Linear B), but they were used largely for clerical things–keeping track of sacrificial offerings, for instance, not messages.

Sarpedon’s body, carried off by Death and Sleep, while Hermes looks on

By the way, Glaucus isn’t the only grandson of Bellerophon who makes a notable appearance in the Iliad.  There’s also Sarpedon, the son of Zeus, who helps Hector lead the charge against the Greek camp, and tears down its protective palisade with his bare hands.  He was one of my favorite cameo parts to write in The Song of Achilles—he’s the only  son of Zeus who fights in the war, and he’s from the exotic (to the Greek eye) Lycia.  He’s killed by none other than Patroclus himself.

Have a favorite myth?  I’d love to hear about it!  Drop me a line either on my contact page or twitter (@MillerMadeline).

Mythological Character of the Week: The Gorgons

Monday, January 16th, 2012

I hate snakes.  So the worst part, by far, of writing The Song of Achilles was having to research them.  Those of you who have read it know that a single snake appears, very briefly.  But, just like all the rehearsal that goes into a single scene onstage, getting that serpent right involved major rolling-up of herpetological sleeves. For one thing, I needed to find out which snakes existed in that particular part of Greece (the island of Lemnos) during Homeric times. Of those varieties, I then had to choose the snake that I wanted, and observe how it looked and moved.

The upshot was that I spent two days looking at pictures and videos of snakes.  Though, if I’m honest, part of the reason that it took so long wasn’t diligence but the fact that if I studied the images for more than about ten seconds, I would get the creeping snake-horrors.  So I had to take a lot of breaks.  All this is by way of introducing the new Myth of the Week, those slithery, shudder-inducing ladies themselves, the Gorgons.  Thanks to Chris for the great suggestion!

A Gorgon from Artemis' temple on Corfu. Such renderings were intended to be apotropaic--to ward off evil. Sidenote: I spent a summer during college on an archaeological dig in Corfu. I saw this in person!

Like other love-to-hate-them monsters in Greek mythology, the Gorgons attracted a lot of story-tellers, and therefore a lot of contradictory stories.  For instance, in Homer, there was only a single Gorgon, simply called “Gorgo” whose fearsome, snaky head adorned Athena’s shield.  In later myths, however, there were three of them: Euryale, Sthenno and, of course, Medusa.  They were described as having snake hair, and were often also depicted with boar tusks, wide, grinning faces and wings (see above, and below).

One of the strangest things about the Gorgons is that though they were supposedly sisters, two of them were goddesses, and the third, Medusa, was mortal.  The comedian Eddie Izzard has a funny piece about Medusa’s outrage when she discovers this.  (It’s followed by a hilarious bit about Medusa putting on a mouse video to try to keep her snakes calm.  It’s on youtube, if you’re interested.)

A similar Gorgon motif, from the Louvre

From a narrative perspective, one of the Gorgons needs to be mortal so that Perseus can slay it.  But other myths sprang up to explain why it was Medusa in particular.  In the most popular of these, Medusa had been born a beautiful mortal woman, with particularly gorgeous hair.   As she was praying to Athena in her temple, the god Poseidon appeared and raped her.  Athena was so deeply offended by this that she—

Blasted the sea-god with her father’s thunderbolt?  Stabbed him through his fishy chest with her awesome goddess-of-war spear?

No.  Rather than being concerned about the girl, she was concerned about the pollution of her temple.  She averted her eyes in disgust during the act, and afterwards, when Poseidon was gone, blamed Medusa for flaunting her too-seductive beauty.  Then, to punish her, she cursed the girl’s appearance, changing her into a hideous monster who turned all she looked on to stone.

Mosaic of Medusa

What’s most disturbing about this story, I think, is how casually and matter-of-factly Ovid tells it. It isn’t meant to be a tragedy; it isn’t meant to highlight Athena’s gross unfairness.  If anything, it seems to find her choice of punishment fitting.  It makes for some deeply unpleasant commentary on Roman culture, and a particularly brutal portrait of the cruelty of the gods.

Afterwards, the newly transformed Medusa goes to live with her “sisters,” and this is where the well-known story picks up.  Perseus is given the task of slaying her and bringing back her head as proof.  With Athena’s help he arrives at her lair, and using his reflective shield is able to avoid her deadly gaze.  With his sword, he strikes off her head.  Medusa falls to the ground, dead.

Medusa's head, Caravaggio

Next comes one of my favorite parts of the story.  From the stump of Medusa’s severed neck is born the beautiful, winged horse, Pegasus.  I have always found this fascinating: that one of the most beloved, and lovely creatures from Greek myth derives from the ugliest.   This is all the more interesting because in the ancient mythological  worldview, external beauty was a sign of similarly beautiful inner character–there was no Greek adage against judging a book by its cover.  Thus, the scurrilous soldier Thersites, with his virulent attacks on the aristocracy, is depicted as hideous, while the noble Achilles is the most beautiful of the Greeks.  But Pegasus and Medusa seem to break the pattern.  If we take Ovid’s story as true, that Medusa was once a normal young woman, I like to think that Pegasus is some final remnant of that former, truer self.   Through Pegasus, maybe she is able, at last, to escape Athena’s curse.

Pegasus, from

Medusa’s petrifying power was so strong that it lived on, even after her death.  Perseus is able to use the gruesome head against his enemies, including the sea-serpent from whom he rescues the princess Andromeda.  Eventually, judging such a thing too dangerous for a mortal to keep, Athena takes custody of the head and fixes it on her shield.   We never hear what happens to the other two gorgons, whether they mourned for their sister or how they lived out their eternal lives.  It’s too bad; it might make a good story.

The myth of Medusa is filled with transformations—from beautiful girl to monster, from living flesh to stone, from corpse to winged horse.  But there is one more strange and minor transformation associated with her that I’ve always enjoyed.  After Perseus has slain the sea-monster, but before Athena has relieved him of the head, Perseus wants to put the head down for a moment.  But he frets that it will get damaged on the hard earth.  So, with a solicitousness that no one showed poor Medusa in real life, he pulls seaweed and greens from the sea, and makes a pallet for the head.  As soon as Medusa’s skin touches the sea-greens, they begin to stiffen.  And this, says Ovid, was the beginning of the first reef.

Perseus holding aloft Medusa's head

Unsurprisingly, Medusa’s story was a popular one in visual arts, and painters seem to have been particularly taken with the image of the severed head.  I included Caravaggio’s version above, but the absolutely grossest one I refuse to post, since it gives me snake-shivers.  But if you really want to see it, click here.

I warned you.

Next Week: The winged horse Pegasus himself.

Myth of the Week: Philoctetes

Monday,  December 19th, 2011

Today’s myth of the week is one of my very favorites, though I didn’t discover it until college.  When I graduated from high school, my Latin teacher had given me a book of Sophocles’ tragedies as a gift, and I was steadily working my way through it. Somewhere in the middle, I came to one called “Philoctetes.”  Who?

This was before the days of Google, so I got out my trusty Oxford Classical Dictionary and learned that Philoctetes had been a close companion of Heracles.  Maybe the closest: when Heracles was dying in agony, he begged his friends to put him out of his misery; Philoctetes was the only one who had the guts to do it.  In gratitude, Heracles bequeathed Philoctetes his famous bow, with its arrows dipped in the poison blood of the hydra.

Bust of the playwright Sophocles

But that was just the beginning of Philoctetes’ story.  Years later, he joined the other heroes of Greece in pursuing Helen of Sparta’s hand in marriage.  By then he was renowned for his connection to Heracles, and also for his deadly archery.  And though usually in the ancient stories a bow and arrows are considered the weapons of a coward (as with Paris), you never hear a single word against Philoctetes.  Heracles’ bow would have been enormous, and only a true hero could have strung and drawn it.

As a suitor of Helen, Philoctetes must have seemed out of place among the other men.  He was a generation, or more, above them, and I imagine him as weathered, dignified, and still full of stoic grief for the loss of his famous friend.   It was unlikely that such a man would tempt Helen, and of course he did not.  But he did, along with all the other suitors, swear to uphold her marriage to Menelaus.

A powerful-looking Philoctetes, clutching his wounded foot.

Which is how, some years later, he found himself summoned to Troy to get her back.  Despite his age, Philoctetes upheld his oath and, paired with Odysseus as a sailing partner, the two men and their fleets began making their way to Troy.  Like all Homeric journeys, there were frequent stops on islands along the way, and on one such island, Lemnos, Philoctetes was bitten by a terrible viper.  He didn’t die, but the wound festered agonizingly, stinking and causing Philoctetes to fall into seizures.  Odysseus, practical as ever, didn’t want a smelly, hideous, screaming man on the ship, so he persuaded the other men to abandon Philoctetes while he slept.

When people ask me why I don’t see Odysseus as a straight-up hero, this myth is one of my answers.  Odysseus’ pragmatism here seems indistinguishable from ruthlessness: he abandons an aging hero, in excruciating pain, on a deserted island without any supplies of food or water.  When Philoctetes wakes, there is only empty beach and his bow.  Ten years of lonely, crushing pain follow.   In describing these years, Sophocles is at his most moving.  As in Oedipus at Colonus, and Ajax, Sophocles once again shows himself the champion of those who have been cast out from society, who feel themselves betrayed and abandoned.  Philoctetes’ bitter monologues are absolutely piercing in their indictment of a society that would throw away its elders because they have become inconvenient.  No matter how many times I read them, I always find myself caught up anew.

Philoctetes, with his wounded foot. Heracles' bow and arrows in the background. He has been hunting birds to feed himself.

Fast forward ten years, after Achilles has died but before Troy has fallen.  The Greeks learn from a prophecy that they will never take the city of Troy unless the bow of Heracles fights on their behalf.  In Sophocles’ play, the Greek leaders dispatch Odysseus and Neoptolemus, Achilles’ young son, to go get Philoctetes (in other versions, Odysseus’ partner is the tricksy Diomedes).  Odysseus’ plan is to send Neoptolemus in as mediator because Philoctetes doesn’t know Neoptolemus, and is less likely to shoot him on sight.  Neoptolemus is supposed to engage the old man in conversation, wait for him to fall into a fit, then steal his bow and arrows. After all, reasons Odysseus, the prophecy never said that it needed the hero, only his weapons.

But Neoptolemus finds himself drawn to the old man’s dignity, and moved by his suffering.  When Philoctetes falls into a fit, he does not take the bow, only holds it until Philoctetes recovers, then returns it, chastising Odysseus: “It is far better to be just than wise.”   Still enraged by their betrayal, Philoctetes refuses to help the Greeks.   Just when all seems lost, the god Heracles appears, urging his old friend to relent, and promising Philoctetes that if he goes to Troy he’ll find a healer—Machaon, son of Asclepius—who can end his agony.  Philoctetes, obedient to his friend, agrees. Once at Troy, Philoctetes helps to take the city and, most importantly, kills the prince Paris—one archer slaying another.  He survives the war and returns safely home.

Vase Painting of Philoctetes, with his wound, bow and arrows. Fletcher Fund, 1956, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

What makes this such an interesting tragedy is that, in the end, it isn’t one.  Thanks to Neoptolemus, Philoctetes is welcomed back into society.  The middle-aged Odysseus is inveterate, set in his ruthless ways, but there is still hope to be found in the innocent and clear-eyed gaze of youth.  It also offers hope in the form of forgiveness. Philoctetes could indeed make the Greeks suffer as he has suffered; but in the end, he does not.  I love his story so much that I found myself constantly having to battle the temptation to include it in my novel.  There are several Philoctetes scenes that got left on the cutting room floor simply because they didn’t fit, but one cameo remains.

I am not the only person who has been moved by Philoctetes’ story over the years.  He is the subject of a Wordsworth sonnet, and Sophocles’ play forms the core of  the amazing “Philoctetes Project,” which brings this play and others to army veterans.  At the other end of the spectrum is Disney’s “Hercules” which features–sort of–Philoctetes as a character.  The satyr voiced by Danny Devito was inspired, I can only guess, by some unholy combination of Philoctetes and Chiron, plus some goat thrown in.  He calls himself “Phil.”

The Myth of the Week is going to take a vacation next week, but will return in the New Year.  I wish you all very happy, myth-making holidays!