Myth of the Week: Hyacinthus

Monday, December 12th, 2011

Recently, a friend and I were talking about how the homosexual undertones (or overtones) are often bowdlerized from retellings of Greek myths.  As children, we had both been puzzled by the story of Ganymede, the beautiful youth whom Zeus falls in love with and, in the form of an eagle, abducts to Mount Olympus to be his lover and cupbearer.  In the version I read, there was no mention of Zeus’ desire, and I remember feeling confused as to how Zeus knew he was such an excellent cupbearer just by looking at him, and why cupbearers were so hard to come by, and furthermore, why did it make Hera so mad?

All this is by way of leading up to today’s story about the youth Hyacinthus and the god Apollo, which was the first myth where I realized that the two men were definitely lovers, not just “close companions.”

Apollo and the dying Hyacinthus, with the fateful discus on the ground. Alexander Kiselev.

Hyacinthus was a beautiful Spartan youth, beloved by the god Apollo.  As the good Spartan he was, Hyacinthus loved athletics, and one day the two decided to practice throwing the discus.  Apollo went first, sending the disc flying up to “scatter the clouds” as Ovid says.  Hyacinthus ran laughing after it, thinking to catch the disc, but instead it hit him in the head, killing him.  Ovid has a beautiful passage about Apollo holding the dying youth, desperately trying to use his skill with medicine to keep him alive.  But even the mighty god of healing could not save the one he loved.

In honor of his lover, Apollo makes a flower spring up from Hyacinthus’ blood.  Confusingly, this flower isn’t actually what we today call a hyacinth.  Most sources agree that it was most likely an iris or a larkspur, since the myth tells us that Apollo writes on the flower the sound of his grief (Ai, Ai).  The iris, with its yellow markings on the purple leaf, seems the likeliest to me, though disagrees, offering this helpful visual aid on behalf of the larkspur.  (On a side note, some say this flower, whichever it was, actually sprang from the dead Ajax’s blood, not Hyacinthus’. In that case, the markings spell out AI, in honor of Aias, Ajax’s Greek name.)

An iris. I know, I don't see the "AI" either. Photo taken by Danielle Langlois, July 2005, Forillon National Park of Canada, Quebec, Canada

In a second, quite popular variant of the myth, Hyacinthus’ death is actually a murderous crime of passion.  Turns out that not only was Apollo in love with Hyacinthus, but so was Zephyrus, the west wind.  Seeing how attached Apollo and Hyacinthus were, he grew jealous, and in an old-fashioned twist on “If I can’t have him no one can” he deliberately blows the discus into Hyacinthus’ path, killing him.  This version emphasizes the terrifying pettiness of the gods, and the dangers of mixing with them, even if–especially if–they love you.  Like nearly all ancient love affairs between mortals and divinities, it ends in tragedy for the mortal.

Apollo and a swooning, strategically modest Hyacinthus

Whenever I tell this story, I always wish that there were more of it.  Its final image of Apollo cradling Hyacinthus is beautiful and sad, but we don’t know anything about Hyacinthus and Apollo’s love beyond that moment, how they came to meet, or who Hyacinthus was.  It’s almost more of a triptych then a story, three moments caught in amber: the youth and Apollo happy together, the youth chasing the discus, the lover grieving over his dying beloved.  It’s enough to make me feel sympathy for Apollo, who has never been a particular favorite of mine.

Apollo catches the falling youth. Jean Broc

Aside from its tragedy, Hyacinthus’ story also has a historical significance.  The “-nth” suffix in Hyacinthus indicates that the name is actually quite old, a remnant of some sort of pre-Greek language, from before the development of ancient Greek culture as we know it.  Other examples include “Corinth” and the word “labyrinth” (see the Minotaur myth).

Some speculate (the Oxford Classical Dictionary included), that the story of Apollo tragically killing Hyacinthus is actually symbolic.  Given the antiquity of his name, it’s likely that Hyacinthus was some sort of older native nature deity, who was replaced by the Olympian Apollo. The myth preserves this cultural change in story form, having the new god “kill” the old one.

Classical statue of Apollo, known as "Apollo Belvedere"

Either way, Hyacinthus became an important religious figure, who was particularly worshipped in Sparta during a three-day festival, called Hyacinthia.  The festival included mourning rites for the youth’s death, then celebration of his rebirth as a flower. In this regard, Hyacinthus seems similar to the god Adonis, and the eastern Attis, all three of whom are youths who die in order to ensure the earth’s fertility—the male versions of Persephone. The festival was important enough to the Spartans that they were said to have broken off a military campaign in order to return home and celebrate it.

Vase painting of a discus-thrower, with other athletic gear.

A final story about Apollo and Hyacinthus.  Though the myth has had a long life in visual art, it hasn’t been nearly as popular in other types of media.  The only exception I could find was an opera composed by the eleven-year-old Mozart, entitled “Apollo et Hyacinthus.” The libretto for the piece was written by a priest, Rufinus Widl, who apparently found the story too scandalous because he invented a sister for Hyacinthus, Melia, to replace Hyacinthus as Apollo’s love interest.  In this version, the youth’s death is more tragic to the family than Apollo, affecting the god only because it is an impediment to wooing the sister.

The lovely thing about myths is how adaptable they are, how much they can be shaped and molded by each new teller.  But there is bending, and then there is breaking.  To remove Apollo and Hyacinthus’ love from this story is to take out the spine of the tale, rendering it unrecognizable.  There is certainly a beautiful story to be told about a lover who kills his beloved’s kinsmen (as Shakespeare knew when Romeo killed Tybalt), but that is another story, not this one.  Hyacinthus and Apollo (and Zephyrus), do well enough on their own.

Thanks to reader Sam for the suggestion!

Myth of the Week: Persephone

Monday, December 5th, 2011

Happy December!  Here in Massachusetts, the weather has become decidedly wintry, and the grocery stores are full of the season’s fruits: clementines, grapefruits and, my favorite, pomegranates.  In honor of that luscious fruit, and the changing season, today’s myth is the story of Persephone.  The suggestion comes thanks to the fabulous Sarah Clayton (@Clayton_Sarah), a passionate reader and advocate for books.

Persephone (Proserpina in Latin) was the beautiful daughter of Zeus and the goddess of grain, Demeter. One day while she was picking flowers with her companions (Artemis and Athena, in one version of the story), Hades burst from the earth in a golden chariot, seized the girl, and carried her off to his palace in the Underworld.

Persephone being abducted by Hades. Note Athena, with the helmet, trying to rescue her. Rubens.

In modern retellings of Greek myths, it’s become common to portray Hades as evil, or demonic (see Disney’s Hercules).  This is absolutely not present in the ancient myths.  Though he was a gloomy and frightening god, the ancients never saw Hades as evil.  He wasn’t responsible for human death or suffering, merely charged with shepherding the souls once they had left their bodies—a necessary, if melancholy, job.  Out of respect and awe for his position, he was rarely depicted in ancient art.  (Post-Classical artists had no such restrictions, where his abduction of Persephone is a favorite subject.)

So, in snatching Persephone Hades was no more villainous than any of those other ancient abductors (Zeus, Poseidon, Apollo, etc).  In fact, some might argue he was less so.  The god of the Underworld had gone first to his brother Zeus requesting a bride.  Zeus suggested Persephone and, knowing that her mother would never allow the girl to go, likewise suggested the abduction.  So it was with her father’s permission that Hades took the girl—as polite as it gets among divine unions.  Small consolation, of course, for Persephone.

When Demeter discovered what had happened to her daughter, her grief was so great it blighted the soil, causing the first winter.  In some versions of the story she even purposefully destroyed the earth, holding the world hostage until Zeus ordered her daughter returned.  I like this portrait of Demeter as vengeful mother (see Clytemnestra), and Demeter’s name is even etymologically related to the word for mother (meter), so fiercely canonical was this part of her identity.

Demeter (Ceres in Latin) is shown searching the world for her daughter, carrying a torch and a symbol of her power, a sheaf of wheat.

Hermes, guide of souls to the underworld, was sent to fetch the girl.  But before she could be set free, she ate the fateful pomegranate seeds—the food of the dead, and a bright-red stand-in for the blood that dead souls were said to crave.  The poet Louise Glück describes it like this:

returns home
stained with red juice like
a character in Hawthorne—”

She is allowed to leave, but the seeds condemn her to return and spend a season each year in the land of the dead.  Winter is born.

Hermes bringing Persephone back to her joyful mother. Frederic Leighton.

Sadly, Persephone isn’t given much personality in the myths, beyond that of passive victim.  More often the tale is focused on Demeter, or the dramatic moment of abduction. In some stories, Persephone is even stripped of her name, called simply “Kore” (maiden), as though the authors wanted us to see her symbolically, rather than personally.  It was in this role that she was worshipped alongside her mother in the Eleusinian mysteries, a cult of Demeter near Athens.  The rituals were famously secret, but centered around Demeter and Persephone as guardians of the earth’s cyclical fertility.

Persephone stands at right. On the left is Triptolemus, another agrarian deity. With Persephone and Demeter he makes up the Eleusinian trinity.

But where myth is silent, artists and poets have stepped in to fill in the gap.  I particularly love Louise Glück’s poetry collection Averno (which I quoted from above), a series of poems about death, centered on Persephone’s story.  Glück takes the bold and unusual step of making Hades a tempting and genuine lover.  In turn, Demeter becomes a more ambiguous figure, a mother who may be suffocating her daughter’s desire for independence.  Persephone is shuttled back and forth between these two figures, at home in neither place, something Glück expresses beautifully:

“The terrible reunions in store for her
will take up the rest of her life.”

There is a division at the heart of Persephone, who is at once the bringer of spring and the grim and terrifying Queen of the dead.   Her story is rich with symbolic and allegorical resonance about death and rebirth.  She is the incarnation of that ancient saying (supposed to make a sad man happy, and a happy man sad): This too shall pass.

Persephone with her pomegranate. Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

Persephone also helped to give death a more merciful face.  Hades was known for being immovable, but Persephone assists a number of heroes and grieving lovers who stumble down into her world.  She is the one who grants Eurydice back to Orpheus, and she likewise aids Psyche in her quest to earn back Eros.

In honor of Persephone’s story, I will end with a great trick I recently learned for peeling pomegranates, without becoming your own red-splattered character from Hawthorne.

Fill a large bowl up with water, submerge the pomegranate, and cut and strip it underwater.  Not only will it contain the juice squirts, but the white pulp floats and the seeds sink.  Much easier!  Good thing I am not Persephone or it would never be spring again….

Myth of the Week: Echo and Narcissus, part II

Monday, November 28th, 2011

The myth of the week today continues the story of Echo and the beautiful youth Narcissus, most infamous of self-lovers.

Narcissus was the mortal child of the nymph Liriope and the river-god Cephisus. When he was young, his mother consulted the prophet Teiresias about his life, hoping to hear that her son would be long-lived.  Teiresias answered that the boy would have a long and happy life, “If he never knows himself.”  This response would have been especially riddlesome in the ancient world where the exhortation to “know thyself” was revered, even carved onto the temple of the oracle at Delphi.

Narcissus grew up to be so beautiful that all who saw him, boys and girls alike, desired him.   But he spurned them all, preferring to wander by himself on the hillsides and in the forests.  In this he seems to bear some resemblance to another famous looker, Adonis, who rejected even the goddess of love.  Interestingly, both young men end up transformed into flowers.

Venus awakening Adonis, John William Waterhouse

One of the most enthusiastic of Narcissus’ admirers was the nymph Echo, now robbed of her voice.  She took to trailing after him, pitifully hoping that he might speak, so that she could respond.  This was a favorite aspect of the story for ancient authors—finding clever ways for Narcissus to say something rejecting, so that Echo could repeat the last part of it lovingly.  Something like “I don’t want you to touch me!” “Touch me!”  The frustration on either side could certainly be played for the comic—and I can’t help thinking of Helena and Demetrius in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Yet Narcissus continued to refuse her.  Rejected, love-stricken and ashamed, Echo hid herself in caves, wasting away from unrequited love until there was nothing left of her but bones and her voice.  A sad end for such a once-spirited girl.  Narcissus, of course, didn’t notice a thing.

Dead Narcissus, with wasting Echo in the background

Soon after, Narcissus catches sight of himself for the first time in the surface of a pond, and falls instantly in love with his own image—which always serves as a reminder of how scarce mirrors were in the ancient world.  Nowadays, Narcissus would have fallen for himself a lot sooner, maybe even while still in the cradle.  Seems like there’s an update of the myth there, just begging to be written….

In one interesting variant, Narcissus’ self-love is actually the result of a curse. One of Narcissus’ rejected lovers, the youth Ameinias, kills himself in despair, and with his last breath calls upon the goddess Nemesis to punish Narcissus for his coldness.  The dreadful goddess comes up with a perfect torment, condemning Narcissus to fall in love with the only person he can’t have: himself.  Upon seeing his reflection in a pool of water, Narcissus is so entranced that he forgets to eat or sleep, slowly dying of self-neglect.  Echo, ever loyal, echoes his cries of pain with her own.  At last, rather than seeing such beauty lost, the gods transform the boy into a flower, the narcissus.

A narcissus

Narcissus’ story has been a popular one in literature.  Ancient authors, Ovid in particular, delighted in Narcissus’ fatuous confusion over why the boy in the water would not come to him.  They linger in their descriptions of him throwing out his arms, trying to reach through the water, weeping and taking heart from the fact that the image wept also.  It is a breath of fresh air then, when Pausanias tartly remarks: “It is utterly stupid to think that a man old enough to be in love would not be able to distinguish a man from his reflection.”  Indeed.  I prefer the versions of the story where Narcissus knows that the reflection is himself, and dies from grief at the sheer impossibility of his love.

Narcissus languishing by his reflection, Nicolas Bernardt Lepicie

Narcissus also shows up in more modern works, including a verse in A. E. Housman’s “A Shropshire Lad,” where the reflective pool is the speaker’s own eyes.  Herman Hesse’s novel “Narcissus and Goldmund” is also distantly inspired by the myth, with Narcissus fixated upon intellect and the life of the mind, rather than his own face.

Narcissus (I’m sure he would be glad to hear) was also quite popular in art.  There was something about the languishing youth that proved catnip to artists through the ages.  According to The Oxford Classical Dictionary there are over fifty murals on this theme from Pompeii alone, and he was a common subject in Renaissance and Pre-Raphaelite art as well.

Last, but definitely not least, there is psychology. Thanks to his eponymous personality disorder, Narcissus’ name has become a household word, maybe even equaling Achilles’ famous heel.  The DSM-IV describes Narcissistic Personality Disorder as:  “A pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), need for admiration, and lack of empathy, beginning by early adulthood.” According to a recent book “The Narcissism Epidemic” the disorder is on the rise, with 1 in 10 people young people showing clinical signs of the personality disorder.  If it’s true, we must have made Nemesis quite annoyed indeed.

Narcissus in the 16th century, Caravaggio

But back to the ancient world.  The Greeks and Romans were keen appreciators of beauty, especially male.  Though there are certainly myths revolving around a woman’s beauty (Helen and the Trojan War, for instance), there seem to be many more about gorgeous, and often tragic, young men.  Narcissus takes his place in a firm pantheon that includes Ganymede, Hyacinthus, Achilles, Hylas, Paris, Endymion, and many more, all with their own interesting stories.  As a final note, writing this post has made me much more self-conscious about any time spent in front of the mirror….

Myth of the Week: Echo and Narcissus, part I

Monday, November 21st, 2011

Happy Myth of the Week!  (Also, for US readers, happy Thanksgiving!)  Today’s myth comes to you as a suggestion from the terrific Algonquin Books (@AlgonquinBooks).  It’s the first of a series about that most famous of love triangles: Echo, Narcissus and…Narcissus.

The Nymph Echo looks longingly at the self-absorbed Narcissus. John William Waterhouse

Since the story ends with Narcissus, I wanted to start with Echo.  In mythology, she is best known for her eponymous ability: always repeating another person’s words back to them.  But the lesser known story is how she got that way.  When the mountain-nymph Echo was born, she could speak just like anyone else.  Better, in fact: she was naturally garrulous and loved to entertain others with stories and talk.  She was also clever, and noticed that whenever Zeus would sneak down to earth in order to have affairs with nymphs, his jealous wife Hera would inevitably catch him in the act.  So the next time Hera came looking for her husband, Echo waylaid her with conversation, delaying her until the nymph and Zeus could escape.

The Goddess Hera

As numerous miserable heroes can tell you, if there is one person you don’t want to make angry in Greek mythology, it’s Hera. When the queen of the gods discovered Echo’s trick, she cursed her, robbing her of her power to speak for herself, and decreeing that hereafter the girl could only echo the words of others. I always felt that this was a deviously cruel punishment for someone who loved to express herself—doomed to never again voice an original thought.

But why would Echo try to stop Hera in the first place? The stories don’t really say.  Some seem to imply that she was trying to curry favor with Zeus.  But if I were writing the myth (and today I am), I like to give her a more noble motivation: she was trying to help her poor nymph sisters.  Whenever Hera caught her husband with another woman, it wasn’t Zeus she punished, but the girl, who ended up as a cow, a bear, dead, or living in eternal torment.  This seems additionally unfair given how often the girl in question was unwilling.  So I like to think that Echo was trying to stop Hera in the hopes that one of her sisters might be spared the great goddess’ ill-aimed wrath.

A Stinging Gadfly, of the type Hera sent to torment the nymph Io.

Given the ancient Greek appreciation for fast-talking heroes like Odysseus, it is interesting to note that none of the ancient sources praise Echo’s clever gift with words.  If anything, they seem to feel that she deserved it—she probably shouldn’t have been talking so much in the first place.  This unfairness becomes even more apparent when you compare her to another ancient with the gift of the gab: Hermes.  When the nymph Io was being held captive by the hundred-eyed watchman Argus, Hermes rescued her by talking endlessly, literally boring Argus to death.  Ever afterwards he was given the honorific title “Argus-killer.” So, if we’re really being fair, I think Echo should have gotten at least a “Hera-staller.”

Hermes boring Argus, with Io as a cow in the background. Pyotr Ivanovich Sokolov

And, while we’re praising Echo, let’s also give her credit for the cleverness of her stratagem—especially since nymphs weren’t generally known for their brains.*  Echo came up with a brilliant and perfect trap: social convention.  Next time you’re stuck in conversation with someone, maybe it will help to remember that the queen of the gods couldn’t escape either.

*A notable exception is the nymph Sinope, who, about to be ravished by Zeus, begged him for a single wish.  He granted it, and she said, “I wish to remain a virgin.”  Bound by his oath Zeus was forced to leave her alone.  Apparently, she also successfully used this same trick on Apollo and the river-god Halys.


Coming soon:  Part II:  Narcissus, Narcissus, Narcissus.

Myth of the Week: The Minotaur

Monday, November 14th, 2011

Today’s Myth of the Week was suggested by the lovely Jane Rusbridge, author of “The Devil’s Music” and twitter-pro extraordinaire.  If you have a request of your own, drop me a line and I will happily add it to the list!

The Minotaur (literally, the ‘bull of Minos’) was a half-man, half-bull monster born to Pasiphae, wife of King Minos of Crete.  The name Minotaur is actually a bit misleading—because he wasn’t Minos’ son at all.  His father was a pure white bull, sacred to the god Poseidon. In one version of the story, Minos refused to sacrifice the bull to the sea-god, as he had promised.  As vengeance, Poseidon struck Minos’ queen Pasiphae with an overwhelming sexual desire for the bull.

The ancient authors were not shy about the details of how Pasiphae and the bull came together.  According to the myth, the master craftsman Daedalus (of Icarus and labyrinth fame), agreed to help the besotted Pasiphae by building a wooden frame of a cow, then skinning a real cow, and stretching the hide over the frame.  Pasiphae then climbed inside, and the cow was wheeled out, and placed near the bull.  Nine months later the flesh-eating Minotaur was born, a “memorial of unspeakable love,” as Vergil calls it.

Pasiphae and infant Minotaur. It was common in ancient Greek art to depict children as having adult bodies, just miniaturized.

It’s no surprise that the Minotaur turned out to be terrifyingly powerful: his mother’s sister is the witch Circe, who turns Odysseus’ men into pigs, and her brother is Aeetes, father of Medea.  But Daedalus once again came to the rescue, offering to build the labyrinth, a maze from which the creature could never escape.  Sadly, there are no archaeological remnants of Daedalus’ marvel (if it existed), but the remains of the palace at Knossos are absolutely amazing.

In order to feed the Minotaur, King Minos demanded that Athens (which owed him, for killing Minos’ son Androgeos) send seven boys and seven girls, either every year or every nine years (depending on the myth).  This is where the well-known myth of Theseus picks up—Theseus goes to Crete as one of these youths, and unravels the maze with the help of the princess Ariadne and Daedalus.  His killing of the Minotaur was a very popular subject in art both ancient and modern.

Theseus killing the Minotaur

From here, the story branches off in many different directions–there is Ariadne, abandoned by Theseus, then wedded to the god Dionysus, Daedalus and his son Icarus, and Theseus’ disastrous return home to Athens.  But let’s stay with the Minotaur.  Unlike centaurs, who were a race themselves, the Minotaur was the only one of his kind.  And though we know him simply as the Minotaur, the creature had a given name too: “Asterion,” which literally means “the starry one,” perhaps signifying a link to the constellation Taurus.  To me, the name has always implied a fascinating but untold interiority: was the Minotaur also, somewhat, a person?  In a Catullus poem, Ariadne says that she “chose to lose [her] brother” instead of letting Theseus die.  Startling to hear her call the Minotaur her brother—but of course he is.  Catullus also has a lovely simile comparing the Minotaur’s tossing horns to a tree’s tossing branches, while a storm (Theseus) tears it up by the roots.  I keep waiting for someone to write this myth from the Minotaur’s perspective.

Coin from Crete showing the Minotaur, fifth century B.C.E

On that note, I just discovered a novel called “The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break” by Steven Sherrill which I love on title alone, and can’t wait to read.  If you are looking for other adaptations of the story there are, of course, Mary Renault’s canonical retellings of the Theseus myth, “The Bull from the Sea” and “The King Must Die.”  For something a bit more unusual, there is also Stephen King’s “Rose Madder” which draws on the Minotaur myth in a story about domestic violence.  And for something really, really unusual there is Victor Pelevin’s “The Helmet of Horror” where the labyrinth is an internet chat-room.

A few more thoughts on the Minotaur: this story also has some interesting symbolic references.  The bull was one of the symbols sacred to Crete, and there is some speculation that its famous “bull-dancers” may have been acting out parts of this myth, or that the myth derived from the practice.

Cretan Bull-Dancers, Fresco from Knossos

The myth also clearly refers back to a time when Crete, and its Minoan civilization, ruled the Mediterranean: Athens felt it must pay the tribute or be destroyed by the more powerful kingdom.

Finally, one of the strangest parts of the myth to me (and one that always bothered me as a child) was the fact that the Minotaur’s half-bull head was flesh-eating.  Shouldn’t it simply be vegetarian?  But then, I guess, there wouldn’t be much of a story.

Want more?  Check out’s Minotaur page.  See you next week!

Myth of the Week: Clytemnestra

Monday, November 7th, 2011.

After Medea, Queen Clytemnestra is probably the most notorious woman in Greek mythology. She is also one of the most magnetic, mesmerizing in her fierce determination to kill the man who killed her daughter.  That this man happens to be her husband, and that she chooses to dispatch him in his bath-tub with an ax, makes her a storyteller’s lurid dream.

Though there are countless depictions of Clytemnestra in ancient and modern works alike, the most enduring has been that in Aeschylus’ Agamemnon.  His Clytemnestra is bloody, bold and resolute, a proud lioness, fiercely protective of her children.  After the murder, she does not try to hide or run, but strides victoriously before her people, gore-stained ax in hand, declaring that justice has been served.

Clytemnestra, After the Murder

Clytemnestra was born into a mythological epicenter.  Her father was King Tyndareus of Sparta and her mother Queen Leda—the same who was later impregnated by Zeus, in the form of a swan.  A potent family: Helen was her half-sister, Penelope her cousin, and the semi-divine duo Castor and Polydeuces her brothers.  She married a man with a similarly powerful lineage, Agamemnon of House Atreus, King of Mycenae.

Division between Clytemnestra and her husband began with the Trojan War.  Agamemnon and Menelaus’ fleet, set to sail for Troy, was stuck at harbor, with no wind to carry it.  A priest revealed that the goddess Artemis was angry and Agamemnon could appease her by sacrificing his daughter, Iphigenia.  The ambitious king agreed.  By the time word reached Clytemnestra, the girl was dead and Agamemnon had already sailed.

Clytemnestra isn’t the only woman in Greek mythology to lose a child.  Queen Hecuba was eventually driven mad with grief and transformed into a dog, and Niobe cried so much for her lost children the gods took pity and made her a rock.  But only Clytemnestra chooses retaliation over grief.  And this is what makes her such a fascinating and scandalous figure in the ancient world–she is a woman who takes upon herself the traditionally masculine role of avenger, meter out of justice, judge of who should live, and who must die.

For the ten years Agamemnon was away at Troy, Clytemnestra plotted her revenge.  She found a partner and lover in Aegisthos, a long-lost cousin of Agamemnon, back for his own vengeance: Agamemnon’s father had killed his brothers.  (I’ll save the dysfunctional and murderous history of the House of Atreus for another day, but parricide, incest and cannibalism abound.)  The two planned to rule the kingdom together, after Agamemnon’s death.  Sexually faithless, deceitful, murderous: Clytemnestra is the incarnation of ancient anxieties about women and power.

Mycenaean-era bathtub, from Nestor's Palace at Pylos

When Agamemnon returned, bringing as his slave the Trojan princess Cassandra, Clytemnestra welcomed him warmly and led him to the fateful bath.  In some versions of the story it is Aegisthos actually wielding the ax, and in others it is Clytemnestra.  I prefer the latter—I think after all those years, she’d want to do the swinging herself.  Afterwards, whether from jealousy, adrenaline or a neatening of accounts, she murdered Cassandra as well.

For me, this is one of the most poignant details of the story, and the most damning to Clytemnestra.  Cassandra has lived a wretched life: condemned to foresee the destruction of her family and city, but unable to stop it from happening, then dragged from the ruins of her city, violated and handed over to Agamemnon as a prize concubine. I have always wished at this moment for Clytemnestra to pause, and recognize that Cassandra was more ally then enemy—surely she must have hated Agamemnon as much as Clytemnestra did.  But reflection and empathy aren’t the queen’s strengths.  Cassandra is an intruder, and must die.

The cycle of blood does not stop there.  Orestes, Agamemnon and Clytemnestra’s son, is bound by honor to avenge his father.  Urged on by his sister, Electra (of the infamous ‘Electra complex’), he kills both Aegisthos and his mother.  From the underworld, the ghost of Clytemnestra sends furies to torment her son, enraged that he would choose his father’s cause over hers.  Even death, it seems, cannot contain her.

The Remorse of Orestes, William Adolphe Bouguereau

In the end, how much sympathy we have for this powerful queen hinges significantly upon how we judge her husband.  The king has many offenses of his own, beyond sacrificing his daughter: cowardice, greed, rape, reckless endangerment of his army, and the destruction of a city.  In my opinion?  I think Agamemnon had it coming.  And, given all the slave-girls he terrorizes during the Trojan War, I can’t help but find it poetic justice that it’s a woman who does the deed.

Chiron, the Master Teacher

While I was at the Open Book Cape Town Literary Festival, I was interviewed by the wonderful Clive Chandler, a Classics Professor at Cape Town University.  He asked if the character of Chiron in The Song of Achilles had been in any way inspired by my own teaching.

Chiron is a master teacher, so this was a lovely question to be asked.  But the truth is, Chiron came much more out of my experiences as a student.  I am fortunate to have had some truly terrific teachers in my life, who were instrumental in nurturing my enthusiasm for literature, Classics, and learning in general.  Chiron isn’t based on any of them (he’s very much his own person, er, horse-person), but he does share with them some of the qualities of excellent teaching: a passion for communicating knowledge, an emphasis on the individual student, and a deep-seated curiosity about the world.  And, like them, he believes in seizing the moment—in allowing student interest, or current events, to draw the class outside the lines of the lesson.

One of my favorite memories of this kind of teaching is from my high school Latin class.  We were translating the Aeneid, the section where Aeneas’ fleet reaches the Libyan shore.  Vergil takes his time describing the scene—the natural harbor, the overhanging cliffs, the dark groves.  It was beautiful writing, but dense, and the class was finding it dry.

“I don’t get it,” a student complained.  “He’s describing all this stuff, but I have no idea where it all goes.”

“Let’s draw it,” my teacher said.  “Volunteers?”  He opened a brand-new box of colored chalk, and offered it to us.  A few students bounded to the board and started sketching excitedly.  The rest of us scoured the text, offering suggestions (“The forests should be on top of the cliff!”), intent on making the image perfectly match Vergil’s words.  The ringing bell came as a shock.  Hadn’t we just started?

It was such a simple thing for my teacher to do, but utterly transformative.  He completely changed the energy of the class, and brought us back to the material with new, enthusiastic eyes.  That kind of flexibility is something I have striven to emulate in my own classroom.  Yes, it can lead to some unproductive digressions (“Who was that guy who got pantsed by Apollo?“) but those are more than made up for by the many times that it invigorates the class, and sparks new discussion.

Three cheers for Chiron and master teachers everywhere!

Myth of the Week: Chiron

Monday, October 31st, 2011

Thank you to all of you who got in touch with favorite characters—it was such a treat to be on the receiving end of so much mythological enthusiasm!  I decided to go with the very first reader suggestion I received, a character who also happens to be near and dear to my heart—that wise teacher of heroes, the centaur Chiron.

A quick caveat: by definition, myths have nearly endless variations.  My aim is not to cover them all, simply to provide an introduction to a beloved story, and highlight the parts that I find most interesting.  If you want something more exhaustive, there are many, many terrific resources for myths, both online and in print.  My “Find Out More” page has a few ideas for getting started.

Chiron (also spelled Kheiron or Cheiron), was born under unusual circumstances.  His father, the titan Kronos, was coupling with the nymph Philyra when Rhea, Kronos’ wife, suddenly appeared.  Kronos turned himself into a stallion to escape her notice, and nine months later, Philyra gave birth to a half-horse baby, whom she reared (or abandoned, depending on the myth) on Mount Pelion.

Chiron grew up to be just, kind and wise in many arts, including medicine, gymnastics, prophecy, hunting and music.  Because of this, he was much sought after as a tutor of heroes, and his charges eventually included Peleus, Jason, Aesclepius and, of course, Achilles.

Homer calls Chiron the “wisest and most just of all Centaurs.”  Generally, Centaurs were known as being brutish, lustful and violent, eating their meat raw, living outside the bounds of civilization, and pillaging whenever they got the chance.  In order to distinguish Chiron from his barbaric cousins, vase painters often depicted him as having a full man’s body with only two horse feet behind (see thumbnail below, courtesy of, or click here for the larger image).

The Centaur Chiron, with Achilles

One of the most fascinating myths about Chiron involves Heracles and Prometheus.  While visiting the centaur, Heracles accidentally pricked Chiron with one of his arrows poisoned with the blood of the Hydra.  The poison’s virulence made the wound incurable, despite Chiron’s skill in healing, and the centaur was doomed to an eternity of agony.  So Chiron went to Zeus and offered to give up his immortality in exchange for the freedom of Prometheus.  The king of the gods agreed, Prometheus was freed, and Chiron’s soul was placed among the stars, where he became the constellation Sagittarius.

This story is interesting to me for a lot of reasons. I have always had a soft spot for Prometheus, the creator of humans who defied Zeus to bring them fire and other comforts. As punishment, Zeus chained him to the Caucasus mountains and sent eagles every day to rip out his liver, which, being immortal, grew back every night. It feels beautifully fitting to me that Chiron would choose to give up his life for him—the only other god who shows himself a consistent and selfless friend to mortals.

The story is also interesting because of Chiron’s ability to forfeit his immortality.  As far as I know (and if you have other information, please share!), this is one of the only examples of a god dying in Greco-Roman mythology.  The next closest example I can think of is Pollux giving up half of his immortality to his human brother Castor, so that they can live six months on earth together, and six months in the underworld. But more on them down the line!

A few last thoughts on Chiron.  His name comes from the Greek “cheir” meaning hand, a reference to his skill at surgery (itself from the Greek “cheirurgos,” literally “hand-worker”).  He was a popular figure in ancient literature, and also pops up in a number of modern works.  John Updike’s “The Centaur” is based on the life of Chiron, and Chiron also features in Elizabeth Cook’s novel “Achilles.”  He is a character in the Percy Jackson series, and I like to think that the Classics-loving J. K. Rowling was inspired by Chiron in her portrait of the wise centaurs (Firenze especially) in the “Harry Potter” series.  He also plays an important role in my own novel, “The Song of Achilles.”

Want more?  Click here to go to Chiron’s page on “”

Next week, we tackle Clytemnestra—scheming ax-murderer, or avenging matriarch?