Myth of the Week: Atlas

Monday, April 9th, 2012

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

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

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

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

Statue of Atlas with the World

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

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

Hercules holding up the World, with Atlas beside him

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

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

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

NASA photo of the Atlas Mountains

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

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

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

Myth of the Week: 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!

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 theoi.org, 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 “theoi.org.”

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

Stealing Hercules’ Club

Click here to download the PDF.

Around 29 BCE the Roman poet Vergil began his answer to the Iliad and the Odyssey—the Aeneid.  As pieces of the new work became public, he was accused not of alluding to Homer, but of plagiarizing him.  He answered, “It is as easy to steal the club from Hercules as a line from Homer.”

Anyone who has tackled a creative adaptation set in Homer’s world knows what Vergil means.  There is something about Homer: something monolithic and singular and whole unto himself.  You could pry a chip off of the Parthenon, but when you got it home, it would be nothing more than a piece of stone, inert, anonymous and grey.  So Homer.  You might steal one of his similes, but it will never thrive in your verse; it cannot live without the messy, vital, inimitable soil in which it was born.

Perhaps this singularity has something to do with the poems’ unique origins.  Scholars have traced the composition of the Iliad and Odyssey to the 8th century BCE, but much remains debated and mysterious, including Homer himself.   We do not reliably know if he was a single person, nor how much of his work is original, as opposed to a reworking of already well-known myths.  We do not even know how he composed, whether with stylus and tablet, or entirely from memory. Recent scholarship has theorized that Homer may have been more entertainer than formal poet: a skilled improvisor who carried in his mind a huge repertoire of phrases, lines and episodes which he wove together anew at each performance.  What comes down to us then, is the morning after—drawn from the recollections of Homer and his audience.  But this too is largely guesswork.

The poems themselves raise even greater questions.  Created nearly five hundred years after the events they describe, they are far from eyewitness history.  Homer—whoever he was—freely intermingled his own time with an only-guessed-at mythical past.  There is much in the poems that is anachronistic, and much that is unreliable.  They are, more than anything, an invented world, a poet’s world.

These theories certainly help to explain the poems’ unusual patchwork nature.  Stylistically they are often irregular, and it is hard to know how much we may presume of Homer’s intent.  When Achilles is described as “swift-footed” while he is seated, should we chalk it up to the constraints of oral poetry, which calls for stock repetitions, or the poet’s keen sense of irony?  Archaic vocabulary abounds, regularly mixed with regionalisms and more modern usages, often in the same line.  Long lists of names mar the forward thrust of the action, and the main character vanishes for much of the middle of the Iliad.  A king dies, only to reappear mourning his son several books later.

In short, no one today would dare to write like Homer.  And if they did, no editor would publish it.  So, what is it then, that makes Homer one of the most adapted, alluded to and reworked texts in the history of the Western world?

Over the years my students have asked me again and again: did Achilles really say that?  Did Agamemnon really do that?  The responsible, unromantic answer is: mostly likely not.  Despite some tantalizing clues recently found in Hittite texts of a possible Agamemnon, there is no evidence that any of these ancient heroes were real, or behaved as Homer made them.  Yet, Homer’s poems have something in them that is as honest and real as history—the truth of great art. Hamlet surely did not live the life that Shakespeare gave him.  But he is a creation of the deepest emotional resonance, even if not actual reality.

It is this same truth that has made Homer justly famous.  His intimate understanding of human nature—in all its pride, folly and generosity—is the deep tensile steel that holds the poems together at their core.  Homer’s insights are as true today as they were then: human nature has not changed since he first sang of Achilles and his rage. Every day on the front page of the newspaper is an Iliad of woes, from the self-serving Agamemnons to the manipulative, double-speaking Odysseuses, from the tragedies of war to the brutal treatment of the conquered. Through beautiful hexameters—as swift of foot as their hero Achilles—Homer conjures us as we are, in love, in battle, in hope, in despair. We may no longer fight our wars with spears and chariots, but we fight them with the same greed, grace, courage and cowardice as we ever did.  Homer holds the mirror up to all our nature, if only we will look.

It is no surprise then, that so many have been inspired by his works.  The paths through his world are well-traveled. Vergil has been there, striding like a colossus.  And Ovid too, and Shakespeare, and Joyce, and Atwood, Logue, Malouf… hundreds upon hundreds of authors, greater and lesser.  They intimidate with their numbers, with their eminent quality.  How can one more voice be heard in that mighty chorus?  Why travel a road where so many have gone before you?

I cannot speak for others who find themselves possessed by these ancient works, only myself.  From the time I was a small child, I have been deeply moved by Homer’s exquisite attention to the human condition, the beauty and power of his tragic characters. I  might say that I wish to bring him to a modern audience, but the truth is Homer doesn’t need my help.  I wrote about Achilles and Patroclus and Odysseus because these stories lodged in me, and would not let go.  I wanted to understand further: their past before the Iliadbegins, and their future, beyond it.  How do we come to the terrible moment that opens the Iliad, with Achilles and Agamemnon at each other’s throats?  I wrote because two poems weren’t enough.  I wanted more.

And this is Homer’s final gift to us, of so many: his expansive, magnanimous ability to inspire.  He cannot be used up, or worn out, he is ever-new, abundant, boundless.  His infinite variety shines forth, bright enough to illuminate not just himself but the thousands of hopeful moons that crowd around him. His inconsistencies and anachronisms turn out to be blessings in disguise, encouraging invention and freedom.  The grandeur of his subject grants a soul-stirring scope.  Last, but not least, the flawed, realistic humanity of his subjects—wrathful Achilles, loyal Patroclus, proud Agamemnon—provides the perfect raw clay for drama.

No, you can’t steal Hercules’ club, but it turns out the generous man is always willing to let you borrow it.  Hold the same mighty wood that fit so well in Vergil’s hand.  Give it a swing or two.  Then give it back and make your own.