UPDATE: February 2018
I wrote this series of myth-and-classics posts several years ago, and finally decided to collect them all in one place. I have plans to add to these sometime in the near future. If you have characters you’d like to see me write about, drop me a line!
Monday, August 27th, 2012
It’s great to be back! Lots of news to share, including the US paperback release (tomorrow!), and upcoming events in both the US and UK. But first, the story of the Danaids, or Fifty Brides for Fifty Brothers.
The Greeks didn’t have a hell the way we think of it, but they did have Tartarus, a region of the underworld where ancient bad eggs were sent to suffer eternal torments. It had several famous inhabitants, including Tantalus, Sisyphus and Ixion, each condemned for heinous crimes against the gods: Tantalus killed his son, cooked him into a meal, and then tried to trick the gods into eating it. Sisyphus likewise mocked and deceived the gods, and Ixion attempted to rape the goddess Hera. For his offense, Tantalus was condemned to raging thirst and hunger, with food and drink eternally just out of reach (the origin of our word, tantalize). Ixion was suspended on a flaming wheel. Sisyphus had to push a huge rock up a hill, which would inevitably roll back down just as he reached the top.
But it wasn’t only men who ended up in Tartarus. In Roman legends, there were also 49 women there, the daughters of a man called Danaus (hence their name, the Danaids, daughters of Danaus). Their crime wasn’t against the gods but men: they murdered their husbands on their wedding night. In order to wash the blood from their hands and be absolved they must fill a tub with water–a tub with holes in its bottom. Forgiveness, in other words, is impossible.
The Danaids didn’t start out murderers. Their father, Danaus, was a prince of Egypt, son of the great king Belus, who was in turn descended from Io—the Io who was turned into a cow and chased by a gadfly to Egypt. One of the things that I find interesting about this story is how the ancient Greeks casually grafted their own mythology onto Egypt’s, claiming that the throne of mythological Egypt was ruled by Greeks.
Danaus and his twin brother Aegyptus were heirs to the Egyptian throne. Danaus had fifty daughters, and Aegyptus fifty sons. The two brothers fought incessantly over who was to rule, and eventually Aegyptus threatened Danaus, demanding that he marry off his daughters to Aegyptus’ sons.
Angry and frightened, Danaus fled with his daughters to Greece, with the fifty sons in hot pursuit. Once there, Danaus seemed to have a change of heart, and agreed to the marriage. How they decided which daughter would marry which son is unfortunately not in any version I could find. Perhaps the method of distribution didn’t make the record because it was far less juicy than what followed: Danaus had only agreed in order to revenge himself upon his brother. In secret, he gave each of his daughters a knife and commanded them, on their collective wedding night, to kill their husbands. Forty-nine of his daughters obeyed, and dispatched their new spouses. But the fiftieth, Hypermnestra, had fallen in love with her husband, Lynceus, and instead helped him escape.
Danaus was enraged by his daughter’s betrayal and imprisoned Hypermnestra—and this is where the story starts to fragment. In some version Lynceus kills Danaus to free her and avenge his brothers. In other versions, Danaus agrees to free Hypermnestra, and gives her to Lynceus (a bit less dramatic). Either way, I am fascinated by this story—what was it about Hypermnestra that she couldn’t go through with it? Or, maybe, what was it about Lynceus? Answering that question would make for a great novel. As would the fate of the other 49 sisters who aren’t whisked directly to Tartarus, but rather offered again in marriage. Their father, recognizing that potential suitors might not exactly be lining up, holds a foot race and unloads his tainted daughters as prizes.
The story’s overall message is clear: don’t murder your husband. But more interesting to me is the way it dramatizes the conflict that many women must have felt between allegiance to their family and allegiance to their husbands. How do you balance the demands of being a daughter and being a wife? Where should your greatest loyalty lie, and how far should you go to honor it? In the ancient world, this question would have had frighteningly high stakes: disobeying your father wasn’t just bad—it could be a killing offense, since the patriarch’s word was law. Once a woman married, that power was supposed to transfer to her husband. Yet the Danaids had been married against their will, and for less than a day. Shouldn’t their father’s interests still prevail? Forty-nine of the Danaids thought so. Or perhaps that doesn’t give them enough credit for independent thought—perhaps they were cleverly striking a blow for their own power. With Aegyptus’ sons gone, Danaus and his daughters would inherit the Egyptian throne uncontested.
Either way, it seems monstrously unfair that Danaus escaped the whole affair Tartarus-free. No filling leaky tubs for him, even though the plan and weapons were his idea. Unfair too, when we compare the Danaids’ crime with Tantalus and Sisyphus and Ixion: if you’re a man, you have to flout the gods to get condemned; if you’re a woman, killing your husband will do it.
In closing, I have to include the link to these amazing ancient punishment games, where you can try your hand at the Danaids’ task for yourself. I hope that your week turns out to be better than theirs!
Monday, April 23rd, 2012
As a child reading myth-books, I found heroines to be thin on the ground. I’ve written before about how much I loved the goddess Athena, but I also yearned for powerful female mortals as well. Unfortunately, my early myth books contained only one such woman. The good news? It was Atalanta, and she was straight-up amazing.
Atalanta was born the daughter of a king, but her father, who had wanted a son, exposed her to die in the wilderness. Instead, she was adopted by a mother-bear, who nursed and raised her. Atalanta grew up to be a master hunter and athlete, particularly known for her fleetness of foot. She was supposed to be so simultaneously beautiful and terrifying that all who saw her were struck dumb. She could hold her own against any man, and her name itself is the perfect retort to her father’s prejudice: it means “of equal weight.”
I didn’t have much in common with Atalanta–I was horribly slow when we ran laps in gym class, and the thought of hunting animals horrified me–but that didn’t stop me from loving her. I especially appreciated the fact that she never went begging back to her ungrateful father, but chose to go off and make her fortune as a free hero. The first proof of her mettle came when she was attacked by two brutal centaurs, and single-handedly killed them both.
Next she joined the Calydonian Boar hunt, organized for all the greatest heroes of the day. Atalanta didn’t strike the fatal blow against the monstrous animal, but she was the first to wound it, and in honor of her courage, the hero Meleager awarded her the boar-skin. Not everyone was pleased with this decision, and it ended up leading to Meleager’s death. A story for another time!
Thanks to her prowess with arms, Atalanta was also invited to join Jason and his Argonauts in their quest for the Golden Fleece. Sadly, after being listed as one of the heroes involved, she doesn’t really figure in any of the rest of the adventures. It would be interesting to read an account of the whole myth from her perspective—there’s a novel in that, for sure!
One of my favorite stories about Atalanta is her famous wrestling match with Peleus, Achilles’ father. As some of you may know from my book, Peleus was quite the wrestler—strong enough to have beaten the goddess Thetis. But when Atalanta challenged him? She defeated him thoroughly, and their bout became a popular scene in art.
Thanks to her growing fame, Atalanta’s father decided that, actually, he wanted his daughter after all. He formally acknowledged her, then exercised his paternal right to marry her off. Atalanta, enraged, said that first her suitors would have to beat her in a footrace. If they lost, they would be put to death. Atalanta’s ruthless father thought that that sounded just fine—he’d still get to keep their courting gifts, after all.
Several (I can’t help but think foolish) young men decided to try their feet against Atalanta’s. All of them lost until a young man named Hippomenes (or Melanion in other versions), prayed to the goddess of love, Aphrodite, to aid him. She gave him three magical, golden apples from the Garden of the Hesperides, and told him that if he threw them to the side during the race, Atalanta would be sure to go after them, allowing him to beat her.
When I was really young, this part of the story baffled me, because it seemed so out of character for Atalanta to care about gold. After all, this is the same woman who grew up roughing it and drinking bear milk, with no need for princess-comforts. It wasn’t until I got older that I understood that the apples were the ultimate symbol of heroic distinction—retrieving one is even one of the labors of Hercules—and they would have tempted any serious fame-hungry hero. Her desire to have them is of a kind with her desire to display the Calydonian boar-skin she won.
Aphrodite’s cheat works, and Hippomenes wins the race. For some reasons, Atalanta doesn’t seem to hold it against him—perhaps she approves of his cleverness, as well as his athleticism. Further, he seems to appreciate her: rather than trying to turn her into a traditional ancient wife, the two become comrades in hunting together.
In my childhood myth-books, this was where the story always ended, which gave me the impression that Atalanta’s life concluded happily. Some years later, I was startled to discover that there’s more to the tale—a bizarre and racy ending that goes like this: Atalanta and Hippomenes are out hunting one day when they are overcome by intense desire for each other. In some versions this is because Hippomenes didn’t properly thank Aphrodite for her help with the golden apples, and the goddess is getting her revenge. In others it’s simply because they are in love. They begin coupling, and are so distracted by pleasure that they don’t notice that they are lying together within the bounds of a god’s temple (depending on the version, the god could be Aphrodite, Zeus, or even the Eastern goddess Cybele). Sex in a sanctuary was considered blasphemous pollution, or miasma, as the Greeks called it, and punishment was swift. The angry god/goddess turns the two of them into lions as punishment. The End.
Strange, right? And hard to parse, I think, beyond the obvious message: don’t have sex in a temple. The only consolation is that at least the god/goddess picked an appropriate animal–I think the punishment would have been a lot worse if the famous, beloved huntress had been turned into, say, a chicken.
I just can’t close this myth without mentioning Marlo Thomas’ “Princess Atalanta” story from Free to Be You and Me. I don’t know about you, but I listened to that tape over and over and over again as a child. Here’s the animated version with Marlo Thomas and Alan Alda (!) doing the voices.
By the way, thanks to everyone for their comments about last week’s Greek etymology post. I promise there are more like that coming!
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?”
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.
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.
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.
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!
Monday, April 2nd, 2012
One of the earliest Greeks myths I remember is the story of the artist Arachne, whose name means “spider” in Greek. Back then, it seemed fairly standard: hubris, a confrontation with a god, transformation as punishment (to, unsurprisingly, a spider), with some natural explanation thrown in (this is why spiders spin webs!)
But when I got a bit older, and read Ovid’s full version of the myth, Arachne quickly became one of my favorite heroines. First of all, she’s one of the few ancient females who isn’t a princess or beautiful nymph. She’s the daughter of a tradesman, a Lydian dye-merchant, with no noble connections, nor extraordinary looks. She is famous, Ovid tells us, for her skill in weaving alone. I particularly love his description of her at her loom—how gracefully and deftly she handles the threads, how the nymphs abandon their fields and forests to come stare in awe. I have always found it so pleasurable to watch someone do something that they are truly gifted at, and Ovid captures that feeling perfectly.
Arachne is relentlessly proud of her excellence, and defiant in the face of attempts to cow her into modesty. She is, she says, as skilled as Athena in her work. Why should she lie and say she is not? There aren’t too many heroines in ancient literature who are so single-minded and proud–usually those characteristics are identified with men like Achilles and Ajax. In fact, that comparison does her a bit of a disservice, since her rebelliousness and pride are actually much more deliberate and intellectual than either of those two heroes (much as I love them). A better comparison might be another favorite of mine, Pentheus, the ill-fated King of Thebes, who loses his life standing up to Dionysus. Like him, Arachne dares to criticize the gods, and doesn’t back down even when threatened. Foolish? Maybe. But also principled and courageous.
The gods, of course, never like to be challenged, and Athena is known for being particularly vicious towards rivals. She decides to pay a visit to Arachne, disguised as an old woman, warning the girl that she must learn to acknowledge the goddess’ superiority. But Arachne dismisses her–why should she acknowledge Athena? She hasn’t met the goddess, nor seen her weaving. And she has supreme faith in her own powers. “Let her come!” she says. And Athena (the gods do love their dramatic revelations) throws off her disguise declaring “She is here!”
The contest is on. And it’s a testament to Ovid’s skill as a poet that what should be exceedingly boring (a long, lingering description of the two women weaving) becomes an edge-of-the-seat fireworks display. Ovid spends every bit of his prodigious skill evoking the vivid colors and beauty of the materials, before moving on to the astonishing pictures taking shape on the rival tapestries. Because, of course, this isn’t just about beauty: it’s an intellectual debate about whether humans have the right to challenge gods.
Athena’s cloth is a gorgeous depiction of the gods in their full glory, looking on at the scene of her triumph over Poseidon in the contest for Athens. In the four corners of the tapestry, she weaves four admonitory scenes of humans who dared to compare themselves with gods, and the bad ends that each came to. But Arachne’s cloth shows something else entirely: not the gods in triumph, but the gods as clowns. Each part reveals the gods behaving badly. There are several episodes of Zeus in goatish pursuit of nymphs, along with other undignified affairs of the immortals. Her message is clear: the gods are not all they say they are; they are ignoble, embarrassing, childish. More flawed, in fact, than humans. Arachne had guts.
When it comes time to judge the quality of the two works, it would have been easy for Ovid to simply have Arachne lose. She is human, after all, and so it would be expected that her work would be lesser. But Ovid doesn’t do that. Arachne’s work, he says, is utterly flawless. Not even Athena’s envy can find a single error in it. The girl, if she hasn’t won, has at the very least tied. Athena is utterly enraged–both by the work’s perfection, and by its blasphemous content. One might think that as the goddess of reason and intelligence, Athena would find a way to teach the girl a lesson, to argue her into submission. But instead, she only proves Arachne’s point that the gods are imperfect and irrational: she tears Arachne’s beautiful weaving all to pieces. Can there be a greater testament to Arachne’s intellectual triumph? The great Athena is speechless, reduced to a tantrum-throwing child.
In the version of the story that I read when I was young, Athena turns the girl into a spider at this point, as punishment. But the full version is much darker, and more interesting. Athena, after tearing apart the tapestry, seizes the spindle and beats the girl with it. Arachne is now herself enraged, and decides to hang herself. It’s a moment that doesn’t read very well in our modern world, where suicide is often equated with giving up. But in the context of the ancient world, suicide was what warriors did, when they refused to accept defeat. It said, in effect: only I can defeat myself. And in that sense, it is a perfect fit for bold, uncompromising Arachne.
But Athena is a god, so she gets the last word. She pities the dying girl (I like to think that she finally recognizes the toughness of a kindred spirit), and saves Arachne’s life, transforming her to a spider. Arachne is allowed to keep her extraordinary skill at weaving–or maybe Athena lacks the power to take it from her. What Arachne thinks of this we never find out, but Arachne and her descendants continue to spin their beautiful, miraculous creations to this day.
I recognize that there is, of course, another way to read this story–as a tale of immoderate hubris, of foolish, reckless arrogance. But even read that way, I still can’t help rooting for Arachne–the ordinary girl with the soul of a warrior, who was able to beat a goddess.
Monday, March 26th, 2012
As those of you who are regular readers know, I love the Aeneid. Encountering Vergil’s great epic poem in high school was an absolute revelation to me—and it has never stopped being a revelation, no matter how many times I read it. With Vergil, there is always a greater depth, another subtlety, a further shining moment of poetry.
Within the Aeneid, one of the saddest episodes (and one of my favorites) is the story of the lovers Nisus and Euryalus. Both are Trojans, refugees from their burned and fallen city, who are following the Trojan noble Aeneas to a new home. Euryalus is described as surpassingly beautiful, and also very young—still in the time of “green youth,” beardless, and tenderly connected to his mother. Nisus is a bit older, but still young himself, and deeply in love with Euryalus. When we meet them, it is in a rare moment of leisure: they have both signed up as contestants in a footrace.
Initially, Nisus flashes ahead of the other runners, but then disaster strikes: he slips on the grass, blood-soaked from the sacrifice, and tumbles to the ground. Salius, the Trojan in second place, surges into the lead; Euryalus is close behind. But Nisus knows how much it would mean to his beloved to triumph. He trips Salius, and Euryalus finishes first. Understandably, Salius complains about Nisus’ cheating, and the good Aeneas ends up awarding all three of them prizes. It’s a slight scene—sweet and almost comic. But given what comes later, it also carries strains of darkness. We see already how deep Nisus and Euryalus’ bond runs—and we see that Nisus will do anything for his lover.
When we see them next in book IX, games have been replaced by bloody war. The Trojans have arrived in Italy, only to find themselves opposed by a native Latin force. Aeneas has gone off to look for allies, leaving the Trojan forces besieged by the Latins. Nisus bravely proposes a night raid, which Euryalus insists on joining. Vergil again emphasizes the depth of feeling they have for each other, the “single love between them.” Nisus tries to convince Euryalus to stay behind, fearing for his safety, but Euryalus won’t let his beloved go alone.
The scene that follows is a brutal one: the two young men venture into the sleeping camp, and begin killing all the men they can find. It’s a strange mix—as if Achilles and Patroclus had been possessed by the spirits of Odysseus and Diomedes. Nisus is like “a hungry lion” as he tears through the sheep-like, helpless Latins; Euryalus is no less vicious. Vergil, always sensitive to the cost of war, lingers a moment over the victims, who are themselves beautiful young men with their own stories, and their own families who will mourn them.
As dawn creeps near, Nisus urges Euryalus to leave off slaughter and make their escape. Euryalus agrees, stopping to gather a few pieces of armor as his spoils, including a beautiful helmet. But as they flee the camp, the polished metal of the helm catches the moonlight, alerting a group of Latin horsemen, who immediately give chase. Nisus and Euryalus plunge through the woods. Nisus, who grew up in the mountains, escapes; Euryalus does not. When Nisus realizes he has lost his friend he immediately races back, only to see Euryalus being taken captive. Hurling his javelin, he kills one guard, then another. The Latins, enraged, prepare to stab Euryalus.
It is a terrifying moment. Vergil keeps us with the desperate Nisus, who bursts from the woods screaming that they should attack him instead, that Euryalus is blameless. But it is too late. The Latins stab Euryalus, whose slumps forward like “a blood-red flower, cut by a plow.” Nisus flings himself among them, desperate to kill the man who killed his lover, before he himself is slain. With his last breath, he falls upon his beloved’s body.
Vergil does not stop the story there. The angry Latins take their revenge, cutting off the heads of the young men, and sticking them on spikes. For all their bravery and tragic love, we can’t help but see that Nisus and Euryalus’ night-raid has single-handedly escalated the war’s brutalities. Vergil also does not forget Euryalus’ mother, whose grief-stricken lament for her lost son is perhaps the most heart-breaking of all.
One of the things I love most about Vergil is his profound sympathy for human nature. Nisus and Euryalus aren’t idealized heroes, but flawed, and very real young men, with maybe more courage than good sense. Vergil’s great heart mourns for their lost youth and honors their love, even stepping outside the bounds of his narrative to deliver a moving epitaph:
“If my song has any power, no day shall ever remove you from memory.”
Monday, March 19th, 2012
If ancient Greek mythology had a consistent villain, it would definitely be centaurs. With the exception of the wise and kind Chiron, these half-horse half-man creatures were depicted as bestial, drunken, lecherous bullies strewing chaos and strife wherever they went.
The origins of Centaurs (or Kentauroi) are obscure. The most common story seems to involve the wicked king Ixion, who tried to rape the goddess Hera. At the last minute, however, Zeus substituted a cloud/nymph (depending on the story) named Nephele. She bore him a monstrous child, Kentaurus, who was either the first centaur, or who mated with horses and produced the first centaur. Ixion, meanwhile, was bound to a flaming wheel, and banished to the pit of Tartarus to suffer alongside Tantalus and Sisyphus.
One of the most famous stories of centaur misbehavior is at the wedding of the Lapith king Perithoos, best friend of Theseus. Perithoos invites the centaurs to the wedding, but after consuming alcohol, they become feral, attempting to carry off the bride and the other women. A huge battle ensued, one that was quite popular in art—the Parthenon metopes (large marble friezes on the outside of the building) take this battle as their subject. Such depictions with centaurs became so popular that they actually had their own name—“Centauromachies” (literally, centaur fights).
A fascinating side-story about the Lapith/centaur battle involves the unusual hero Caeneus, who was born a beautiful woman, named Caenis. She was raped by the god Poseidon, who after offered to grant her any wish. She wished to be transformed into a man, to escape further persecution. She–now he–became one of the greatest warriors of the Lapiths, and couldn’t be killed by normal means. In order to defeat him, the centaurs were forced to pile giant fir trees and rocks on top of him, until he was literally forced into the earth by their weight.
Maybe the most famous centaur story is the one about Heracles and his wife Deianeira. The two arrive at the river Evenus, where the centaur Nessus has set himself up as the ferryman. Heracles boosts Deianeira only Nessus’ back, but rather than taking her over the river, the centaur starts to run off with her. Heracles pulls out one of his hydra-poisoned arrows and shoots Nessus, who collapses, thankfully not on Deianeira. He whispers to her his apologies and says that she should gather up a bit of his blood. Then, if she ever doubts her husband’s faithfulness, she can give him some of it, and it will make him love her again.
Unfortunately, the next part of the myth doesn’t exactly cover Deianeira in glory. Why she thinks it’s a good idea to listen to anything her would-be rapist would say is beyond me. But she does indeed gather some of his blood—which by this point (unbeknownst to her, but knownst to Nessus) has mixed with the poison from the hydra-arrow. And, of course, a little while later Deianeira does become jealous that Heracles isn’t paying enough attention to her, and does indeed slip him some of the blood. The poison causes Heracles agony so extreme that all he wants is to die. He builds himself his own funeral pyre (tough to the end), and climbs on it. None of his friends will light it, except for the loyal Philoctetes. Heracles is at last released from his pain, and Nessus, in death, has his revenge.
A final tale of centaur-menace concerns the swift-footed hero Atalanta. She is hunting in the woods one day when she is accosted by two centaurs. Single-handedly, she dispatches both of them, and later goes on to participate in the Calydonian Boar Hunt. She’s definitely going to be an upcoming Myth of the Week.
Although I never think of centaurs as female, they did appear in some later art (see above). In fact, they were renowned for their beauty. Can I help it if I think of Leslie Knope’s centaur likeness in Parks and Recreation? I don’t watch much TV so this doesn’t mean much, but that show is one of my absolute favorites.
I wish you all a very happy, sunny week. I’m breaking out the shorts!
Monday, March 12th, 2012
Today’s Myth of the Week is in honor of Latin teacher extraordinaire Walter, and his delightful students. Good luck on the upcoming National Latin exam!
Galileo knew his mythology. After discovering the four largest moons of Jupiter, he decided to name them, fittingly, after four famous loves of Zeus (Jupiter, to Romans): Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto. Of these four, Callisto’s story is the least well known, but maybe the most fascinating. Callisto (Kallisto in the Greek) was an Arcadian nymph, whose name literally means “most beautiful.” Her father was the infamous and cruel Lycaon, whom Jupiter changed into a wolf as punishment for his savage and “wolfish” behavior. He is often cited as a mythological precursor of the werewolf.
Callisto preferred the woods to her father’s house. She loved to hunt and became a favorite of the goddess Artemis, joining her band of nymphs and swearing to remain a virgin eternally. Although today we might regard this as overly stringent, in the world of ancient mythology virginity meant freedom. As one of Artemis’ virgins, she would never have to marry a man of her father’s choosing, and could remain without domestic responsibilities in the woods her entire life.
Unfortunately, like many beautiful nymphs, she caught the eye of Zeus. By this point in myth history Zeus was getting cannier in his disguises. Rather than transforming into a bull, or swan, Zeus decided to appear to the girl as Artemis herself. Ovid describes the two women talking intimately, then “Artemis” begins kissing Callisto.
It’s an electrifying moment, and an unusual one; there are very few surviving mentions of women loving women from the ancient world, simply because nearly all of the ancient writers were men. The references that do survive are generally dismissive or disgusted. But that is not that case here: Callisto welcomes her mistress’ passionate embrace. For a moment it almost seems like we have stumbled upon a wonderful secret history.
But the audience knows better, because it isn’t Artemis at all–it’s Zeus. The story gave its ancient readers just enough time to be intrigued, or titillated, or shocked before setting the world “right” again. Callisto’s error is played for laughs: she thinks it’s Artemis who she likes, but fake out! It’s really Zeus, who she doesn’t!
Call me humorless, but I’m not laughing. Zeus reveals himself, rapes Callisto, then vanishes. The girl is doubly distraught—not only about the assault, but about the breaking of her oath of virginity to Artemis. (This being the ancient world, it doesn’t matter that it was unwilling—the oath is broken all the same). She is all the more distressed when she learns that she is pregnant, and must hide the pregnancy from her sharp-eyed mistress as long as possible.
We can see where this is going. Artemis is notoriously unsympathetic and uncompromising about transgressions—witness her punishment of poor Actaeon for accidentally glimpsing her in the bath: he’s torn apart by his own dogs. When Callisto takes off her dress to bathe, Artemis notices her belly. She flies into a rage, and is joined by Hera, who is herself angry at Callisto for having slept with her husband. As usual, Hera doesn’t care whether it was consensual. She turns the girl into a bear and Artemis kills her. Zeus (where were you five minutes ago?) swoops down to rescue Callisto’s unborn child, a boy named Arcas. And, in homage to the boy’s mother takes Callisto’s body and sets it in the sky as the “Great Bear”—Ursa Major. Her son, when he dies, joins her, becoming Ursa Minor.
That’s one version of the story—in another, Callisto flees into the woods in her new ursine form, living out her days as an animal. Fast forward fifteen years or so. Callisto’s son, Arcas, has grown up a gifted hunter, just like his mother. He is wandering in the woods one day, and spots a bear. Hoisting his javelin, he prepares to kill it with a single blow. But as he is about to hurl the spear, Zeus stops him, not wanting him to be guilty of the sin of killing his own mother. He whisks the two of them up to the heavens, transforming them into constellations.
In later generations, Zeus’ embrace of Callisto while disguised as Artemis was the part of the story that really seemed to grab people’s imaginations. Partially that’s because it was Ovid’s version, but surely also because of its frisson of transgression. But for me the most moving and tragic part of the story is the moment after, when Callisto realizes what is really happening. That she’s been tricked by Zeus, and is about to lose everything she holds dear—Artemis’ favor, her fidelity to her oath, her place in the world, even her humanity. Becoming a constellation just doesn’t seem like recompense enough.
A final, completely different, thought. Artemis seems to have been particularly associated with bears, and at her sanctuary at Brauron young girls would serve as “little bears” in a ritual to honor the goddess. It’s a much nicer face of the goddess than Callisto sees.
I’m excited to announce that tomorrow (March 13th) is the kick-off of my US book tour. If you’re in the area and interested, please join me!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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).
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).
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.